Some people in North Omaha’s history have risen above dire circumstances to succeed. Fighting segregation, apathy and white supremacy throughout her industry, one woman became an international business titan and the second richest Black woman in America whose long shadow inspires thousands today. This is a biography of North Omaha native Cathy Hughes.
For more than 50 years, the Logan Fontenelle Projects were painted as a haven for suffering and pain. Originally, African American residents were segregated from white people, then when white flight struck the projects, Logan Fontenelle was used to isolate low-income Black people from white people. It was into this environment that Catherine Woods was born in 1947.
After World War II, the projects were known as a rough but sturdy community for Black kids to grow up in. Playing happened everywhere, sports were available, and school was an option for success. The neighborhood around Logan Fontenelle Projects was called the Near North Side, because it was deeply segregated by then, the Black community within it was close knit and determined. Black-owned businesses lined North 24th Street and movie theaters including the Ritz, the Alhambra and the Lothrop catered to Black audiences. It was to this background that Cathy was born as the first of four children to Helen Jones Woods (1923-2020) and William Alfred Woods. Helen was a nationally-regarded trombonist with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and William was the first African-American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University.
Moving to the newly integrated neighborhood at North 32nd Street and Paxton Boulevard, young Cathy graduated from high school at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in 1964. She was active in Omaha’s NAACP Youth Council in her teens, along with attending the When she was 17 years old, Cathy was kicked out of her family’s house for getting pregnant.
Soon after, Cathy went to work for Mildred Brown as an advertising salesperson at the Omaha Star. It was there that she caught the bug for making media, and her career never stopped afterwards. After going to both Creighton and the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the late 1960s, it was 1969 when Cathy began working at the Black-owned and Black-focused radio station in Omaha called KOWH-FM.
By 1972 Cathy moved from Omaha to Washington, DC. Her career soared from there. She became the program manager of WHUR-FM, a radio station owned by Howard University. In 1979, she bought her first radio station and started Radio One. Cathy took the last name Hughes from her second marriage in 1979, which ended in 1987.
Afterward she grew her network, and today her company Radio One operates 65 radio stations. Howard University named the Cathy Hughes School of Communications in 2016, and she’s received countless other awards since. She was appointed to Creighton’s Board of Trustees in 2020. She is also a member of the board of directors at Piney Woods Country Life School, which her father founded in 1909.
Today her son runs the Radio One network, and Cathy is semi-retired. A lifelong Catholic, she attends St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church when in Omaha.
Cathy has many “firsts” under her belt, including…
- First woman vice president and general manager of a radio station in Washington, DC
- First African-American woman to chair a publicly held corporation traded on the U.S. Stock Exchange
- First woman to own a radio station that was ranked number one in a major market
- First Black woman inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters’ Broadcasting Hall of Fame
Her life was included in a PBS series called “Trauma to Triumph: The Rise of the Entrepreneur,” which screened in 2022.
You Might Like…
- People from North Omaha History
- A History of KOWH, North Omaha’s Radio Station
- A History of North Omaha’s Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects