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Notable African American Women in Omaha History

Black women have done all kinds of work as mothers, businesswomen, teachers, ministers, politicians, and in other roles to make the community great. This is a history of some of the notable African American women in North Omaha.

The history of African Americans in North Omaha is filled with stories of successful families, powerful businesses, meaningful charity and strong culture. Along the way, Black people have fought against white supremacy, sexism, classism and more. However, a lot of the time this history focuses on the work of men. Black women have not been widely acknowledged for their work as successful community leaders, mothers, businesswomen, teachers, ministers, politicians, and in other roles.

This is an article about some of the notable African American women in Omaha since it was founded in 1854. It is not a complete history though; if you know of Black women who should be included here, please share them in the comments below.


Notable African American Women in North Omaha History

There are a lot of notable African American women in the history of North Omaha. They have been street smart and highly educated; poor and wealthy; dark and light; secular and religious. This is an insufficient list that doesn’t include everyone. Please share other women that should be included in the comments below!


Jack West, Mildred Brown and Col. B. P. Pendergrass of the US Army Corps of Engineers
In February 1970, Jack West of the Lake-Charles Organization along with Mildred Brown were awarded civic pride plaques by the City of Omaha Human Relations Commission.

Mildred Brown (1905–1989)—One of the first African American female newspaper publishers in America, Brown was a community leader and national figure throughout her lifetime. Her fight for civil rights and Black empowerment continues today. Learn more here »


Bertha Callow in front of the Great Plains Black History Museum in North Omaha, Nebraska
This pic of Bertha Callow in front of the Great Plains Black History Museum is from the February 1981 edition of Ebony magazine.

Bertha Calloway (1925-2017)—Calloway was a historian, community leader, author, educator and much more. The founder of a longstanding Black history museum, she started the movement for North Omaha history and much more. Learn more here »


Ophelia Clenlans, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is Ophelia Clenlans in 1901. She was an important member of St. John’s AME, a founder of the Omaha Colored Women’s Club, and an important Civil Rights activist in the city.

Ophelia “Celia” Clenlans (c.1841-1907)—Clenlans was a community leader in North Omaha. She was a member of the executive board of the National Federation of Afro-American Women; a prominent member of the Omaha Colored Women’s Club; North and South Omaha Colored Woman’s Club; and an officer of the Order of the Eastern Star, among other activities. Learn more here »


Tanya Cook (1964-present) of North Omaha is an African American member of the Nebraska Legislature.
Tanya Cook (1964-present) is an African American member of the Nebraska Legislature.

Tanya Cook (1964)—A state senator for several terms, Cook was one of the first African American women elected to the Nebraska Legislature. She is an influential entrepreneur and community member in Omaha today. Learn more here »


Brenda J. Council (1955-present) from North Omaha was an African American member of the Nebraska Legislature.
Brenda J. Council (1955-present) was an African American member of the Nebraska Legislature.

Brenda Council (1955)—In 1982, Council became he first African American woman to become president of the Omaha School Board. Learn more here »


Lucille Skaggs Edwards (1875-19??)—In 1906, Edwards published The Women’s Aurora and became the first Black woman to publish a magazine in Nebraska. Learn more here »


Katherine Fletcher (1918-2014)—After teaching for decades, Ms. Fletcher became the first African American teacher in a west Omaha school in 1974. Before that, she was the first African American teacher at Kellom School, and later, she started the first school breakfast program in Nebraska at Kellom School. Learn more here »


Carol Woods Harris (birthdate unknown)—Woods Harris became the first African-American woman elected to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners in 1992. She served three terms until 2004. Learn more here »


Cathy Hughes
This is Cathy Hughes (b.1947), an international business icon from North Omaha.

