A History of the Omaha NAACP

Began in 1915 and officially chartered in 1918, the Omaha NAACP has been the vanguard in fighting for African Americans for the last century of Omaha’s existence. This is a history of the chapter.

Local and National Roots

Rev. John Albert Williams (February 28, 1866 – February 4, 1933)
This is a portrait of Rev. John Albert Williams (February 28, 1866 – February 4, 1933), who was instrumental in founding the Omaha chapter of the NAACP.

Pushing for the political, economic and social power of African Americans through community organizing, education and protest, this is a history of Omaha’s NAACP. The story of the formation of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP was also the story of the determination of Rev. John Albert Williams (1866–1933), an African American Episcopalian minister who was earnest, focused and determined to change Omaha. In 1915, the Omaha World-Herald quoted him saying about Nebraska’s anti-segregation law, “The violation of this law is becoming more flagrant every day in Omaha. This is particularly true of moving picture theaters and places of amusement where a determined process of segregation and discrimination is becoming more pronounced.” Several Civil Rights organizations existed in Omaha before the NAACP, including the Omaha Afro-American League where the “most prominent colored citizens” of Omaha gathered starting in 1892. Seeking to influence African American voters, the club was made of influential leader Walter Singleton and others. In 1898, the Western Negro Press Association met in Omaha as part of the Trans-Mississippi Expo, ostensibly to promote Black newspapers, but actually to build western support for a national Civil Rights movement. However, none of these organizations secured equal rights or otherwise for African Americans in Omaha, and their work didn’t help Rev. Williams’ cause.

He was incensed, and he was going to make change happen.

This picture shows the founders of the NAACP and the organization's logo
These are the founders of the national NAACP: W.E.B. Du Bois, Archibald Grimké, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Florency Kelly, Henry Moskowitz, Mary White Ovington, Charles Edward Russell, Oswald Garrison Villard, and William English Walling

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), Ida B. Wells (1862–1931), Mary White Ovington (1865–1951) and others established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, in New York City in 1909. Fighting against lynching, segregation and for civil rights, a chapter started in Omaha in 1915.

1915: First Call to Start

In January 1915, Dr. Joel E. Spingarn (1875–1939) of New York City came to Omaha to advocate establishing a local NAACP branch. During a nationwide tour, Spingarn called a meeting at the Paxton Hotel downtown and asked the city’s wealthy white people to join him, as he was a liberal Republican white doctor from a wealthy Jewish family. Spingarn was the first Jewish leader in the NAACP, and established an annual award for the organization that continues today. The Omaha World-Herald seemed fixated on Spingarn’s support for African Americans, repeatedly mentioning that he was a millionaire who committed his fortune to advancing the cause of “the negro.” A successful and respected local attorney named John L. Kennedy (1854-1946) opened for Spingarn twice during his three-day stay in Omaha, and called on alumni from Columbia University in Omaha to attend since Spingarn was a former professor there. During Spingarn’s visit, the Omaha Public Library created a special display of books related to African Americans for the public to check out.

On the second day of his appearance, Spingarn was introduced by Rev. John Albert Williams of St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church, and he spoke on “Tests of Democracy.” During Spingarn’s talk to a mostly African American audience, he talked about segregation, mixed race marriage, and other subjects.

“The colored people are trying to advance, and are doing so without any help from the whites. They are doing it rather in the face of hindrance from the whites.”

—Dr. J. E. Spingarn talking in Omaha, Nebraska on January 23, 1915.

The chapter started work in 1915, but it was not official. They lead a campaign against the showing of The Birth of a Nation in Omaha. Although Rev. Williams used his newspaper, The Monitor, to aggressively fight against the film, the activism didn’t work and the film was shown over and over for six months, and expanded due to popular demand.

During this early unofficial era, the Omaha group was alternately referred the “Society for the Advancement of Colored People.”

1918: Second Call to Action

Mary White Ovington, a co-founder of the NAACP mentioned above, spoke in Omaha at the Grove Methodist Church (which later became the Clair Memorial United Methodist Church) in June 1918. The local chapter received its charter that year. Ovington returned to Omaha several times over the years.

Apparently, the Prince Hall Masons were instrumental in supporting Omaha’s NAACP chapter when it first launched. Because of their influence and others, the chapter had 51 initial members, which was more than the national office required.

Early activities included attending the national convention in July 1919 with a delegation including Rev. Williams, Mrs. Jessie Hale-Moss (18??-1920) and Mrs. Cecelia Wilson Jewell (1882-1946). Mrs. Hale-Moss was named president afterwards, and remained in that position for a few years. Amos Scruggs was heavily involved before the trip. Within a year, the chapter had more than 400 members. Starting in January 1919, the Omaha NAACP met every Sunday at a church in the Near North Side neighborhood.

On December 26, 1918, the Omaha chapter of the NAACP received its charter.

Campaigns and Action

Despite its reputation as a complacent or non-assertive activism organization, Omaha’s NAACP has been involved in vital actions since it was founded.

For instance, Omaha’s NAACP was immediately important in 1919.

At one of the regular chapter meeting in March, Rev. W. F. Botts (18??-1933) of Zion Baptist Church said Omaha Police Chief Marshall Eberstein (1859-1946) should protect the Black community if riots occurred here like in other cities. Someone in the audience replied that instead Blacks should be prepared to defend themselves, and Botts replied, “That’s the right spirit.” One research paper said that 120 people joined the NAACP at that meeting that night. Then, in April 1919, Mrs. Hale-Moss spoke on behalf of the chapter in local newspapers about crime lord Tom Dennison‘s men acting in blackface to terrorize white women throughout the city.

In May 1919, Rev. Williams led the Omaha chapter in a national NAACP nationwide campaign to enroll 100,000 members, “to defend the constitutional and legal rights now denied more than four-fifths of the negro race in America.” It’s unclear exactly what he did, but the local newspapers made note that he was launching the campaign locally. That same month, the chapter formed a committee to visit businesses with signs saying, “Colored Patronage Not Desired.” The committee asked more than a dozen businesses, and warned them that “other methods will be employed” if they didn’t change. At least one local dentist complied. One of the founders of the NAACP and internationally recognized leader W. E. B. Du Bois spoke in Omaha that month, too. Sponsored by local churches with support from private benefactors, Du Bois spoke about freedom and justice, and charged Omahans with rising to defeat racism. Omaha NAACP attorney Harrison Pinkett (1882-1960) spoke too, along with Mayor Ed Smith (1860-1930) and Mrs. Jessie Hale-Moss, who called on everyone in Omaha to become a member of the NAACP. The chapter had more than 1,000 members then.

A month later, there were massive labor strikes in Omaha. White workers returned from World War I battlefronts were cut from workplaces, and they were worried African Americans were going to be imported as strikebreakers the corporate employers in South Omaha and other places. In June 1919, Rev. Williams was quoted as saying, “Speaking for the Omaha branch of the National association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has a membership of 800, I desire to say… it appears that there is the usual disposition to make the negro the goat… We are unalterably opposed equally to the outrageous propaganda designed to foment prejudice against the colored race…”

“Speaking for the Omaha branch of the National association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has a membership of 800, I desire to say… it appears that there is the usual disposition to make the negro the goat… We are unalterably opposed equally to the outrageous propaganda designed to foment prejudice against the colored race…”

—Rev. John Albert Williams as quoted in “Five strikers arrested; Other warrants out,” Omaha Daily Bee, June 17, 1919, Page 2.

The NAACP stood on the side of the strikers and against strikebreaking. Along with investigating discrimination and providing legal counsel, the Omaha NAACP worked to build up the Near North Side neighborhood, including an unsuccessful effort to build a segregated YMCA and a program to buy glasses for African American students.

These are headlines from The Monitor
These are headlines from The Monitor in a graphic made by History Nebraska. This paper was edited and published by Omaha NAACP founder Rev. John Albert Williams.

On July 8, 1919, the Omaha chapter of the NAACP led the defense of Ira Johnson, an African American man accused of assaulting an 18-year-old white woman. The trial started the next week. Calling one witness for the prosecution, there were no witnesses for the defense. However, there were more than 20 NAACP activists in the courtroom. According to the Omaha Bee, at the same time Johnson was being tried, three other African American men were being tried for assault cases against women, including Frank Wallace, Robert King and Jerry Dennis. In November 1919, Judge John Redick’s jury found Johnson guilty of the assault. Deliberating three hours, Johnson was quoted after the trial saying, “I knew they’d find me guilty because my face is black.” Rev. Williams said the conviction was, “Outrageous… He was convicted on public sentiment, not evidence.” Johnson was sentenced to 20 years hard labor by Judge Redick.

“Outrageous… He was convicted on public sentiment, not evidence.”

—Rev. John Albert Williams as quoted in the Omaha World-Herald, November 9, 1919.

