Starting in 1905, the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, also called the black Elks, met in North Omaha. They were determined to help foster positive social connections, build community and foster growth within Omaha’s African American community.
|This is a 1926 pic of the Columbia Building at 2420 Lake Street.|
More than a century later, the Iroquois Lodge 92 has continued and expanded on their vision. This is a short history of a once-secret society that history shows has been absolutely vital in the history of North Omaha.
|“If this ceiling could talk…” Almost a century old, this ceiling in the entryway to North Omaha’s Elks Hall has seen more history walk past than almost any other institution in the community.|
In June 2016 I had the privilege of touring North Omaha’s Elks Hall at 2420 Lake Street. Special thanks go to Linda Williams for arranging the tour and Ron Jefferson for showing me around the building and sharing the pictures here. Following is a short history of North Omaha’s historic Elks Hall, and the African American fraternal organizations Elks Iroquois Lodge #92, Cherokee Temple #223, and South Terrace Temple #1353. Please share any information in the comments section below!
|An Elks Lodge 92 drill team marches during a parade on North 24th Street in 1946.
In 1897, the first group of black Elks met in Cincinnati. Disallowed from joining the Elks because of their race, founders B. F. Howard and Arthur Riggs started their own group modeled after the original. A year later, they copyrighted their ritual, which has remained almost entirely the same since then.
|This photo is hanging in the Elks Hall today. I assume these are officers of the club, and I estimate this picture is from the 1920s.|
In the decade before Elks Iroquois Lodge 92 was founded, the African American community in Omaha made strides towards equality in Omaha. In 1895, an African American female journalist named Ella Mahammitt became a weekly writer with a local Black newspaper called The Enterprise, and she became vice-president of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, which was headed by Margaret James Murray, who was the wife of Booker T. Washington. That year, Millard Singleton was named the first-ever African American Justice of the Peace in the Eighth Ward in Omaha.
|This is an early photo of Elks Iroquois Lodge 92 members that hangs in the Elks Hall today. I estimate this photo is from the earliest years of the lodge in the early 1920s.|
The next year, an African American leader in North Omaha named George Franklin held the positions of Douglas County Assessor and City of Omaha Inspector of Weights and Measures at the same time. An African American leader named Ophelia Clenlans was appointed to the executive board of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, while Ella Mahammitt became a committee member of the National Association of Colored Women in 1897.
|This picture shows a women’s group (probably the Cherokee Temple 223) in what I estimate are the 1960s.|
In 1898, African Americans held important roles at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in North Omaha. Various meetings of national black organizations took place during the exposition, including the National Congress of Representatives of White and Colored Americans and the National Colored Press Association. That same year, African Americans in Omaha gathered to call for federal action to stop lynchings and violence in the South. Eula Overall began her five year career as the second ever African American teacher in Omaha Public Schools. Omaha’s Edwin Overall was elected General Statistician at the annual meeting of the National Federation of Colored Labor of the United States.
|Here’s a group photo from the heritage wall in the Elks lodge room at North Omaha’s Elks Hall.|
In 1901, Omaha’s Thomas Mahammitt, publisher of The Enterprise, joins the executive committee of the Western Negro Press Association. The next year, in 1902, Clarence Wigington, Omaha’s first African American architect, began his career. He designed at least a dozen buildings in Omaha, including the Broomfield Rowhouse, Zion Baptist Church, and the second St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church building, among others. In 1905, The Enterprise was so strong that the newspaper rallied against an Omaha City Council candidate who wished to exclude the sale of certain property to blacks in Omaha.
That same year, the black Elks started their lodge in Omaha, and by 1920, The Monitor, another African American newspaper in Omaha, claimed the lodge was the largest in the western U.S.
North Omaha’s Elks Hall
|The North Omaha Elks Hall at 2420 Lake Street is home to the Elks Iroquois Lodge #92, the Elks Cherokee Temple #223 and the South Terrace Temple #1353. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the 24th and Lake Historic District.|
The Elks Hall began as the Columbia Building at 2420 Lake Street, and was built in 1919. Opened as a social hall for North Omaha’s African American community. It hosted political rallies and was home to the Omaha Colored Commercial Club, which served an as employment bureau that helped hundreds of African American workers get jobs in their new city.
The black Elks started meeting there in 1929. They’d been meeting in North Omaha since they started and wanted a permanent home. By 1939, Lodge 92 hosted a major conference in Omaha. More than 6,000 Elks from seven Midwestern states came, and every major venue in North Omaha was filled for a week.
|This is a photo of the Cherokee Temple 223 Drill Team. I estimate this is from the 1940s. Photo courtesy of|
The Iroquois Lodge 92 also has an officially recognized female auxiliary, the Daughters of the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World. Their units are called temples, and there are two at the Elks Hall in North Omaha. The Cherokee Temple 223 has been operating since the beginning of the Iroquois Lodge, and the South Terrace Temple 1353 is much newer.
|This is North Omaha’s iconic Elks Iroquois Lodge 92 sign, a beacon for the community since the 1920s.|
The lodge founded a Civil Liberties department in 1926. There are several other departments too, including an education department that is still active.
|This photo is of the Elks Hall lodge room – notice the photos of leaders and others on the wall behind the group. I estimate its from the 1960s, and as its caption says, its the “Thomas (Herb) Richardson Sportsman Club Company 8.”|
In 1964, the iconic Malcolm X spoke at the Elks Hall, with the Omaha World-Herald reporting that he demonstrated “considerable tolerance toward other Negro rights groups.” Today, the Elks Hall continues to host rallies, dances, fundraising meals, and other events. Throughout the years, the Elks have been standard bearers in local parades, too, with a marching band, color guard and drum corps active in throughout the decades.
|Continuing to honor their fraternal heritage, the Elks Hall keeps this hanging above the doorway.|
James Finley Wilson served as Grand Exalted Ruler of the black Elks for thirty years. A lawyer and banker named Charles Davis was a leader of the Elks in the 1950s and 1960s. Currently, Ronald Jefferson has been a leader in the black Elks for at least 25 years.
|An Elks Lodge 92 Color Guard marches during a 1946 parade on North 24th Street.|
Over the years, the blond-brick building on Lake Street has continued to be a cornerstone of North Omaha’s social life. For decades, the Elks hosted rallies, dances and speaking contests. For several decades its one of the main locations to for Native Omahan Days. The club’s band continues to perform at funerals and parades.
|Today, the North Omaha Elks Hall hosts regular events, keeps a well-stocked bar and sponsors fundraisers and more to benefit the community.|
Today, the Elks sponsor scholarship programs, youth activities, help for families, and community service activities. Every year they touch thousands of lives with social activities, fundraising meals, and community building for North Omaha.
If you’re interested, you can learn more about the Elks today by visiting the North Omaha Elks Club Facebook page.
- “Community holds fundraisers for 5-year-old shooting victim,” KETV, January 17, 2014