North Omaha’s African American culture has grown and changed dramatically since its founding in 1854. One of the main drivers of the culture for more than a century has been the Black media. From the time Omaha’s first Black newspaper was published in 1889 through Shanelle Williams’ continued use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media today to build the African American community in Omaha, Black media has continued to transform the North Omaha community and the city at large.
The first Black newspaper ever was published by John B. Russworm in 1827, and was called Freedom’s Journal. The first Black newspaper was published in Omaha in 1892. In the nearly 125 years since, the primary champions of Omaha’s African American community were the newspapers, working closely in hand with the city’s Black churches. Through black ink on white paper, they reported the details, promoted the positivity and built the base for more than six generations. The legacy of these papers even lives on today.
1. The Progress
|The Progress was published in Omaha from 1899 to 1926.|
In 1889, The Progress became the first African American newspaper in Omaha. It was established by Ferdinand Barnett, born in 1854, who was journalist, civil rights activist, politician, and government employee. He published The Progress from 1889 to 1906 before being appointed by the Douglas County Court deputy clerk.
A staunch Democrat, in 1926, Barnett was elected to the Nebraska State House of Representatives. His support for the Democratic Party frequently put him at odds against competing newspapers, despite his brother, Alfred Barnett, writing for the paper until 1906. Born in 1854, Barnett died in 1932.
2. The Sentinel
|The Afro-American Sentinel was published from 1892 to 1925.|
In 1892, Cyrus Bell started a newspaper called The Afro-American Sentinel. Born in Mississippi as a slave on a cotton plantation, Bell arrived in Omaha in 1868. The Sentinel was pro-Democrat and pulled for Grover Cleveland at a time when almost all Blacks supported the anti-racist Republican party, which was the party of Abraham Lincoln.
In the Sentinel, Bell responded to Booker T. Washington’s 1895 “Atlanta Compromise Speech” in an unexpected way. He openly wrote that higher education for Blacks should be limited, saying that “the race is in too big a hurry,” and that there were not yet jobs for college-educated Black people. Ultimately, he suggested that education was disruptive to society. His position as a radical conservative pitted him against competing papers that supported the Republicans.
Bell died in 1925, with his newspaper dying with him.
3. The Enterprise
|The Enterprise was published in Omaha from 1893 to 1914.|
During its early years, the fame of the paper allowed Mahammitt to sit on the executive committee of the Western Negro Press Association and later, the National Afro-American Press Association in 1905.
Mahammitt and The Enterprise frequently advocated civil rights and black empowerment. In 1906, Mahammitt was involved in a struggle with a city council candidate who wanted to promote redlining in the city. In 1907, The Enterprise advocated for a boycott against businesses refusing to serve Blacks. The paper closed by 1920. Mahammitt died in 1950.
4. The New Era
In 1921, Harrison Pinkett hired George Wells Parker to be editor of a new Omaha newspaper called The New Era. Paying out of pocket for its publication, Pinkett and Parker had a falling out soon after the paper launched. However, the paper continued under the editorship of Count Wilkinson. It closed in 1926.
5. The Omaha Whip
In 1922, George Wells Parker created a new Black newspaper in Omaha called The Omaha Whip. It ran for only two editions before folding. In it, Parker accused Pinkett, Ole Jackson and Johnny Moore of promising the black vote to police superintendent Dean Ringer. Parker also accused Pinkett supporting the Ku-Klux-Klan.
6. The Monitor
|A compelling collection of headlines from The Monitor compiled by the Nebraska State Historical Society. The paper ran from 1915 to 1929.|
The best known and most widely read of all African-American newspapers in the city was the Omaha Monitor, established in 1915, edited and published by Reverend John Albert Williams. It stopped publishing in 1929.
Before starting his paper, Rev. Williams regularly penned letters to the editor of Omaha’s main newspapers, including the Omaha World-Herald and the Omaha Bee. After writing for The Enterprise, Williams knew he wanted to start his own paper. In 1915, he did just that by launching The Monitor.
Starting as a church paper, Williams branched out to cover the general public. From the beginning, Williams began taking strong positions on the important issues of the day. It was Williams who originally claimed The Bee and another Omaha paper, The Daily News, fanned the flames of racism that led to the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and the Courthouse Riots through their “biased treatment of [B]lacks.”
George Wells Parker and Lucille Skaggs Edwards both worked for the paper. Edwards began her writing career in 1906 as the first black woman to publish a magazine in Nebraska, which was called The Women’s Aurora. Parker founded the Hamitic League of the World in 1917, eventually leaving The Monitor because of political differences.
The paper ceased publishing in 1929.
7. Omaha Guide
The New Era and the Monitor shut down in 1926. That year, Herman J. Ford, C. C. Galloway and B. V. Galloway launched the Omaha Guide. With a circulation of 25,000, the paper covered local and state politics along with North Omaha’s cultural life. Their “Illustrated Feature Section” was innovative, and provided a number of important series for Omaha’s Black community.
8. The Omaha Star
|The Omaha Star, established in 1938 and still publishing today.|
Today, African-American culture in Omaha is regarded as being anchored by The Omaha Star. Founded by the late Mildred D. Brown and her husband S. E. Gilbert in 1938, the original circulation was around 5,000. The salesperson for The Guide, Brown led her paper to success with advertisers too, all while writing and editing positive, powerful news about North Omaha and African Americans in Omaha.
|These are Omaha Star carriers in the 1960s.|
From my shallow but ongoing studies of Black newspapers in Omaha, I have learned that there’s rarely been smooth sailing for these bastions of the community. An ex-slave, a determined minister and a powerful saleswoman built and rebuilt the backbone of the printed word in North Omaha, and it wasn’t easy.