C. C. Galloway, a longtime leader within Omaha’s NAACP, was “highly indignant” at hearing the verdict. “This is a most unfair decision. But what can one expect with the feeling of race prejudice now prevailing in Omaha?”

Omaha’s white supremacy and hatred of African Americans was showing dramatically, and the city’s NAACP chapter reacted in kind through legal defense, political statements, cultural action and demands for social change. However, the Omaha chapter wasn’t merely reactivist against white supremacy; instead, it sought to build racial integration and peace, too. In late August 1919, a “Welcome Home” picnic was held to honor returning World War veterans. Formed with Black and white people, the committee held its celebration on August 27 at Krug Park. There were no racial problems.

However, the Omaha NAACP couldn’t have known what was coming.

The Killing of Eugene Scott

On September 1, 1919, the Omaha Police Department shot dead Eugene Scott, an African American bellboy at Hotel Plaza downtown. Supposedly, the police raided a poker game and Scott ran away. They shot him as he ran, and he died immediately. Witnesses reported to the Omaha World-Herald that the death was unnecessary, and the Omaha Bee called the shooting as reckless and indiscriminate, noting it as the “crowning achievement” of a “disgraceful and incompetent” Omaha Police Department. Omaha’s NAACP stood against the Omaha Police Department, holding a rally at St John’s AME for 750 activists and demanding accountability. The head of the police told the crowd he’d suspend two officers, and signed an agreement saying so. However, soon after he declared he wouldn’t, and Omaha’s NAACP leader, Rev. Williams, called him out in the local media. Soon after though, there was a trial of the police and they were found not guilty.

The Lynching of Will Brown

In September 1919, “doughboys” trained in WWI came to protect African Americans in North Omaha from white rioters. They established redlines around the community that continue to influence housing trends today.

In September of that year, an African American laborer named Will Brown was lynched in downtown Omaha. Before Will Brown was killed, NAACP lawyer and leader Harrison Pinkett interviewed him in his cell. Pinkett quickly determined that given his diminished physical abilities due to rheumatism and arthritis, Brown could not have committed the crime.

The chapter was holding its regular meeting on September 28, 1919, when word reached members of the impending riot. Afterwards, Rev. Williams’ The Monitor reported, “All expected the city’s officials to do their duty and protect their prisoner and see that nothing prevented him from having a fair trial by jury.” When the meeting finished, the members went home “ready and prepared to protect themselves and loved ones from lawlessness and riot.” In the middle of that night on September 28, Will Brown was taken from his cell by a mob of 20,000 people. The lynching included dismemberment, butchering, shooting, burning, and a car dragging the corpse through downtown.

The day after, Omaha NAACP lawyer Harrison Pinkett sent a letter to the national office that said, “The Omaha Bee is directly responsible for the lynching. lt was deliberately brought about by the Bee’s agitation to discredit our police administration. I am satisfied that the Negro who was lynched was innocent of the crime charged. The woman now admits it was a mistake to quote her as saying she was raped.”

The chapter stayed continuously involved after the murder, sending activists to the trial and demanding accountability. However, none of that led to any convictions. Will Brown was buried without a service, without graveside mourners and without a gravestone.

The “riot feeling” continued to terrorize Blacks in Omaha for weeks after the lynching. On October 1, 1919, the chapter issued a warning to African Americans throughout Omaha asking them not to go to work. The newspaper reported that hundreds of people stayed home out of concern for their safety and in protest of the injustices they faced in Omaha. White people regularly threatened to attack Blacks, and the mob terrorism so popular in the city hadn’t been trampled by the military yet.

After Will Brown

Omaha continued in its racist ways, and while never as explicitly hate-filled as the summer of 1919, Jim Crow continued in the city. The NAACP stayed on point. Meeting weekly in their business office by 24th and Lake Street, local prosecutors and politicians seemed to rue their representation in legal trials.

The NAACP sponsored several refugees from Tulsa, Oklahoma as they spoke about the particularly wicked race riot there on June 1, 1921. The refugees weren’t named, as the NAACP feared for their lives and reprecussions. The riot obliterated Greenwood Avenue, aka Black Wall Street, the most successful Black community in the United States. It was bombed, burnt down and destroyed by white people, with hundreds of Blacks murdered by vicious white mobs. The destruction of Greenwood Avenue was a fear-mongering attempt to promote white supremacy nationwide. The refugees spoke in Omaha on June 12; their whereabouts afterwards weren’t recorded.

Membership wavered in Omaha’s NAACP in the 1920s, and by 1926 the chapter was almost nonexistent. Despite reports of increased Jim Crow practices throughout the city, interest in joining the NAACP was low, and the activities of the local chapter nearly ended.

In 1930, African Americans began going to the City of Omaha’s McKinley Park swimming pool. De facto segregation had kept them away since the pool opened, and when white crowds became increasingly confrontational, the City of Omaha Parks Department drained the pool. African American lawyer and NAACP leader Dr. John Singleton protested, and the pool was eventually refilled. However, that was a brief respite, and by the 1940s the pool was removed entirely.

The chapter was revitalized by the leadership of Dr. Singleton though, and with new members and new action into the 1930s it thrived. However, as the Great Depression set in the chapter floundered.

Omaha’s Youth Council

In 1935, the Omaha NAACP Youth Council was formed. Focused on fighting segregation through picketing, letter-writing and other traditional community organizing tactics, their work led to integration in several Omaha businesses, and because they worked together with other organizations, their legacy lasts today. Meeting frequently at the Near North Side YMCA, they held social activities, teach-ins and much more.

The main organization continued onward into World War II. In 1942, the Omaha Star announced, “…the NAACP are so courageously and completely fighting our every battle for economic and civil rights. The mass meetings now being held by the NAACP are beyond a doubt the most effective and well managed in the history of Omaha.”

“…the NAACP are so courageously and completely fighting our every battle for economic and civil rights. The mass meetings now being held by the NAACP are beyond a doubt the most effective and well managed in the history of Omaha.”

—”Open Letter” in Omaha Star April 17, 1942

The president of the Omaha chapter called out the national president-elect of the Daughters of the American Revolution, or DAR, in 1945. Apparently she came to visit Omaha and refused to visit with a delegation of African American representatives, claiming she was following the historical prejudice of the American founders. Omaha president Christopher Adams reminded her of the longstanding presence of Black people in American history, including serving in Washington’s army and being in every war since. The DAR official didn’t recant though.

In 1947, attorney Harrison Pinkett was still fighting for the NAACP when he launched a bid on behalf of the chapter. An African American man was charged with disturbing the peace, but was illegally arrested without a warrant. A judge freed the man after the witness failed to appear. That same year, WOW radio featured a locally-produced broadcast sponsored by the Omaha branch for a national membership drive. The program was 15 minutes long, and featured pianist Booker Washington and the Treble Clef Choir, along with speeches by Harrison Pinkett and an appeal by Red Cross worker Bernice Grey.

That same year, the organization focused on defeating race restrictive covenants in Omaha.

The Civil Rights Movement Era

1966 Civil Rights March in North Omaha, Nebraska
This article from the June 13, 1966 Omaha World-Herald details a march in honor of slain Civil Rights activists nationwide. 100 marchers participated; the motorcyclists pictured harassed the marchers. The march began at 24th and Binney and went to 22nd and Willis, and was organized by the Omaha NAACP.

While the Civil Rights movement in Omaha extends back to the 1880s and 90s, the city was surely affected by the rise of the national Civil Rights movement in the 1950s. National leaders including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Omaha native Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and others were met by Omaha’s leaders, including Rev. Kelsey Jones and Rev. Rudolph McNair, among others. Even after the March 1950 speaking appearance of Roy Wilkins, the leader of the national NAACP, at Zion Baptist Church the local NAACP chapter continued loosing luster for its efforts. (It was at the same event that Omaha was first availed of Whitney Young, the new leader of the Omaha Urban League who would become a national leader in the Civil Rights movement.)

In the vacuum created by an apparently ineffective leadership at the NAACP, other groups emerged. In 1947, the DePorres Club emerged to give young people roles in the movement. It was 1953 when Concerned and Caring Educators, or CACE, encouraged teachers in OPS to step up in the movement. By 1963, the Citizens Civic Committee for Civil Rights, or 4CP, was formed to lead the community. On the sides of the city’s movement in 1967 were the Omaha Black Panthers and BANTU, as well as affinity groups among the city’s Hispanic/Latinx community and others. Each of these arose in the shadow of what the NAACP could have been.

“No group can advance faster than its leaders. The Negro citizens of Omaha rightfully look to the local NAACP for a plan of action to end the denial of human rights here in Omaha, not in Georgia or France, but right here.”

