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This is a history of the Native Omaha Festival, formerly called Native Omaha Days, by Adam Fletcher Sasse for NorthOmahaHistory.com.

A History of the Native Omahans Festival

Celebrations, parades and special events have been a part of Omaha’s African American community since the city’s inception in the 1850s. For more than 40 years, one celebration has brought together thousands of families, friends, neighborhoods and others who live in Omaha, were born in Omaha, who moved away from Omaha, and who seek to be part of what’s happening in Omaha right now. This is a history of Native Omahans Days.

The Roots of the Idea

In 1975, Vera Johnson (1927-2018) and Bettie McDonald went to an annual reunion for Black Omahans in Los Angeles that had been happening since 1963. Disappointed in it, on the bus ride back from L.A. to Omaha, Johnson and McDonald hatched a plan to launch an Omaha version. Starting a group called the Omaha Homecoming planning committee, the original members included Bettie McDonald, Vera Johnson, Fred Dixon, Toni Franklin, Joe Shobe and Evelyn Sutton. In the 2000s, Johnson told student interviewers that only 15 people attended in 1975.

Giving her own account of the roots of Native Omaha Days, the iconic Mildred Brown wrote 1977, “Annually for years the second Tuesday in August was set aside for a gathering of Sunday Schools from Black churches at Elmwood Park. Truck loads of kids and adults would make the sojourn to the West Dodge area for a day of games, contests, eating and socializing. It was the ‘Black event’ of the year. For the past 14 years, erstwhile Omahans in the Los Angeles area gather together on the first Sunday in August for a reunion. In the South, for many years, June 19th was the day when Blacks could use the ‘white’ park for a day of drinking ‘red soda pop,’ eating and festing in what was known as ‘Juneteenth.’”

The First Big One

This image is from the August 28, 1977 Native Omaha Days parade. Shown here are Dr. Earl H. Brown, Jr., Milton J. Nelum, Moses Gilliam and Forrest Phillips. Pic from the Omaha World-Herald.
This image is from the August 28, 1977 Native Omaha Days parade. Shown here are Dr. Earl H. Brown, Jr., Milton J. Nelum, Moses Gilliam and Forrest Phillips. Pic from the Omaha World-Herald.

The next time around everything took off. The August 1977 event included a social mixer, gospel night, boat ride, parade, homecoming dance, picnic and Blue Monday. Reports on the attendance that year varied, with the Omaha Star reporting 2,000 people in attendance, and the Omaha World-Herald saying 1,100 people attended the events.

On Friday, August 26th, a mixer was held at the Showcase and featured live music and dancing.

On Saturday, August 27, the parade marched north from 24th and Lake for a mile-and-a-half, with sponsorship from the Los Diablos Motorcycle Club, and leadership from the Shriner Zaha Temple #52. There was a dance at the Elks Hall afterward, along with live music and dancing at the Midwest Athletic Club and at the Showcase. From the very first year, the Stepping Saints Drill Team has been integral to the Native Omaha Days parade. According to the Omaha Star, it was the leadership of Rev. J.C. Wade, Phyllis Hicks and others that tied the team in so tightly, with the team credited as a co-sponsor of the parade for several years.

On Sunday, August 28, a massive picnic was held at Dodge Park. It featured live music from the Louie Van Band with DJ Johnny T. There were also games, a riding club, drill teams and more. That year, an old-timer describing the day told the Omaha Star that, “It was the old Sunday School Picnic, Omaha Day in Los Angeles, and Juneteenth all wrapped up into one.” A social happened at the Midwest Athletic Club that night. In a later report, the Omaha Star said 10,000 people attended the picnic with approximately 2,000 ex-Omahans registering. The World-Herald put the number of attendees at 5,000 and said the Omaha Police Department gave them that number.

Blue Monday on August 29th happened at the M&M Lounge, and included movies and snacks. The movies shown were films from Omaha’s Black community made in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. [Adam’s note: Does anyone have these now? Can they be uploaded onto Youtube? Send me an note and let me know!]

Notable among that year’s attendees was Mrs. Murl Brown Williams, who lived in Omaha at the turn of the 20th century. She told stories to the Omaha World-Herald about early Black life in Omaha. Also notable that year was a reunion of the first two graduating classes from Horace Mann Junior High School was held. This was the first of many coupled activities held in conjunction with Native Omaha Days.

