Black people in Omaha have celebrated, uplifted and empowered Black culture in the city for more than 150 years. Sometimes there are events and places that become synonymous with these celebrations. One of these happened for more than 25 years. This is a history of North Omaha’s Stone Soul Picnic.
Before this Phenomenon
Starting in the 1870s, Black community leaders in Omaha rallied the community to join together to celebrate Black music, faith, civil rights, and to just hang out. The Emancipation Day celebrations from the 1870s through 1900 were mostly large public events with music, food and entertainment for Black people to simply enjoy and have good times. From 1900 through the 1920s, Juneteenth celebrations were vibrant throughout North Omaha, with churches, social clubs and various organizations sponsoring and leading the events. Different forms of these events happened through the decades. From my read of Omaha’s Black history from the 1920s through into the early 1950s, it was like a party nearly every weekend in the 24th and Lake Historic District. Music flowed from more than a dozen nightclubs, alcohol ran freely after Prohibition ended, and was served up and down 24th Street during that, and there were parades and marches along the Deuce and elsewhere throughout the summers.
Starting in the mid-1950s, businesses along North 24th Street starting closing en masse, leaving the Black community reeling from a lack of purchasing power, an absence of investment, and a general malaise. With new wars in Korea and Vietnam, young Black men were being sent overseas in disproportionate numbers to the rest of Omaha. Those who were left behind simmered, and starting in 1966 fires, looting and other violence during the riots of the late 1960s ravished the community.
Its against this backdrop that the first Stone Soul Picnic happened on July 4, 1971.
A History of the Event
The first annual Stone Soul Picnic was held at Levi Carter Park in 1971. Organized by the Near North YMCA, the Wesley House and the Black-owned KOWH radio station, it was hosted by the Great Plains Black History Museum. The event was named after the 1968 song by Fifth Dimension.
For many years it was sponsored by the Omaha Star, Coca-Cola Bottling, Larry’s Food Station, and other businesses in North Omaha and beyond. Many people are given credit or claim credit for organizing the original event, including community organizer Dr. Rodney Wead, photographer Rudy Smith (19??-2008), historian Bertha Calloway and entertainment promoter Andre Davis (19??-2016). Myrtle Ford (1939-2014), a worker with the City of Omaha Parks and Recreation Department, was said to have been the inspiration for the Stone Soul Picnic.
Over three-plus decades, the picnic featured all kinds of music, including stepping bands, jazz, blues, rock, hip hop, and more. As the eminent recreational event for the entire African American community of Omaha to come together, it was treated as a huge party for the July 4th week. According to Tekla Ali Johnson, the event had classic R&B, jazz, and some live performances. Omaha’s hip hop community claims early roots at the event.
Johnson also reflected that during the 1970s and 80s, families pitched tents and pulled in campers around Carter Lake to spend up to four days camping, eating, and socializing with their neighbors. Everyone was encouraged to bring their own supplies, including food, chairs and more. Others said that regular barbecue and fun times playing dominos, baseball, badminton and backgammon were the most important things for them. There were pickup games of football and basketball throughout the weekend, and everyone had fun. There was also an associated softball tournament for the first time in 1974, which happened annually for several years afterward.
The first year had a thousand attendees; the second year had as many as 10,000 attendees. In 1975, there were 20,000 attendees. Attendance estimates always varied wildly, with the Omaha Police Department reporting approximately 3,000 to 4,000 attendees annually, and organizers reporting up to 25,000 attendees regularly. In 1980, the event reported 5,000 attendees.
More Than Music
In addition to the music, historian and Black history advocate Bertha Calloway made traveling presentations and displays at the Stone Soul Picnic for the Great Plains Black History Museum for more than a decade. Her displays featured African American women, Black labor, and other important topics. The displays included photos and objects and encouraged viewers to go to visit the museum after the picnic.
Over the years, booths were set up for food and food trucks served the crowds, too.
Along with Calloway’s displays, there were also judo and karate demonstrations, watersports, general photography exhibits, and more. Omaha artist Oscar Pulliam was one of six Black artists displaying at the first event. There were also workshops with accomplished artists from throughout Omaha focused on form, style and technique.
In 1973, Metro Area Transit started offering direct bus shuttles from 24th and Cuming to 24th and Ames leading directly to the picnic throughout the event. This went on into the 1990s.
