A History of African American Firsts in Omaha

North Omaha has been home to many important figures throughout its history. These are some of them, including people from political, legal, religious, medical, creative leaders, sports figures, and others, too.

I have never come across a comprehensive list of firsts in the city. So, this is a list of African American firsts in Omaha, Nebraska. This is meant to be an inclusive list.

There are countless problems with lists of firsts. They reduce the daily struggle of living down to accomplishments. They focus on middle class and upper class people with the means and opportunities to become “firsts” in anything. They don’t acknowledge the giants upon whose shoulders people stand. White people (like me) tend to see only firsts, and don’t recognize the real legacies of African Americans today. Concentrating on people who accomplish firsts takes the importance off of community building by focusing on individuals; we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and we all owe to the communities that raised us. Lists of African American firsts don’t mean equality has been achieved, and they don’t let white people (like me) off the hook for our racism, white supremacy or otherwise.

Do you have items to add? Criticism, concerns or criticism? Please share in the comments section below.

A List of African American Firsts in Omaha

  1. 1804—The first Black person in the Omaha area was “York,” a slave who belonged to William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
  2. 1811—The first African American to live in the Omaha area was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who came from Chicago to work and travel extensively from Spanish-American fur trader Manuel Lisa’s Fort Lisa until 1814.
  3. 1854—The first free Black person to live in Omaha City was Sally Bayne when she moved to the city this year.
  4. 1856—The first barber shop in Omaha was opened by African American Bill Lee at the Douglas House at 1301 Harney Street.
  5. 1865—The first African American church in Omaha, St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded.
  6. 1868—The first “Negro Republican Club” in Omaha was founded.
  7. 1869—The first African American to hold a government job in Nebraska was Omaha’s Edwin Overall when he was appointed as a mailman for the post office.
  8. 1869—Edwin Overall leads a fight to end the segregation in Omaha schools starting this year, and the system formally ended.
  9. 1871—The first literary society in Omaha was organizations for African Americans this year by Edwin Overall.
  10. 1872—The first recorded birth of an African American in Omaha happened this year, a child named William Leper.
  11. 1876—The first Black student to graduate from Omaha High School was Henry Clay Curry in July.
  12. 1879—The first African American girl to graduate from Omaha High School was Ida Overall, this year.
  13. 1870s—The first prominent black musician in Omaha became George T. McPherson, who was declared him “the leading pianist of the [African-American] race” by the Enterprise newspaper.
  14. 1882—The first state convention of Blacks ever held in Nebraska was in Omaha.
  15. 1884—The first African American to graduate a high school in Omaha was Comfort Baker.
  16. 1884—The first African American to graduate from a Nebraska college or university was Omaha’s Matthew Oliver Ricketts and the first African American doctor in Nebraska.
  17. 1886—One of the first independent African American men’s political organizations in the United States was Omaha’s Young Men’s Colored Independent Political Club, formed this year.
  18. 1887—The first African American labor union in Omaha was organized and went on strike that year after they deemed it “unprofessional to work beside white competitors.”
  19. 1889—The first African American to be admitted to the bar in Nebraska was Omaha’s Silas Robbins, who was also the first African American attorney in Nebraska.
  20. 1889—The first African American newspaper in Omaha, The Progress, was founded by Ferdinand L. Barnett.
  21. 1880s—The first African American musical group in the city, a 15-piece band and orchestra was founded by Josiah Waddles.
  22. 1889—The first Black politician in Omaha was Claus Hubbard, who later managed Dr.Matthew Rickett’s campaign for state legislature.
