Creating a longstanding museum in North Omaha, writing books and articles highlighting Black history and advocating for historic preservation when made one person a community icon. Her outstanding legacy continues to empower, enrich and educate everyday. This is a biography of Bertha Calloway.
Omaha History Before Bertha
For more than 50 years before Bertha Calloway was born, Omaha celebrated white history alone. First captivated by their own history less than a decade after the city was founded, Omaha pioneers were immediately interested in preserving what was happening around them. However, it was the history of wealthy white people that was being captured by the wealthy white people who were writing that history.
Along the way, ethnic social clubs made efforts to preserve their histories in the city, and the earliest Omaha history books were written. In all those efforts though, Omaha’s African Americans history was rarely mentioned, including individual people, places and events.
Bert’s Early Years
Bertha “Bert” Calloway was born to Lucy Carter (1901-1983) in Denver, Colorado, in 1925. Alex Carter (1895-1954) later became her stepfather. According to her own account, her father was a cowboy, and she became fascinated by the reality of Black cowboys in the American West. As a young person, Calloway was an alumna of Colorado’s Camp Nizhoni. The camp was an institution among African Americans in the middle of the United States, offering outdoor recreation and community building for more than 50 years.
As a Creighton University student in her 20s, Calloway became a member of a pioneering Omaha civil rights group called the DePorres Club, and was also involved with the Omaha chapter of the NAACP. As part of the DePorres Club, in 1948, Calloway took Harry’s Restaurant in downtown Omaha to court for discrimination and won, forcing their integration. She also advocated for the creation of a mayor’s interracial committee and recreation activities in the Near North Side. During those years, she planned a museum about the African-American experience to share history she never learned in school. She was also active in the segregated North Side YWCA, and campaigned for the 1954 Omaha bus boycott against segregation in the city’s public transportation system.
Building a Family
In 1954, the Bertha moved her children to Japan to live with her husband, James T. Calloway (1925 – 1993), who served as US Army military police officer in WWII and the Korean War.
After returning from Japan, the family moved to Washington, D.C. for Mr. Calloway’s work. Bertha worked for the US Army Corps of Engineers there, and attended Howard University there. James Calloway became the first black manager of the Hinky Dinky grocery store at 31st and Parker Streets.
When she returned from Washington, Mrs. Calloway became heavily involved with the Mid-City Businessmen’s Association. In addition to reporting for the Omaha Star, she worked for the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute.
During this era, Calloway personally sponsored the annual Kellom Pool beauty contest and splash party starting in 1956. She was also involved in hosting an annual Christmas Party at the Kellom Community Center. During the late 1950s she hosted a social group called The Chaperones. Annually from 1957 to 1968, she also directed the Top Tan Beauty Contest for African American women in North Omaha. In 1967, the staff of the JFK Youth Center were special guests at the event. The next year she became the Douglas County Vice-Chairman of the Democratic National Party. Other groups she was involved with included the Omaha Urban League, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and AkSarBen.
In 1964, Calloway became one of the first African American employees at WOW radio and TV. While there, she started the WOW Broadcast Museum and was involved as a public representative for the station in the late 1960s.
Loving Black History
Bertha Calloway loved Black history. She led the establishment of the Nebraska Negro Historical Society in 1962. Out of a frequently cited dedication to Black history, she started collecting artifacts, stories, papers and art of African-American history and culture, and wanted to be able to tell the community the history not yet told in schools. Her vision of a museum was becoming clearer. Working in partnership with the Nebraska State Historical Society, the society hosted an annual tea to celebrate Negro History Week.
In 1969, Calloway was hired by the Nebraska Educational Television to assist in the making of a documentary series called “The Black Frontier.” NETV received a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to produce the series, which was due in fall 1970. That same year, Calloway started the Miss Black Nebraska Beauty Pageant. There is currently a pageant in Nebraska by that name; I don’t know whether its related.
Along with photographer Rudy Smith, she became an organizer of the original Stone Cold Picnic in 1970, and continued to participate for the next 30 years. At its largest, she acted as the PR advisor for the 15,000+ person gathering at Levi Carter Park.
As the first African American to be featured on regular daytime television, in 1971, Calloway began hosting a daily segment called “Inner City News” on WOW-TV’s midday new show. That same year, through the Nebraska Negro History Museum, Calloway began working with Rowena Moore to lobby the Nebraska State Historical Society to place a historical marker on the Malcolm X Memorial Birthsite. That same year she became a member of the board of directors for the newly formed Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.
Later that year, WOW-TV aired a show produced by Calloway called “Black Cowboys.” Focused on African American cowboys, homesteaders and farmers in early Nebraska, the special included photos, artifacts and memorabilia from Calloway’s personal collection. Other films were promised in articles in the Omaha World-Herald and Omaha Star. In 1972, she put out a call for similar items to feature in her second documentary called “Black Homesteaders.”
When the nonprofit Greater Omaha Community Action, or GOCA, was reorganized in 1972, Calloway was elected to the board of directors.
