What do Fred Astaire, Roger and Gale Sayers, Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Michael Anania, Brenda Council, and former Omaha mayor Johnny Rosenblatt all have in common? Born in the Near North Side, each attended the same school. That same building is a neighborhood institution with deep roots going back at least 140 years in Omaha’s past. This is a history of North Omaha’s Kellom School.
John H. Kellom (1817-1891) was one of the first teachers in Omaha City, arriving in 1857 and helped open the first school in Jefferson Square. He was named the first superintendent of the district that year, even though the school system failed to work. Joining the first Omaha School Board in 1859, he served the new education system for more than 20 years. However, the first name for the school wasn’t Kellom.
Instead, it was originally called the Paul Street School when it was opened in the late 1870s in a small wooden building. It was originally located at North 22nd and Paul Street, and was well-known for its diverse student population. African Americans attended the school, as well as Scandinavians, eastern European Jews, Italians and many other non-English speaking students.
By 1888, the school was too small for its population and the school district wanted to rebuild it. The two original wood frame buildings were moved further north to become the first Lothrop School.
According to the March 24, 1891 edition of the Evening World-Herald, the Omaha school board contracted with the Omaha-based architectural firm of Bell & Berlinghof to design a two story brick building with eighteen rooms. After being renamed for Kellom and opened in 1892, the building was expanded continuously throughout the years, and in 1908, the Omaha Bee declared that Kellom School was “the largest school in the city, having an enrollment of 1,000 children.”
Starting in 1940, Omaha Public Schools began discussing the possibility of building a mixed-purpose facility to replace the second Kellom School.
In 1952, Omaha Public Schools finished constructing a new Kellom School along with a Kellom Pool and the Kellom Community Center at North 24th and Paul Street. Serving the neighboring Logan Fontenelle Housing Project, as well as the surrounding Near North Side neighborhood.
The school was affected deeply by white flight from the 1920s through the 1970s. During that 50 year period, the student population and surrounding neighborhoods went from being predominantly white to becoming predominantly African American. Funding for the building was greatly diminished by institutional racism in Omaha Public Schools, and efforts for improvement were greatly overrated through the 2000s.
Kellom became the site of the first free breakfast program in Nebraska in 1967, and was also targeted by a number of school desegregation plans from the 1970s through the 2000s. It is one of Omaha’s historic Black Schools, and continues to be predominantly African American today.
After the Kellom Community Center was converted into offices for the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects in the late 1970s, Kellom acquired the facility in 2000. Located in the same structure as the school, the offices were converted into classrooms and offices. Since 1999, Omaha Public Schools has included the school in a special program that ensures small class sizes at both the primary and intermediate grades.
Today, Kellom Elementary School has about 400 students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. The vast majority of the school population today is African American, with large populations of Hispanic/Latino students, as well as Sudanese, Asian, Native American and Somalian.
You Might Like…
- A History of the Near North Side
- A History of the Kellom Heights Neighborhood
- A History of the Kellom Pool
- A History of Schools in North Omaha
- “About Kellom Elementary” including its history on the Omaha Public Schools official website
- “Kellom Elementary School” on Wikipedia