One of the greatest struggles happened almost at the beginning of the industry in the city.
The first Black newspaper in Omaha was called The Afro-American Sentinel, and was launched in 1892. Its first competitor, The Progress, appeared in 1889. The second competitor at the time was The Enterprise, which was founded in 1893.
Two years after The Enterprise was founded, the dominant leader among African Americans, Booker T. Washington, gave a speech called the Atlanta Compromise. In the controversial speech, Washington proposed that Southern Blacks would work how white people wanted them to and give in to all white political rule, while Southern whites guaranteed that blacks would receive basic education and due process of law. This shown the light brightly on the difference between the papers, and because of that, the truth was seen by Omaha’s African American community:
- The Afro-American Sentinel was pro-Democrat and strongly endorsed Booker T. Washington’s position
- The Enterprise supported Washington making a compromise
- The Progress was pro-Republican and entirely against Washington’s proposition and any compromise of any kind
The African American community in Omaha was reportedly split in its support, too.
It was hard for the three papers to all survive in Omaha. The original publisher of The Enterprise left Omaha in 1898, and that paper outlived the other two. In 1896, it was called by The National Protest the “best colored paper published in Omaha.” Its journalists went on to continue the editorial legacy of the paper, too.
Economics often bit at the heels of Omaha’s Black newspapers. Trying to balance between truth-telling and appealing to white advertisers, it appears that the papers often reduced the role of their editorializing and journalism in the face of economic pressure.
If that weren’t enough, there were a lot of political allegations from Omaha’s white population, too. During the 1920s, both The Monitor and the New Era were labelled Communist because of their reporting. Starting in the 1940s, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI started keeping a file on Mildred Brown and her Omaha Star. When it was recovered by a FOIA request in the 2000s, it was found to have 1,400 pages of surveillance data, including many inaccurate descriptions of Brown’s time and energy. The file included data collected by the FBI’s illegal activities through the 1970s era COINTELPRO program.
Today, in spite of encroaching social media and other sources available to African Americans in Omaha, the Omaha Star continues its run. I subscribe to stay in touch with ongoing developments in the community, and regularly find useful news, insightful commentary and other contents that are important to my understanding of modern day North Omaha, as well as the history of the community. I would suggest anyone interested in the same to subscribe immediately.
However, I’d also suggest that we all plug into the news and conversations that breath life into North Omaha in any way possible. Whether happening online, in person or otherwise, it is VITAL that Black news continues to reach Omaha’s African American community, no matter where it is!
Timeline of Black Newspapers in Omaha
- 1892—Cyrus Bell launches the first Black newspaper in Omaha called The Afro-American Sentinel
- 1893—George F. Franklin launches The Enterprise
- 1895—Booker T. Washington gives his “Atlanta Compromise Speech,” and different responses in Omaha’s Black newspapers become stark and obvious
- 1898—Thomas P. Mahammitt takes control of The Enterprise
- 1898—Mahammitt sits on the executive committee of the Western Negro Press Association
- 1905—Mahammit sits on the executive committee of the National Afro-American Press Association
- 1906—Lucille Skaggs Edwards is the first black woman to publish a magazine in Nebraska, called The Women’s Aurora
- 1915—Reverend John Albert Williams launches The Monitor
- 1917—George Wells Parker launches a national magazine called The Crusader in Omaha
- 1920—The Enterprise ends
- 1921—Harrison Pinkett launches The New Era
- 1922—Count Wilkinson takes control of The New Era
- 1922—George Wells Parker launches The Omaha Whip and it ends
- 1925—The Afro-American Sentinel ends
- 1926—The New Era ends
- 1926—Herman J. Ford, C. C. Galloway and B. V. Galloway launch The Omaha Guide
- 1929—The Monitor ends
- 1938—Mildred D. Brown and her husband S. E. Gilbert launch The Omaha Star
- 1958—The Omaha Guide ends
- 1989—Dr. Margarite Washington takes control of The Omaha Star
- 2016—The Omaha Star continues
- A History of African American Politics in Omaha
- A Timeline of Race and Racism in Omaha
- A Biography of Dr. Marguerita Washington
- Official Omaha Star online archives
- Douglas County Historical Society The Monitor archives
- Leo Adam Biga (2016) “Play considers North Omaha history through the eyes of Mildred Bown“
- “African-American Newspapers in Omaha” by the Invisible History Project of Omaha Public Schools.
- Amy Helene Forss (2014) Black Print with a White Carnation: Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star Newspaper, 1938-1989. U of Nebraska Press.
- Richard M. Breaux “The New Negro Renaissance in Omaha and Lincoln, 1910-1940” in Cary D Wintz and Bruce A. Glasrud (2012) The Harlem Renaissance in the American West: The New Negro’s Western Experience. Routledge.
Nebraska State Historical Society Collections available:
- Enterprise: 1895-1897; 1908-1911
- New Era: 1922-1926
- Omaha Guide: 1932-1947; 1954-1958
- Omaha Monitor: 1915-1929
- Omaha Star: 1938-present
- Progress: 1890-1891
- Mildred Brown papers