The following year, in 1973, Calloway’s section on WOW-TV noontime news was called “community news.” That year, she reorganized the Nebraska Negro Historical Society and became focused on recruiting volunteers to assist with research.
In 1974, Calloway left WOW-TV to become the first African American director of the Omaha United Way Volunteer Bureau. In August 1975, Calloway was fired suddenly by the United Way, accused of “not doing a satisfactory job.” She contended she was fired without cause and charged the organization with sex, race and age discrimination, asking the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission to look into her case.
By then her community activities included directing the Negro Historical Society and serving on the boards of the GOCA, the Arthritis Foundation, American Women in Radio and TV, and Omaha Awareness and Action. In addition to her advocacy and involvement, she spoke to elementary and high schools and colleges about Black history in the middle of America.
Building a Museum and More
In 1975, Calloway and her husband bought the Webster Telephone Exchange Building to establish the Great Plains Black History Museum. After a soft launch in January 1976, the museum formally opened in February 1976. Her vision for the museum included becoming “a social setting, conference center, political action center, resource information and referral center.”
They were supported with a grant from the US Bicentennial Commission, and through the years they also received funding from the city, along with several private and corporate foundations. There were memberships and private donations, too. Calloway was renowned for operating on a shoestring budget, and rarely took any salary.
Located in the former Webster Telephone Exchange Building and Urban League Community Center, early exhibits at the museum included Buffalo Soldiers, homesteaders, churches, Black women, NAACP, public schools, sports, labor and unions, politicians, cowboys, newspapers, books and a sketch of Charles J. French, an African American Navy hero from Omaha.
Throughout the rest of her life Calloway taught Nebraskans at the museum about the contributions of African Americans throughout the Midwest. One of the largest museums devoted to African-American history west of the Mississippi River, the institution has a collection of more than 100,000 items, including paintings, rare books, photographs, and films. In a 1996 interview, Calloway explained, “People must see black history in order for the images they have of black people to change. That’s what our museum is all about… revealing a history that’s been withheld.”
Back to Camp
In 1917, Calloway and her husband James bought Camp Nizhoni in Lincoln Hills, Colorado. For more than 50 years, it was only camp for African-American girls west of the Mississippi River, and when she was growing up in Denver, Bertha attended the camp.
In 1978, the Calloways bought the main building at camp called Winks Lodge, and in 1980 they secured its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. They sold the camp in 1985.
Books, Films and Honors
Along with establishing the museum, Calloway constantly worked on documenting Black history in the region. Working with Walter V. Hunter and Sandra Hunter, Calloway edited a book called A Pictorial Of The Black Cowboy in 1978. In addition to her own documentaries, in 1994, she appeared in a Ken Burns documentary called The West. Her section was called The Geography of Hope.
Calloway co-wrote her major work, Visions of Freedom on the Great Plains: An Illustrated History of African Americans in Nebraska, with A.N. Smith in 1998. It is the only Nebraska Black history book available; however, it has been critiqued by no less than Ernie Chambers as inaccurate and incomplete.
Calloway received local awards from the Links, the Omaha chapter of the NAACP, and the Wesley House. Calloway received the Addison E. Sheldon Memorial Award from the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1999. She also received the Carter G. Woodson Award from the National Education Association.Throughout her career, she also received several honorary degrees and spoke at national conferences on African-American history.
End of Life
The Great Plains Black History museum declined in popularity in the 1990s, and by the late 90s the building was in disrepair, not maintaining regular hours or collecting new items.
In 2005, Bertha Calloway named local historian Matthew Stelly the interim executive director of the museum, and later, Kennan Wright. After a few years, in 2009, Calloway was forced to step down from being involved in the museum because of illness. Her son, Jim Calloway, became the executive director, inheriting a leaky, unsound building and an uncertain future for the institution. In February 2009, Calloway’s life work of 180-plus archive boxes of data, research and artifacts were sent to the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln.
Today, her legacy with the museum is intact, and it is now located in the Jewell Building at 2221 North 24th Street.
In November 2016, a part of Lake Street in North Omaha was renamed Bertha Calloway Street.
She died in 2017.
You Might Like…
- Black History In Omaha
- A Timeline of Race and Racism in Omaha
- A History of African American Firsts in Omaha
- “Bertha Calloway” on Wikipedia
- “Great Plains Black History Museum Asks for Public Input on its Latest Evolution” by Leo Adam Biga on February 5, 2011 for The Reader.
- “Bertha’s Battle: Bertha Calloway, the Grand Lady of Lake Street, struggles to keep the Great Plains Black History Museum afloat” by Leo Adam Biga on May 11, 2010 for The Reader.
- “Bertha W. Calloway and Alonzo M. Smith ‘Visions of Freedom on the Great Plains: An Illustrated History of African Americans in Nebraska‘ (Book Review)” by Ernie Chambers in Spring 2000 for the Great Plains Quarterly, 20; 2.