The 24th and Lake Historic District is being recognized more and more as a cultural asset to all of Omaha, and to the Midwestern United States overall. The African American heritage of the intersection includes jazz and blues, parades and big bands, and modern social justice movements stemming from the 1950s through today. This is the history of one of the most important locations in the 24th and Lake Historic District, the Jewell Building, home of the Dreamland Ballroom and much more.
Meet the Jewell Family
James “Jimmy” Grant Jewell (1869–1930) bought the lots on the southeast corner of North 24th and Grant Streets. Jewell owned a pool hall downtown on 14th Street, and was repeatedly charged with “being a keeper of a gambling house.” He was very entwined in Omaha’s Black community, influencing civic life as a neighborhood Republican leader and serving as a pallbearer at the large funeral of notorious crime boss Jack Broomfield.
Starting in 1904, his wife Cecilia Wilson Jewell (1882–1946) was noted in the Omaha World-Herald as an African American singer and performer. Cecilia was an Omaha native who graduated from Omaha Central High School in 1902. After her graduation, she traveled Europe as a classical singer, reportedly performing in front of several royal courts. When she returned, she married Jimmy Grant Jewell.
Their only son, James C. Jewell, Jr. (1905–1997) was born the year after the couple married. Cecilia and Jimmy Senior were involved in the entertainment industry in Omaha as soon as they were married. They were also involved in the well-being of the African American community, including the Grove Methodist Church, the Negro Christian Women’s Association, and the formation of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP. Cecilia served as a president of the Omaha NAACP, and is also credited as a founder of the Negro Old Folks Home, and was the music director at St. Phillip Episcopal Church, a segregated congregation by North 21st and Nicholas Streets. Her obituary called her a political worker.
Given the white supremacy dominating Omaha culture at the time, it’s reasonable to assume the couples’ opportunities to perform in the city were often marred by racism and segregation. Between that and Jewell’s business interests, building North Omaha’s own high class facility made practical business sense.
Building the Dream (1923-1930)
The vision for the Dreamland Ballroom started around 1922, when Jimmy Grant Jewell, sought to replace the old Mecca Hall.
The surrounding neighborhoods, including the Near North Side, Long School and Lake School, had suffered from a major tornado in 1913 and were terrorized by race rioting as well as being invaded by the US Army in 1919. Despite this, there was growth along North 24th Street during the Roaring ’20s. Early buildings like Mecca Hall located along the strip were generally one- and two-story buildings made of wood. After the tornado, the 25- to 50-year-old pioneer-era buildings were slowly replaced with single story brick storefronts, as well as St. Louis-style flats that had businesses on the first floor and apartments on top. The Jewell Building was part of this reconstruction project.
As a businessman, Jimmy Grant Jewell, knew the African American community needed more than what the neighborhood provided. There were pool halls, juke joints, movie theaters and taverns along North 24th Street, but many were for whites only, while others were just unkept and unfriendly. None of them were able to host the musical acts traveling through Omaha.
In 1922, Jewell wanted to build a two-story brick building to compete with the halls at Krug Park and the Carter Lake Club, or the Brandeis Ballroom downtown, all of which hosted Black performers occasionally. Instead, Jewell wanted a Black entertainment venue in North Omaha. An earlier facility called the Mecca Hall on the same corner of North 24th and Grant Streets had hosted smaller events, but didn’t fill Jewell’s vision. The new Jewell Building would do exactly that.
Hiring popular Omaha architect Frederick A. Henninger (1865–1944), designs called for storefronts and and apartments on the first floor, along with a large public hall on the second floor. In 1923, the building was opened at 2221-2225 North 24th Street.
Designed in with Georgian Revival style embellishments, the building was typical of the dozens of structures built along North 24th Street during the 1920s. Two symmetrical 1,600 square foot storefronts split the first floor with a doorway to the second floor in the middle. A limestone above the doorway is engraved with “Jewell Building, 1923” along with smaller tablets on the northwest corner of the building that say, “24th Street” and “Grant Street.” There was also an entrance to the second floor at 2233 Grant Street, which was also called “Jewell’s Hall” in addition to the Dreamland Ballroom.
After opening the building in 1923, Jewell opened the Tuxedo Billiard Parlor and a barber shop on the first floor. His family, including his wife Cecilia and son Jimmy, Jr. lived in the apartment on the first floor.
The Dreamland Ballroom started booking acts immediately, often reaching its maximum attendance at 400-450 attendees. Over the next seven years, the Dreamland Ballroom grew in importance and laid the foundation for its prime time stature.
Jimmy Grant Jewell died in 1930, and his wife, Cecilia Jewell, died in 1946. His funeral was at St. John AME, and hers was at Grove Methodist Church. They are buried together in Forest Lawn Cemetery. Their son, Jimmy Jewell, Jr. was 25-years-old when he took over the operation the year his father died.
Impressario Jimmy Jewell, Jr.
