One of Omaha’s earliest Black pioneers was a leader among all men, ending the city’s Jim Crow school, becoming the first Black mailman in Nebraska, influencing the start of a national civil rights organization, and leaving a lasting legacy that continues today. This is a biography of Edwin Overall of North Omaha.
The Early Story of Overall
Edwin R. Overall (1835–1901) was an African American leader long before he came to Omaha in 1869. Born into slavery in Missouri, he moved to Chicago and went to the Jones School as a young man. In 1859, he was married. He and his wife had several children, including Eula Overall, who was the second Black teacher in Omaha Public Schools, where she taught from 1898 until 1903.
Before the Civil War, he became a conductor on the Underground Railroad in the Chicago area, and during the war he was a recruiter for the 54th and 56th Regiments of Massachusetts.
Coming to Omaha
When he got to Omaha in 1866, Overall originally worked as the steward at Cozzens House Hotel downtown. When he was hired to be a mailman with the post office later that year, he became the first Black mailman in Nebraska and the only one until the 1880s. In 1869, he immediately started a campaign to end the Omaha School District’s Jim Crow school, which lasted from about 1868 to 1874. Overall was active nationally too, and in 1872 he was elected president of the National Convention of Colored People at their annual conference in St. Louis.
In 1875, Overall received a large inheritance and invested heavily in real estate throughout Omaha and beyond. He was also a director and later became the president of the Missouri and Nebraska Coal Mining Company, which had a mine by Plattsmouth.
Founder of the Omaha chapter of the National Afro-American League, Overall led several local and national civil rights conferences, and in 1893 he was a Populist candidate for the Omaha City Commission in 1893.
Leading the Mixed Congress
In 1896, Edwin Overall started a movement for Omaha to host a “National Congress of Afro-Americans” during the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Expo. He was elected temporary chairman of a steering committee to plan the event.
Overcoming critics with diplomacy and joint leadership, the city’s Black community held the Congress of Representative White and Colored Americans during the expo. This Mixed Congress had two objectives:
- To bring together representatives of both classes of American citizens herein designated, for exchange of views on INDUSTRIAL, EDUCATIONAL, SOCIAL and MORAL questions of vital moment to the prosperity of our country; and,
- To crystallize such views into some organization which will put into practice such principles as the Congress may agree upon for the accomplishment of the end desired. This organization will not be POLITICAL, but ETHICAL.
According to their charter, “The Governor of each State and Territory is requested to appoint five white and five colored citizens, either men or women, who are in keeping with the spirit of the call, as delegates to said Congress, and to notify the Chairman of the Committee of said appointments.”
Despite endorsement from both Black and white leaders, the event was under-attended. Black newspapers throughout the country didn’t share the call for attendees, and they didn’t report on the event either. One white clergyman openly promoted white supremacy and hated on the event, calling it a “pathetic” attempt to force social equality.
When the event happened in August, three days of activities were held with diverse members of Omaha’s Black community participating throughout. Skilled laborers, porters, homemakers, barbers, attorneys, janitors, businessmen, and domestic workers joined together with an almost equal number of white people in the event. The event was almost 2/3rds women attendees, with many female leaders of activities throughout. Topics of speeches included “What Can Be Done to Bring about a Better and MoreRespectful Feeling between the White and Colored Americans?”
The Mixed Congress ended with “Colored People’s Day” on August 19, 1898. There was a small event in the Auditorium, where the closing speaker noted that the Mixed Congress as the first significant interracial gathering to discuss civil rights in America.
Former delegates eventually formed the core of many NAACP chapters that formed in cities across the nation in 1909.
Prince Hall Masons
Overall was a leading member of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Nebraska. Overall was a 33rd degree Prince Hall Mason and held several prominent positions in both the Ohio and Missouri jurisdictions.
His experience as a Prince Hall Mason started in Chicago in 1856, when he became joined the North Star Lodge, No. 1. In 1865, he was elected as Junior and Senior Warden, and Master for two years. Under the jurisdiction of Ohio, Overall was elected Grand Junior Warden in 1865.
Overall became the Master of Rough Ashler Lodge, No. 74 of Omaha, which is under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Missouri. He was also the District Deputy Grand Master for that Lodge. He became a member of the Supreme Council of the Thirty-third degree for the southern and western jurisdiction of the United States, and the Deputy Grand Inspector General of the Grand Consistory for the State of Nebraska.
Edwin Overall died in July 1901. His funeral was held at St. Philip Episcopal Church and led by Rev. John Albert Williams; he was eulogized by both white and Black leaders from throughout the city. His grave is at Prospect Hill Cemetery.
Today, there are no memorials to Overall. Perhaps in the future Omaha will recognize this great leader who transformed the city and the nation in a time and a way few people achieved.
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