A History of Racism in Omaha

Omaha Public Schools are re-segregating today. Neighborhoods in Omaha are severely segregated. Throughout the city, black and brown people are routinely followed through stores, disproportionately pulled over by police and much, much more. Following, I detail research findings that show the areas of education, healthcare, economic development and policing demonstrate clear racial segregation throughout Omaha. Racism isn’t just a physical phenomenon in Omaha; its a systemic, cultural and attitudinal reality present throughout the city.

In separate Wikipedia articles, I have detailed the history of the Civil Rights movement in Omaha, as well as many of the ethnic and racial groups in the city, including African Americans, Mexicans, Greeks, and several others. I did this because of the gross patterns of cultural racism and structural racism in the city that are so startlingly obvious to anyone that actually pays attention.

These patterns highlight the reality that Omaha is racist. While this isn’t true of every single person in every single place all of the time, I believe it is important to highlight patterns of racism that define a part of the city’s character that few people readily acknowledge.


Early Racism in Omaha

 

Racism and segregation doesn’t just happen through big, bold actions that capture newspaper headlines. In reality, it is present in the everyday attitudes and actions of white people across the United States, myself included. This article highlights both big events and everyday realities.

In the history of the city, I quickly uncovered possible early patterns of ethnic discrimination by the founding Omaha Claim Club and other early civic leaders.

In 1859, the Omaha City Council heard a proposal to abolish slavery in the city, and quickly rejected it. In 1861, the Nebraska Legislature enacted a law prohibiting interracial messages. In 1889, a local African American singer named J.A. Smith died in the custody of the Omaha Police Department. He was arrested for “loud talking” on a public street.

Everyday racism in Omaha kept early Blacks in the city confined to living in a small area near the Union Pacific Railroad Shops referred to as the “Negro district” in early newspapers. By 1900, that neighborhood moved north towards 21st and Paul Streets, and was referred to as Portertown because of the jobs many of the male residents had. As a professional class began emerging among African Americans in Omaha around the turn of the century, middle class Blacks weren’t allowed to buy houses outside the Near North Side.


Segregated Realities

Everyday for more than 75 years, African Americans were excluded from the white economy of Omaha. Up and down 24th Street, whites owned stores that Blacks couldn’t shop at. Throughout downtown Omaha, African Americans weren’t allowed to shop, eat or otherwise spend money where whites did.

Institutions weren’t left out, either. Schools and churches in Omaha were highly segregated. The first Black church in Omaha was St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal. Several others stand out for their longevity, too:

  • St. John’s AME Church, founded in 1865
  • St. Phillip the Deacon Episcopal Church, now part the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, founded in 1877
  • Zion Baptist Church, founded in 1884
  • Mount Pisgah Baptist Church, founded in 1886. It was later renamed Mount Moriah Baptist Church.
  • Hillside Congregational Church, founded in 1886 and closed now.
  • St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Parish, founded in 1918.
  • Pilgrim Baptist Church, founded in 1918.
  • Mount Nebo Baptist Church, founded in 1921.
  • Bethel AME Church, founded in 1922.
  • Salem Baptist Church, founded in 1922.
  • Cleaves Temple Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1924.
  • Hillside Presbyterian Church, founded in 1926 and closed now.

Originally de facto segregated, each of these churches represented an emerging tradition when they were founded. Today, Black churches have their own place among Omaha’s religious community and are revered for their longevity, vitality and unique perspectives and actions. However, Omaha shouldn’t forget that these churches are rooted in the racist belief that African Americans were inferior to white people, and that they weren’t worthy of worshipping in white churches.

 

Salem Baptist Church, 2120 Seward Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is the former Salem Baptist Church at 2120 Seward Street in 1928.

 


The First Recorded Racist Lynching in Omaha

The earliest gross injustice of racism arising in the historical record is the story of a man alternately called Joe Coe or George Smith. Smith was a 50-year-old African-American railroad porter who was married with two children. He lived on North 12th Street north of downtown Omaha.

