Omaha Public Schools were de facto segregated for a century, starting in the 1870s and extending well into the 1970s. As the vast majority of African American, Hispanic and Latino, and white students find themselves in racially homogenous schools today, they are that way again.
Around 1900, the Omaha school district began opening up to the idea of hiring Black teachers to work in the city’s Black schools, which were all located in the Near North Side neighborhood. It was against this backdrop that Eugene W. Skinner (1914-1993) became a physical education teacher in Omaha in 1940. He went on to become the first African American in Omaha to hold the positions of principal, director and assistant superintendent for Omaha public schools. Here is his story.
Born in 1914 in Missouri, young Eugene Skinner’s family moved to Omaha from Denver when he was 7 years old. He attended Lake, Long and Howard Kennedy Schools. As a young man, he attended St. John AME Church.
An athlete and academically successful, Eugene Willis Skinner was one of a small minority of African American students in the Near North Side who got to attend high school. In the 1930s, other Black students frequently left school at the end of eighth grade to take jobs and start families. Skinner’s family was in a position to allow him to go to high school, and with good grades and bright possibilities ahead, the Omaha school district permitted him to, also. He was a noted scholar and athlete, including earning multiple mentions in the newspaper for his exploits in track and field. After winning state titles for track in 1932 and 1933, he graduated from Technical High School in 1933.
Because of racism, he wasn’t allowed to be a student athlete at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. There was an informal agreement among Big 6 schools to keep African Americans out of college sports. That led Skinner to the University of Iowa where, at the height of the Great Depression, Skinner graduated with a Bachelors degree in 1938. Eight years later, he earned a Masters degree there, too.
While at Iowa, Skinner reportedly one races over a world-class sprinter who became an American icon, Jesse Owens.
Omaha School District Employee
As an African American, Eugene Skinner wasn’t allowed to work in Omaha Public Schools when he graduated from college in 1938. Instead, he took a job at a segregated school in North Carolina. It was 1940 when he was hired in Omaha to teach gym at Long School, and it had been almost 40 years since the second Black teacher was hired in Omaha. Seven years later, he became the first Black principal in Omaha Public Schools.
During his time of service to the Omaha Public Schools, Eugene Skinner was said to be sensitive as well as visionary. He was described as serious, intellectual and unrelenting. However, it was also said that he earned student respect instead of commanding it; being open and forgiving of students instead of demanding and sequestered in his office.
During Skinner’s leadership, OPS implemented their federally-mandated school desegregation plan. Skinner led efforts to ensure the African American students in his schools weren’t violent toward their white peers, and vice versa. He personally recruited more teachers of color, and when they were hired worked to ensure their continued education and retainment. Frequently talking with students in hallways and on school grounds, Skinner personally engaged students and gave frequent pep talks. He worked with the parents of struggling students and made partners throughout the business community.
The schools he was principal of were:
- The segregated Long School in the Near North Side from 1947 to 1963
- From 1963 to 1969, he led the mostly-Black Lothrop School in Kountze Place;
- In 1969 became the leader of the federally-ordered integrated Horace Mann Junior High from 1964 to 1972. In 1966, his staff there included 59 white teachers out of 77 total.
Skinner was the first African American in Nebraska to lead a school above elementary. In 1973, he became the first African American district leader when he was hired by Omaha Public Schools as the assistant superintendent for human relations. In that role, he trained hundreds of teachers around the city in student/adult interactions, community engagement, and more.
During a court trial about segregation in Omaha Public Schools in the mid-1970s, Skinner became the first school district employee to public admit that white flight was a reality in Omaha. According to his testimony, white flight was “always a reality we have to consider in discussion of these de-segregation plans.”
In 1967, the Omaha World-Herald declared him “the very model of the educated, middle class Negro who has succeeded in the middle class white society.”
Skinner retired from the Omaha school district in 1979.
Community and Life
Skinner was credited with being incredibly busy throughout North Omaha and beyond starting in the 1940s. During that time, he was on the board of directors of the Omaha NAACP and a leader of the Ideal Improvement Club, a group of community leaders. He was honored at a community men’s dinner in 1949, and the accolades continued throughout his life.
He served as president of the West Omaha Rotary Club and was a member of the Ak-Sar-Ben Court of Honor. Skinner led membership drives for the Boy Scouts, the Near North Side YMCA and the Gene Eppley North Omaha Boys Club. Helping establish the local chapter, Skinner was treasurer of Phi Delta Kappa for a long time. He served on the board of directors for the National Education Association and he was an elder in the integrated Calvin Presbyterian Church at 24th and Wirt.
In 1980, the Omaha Opportunities Industrialization Center (OOIC) honored him with a free day for North Omaha youth at Peony Park. During this era of his life, he was chairman of the board for OOIC; on the board of the Wesley House; a leader in the West Omaha Rotary Club, and; a director for Calvin Presbyterian.
Eugene Skinner died on August 11, 1993. In the fall of 1996, Skinner Magnet Center opened at 4304 North 33rd Street with a K-6 curriculum emphasizing Math, Technology and Performing Arts. Most of the staff had previously taught at the district’s Druid Hill School. The school was named in honor of Dr. Skinner. After his retirement from the Omaha Public Schools, Skinner was honored by the University of Nebraska at Omaha with an honorary doctorate of philosophy. In 1999, a big mural was dedicated at the Skinner Magnet Center to commemorate the life and accomplishments of Dr. Skinner.
In 1967, the Omaha World-Herald wrote a feature on Skinner. The author declared him a hero for African Americans in Omaha.
With his work to educate, build democracy and change the world, I’d suggest that he’s a hero for ALL Omahans.
- “Omaha educator Pauline ‘Linda’ Skinner left lasting effect on her many pupils,” by Janice Gilmore for the Omaha World-Herald on December 29, 2015.
- Skinner Magnet Center official website, named in honor of Dr. Skinner.