  23. 1890—The first African-American physician in Omaha was Dr. W.H.C. Stephenson. His arrival was noted as the start of the first African American professional class in Omaha.
  24. 1890—The first hotel for African Americans in Omaha was opened and run by a Mr. Lewis at 10th and Capitol Streets.
  25. 1890—The first African American candidate for the Nebraska State Legislature was Edwin Overall. He lost.
  26. 1891Rev. John Albert Williams becomes the first African American minister when he served at St. Phillip the Deacon in the Omaha Diocese of the Episcopal Church.
  27. 1891—The first recorded lynching in Omaha when a white mob takes African American Joe Coe from the city jail, beats him and lynches him downtown.
  28. 1892—The first African American Nebraska legislator was elected, Dr. Matthew Ricketts.
  29. 1894—The first Black-run fair in the United States for African-American exhibitors and attendees was held July 3–4 in Omaha.
  30. 1895—Dr. Matthew Ricketts advocates for the first age of consent for marriage in Nebraska. He relied on a petition of 500 African-American women in Omaha and it passes.
  31. 1895—The first Black firefighters are hired by the Omaha Fire Department to work at Hose Company #11. Dr. Matthew Ricketts requested they be hired to serve the nearby Black community.
  32. 1895: Rev. Annie R. Woodbey became the first African American woman nominated for political office in Nebraska when she was nominated for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents by the Prohibition Party. She did not get the seat.
  33. 1895—Omaha’s Lucy Gamble (later Mrs. John A. Williams) became the first African-American teacher in Omaha Public Schools and taught until 1901. She taught at the Dodge School.
  34. 1896—The first chapter of the National Federation of Colored Women was formed in Omaha.
  35. 1902—Omaha’s Clarence Wigington began his career the first African American architect in the city.
  36. 1906—Omaha’s James C. Greer, Sr. became one of the first African-American firefighters hired by the Omaha Fire Department at Hose Company #12. Greer served from May 5, 1906, to August 1, 1933.
  37. 1906—Omaha’s Lucille Skaggs Edwards published The Women’s Aurora and became the first Black woman to publish a magazine in Nebraska.
  38. 1908—Omaha’s Harrison Pinkett became the first university-trained African America attorney in Nebraska.
  39. 1910—Omaha’s John Grant Pegg became the first African American hired as the City of Omaha’s Inspector of Weights and Measures.
  40. 1912—Rev. William Tate Osborne became the first full-time African American minister assigned to work at Omaha’s St. John’s AME in Nebraska, and served there until 1917.
  41. 1912—The first NAACP chapter west of the Mississippi River was founded in Omaha.
  42. 1913—Omaha High School’s band integrated for the first time.
  43. 1913—George Johnson (1885-1977) became the first African American employed at the U.S. Post Office in Omaha.
  44. 1915—The first-ever Black-owned, operated and filmed theater company in the world was started in North Omaha by George Johnson and his brother Noble Johnson (1881-1978).
  45. 1915—One of the first African American police officers in the South Omaha Police Department was Joseph S. Ballew (1857-1923).
  46. 1915—Omaha’s Clarence Wigington became the first African American municipal architect in the United States, and served in St. Paul, Minnesota, until 1949.
  47. 1924—Dorothy Elizabeth Williams nee Dorothy Isaac (1902-1963) became the first Black graduate of the University of Omaha.
  48. 1927The first Urban League chapter west of the Mississippi River was founded in Omaha.
  49. 1929—Omaha’s Alpha Eta Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity became the first Black Greek Organization in Omaha on September 29, and continues serving both the University of Omaha and Creighton University today.
  50. 1929—The first Black Congregational physican-missionary from Omaha is Dr. Aaron M. McMillan.
  51. 1930s—Omaha’s Pitmon Foxall became first black patrolman in the Omaha Police Department.
  52. 1931—Omaha’s Lloyd Hunter Band became the first Omaha band to record a long play record.
  53. 1934—Omaha’s Thomas Mahammitt became the first African American to be awarded the “Silver Beaver Award” by the Boy Scouts of America.
  54. 1934—Paul Phillips graduated from Central High and went on to become the first African-American elected to the school board in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