In fall 1891, Smith was lynched by a mob after he was accused of raping a white girl. Smith had an airtight alibi and witnesses that attested to his innocence. However, an all-white mob decided that because he had been convicted of rape several years before in neighboring Council Bluffs, Smith was guilty of raping this teen. After crowd of 10,000 gathered for the lynching, Smith was dragged from the jail, beaten, and dragged through the city. Seven men were arrested for the crime, including the chief of police and the manager of a large dry goods store, but none were convicted. During the subsequent trial, the county coroner attested to Smith dying from “fright” rather than anything physical.

There were a lot of ways that racism was shown throughout early Omaha, and a lot of ways that white privilege was used to enforce control and authority. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling reflected the view of many wealthy Omahans when he visited the city and wrote,

“The city to casual investigations seemed to be populated entirely by Germans, Poles, Slavs, Hungarians, Croats, Magyars, and all the scum of Eastern European States, but it must have been laid out by Americans.”

Almost all of Omaha’s pioneer powerhouse names, including Creighton, Kountze, Brown, Poppleton, Hanscom and others were from established East Coast families who came to Council Bluffs to wait for the Nebraska Territory to open so they could make their names in the world. These Americans were born in the country, and often brought college educations and significant amounts of money with them to the city. In order to maintain and build their wealth, they routinely subjegated people from “unfavorable” European states to low paying, highly demand labor. Sewing the seeds of racism and disdain for anyone who didn’t please their views of what Omaha should be, they used hatred and distrust to build their empires.

This trend was continued by later power brokers, too, including Ed Rosewater, the publisher of the Omaha Bee, and his crony, Omaha’s boss Tom Dennison. The newspaper routinely used yellow journalism to promote bigotry, while Dennison played ethnic groups against each other like a fiddle.

 

409a8-18762bomaha2blynching

 


Omaha’s Greek Town Riot

In 1909, Omaha’s Greek community was completely destroyed by racism.

Guess what the purpose of destroying Greektown was? 

At that time, Greeks were seen as non-whites, along with many southeast Europeans. When South Omaha was young, Greeks had come to the city to be laborers. Hired during tense strikes at the city’s stockyards in the 1890s, the city’s larger western European population became agitated towards the Greeks. Greeks were treated and popularly viewed as inferior, and this combined with a general appreciation for vigilantism led to a huge riot in February. On the 20th of that month, a Greek man named John Masourides was accused of murdering a police officer. When he fled the city, a mob gathered at the South Omaha jail turned on Greek Town near South 24th and Q Streets. Greek bakers, barbers, grocers and cafes that had been there for twenty and thirty years were told to leave the 4×4 block area, along with residents in tenements, boarding houses, and apartments. Within a few hours, the entire area was burnt to the ground. Again, nobody was convicted of any crime related to this event.

In 1910, a mob of hundreds of white men swarmed the city’s African American neighborhoods. World famous African American boxer Jack Johnson beat a white contender in a major title match in Reno, Nevada. After the upset, Omahans lost thousands of dollars in bets and decided to take it out on the city’s African Americans. They were met by a strong police presence, which dispersed the crowds before they could cause much damage.


The Birth of a Nation Plays in Omaha

The Birth of a Nation is a vile, disgusting and despicable daydream of a hate-filled, vengence-driven American director. It was very popular in Omaha.

An advertisement for The Birth of a Nation at Omaha’s Brandeis Theatre.

Its release was challenged by Civil Rights activists with the NAACP, Urban League, and others. Many cities made grand showings over denying its showing – but not Omaha. Instead, in November 1918 it showed gladly and repeatedly at the Brandeis Theatre downtown. It proved to be so popular, in fact, that The Birth of a Nation was held over in Omaha for several weeks, continuously selling out of tickets for days in a row.

The Rev. John Albert Williams, editor of The Monitor newspaper, led much of the charge against the film. Using his paper, The Monitor asked if “Our Omaha Friends” would help prevent “Dixon’s Photo Play” from showing in the city and called for a meeting the next Sunday at Grove Methodist Church.  “All fair-minded, justice loving people of the city” were called to “sustain us in this protest.” Williams quoted the author of the movie as saying,

“One purpose of the play is to create the feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially in white women against Colored men.”

