Oftentimes, great leaders take their place in history. However, this right hasn’t been given to many African American leaders, especially in Omaha, Nebraska.
One such leader single-handedly roused a generation of political activism, social consciousness, and deliberate action to improve the conditions of newly liberated Black people who settled in Omaha when it was a very young city. Throughout most of his life, he dedicated himself fighting for civil rights. This is a biography of Edwin Overall.
Edwin R. Overall (1835–1901) was an African American leader long before he came to Omaha in 1869. Before the Civil War, he was 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. He married Margaret (1833-1885) in Chicago in 1859, and when she died he married Mary (18??–1930) in Omaha around 1887.
Edwin’s children included:
- Eulalia Overall (18??–????)
- Ida Overall (1860–????)
- Maud E. Overall (18??–1886)
- Victoria Overall (1867–1918)
- Florence Esther Overall Crews (1868–1916)
- Norman Overall (1871–1894)
- Guy Leonard Overall (1876–1929)
Victoria, Eula, and Ida were both teachers. Victoria applied to become the first African American teacher in Omaha but wasn’t hired; Ida was one of the first in the 1890s.
Overall a Good Career
In 1875, Edwin Overall’s father died. Apparently, the man had a fortune left to Overall as an inheritance. With this inheritance and his business acumen, he became one of Omaha’s wealthiest citizens. He invested widely in real estate and was a director and later president of the Missouri and Nebraska Coal Mining Company. The company’s mine was sixteen miles from Plattsmouth.
A few years after arriving in Omaha, Overall was hired to be a the first Black mail carrier in Nebraska. Working from the downtown post office, he was well thought of. Eighteen years after his death, one newspaper said Overall was, “one of the oldest and most highly respected letter carriers in the city.”
Fighting Jim Crow
Within a few years, he was the leading political leader among new city’s Black population. The first notable action Overall took was the spring of 1872 when he led a group of parents to challenge the Omaha School District’s segregation policy. After legal wrangling, they succeeded in having the school closed in the fall of 1872. Black students were sent to the school nearest to their homes.
Led by Cyrus Bell, Edwin Overall, Emanuel S. Clenlans (c. 1841–after 1914), H. W. Coesley, and Gabriel Young, African Americans in Omaha were widely considered to be shoe-in voters for the Republican Party. However, during this era some Black leaders in Omaha pushed back on that supposition and insisted that the city’s pluralistic, non-monolithic Black community shouldn’t be party loyalists, and couldn’t be assumed to always vote liberal.
In 1876, Dr. Stephenson was among a group of Black men who organized the Nebraska Convention of Colored Men. Other organizers included Edwin R. Overall, William R. Gamble (c1850–1910), and Rev. W. H. Wilson (birth and death dates unknown). Wilson served as president of the meeting, Curry, Lewis, and J. C. Boone as vice presidents, and Cyrus Bell as secretary. The convention met to discuss lynching and to select delegates for the National Convention of Colored Men in Nashville later that year. Dr. Stephenson, Rev. Wilson, and Gamble were selected as national delegates, with Curry, John Lewis, Calvin Montgomery (birth and death dates unknown), and P. Hampton as alternates.
It was 1879 when Ida Overall, Edwin Overall’s daughter, became the first Black woman to graduate from Omaha High School, and from any high school in Nebraska.
For several years starting in 1879, a celebration of the anniversary of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was held at the Masonic Hall, with Edwin Overall and Cyrus Bell as the main speakers. The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It was ratified on February 3, 1870. During his speech, Overall highlighted the numbers of ex-Confederate officers and supporters who were getting elected to federal offices, while Bell focused on the need for Black people to vote independently. He also emphasized that emancipation alone did not bring Black people full citizenship.
In 1880, the Nebraska State Convention of Colored Americans met and was led by Edwin Overall, Dr. Stephenson, James O. Adams, John R. Simpson, Peter Williams, and Benjamin Fulton. Both Overall and Dr. Stephenson wanted to be candidates for the Nebraska Legislature that year, but they were denied by Omaha’s Republican Party.
The first state convention of Black people ever held in Nebraska was in Omaha in 1882. A political gathering, it was part of a larger national movement of social and political events held by African Americans across the country. These gatherings led to the development of larger African American organizations, including the Colored National Labor Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. At the convention, Black community leader Dr. Stephenson was endorsed as a Republican candidate for Nebraska Legislature. A group at the convention called the Workingmen’s Central Committee endorsed Edwin Overall for the same nomination. Cyrus Bell felt that was irregular and protested that Overall was achieving his nomination by unfair methods. Overall was chosen as the Nebraska delegate to the National Convention of Colored Men, along with Dr. Stephenson, William Gamble, the Rev. W. W. H. Wilson. Other men were chosen as delegates for the same event in 1883, including Gamble.
