For almost 50 years, Omaha was a dingy city without a lot of fancy things. Paved streets, indoor plumbing, sewers, and permanent sidewalks eluded everyday living—but cows, pigs, chickens, and horse manure were everywhere. And vices were everywhere, too. It was the job of one public place in the city to serve any child who came from a neighborhood with all those things. This is a history of the Dodge Street School.
Dirty Dodge Street
Located from North 5th Street to North 20th and from Dodge to Capitol Avenue, the original Near North Side neighborhood was a rough place. From the 1860s through 1900, it was a poor neighborhood filled with eastern European immigrants, formerly enslaved Black people from the South, and others who came to Omaha without money. Not strictly residential, there were also stores, warehouses, and small factories in the area. Prostitution, gambling, drugs, and alcohol were constantly present, too, as well as a variety of crimes.
There were kids living throughout the neighborhood. These were the children of immigrants, prostitutes, Pullman porters, and others. In 1872, a new Omaha board of education decided these children needed a school, and they built a single-story wooden schoolhouse on the site of 1854 Omaha settler Samuel E. Rogers at 11th and Dodge Streets. In 1876, the board commissioned local architect Charles F. Driscoll (1841-1929) to design a new building. It was a two story brick building with eight rooms to be built on a deep foundation, with a three-story tower in the middle.
“A substantial brick building has been erected. It is situated on the corner of 11th and Dodge Streets—a most beautiful location, in the midst of our most dense school population. Situated on an eminence it commands a good view of the city and surrounding country.”—H.G. Clark, president, Omaha Board of Education, 1878
Moving the original building into the middle of the street, the new building took its place and the old one was sold to become the Omaha City Mission. The old schoolhouse was moved to 10th Street. Located on the southeast corner of 11th and Dodge Streets, the new school was called the Dodge Street School.
Dead People Abound
When workers were digging out of the foundations of the school in the 1870s, they dug up “many Indian skeletons,” causing the Omaha Bee to declare that “the locality was, indeed, an Indian grave yard.” The newspaper said that “Omaha… seems to have been the resort of the mound builders” and said the Lewis and Clark expedition had found mounds in the area. These were the only bodies found there though.
The district installed fencing, outhouses and a well the following October.
The earliest teachers at the school included Miss Nellie Conwell. All school teachers in Omaha had to be single, and routinely resigned if they got married.
In the entire existence of the school, nobody was under any illusion that it was in a lovely position to do wonderful things. In 1881, two students at the school showed how rough it was when they were leaving school one day. After an argument simmering throughout the day an eighth grader named Sam Klein pulled out a gun and shot his classmate George Frank on the school’s front stairs. He survived.
Subject to regular scrutiny from the police, apparently nobody was surprised by an 1883 raid by dozens of officers from the police department. After the city council decreed that there should be no “houses of ill repute” within two blocks of the school, the police took a few weeks then went a-raiding “on the low dives on 9th and 10th streets occupied by fallen women.” Loudly screaming from their cells, each of the sex workers were released and eventually everyone returned to their homes. For years afterwards, the city council and the police enforced this ordinance occasionally to the point of it seeming arbitrary. Writing about the situation in his 2017 book Wicked Omaha, author Ryan Roenfeld explains, “Depravity’s Darlings” were back… with a “Raid on the Nymphs of Ninth Street.” He quotes the newspaper saying that the raids “on the low dives” included “nine for Ninth Street ‘of the lowest class’ and five women from Eleventh Street a ‘shade more respectable.’” Roenfeld says kids were caught up, too, with one Black prostitute having little boy handed off to a friend when she was arrested, and a white prostitute in jail “with a ‘delicate and pretty featured boy.’” The war against prostitution continued for several years after, and it took decades to clear out this neighborhood.
In 1885, a night school for children was opened at Dodge Street School for 40 students, with steadily increasing attendance projected by the superintendent early in the school year. In a report from the newspaper, the superintendent was quoted saying, “I don’t know but that it would be a good plan to drop the school. In the Dodge Street School the pupils were more than willing to learn. A good number of children in that degraded locality received a large measure of benefit from that school. I am inclined to think, as I intimated before, that two night schools… will be sufficient, provided that they are properly equipped and energetically managed.”
