Examining the rise and fall of North Omaha requires a long and complicated journey through politics, culture, economics and more. One of the important early anchors of the community demonstrated the ability of one organization to steer things astray.
Opening the Coliseum
Built in 1879, the Coliseum was located at 2226 North 20th Street, at the intersection of North 20th and Burdette Streets in North Omaha. It’s record stands as the largest building ever built in North Omaha, reportedly seating up to 12,000 people.
Originally intended for national conventions and large gatherings, there were also indoor bicycle races, huge tug-of-war demonstrations and other sports held throughout the years. In 1890, a massively popular opera singer named Adelina Patti packed the building, and two years later in 1892, the first national political convention ever held in Omaha happened there when the Populist Party met there. The world convention of the Presbyterian Church happened there in 1902, and in 1907, another famous opera singer named Lillian Nordica performed there. That same year president Theodore Roosevelt spoke there.
However, keeping The Coliseum afloat was challenging! It didn’t make enough money to cover it’s costs, and the stockholders (including Walter S. Jardine and Louis M. Rheame) wanted to make those dollars. Then, one year a group of them arranged a trip to New Orleans, where they came up with a great idea.
Starting the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben
Since 1872, Omaha had been switching the site of the Nebraska State Fair back-and-forth with Lincoln. In 1894, the Nebraska Legislature seemed poised to move it to Lincoln permanently. This upset the businessmen of Omaha, because the fair brought revenue to the city and raised their businesses’ visibility throughout the state. Held at the Omaha Driving Park, the event was good for business! They had to come up with a plan.
In the midst of a nationwide economic depression as well as Omaha’s stagnant commercial and industrial sectors, a group of businessmen decided Omaha needed a celebration celebration similar to Mardi Gras to lift spirits, drive tourism and move the wheels of society forward, so they founded their own grand club to play. The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben to foster that in early 1895.
The same group of Mardi Gras revelers I mentioned earlier brought several floats back from New Orleans, and using them and some new ones, Ak-Sar-Ben held it’s first parade in September 1895. Within months, there were more than 500 members among Omaha’s most elite families. The parades were held annually for many years.
In 1909, president William Taft spoke at the Ak-Sar-Ben Den, and in 1916, president Woodrow Wilson attended the Ak-Sar-Ben festivities in October, including the parade and coronation ball.
Racial Barriers Rise
Not surprisingly to any student of Omaha history, there were no African American members of Ak-Sar-Ben until the 1960s.
After the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and the white riots in North O, the site lost preference. The surrounding and growing African American neighborhood was redlined, and white flight shuttled white families into neighborhoods north and west of the area.
In October 1919, Ak-Sar-Ben bought 200 acres of land at South 63rd and Shirley Streets in western Omaha. That year, the organization dedicated itself to agriculture, and decided to build a new “community center” on their land. Two years later, they began racing on their new land, and membership was at more than 4,000. They needed a way out of their old building, and a way to pay for the new one.
Abandoning North O
In 1927, a fire conveniently sparked at the old Ak-Sar-Ben Den. The organization lost all of their early records and the parade floats they’d collected over the years.
The Omaha Fire Department found the fire to be an arson, but didn’t pursue an investigation. Articles from the era and the future of Ak-Sar-Ben demonstrates the possibility the fire was intentionally set to give the organization insurance money and an impetus for moving away that wouldn’t be glaringly obvious.
The next year, Ak-Sar-Ben opened a new coliseum at their west Omaha location, and have succeeded in never returning to North Omaha since then. Their official history doesn’t mention the location of the old Den, and few people in Omaha know that their city’s most venerated organization actually started in the middle of the hood. Until now.
Today, AkSarBen is widely recognized as one of Omaha’s premier philanthropic and social organizations.
The Gene Eppley North Omaha Boys Club was built in 1962 on the site of the Ak-Sar-Ben Den. The Hope Center continues to operate there today.
- A History of the Near North Side
- A Timeline of Race and Racism in Omaha
- A History of Social Clubs and Social Halls in North Omaha
- Historic Ak-Sar-Ben pictures from the Omaha World-Herald, including many of the Ak-Sar-Ben Den (1889-1927)
- History of the AkSarBen Foundation official webpage
- Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben article on Wikipedia