  55. 1937—Omaha’s first African American “mayor” was John Owen after a community-wide vote.
  56. 1938—Omaha’s Mildred D. Brown (1913-1989) became the first Black woman in the United States to start a newspaper, called the Omaha Star.
  57. 1938—James F. Hall, II was the first African-American student at Central High to win four letters in football, basketball, baseball, and track in one year, winning a total of 14 letters before graduating.
  58. 1939—Wilda Chue Stephenson graduated from Central High to return as a business teacher and one of the first African American teachers at the school.
  59. 1940—The first African-American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University was Omaha’s William A. Woods.
  60. 1942—The first African American from Omaha to graduate from flight training at Tuskegee Airfield and earn his wings in the US Army Air Corps was Tech High School 1939 valedictorian Captain Alfonza W. Davis.
  61. 1944—The first African American student in Omaha to obtain the rank of captain in JROTC was Herbert Phillips at North High.
  62. 1945—The first African American pilot from Omaha to lose his life was Captain Alfonza Davis.
  63. 1945—Central High graduate Robert Holts (b. 1924) joins the Tuskegee Airmen and becomes the last remaining Nebraska member in the 1990s.
  64. 1946—Nebraska’s first black-owned banking institution was opened by Omaha’s Charles Davis at 2414 Lake Street as Carver Savings and Loan. It closed permanently in 1965.
  65. 1947—The first African American principal in Omaha Public Schools was Omaha’s Eugene Skinner, who served at Long School among others.
  66. 1948—The first Black woman to graduate from the Creighton Law School was Omaha’s Elizabeth Davis Pittman (1921-1998), became the first African American attorney in Nebraska.
  67. 1949—The first certified African American architect from Omaha was Harold L. Biddiex.
  68. 1940s—One of Omaha’s first black women taxi drivers was Marge Rose, who worked for the United Cab Company and the Ritz Cab Company over the years.
  69. 1950—The first African American elected to public office in Omaha was Elizabeth Davis Pittman, also making her the first African American woman elected to the Omaha School Board.
  70. 1950—One of the first black faculty members University of Nebraska (1950 to 1954) and at Creighton University (1951 to 1952) was Whitney Young.
  71. 1951—The first black priest ordained in the Omaha Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church was Father J. Warren Anderson, who preached for the first time at St. Benedict’s on June 17th.
  72. 1952—The first African American in Omaha to become a master electrician was Boyd Calloway.
  73. 1952—The first Black radio announcer in Omaha, Harry Besse, works for KSWI.
  74. 1952—John Pierce and Aaron Dailey became the first African American policemen appointed to “cruiser car duty” by the Omaha Police Department.
  75. 1953—The first black patrol sergeant in the Omaha Police Department was Omaha’s Pitmon Foxall II, nephew of Pitmon Foxall.
  76. 1954—The first African American bus drivers were hired by the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway and ended the Omaha Bus Boycott. They included included Arthur Lee (Jack) Williams and Charles (Lucky) Abram.
  77. 1955—The first African American player on the Omaha Cardinals semi-professional baseball team was first baseman Tom Alston.
  78. 1957—The first time the Omaha Fire Department was integrated was this year.
  79. 1958—The first African American teacher in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Omaha was Tessie O. Edwards, who taught for 46 years.
  80. 1959—The first Black lieutenant in the homicide unit of the Omaha Police Department was Omaha’s Monroe Coleman.
  81. 1960—The Omaha Fire Department’s first Black battalion chief was Omaha’s Herbie Davis.
  82. 1964—The first African American NFL player to share a room with a white player was Omaha’s Gale Sayers.
  83. 1964—The first Black captain in the Omaha Police Department was Omaha’s Monroe Coleman.
  84. 1964—The first Black female principal in Omaha Public Schools was Omaha’s Edmae Swain.
  85. 1964—The first Black woman to be appointed to the Douglas County attorney office was Elizabeth Davis Pittman.
  86. 1965—Omaha’s Ambrose Jackson Jr. founded the city’s first black-owned architectural firm.
  87. 1966—Omaha’s Coleman Jr. became the first African American deputy chief in the Omaha Police Department.