In 1931, Mayor Richard Metcalfe wanted to make the movie illegal. He proposed a law to ban an film or play that,
“tend[ed] to incite race riot or race hatred or which shall represent or purport to represent any hanging, lynching, burning or placing in a place of ignominy, any human being, the same being incited by race hatred.”
Apparently, the law passed.

The Second Recorded Racist Lynching in Omaha

 

 

Almost 30 years after its first notorious lynching, Will Brown suffered a similar fate during the Red Summer of 1919. That term is used by academics to describe a summer when racists across the United States lynched blacks and destroyed communities across the country. This disgusting act of white tyranny echoed loudly in Omaha, blaring out with Brown’s case. After labor-related clashes between white and black workers at the Omaha Stockyards earlier in the summer, racial tension crackled through the air. They peaked in late September when Brown, an African-American worker, was accused of raping a 19-year-old white woman. Three days later, a crowd of people marched from Bancroft School in south Omaha to the city jail downtown, swelling to 5,000 by 5:00pm. By nighttime more than 10,000 people were gathered, and when they stormed the courthouse were Brown was held, resistance was futile. The city’s mayor was rescued from being hung after the crowd mobbed the courthouse, but Brown had the opposite fate. After being beaten and dismembered, the remains of his corpse was burnt. Nobody was ever convicted in the trial afterwards.

The first Klu Klux Klan group in Omaha was formed in 1921.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, in 1917, a regiment of Black soldiers was stationed at Fort Omaha. White people in the surrounding Miller Park neighborhood protested a lot, writing letters to the newspaper and their elected officials. African American community leaders and politicians took it upon themselves to sound out loudly on behalf of the troops. Influential local civil rights leader John Singleton worked with Gene Thomas, a past commander of the Legion Post of Spanish War Veterans, and others to promote the inclusion of the troops there. The neighborhood eventually shut up.

The Civil Rights Era

"Omaha, Nebraska: The New Mood Shocks the City" article from LOOK magazine, December 17, 1963. https://northomahahistory.com/look-magazine-article-on-omaha-racism-12-17-1963-oct-4-2016-12-23-pm-1/
“Omaha, Nebraska: The New Mood Shocks the City” article from LOOK magazine, December 17, 1963.

 

From the 1900s all the way through the early 1970s, there was a vibrant Civil Rights movement in Omaha. Rallying together to struggle against discrimination, African Americans led a movement for equal employment, equal pay, equal housing, equal purchasing, equal access, and equal justice with white people throughout the city.

Early on, organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League had chapters started in Omaha. Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association was organizing in Omaha in the 1920s, along with the African Blood Brotherhood and Black communists.

Jailed in Omaha by the FBI, Rev. Hiram B. Kano was imprisoned for 4 years because he was of Japanese descent. That’s the only reason why.

 

In the midst of these efforts, the United States was bombed by Japan at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In its true form, Omaha immediately imprisoned all people in the state who remotely looked Japanese. This included Rev. Hiram H. Kano, a minister from Scottsbluff who was in town for business. Despite being an Episcopalian reverend, he was immediately apprehended and jailed in Omaha.

Omaha was deeply segregated at this point. While the laws were mostly silent, de facto segregation was the norm across the city. Police weren’t needed to kick African Americans out of places like Peony Park because Blacks knew they weren’t welcomed there, and were threatened with intimidation and violence if they tried going. Restaurants like Joe Tess and Mister C’s served Blacks at their back doors and refused them entry, while Reeds Ice Cream would gladly let African Americans order ice cream, but wouldn’t let them apply for jobs. The same went for the local Coca-Cola bottlers and for the streetcar company, which gladly took Blacks’ money but wouldn’t hire them.