The 1977 planning committee included President Joseph Shobe, Vice-President Vera L. Johnson, Secretary Shan Shobe, Sergeants-at-Arms Grant West and Barbara Hogan, Attorney James C. Hart, Jr., Chaplain Voyal Watson, Treasurer Evelyn Sutton, and Glenda Hopkins. Jessie Allen was the historian on site for all the events.

Continuing Since

This is a pic from the 1987 Native Omahan Days parade on North 24th Street in North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a pic from the 1987 Native Omahan Days parade on North 24th Street.

Soon after the first gathering, the organizers renamed the event Native Omahans Day.

1979 was the first week long celebration. The Roosevelt American Legion acted as the honor guard for the parade with support from the Air Force Marching Band. The Elks Club held a disco dance, and the parade had 52 different units participating, including walkers, bands, animals, vehicles, balloons and floats. The Louie Vann Band participated along with “the Riding Group.” The Omaha Star wrote, “All Omaha drill teams” participated, as well as a drill team from Des Moines, Iowa. The paper said, “Spectators were dazzled by the beautiful floats of the Omaha Merchant and Improvement Club.” There was a warm-up activity held a week before Native Omaha Days that year held at a private facility called Knudsen’s Farm on South 42nd Street. That event featured a hayride, and shuttles from the Showcase Lounge and the Workmen’s Club. For the regular picnic, the newspaper reported that the picnic that year had over 20,000 participants. The Blue Monday in 1979 was celebrated at the M&M Lounge, Midwest Athletic Club, Showcase, Elks, and the American Legion.

The parade in 1981 extended from Paul Street to Kansas Avenue, with a breakfast at the Pancake Tower on Cuming Street, a dance at Peony Park afterwards, and the massive Sunday picnic at Dodge Park.

From the late 1970s through the 1980s, during Native Omaha Days there were regular parties at Fair Deal Cafe and the home of Billy and Martha Melton. Charlie and Dennie Hall hosted hundreds of people in and out of their cafe, donating meals and sponsoring gatherings as well as having a shindig at their business. According to the Omaha Star, the Meltons “opened their home to literally thousands of visitors and in-town residents celebrating the event.”

By 1985, the event covered the entire weekend and included fast-pitch softball with players who were connected to the old Omaha Colored Baseball League.

In 1989, the Elks Club was the official headquarters for Native Omaha Days. Starting with registration on August 1 that year, participants watched the parade starting at North 24th and Nicholas and extending to Miller Park, with a review stand at North 24th and Wirt Street. That was the first year the parade was led by the Native Omaha Club float. Local businessman and sax player Luther E. Glenn sponsored a “good old time, rockin’ jam session” at 24th and Grant Streets between the end of the parade and the beginning of the dance that eveningOrganist Tommy Brown was the head of the rhythm section, and “any and all local musicians” were invited to sit-in and use the sound system and shade provided. That night, the homecoming dance was held at the Carter Lake Ballroom aka the Warehouse, and the massive picnic was at Dodge Park. A social mixer was held at the Elks Club on August 4, and Blue Monday happened on August 7 at various businesses around 24th and Lake.

This is a pic of the Native Omaha Day parade in 1981, featuring the Salem Baptist Church drill team in North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a pic of the Native Omaha Day parade in 1981, featuring the Salem Baptist Church drill team.

According to the Omaha Star, the 1993 Native Omaha Days “was a huge success.” The parade brought “thousands” to 24th Street, and “for night after night, hundreds of people from all ages blended to walk or just stand and reminisce.” It was the ninth biennial event.

A nightspot called the Strike Zone at North 20th and California held a “Native Omaha Day Dance” in 1995.

In 2001, the Omaha Star blasted the Omaha Police Department with a headline that said, “Native Omaha Day Festivities Thwarted by Police.” The incensed article said that after “a nighttime melee got out of hand after 2am Sunday morning,” more than 60 Omaha police officers monitored the parade as a reminder “that Africans in America of slave descent are still not free.” The article’s author, Yehudah Benyamin ben Yisrael, wrote that there were no other positive media reports from the event that year, which included an awards banquet, blues concert, a picnic at Carter Lake, the parade, or “the many Black vendors that were present.” Citing that in “in previous years… although there would be a police presence, it was not intrusive and people were free to mingle,” in 2001 there were six police officers on every block, with police controlling traffic flows and more. The article also lambasted Omaha businesses for not sponsoring Native Omaha Days, especially considering that large corporations and others supported ethnic festivals and other events citywide.