Jewell, Jr. had graduated from Tech High in 1923. He was married to Carrie in 1929, and his the family lived in apartments at the rear of the Dreamland Ballroom. During the Dreamland Ballroom’s heydays in the 1930s and 1940s, Jewell, Jr. was referred to as an impresario and “Omaha’s most outstanding dance promoter.” Carrie divorced Jewell, Jr. in 1939. In addition to divorce on the grounds of cruelty, Mrs. Jewell was awarded alimony, too.
In World War II, Jewell joined the US Army and became a corporal. I don’t know whether this factored into the US Army commandeering his facility later in the war (see below). Jewell was stationed at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where he was a liaison between the Army and the USO. He also led a competitive singing group called the Army STU Gospel Singers. In 1945, he was discharged and went back to North Omaha.
The younger Jewell, Jr. ran the building for the next 35 years. Remarried in 1946, Jewell, Jr. owned other businesses, too, including the gas station across Grant Street from the building. He was also involved in the Prince Hall Masons. Living large, while they were married the Jewells took an annual sojourn to the African American luxury resort in Idlewild, Minnesota. They later bought a home at 3477 Manderson Street in the Bedford Place neighborhood.
In his autobiography, Preston Love, Sr. said that profit from the Dreamland Ballroom made the Jewell family one of the richest African American families in Omaha. In 1938, the Omaha World-Herald noted that Jewell, Jr. was “reportedly the wealthiest Negro in Omaha.”
North Omaha in the Spotlight (1930-1965)
During the 1920s, the Dreamland Ballroom gained a national reputation for being a hotspot along the tour route from Chicago to San Francisco. After Jimmy Jewell, Jr. became owner in 1930, he earned a reputation as “Omaha’s Ace Promoter” after leading dozens of stars to the Dreamland. The Dreamland regularly featured famous big bands and jazz musicians, and was packed beyond its maximum with up to 600 attendees dancing, hanging out and having a great time.
Duke Ellington (1899–1974), Count Basie (1904–1984), Louis Armstrong (1901–1971) and Lionel Hampton (1908–1902) all played there. Other big names that played there included Earl Bostic (1913–1965), Ruth Brown (1928–2006), Fats Domino (1928–2017), Louis Jordan (1908–1975), Sarah Vaughn (1924–1990), Pha Terrell (1910–1945), Clarence “Bull Moose” Jackson (1919–1989), Billy Eckstine (1914–1983), Dizzie Gillespie (1917–1993), Dinah Washington (1924–1963), Ray Charles (1930–2004), Nat “King” Cole (1919–1965) and others. Earl “Father” Hines (1903–1983) and his orchestra played there regularly. The Nat King Cole Trio was once booked at the Dreamland for $25 per man.
In 1932, Duke Ellington made the first gigantic draw to the Dreamland Ballroom when more than 500 people came to see him. Noting the facility’s interracial draw, the newspaper was blatantly racist when it reported, “The cream of Darktown’s night life had a mean time–and fair skinned boys and girls fere brethren under the skin.”
A young Preston Love, Sr. (1921–2004) recalled in his autobiography that in the 1930s he and his friends would climb the fire escape at the back of the building to listen to bands they were too young to go inside to watch.
A variety of Omaha music legends including Preston Love, Sr., Anna Mae Winburn (1913–1999) of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the Cotton Club Boys, and when it was the dominant band in the Midwest, the Lloyd Hunter (1910–1961) Orchestra also held residency at the Dreamland over the years.
In 1936, nationally prominent jazzman Nat Towles (1905–1963) and his orchestra began a longstanding residency at the Dreamland Ballroom. Towles came from New Orleans and quickly redefined the Omaha jazz scene with saxophonist Jimmy “Little Bird” Heath (1926), trumpeter and arranger Neal Hefti (1922–2008), trumpeter Harold “Money” Johnson (1918–1978), and many other famous jazz players. The Towles Orchestra kept up regular touring, including residencies in and around New York in the 1940s. He came back to the Dreamland repeatedly through the two decades after he started playing there.
Jewell, Jr. renovated the front of the building in 1940.
In 1941, the largest crowd ever at the Dreamland when Count Basie played at the ballroom.
Warmth at the Dreamland
There were countless other events held at the Dreamland besides the concerts. Apparently, the Jewell family refused to get a liquor license for the building and only served soft drinks there while he was alive.
Dreamland became host to the Coronation Ball starting in 1930. Rev. John Albert Williams (1866–1933) of St. Phillip the Deacon Episcopal Church held the event annually to crown North Omaha’s regal African American community, social and business leaders as King and Queen Borealis. Rev. Williams patterned the coronation after the Ak-Sar-Ben Ball, a deeply segregated high-society event for prominent white families. When the pastor died in 1933, the Beau Brummel Club began sponsoring the event.
In the 1930s, Jimmy, Jr. sponsored a neighborhood basketball team called the Tuxedo Aces, presumably named after his pool hall. He also sponsored a softball team for more than a decade. During that same decade, Jewell, Jr. regularly fell under suspicion of running a bookie operation from the building. That went on for several decades afterwards.
Through the years, the hall regularly hosted speakers. One was Ida Norris, mother of Clarence Norris (1913–1989) who was one of nine African Americans framed for raping a white woman in Scottsboro, Alabama. Acquitted at age 64, Norris reported a lifelong stigma against him and his codefendants. He was also the last of the nine to pass away. Angelo Herndon (1913-1997) was an African American labor organizer who spoke there in 1934, too. In 1936, an African American Communist Party vice-presidential candidate named James W. Ford (1893-1957) spoke at the hall.
In the 1950s, Jewell, Jr. booked the young activist leader of the Omaha Urban League named Whitney Young (1921–1971) to speak a few times. Young went on to become the national leader of the Urban League and a leader of the Civil Rights movement.
During World War II while Jimmy Jewell, Jr. was in the US Army, the Dreamland Ballroom was seized by the US government to be used as a USO Club to entertain African American soldiers stationed in the Omaha area. Other USO facilities in Omaha were de facto segregated, making the Dreamland an essential outlet. After he joined the US Army, the government took possession of the Jewell Building and forced Jewell out of business.
In 1945 after he left the Army and returned to North Omaha, Jewell, Jr. immediately joined the volunteer management team for the USO Club. Late in the year, that team made plans convert the building to become the North Omaha Community Center. It also served as the North Side YMCA for a short time. However, Jewell sued the government and regained his ownership. He returned his businesses to their operations.
After the building was returned to James Jewell without compensation, he sued the government for their actions and lack of reimbursement. In a landmark case, he was granted $3,000 for damages and compensation in return for his commitment to stop reporting bad things about the government to the media.
In 1960, Jewell, Jr. reported that the Omaha Police Department harassed him and violated his rights. In testimony to the Omaha City Council, he told the story of how his home was raided by the police after a report of an illegal gambling operation there. After finding nothing, they neither apologized or paid for the damage they did to the building after busting the door down. While one city councilman blamed the police for “using gestapo tactics,” the council voted that there wasn’t a problem because the officers had a warrant.
The Bright Light Shines Again (1965-Present)
When it stopped making money, Jimmy Jewell, Jr. closed the Dreamland Ballroom in 1965. The barber shop in the Jewell Building stayed open from 1923 to 1975, and the Tuxedo Pool Hall stayed open until 1976. However, after that the building went downhill fast and by the end of the decade it was vacant and boarded up.
However, in 1980, iconic North Omaha advocate Charles Washington led a campaign to save the building from demolition. First, he worked with community partners to have the building designated as an official Omaha Landmark by the City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission. Then, he secured a commitment from the Omaha Economic Development Council (OECD) to renovate the exterior and redesign the interior to become their offices. After that was begun in 1983, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After its renovation was fully complete in 1985, the building has 11,570 square feet on the first and second floors, and 4,000 square feet in the basement. The ballroom on the top floor was redesigned “to provide modular office space for professional and small business use.” In addition to restoring the two apartments on the first floor, an enclosed outdoor courtyard was added, and a parking lot was paved south of the building.
For several years, the building maintained a busy exterior, temporarily housing the Great Plains Black History Museum and other community efforts while staying busy as an OECD office. The earliest incarnation of the Love’s Jazz and Art Center, named for Preston Love, Sr., was located in the building for several years.
Around 2007, the DREAMLAND Historical Project was established by a nonprofit called the Heart & Soul of Omaha. For a few years they collected neighborhood history and had a website with photos and articles, pronouncing their mission to restore the Dreamland Ballroom.
In 2017, the Great Plains Black History Museum moved back into the Jewell Building, and continues sharing its beautiful collection of African American artifacts and stories from the location today. The museum regularly hosts special events and publishes interesting materials. Other organizations housed in the Jewell Building today include the Omaha Chapter of the NAACP, 100 Black Men, and American Harvest Company. The apartments on the first floor continue to be occupied, too.
Today, the Jewell Building is widely recognized as one of the most important historical structures in the city of Omaha and state of Nebraska, and serves as a mighty anchor of the 24th and Lake Historic District.
You Might Like…
- A History of the 24th and Lake Historic District
- A History of the Carnation Ballroom
- A History of the Off Beat
- A History of Jim Bell’s Club Harlem
- A Recent History of the 24th and Lake Historic District
- Great Plains Black History Museum official website
- Omaha Economic Development Council official website
- “Jewell Building (Dreamland Hall)” official 1980 nomination to become an Omaha Landmark from the City of Omaha Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission official website
- “Jewell Building” official 1983 application to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places
- “A History of the Dreamland Ballroom” by the Omaha History Minutes
- “Omaha: The Triple-A of Jazz” by Brittney C., Trent H., Cora S., Jennifer Moyer, and Brandon Locke for the Making Invisible Histories Visible Project of the Omaha Public Schools
- “Dreamland Ballroom,” a section from A Street of Dreams by NPTV on YouTube.com.
- “Making Invisible Histories Visible Presents Double Victory” by Tunette Powell, Rebecca Herskovitz and Cherie Scholten for the Making Invisible Histories Visible Project of the Omaha Public Schools
- “Contemporaries: Black orchestras in Omaha before 1950” by Jesse J Otto for the University of Nebraska at Omaha.