As a segregated community, there are places in North Omaha where few or no white people have ever gone. I am a white person, and I don’t claim any special access to African American culture in North Omaha. However, as a student of the community’s history, I’m interested in where that culture happened and continues happening. For more than 30 years, Mrs. Lucy Carter’s restaurant was one of those places. Located just north of North 24th and Lake, all kinds of important things and everyday things happened there. This is a short history of Carter’s Cafe.
History at Home
In February 1983, North Omaha lost Lucy Carter. According to the Omaha World-Herald, she died of cancer at her home at 2526 Florence Boulevard. Born in 1901, Mrs. Carter was the mother of Bertha Calloway, the most important historian in North Omaha, as well as Dr. Jennie Rucker, Lewis Walker and Alma Hodges. Bertha used her mother’s stories as the basis for a program at her indomitable Great Plains Black History Museum.
My research shows me that when Mrs. Carter died, North Omaha lost a lion, a true figure of charity, commitment and clarity of purpose. Following is what I learned about her life and work.
“Carter’s Little Cafe”
Carter’s Cafe was located at 2510 North 24th Street. Known for its remarkable home-cooked specialties people often said Mrs. Carter’s and the Fair Deal were the best cafes in North O. Mrs. Carter once said the staples of her restaurant included, “Baked ham, roast beef, spare ribs, and “not too much of that soul food stuff, that greasy stuff.” She served remarkable spicy sweet potato pie, and lemon meringue pie that was made from scratch and highly regarded.
Originally located at North 24th and Willis Avenue, the cafe gravitated to its final location in the 1950s. “Loved and respected by the entire community,” Carter’s Cafe served travelers and locals alike, including entertainers and other people.
In a 1975 review article called “Carter’s Little Cafe,” Mrs. Carter told a reporter, “I’m the dishwasher, the runner and the cook!” Carter’s Cafe had just a few tables, each covered with an old-fashioned green and yellow oilcloth, and the floor was covered in carpet swatches and floor runners. There were green lights shining on plants in the front window, and Mrs. Carter only did “$30 to $35 a day in breakfast and lunches.”
Mrs. Carter kept an old Philco refrigerator covered with contac paper, along with a wood-sided radio on an ice box. She left everyday at 2pm, explaining once that, “I just want to supplement my Social Security.”
In 1960, Carter’s Cafe was included in an ad for the A&A Music Company’s new jukebox. However, in a 1975 story Mrs. Carter shared the story of people breaking in and demolishing the same. She didn’t care though, and just replaced it with her radio from home.
In November 1975, Lucy was 74 years old. That month, she officially sold her business and retired to Denver to live by her family there. Even though she was far from finished, a surprise retirement party at Carter’s Cafe brought more than 30 people to honor her, including representatives from the many community organizations she’d benefitted.
A Force for Good
As one of Omaha’s successful African American businesspeople along North 24th Street, Mrs. Carter was very active throughout the community. Community-driven campaigns, nonprofits, the church, and the business community were among the recipients of her determined charity.
Mrs. Carter was active in politics, and was regularly included in lists of endorsers for various candidates in the Omaha Star.
Over the years, Mrs. Carter was an active philanthropist who donated money, energy and time to a variety of causes, with the Omaha Star regularly including her or her business on lists of donors that gave money and support to the destitute, veterans, and other individuals, as well as organizations and campaigns like North Omaha Community Development, or NOCD, and her congregation at Zion Baptist Church. As early as 1957, the Star reported that Mrs. Carter hosted a breakfast for the national Beta Psi Zeta conference, which was held in North Omaha that year.
Even though she wasn’t a member of his church, Rev. J. C. Wade credited Mrs. Carter for buying playground equipment for Salem Baptist Church in the early 1970s.
In that same decade, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce had an executive committee representing North Omaha businesses. Mrs. Carter earned a commendation from the Omaha Star when she hosted a breakfast for the committee at her restaurant on March 3, 1977. Giving her applause, the Star said, “We hope this will attract the attention of the Chamber of Commerce to North Omaha…” (Coincidentally, this came less than a month after her cafe was shut down by the Douglas County Health Department for not meeting minimal public health standards, according to the Omaha World-Herald.)
In another instance, in 1981, Mrs. Carter hosted her own recognition dinner for Omaha’s first Black city councilman, Fred Connelly, and its first Black garbage company owner, James Watts. Invitations went to the Omaha City Council, as well as the Omaha Police Department’s community relation office. Wanting to show her appreciation for their efforts, Mrs. Carter held the event at Carter’s Cafe.
Community groups including the NAACP, the Urban League, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and the Omaha Opportunities Industrial Center, or OOIC, honored her for her support throughout the years. Mayor Ed Zorinsky gave her an “outstanding citizen” citation, too.
As a member the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and as a founding member a the North 24th business group called the Mid-City Business Association, she was committed to economic success for the community, too. After she passed away, the Star reported that she supported any effort to revitalize North Omaha.
At her informal retirement gathering in 1975, Mrs. Carter reportedly said that the greatest honor she ever received was never being robbed, held up or vandalized. She was quoted in a 1975 edition of the World-Herald saying,
“Everybody has always been nice to me,” she said. “I don’t think I could say enough about North 24th Street and the people I’ve met. They’re the swellest bunch of people, young and old.”
At the End
After her “false” retirement in 1975, Mrs. Carter started running her business again in 1976. However, in April of the next year, notorious World-Herald reporter Peter Citron was excited to announce that “Lucy’s Back” after a note appeared on his desk. That month, she moved back to Omaha and took over Carter’s Cafe again.
Carter’s Cafe closed in January 1983. Mrs. Carter entered hospice that month, and cancer took her in February of that year. She’s buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
In April 1982, the first “Lucy Carter Business Achievement Award” was given out at a ceremony at the Blue Lion Center. It was meant to honor her 34-year business by acknowledging aspiring businesspeople and businesses in the community.