“The era of the’50s and’60s is gone forever. The ‘big deal’ of Native Omaha Day cannot really be captured in words. It’s kind of like trying to catch a rainbow in your hand,” wrote an Omaha World-Herald writer in 2003 while reminiscing about growing up in the Near North Side and the relevance of Native Omaha Days.

This is a pic of the 2015 Native Omaha Days parade on North 30th Street in North Omaha, Nebraska. Pic courtesy of KPTM 42.
This is a pic of the 2015 Native Omaha Days parade on North 30th Street. Pic courtesy of KPTM 42.

In 2005, the Urban League of Nebraska led a petition to get Oprah Winfrey nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The organization was proud to open its headquarters at 24th and Binney on parade day. That year, the Omaha Star featured two pages of photos from the events.

For the 40 anniversary of the Salem Stepping Saints in 2007, Phyllis Hicks and others organized an alumni group to march, walk or ride in the parade. Tickets for the events that year went on sale in July, and included a boat ride on Carter Lake and a dance.

“I do end up at 24th and Lake where everybody else is,” Dixon said. “You just bump into so many people. I mean, people you went to kindergarten with. It’s so hilarious. So, yes, 24th and Lake, 24th Street period, is definitely iconic for North Omahans.”

—Reshon Dixon in 2017, as quoted by Leo Biga

Originally located on North 24th Street, in 2011 the Native Omaha Days parade moved to North 30th Street. That year, there were ten drill teams in a two-hour parade as one of several events, including the homecoming dance at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs and a cookout at Elmwood Park on Sunday. The Omaha Police Department was again implicated in shutting down the Native Omaha Days though. According to the World-Herald, a block party that continued after midnight was descended on by dozens of officers who lined up and shouted “Get off the street” and “Go home” after the festival. Filmed by local barber Jesse McGhee, the police arrested him and confiscated his camera, tasing him twice and beating him in the process. The ACLU defended McGhee’s civil rights and he posted the video on Youtube “to show how officers treat us in this side of town, north Omaha.” Police violently attacked McGhee after stealing his camera. A witness said, “They grabbed him, pushed him up against a wall and threw him out the door. Two huge cops face-planted him on the deck.” There was no follow-up article explaining what happened.

The 2015 Native Omaha Days celebration lasted from a Thursday through Sunday, including live music from Curly and Terrace Martin at the former Love’s Jazz and Art Center, and the Saturday parade from 30th and Lake Streets to 30th and Sprague Streets. As part of the event this year, there was live entertainment, art and more at Fort Omaha that year. There was also an open house at the Carver Bank with live painting, garden tutorials and performances.

In 2017, the Native Omaha Days included a jazz and blues concert. That year, Leo Biga quoted North Omaha native Reshon Dixon saying, “I do end up at 24th and Lake where everybody else is,” Dixon said. “You just bump into so many people. I mean, people you went to kindergarten with. It’s so hilarious. So, yes, 24th and Lake, 24th Street period, is definitely iconic for North Omahans.”

This is Native Omaha Days co-founder Bettie McDonald as pictured in the July 23, 2019 edition of the Omaha World-Herald.
This is Native Omaha Days co-founder Bettie McDonald as pictured in the July 23, 2019 edition of the Omaha World-Herald.

The event changed significantly in 2019, starting with a name change to the Native Omaha Festival. Aiming to “be the biggest yet,” that year the festival featured more than 30 associated activities including “including trolley tours, golf outings, a comedy jam, jazz and gospel music and child-friendly activities.” Co-founder Bettie McDonald, then 91-years-old welcomed the changes by saying, “Its changing beautifully, seeing these young folks come out with there community is beautiful.” Major events that year included the Native Omaha Days Gospel Fest at Morning Star Baptist Church with almost a half-dozen major performances; Stroll Down Memory Lane, a history-gathering event; the parade on 30th Street, and; the Native Homecoming Days Ball, held at Hilton Omaha and featuring Mario Corbino. The parade is one of the largest events in North Omaha, with many saying its the largest parade held in the City of Omaha today.

