A politician, newspaper man, civil rights activist and government official, North Omaha’s Ferdinand L. Barnett (1854-1932) was a remarkable leader. This is a biography of his life.
Ferdinand Lee Barnett was born in July 1854 in Huntsville, Alabama, where he attended Rusk School. A graduate of the historical Black (HBCU) Fisk University, Barnett moved to Omaha in the 1880s with his brother Alfred Barnett. His first wife was Alice Barnett. He remarried in 1925 to Hattie Watts. He never had children.
After moving to Omaha in 1887, he became the custodian for the Omaha Police Department and the Douglas County Jail. He was fired from that job a year before his death.
Barnett was a community leader, civil rights activist and powerful newspaperman in his time. A Prince Hall Mason, he earned the highest rank in the fraternal organization as a thirty-third degree Mason.
Barnett was a deputy clerk for the Douglas County Clerk in the 1890s.
In addition to founding and running The Progress, a Black newspaper in Omaha in 1889, he served as the vice-president of the Western Negro Press Association starting in 1901. His newspaper ran until 1906.
Barnett came from a politically active family, and he was the cousin of Ferdinand L. Barnett, the husband of Ida B. Wells. He was a Republican who was deeply involved in the Omaha chapter of the National Afro-American League, and was an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1897.
Running for state senator in 1924, Barnett lost. Two years later, he won and served a two-year term in the Nebraska Legislature. Along with Dr. John A. Singleton, he was one of two African American men elected to the Nebraska Legislature in 1926. Although he ran two more times afterwards, he never served in the legislature again. In the Legislature, Barnett introduced an anti-lynching bill in 1927. It was reportedly the first legislation introduced by a Black legislator in the Nebraska Legislature in 25 years.
Barnett died on July 18, 1932 in Omaha. His funeral was held at St. John’s AME, and he was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Today, there are no monuments or memorials in the memory of North Omaha political, cultural, business and social leader Ferdinand L. Barnett. There is no school, street or park named for him, and there are few mentions of him in any other Omaha history source.
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MY ARTICLES ABOUT AFRICAN AMERICAN LEGISLATORS FROM NORTH OMAHA:
PEOPLE: Dr. Matthew Ricketts (1893–1897) | Dr. John A. Singleton (1926–1928) | Ferdinand L. Barnett (1927-1928) | Dr. Aaron M. McMillan (1929-1930) | Johnny Owen (1932-1935) | John Adams, Jr. (1935-1941) | John Adams, Sr. (1949-1962) | Edward Danner (1963-1970) | George W. Althouse (1970) | Ernie Chambers (1971–2009, 2013–2020) | Brenda J. Council (2009-2013) | Tanya Cook (2009-2016) | Justin Wayne (2017-present) | Terrell McKinney (202 0-present)