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.
Special thanks to Jody Lovallo for contributing to and inspiring this list!
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!
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 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 “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)—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 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 (1947)—Born and raised in North Omaha, Hughes is the first African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation in the world. Learn more here »
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 (birthdate unknown)—A highly successful musician, Lady Mac is a lead guitarist and longtime influencer around the world. Learn more here »
Rowena Moore (1910–1998)— Mrs. Moore became secretary of the Omaha Metropolitan Labor Council in 1948. Before that, she began labor activism in the South Omaha meatpacking plant where she worked. With increased hiring in the industry during World War II, African American women were routinely discriminated against through employment, pay and positions. Moore organized a union of Black women called the Defense Women’s Club to fight back. Demanding intervention from the federal government, she and 400 other Black women were hired into the companies. Moore kept challenging racist practices in the industry until she was fired. After that, Moore spent a decade promoting gospel quartets from Omaha as they traveled the Midwest and nationally. To help promote her acts, she sponsored a series of jamborees at the CIO Hall called Musical Fiestas, and would feature up to sixteen quartets and appealed to meatpacking workers and others. In the 1970s, she led the movement to establish the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation after learning her parents demolished his birth home in 1965. Today, the foundation works to preserve and promote his legacy at their North Omaha facility. 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 »
Helen Muhammitt (1869-1950)—A leading African American businesswoman, Muhammitt was an innovative entrepreneur and North Omaha cultural icon. Learn more here »
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)—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 »
Florentine Pinkston (1887-1966)—Teaching thousands of students through her private music school, Mrs. Pinkston was regarded as the foremost music teacher in Omaha for generations. Her students became decades of the city’s leading performers, musicians, singers, and musical leaders. Learn more here »
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)—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)—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.
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. 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.
In the 1980s and 1990s, historian Bertha Calloway, included here, gave a slide presentation entitled “Black Women of the Great Plains.” She included Helen Mahammit, who is featured in this article. Others from Omaha in her presentation included Gertrude Pharr (1889-1980), a cosmetologist; Minnie Patton (1870-1969), a downtown hotelier; and Anna Burkhardt, a Lincoln artist skilled in portraiture and china painting who moved to Omaha late in life.
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.
You Might Like…
- African American Firsts in Omaha
- A Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement in Omaha
- A History of Racism in Omaha
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.