Jim Crow kept African Americans from staying in Omaha’s white hotels for more than a century. Black businesspeople in the community responded by opening Black hotels where travelers could stay, enjoy creature comforts, and relax in spaces that were unburdened by white supremacy. The Calhoun Hotel was one such business, called a Black hotel because it was owned by Black people for Black customers, open in the 24th and Lake Historic District from 1946 to 1962.
Opening the Calhoun Hotel
In 1946, Black businessman Will Calhoun (1908-1959) opened the Calhoun Hotel at 2423 Lake Street, just west of 24th and Lake. An 18-room hotel, each room was “clean, neat, and [had] all access to a sanitary and modern bath room.” It was located just west of the Duffy Drug Store, an iconic longtime business on the southwest corner of 24th and Lake, and across the street from 2410 Lake Street, which during the life of the hotel would have been home to the Savoy Cafe, the Lake Street Bowling Alley, and later, the Lake Theater. A dinner club called the Off Beat opened there in 1952.
Born in Tyler, Texas in 1908, Calhoun told C.C. Galloway of the Omaha Guide, “I came through Omaha in 1941 and I was unable to find a room. It has been my idea of entering the hotel business in Omaha since then… I really intend it to just be a transient hotel for people coming through Omaha: waiters, entertainers, travelers, and the numerous people whose business and pleasure bring them to our city.” Having been discharged from the US Army in 1945, he returned to Omaha quickly to open his business. He started renovating the building in May 1946, and opened it in August of that year. He immediately became involved in the North Omaha’s American Legion Post #30, and did other activities to ingratiate himself to the community.
Hosting the Famous
Over the years, many notable African Americans stayed at the Calhoun Hotel. They included musicians, athletes, entertainers, and others. Many of there names have been lost to time; here are just a few I could identify.
Olympic star Jesse Owens stayed at the hotel in 1946. He was traveling with the Kansas City Stars Black basketball team, which also stayed there.
Calhoun had several enterprises going at the same time, and often intertwined them. After launching the Omaha Rockets Independent Black Baseball Team in 1947, Calhoun hosted his own players in his hotel, as well as others. According to a 1984 Omaha Star interview with Bob Boozer, as a young man he would mascot for the variety of traveling Black baseball teams would stay at the hotel over the decades, including the Homestead Greys, Birmingham Black Barons, Memphis Red Sox, Kansas City Monarchs and the Chicago Black Sox. These stays came from Calhoun using his baseball connections to make sure they stayed at his hotel.
Young B.B. King and young Ray Charles, both of who played at Mildred Brown’s Carnation Ballroom and stayed at the hotel.
Problems With The Law
Like any hotel, there were brawls and other problems with the law at the Calhoun Hotel. However, as a successful Black businessman in Omaha during one of its deepest Jim Crow eras, Will Calhoun seems like a special target for the Omaha Police Department.
In March 1952, Calhoun was charged with second degree murder after shooting a man in his hotel. While Mrs. Calhoun was cleaning rooms one day, she came across a man sleeping there without paying. When he refused to leave, Mr. Calhoun confronted him. When the man began storming Mr. Calhoun, he shot him in the neck, killing him instantly. In court through, a county attorney testified that Bailey was shot in the back, and said the coroner’s report, “breaks down Calhoun’s story that he fired in self-defense.” Denying his guilt, Calhoun repeated the story of self-defense. Calhoun posted bail and walked, but the case wasn’t cleared. In 1956, it was brought up by the Omaha World-Herald because of its length, but the court explained that multiple delays had been requested by the defense because of the health of the defendant, Mr. Calhoun.
The Omaha Police Department Morals Squad conducted a “routine search” of the Calhoun Hotel and found a “wagon load of clothing” there in 1954. They arrested Will and Ann, and Will later said the clothes were “hot.” Calhoun also supposedly admitted to bootlegging at the hotel, and “a large quantity of liquor was taken.” The Calhouns were cleared of all charges by a police judge though, and walked free.
Annie May (Ann) Calhoun (1922-1994) was married to Will Calhoun in Las Vegas in 1955.
In April 1955, the Omaha Police Department raided the hotel again and charged four people for indecency, and arrested two of them. Ann Calhoun was arrested for “being a keeper of an ill-governed house,” but charges were cleared by a judge.
The Morals Squad used as an informant to arrest Will Calhoun again in March 1957. Raiding the hotel at 2am in the morning, the booked Mr. Calhoun on a bootlegging charge.
In 1958, Will Calhoun was sued for divorce by Ann Calhoun, who claimed “cruel and inhuman conduct” and alleged that he threatened “great bodily harm” to her. In divorce filings, Mrs. Calhoun said the hotel earned about $500 monthly. However, the filings did not clear the court and the couple stayed married.
Will Calhoun died of a heart problem in 1959.
After he died, Mrs. Calhoun ran the hotel on her own, and over the next decade she built a very positive reputation for herself in the community. She was involved in a variety of charities, including the YWCA and the church.
However, in 1962, Mrs. Calhoun lost a court case against her. Apparently she’d crashed through an intersection, and the judge awarded a $20,300 judgment against her. Shortly after, she closed the hotel and moved to California.
When she passed away in 1994, the Omaha Star wrote, “She is still quite well known in North Omaha.”
The building was demolished after 1980, and today the site is occupied by the Lake Point Center of the Family Housing Advisory Services.
Today, there is no historic plaque designating the importance of this site to the history of the African American community in Omaha.