The Jewish community was the target of discrimination, too. Originally congregated in the Near North Side neighborhood, when Jews tried to move to different parts of the city they routinely found race restrictive covenants in the neighborhoods where they tried to move to. As a response, an entirely Jewish neighborhood was built northwest of Memorial Park after World War II. Called “Bagel“, it became a center of Jewish Omaha’s identity for decades. Earlier, in 1924, Omaha’s Jewish community opened the Highland Country Club at South 132nd and Pacific Streets because the Omaha Country Club and others banned Jewish members. In the 1960s, Warren Buffett intentionally joined the Highland Country Club in order to make a statement about Omaha Country Club’s discrimination.

 

Going to Peony Park was off-limits to African Americans in Omaha before 1963.

 

Before 1963, African Americans weren’t allowed to go to Peony Park or swim in their pool. That year, the Omaha NAACP Youth Council began a protest of the park’s segregation rules that kept them from swimming there. After closing because they broke Nebraska segregation law in 1955, Peony Park “reopened as a private club—a popular Southern strategy for avoiding court-ordered integration of public places.” After protests in 1963 led by the NAACP, white people stopped going in great numbers through the summer, and Peony Park lost money. The park dropped their policy and African Americans were allowed to use the park for the first time that year.

In his autobiography, Preston Love, Sr. reported that in restaurants across Omaha, there was one sign that was repeated:

“We Don’t Serve Any Colored Race”

Hotels and shops in Omaha were segregated, too. There were several Black hotels that existed from the 1890s through the 1960s, including the Booker T. Washington Hotel; Calhoun Hotel; Broadview Hotel; and several others. Most stores in downtown Omaha were off-limits to African Americans, either through intimidation or simple denial. One of the first targets of anti-racism protesters during the Civil Rights movement was the cafeteria in the basement of the Douglas County Courthouse, as well as the Woolworth’s in downtown Omaha.

Omaha’s schools were incredibly segregated as well, with the entire African American student population in the city sent to just a few schools. A couple schools were completely Black, and a few others were known for being Black schools. Segregated schools in Omaha included Lake, Lothrop, Kennedy, Kellom and Howard Kennedy.

 

African American protesters picketing a Reeds Ice Cream stand in North Omaha in the late 1940s.

By the middle of the century, students at Creighton University were working together with the Near North Side’s African American community through the DePorres Club, with their work followed by a local campaign called the 4CL – Citizens Civil Liberties Committee. These organizations picketed and boycotted, protested and proposed legislation to challenge Omaha’s cultural and systematic racism.

They won major battles, including integrating several businesses, passing key housing, employment and labor legislation, and other initiatives focused on defeating discrimination. However, they failed too, finding the city’s racism too entrenched to overcome more than once.


Racism in Omaha Today

 

An edition of the Omaha Sunday Bee highlighting the city’s Greek community.

 

These events, along with many others, establish an early pattern of discrimination in the culture and government of early Omaha. While protests against Japanese immigrants; anti-Black riots after boxing matches; the systematic segregation of African-American teachers into exclusively African-American schools; and anti-Polish hatred leading to the burning of a Catholic Church may seem like distant, distinct, and disconnected phenomenon in the city’s history, news today show that activities like police discrimination, redlining, and school segregation are rampant throughout the city today.

The city’s rapidly growing Hispanic and Latino population – which grew by 155% from 1990 to 2000 – is making it as obvious as ever that Omaha is racist. Isolated, segregated and discriminated against throughout Omaha, this population is now grouped almost entirely in South Omaha, with little outreach done by white Omaha to integrate them throughout the city.

 


Resegregation in Omaha Public Schools

 

This is Long School at 2520 Franklin Street in North Omaha in the 1890s.
This is Long School at 2520 Franklin Street in North Omaha. It was de facto segregated for at least 25 years.

 

Omaha Public Schools are re-segregating today. According to OPS data, percentage of white students enrolled in Omaha Public Schools is decreasing while the percentage of students of color is rising, especially in schools with predominantly African American and Hispanic / Latino student populations. This is happening while the general Omaha population has increasing numbers of white people and a decreasing population of African Americans.

