Art by Gabrielle Liwaru, 30th and Lake, North Omaha, Nebraska

A History of Omaha’s Urban League

A hallowed history unlike any other organization in the state, the Urban League of Nebraska is committed to,

“…lead Nebraska in closing the social economic gap in the African American, other emerging ethnic communities and disadvantaged families in the achievement of social equality and economic independence and growth.”

From the official Urban League of Nebraska website

The Urban League’s accomplishments in Nebraska have been vast and vital to the state’s growth, pushing the Nebraska motto of “Equality before the law” into the forefront every day. What brought this vanguard organization into that place of power and purpose though? Who are the people, how do the strategies work, and what are the outcomes of the Urban League’s efforts?

This article explores the history of Omaha’s chapter, now called the Urban League of Nebraska, and its impact on the city.


The Context for Action

This is a gathering of the Omaha Urban League in 1933 in the original location at 2039 N. 24th Street. Image courtesy of the Durham Museum.

The Civil Rights Movement began long before Rosa Parks sat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. In Omaha, there were activists struggling against white supremacy and for Black equality in the 1860s. Community organizing continued to appear piecemeal through the 1880s, when several African American leaders started rallying the community to action. In 1891, George Smith, a Black worker, was lynched in Omaha. Fighting against this hatred and racist portrayals of African Americans throughout Omaha, 1892 was a watershed year for African American activism in Omaha: the first African American newspaper in Omaha started that year; the Afro-American Civil Rights Club was started in Omaha that year, and; the first Black state senator was elected that same year.

White people fought against this action though, and white supremacy was maintained throughout the city. By the 1920s, two race riots had happened in Omaha; another African American man was lynched; several civil rights organizations started and stopped; and Malcolm X’s family was chased out of Omaha because of their pro-Black empowerment activism.

In that light, it was November 1927 when Omaha African Americans started their local chapter of the Urban League. Founded in 1910 in New York City, the Omaha chapter was the first founded west of the Mississippi River. Focused on providing social and educational programs for African Americans, the organization set up the Omaha Urban League Social Service Center in North Omaha’s segregated Near North Side neighborhood. The first offices were near North 24th and Patrick Streets in 2039 N. 24th St. Soon after, they moved to a small building on the northeast corner of North 24th and Ohio Streets.


Leadership

Omaha Urban League staff at the Webster Telephone Exchange Building, 2213 Lake Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
The Omaha Urban League staff is pictured here in 1934 shortly after moving into the former Webster Telephone Exchange Building at 2213 Lake Street. Image courtesy of the Durham Museum.

J. Harvey Kerns was the first professional leader of the Omaha Urban League. Starting his service in 1928, he moved to Omaha after leading the Milwaukee Urban League. The first program operated by the Urban League was the Omaha Colored Free Employment Bureau. Kerns was responsible for absorbing the Mid City Community Center located in the Webster Telephone Exchange Building, moving the Urban League there in 1935.

In 1950, Whitney Young, Jr. became leader of the Omaha Urban League. Guiding the organization towards more community action and organizing, Young worked with corporate and government officials to promote fair housing and fair employment throughout the city. He also partnered deeply with Black churches and the DePorres Club to challenge white supremacy in Omaha, including redlining and racial discrimination, as well as racist attitudes among white people throughout the city. Young was also a part-time professor of social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, serving as one of the first African American faculty at the university. In 1952, Young facilitated the sale of the Urban League Community Center in the Webster Telephone Exchange Building, moving the organization into offices at North 24th and Wirt Streets. Young left Omaha in 1954 to become executive director of the national Urban League. Later, he spoke at the 1963 March on Washington and advised several presidents on civil rights and race-oriented issues.

In a great article by Leo Adam Biga for The Reader, he revealed many of the longtime activists, organizers and staff of the Urban League in Omaha, including Dorothy Eure, Lurlene Johnson and Charles Washington. More recent people involved have included Pat Brown, Kathy J. Trotter, Nicole Mitchell, Mary Thomas, Wayne Brown, and Richard Webb.


Programs

This is a 1927 ad for the first annual meeting of the Omaha Urban League, held at Zion Baptist Church and featuring Rabbi Frederick Cohn speaking on interracial cooperation.
This is a 1927 ad for the first annual meeting of the Omaha Urban League, held at Zion Baptist Church and featuring Rabbi Frederick Cohn speaking on interracial cooperation.

Called a “Negro welfare organization,” from its beginning the Omaha Urban League facilitated programs on recreation, employment and social connections. Activism continued taking shape during this era as community organizers working to expand employment opportunities for African Americans in Omaha.

From its onset, the Urban League of Nebraska was formed to build community engagement and fundraising throughout North Omaha specifically and Omaha in general. The Urban League Guild is a specific committee of volunteers focused on raising money for youth work, hosting events like cotillions, supporting nursing home visits, and more. Starting with its launch in 1938, The Omaha Star newspaper featured a column on the Urban League highlighting activities, outreach and reports on the organization and its programs.

During World War II, the Omaha Urban League fought for job training, upgrading of Black employees, and integration of offices and factories that had been closed to African Americans before the war. According to Executive Secretary Raymond R. Brown, “To those of us engaged in social work, the word defense has a broader and deeper meaning than military preparedness. It must include a defense of our economic and social democracy.”