  88. 1966—Omaha’s James Pittman, an African American veterinarian, developed the New Horizons subdivision just southeast of 108th and Blondo Streets as Omaha’s first intentionally mixed-race neighborhood.
  89. 1968—Omaha’s Marlin Briscoe became the first black quarterback in professional football.
  90. 1968—Omaha’s Darryl C. Eure became a co-founder of Nebraska’s first black theatre called the Afro-Academy of Dramatic Arts.
  91. 1968—The first Black TV news anchorman, Harold Dow, appeared on KETV until 1971.
  92. 1968—Lois Goode (1905-1984) became the first African American teacher to retire from Omaha Public Schools.
  93. 1969—Omaha’s Don Benning became the first black U.S. Olympic wrestling committee member.
  94. 1969—Omaha’s Rudy Smith became the first African American graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Journalism.
  95. 1969—The first credit union to serve low-income people in Nebraska is founded by Rodney S. Wead.
  96. 1969—Omaha’s Rudy Smith became the first black newsroom staffer at the Omaha World-Herald as a photojournalist.
  97. 1960s—Omaha’s Pitmon Foxall II became the first black lieutenant in charge of the homicide unit in the Omaha Police Department.
  98. 1970—Omaha’s Ernie Chambers was elected to the Nebraska Legislature for the first time, and was reelected to serve a record 38 years, extending to today.
  99. 1970—The first Black-owned radio station in Omaha, KOWH, was opened by Rodney Wead.
  100. 1970—The first Black faculty member at the University of Omaha was Omaha’s Don Benning.
  101. 1970—The first African American head coach at a predominantly white university was Omaha’s Don Benning, who led the wrestling team at the University of Omaha.
  102. 1970—The first African American head coach to lead a team to a national championship was Don Benning in wrestling.
  103. 1970—The first Nebraska’s first national title in a college sport was won by African American coach Don Benning’s UNO wrestling team.
  104. 1971—The first head African American basketball coach in the Omaha Public Schools was Gene Haynes, who coached at Tech High until 1984.
  105. 1971—The first celebration of Black History Week at Central High happened for the first time.
  106. 1971—The first African American to chair a department of surgery at a predominantly white medical school was Omaha’s Claude J. Organ (1926-2005) at Creighton University.
  107. 1971—The first African American and the first woman to be appointed as a judge in Nebraska was Elizabeth Davis Pittman; she was also the first Black woman in the United States to be appointed to a judgeship by a state governor.
  108. 1971—The first Black doctorate recipient in the NU College of Education was Omaha’s Don Benning.
  109. 1971—The first Black athletic director at an Omaha Public Schools high school (Central) was Omaha’s Don Benning.
  110. 1971—The first recipient of the Nebraska State Athletic Director of the Year Award was Omaha’s Don Benning.
  111. 1971—The first African American studies program in Omaha was founded at UNO by Lillian D. Anthony (1925-2014).
  112. 1972—Johnny Rodgers became the first Omahan to win the Heisman Trophy. He was the second African American ever to receive it, and was also the first Nebraska Cornhuskers player and the first wide receiver to win the award, too.
  113. 1972—Omaha’s Hubert G. Locke became UNO’s first African American dean and was the first permanent dean of the College of Public Affairs and Community Service until 1976.
  114. 1973—Omaha’s Dr. Skinner became the first African American district leader when he was hired by Omaha Public Schools as the assistant superintendent for human relations.
  115. 1973—The first Black-owned bank in Nebraska was founded by Rodney Wead.
  116. 1974—The first Black Omaha Omaha Public Schools principal in west Omaha was Katherine Fletcher.
  117. 1975—The first woman vice president and general manager of a radio station in the nation’s capital and creator the “Quiet Storm” format was Omaha’s Cathy Hughes.
  118. 1976—Omaha’sEdwina Justus became the first female African-American engineer to work for Union Pacific Railroad.
  119. 1976—The first Black advertising accounts executive at the Omaha World-Herald was Preston Love.
  120. 1976—Omaha’s Bertha Calloway establishes the Great Plains Black History Museum, one of the first of its kind in the United States.
