There was an era when some of Omaha’s African American community elected a token mayor to represent their interests in social and civic activities throughout the city. Thought to be a popularity contest by some, others believed the position was essential for the Black community to progress. This is a history of Omaha’s informal position of Black mayor.
Since its founding in 1854, the City of Omaha has never had a publicly elected Black mayor. For a period in from the 1930s through the 1950s though, there was a token Black mayor elected.
Starting in 1936, an African American social club called the Bacchanite Club held a competition to identify a “trustworthy leader” for Omaha’s Black community. “A leader for the best interest of the Negroes as a whole” “to represent them in all civic affairs,” reported the Omaha Guide, a Black-owned paper. The office was going to have an all-Black cabinet of “predominate leaders” within the community to advise them on decision-making.
With their original headquarters at the Elks Club on Lake Street, the Bacchanites collected nominations there. Eventually they moved to the offices of the Omaha Chronicle, a Black-owned newspaper on North 24th Street.
Soon after, a slate of activities was assigned to the incoming mayor, and the club used powerful language focused on uplifting the race to describe the competition. Advertising in the Omaha Guide, Omaha Chronicle and the Omaha Star increased, and more than a dozen candidates signed up to run for office. They ran a preliminary election in which 500 people voted.
During the final election, the Bacchanites requested that the “race stands beside us and help to succeed, for ‘together we stand, divided we fall.’” The highest vote-getters that year were (in order) Johnny Owen (1907-1978), Milton Johnson, J.C. Carey, W.L. Myers, Dr. G.B. Lennox, John Benjamin Horton, Dr. Wesley Jones, Harrison Pinkett (1882-1960), J.D. Granville, Charles C. Galloway, Leroy Childs, Charles F. Davis (1902-1959), R.C. Price and Charlie Payne.
Owen won the final election in a landslide. In his victory speech, he was quoted as saying,
“There are 15,000 of my people in Omaha, about 1/17th of the population. I intend to try to get them 1/17th of the jobs in industry, business and politics, and 1/17th of the representation.”– Johnny Owen, December 1936
The entire competition was clearly a civil rights campaign designed to raise the political interest of Omaha’s African American community and to let white supremacists in Omaha know the Black population wouldn’t stand to be ignored. Over 1,600 votes were collected in the final election.
Acting as a de facto ambassador for the Black community, Owens immediately set about creating change. Within a month of his election, the hiring of a “race clerk” at the Hayden Department Store in downtown Omaha was attributed to his advocacy.
The race continued sporadically for more than a decade afterward, with Johnny Owen winning repeatedly.
The elections were halted by World War II, and then continued in 1946. The last one was apparently held in 1947, again featuring Johnny Owens as the winning candidate. After that there were no further events like that.
Omaha’s Civil Rights movement took hold in 1948 with the launch of the DePorres Club, which was completely detached from the older structure of North Omaha’s Black leadership. Not resembling efforts like the Black mayor competition, it featured youth and students supported by a few older adults; none of the historic Black community leaders were engaged.
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- A Biography of Johnny Owens
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