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. Buying the Savoy Dinner Club, which was the AmVet Club and the Railroad Men’s Benevolent and Social Club and a bakery before that, she opened the Carnation Ballroom in 1948.
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.
- “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
|Roy Brown and His Mighty Might Men Unite played the Carnation Ballroom in 1954. Picture courtesy of the UNL History Harvest.|
|Johnny Ace and His Orchestra played the Carnation Ballroom in 1956. Picture courtesy of the UNL History Harvest.|
|Eddie Boyd and His Orchestra played the Carnation Ballroom in 1953. Picture courtesy of the UNL History Harvest.|
|The Sepia Trio played the Carnation Ballroom in 1952. Picture courtesy of the UNL History Harvest.|
|James Brown played the Carnation Ballroom in 1957. Picture courtesy of the UNL History Harvest.|