  121. 1978—The first Black candidate for the MUD board was Bob Rodgers, Sr.
  122. 1979—The first Black-owned car dealership in Omaha opens as Sentury Buick.
  123. 1970s—The first Black public-safety director in the Omaha Police Department was Omaha’s Pitmon Foxall II.
  124. 1980—The first first Black female police officer in Nebraska was Omaha’s Brenda Smith while she served the Omaha Police Department.
  125. 1981—The first African American elected to the Omaha City Council was Omaha’s Fred Conley, who served until 1993.
  126. 1982—The first African American woman to become president of the Omaha School Board was Brenda Council.
  127. 1983—The first African American hockey player in the city was Omaha’s Tony Fagan, who played for the Omaha Knights youth travel team.
  128. 1983—Omaha’s first Black-owned, -operated and -oriented cable TV channel launched, and was called Classic Video.
  129. 1983—The first Black-owned dinner theater in Omaha was opened at The New Showcase at North 23rd and Lake.
  130. 1984—The first African American and the youngest member ever of the Nebraska State Board of Accountancy was Omaha’s Frank L. Hayes.
  131. 1987—The first African American female firefighter in the Omaha Fire Department was Omaha’s Linda Brown.
  132. 1988—The city’s first African American mayor was Omaha’s Fred Conley who was appointed to serve for a short period, but lost in a special election.
  133. 1990—The first African American female paramedic in Omaha, and thus, the first female paramedic in the Omaha Fire Department was Omaha’s Linda Brown.
  134. 1991—The first four-time president of the Omaha School Board was Brenda Council.
  135. 1992—The first African-American woman elected to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners was Omaha’s Carol Woods Harris. She served three terms until 2004
  136. 1993—The first African-American appointed to be the U.S. Marshal for the State of Nebraska was Omaha’s Cleveland Vaughn, Jr.
  137. 1994—Tim Carter became the first African American Head Men’s Basketball Coach at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
  138. 1994—The first African American woman elected to the Omaha City Council was attorney Brenda Council, who served until 1998.
  139. 1996—The first African American inductee to the Omaha Business Hall of Fame was Mildred Brown (1913-1989).
  140. 1996—The first African-American man appointed to a judgeship in Nebraska was Omaha’s Wadie Thomas Jr.
  141. 1997—The first African American female to reach the rank of captain in the Omaha Fire Department was Omaha’s Linda Brown.
  142. 1997—The first African-American Professional Golf Association, or PGA, professional in Nebraska was Omaha’s Steve Hogan.
  143. 1999—The first African American woman to head a publicly traded corporation was Omaha’s Cathy Hughes. She leads Radio One, which she founded.
  144. 2002—The first woman-owned radio station to rank number one in any major market is led by Omaha’s Cathy Hughes.
  145. 2003—The first African American Chief of Police for the City of Omaha was Omaha’s Thomas Warren.
  146. 2004—The first African American full-time, tenured faculty at the University of Nebraska at Omaha was Wanda Ewing who served in the Department of Art and Art History.
  147. 2005—The first African American appointed to serve as a district court judge in Nebraska was Omaha’s Marlon Polk.
  148. 2005—The first Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame inductions happen in August.
  149. 2008—The first African American women elected to the Nebraska State Legislature were Tanya Cook and Brenda Council. Council served until 2012; Cook continues serving today.
  150. 2011—The first chief administrative officer for Omaha Public Power District was Sherrye Hutcherson.
  151. 2011—The first African American female major general in the Army was Omaha’s Marcia Anderson; she was also the first African American Brigadier General to serve as the Deputy Commanding General of the Army’s Human Resources Command.
  152. 2012—The first African American executive at the Union Pacific Corporation was announced. In March, Omaha’s Eric Butler was named executive vice president of marketing and sales.
  153. 2015—The first African American female executive at the Union Pacific Corporation is Omaha’s Sherrye Hutcherson.
  154. 2018—The first African American superintendent of Omaha Public Schools was Cheryl Logan.

