This article summarizes many of the different highlights of North Omaha social life throughout history, and gives them context. Considering that North Omaha has been home to many ethnic and cultural communities throughout its history, this article just touches the surface of what has existed here. North Omaha’s long history as the city’s African American cultural, religious and social hub mixes in this history, along with its Scandinavian roots, business ties, and other connections.
African American Social Clubs
|Knights of Pythias and Prince Hall Masons wearing their uniforms at a 1913 memorial event on N. 24th St. in North Omaha.|
Throughout its history, the African-American community in North Omaha has been anchored with social clubs. In the 1930s, it was reported that, “There are today in Omaha alone some twenty-five clubs and societies with a total membership of over two thousand.” They included the Knights of Pythias Hall at 1121 N. 24th St. A home to one of Omaha’s several Prince Hall Mason lodges, this hall was owned and operated by African Americans.
The community boasted halls for the Odd Fellows, the Masons, (which had about 550 members in North Omaha in 1936), and the Elks, (with about 250 members in the community in 1936). The Prince Hall Masons have operated the Druid Hall near N. 24th and Ames Avenue for nearly 50 years, serving as stewards for the 100 year old facility.
Social clubs gathered to entertain their members and the community. One report from 1939 said that there were 25 African American social clubs in Omaha with more than 2,000 members total. Social clubs in North Omaha were groups of people; social halls hosted their activities.
North Omaha Social Halls
- Ertling Hall, 2614 Sherman Avenue (N. 16th St.)
- Goodrich Hall, 2340 N. 24th St. – Home to the Women’s Relief Corps in 1885. Virginius Lodge met here in 1888. The First Universalist Church met here in the 1880s and 90s.
- Marathan Hall, Cuming and 25th Ave.
- Sander’s Hall, 2402-4 Cuming St.
- Druid Hall, 2412 Ames Ave.
- Lothrop Social Hall, 3232 N. 24th St.
North Omaha Social Clubs
- Royal Circle – A premier African-American social organization that held annual cotillions for young African-American women through the early 1960s.
- Pleasant Hour Club – Founded in the 1880s, this club folded by 1930.
- Aloha Club
- Entre Nous Club
- Beau Brummels Club – One of the prominent social groups in the 1930s.
- Dames Club
- Jolly Twenty Club
- Trojan Club
- Quack Club – A garden club led by young African American women was organized to take care of the YWCA grounds and building. The Quack Club presented a yearly operetta and annual Christmas and summer dances held at Brownell Hall.
- Jack and Jill – Designed to reconnect young blacks dispersed when their families moved from the Near Northside.
|With their hall located nearby, in August 1946, the Elks held their 40th annual parade at N. 24th and Lake St.|
There have always been several important civic organizations in North Omaha. The North Side YWCA launched in 1920 in a house at 2306 N. 22nd Street. The African-American community in Omaha also supported the Old Colored Folks’ Home, which was organized in 1913. In 1923 they received funds from the city’s “Community Chest” fund, with which they purchased a building.
Formed in 1918, the War Camp Community Service became the local American Legion the following year. The Centralized Commonwealth Civic Club, formed in 1937, promoted community business. Two local Boy Scout troops (Troop 23, Troop 79) were founded for African-American youth.
Native Omahans Club and Native Omaha Days
Fort Omaha’s Social Halls
|A Knights of Columbus Assembly Hall and a YMCA opened at Fort Omaha during WWI. Picture courtesy of Metro Community College. Here, the soldiers are playing sports on the field in front of the hall.|
During World War I, the Red Cross operated a canteen at Fort Omaha. During the same time, the Knights of Columbus and the YMCA both constructed recreation halls for soldiers. The YMCA opened in 1917 and the Knights of Columbus Hall in 1918. They facilitated athletics, educational classes, lectures, musical entertainment, picture shows, dances and facilities for writing, including a post office. The YMCA also sponsored missions and other services at the Fort for men unable to leave during the 1918 influenza quarantine.
There’s no mention of either the Knights of Columbus or the YMCA maintaining operations at Fort Omaha after WWI.
Danish Vennelyst Park
The Vennelyst were formed as a horticultural society in Denmark in the 1890s. Danes were one of the larger European ethnic groups in Omaha, and today the city has the forth largest concentration of people claiming Danish background of cities in the U.S. today.
Used primarily as a rental hall today, the grounds of the Danish Vennelyst Park in Florence are kept in good condition. The hall itself isn’t too old, and is in moderate condition. The hall is owned by a group called the Danish American Society of Omaha, which has recorded meetings mentioned on the Internet.
The Viking Ship
As Omaha grew, it grew suburbs. The first master planned development in the city was called Minne Lusa, and the majority of houses in it were designed by Everett S. Dodds. Dodds wanted a social hall for his neighborhood, and conceived of a Spanish Colonial Revival style building at the intersection of Redick and Minne Lusa Boulevard.
A three-story building measuring 48 x 80 feet, it included a gym, bowling lanes and a card room; a dining room, general parlor, and two small rooms for women’s parties, and a full kitchen. The third floor was an enormous ballroom. Originally opened as the Prettiest Mile Club in 1916, for almost the last 100 years the building has been host to all sorts of activities, including social clubs, Boy Scouts, fraternities, conferences and conventions, weddings, reunions, and much more.
In the 1930s, it was purchased by a fraternal organization that ran it for a number of years. It was renamed the Birchwood Club, and operated under that name through the 1960s. During this period, the Birchwood gained four bowling lanes and another lounge. A swimming pool and outdoor lounge area was also added during this time.
A private family purchased it, and at some point it was remodeled extensively and renamed The Viking Ship. Today, the building is almost completely unrecognizable from its original form, and its future is unclear.
- Learn more from my article, A History of North Omaha’s Viking Ship, Birchwood Club and Prettiest Mile Club
The Original AK-SAR-BEN Den
|A 1924 picture of AK-SAR-BEN’s first permanent building, located at N. 20th and Burdette.|
The largest social institution ever built in North Omaha, reportedly seating up to 12,000 people, was the original Aksarben Den. Located at 2226 North 20th Street,
After then, it was used for state conventions, political rallies, and for the notable balls of the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben. When he was in office in 1910, President William Taft spoke at the Den, and former President Theodore Roosevelt did, too. The building was destroyed in a fire in the 1920s. The new Aksarben Coliseum was built in West Omaha in 1928.
As North Omaha continues to change, there’s a question as to what role social clubs can still play. People who are members of the clubs that still exist know their clubs are very important; people who aren’t members and don’t know they exist have no idea.
- A History of Omaha’s Druid Hall, a guest post by Karen Clopton
- A Short History of North Omaha’s Elks Hall
- “Finding fun in segregated times“, Omaha Public Schools students.
- “When New Horizons dawned for African Americans in Omaha“, Leo Adam Biga for The Reader.