One of the most powerful African American civil rights activists in Omaha history is one of the least talked about. Outstanding among his peers, one minister was committed to Black equality and power, and struggled mightily for the movement. After decades of challenge though, he succumbed to the pressure and died defeated. This is the story of North Omaha’s Rev. Russel Taylor.
Bookish Kid Becomes a Minister
Born to formerly enslaved parents in rural Missouri, Russel Taylor (1871-1933) was a precocious child who consumed learning. His parents, who were enslaved in Virginia, moved their family to a sod house near Seward, Nebraska in the early 1880s. His father was John Russel Taylor (1838-1924). He had several siblings, including an older brother named Joseph who lived in North Omaha, and another named Otis who lived in Lincoln.
A bookish kid, Taylor was the valedictorian at Seward High School before he went to divinity school at the original Bellevue College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1894. He was the only Black student there.
After starting his theological graduate studies at the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1896, Rev. Taylor went to Lane Presbyterian Seminary in Ohio, where he graduated in 1898. His studies were sponsored by the church’s Board of Missions for Freedmen, which formed at the end of the Civil War in 1865.
He married Henrietta Scroggins of Omaha in 1899, and began his ministry immediately afterwards. The couple eventually had 10 children.
The Role of Empire
Over the next 20 years, Rev. Taylor ministered at a Black church in Langston, Oklahoma, where he was also a professor at Langston University, the only HBCU in Oklahoma. Later moving to Virginia, then Tennessee, he launched a “model school” in New Market County there.
In 1911, he moved to a new town called Empire, Wyoming. Founded by Omaha locals Charles and Rosetta Speese in 1908, Empire was located on the western Nebraska border. The Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen sent Rev. Taylor to the town with his wife, children and mother-in-law. Through determination and boldness, he quickly became a leader in the community.
Russell Taylor used Wyoming’s segregation law to successful start an independent school for African-American children in Empire—free from the domination of the all-white school board in neighboring Torrington, Wyoming. Taylor believed that African-American children had the right to learn from a role model who belonged to their race. Russell Taylor wrote numerous letters to the editor of local papers in Wyoming and Nebraska stating that he and other African-American citizens in Empire were often denied service and lodging at restaurants and hotels in Torrington.
In almost a decade there, Rev. Taylor was responsible for starting and leading the Empire school (1910) and getting a post office (1912) for the town, as well as starting, then opening a new building (1916) for the Grace Presbyterian Church in Empire. Rev. Taylor also pastored at a church in Nebraska called the Sheep Creek Presbyterian Church. Both were integrated congregations with white members.
The town faced racism constantly through, and white people showed hatred in countless ways. From 50 families in 1910 to 35 in 1920, the town declined quickly. Rev. Taylor’s brother was murdered by the county sheriff and his own son was shot by a deputy sheriff without cause. White supremacists choked the town’s livelihood as more and more white people refused to buy Black-made farm products and shop in the stores there. By 1930, Empire had largely emptied out and only had four residents left. However, Rev. Taylor and his family had left nearly a decade earlier.
Moving to Omaha
In 1920, Rev. Taylor was invited by the Omaha Presbytery to open a segregated congregation in North Omaha. He moved his family from Empire to the city where the lynching of Will Brown happened just months before, Rev. Taylor quickly became a leader in Omaha, too.
Originally called the Seward Street Presbyterian Church, Rev. Taylor organized the new congregation in a church built by the Omaha Presbytery. Soon renamed St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, it was located at North 26th and Seward Streets. In the next few years St. Paul’s became an important location for the Omaha civil rights movement.
Rev. Taylor was a dedicated musician, both as a singer and conductor. For several years, he conducted massive choral performances of 90 and more performers for massive white audiences in the Omaha auditorium with more than 3,000 attendees for several years. He and several of his sons formed a singing group too, regularly performing in their own church as well as in community-wide performances. During this time, Rev. Taylor was a constant collaborator with Dan Desdunes.
From the start of his move to Omaha, Rev. Taylor was involved in several efforts to organize Black people to advocate for civil rights and more. For instance, he quickly became a leader of the new Omaha Colored Commercial Club. Operating as a commerce and employment bureau, the club was led by Harrison Pinkett, Rev. Taylor, and others, and the office for the was located in the Elks Club.
During this era, Rev. Taylor advocated for segregated schools and communities for Omaha’s African American population. He believed Black people could teach Black children better than white people could, and Black neighbors would be better neighbors than white neighbors would.
In 1924, Rev. Taylor ran to become a member of the Omaha School Board. It was a surprise move though, because he ran against his friend and fellow African American minister Rev. John Albert Williams, who was also leading civil rights efforts. They were good friends: Rev. Williams officiated at Rev. Taylor’s wedding 24 years earlier, and their families had Sunday dinners together every week. Surprising Rev. Williams with his run, Rev. Taylor actually secured the endorsement of the president of the NAACP over Rev. Williams! However, with 32 other candidates on the ballot, both men lost their run for office. The families went on with their friendship though, and kept having Sunday dinners together.
Rev. Taylor’s father passed away in 1924 in Lincoln. Apparently, during this same era his activism made his congregation very uncomfortable. In 1924, he was released from the congregation and not assigned to another church.
In early 1925, a mysterious fire destroyed the St. Paul Presbyterian Church. Later, they bought a new church and reformed as the Hillside Presbyterian Church.
Preaching in churches throughout the city, Rev. Taylor did not stop being involved in North Omaha. In 1927, he was the secretary of the Omaha Urban League. Leaving Omaha that year, he went to minister in Ridgeway, Virginia, where he served as a minister. He lived in nearby Chestnut Knobs, he developed Parkinson’s disease and died in 1933. His wife moved back to Omaha afterwards. At his death, he was credited with establishing St. Paul and the subsequent Hillside Presbyterian Church.
Today, there are no signs in Omaha of the congregations he founded or the activism he forwarded.
You Might Like…
- History of Hillside Presbyterian Church
- Tour of the Civil Rights Movement in Omaha
- People from North Omaha History
- History of Black Churches in Omaha
- “The Kingdom of Heaven at Hand”: Rev. Russel Taylor and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1920s Omaha” by Todd Guenther for Nebraska History (2011)
- “Empire, Wyoming (1908-1930)” by Richelle Rawlings-Carroll for BlackPast (2019)
- “Reverend Russel Taylor” by the National Park Service
- “Empire, Wyoming” by Robert Galbreath for Historic Wyoming (2016)