Please share any additions, corrections, criticisms or concerns in the comments section below!

General: History of Racism | Timeline of Racism
Events: Juneteenth | Malcolm X Day | Congress of White and Colored Americans | George Smith Lynching | Will Brown Lynching | North Omaha Riots | Vivian Strong Murder | Jack Johnson Riot
Issues: African American Firsts in Omaha | Police Brutality | North Omaha African American Legislators | North Omaha Community Leaders | Segregated Schools | Segregated Hospitals | Segregated Hotels | Segregated Sports | Segregated Businesses | Segregated Churches | Redlining | African American Police | African American Firefighters | Lead Poisoning
People: Rev. Dr. John Albert Williams | Edwin Overall | Harrison J. Pinkett | Vic Walker | Joseph Carr | Rev. Russel Taylor | Dr. Craig Morris | Mildred Brown | Dr. John Singleton | Ernie Chambers | Malcolm X
Organizations: Omaha Colored Commercial Club | Omaha NAACP | Omaha Urban League | 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Rights) | DePorres Club | Omaha Black Panthers | City Interracial Committee | Providence Hospital | American Legion | Elks Club | Prince Hall Masons | BANTU
Related: Black History | African American Firsts | A Time for Burning

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  1. I want to thank you for compiling this list of pioneer African Americans in Omaha. However, there are a few errors that must be corrected. I (Brenda Council) was not the first African American woman elected to the OPS Board. I was preceded by both Elizabeth Pittman and Ruth Thomas, both of whom were elected in at-large elections. Also, Tanya Cook and I were the first African American women elected to the Nebraska Legislature. Finally, Eric Butler was the first African American executive at Union Pacific. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My mother Catherine Black…became the first person female of color to own Liquor store here in Nebraska… when she & dad opened Decat liquor & groceries in 1972 at 3805 Lake st a converted gas station! 25 years on business!!!


    1. Interesting. Please expand on#4 and #13: first barbershop opened but first barber is in 188?


      1. Good points Denice – I’m not sure how to reply. I have collected these from a variety of sources. Bill Lee’s shop was in a white-owned business; perhaps Josiah Waddle owned the first stand-alone shop. Alternately, Waddle self-reported his role as first African American barber; maybe he didn’t know about Bill Lee. The veracity of some of these claims may be shady.


    2. My Grandfather, Russ Johnson, was friends with your parents. Fond memories back in the 70’s of stopping in to Decat’s for a visit and I always got to pick out some sort of treat. 🙂


  3. Adam,
    Reid Whatley is listed in a newspaper article as the first “Colored Disc Jockey” in Omaha (starting at KFAB) in an undated newspaper clipping I found at my grandparent’s house. It also states he will begin Tuesday, July 29th, making some of the possible years 41/47/52/58/69/75, with the middle ones being most likely. I couldn’t find much else on the Internet after a cursory search, save your website.
    I can send a pic of the article if you reach out through email. Thanks for compiling all of this great information.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Bill Costen, born in Omaha, NE was the first African American Hot Air Balloon Master Pilot in the world recognized by The Balloon Federation of America. (9-11-2016)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for compiling this wonderful list of AFRICAN Americans First from Omaha! My father Jerry Morris Jr. was the first African American to hold a office position at Union Pacific Railroads after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Union Pacific Railroad offered a 2 $1000.00 scholarship in his name after he passed away.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The first African American executive at Union Pacific was Jerry Lucas. The second was Charles Malone. Eric Butler was the third.

    The first African American woman executive at Union Pacific was Jackie White. Chandra Henley was the second Sherrye Hutcherson was the third

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Eric Butler can you please provide the year the three individuals you listed as the first executive at UPR? Thanks I’m advance.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. 2019 – The first African American couple to be recognized by the Omaha Press Club for community service was Aileen and Thomas Warren.


  9. 2018 – The first African American couple to be inducted into the Ak Sar Ben Court of Honor for community service was Aileen and Thomas Warren.


  10. 2019 – Camille Metoyer Moten was elected the first African American female President for the Omaha Downtown Rotary.


  11. My father Julius Crawford owned a Barber College in Omaha. There is a news article about his barber college. It opened in 1948. It was described as the only Black barber College in the Great Plains states. It was called the Midwest Barber College at 1847 North Twenty-forth Street.

    Liked by 1 person

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