In 1974, the first-ever Malcolm X Day parade and picnic was held just two weeks before the Stone Soul Picnic at the Malcolm X Park. While it lasted for several years and had thousands of attendees, that event never overshadowed Stone Soul.
For the first time that same year the Stone Soul Picnic included a “cultural expo of the Black community,” coordinated by the picnic committee and the North YMCA. As part of the event, artists, musicians, exhibitors and others were invited to present during the event. Organizers wanted to encourage more public involvement and cooperation among the community, and to “emphasize and encourage… [and] enhance pride, beauty, Blackness and self-awareness.” 60 exhibits were included as part of the expo that year.
The event grew enormously in 1975. Along with the 2nd annual King and Queen announcement based on a new essay contest, the event was punctuated by speeches from Ed Castleberry from the Mutual Black Network, and Charles H. Ivery of the United States Jay Cees. There was also a new 10-round boxing exhibition from promoter Morris Jackson, featuring four former Golden Gloves winners. The organizers announced 20,000 people attended more than twelve hours of daily programming that year.
The Total Experience nightclub at North 16th and Wirt Streets sponsored the all-night Stone Soul Picnic Disco in 1976. There was also a parade that year, but attendance dipped to 6,000 people.
In 1977, the Omaha Star advertised an appreciation event for volunteers at the event that was held in late August.
The last Stone Soul Picnic Parade was held in 1978.
At the 10th annual picnic, the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation was one of the primary exhibitors. Activists led by Senator Ernie Chambers collected signatures protesting the ongoing development of the North Freeway, and the “Miss Cutie Pie” contest grand prize was given to Lisa Tucker.
For the first time, in 1983 the Omaha Police Department threatened the organizers of the picnic that they would prohibit the event without better crowd control and traffic control during the activities. With 7,000 attendees, there was a shooting at the event, and an ambulance was prevented from saving the victim because of traffic.
That year, the organizing committee said it had organized “about five security guards” for the event, while the police department said they couldn’t “afford to assign police officers to patrol the picnic other than those officers regularly assigned to the area.” A spokesman for the department said, “The citizens should not have to bear the cost of that,” a clear racist dog whistle reference to white taxpayers paying for African Americans socializing, organizing, and relaxing at the event, as if white people were the only ones paying taxes.
Late that year the sensationalized coverage of the shooting by the Omaha media, including the television stations and newspaper, was criticized by local activists. At a community event, organizers protested that the media hyper-focused on the shooting while ignoring the rest of the event. Meanwhile, the media kept focus on the shooting through the months afterward.
Back to Normal
In 1984, the Charles Drew Health Center had a booth at the picnic for public health screenings. Even with new security and traffic controls through, the image was damaged and attendance was the lowest it had been since starting in 1971.
The event was cancelled in 1985 for lack of funds. The organizing committee continued collecting funds to for “other charitable, scientific, educational and recreational pursuits.”
The picnic was dormant for many years, and then was dormant again for eight years starting in 1995. That year, the Midwest Guardians and the Omaha Black Professional Firefighters Association sponsored the gathering for 1,000 people. However, it didn’t happen again for several years. In 2002, the Great Plains Black History Museum sought to launch the event again, but failed after claiming it hadn’t been held in two decades.
The event was revived in 2003. Featuring children’s games, face painting, a watermelon – eating contest, pie and barbecue competitions, basketball, and races, there were drill teams and performances at the event. 2,000 people were anticipated at the picnic that year.
According to the Omaha Police Department, there were 6,200 people at the 2005 picnic. In 2006, approximately 7,600 attendees came. rapper E-40 and Rick Ross played, and temperatures topped 100 degrees.
2006 was the last time the Stone Soul Picnic was reported on in the media. There have been rumors it existed as recently as 2016, but I can’t find any evidence of that.
After It Ended
Native Omahan and entertainment guru Cathy Hughes brought the concept of the picnic to Baltimore, Maryland, starting one there happened for more than a decade. Many other events have emerged in Omaha with similar goals or familiar themes, including the PTBFNO, or Proud to Be from North Omaha, picnic and the Native Omaha Days.
Today, there are no monuments or memorials to this event at Levi Carter Park or elsewhere in Omaha. Although the event lives on in peoples’ memories, there are no signs that it lives on anywhere else in any form.
Have memories? Share them in the comments section!