On October 24, 1889, the Omaha Daily World reported that G.S. Kennedy, an African American mechanic who frequented the bar at the Paxton Hotel, was “somewhat indignant” for being charged a higher price than usual because, as the bartender said, he was Black. My review of other articles from early Omaha shows wasn’t Kennedy’s experience wasn’t exception in Omaha; it was the rule.
Race and racism has dominated Omaha has history of movement, organizing and activism for civil rights for African Americans and others that goes almost back to the founding of the city. Following is my summary of it.
1804 to 1900
1804: York, a slave of William Clark on the Lewis and Clark expedition, became the first recorded Black person in the area that became Omaha.
1854: The Nebraska Territory was created by the United States Congress with condition that it stay free of slavery. That rule was broken regularly.
1859: Five years after the city’s founding, a proposal was raised to the Omaha City Council to abolish slavery within city limits. It fails.
1860: Eliza, a slave who ran away from an Omaha businessman, was tracked to Chicago and was arrested there under the Fugitive Slave Act.
The Omaha Star is Nebraska’s only African American newspaper, and was founded in 1938.
1865: The proposed Nebraska State Constitution had a clause limiting voting rights in the state to “free white males” that kept the territory from becoming a state for almost a year.
1867: St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed, and was the first African American congregation founded in Omaha.
1879: Chief Standing Bear, a leader among the Ponca tribe, was arrested and imprisoned at Fort Omaha by the US Army. In Standing Bear vs. Crook, he stood accused of leaving Oklahoma without federal permission. Winning the trial, for the first time Native Americans were recognized as human beings by a U.S. court.
1884: Matthew Ricketts became the first African American to graduate from an institution of higher education, Ricketts earns a degree from the University of Nebraska College of Education.
1889: On October 24, the Omaha Daily World reported that G.S. Kennedy, an African American mechanic who frequented the bar at the Paxton Hotel, was “somewhat indignant” for being charged a higher price than usual because, as the bartender said, he was Black.
1891: Joe Coe was lynched by a white mob of 10,000 people for allegedly raping a white woman.
1892: Dr. Matthew Ricketts became the first African American to be elected to the Nebraska Legislature.
1894: The first African-American fair held in the United States took place in Omaha in July.
1899: J. A. Smith died suspiciously after being arrested by Omaha police. He was arrested for “loud talking”.
Malcolm X was born in Omaha in 1925.
1900 to 1930
1905: More than 800 students, the children of European immigrant laborers in South Omaha, protested the presence of Japanese students, the children of strikebreakers. They actually locked teachers and other adults out of the school buildings.
1909: A white mob attempts to murder a Greek man after the death of a South Omaha policeman. When they are denied, they turn to Greektown and demolish several blocks of homes and businesses. A young boy was killed, and 3,000 people of Greek descent flee the city.
1910: A “Colored Old Folks Home” was opened in North Omaha at 933 N. 25th Street by the Negro Women’s Christian Association.
1914: The Omaha chapter of the NAACP was opened.
The Hamitic League of the World was founded in Omaha in 1917.
1917: The Hamitic League of the World was established by George Wells Parker in Omaha. It was committed to Black pride.
1918: Cyril Briggs became editor of the African Blood Brotherhood journal, The Crusader, which was printed and distributed in Omaha.
1919: Around September 1st, police raid at a downtown hotel and shoot a black bellboy named Eugene Scott. The Omaha Bee called the shooting as reckless and indiscriminate, noting it as the “crowning achievement” of a “disgraceful and incompetent” Omaha police department.
1919: Harry Haywood became radicalized by white mob rule over South Omaha. He eventually became a leader of the Communist Party of America.
1920: Redlining was imposed on African Americans using insurers, banks, real estate agents and landlords to create a black ghetto in the Near North Side neighborhood. It stays intact through the 1950s.
Youth swim at Peony Park after the pool was integrated in 1955.
1920: The Omaha Colored Commercial Club was founded to promote black business, provide job placement for African Americans, and better relations between white and black businessmen in Omaha.
1921: Earl Little forms the Omaha chapter of W. E. B. DuBois’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
1921: The first “king keagle” of the Nebraska KKK was J. Albert Ellerman.
1921: The Omaha headquarters of the KKK was at S. 40th and Farnam Streets.
1921: In February, the Omaha NAACP met to discuss how the KKK was working to segregate African Americans. George Wells Parker was a guest speaker at the meeting, which happened at Zion Baptist Church.
