A History of the Plum Nelly Area in North Omaha

A history of Plum Nelly in North Omaha, Nebraska, by Adam Fletcher Sasse for NorthOmahaHistory.com

Thanks to all the contributors to this article from Proud to Be From North Omaha, the Omaha History Club, and my North Omaha History facebook page!

At nearly 170 years old, it should come as no surprise that Omaha has lost, forgotten or otherwise left behind some neighborhoods. In North Omaha, one of those was located north and west of Adams Park. This is a history of the Plum Nelly area in North Omaha.

Plum Nelly, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is the approximate location of Plum Nelly, an informal neighborhood in North Omaha. It was bounded roughly by Bedford on the north and Maple on the south, North 36th/Belt Line Railway bed on the east and North 39th on the west.

“Plum Nelly” meant “plumb nearly” in reference to its location in relationship to the city, as in, “Those houses were plum out in the sticks, nelly in the country.” Plum Nelly was an informal neighborhood with unfixed boundaries that was located from John A. Creighton Boulevard and Bedford Streets to North 39th and Lake Streets. It might have been established as early as the 1880s, with its residents comprised of African Americans living in informal housing.

Becoming Far Out

Plum Nelly, N. 36th and Lothrop Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
The corner of North 36th and Lothrop Streets is located in the heart of Plum Nelly, a lost neighborhood in North Omaha. This is from c1955. Pic courtesy of the Durham Museum.

Originally platted around 1915, the subdivision where Plum Nelly sits was called Westmoreland. There were more than 230 lots in this subdivision, which extended from Adams Park to the Nebraska School for the Deaf. The neighborhood in-filled immediately after World War II, except for Plum Nelly. I think Plum Nelly existed long before the neighborhood was platted for development or when houses were built. There are newspaper accounts of ramshackle homes in the woods there and African American residents living there in the 1890s. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, the neighborhood to the south, Omaha View, was redlined in 1936; the neighborhood to the north was also an African American neighborhood, although not designated as such by the federal government in the Great Depression. Its where Malcolm X’s family lived in the mid-1920s.

Plum Nelly originally included an entire expanse of woods from North 30th to North 39th, and was slowly hacked away into a smaller and smaller space. First, the Belt Line Railway separated two halves of the area with tracks during the 1880s; second, Adams Park was established in the 1940s, and; third, the Martin Luther King School was built in 1975. Each of these whittled away at the land where these squatters lived.

Apparently, African Americans who couldn’t afford established housing or didn’t want to live in the segregated Black neighborhood moved there. Plum Nelly houses were mostly small shacks tucked into the forest that didn’t have running water or electricity. The neighborhoods east and south of Plum Nelly began construction in the 1880s, with Omaha View completing its in-filling in the 1910s. The Clifton Hill neighborhood to the west was finished around the same time, and the Lincoln Heights neighborhood to the north was finished in the 1920s. Plum Nelly simply never developed. Even the large expanse that became Adams Park was never developed, and was still available to become a park in the 1940s.

White people seemed afraid of Plum Nelly, and it wasn’t spoken of highly by other African-Americans in the Black newspapers. Kids who lived in Plum Nelly who went to school attended Howard Kennedy Elementary School, and were seen as rowdy and a bit wild.

Changing Neighborhoods

Martin Luther King, Jr. School, 3708 Maple Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is Martin Luther King, Jr. School at 3708 Maple Street. It is situated on land formerly called Plum Nelly.

After World War II, the neighborhoods around Plum Nelly changed again. In the 1940s, Adams Park was established out of the undeveloped area that formed the eastern part of Plum Nelly, while new homes were built on the streets all around the area. There are many homes between North 36th west to Fontenelle Boulevard that were built in the 1950s. In the next decade, the area was block-busted by using racism to force white flight to the developing suburbs west of North 72nd Street. African Americans moved into the newer homes west of Plum Nelly, and when whites fled from the neighborhoods around Plum Nelly in the 1960s and 1970s, the entire area became predominately African American.

Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School was opened at North 37th and Maple Streets in 1975. The school was built on half of the remaining land of the Plum Nelly area. The school’s construction most likely displaced any remaining occupants in Plum Nelly, BUT neighborhood stories suggest there may have been people STILL living in Plum Nelly into the 1980s.

Even now, there are houses built within the Plum Nelly neighborhood that do not have paved streets, and even though they are 100-years-old or less, there is little sign they are there!

There is still a section of forest west of Adams Park that used to hold some the shacks within Plum Nelly. However, aside from family stories and a few notations in the newspapers, no evidence exists of this once secret neighborhood that is now a lost neighborhood.

Do YOU have any further info about Plum Nelly? Family stories, photos or other details to share? Please leave a comment below!

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  1. As a North Omaha child growing up, I had always noticed the houses in this particular area appeared different from the other North Omaha homes. They were flat houses, depressed looking and had small front entrances and no porches which were important in North Omaha, because of course there were not many homes in North Omaha with air conditioners. These Plum Nelly houses, were remnant of Plum Nelly and were used as quick or easy to rent houses. The Plum Nelly remnant houses left were scattered between the industrial baby boom houses that were built in the 50’s of which my parents and my people, in the “second” great industrial migration wave from the south, came and rented

    Plum Nelly were still pravelent as up until the mid 90’s. I stay with a cousin in one for a short time. Martin Luther King school was being built, yet just behind ut was a row of Plum Nelly houses sticking out like a sore thumb.

    I recall an Older Uncle rented one because it was cheap and near to the seventh Day Adventist church. It was located about 33rd and bedford. I recall driving down bedford and up and over the hill to crossover the old tracks and making that first left turn. The house he rented had a small hanger over the front door and 2 kitchen chairs sitting tightly on what was not a porch. Inside the home smelled damp, and he heated the house with kerosene. Except when he had returned from fishing, then you’d smell fresh caught fish. The house had a cellar with a cellar door that went down in to a dug out. I remember squeaky screen doors. This house reminded me of the share-cropper farm houses out in the country like those in the deep south. Now I kook back, maybe he was comfortable there. I do recall he had some electricity.

    Now that I have read this story, I will have to share it with others that may have questioned these odd and poor looking homes over the years and poverty to maybe realize that Plum Nelly may have been part of their connective history as many arrived in early North Omaha from the south and took refuge and made homes in Plum Nelly as a matter of survival and their plight in the “first” great Northward migration. I would also like to add that there were Plum Nelly schools like FairFax Elementary on the corner 40th & Pratt, of which part of the school was a dugout were many and was on that corner just past 39th until the early 1980’s. Plum Nelly is part of North Omaha first Northward migration wave history and is a precious art to many whose descendant lived there.
    Great study!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much for this article. I had never heard of the “plum Nelly” designation for this area though I spent a lot of time around there. My grandparents lived at 3620 Lothrop for many years. As near as I have been able to determine the house was built sometime around 1920 and my grandfather lived there with his parents. Not sure of when (or how) the house was transferred to my grandfather but census reports show him living there until his death in 1970. We visited many times and in 1958 we moved in with them for a very short period of time (it was a 3 room bungalow with my grandparents, my folks, my 2 sisters and me – we were “cozy”!). I started at Clifton Hill School and continued there. Many years later, shortly after my grandmother passed away (Grandpa had been gone for several years at this time) my father inherited the house. In 1972 I moved into the house with my wife and we soon added a daughter. We stayed in the house for about a year before we moved to a bigger place and my father then sold the house.