Editorial, Omaha Star, August 27, 1954

The NAACP had to take action to stay relevant, and that they did! In November 1950, the NAACP’s executive secretary Walter White spoke at Tech High. Addressing the racial discrimination as a propaganda tool against the U.S., his visit was sponsored by the local NAACP and the DePorres Club.

In 1951, former State Senator Johnny Owen secured the endorsement of the local chapter when he ran for Omaha City Council. While he lost, he was later named the informal “Mayor of Black Omaha” within the community.

These youth activists from the NAACP Youth Council and the DePorres Club are picketing to end racist practices at Reed’s Ice Cream in Omaha.

In January 1953, the NAACP Youth Council launched a boycott of Reed’s Ice Cream in Omaha, along with the DePorres Club. Together, the group led picketing, called out boycott-breakers and made it hard for Reed’s to do business between Cuming Street and Fort Street. It lasted five months before the company changed their racist hiring practices and hired a single African American. However, the business closed permanently in 1959, selling off all their shops and their factory in North Omaha.

In 1955, Rev. E. T. Streeter led the local chapter in a court case against the Omaha Streetcar Company to end segregation on the streetcars. Beginning in April, the streetcar company wanted a new contract with the city to maintain their monopoly over the city’s public transportation. The NAACP immediately sought an anti-discrimination clause prohibiting racism in hiring. Attorneys Ralph Adams and Charles Davis fought the case for the NAACP. The streetcar company hired three Black bus drivers immediately, but the NAACP didn’t back down.

After a 1955 court finding against Peony Park’s Jim Crow practices, Black swimmer Fred Winthrop was turned away from swimming at the park. As a result, in 1963 the NAACP Youth Council led a summer-long protest against the park to end segregation there. After suffocating their business, the park relented and allowed Black swimmers. 

Fight for Your Freedom

This is the 2008 Save the Date for the Freedom Fund Banquet of the Omaha NAACP
This is the 2008 Save the Date for the Freedom Fund Banquet of the Omaha NAACP.

By the 1950s, there were three chapters of the NAACP in the Omaha area—Central, South and Northwest. Working together, they formed the NAACP Metropolitan Area Council. In 1963, each of the chapters were awarded their own charters. By this era, local voices were clamoring from the NAACP to change. Complaining that local money was “raised to keep the national NAACP office going or end school segregation in another part of the country or public meetings where public figures utter something pious and sometimes inspiring platitudes that lead to nothing” (Omaha Star, 8/27/54). People wanted local action with local outcomes.

In 1958, Omaha chapter President Lawrence McVoy launched a 4-point plan. He sought to:

  • 1. Place Black teachers in Omaha’s secondary schools;
  • 2. Obtain housing for Blacks outside the Near North Side neighborhood;
  • 3. Increase the number of employers that would hire Blacks, especially the Omaha Public Power District and the Metropolitan Utilities District, and;
  • 4. Boost the membership of the NAACP chapter.

Starting that year, the Omaha chapter hosted its first-ever annual Fight for Your Freedom Fund Dinner. Held for several years at the Rome Hotel downtown, the event featured local entertainment and national speakers, often from the national NAACP headquarters. Raising money helped the organization fund legal campaigns, promotional activities and other movement-building events. In the 1970s, several Freedom Fund Dinners were held at Peony Park, and later at other hotels. In the next several years there were campaigns against poor housing, the new federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, and more.

This headline from the March 31, 1960 Omaha Star proclaims an NAACP boycott. They won.
This headline from the March 31, 1960 Omaha Star proclaims an NAACP boycott. They won.

In April 1960, the NAACP boycotted five major stores in Omaha because of their discriminatory hiring practices. They won.

Omaha started celebrating Emancipation Day in 1891. Whether done as grand conferences with speakers and bands, large picnics with games and dancing, or parades and floats, these were celebrations of joy and freedom with many of the leading figures in Omaha’s Black community joining in or leading the festivities. The events died down in the early 1940s. In November 1962, the Youth Council sponsored a meeting at the Near North YMCA to plan a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation the next year.

Omaha Sorrow March, Sept 23, 1963
The Omaha Sorrow March happened on September 23, 1963 in memory of the girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, AL. The NAACP helped organize the event.

In September 1963, the NAACP helped organize the Omaha Sorrow March through downtown Omaha. Intended to memorialize the girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, 100 protesters joined with hundreds of spectators watching the mournful march through the city’s core.