1921: In March, an editorial letter in the Omaha Bee from George Washing Lee said, “What has become of the Ku Klux Klan in Omaha? Rabbi Cohn was roasting the Klan at negro meetings every night here for a while and to hear him, one would think the clan was in full force here, but as yet I have seen no signs of it… …I challenge Rabbi Cohn or any other Jewish or African luminary for cite any specific instance since the days immediately following the civil war, when the Ku Klux Klan has violated any statute on American law books… Any man who might attack the Klan these modern days merely displays his ignorance.”
1921: Mayor Dahlman and the city commissioners admitted they are “keeping in close touch with the Ku Klux Klan both locally and nationally.”
1921: In August, the Omaha Bee reported the Omaha “kavern” of the KKK had 750 members. The newspaper excitedly proclaimed “Officials differ in their views on the Ku Klux Klan.” Known to stoke racial flames in order to sell their paper, The Bee found the Omaha police chief didn’t have a problem of the KKK, while the US district attorney in Omaha thought everyone should stay alert to the terror of the organization. The secret police chief in Omaha, Dave Dickinson, had no problem with the KKK, while Douglas County sheriff Mike Clark declared he’d fight against the KKK at every turn.
1921: In September, National KKK leader W. H. McElroy visited the state and reported more than 500 new members were being initiated into the KKK each week.
1921: On September 21, the Omaha Bee announced that the KKK voted not to hold public meetings or events in Omaha, including parades.
1921: In November, F. E. Maxey was named as the “king kleagle” and organizer of the Nebraska KKK.
In 1921, Rabbi Frederick Cohn of Temple Israel was quoted about the opening of a KKK chapter in Omaha saying, “It is an infamous organization striking at the fundamental principles for which the American government stands.”
1922: The Omaha KKK met at the Lyric Hall at 19th and Farnam. The owner of the hall, Dr. Harold Gifford, kicked out the renter when he discovered the true purpose of their meetings.
1925: Malcolm Little, son of Earl Little, was born at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine Hospital in Omaha. Malcolm Little eventually took the name Malcolm X.
1925: In July, the Dan Desdunes Band cancelled plans to play at an Omaha KKK meeting. Desdunes was quoted saying, “I looked upon it as a purely business proposition, but some of my friends thought otherwise. I could see nothing wrong in playing for an hour for the organization, to ‘drum’ up a crowd.”
1926: In the 1920s, young Malcolm Little’s family lived in Omaha. After becoming Malcolm X, he wrote in his autobiography, “When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because ‘the good Christian white people’ were not going to stand for my father’s ‘spreading trouble’ among the ‘good’ Negroes of Omaha with the ‘back to Africa’ preachings of Marcus Garvey.”
1926: The KKK held “the last public meeting” in a field at S. 67th and Pacific Streets. Two unidentified speakers defended the KKK and said people who aren’t “native, white protestant citizens” of the US were dangerous to American ideals. Men in hoods handed out application cards in the dark under “two blazing crosses, one of red electric lights, the other of gasoline-soaked burlap. There were loud speakers and a band played before the speaking began.
1926: F. L. Cook was a field representative of the KKK in Omaha.
1928: F. L. Cook was forcibly removed from the KKK. He was replaced as its Omaha representative by C. J. Roberts.
1928: In October, a retired grocer named C. J. Roberts was reported to be the new field representative. He lived at 1922 S. 51st St.
1929: Whitney Young became the leader of the Urban League in Omaha.
The DePorres Club was fighting against racism and segregation in Omaha before the national Civil Rights movement.
1930 to 1960
1932: The City of Omaha made KKK property exempt from taxes.
1938: Mildred Brown and her husband S. Edward Gilbert establish the Omaha Star, which eventually became Nebraska’s only African American newspaper.
1946: Harry A. Burke becomes superintendent of Omaha Public Schools. He reportedly says as long as he was superintendent, there would not be a black educator in the school system, other than the two schools that served the black community, because he opposed having black teachers “where white children would see a black person in a role of prominence or authority.”
1947: Father John Markoe worked with students and community members to form the DePorres Club at Creighton University.
1948: The DePorres Club staged Omaha’s first sit-in at a restaurant in the Douglas County Courthouse with 30 members joining. The restaurant eventually committed to desegregation.
1948: The DePorres Club was expelled from Creighton University, and started meeting in the Omaha Star offices.
1950: A. T. Ricard tried to reorganize the KKK in Omaha.
1952: The DePorres Club began the Omaha Bus Boycott, which continued for two years until the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company commits to hiring African American drivers.
