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. In my research on the history of race and racism in Omaha, I have found examples of more than 60 different types of segregation meant to keep Black people separated from white people. Many of these types are included in the following article. For a complete list of the 60 different types, see here.
Following is a timeline of race and racism in Omaha.
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.
- 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.
- 1867: The first “Grand Benevolent Festival” held by “the colored people of Omaha” is held at Capital Hall on November 25 and 26.
- 1867: A mob of 400 white people chase 20 Black men away from the voting polls after threatening their lives on a handbill the day before.
- 1867: The City of Omaha creates a “colored school” to segregate white students from Black students.
- 1871: Edwin Overall leads the city’s first Civil Rights campaign to abolish the “colored school” run by the city. The campaign wins and African American students are integrated into the city’s schools.
- 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: Ferdinand L. Barnett founded The Progress, a Black newspaper, in North Omaha. It ran until 1906.
- 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.
- 1890: The Omaha chapter of the National Afro-American League is established by Edwin R. Overall, Alfred Barnett, Matthew Rickets, Silas Robbins and Fred Thomas, among others.
- 1890: Rev. George Woodbey ran for Lieutenant Governor of Nebraska for the Nebraska Prohibition Party.
- 1890: A chapter of a national building, loan and protective union is established in Omaha to help Blacks in the city buy or build a home. The board included president George F. Franklin, vice-president William Marshall, Secretary and Treasurer Alfred S. Barnett, and attorney James S. Bryant. Others involved included Millard F. Singleton, Alphonso Williams and Harrison Buckner.
- 1891: George Smith 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.
- 1892: Cyrus D. Bell established the Afro-American Sentinel in North Omaha.
- 1893: G. F. Franklin established the Enterprise in North Omaha.
- 1894: The first African-American fair held in the United States took place in Omaha in July. Organized by the Afro-American Fair Association, the group included A. D. White, S. G. Ernest and James Bryant.
- 1894: Rev. George Woodbey ran for US Congress for the Nebraska Prohibition Party.
- 1895: Rev. Annie R. Woodbey became the first African American woman nominated for political office in Nebraska when she was nominated for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents by the Prohibition Party. She did not get the seat.
- 1896: Cyrus D. Bell, publisher of the Afro-American Sentinel newspaper, surveyed Omaha businesses for racial discrimination under the premise of preparing a guide for Black visitors to the forthcoming Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898. Publishing his findings in several editions of his newspaper, The Afro-American Sentinel, Bell was surprised at the ambiguity of most business’ responses. While he did find some instances of overt racism, many businesses—including hotels, restaurants, barbers and stores—claimed each instance was situational.
- 1897: No Black participation was allowed on the 51-person board of directors for the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition.
- 1898: African Americans attend the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, invested their money in the event by buying stock; submitted exhibits and managed receptions throughout the year; hosted national conventions and formed a national and bi-racial civil rights organization; and protested segregation before, during and after the event. They also worked on construction crews for its buildings and were employed as security guards.
- 1898: The only presentation of Black people at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition was a living history display called “The Old Plantation” that employed the only Black performers. Designing to reinforce negative stereotypes and promote white supremacy, the display claimed to be the most educational activity in the expo by featuring authentic slave cabins, a “slave church” from Alabama, and with performances promoting racist tropes about Black people.
- 1898: Clarence “Cap” Wigington (1883-1967) was 15 years old when he won three first prizes in an art competition and was awarded a medal at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition.
- 1898: George Wells Parker (1882-1931) was a recent graduate of Omaha High School when he won an essay contest and a medal at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition.
- 1898: The Congress of White and Colored Americans drew hundreds of people from across the region specifically for the event, held during the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. Three days of activities were held for an almost equal number of white people and Black people. The National Colored Personal Liberty League, a meeting of the National Colored Press Association, and a gathering for the Western Negro Press Association, and a “Colored People’s Day” were held at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, too.
- 1899: James A. Smith died suspiciously after being arrested by Omaha police. He was arrested for “loud talking”.
1900 to 1930
- 1900: From this point forward into the 1970s and even beyond, taxi cabs in Omaha were segregated. Whites only rode with black drivers as a last resort. In areas where people frequently caught cabs, white people would hold signs that read “NCD,” which meant “no colored driver.” Dispatchers would also use this code over the radio when sending a cab to pick up a rider.
- 1901: North Omaha’s Ferdinand Barnett becomes vice-president of the Western Negro Press Association.
