Dr. Matthew Oliver Ricketts (1858-1917) was Nebraska’s first African American legislator, serving from 1893 to 1897. He was also Nebraska’s first African American doctor, and first African American graduate of a higher education institution.
Matthew Ricketts was born into slavery on April 3, 1858 in Henry County, Kentucky. After the Civil War, his parents moved to Missouri, where he finished school. Ricketts’ parents moved to Omaha at some point after that. His father, Rev. Richard Ricketts, became the minister of St. John’s A.M.E. Church in the 1880s when it was located at North 18th and Webster Streets.
In 1876, Ricketts earned a degree from Howard University, and in 1880 he moved to Omaha. Working as a janitor there at night, he attended the Omaha Medical College during the day to become the first African American college graduate and the first African American doctor in Nebraska. The Omaha Medical College eventually became the University of Nebraska Medical School.
Ricketts graduated with honors in 1884, and opened an office immediately afterwards. Popular and charismatic, Ricketts quickly became a key leader in Omaha’s African American community.
In 1892, Rickets was elected to as the first African American to the Nebraska House of Representatives when the body had two houses. Elected in the wake of the 1891 lynching of George Smith, he served two terms from 1893 to 1897.
Serving the community determinedly, Ricketts is credited with opening Omaha’s first African American firefighting company; securing appointments for African Americans in Omaha’s city government and Nebraska state government; and serving throughout the community in philanthropic and service oriented organizations.
In the Nebraska Legislature, Ricketts is credited with:
- Chairing several committees and temporarily chairing the body
- Introducing a bill to legalize interracial marriages, which passed the Legislature only to be vetoed by the governor
- Introducing a bill to prohibit the denial of public services to African Americans. In 1893 Nebraska lawmakers passed a measure prohibiting race-based denial of services.
- Strengthening the state’s 1885 civil rights law
- Enacting of a bill that set an age of consent for marriage in Nebraska, relying on a petition of 500 African-American women in Omaha to carry it forward.
After being denied a federal appointment by a Nebraska state senator, in 1903 he moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, where he practiced medicine for another 14 years.
Ricketts died in St. Joseph, on January 15, 1917 at the age of 64.
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