The man who reclaimed Nevada’s racial history
A longtime intellectual leader in Northern Nevada has died at age 76. Elmer Rusco was a political scientist known for such books as Voting Behavior in Nevada but even better known for bringing the hidden history and problems of racial minorities in Nevada and the West into the light.
A memorial observance is planned Thursday at the Unitarian Fellowship.
Civil rights came into Rusco’s life when he was a teenager and rode a bus in Kansas. When he seated himself alongside an African American, the man had to get up and move farther back. Appalled that a white boy had such power over a black man, Rusco became a civil-rights advocate for the rest of his life.
When he came to the University of Nevada, he found a rich lode to mine as a scholar, since Nevada’s minorities were scarcely visible and their history relatively untouched. It can fairly be said that Rusco single-handedly created scholarship on minorities in Nevada.
Before his arrival in 1963, only anthropologists and linguists saw minorities as a subject for study. His attention to a forgotten black Nevada author, Thomas Detter, ultimately resulted in Detter’s 1871 book Nellie Brown being brought back into print in 1996 by the University of Nebraska Press.
For a time, Rusco headed the Nevada Black History Project, and he wrote the 1975 book Good Times Coming. University of Oregon Professor Kenneth Porter, noting the neglect of blacks by historians in the West, wrote of Good Times, “Against this background … Rusco’s decision to write a history of the Negro in Nevada during the nineteenth century stands out in particularly bold relief.”
Rusco also dug deep into the history of Nevada tribes and the Chinese in the state. He curated an exhibit, Beyond Gum San: A History of the Chinese in Nevada, and wrote a mammoth history, A Fateful Time, of a 1934 federal law that changed the lives of about half the nation’s Native American tribes. Rusco believed that the neglect of the history of “various nonwhite groups … is part of a general pattern of white racism, which needs to be recognized and then rejected.” Beyond his work on minorities, Rusco served as director of the Bureau of Governmental Research at UNR, and at times his scholarship turned up new information that took his colleagues by surprise. In 1980 Rusco published a paper revealing that Nevada’s public policies had once been very different than they are now. Until 1935, he wrote, Nevada had been one of the most generous states in helping the poor, the blind, the disabled and other vulnerable groups—at a time when Nevada was experiencing enduring economic problems.
Rusco’s research interest in minorities carried over to activism. He joined minority representatives in advocacy, as when he testified in 1993 against the abolition of the Nevada Equal Rights Commission or when he opposed the death penalty as a punishment that fell disproportionately on minorities. Many of his colleagues commented on the overlap between his scholarship and his activism. “I admire Elmer’s work and the kind of person he was,” says UNR anthropologist Warren d’Azevedo.
Rusco also took part in other political action, including opposition to numerous wars started by the United States. Last year he participated in protests during the run-up to war in Iraq. He once helped found a religious group as a counter to Moral Majority-type organizations (RN&R, Sept. 25, 1996).
While much of his work product was very serious, Rusco was also known for a quick, dry wit. He was once asked by a reporter about lynching in Nevada, and he responded, “It’s part of the myth about the West—that it was just good sport to hang a man before breakfast.”