North Omaha became a haven for jazz during the Roaring 20s, and stayed focus on big bands through the 1940s. Local African American maven Mildred Brown wanted to offer a family friendly, alcohol-free entertainment and social venue in the 1950s. Located at North 24th and Miami Streets during the 1950s, this is a history of the Carnation Ballroom in North Omaha.
Background for a Ballroom
There was an era in Omaha history where so-called Black music wasn’t allowed on the same radio stations as so-called white music. Black students weren’t allowed to attend white schools. African Americans weren’t allowed to stay in the same hotels as whites, eat at the same restaurants as whites, or hold the same jobs as whites.
Almost every story in the main Omaha newspapers about African Americans painted people in a belittling, demeaning and derogatory light, so Black newspapers were essential too. There weren’t laws to enforce these restrictions; instead, they were generally unspoken rules that were enforced through intimidation and violence.
Because of this reality, African Americans stepped up to create community for themselves. Since Blacks weren’t allowed to move away from the Near North Side neighborhood, that’s where the community arose. Black churches, restaurants, clothing stores, and entertainment venues filled the North 24th Street strip from Cuming north to Lothrop Streets, and along Lake Street too.
Mildred Brown Breaks Into the Scene
In the early 1950s, Omaha Star newspaper publisher Mildred Brown knew she had to get into the scene. In the previous decades she’d seen popular adult clubs like Jim Bell’s Club Harlem and the Aloha Club come and go. She watched as the Dreamland Ballroom packed in crowds to dance along to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, but was concerned about the booze that flowed too easily and the crowds of teens gathered outside to catch an ear full of music, with the allure of music and romance on their minds.
So Ms. Brown opened her own club.
Originally the Forbes Bakery and outlet store, the building at 2701 North 24th Street first became a social scene when it was remodeled into the Railroad Men’s Benevolent and Social Club in 1941. In 1945, they renovated it and called it the Coconut Grove for just a little while, then reorganized their club and went back to being the Railroad Men’s Benevolent and Social Club into 1946. The AmVets took over that year, and closed a year later.
For a decade into the 1950s, the Carnation Ballroom was a popular, fun and safe place for North Omaha to relax, dance and have a great time. It was a liquor-free venue that held a lot of all-ages shows. Leveraging her newspaper’s power for promoting their shows, Ms. Brown was effective at drawing in a lot of big name talent, too. Some of the giants who played at her club included the young James Brown, Otis Williams and several others.
The Carnation Ballroom was located at 2701 North 24th Street.
Many Things to Many People
The Carnation Ballroom was also a social hall of sorts, providing space for civic organizations, private parties and other events throughout the years.
By the late 1950s, the economics of show business were changing, and in December 1960, Ms. Brown decided not to run her club anymore.
Today, the building still stands. It operated as a boxing gym and an auto shop for decades afterwards, and today is a warehouse. Apparently, there is a restoration project happening at the site today which may lead to the building being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The North Omaha is missing the entertainment, the glamour and the energy given to the Near North Side neighborhood by Ms. Brown’s Carnation Ballroom. However, we shouldn’t forget the things she shared there; instead, we should be inspired and move forward.
In 2018, the building that was home to Mildred Brown’s Carnation Ballroom was deemed an official landmark by the City of Omaha. In late 2019, we’re still waiting to see whether it will be preserved.
You Might Like…
- “Mildred Brown and the De Porres Club: Collective Activism in Omaha, Nebraska’s, Near North Side, 1947-1960” by Amy Helene Forss for the Nebraska State Historical Society.
- Black Print with a White Carnation: Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star Newspaper, 1938-1989 by Amy Helene Forss for the University of Nebraska Press.
- The History Harvest at UNL