That same year, the chapter pressured the Omaha City Council to consider an open occupancy housing ordinance. Working alongside 4CL, more than 4,000 protesters gathered at the old Omaha City Hall to end racial discrimination in housing. A silent demonstration without of chants, songs, and slogans, the protest included between 500 students in grades kindergarten through twelve. According to one research paper, groups joining included the Omaha Urban League and the Urban League Guild, the Catholic Interracial Council, the Omaha Anti-Defamation league, the Black Muslims, the Mayor’s Bi-Racial Council, as well as Elks, Masons, Eastern Stars, African Methodist Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics.

Two years later, in March 1965 the Youth Council held a Youth Freedom Rally at the Near North Side YMCA to stand in solidarity with the March on Selma. That same year, the Youth Council won the integration of Omaha Public Schools clubs and after school activities. White students at Central High had repeatedly denied participation to African American students in extracurriculars, and the NAACP Youth Council took up the issue after young Black actors were denied the opportunity to participate in a school play because of their skin color. Taking the issue to the school board and the public, the district issued a statement prohibiting discrimination in clubs and after school activities based on skin color.

In 1966, the notorious North Omaha riots started. That year, despite a call to the City of Omaha asking become involved in intervening with the people leading the riots, the NAACP was shut out of the talks. Instead, the Near North Side YMCA intervened, and the NAACP replied that the mayor and governor were too concerned with appeasing the youth rather than working with the whole community to create solutions. That same year, the NAACP Metropolitan Council also adopted a resolution supporting Greater Omaha Community Action, or GOCA, in their campaign against poverty, and to support other organizations endorsing GOCA, too.

Rioting continued through 1969.

In March 1968, the NAACP Youth Council and others protested an appearance of racist presidential candidate George Wallace. Leading a peaceful picket, counter-protesters began acting violently toward the activists. When a riot broke out, police brutality led to dozens of NAACP protesters being injured. During the melee, Howard Stevenson, a sixteen-year-old African-American youth activist, was shot and killed by a police officer.

In late 1967, the Omaha NAACP selected January 1, 1968 as the right timing for Omaha’s Emancipation Day celebrations. Music was performed by the Salem Baptist Church Youth Choir, Mt. Calvary Community Choir and the Bethel Baptist Choir, and Rev. J. C. Wade of Salem was designated as the master of ceremonies.

The segregation of Omaha Public Schools has long been a target of the Omaha chapter. A 1969 study of Omaha Public Schools found that nine North Omaha schools by the Central chapter had an enrollment of 80% African American students, with five that had 97% African American enrollment. Presenting their information to the school board repeatedly, the issue would stay on the chapter’s radar into recent years as school segregation is still an issue in Omaha.

The Modern Era of Social Justice

Starting in 1970, the Civil Rights movement in Omaha took a marked turn. The reactionary groups of the 1960s couldn’t last in the face of being framed by the FBI, exploited by politicians, and abused by the Omaha Police Department. The NAACP was challenged to stay vital and keep Civil Rights in focus.

The city’s chapter was active in donating money for a 1976 legal battle in Mississippi. NAACP activists in Port Gibson, Mississippi were taken to court a decade early on charges of conspiracy for leading a boycott of local racist stores. The trial had been dragged through legal processes for years, and eventually the charges were dismissed.

According to Matthew Stelly, Omaha’s NAACP chapter grew from 170 members to 500 under the presidency of James Hart starting in 1977. He quoted Hart saying, “The white membership has increased considerably, which is very encouraging. We need support to dispel racist fears.”

A City Council Seat for African Americans?

In 1978, the chapter announced they were filing suit against the City of Omaha for failing to hold district elections for the City Council. It was believed district elections would allow an African American member to win a seat on the council, and that general elections were prohibiting that from happening. Bringing in the national NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks, he remarked to the Omaha World-Herald, “Our lawyers feel we can win in Omaha.” As of that year, there’d never been an African American on the Omaha City Council, and the district elections would allow one to be elected. Many white voters and politicians apparently stood against the measure though, with people like Omaha City Council president Steve Rosenblatt saying, “There’s no question in my mind that a Black can be elected to the council on an at-large basis.” Rosenblatt had stood against a Black councilman being appointed to a seat just a few years earlier. The mayor was also against district elections in Omaha. After a federal court ordered this style, Fred Conley became the first African American member of the Omaha City Council in 1981.