Cathy Hughes (1947)—Born and raised in North Omaha, Hughes is the first African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation in the world. Today, she is widely recognized as a highly influential business leader, entrepreneur, and broadcast personality. Learn more here »


Mrs. Beverly Wead Blackburn Jones (1937 - 1973) was a youth worker, educator and champion for North Omaha.
Mrs. Beverly Wead Blackburn Jones (1937 – 1973) was a youth worker, educator and champion for North Omaha.

Beverly Blackburn Wead Jones (1937-1973)—A committed youth worker and educator, Blackburn started a youth center to meet the needs of Black young people in an era when the City routinely ignored them. Learn more here »


Edwina Justus (1943)—After beginning as a clerk at Union Pacific in 1973, she became an engineer in 1976. She worked 22 years before retiring in 1998. Learn more here »


Lois "LadyMac" McMorris
This is Lois “LadyMac” McMorris, an iconic lead guitarist from North Omaha.

Lois “LadyMac” McMorris (birthdate unknown)—A highly successful musician, Lady Mac is a lead guitarist and longtime influencer around the world. Learn more here »


This March 11, 1989 article from the Omaha World-Herald features Rowena Moore's vision for the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.
This March 11, 1989 article from the Omaha World-Herald features Rowena Moore’s vision for the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.

Rowena Moore (1910–1998)—A union activist and community leader, Moore founded the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation. Learn more here »


Jessie Hale-Moss (1880-1920)—A highly influential community leader and civil rights activist, Hale-Moss led the Omaha NAACP during the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and the race riots. Learn more here »


Sarah Helen B. Toliver Mahammitt (1869-1956), North Omaha, Nebraska
Sarah Helen B. Toliver Mahammitt (1869-1956) was a community leader in North Omaha for more than 50 years.

Helen Muhammitt (1869-1950)—A leading African American businesswoman, Muhammitt was an innovative entrepreneur and North Omaha cultural icon. Learn more here »


Gabrielle Union (1972)
This is Gabrielle Union, a popular Hollywood actress from North Omaha.

Gabrielle Union (b.1972)—This Hollywood actress is massively successful and has won awards from BET, NAACP and the Teen Choice awards, among others. Learn more here »


Anna Mae Winburn (1913–1999)
Anna Mae Winburn (1913–1999) was the iconic leader of the first all-female band of the jazz era, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. She started in North Omaha.

Anna Mae Winburn (1913–1999)—The leader of the first and maybe only all-female swing big band during the Jazz era, Winburn was a local icon who became internationally famous. Learn more here »


Helen Jones Woods (1923–2020)—The leading female jazz trombone player of her era, Woods was most renowned for her work with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Learn more here »


Judge Elizabeth Pittman, c. 1990, Omaha, Nebraska.
This is Judge Elizabeth Pittman (1921-1998) around 1990.

Judge Elizabeth Pittman (1921-1998)—The first Black female lawyer in Nebraska, Pittman was also the first black female graduate of Creighton Law School; to be elected to the Omaha school board; appointed to the Douglas County attorney office; appointed to be a Douglas County Municipal Judge. She was both the first black judge and the first female judge in Nebraska. Learn more here »


Lizzie Robinson (1860-1945)
This is Lizzie Robinson (1860-1945), a highly influential leader in the Church of God in Christ. She lived and worked from North Omaha.

Lizzie Robinson (1860-1945)—Born as a slave in Arkansas, Lizzie Robinson moved to Omaha in 1916. Called “Mother Robinson,” she was the most prolific church starter the Church of God in Christ, or COGIC, ever had. She became the first National Supervisor of the COGIC Women’s Department. After starting the first COGIC congregation in Omaha, the church was eventually renamed Robinson Memorial in honor of Mother Robinson and her husband’s contributions. Along with their home, the church was named an official Omaha Landmark by the City of Omaha in 1992. The house at 2864 Corby Street was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Learn more here »


Edmae Swain (1916-2008), Lake School principal, North Omaha
Edmae Swain (1916-2008) became the first African American female principal in Omaha Public Schools in 1964.

