These days, all of Omaha seems to know about the lynching of Will Brown. On September 19, 1919, an African American from North Omaha was anarchistically yanked from his cell at the Douglas County Courthouse, hung from a telegraph post, dragged through the streets, and burnt afterwards.
No reparations have been made by the City government that let this happen to Brown; no monuments have been placed by City leaders abhorring violence by calling for a more civil today.
Forgetting George Smith
On October 18, 1891, not thirty years before the lynching of Will Brown, Omahans carried out an even more heinous breach of justice than the lynching of George Smith. Smith, called “Joe Coe” by city newspapers, was a 50-year-old African-American railroad porter. Accused of raping a 5-year-old white girl, Coe had an alibi and witnesses attesting to his innocence.
That wasn’t enough. Because he had been convicted of rape several years before in neighboring Council Bluffs, the mob decided he was guilty of this crime. He was torn from the city jail, strung with a rope and dragged through the city streets, and lynched in front of a crowd of 10,000 at 17th and Harney Streets.
After Smith was dead the city’s ropes had barely cooled down before they met Will Brown. However, it’s important to know that Brown was not the first African American to meet racist Omaha’s hateful vigilantism.
It’s also important to note that the rape itself was disputed, as were many child molestations during this era. Smith was wrongly accused, but that doesn’t mean nobody raped the child involved. Unfortunately though, nobody was ever brought to trial for any crime committed in connection with the lynching.
Today, there are no monuments to Omaha’s incivility and hatred, or citywide recognition of Omaha’s dirty, dirty past, and the legacy of that past on today.
- 100 years of Lynchings by Ralph Ginzberg