The City of Omaha vowed to keep fighting against the district elections, and the mayor swore having open, citywide elections was the best way to go. The NAACP president in 1980, Buddy Hogan, believed Omaha was unique nationally for its commitment to Jim Crow through open elections. He was quoted saying, “In the case of the City of Omaha, it is extremely possible to show discriminatory intent of the at-large scheme to deprive Black citizens of their rights.”

“In the case of the City of Omaha, it is extremely possible to show discriminatory intent of the at-large scheme to deprive Black citizens of their rights.”

Buddy Hogan as quoted in the Omaha World-Herald, April 24, 1980.

The opponents never won their changes though, and today there are seven district seats on the council. That same year, the chapter announced they were enlisting an unnamed law firm in their fight against landlords, employers and others to stop discrimination.

In late 1980, the organization experienced turmoil from within as Black Republicans rose to prominence. Buddy Hogan, president of the chapter in the 1970s, was said to be ousted from his seat by several Republicans including James Hart, who took his seat. Ernie Chambers was among critics who accused the Republicans of “caring more more about their personal advancement than about the Black community.”

In 1994, the NAACP was instrumental in ensuring former residents of the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects were compensated for moving after their homes were demolished for neighborhood redevelopment.

Stopping Police Brutality

This is a November 1995 pic of Ernie Chambers at a community forum on police misconduct in North Omaha.
This is a November 1995 pic of Ernie Chambers at a NAACP community forum on police misconduct in North Omaha.

The chapter hosted a community forum on police brutality and other complaints against the Omaha Police Department in November 1995. Rev. Everett Reynolds hosted more than 400 attendees with addresses by Ernie Chambers, Brenda Council and others. Attempting to start a citywide campaign against police misconduct, the campaign didn’t take off because there wasn’t enough evidence. Seeking to collect 150 complaints to file a federal case, they campaign fell short and ended.

In 1998, the Omaha chapter led community discussions about the case of Marvin Ammons’ death in October 1997. They also talked with national NAACP officials to consider the possibility of a federal civil rights investigation. While that didn’t lead to action, it showed the NAACP was still active. The chapter was active in organizing a community vigil a year later with 200 attendees.

Omaha’s Juneteenth Celebrations

This is an announcement for the 2019 NAACP Juneteenth Parade Celebration on Saturday, June 15.
This is an announcement for the 2019 NAACP Juneteenth Parade Celebration on Saturday, June 15.

Since 1989, the city’s NAACP chapter has sponsored the city’s Emancipation Day celebrations. That year, it was held at Corinth Memorial Baptist Church on January 12. With the goal of focusing its attention on the NAACP and the status of Black people, there was a forum and Q&A session. They did the same again in 1993. 1999 was the tenth NAACP Juneteenth celebration, with events at the Heartland of America Park downtown following a parade and Councilman Frank Brown as the Grand Marshall of the events. The Negro National Anthem was sang by Celeste Webster, and guitarist Grover Lipkins performed the Star Spangled Banner. There were also performances by West African dancers, gospel groups, the Sons of Thunder, Echoes of Melody, Ges Werk, Rhythm City, and Decision. Know Thyself Production also performed an Egyptian play. The event continues this year.

In 2006, in an effort to raise awareness about informal segregation in Omaha and the denial of equal public education opportunities for students of color, Nebraska Legislator Ernie Chambers proposed re-segregating public schools in Omaha. Nebraska Legislative Bill 1024 was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor, creating three racially identifiable districts. After a case by the NAACP against Omaha Public Schools, the plan was retracted and the Omaha Public Schools remain informally segregated today. 

That same year, the NAACP came out against the expansion of the Omaha Police Department helicopter patrols and related buying. Challenging the department to focus on neighborhood foot patrols instead, President Tommie Wilson called on the purchases to stop. The department continued though, and helicopter usage in Omaha is higher today than ever.

The chapter continued calling out racial disparities in policing though, and in 2008 Mayor Fahey announced he was going to reinstate the role of an independent police auditor, close the city jail in a matter of weeks, add police officers and refocus police efforts on neighborhoods. The NAACP hailed the announcement.

Unfortunately, that year the Juneteenth parade was stopped by the Omaha Police Department because of a shooting along the route at North 22nd and Lothrop Streets. That didn’t stop the parade permanently though, and it continues today.

