For more than 35 years, North Omaha’s historian was Matthew Stelly (1954-2019). A determined advocate, organizer and agitator, Stelly was known throughout Omaha as a powerful force for community change. He spoke as the community conscience, worked tirelessly for Black empowerment, and demanded respect. This is a short biography of his life.
By his own count, Matthew Stelly wrote more than 2,500 articles during his career and won two national essay competitions. The founding director of the largest African-American neighborhood group in Nebraska, he guided the Triple One Neighborhood Association and Parents Union for more than 20 years and published the organization’s two-time nationally recognized newsletter. Throughout his life, Stelly was actively involved in community organizing and neighborhood development in several cities, including Dallas, Milwaukee and Omaha.
He was the son of Matthew and Clariece Stelly, and born in Hastings, Nebraska, on December 10, 1954. After graduating from high school in the early 1970s, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Black Studies from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. As he wrote in 2014,
“I was a key in that department as a student, as an instructor and created the ‘Julien Lafontant Perpetual Trophy.’ I was the one who linked the campus and the community, and played a major role in everything ‘black’ that was happening on campus from 1977-1981. I am the ONLY person, black or white, to have a weekly column in 5 straight semesters of The Gateway newspaper.”Matthew Stelly to Leo Adam Biga, 2014
Stelly took doctoral classes in Sociology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in Urban/Regional Planning from University of Iowa, and Urban Education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
According to the Omaha World-Herald, in 1978 Stelly began working to set up a chapter of the Pan-African Congress in the city. It was in this time period when he began writing articles for Omaha’s long-standing African American newspaper called the Omaha Star. In 1981, he worked for Mutual of Omaha, and in 1982, Stelly was awarded UNL’s Graduate Professional Opportunity Program Minority Fellowship. The following year he began graduate teaching at UNL. He became the executive director at the Malone Community Center in Lincoln in 1984, working there for a year. That year, the Omaha Star named him the focus of their “Star Search” column. The interviewer lauded him as a vital and important Black activist, and featured his biography and work in Lincoln, as well as his prior writing for the Star. The National Council of Black Studies acknowledged Stelly’s writings in the field of Black Studies in 1986.
By 1987, Stelly moved to Milwaukee where he taught at a community college for a year. After being awarded “Teacher of the Year” and was named co-winner of “Advisor of the Year” at Milwaukee Technical Community College, he was not invited back the following year. After that he worked as an editor and columnist at the Milwaukee Courier newspaper for five years from 1988 to 1993. He ran a community access show in Milwaukee called “Black Nouveau” from 1989 to 1990, and served on the Inner City Arts Council-Public Affairs Committee there in 1989. In 1989, the Chicago Tribune quoted Stelly as saying he, “founded the Black College Recruitment Association because he believes black students have not been served well by white colleges.”
From 1988 to 1992, Stelly also ran a company in Milwaukee called One Black Man’s Opinion Productions, Inc. In 1992, he organized Milwaukee’s first-ever Inner City Economic Development Conference, and the first-ever Tri-City Summit. He also hosted a talk show on WNOV Radio in Milwaukee from 1988 to 1992.
By 1993, Stelly was back in Omaha as an instructor at UNO. After consulting the Great Plains Black History Museum in 1993, he founded Triple One Neighborhood Association and Parents Union, or TONAPU, in 1994. Stelly published a regular TONA newsletter, let his views be known throughout Omaha, and regularly advocated for the neighborhood. He operated the association until his death.
Turn Of The Millennium
In 1997, he ran for Omaha City Council, but was forced out of the race because of residency requirements. Stelly organized the first-ever North Omaha Empowerment Conference in 2004, and two others afterwards. It was 2010 when Stelly self-published The Spook Who Sat By the Door Revisited: A 38-Year Retrospective on Race, Rioting, and Relevant Response. This 80-page booklet was a response to Sam Greenlee’s 1969 movie of the same name, and shared his interviews and reflections on how the movie and the movement succeeded and failed.
In the early 2000s, Stelly founded and published The Omaha Crusader, a Black newspaper featuring culture, news and sports. For a few years, he was based in Dallas, Texas, where he ran a company called Edu-Culture Consultants. During that era of his life, Stelly was also the director of the Plano African American Museum, and lead archivist for The Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas.
Around 2006, Bertha Calloway named Stelly the interim executive of the Great Plains Black History Museum. In 2010, Stelly organized or co-organized three large events in the community. The first was the Self-Empowerment Festival at St. Paul Baptist Church for the TONAPU. In a separate Self Empowerment Conference he facilitated later that year at the OOIC, Stelly invited Ernie Chambers to keynote. Other presenters included Ira Combs, Ziggy Thomas and Michael Payne, among others. Audience members met one-on-one with Stelly to focus on creating small businesses and nonprofits, and applying for college. A third conference that year featured John Beasley, as well as neighborhood leader Cheryl Williams and others. Stelly wrote an article in the Star, saying about Chambers and Beasley, “Both men are the personification of self-empowerment and success on their own terms.”
That same year, Stelly started the Uhuru Sasa Research Institute and published more articles in the Omaha Star. According to Stelly, Uhuru was the only African-American think tank in Nebraska, and expanded to the cities of Milwaukee, Iowa City, Minneapolis and Dallas as he moved between them. Through this organization, he offered archival assistance, strategic management of cultural heritage information, conference and event planning, project design, assistance with written reports of all types.