A variety of schools in North Omaha have large percentages of African American students that demonstrate racial unevenness in school. For instance, at North High, Blackburn High, and Northwest High, African American students comprise the largest racial populations in the school. Other schools show racial isolation, including Burke High, Alice Buffet Middle, and Davis Middle. The UNO Middle College Program and the Gateway to College Program are also predominately white, while Hale, King, Monroe, Morton, and McMillan are predominately African American. Transitions Program, Career Center and Parrish are also predominantly African American.

In the 2015-16 school year, the trends of racial isolation in Omaha Public Schools are even more pronounced in elementary schools. Belvedere, Central Park, Conestoga, Druid Hill, King, Franklin, Lothrop, Miller Park, Mountain View, Saratoga, Skinner and Wakonda are all majority African American schools. Unevenness in Omaha Public Schools is apparent in Caitlan, Columbian, Dundee, Florence, Fullerton, Picotte, Pinewood, Saddlebrook, Standing Bear, and Washington elementary schools all have majority white student populations.

This is all evidence of the ineffective administration of resources among Omaha Public Schools, and demonstrates how North Omaha is routinely afflicted by racial segregation. I have not shared an analysis of per school spending, neighborhood economic status or other factors that will corroborate these findings; however, that information is forthcoming.

 


Omaha’s Color Code

In the last 25 years, Omaha’s white population has created a gigantic, undeniable color line between west Omaha and the rest of the city. In the western portion, almost no people of color have homes, let alone shop, eat, watch movies or otherwise engage with white people.

 

Taken from a 2015 report, this map shows Omaha’s African American population in green; Hispanic / Latino population in orange; Asian population in red; and white population in blue.

That anti-Black sentiment isn’t limited to west Omaha though, because its still wildly active in East Omaha, too. In 1981, an African American family signed a lease for a duplex in East Omaha. It was burnt down within a week. In 2007, an Ethiopian immigrant bought a grocery store in East Omaha. Within a month, the building is robbed, vandalized and spray painted with racist hate messages, and ultimately fire bombed and destroyed.

 


Black Lives Matter in Omaha, Too

Violence targeting African Americans continues in North Omaha.

The famous and notorious work of the Black Panthers starting in the late 1960s shined a light on the Omaha Police Departments illegal tactics demonstrating bias against African Americans and low-income people in North Omaha. In just five years of their existence, the group protested, rallied and challenged white supremacy in Omaha, leading to the arrest of two leaders, David Rice and Ed Poindexter, for the murder of policeman Larry Minard. Despite the absence of evidence and persistent demonstrations of their innocence, the men have been in jail since 1972. Rice died in prison in 2016, and Poindexter is reportedly in ill-health.

In 1997, an African American Persian Gulf War veteran was shot dead by officers from the Omaha Police Department in a controversial shooting. In 2000, an African American named George Bibbins was shot and killed by police after a high speed chase by Omaha police. In 2014, four police officers were fired and three suspended for the beating of 28-year-old Octavius Johnson. They grabbed him from behind, violently threw him to the ground and punched him while he was restrained. More than 20 officers and a commander showed up on the scene. Several other officers are seen chased Johnson’s brother, Juaquez Johnson into a nearby home. This disciplinary action wouldn’t have happened had the entire event not been filmed by a neighbor. The family sued the police department, and it was revealed that the entire event was essentially over a parking ticket.

 

 

Rather than being one-off incidents though, these actions are part of a pattern of ongoing racism in Omaha. You can learn more about Omaha’s current treatment of African Americans in my article called “Fast Facts about African Americans in Omaha.” And remember – its about more than African Americans, too, since people of color are targeted throughout Omaha, including anyone who dresses or talks differently, and basically, anyone who is not white.

What’s next? Only time will tell.

 


Related Articles

 

BONUS PICS

An early ad for the segregated Grove Methodist Church at 22nd and Seward Streets in North Omaha, Nebraska
An early ad for the segregated Grove Methodist Church at 22nd and Seward Streets in North Omaha, Nebraska, founded in 1913. Grove became Clair United Methodist Church, and is still open today at 55th and Ames.

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