- 1902: An out-of-town visitor named Robert Haynes is told he cannot use an elevator in a downtown hotel because of his race. This example of de facto segregation was instead of explicitly banning him from the hotel, and was typical in Omaha at the time.
- 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.
- 1917: The Hamitic League of the World was established by George Wells Parker in Omaha. It was committed to Black pride. Its declared purpose was “To inspire the Negro with new hopes; to make him openly proud of his race and of its great contributions to the religious development and civilization of mankind and to place in the hands of every race man and woman and child the facts which support the League’s claim that the Negro Race is the greatest race the world has ever known.”
- 1918: Cyril Briggs became editor of the African Blood Brotherhood journal, The Crusader, which was printed and distributed in Omaha.
- 1919: A permit was issued for the Columbia Hall at 2420 Lake Street, only under the condition that the building was “for negroes only.” The hall exists today and is called the Elks Club.
- 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: On September 31, Will Brown was lynched by a white mob of 20,000 people in downtown Omaha, alleged to have raped a white woman. Rioters turn to the Near North Side neighborhood, only stopped by US Army from Fort Omaha.
- 1919: Colonel J. E. Morris announced that Omaha’s “Black Belt” or the African American housing area went from North 22nd to North 26th, from Cuming to Ohio Streets. This is the first formal US government decree of segregation in Omaha.
- 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.
- 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.
- 1920s: Rev. Russel Taylor (1871-1933) preached in pulpits across the city against racism and for justice, before there was a civil rights movement.
- 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: Ferdinand Barnett is appointed custodian of the Omaha Police Department, and later became janitor of the Douglas County Jail.
- 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.
- 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: Ferdinand L. Barnett was elected to the Nebraska State Legislature and served for two years.
- 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: The Omaha chapter of the Urban League was formed.
- 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.
1930 to 1960
- 1931: The City Interracial Committee was founded and operated through the Great Depression. It was a youth-led forum that provided activities to churches across Omaha.
- 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.
- 1947: The Omaha Rockets independent Black baseball team plays its first season.
- 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.
- 1950: The Omaha Rockets independent Black baseball team folds.
- 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.
- 1952: The Crosstown Skating Rink owned by Ralph Fox was taken to court by the State of Nebraska for refusing admittance to three African Americans. The event was orchestrated by the DePorres Club to call attention to the open segregation practiced by Omaha businesses against the 1893 Nebraska Civil Rights law.
- 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.
- 1954: The first official plans are released for the North Freeway, a physical barrier bisecting Omaha’s historical African American community. Community resistance comes immediately, and continues through the official dedication of the highway in 1989 and still today.
- 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.
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.
- 1966: Omaha’s Black Panther Party was formed.
- 1968: Riots happen in the Near North Side neighborhood after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April.
- 1968: Robert Kennedy speaks in North Omaha in support of Omaha’s civil rights movement.
- 1963: Black Association for Nationalism Through Unity (BANTU) was founded to rally high school student activists in protest and action.
- 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.
- 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 continues on the North Freeway bisecting North Omaha, cutting the African-American community in half and marring social fabric for decades.
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.
- 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.
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MY ARTICLES ABOUT CIVIL RIGHTS IN OMAHA
General: History of Racism | Timeline of Racism
Events: Juneteenth | Malcolm X Day | George Smith Lynching | Will Brown Lynching | North Omaha Riots | Vivian Strong Murder | Jack Johnson Riot
Issues: African American Firsts in Omaha | Police Brutality | North Omaha African American Legislators | North Omaha Community Leaders | Segregated Schools | Segregated Hospitals | Segregated Hotels | Segregated Sports | Segregated Businesses | Segregated Churches | Redlining | African American Police | African American Firefighters
People: Rev. Dr. John Albert Williams | Edwin Overall | Harrison J. Pinkett | Vic Walker | Joseph Carr | Rev. Russel Taylor | Dr. Craig Morris | Mildred Brown | Dr. John Singleton | Ernie Chambers | Malcolm X
Organizations: Omaha Colored Commercial Club | Omaha NAACP | Omaha Urban League | 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Rights) | DePorres Club | Omaha Black Panthers | City Interracial Committee | Providence Hospital | American Legion | Elks Club | Prince Hall Masons | BANTU
Related: Black History | African American Firsts | A Time for Burning
- The Racial Dot Map: One Dot Per Person for the Entire US (This is the source of the lead graphic on this article, and an excellent resource.)