Edmae Swain (1916-2008)—In 1964, Edmae Swain became the first African American female principal in Omaha Public Schools. She was the longtime principal of Lake School who retired after 44 years as an educator. Learn more here »


Ruth Thomas (birthdate unknown)—Thomas was the first African American to sit on the Omaha Public Schools board.


Lucinda (Gamble) Williams (1875-1956), North Omaha, Nebraska
This is Lucinda (Gamble) Williams (1875-1956) around 1950. Family pic courtesy of Karen S. Walker.

Lucy Gamble Williams (1875-1958)—A church leader, social icon and civic influence, Gamble Williams was one of the first African American teachers in Omaha and much more. Learn more here »


Rev. Anna R. Woodbey (1855-1901), North Omaha, Nebraska
This is Rev. Anna R. Woodbey (1855-1901) of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Rev. Annie Woodbey (1855-1901)—After moving to Omaha around 1885, Annie and her husband, both Baptist ministers, became active in Omaha’s temperance movement. For the next decade, the couple spoke around Nebraska on behalf of Prohibition. With a powerful speaking style, Annie won rave reviews, and in 1895, Rev. Annie R. Woodbey became the first African American woman nominated for political office in Nebraska when she was nominated for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents by the Prohibition Party. Learn more here »


Other Notable African American Women from North Omaha

In 1976, Omaha’s Edwina Justus became the first female African-American engineer to work for Union Pacific Railroad. The first Black female police officer in Nebraska was Omaha’s Brenda Smith, starting in 1980. Linda Brown became the first African American female firefighter in the Omaha Fire Department in 1987. Brown became the first African American female paramedic in Omaha in 1990. In 1997, she became the first African American female to reach the rank of captain in the Omaha Fire Department. The first African American female major general in the Army was Omaha’s Marcia Anderson in 2011; she became the first African American Brigadier General to serve as the Deputy Commanding General of the Army’s Human Resources Command. In 2015, the first African American female executive at the Union Pacific Corporation became Omaha’s Sherrye Hutcherson.

Missing from this list are female ministers, more business owners, and African American socialites, which there were. Please share any questions, additions or other information in the comments section.

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BONUS PICS

There are countless known and unknown Black women who made North Omaha a tremendous place historically, as well as important Black women who are working for its betterment today. Following are a few more from the past.

Negro Women's Christian Association of Omaha, 933 N. 25th St., North Omaha, Nebraska
The Negro Women’s Christian Association of Omaha was founded in the 1890s and existed until the 1950s.
Colored Old Folks Home workers, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is 1913 pic shows a group of women who worked at the Colored Old Folks Home.
These are female Elks from the Black Elks club at 26th and Lake Streets in North Omaha.
These members of the Cherokee Temple No. 223 Drill Team are female Elks from the Black Elks club at 26th and Lake Streets in North Omaha.
In an era when Black people were denied service at white hospitals in Omaha, the Colored Red Cross was an essential service provider. These African American nurses are shown at their service site at 2816 Pratt Street.
In an era when Black people were denied service at white hospitals in Omaha, the Colored Red Cross was an essential service provider. These African American nurses are shown at their service site at 2816 Pratt Street.

One reply on “Notable African American Women in Omaha History”

Hello Adam. Reading about the NWCA article, my eye caught the name of Pearl Ray/parents Samuel Ray. That they attended my home church, St. John. By Ray not a common name, her sister may have been Maude Ray. Ms. Ray may have been in her 80s when I came along. She had a daughter (Pearl-Sophomore) Gibson, who was the minister of Music, and her Mom, Maude, who sung Alto and backup director. Lol. And the house on 2865 Miami, was passed down to them. Pearl and Maude. I’ve been there several times. Both played organ and piano. They had a big piano inside of the house. Both died. House, screened, black & white, I think was torn down or it decoyed.
The Jolt family also from St. John, no memory of them. But we are ALL Central High Eagles 🦅❤

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