In 2013, several members of Omaha’s NAACP traveled together to Washington, DC for the 50th anniversary commemorations of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

White Involvement

An absence of white involvement in Omaha’s NAACP chapter has been noted as its downfall since nearly the beginning. The chapter was prevented from chartering in 1915 because of this; during the 1920s, the lack of white involvement was noted as the cause of the chapter’s near downfall. By the 1950s, white people were wholly missing from the Omaha chapter’s activities, and by the 1980s white people were merely reading the newspaper for information on the chapter. Luckily, Omaha’s NAACP never waited and kept progressing to the benefit of Black and white Omahans alike. As a white person who has researched and written this article, I believe our participation in the chapter is essential, including paying membership dues and becoming actively involved.

Continuing Today

Today, the chapter continues advocacy and action throughout Omaha, and acts as a powerful agitator to make the city pay attention to justice and freedom.

Notable Things to Know

There have been many notable leaders and members of the Omaha NAACP.

Omaha’s NAACP Leaders

The founder and first president of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP was Rev. John Albert Williams (1866–1933). Jesse Hale-Moss was the president in 1920, and Henry W. Black in 1921. Milton L. Hunter was president in 1926. Rev. J. E. Blackmore was president of the Omaha NAACP in the early 1940s. Christopher Adams was the president in 1945, and Ralph Adams was president in 1947. Lawrence McVoy was the president from 1958 to 1977, and James C. Hart was president starting in 1977. Buddy Hogan was the president in the 1980s, and J. Andrew Thompson was president in the early 1990s. Rev. Everett Reynolds was president in from 1995 to 2005, and Tommie Wilson led the organization starting in 2005. She was the first female leader of the Omaha chapter. In 2010, Stephen Jackson was the president.

Today, Vickie Young is the president of the NAACP in Omaha. Under her leadership, traditional activities like the Freedom Fund Dinner and Juneteenth continue, while the chapter expands its presence and impact throughout the city.

Notable Members in Omaha

Some of the most notable members of the chapter have included Rev. Russel Taylor (1871–1924) of St. Paul Presbyterian Church; attorney Harrison Pinkett (1882–1960); Dr. John Singleton (1895-1970), president in Omaha from 1929 to 1933 and national board member in 1945; Dr. Aaron McMillan (1895–1980) who gave the first professional office space to the Omaha NAACP and was the first Omahan to buy a lifetime membership to the organization; Judge Elizabeth Pittman (1921-1998); educator Eugene W. Skinner (1914-1993), who served on the board. A white developer in North Omaha named Robert Strehlow was involved, including after he became a Republican state senator, as well as State Senator John Adams Sr. and Rudy Smith, a youth activist with the Youth Council and photographer who documents the city’s Civil Rights movement for four decades. Media mogul Cathy Hughes was a leader in the Youth Council, too. Rowena Moore, longtime labor activist and founder of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, was a very active NAACP member in the 1950s and 60s. Dr. Aaron McMillan was very active after returning from African in the late 1940s, and stayed involved into the 1960s. Historian Bertha Calloway, founder of the Great Plains Black History Museum, was active with the NAACP starting in the 1950s.

Notable NAACP Places in Omaha

Since their inception, the Omaha NAACP chapter has relied heavily on religious places throughout the Near North Side and beyond. For instance, St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church provided the first offices and meeting space when the chapter was getting started in 1915. St. John AME, Bethel AME, Zion Baptist, Pilgrim Baptist, Mt. Moriah Baptist, the former Calvin Memorial Presbyterian, Clair United Methodist, and St. Benedict Catholic all come up repeatedly in the first 50 years of the organization’s existence. More recently, places like the old Holiday Inn on 72nd and the downtown Doubletree Inn have become common places in the history. North 24th Street has long been a parade and celebration route for the organization, and the Charles B. Washington Branch of the Omaha Public Library has been important for more than 20 years. The old Commercial Federal Savings and Loan at North 30th and Ames was a longtime meeting place for the NAACP Youth Council.

The Omaha chapter of the NAACP has kept several offices in North Omaha. They include:

Am I missing history here, like people, places or events? Let me know in the comments section below!

Special thanks go to Palma Joy Strand at Creighton University for her contributions to my research!

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Additional Pics

These are two past presidents of the Omaha NAACP. James Hart is on the left; Rev. Dr. John Albert Williams is on the right.

This 1919 membership drive poster from the Omaha NAACP promoted $1 fees.
This 1919 membership drive poster from the Omaha NAACP promoted $1 fees.
2314 North 24th Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This building at 2314 North 24th Street housed Omaha NAACP offices in 1920.

Published by Adam

I am a speaker, writer and consultant focused on youth engagement. I also share the history of North Omaha, Nebraska.

One thought on “A History of the Omaha NAACP

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