Because of Jim Crow in Omaha, Black people weren’t allowed to stay in fancy downtown hotels for more than a century. This made room for Black entrepreneurs in North Omaha to stay up and provide warm, comfortable, safe, and upscale places to stay for Black sportsmen, entertainers, and others for several decades. These places were listed in the Green Book, and were called Black hotels. This is the history of one such facility, referred to early on as Myrtle Washington’s “high class boarding house,” and later as the Willis Hotel.
The house on the southwest corner of North 22nd and Willis Avenue was built around 1885. Originally located in the countryside north of Omaha, it became a center point in the Near North Side neighborhood. There were eventually several iconic African American institutions near the home, including the St. John’s AME Church across the street, the Midwest Athletic Club at the end of the block, the Zion Baptist Church a block away, and the Myers Funeral Home a block away.
The house was built with 12 rooms and a four-car garage. A 1.5 cross-gramble structure, the house featured a three-story turret and a sitting window, both located above the large living room. In a 1910 real estate ad, the home was listed with a floor-by-floor description. It read:
- Basement and laundry: toilet, hot and cold water, cistern pump, chute for soiled clothes from bathroom, large hot air furnace with outside and inside air ducts.
- First floor: Screened porch, 10 feet wide, tiled vestibule, heavy beveled plate glass doors, hard wood finish, grates and mantels in the parlor and living room, electric wall switches in every room. Side wall and ceiling light fixtures, living room and dining room recently canvassed and painted, storm windows, full length screens, awnings. Rear porch screened and provided with winter storm enclosure.
- Third floor: Maid’s room, electric light, large closet. Balance of this floor large room fully furnished, suitable for a billiard room.
- Second floor: Four bedrooms, two with grates and mantels, lavatories, full length window screens, storm windows, awnings, electric wall switches in every room. Large closets with shelves, drawers, etc, wall and ceiling light fixtures.
- Bathroom: Nautilus closet, enameled, bath tub, marble lavatory, soiled clothes chute to laundry in basement.
The ad also said there were “Separate shutoffs to all water connections in the house. Automatic gas light switches to parlor, living room, and two bedrooms. Fifteen ton hard coal bin in basement, separate soft coal bin, full electric light lamps.”
This was a substantial house.
A businessman named James W. Nicholson owned the home from at least 1900 to 1909. Nicholson and his wife were socialites, and their events at home were frequently written up in local newspapers and included long lists of the Omaha elite who attended. Nicholson was a coffee broker in Omaha, and he and his wife were active volunteers in the Methodist church. In 1910, the Nicholson family moved out. In an advertisement from the newspapers, the house was described as “an elegant home.”
In 1912, M.B. Christman owned the house.
Becoming a “High Class Boarding House”
By 1920, the home was owned by Myrtle Washington. Ms. Washington owned the home for several decades. It was 1921 when the Omaha World-Herald first referred to “Myrtle Washington’s high class boarding house” in a story about two African American boxers coming to Omaha and staying there. The hotel only advertised in Black newspapers, including the Omaha Guide and the Omaha Star.
A number of famous boxers, singers, musicians, and other entertainers stayed at Ms. Washington’s house over the decades. One of Omaha’s African American criminal bosses, Ollie Jackson, stayed there for several years between 1927 and 1935. In 1929, the home was raided by the Omaha Police Department Morals Squad under suspicion that Jackson running a gambling ring there. 17 people were arrested that night.
Several other crimes were reported at the home in the 1930s. In 1937, a traveling Black musician was living in a trailer parked at the house when he was beaten, but refused to tell police how or why. James Richardson was arrested at the house in 1939 when the morals squad raided another house where he was said be be the “keeper of a disorderly house.” 13 people were arrested there except Richardson, who went home to Ms. Washington’s house. They arrested him there.
After his mother retired around 1941, her son Lee Washington ran the house and called it the Nalda Hotel. Throughout the years, Washington also owned the Ritz Cafe, the Elite Billiard Parlor, and Apex Bar, all iconic North Omaha businesses.
In 1942, Ernest Britt ran a business called “The Willis Hotel Dinette” at the hotel. It was a 24-hour restaurant offering hot breakfast, dinners, bar-b-que, fried chicken, and more.
Three years later, Britt bought it from Lee Washington, who ran it after his mother, Myrtle Washington. When it was sold, the house was advertised as having 22 beds, and Britt was happy he could offer accommodations to guests after serving them big meals.
It was 1946 when Charles B. Washington, North Omaha icon, was arrested at the house, where he was staying, for forgery. Another roomer was arrested there in 1949 for stealing someone’s beer.
The hotel’s usage dropped in the 1950s, and by 1964 the house was advertising rooms for rent. As the neighborhood around it was demolished and denigrated by the City of Omaha and white property owners determined to drive out African Americans, the condition of the Willis Hotel fell even further.
The house was condemned as a vacant property in 1969. However, despite the City’s repeated attacks on old houses in the Near North Side, it was re-occupied and stood for almost another 40 years.
After serving as a daycare for several years, the house was demolished in 2017. Today, the lot is owned by the Jesuit Academy located across the street. There is no recognition of the site’s historical relevance to Omaha though, and nobody remembers what was there for so long.