    I can remember when we were there (as children) the admonishments to “stay out of the woods” that were directly across Lothrop. So of course that’s where we would go to explore. I do not remember ever seeing any remains of shacks or houses in the woods, but we did not get to all corners. We would often climb up to the railroad tracks just east of the house, cross over and go down the hill to Adams Park.
    I find it interesting to see the neighborhood considered to be a black American area. While the surrounding areas were certainly this way, my family was not, nor were our immediate neighbors. It was a true mixture of races and cultures in the area and I am glad I had the opportunity to live there – twice! Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Keith, and thanks for your note. Fascinating–the Douglas County Assessor’s Office says the house you lived in, which is still standing, is 500 sf–so small! Regardless of the racial composition of the neighborhood, consider the economic reality that necessitated folks–your great grandfather–living there. A humble house indeed. Also, I wouldn’t give any construction date in Omaha around 1920 from any internet-based source any credence–except mine of course. There was a major fire at the county courthouse that destroyed most of the assessor’s office records in 1919, and when they fixed records after that they were frequently screwed up.

      The neighborhood your house was in has a really fascinating and truly hidden history, and by crossing those tracks you were literally walking a fine line. Do you have any distinct memories of African Americans on the west side of the tracks where your house was? Just across the tracks from your house was a historical African American neighborhood, tucked away by the tracks. The west side of the tracks didn’t start integrating in earnest until the late 1950s/early 1960s, and didn’t become a predominantly African American neighborhood until the late 1980s.

      Share more memories if you have them!


      1. Hi Adam. Thanks for your response. To your point, I do not recall there being any African Americans in that neighborhood, either in the 50’s or the 70’s. Now granted, the term neighborhood is relative. There were so few houses on Lothrop from the railroad tracks north to about 38th street. I can distinctly recall there being 4 houses on the block where my grandparents lived. Nothing across Lothrop except the woods.Going on up to the next block I can remember only 2-3 houses. None of these had Black families in the 50’s. By the time I moved back there in the 70’s a few of the houses had been torn down but there were still no Black families on the block. I can remember that the family that lived 2 houses down from my grandparent’s place had children in the same age range as my sisters and me. When I moved back, one of the sons was living in the house his parents had and another son was living in the house between us. So we all knew each other quite well. When my family left that house after our short stay in the 50’s we did not move far away. We moved to a house on 41st and Erskine, just behind Rivett Lumber (where my grandfather worked for many years). And as an adult, when we left the Lothrop street house we moved to 34th and Martin Avenue. So I lived in various parts of North Omaha in my life.
        Thanks for the good memories!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I understand that information about Plum Nelly is fragmented based on the initial records available. I grew up on 32nd and Pinkney and remember the humble homes mentioned in this narrative. On the street I was raised, my Grandfather owned an apartment building that also housed a small store. When my parents married my Grandfather deeded my Father a parcel of land. The house they built a brick structure, with 3 bedrooms and a bathroom. I was five when my father built on the same property the split level A frame home that is still there today. It was also during this time that many new homes were being built, these ranch style homes also still exist. The elementary school my siblings and I attended was Druid Hill located on North 30th street. We love going up to Adams Park which we called Green Hill. I loved growing up in this little patch, with the Park and wooded areas, this bought many an adventure. We slept with our doors open, and do not remember if we had locks on our doors. Summer nights found the neighborhood filled with children playing hide and seek, 4 square and bike races. It has been eye opening to learn the expanse of land Plum Nelly. We had boundaries and did not realize how big the world was until I was in the sixth grade. I still live in plum in the house on the land my Grandfather gave his son, although the landscape has changed in these many years. Now our home is surrounded by Habitat homes. There are houses on each side of me where no houses existed, growing up. It is nice to see the street again filled with children, playing games, and riding bikes. My memory of Plum Nelly and the level of development over the years, is full of family and neighbors who were there for each other. I have enjoyed learning things about our little piece of life, and Plum Nelly for me? The best place on earth.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I found this story to be very interesting! I actually went into the woods behind King Elementary to search for evidence or anything still remaining. I can’t believe, I found a piece of, what looks like it may have been a wall made from bricks! I have pictures I can email you! My students are currently doing a research project on the Plum Nelly neighborhood!

    Liked by 1 person

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