1952: “We don’t have anything against him, it just wouldn’t work out,” said Luella Blackson (1879-1979) when asked why she and 17 other African Americans wrote a letter to City of Omaha public defender Joseph M. Lovely. The letter requested that a white landlord be prevented from moving a house and a white family into a predominantly African American neighborhood. However, two days later the newspaper reported the petition was withdrawn, implying the NAACP and the Urban League’s involvement changed the situation. The newspaper drew editorials for a month related to the issue, with most comments coming from segregationists in support of keeping the white family from moving in. The Urban League’s final word was that the neighborhood in question wasn’t even predominantly Black.
1953: The DePorres Club wins a boycott of Reeds Ice Cream. The store refuses to hire African Americans until five months after the boycott begins. They hired one African American, and the boycott was ended.
1955: Peony Park was picketed by African Americans and whites because of their discrimination. They don’t allow African Americans in. The Nebraska Supreme Court finds them guilty and fined them $50.
1958: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at Salem Baptist Church.
1958: African-American educators in Omaha Public Schools start a professional group called Concerned and Caring Educators, which continues today.
Dr. Matthew Ricketts, the first African American college graduate in Nebraska, and the first African American member of the Nebraska Legislature.
1960 to 1980
1962: Bertha Calloway formed the Negro History Society.
1963: 4CL was formed to demand civil rights for African Americans in Omaha.
1963: In September, the Sorrow March was held in downtown Omaha in memoriam to the children killed by the Birmingham church bombing.
1963: The City of Omaha Human Rights Commission was formed in response to the protests of 4CL.
1964: Malcolm X, who was born in Omaha, speaks in the city.
1966: Two days of rioting ravish the Near North Side neighborhood, ending when National Guard troops arrive.
1966: A Time for Burning, a documentary about race issues in Omaha, was released and received an Oscar nomination.
1969: An officer of the Omaha Police Department shoots an unarmed African American 14-year-old girl. Riots break out across North Omaha.
1969: Black Liberators for Action on Campus (BLAC) organized a sit-in at the office of the University of Nebraska at Omaha president to lobby for African American history courses at the institution. 54 students are arrested by the Omaha Police Department.
1970: Ernie Chambers was elected to the Nebraska Legislature for the first time. He continued to serve for the following 40+ years.
The Greektown Riots of 1909 decimated the Greek community of Omaha.
1970: David Rice and Ed Poindexter, leaders within Omaha’s Black Panthers unit, are arrested for the murder of an office in the Omaha Police Department. The officer was killed when an explosive blew up an abandoned house in North Omaha.
1971: Rice and Poindexter were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
1976: Omaha Public Schools was ordered to establish integrated school busing practices by the United States Supreme Court.
1976: The Great Plains Black History Museum is founded by Bertha Calloway. 1977: JoAnn Strickland Maxey became the first African American woman elected to the Nebraska Legislature.
1976: According to the Omaha World-Herald, a man called Wilkinson tried to re-organize the KKK in Omaha.
1978: Construction begins on the North Freeway bisecting North Omaha, cutting the African-American community in half and marring social fabric for decades.
St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1867.
1980 to Today
1981: An African American family signs a lease for a duplex in East Omaha, and within a week the home was burnt down. The case is unsolved.
1988: Mad Dads, a group of African American and white fathers, formed to protest gangs in Omaha.
1995: Arsonists tip over, burnt and destroyed an African-American woman’s car in East Omaha at the same location as the 1981 arson. The case was unsolved.
A statue of York, the first Black person in the area that became Omaha, who came through in 1804 as a slave of Meriwether Lewis on the Lewis and Clark expedition.
1996: Omaha Public Schools ends court-ordered busing.
1997: Marvin Ammons, an African American Persian Gulf war veteran, was shot dead by officers from the Omaha Police Department.
1998: The North Freeway / Highway 75 is dedicated from Lake Street to the new Sorenson Parkway and Storz Expressway.
2000: George Bibbins is killed by officers of the Omaha Police Department after leading a high speed chase.
2000: The Nebraska Legislature sets term limits to prevent Ernie Chambers from continuing to serve as North Omaha’s senator.
2002: Omaha’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was dedicated.
2007: An Ethiopian businessman buys a grocery store in East Omaha. Within a month, it was vandalized, robbed and burnt to the ground. The case is unsolved.
2014: More than 30 Omaha Police Department officers, mostly white, respond to a parking complaint at North 33rd and Seward Streets. They apprehend African American Octavius Johnson and beat him, and also beat several members of his family. After a video of the incident emerges, a lengthy internal investigation occurred and six officers are fired from the department.