A History of the Native Omahans Club

This is the former Native Omaha Club at North 24th and Laird Streets in North Omaha, Nebraska.
This is the former Native Omaha Club at North 24th and Laird Streets.

In 1977, organizers started a nonprofit organization called the Native Omahans Club, Inc., and in 1980 they received recognition from the IRS as a 501(c)3 charitable organization. In years since, the Native Omahans Club has held various activities in the times between the celebrations. They have had parties, balls, fashion shows, picnics, dances, plays, and various fundraisers of all kinds. They also hosted the annual Native Omaha Days Installation Ball for new officers of the organization, and starting in 1978, they organized an annual trip to the Omaha Day Celebration in L.A., chartering a bus and hosting dozens of people. The Omaha Star called the Native Omahans Club “a very progressive organization” for organizing and promoting the community in various ways. Granting scholarships to students throughout the community, the Club has also been actively supporting other nonprofits in the area for the entire time its existed.

Starting in the 1990s, the Native Omaha Club kept a clubhouse at 3819 North 24th Street, staying open in that location for more than 20 years.

The Native Omaha Festival Today

The 2021 Native Omaha Festival was the 23rd biennial gathering, and included large scale events including a culture fest and more. More events than ever are held surrounding the Native Omaha Festival, including church reunions, family reunions and more. Some have said that between the festival and those events, every two years there are at least two weeks of guaranteed Black pride in Omaha.

Today, the Native Omahans Club “promotes social and general welfare, granting scholarships, and promoting cultural and recreational activities for the inner city, the neighborhoods of North Omaha, and the Greater Omaha community.” In June 2022, the Native Omaha Days Organizing Committee hosted an “All-White Outdoor Dinner Concert.”

There are now tours, a food court, golf tournament, a blues concert, and more associated with the Native Omaha Festival, too. A 2021 article in the World-Herald declared, “While Native Omaha Days is primarily a reunion and community celebration by and for Black people from North Omaha, you don’t have to be Black or from North Omaha to participate.” Vickie Young, past president of Omaha’s NAACP, said “If you were born and raised in North Omaha, that’s cool… If you were born and raised in Omaha, that’s cool. If not, and you want to hang with folks from Omaha, that’s cool. It’s open to everyone.”

Several partners have joined the Native Omahan Days Committee to support the event, including the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Empowerment Network, the Omaha NAACP, and the Omaha Police Department. Recent sponsors of the event have included American National Bank, Nexus Tech Solutions, the Omaha Event Group, Creighton University, NorthEnd Teleservices, and the Marriott Corporation. The City of Omaha, Douglas County, and State of Nebraska have given funds for the event, too. Over the years, many businesses and organizations have sponsored all or various aspects of Native Omaha Days. Businesses including the M&M Lounge, Phils Foodway, Allen’s Showcase, and others held events. A lot of North Omaha’s organizations were involved, including the Elks Club and Iroquois Lodge 92, Midwest Athletic Club, American Legion Roosevelt Post, Delta Sigma Gamma Xi Chapter, and a number of churches, especially Salem Baptist.

While the event has experienced a renaissance, there is still more room for Omaha to support and encourage the activities, which have happened now for almost 50 years. Recognizing its historical value to the entire city, it should be a heritage event celebrated by all Omahans with fiscal support and more. It should also be encouraged by the City of Omaha, Douglas County, and the State of Nebraska in every way possible.

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Elsewhere Online

BONUS

This Youtube video shows some activities from the 2009 Native Omaha Days.
This Youtube video shows some activities from the 2011 Native Omaha Days.
This Youtube video shows some activities from the 2013 Native Omaha Days.
This Youtube video shows some activities from the 2015 Native Omaha Days.
This Youtube video shows some activities from the 2017 Native Omaha Days.
This Youtube video shows some activities from the 2019 Native Omaha Days.

This Youtube video shows some activities from the 2021 Native Omaha Days.

This Youtube video gives some context and background for the 2021 Native Omaha Festival.

This is a 2017 banner for Native Omahan Days in North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a 2017 banner for Native Omahan Days.
This is a 2007 ad for the Salem Baptist Church Drill Team Native Omaha Day parade reunion practice in North Omaha, Nebraska.
This is a 2007 ad for the Salem Baptist Church Drill Team Native Omaha Day parade reunion practice.

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