There have been a lot of riots in the history of Omaha, Nebraska. Some of the riots were driven by labor striking for better wages, hours off and other workers’ rights; other riots were on the homeless or between businesses. Several of the riots were driven by racism and the relentless tyranny of white supremacists. On of those was the Jack Johnson Riot of July 1910.
Between 1900 and 1910, white Omahans became hellbent on making sure their city stayed “lily white.” In the previous decade, the city lurched past into the new century with immigrant labor growing, including Asian Americans living in Omaha’s Chinatown, Greeks in South Omaha, and Italians in North Omaha. In order to impose their racial hierarchy and ensure everyone “knew their place,” white Omahans had rioted in 1909 in South Omaha, mercilessly burning out the Greek immigrant population there and destroying an entire neighborhood in an event now called the Greek Town Riot. They didn’t stop there, though.
On July 4, 1910, African American champion boxer Jack Johnson (1878-1946) whooped white boxer James Jeffries (1875-1953). After white Omahans found out Johnson won, a crowd of thousands formed and attacked African Americans in the city. Dozens of people were beaten and a Black man was dead by the next day.
With rumors of a massive bout with white fighter James Jeffries (1875-1953), Omaha boxing promoters offered $100,000 for the city to host the fight. While the fight ended up in Reno, Nevada, Omaha extended a welcoming hand to Johnson when he came through in April of that year.
Notorious African American crime lords Jack Bloomfield (1865-1927) and William Crutchfield (1875-1917) were the champ’s unofficial hosts in Omaha for several days. A crowd of 3,000 people gathered at the Union Station to meet Johnson and his white wife, who were given flowers by white girls and treated to a parade through downtown Omaha. Staying at the white-only Murray Hotel, Johnson was treated to fancy meals, special events and more throughout the city. He gave an exhibition at the Gayety Theater and a ball and reception were held in his honor. However, despite all of that apparent goodwill, white people in Omaha quickly turned its back on Johnson’s image.
The fight was billed as “The Fight of the Century“, and was the most significant heavy weight championship bout to that date. It was followed closely across the nation, and when Johnson won, telegraphs and radio across the country announced the upset, and almost immediately riots started, with the first being in Brooklyn.
A day later a news reel of the fight was released, and while many cities banned it for fear of full-fledged rioting, Omaha did not. Mobs of whites roamed throughout North Omaha rioting, targeting blacks in the streets and in their homes, as they did in cities across the U.S. The white mobs wounded several African Americans men in the Near North Side, and by the end of the riot, one Black man was dead.
The victim of the mob was Tom Green, a respected African American leader in the community. The city’s newspapers told the story of Green “dying of fright” after an ill-executed prank by “friends.” However, newspapers in other cities readily admitted he was killed by the mob and was set up to look like an accident after Green won a large amount of money on the boxing match. No perpetrators of this so-called prank were ever named, and the case wasn’t followed by local newspapers.
Another African American man named Henry Anderson was reportedly killed over the fight outcomes by Lige “Red” Dale, another Black man, that same day.
Apparently, the mayor closed the city’s saloons immediately, which was attributed for the violence not escalating further. Another report said “jails full of negroes” stopped the violence, which is an ironic blaming of Black people for white hatred. The rioting wasn’t isolated to Omaha, with more than two dozen Black people being killed in post-fight violence nationwide.
Despite that rioting, Johnson made several appearances in Omaha in the next several years, and reportedly maintained a close friendship with Billy Crutchfield. When he came through Omaha on the train, he often gave exhibitions and was lauded as a hero.
Today, Omaha is still in denial about the role of race in it’s history; the author of a recent Omaha World Herald article wrote about President Obama pardoning Jack Johnson without mentioning Omaha’s history with him. Without a African American mayor in it’s history, and only recently having an African American police chief for the first time, the city is firmly in denial of the legacy these negative events have in the city. Accompanied with other race riots in the city’s history, the Jack Johnson riot scarred the conscience and soul of a city that could be so much more.
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MY ARTICLES ON THE HISTORY OF CRIME IN NORTH OMAHA
Crimes: 1891 George Smith Lynching | 1909 Unsolved Murder | 1910 Jack Johnson Riot | 1917 Larkin McCloud Case | 1919 James Smith Death | 1919 Will Brown Lynching | 1969 Vivian Strong Killing | 1960s North Omaha Riots |
Events: Bombings | Mob Violence
Criminals: Early 20th Century Crime Bosses | Vic Walker | Ollie William Jackson | Axe Murderer Jake Bird
Related: Black Police in Omaha | Police Brutality | Antisemitism | Racism
- North Omaha History Podcast Episode 5: Omaha’s Jack Johnson Riot – Adam Fletcher Sasse takes us back to the turn of the last century and exams the roots of riots and civil unrest in Omaha. He starts by examining the notorious bout of world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson vs. James Jeffries in Reno Nevada in 1910, and explores what’s happened in Omaha before and after that. (March 20, 2017; 13 mins) Listen online or download on iTunes.