Also in 1887, a group of prominent African American leaders formed the Omaha Colored Men’s League. Providing legal aid for African Americans unjustly charged with crime, they represented William Ferguson (1873–1890) in the murder of a Swedish immigrant in 1888. Ferguson was 15-years-old, and moved to Omaha on his own three years earlier. He was sentenced to life in prison, and died in 1890. That year, the organization was led by Dr. Ricketts, along with Edwin Overall, Silas Robbins, Richard Gamble, Vic Walker, Millard Singleton, Cyrus Bell, and others. The Omaha Colored Men’s League continued until 1900.
As usual, events across the United States continued to affect African Americans in Omaha. In 1890, the National Afro-American League was formed in Rochester, New York. Dedicated to racial solidarity and self-help, there was a chapter started immediately in Omaha. However, the national organization floundered within the next several years, and in 1898 it was renamed the National Afro-American Council and continued operating until 1907. Many of Omaha’s Black activists including George F. Franklin (1852–1901), Millard Singleton, Emanuel Clenlans, William Gamble, Alphonso Wilson and Edwin Overall were all active leaders within the city’s chapter. At the meeting, Dr. Ricketts offered a particularly damning speech condemning white supremacy in politics.
Calling for Black solidarity, a local newspaper quoted Dr. Ricketts saying,
“The use of which has been made of the Afro-American voter by all political parties has been proverbial. We have helped by our efforts to carry men into power who, when secure in the results of our efforts, have done nothing for us. I am reminded of the old colored man who went to heaven’s gate and asked for admittance. ‘Are you afoot or horseback,’ asked St. Peter. ‘I’m afoot.’ said the suppliant. ‘Then you can’t come in,’ said the doorkeeper. The Afro-American went back down the hill and met the Honorable ‘Billy’ Mahone who said he could arrange it all right. ‘You go down on your hands and knees and I’ll ride up to the door and then we’ll both go in,’ he said to the colored brother. So they came to the gate. To the question of the saint, Mahone said he was riding and not afoot. ‘Well,’ said St. Peter, ‘tie your horse outside and come in.’ Gentlemen, we have been hewers of wood for years, but we haven’t been near the fire; we have been drawers of water, but have gone thirsty. Let us be of no party but the Afro-American party.”Dr. Matthew Ricketts in 1890
This didn’t end Black involvement in political parties by any measure though. After several attempts in the 1880s, in 1890 Edwin Overall finally gained the Republican Party nomination for the Nebraska Legislature. However, he lost the election. Omaha’s Black newspaper, The Progress, believed that if white Republicans had voted for him, Overall would have been elected. It was the newspaper’s opinion that Overall’s loss resulted from racist voting by Omaha Republicans.
During this era, hotels in Omaha were segregated by Jim Crow practices. In 1890, the first hotel for African Americans in Omaha was opened and run by a Mr. Lewis at 10th and Capitol Streets. That same year, Edwin Overall became the first African American candidate for the Nebraska State Legislature. He lost the campaign. An African American Baptist minister named Rev. George R. Woodbey ran for Lieutenant Governor of Nebraska for the Nebraska Prohibition Party. He and his wife, Rev. Anna R. Woodbey, were both active in the anti-alcohol movement, as well as active ministers in a number of churches.
Edwin Overall ran as a Populist for the Omaha City Commission in 1893. The first African American in Omaha to run for office, he finished 18th in a field of 23 candidates running at-large for nine of 18 seats.
Being Black at the Expo
African Americans in Omaha knew the importance of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition. Gearing up for the event, there were debates for a few years over whether there should be an exhibit to represent Black people in Omaha.
For instance, in 1896 Overall started a movement for Omaha to host a “National Congress of Afro-Americans” during the Expo. He was elected temporary chairman of a steering committee to plan the event, and gained support from several corners. Overcoming critics with diplomacy and joint leadership, eventually he led the community forward.
Because of Overall’s leadership, several important events for African Americans were held in the months during the Expo. For instance, the National Colored Personal Liberty League Annual Convention was held there. The group that brought it was made of Overall, Rev. Williams, and Cyrus Bell. The city’s Black press industry was involved too, hosting a meeting of the National Colored Press Association as well as a meeting of the Western Negro Press Association.
Ultimately though, one of Overall’s main accomplishments during the Expo was organizing the Congress of White and Colored Americans. This so-called “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 though, 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 finally 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 More Respectful 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. After pledging the meet again, the event was declared a success. Former delegates eventually formed the core of many NAACP chapters that formed in cities across the nation in 1909.
However, in 1899 Overall announced the cancelation of the follow-up meeting. An announcement was printed in the newspaper where Overall declared, “the urgency for a better understanding between the classes of American citizens contemplated by the Congress is becoming more apparent daily, but at this time it appears expedient to postpone the meeting until such time as may be more favorable for such a successful meeting.”
The End of Overall
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 family’s burial plot is at Prospect Hill Cemetery.
In 1973 and 1977, Fred Conley ran for the Omaha City Council in the at-large format and each time finished 18th – just as the first African American candidate, Edwin Overall, did some 70 years earlier.
Today, there are no busts show his likeness and no street names celebrate his accomplishments. There is little acknowledgment anywhere in Omaha of this dedicated, powerful, and prescient leader.
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