After World War II, the National Urban League recommended Omaha take a turn from its traditional focus on recreation and social activities and towards activism and social change. Partnering with the Northside YWCA and the Woodson Center, in 1942 the Omaha Urban League started the Omaha Negro Youth Coun­cil for high school students “as a means of developing greater opportunity for leadership, cultural expression, and more wholesome social affairs.” The League started clubs at Central, North, South and Tech High Schools, which each sent representatives to the citywide council. Striving for unity and justice, the council continued for almost two decades.

The Urban League sponsored a meeting of religious leaders around Omaha met for a one-day meeting focused on civil rights in 1948 at the Rome Hotel. The major request was the establishment of a Mayor’s Commission on Civil Rights in Omaha, which was passed unanimously, but never enacted by the mayor.

Executive Secretary Leo Bohannon led the closure of the Urban League Community Center. According to one report, membership in the organization took a nose dive as many African Americans who were former members in Omaha were uncomfortable with the new activist orientation. However, the community rallied and membership numbers rose in the late 1940s. When rising Urban League leader Whitney Young, Jr. joined, he reportedly felt he had the support of the whole community. Within a year, Young stepped up efforts to partner with local government agencies, including the City of Omaha and the Nebraska Legislature. He also began partnerships with several employers throughout Omaha, making demands for equality in employment, including hiring and firing and promotions.

As the Civil Rights Movement moved forward in Omaha, the Urban League was recognized as a leading organization and vibrant voice in the city. The organization has partnered with the NAACP, 4CL, and other predecessors throughout Omaha’s 150-plus Civil Rights history.

“…one of Omaha’s worthiest and most progressive organizations.”

The Omaha Star on the 25th anniversary of the Omaha Urban League in 1953.

In the 1960s and 70s, the Omaha Urban League led several campaigns focused on hiring more African American teachers in the Omaha Public Schools district; hire African-American teachers at junior and senior high schools, and; promote integrated and quality education for all students in the district. The Urban League also advocated for housing integration for African American personnel at Offutt Air Force base. In 1978, the Nebraska Urban League received a 50th anniversary plaque at the national convention in Los Angeles, with J. Harvey Kerns, the second executive secretary in Omaha, attending the event.

Family Housing Advisory Services, a vital nonprofit in North Omaha, was started in 1968 as the Urban League Housing Foundation. That foundation was an extension of the organization’s commitment to quality housing for low-income African Americans in North Omaha.

This is the Urban League of Nebraska logo.
This is the Urban League of Nebraska logo.

Family Housing Advisory Services, a vital nonprofit in North Omaha, was started in 1968 as the Urban League Housing Foundation. That foundation was an extension of the organization’s commitment to quality housing for low-income African Americans in North Omaha.

The Omaha Urban League became the Urban League of Nebraska in 1969. Soon after that, the organization offered a number of services to the community, including a job bank, a college scholarship fund, a prison outreach program, and a phone referral system. In May 1978, the Urban League launched a weekly television broadcast in contract with CBW Productions. Hosted by renowned civil rights leader Charles Washington, the show was a weekly broadcast designed to improve race relations through dialog.

Starting in 1990, the Urban League has awarded places in the African American Leadership Hall of Fame, covering everything from business to sports to government and more.

Today, the Urban League of Nebraska offers a program called the Whitney Young Academy, which seeks to “empower youth through education and career preparation.” The chapter also honors Young’s contributions to the city and state with a mural in the office and his bibliography featured on the website. Some of the other programs currently operated by the Urban League of Nebraska include the Collective for Youth, Youth Attendance Navigators, the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, and Project Ready, as well as the Step-Up program for the Empowerment Network. They also operate the Urban League Family Resource Center near N. 30th and Lake Streets.

1968 Student-Parent College-Career Conference, Omaha Urban League, Technical High School, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is an ad for a 1968 Student-Parent College-Career Conference sponsored by the Omaha Urban League at Technical High School.

Past Leaders

The leaders of the Urban League were originally called Executive Secretary, and then Executive Directors. Many of the leaders in Omaha came from other chapters across the country, including Akron, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and elsewhere. Similarly, they were often recruited from Omaha to join staffs in larger cities, including Kansas City, Los Angeles and New York City, as well as the national offices of the Urban League.

Finding the names, birthdates and tenures of past leaders of the Omaha Urban League has been challenging! Please share any corrections in the comments section of this article. The people I’ve found include:

  • Isaac Carpenter (unknown) served from 1927 to 1928.
  • J. Harvey Kerns (1897-1983) served from 1928 to 1935.
  • Bernard Squires (1904-1947) served from 1935 to 1940.
  • Raymond R. Brown (1907-1998) served from 1940 to 1945.
  • Durwood Crooms (unknown)served in 1945.
  • M. Leo Bohannon (unknown) served from 1946 to 1950.
  • Whitney Young, Jr. (1921-1971) served from 1950-1955.
  • Douglas E. Stewart (unknown) served from 1963 to 1966.
  • James Evans (unknown) served from 1973 to 1976.
  • George Dean (unknown) served from 1976 to 1979.
  • Talmadge Owens, Jr. (1948) served in 1979 to 1982.
  • George Dillard (unknown) served from 1983 to 2000.
  • Will Thompkins (unknown) served from 2000 to 2002.
  • Ed Cochran (unknown) served from 2002 to 2003.
  • Thomas H. Warren, Sr. (unknown) has served from 2008 to present.

Past Locations

Past locations of the Urban League offices in Omaha include:

  • 3040 Lake Street (1935-1952)
  • 3022 N 24th Street (1952-)
  • 2213 Lake Street
  • 3040 Lake Street (-present)

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