In 2015, he completed writing a self-published book called Power of the Pen – Essays From my Rear View, 1978-2015. Examining morality and skin color; guidelines for the black church; as well as his concerns about child murders in Atlanta; the neglect of African-American artists; and the impact of for-profit colleges on the fate and future of students of color; this book is essential Stelly-ism.
In 2017, Matthew Stelly published 42 books and set them up for sale on Amazon.com. Written over the prior 20 years, this was Stelly’s lifework. Focused on broad social critiques, most of the books examined topics including historic rioting in the United States, Blaxploitation, the Rat Pack, and African American women among other topics.
In my reading of Stelly’s works, he barely held back his most challenging thoughts; instead, he reveled in sharing them. For instance, in a 2018 monograph called Black Studies: A Personal, Historical and Sociopolitical Overview of the Developments, Declines and Dynamism of African-American Studies in the United States: Chronology, Critique and Commentary, Stelly explores his field of study closely, offering deep critiques of teaching at UNO and in Omaha Public Schools along the way. He worked for one of these institutions, and was around the other extensively throughout his career. Yet that proximity never silenced him; instead, it enraged and enflamed the perspective that came through in his writing.
His 2017 book called The Black Woman as Endangered Species: Isolated, Hunted, Hounded, Harassed, Hoodwinked, & Hacked from History took a similar tact, although within the African American community rather than in a formal institution. In this book he criticizes the ways African American women were treated in the Black Panther movement and within hip hop culture, and calls for justice in their portrayal, treatment and outcomes. This book offers analysis and avenues for action in a way I found unique from many of his other writings.
In 2016 and 2018, Stelly was invited to present at the Neighborhoods, USA Conference. During these sessions, he was acknowledged for the community organizing work he did through the Triple One Neighborhood Association in Omaha.
Some of his publications related or focusing on Omaha included…
- The Neighborhood Movement in Omaha, Nebraska: Background, Substance and Structure (2018)
- A Sociological and Historical Overview Race Relations and the Omaha Public Schoo: Documentation and Discussion (2017)
- The Ruination of a Black Community: How the City of Omaha Under-Developed the Northside Thru the Use of CDBG Funds (2018)
- The Keys to African-American Empowerment in Omaha, Nebraska: A Critique and Prospective Paradigms (2018)
- Detrimental Reliance: Empowerment Movement, City Administration and North Omaha (2018)
- Invasion of the Booty Snatchers: The Nebraska Tradition of Leeching For Grant Money and How Omaha Contributes to Fiscal Insolvency (2018)
In many of his books, Stelly was pointed and direct against public figures, movie directors, politicians and others. One of his books was pointed at me directly. Called Homage to Omaha’s Northside: Chronology, Critique, Commentary, Correction: Coloreds and Caucasians in Cornhusker Country: A Legacy of Courage and Struggle in Nebraska’s Only Black Ghetto – A Socio-History and Analysis, it presented a 100-page analysis about Black history in Omaha and the city’s treatment of African Americans in the last 50 years. It then offers a 150+ page critique of my own series, North Omaha History Volumes 1, 2 & 3. In his writing, Stelly presents a chapter-by-chapter presentation of my writing as, “implying that the people will be given due respect when, in reality, it is essentially concerned with white capitalist history…” Stelly also presented me personally as, “a charlatan who placed buildings, parks, infrastructure and token representations of ‘black leadership’ above a sincere and thorough assessment of the only African-American community in the state of Nebraska.”
For a year, Stelly also emailed me a lot. He took a lot of different tactics when he communicated with me, calling my work essential in one email, and saying it was pathetic and horrible in the next. When his son was arrested for suspected murder, Stelly wrote and told me about it, then asked me for money to write a good review. When I didn’t respond, he proceeded to threaten my life. His words were scathing, and his tolerance for my inattention to his work waned in his final months. We did agree on two things constantly though: First was that North Omaha’s history was under-appreciated by Omaha and throughout the Midwest; second, that more needed to be done.
Remember Dr. Stelly
Matthew Stelly is gone now, and his legacy will live on in many ways. I began my study of North Omaha’s history without his insight, and after a few direct conversations and email exchanges with him, I knew I had to learn more. Now, I stand in the shadow of a giant who viewed my work in a negative way. My burden is to always do better for the neighborhood, as a white man, as a transplant, and as someone who hasn’t lived there for a long time. Stelly made sure I knew how wrong I am.
North Omaha deserves to know its history more. Stelly opened the doors, and we all have to keep pushing it in. I’m glad he raised the bar.
You Might Like…
- Edu-Culture Consultants / Stelly Speaks Blog, which Stelly wrote from 2010-2013
- Matthew Stelly Obituary from the Omaha World-Herald
- Homage to Omaha’s Northside: Chronology, Critique, Commentary, Correction: Coloreds and Caucasians in Cornhusker Country: A Legacy of Courage and Struggle in Nebraska’s Only Black Ghetto – A Socio-History and Analysis by Matthew C. Stelly.
- “Pigmentation and Pigskin: The politics of race in professional football” by Matthew Stelly in 2002 for The Black Commentator.
- “RIP Matthew Stelly: A Loud Life and with a Quiet Finish” by Dell Gines on Facebook on March 27, 2019.