“The proper place for the police station is where the most arrests are made. Undoubtably this location is in the third ward. The Dodge Street School house has been suggested as a good building for a police station by several police officers as well as by others identified with the correction of the crime of the city.”—Omaha Daily World, March 30, 1890
The first proposal to sell the Dodge Street School came in 1885. Apparently the board of education was uncomfortable with the location of the school and became interested in selling it to the city for a new jail. In 1886, the Omaha Daily World justified the idea of selling the school saying, “It is not in a residential part of Omaha, and the business neighborhood which surrounds it has few children on its benches. Besides this, it is one of the most disreputable neighborhoods, and the children in going to or from school may be subjected to influences not of the best. Hence the board of education have been considering the plan of selling the property and using the money to found another school in a neighborhood where most needed.” In 1888, the Omaha Bee stuck up for the existence of the school. “While it is true that the location of this school is objectionable,” the paper wrote, “the board should not lose sight of the fact that three or four hundred children whose education the board is in duty bound to provide for, reside in that part of the city. Children exposed to the virus of vice in their surroundings at home cannot be contaminated by attending school in a disreputable neighborhood. People who occupy tenements next door to dives are not likely to vacate them because the school house is abandoned.”
Offered $40,000, the board rejected the offer. In 1893, another proposal came forward, this time for $50,000 and an empty lot of the board’s choosing. It was turned down, and another proposal came forward for the city to lease the building for 99 years. While that offer wasn’t taken, the same conversation was had almost annually from then onward.
The Last Decade
The sale of the school loomed in the air, and when it came up in the media in 1890 a newspaper quoted Omaha Police Department Chief Seavey as saying, “The school house is no properly located. Many parents object to sending their children to that part of the city. The little ones see drunken men and women and all the lewdness of the Burnt District while going to and from school… its location in the district in which most of the arrests are made is, in my estimation, the best argument that could be advanced for the purchase of the property by the city.”
In 1893, an account in the Omaha Bee said the principal “had the misfortune to accidentally strike” a “colored” student named Lizzie Silk. Puncturing her skull with an iron hook on the end of a rod, the girl was soon unconscious in the principal’s office. After rumors of the girl’s death left the school and went into the neighborhood, a mob of hundreds swarmed outside the building. The principal came out and reassured the crowd and they eventually dispersed. However, I can’t find a follow up in the newspapers. (My search did turn up a Lizzie Silk in Omaha whose married named was Dinan, and whose father’s last name was Silk. She was born in 1888 and died in 1957, which would have made her six years old when the incident happened; however, her father lived in the Minne Lusa neighborhood in the 1950s when it was still strictly anti-Black residents, so I’m not positive this is the same person.)
In 1894, a worker digging a new coal cellar underneath the school found a corpse in the dirt. Assuming he hit a rock, the worker held it up to the light only to reveal a skull that “had been buried in this place for five or six and maybe more years.” The bones were well-preserved and “a small straw hat was lying near where the head of the skeleton was.” According to a newspaper account, “People who viewed the bones were of the opinion that a murder had been committed and the victim had been disposed of [there].” The bones were “turned over to the coroner and he will bury them at once, there being no [sic] clew to their identity or the manner in which they came to be buried under the school house.” Shortly after, the body of a woman with an amber necklace was found in the cellar too. The newspapers quickly attributed both bodies to murder and suggested the crimes happened at the same time. Suddenly, six more bodies were found under the school. According to the Omaha Bee, “At first there seemed to be some sort of mystery surrounding the finding of bones in this spot…” However, an “old-timer” told the paper that Mormons used the location as a cemetery when they were coming through in the 1840s. After that, an undertaker examined the bones and said they had “laid in the ground for thirty-five or forty years.” Contradicting this finding though, a few days later the same newspaper ripped on the “Omaha fake mill” for trying “to create a sensation by the pretended discovery of a Kansas Bender murder den… just because a few Indian skeletons have been dug up in that primitive burial ground…” A few days later the total count was “six skeletons with a few other bones.” However, a twist happened when a flask was found buried with the skeletons. It was marked with a stamp from the Union Pacific Drug Store, which “an old-timer” recalled was located on Farnam Street in the 1870s. Finally, almost a month after the findings began, the architect of the building, who also managed the construction, came forward to say that there was a burial ground for Native Americans on the spot when the school was built. Constructed on a knoll, the construction crew found a lot of bones buried deeply at the site. “I think that the remains were those of Indians from the fact that Indian ornaments were found on nearly every one. They were in the form of small carved bone trinkets, small round white beads, such as I understand have been found, and some larger beads of an obsidian variety, and a few pockets or pouches of a woven material of a course texture, apparently used for carrying tobacco. These ornaments were mostly carried away by workmen at the time,” Charles Driscoll was quoted saying. He went on, “At first it was a novelty to find the bones, but they finally became so numerous that the workmen began shoveling them into wagons and hauling them to the dump. This seemed to be sacrilegious, so I told them to pick out the bones and keep them so we could again bury them.”
In the 1890s, Dodge Street School principal W.H. Allen was notorious for using his switch all of the time. A fire struck the school in 1897, and a student named Theophelus “Offie” Downs (1878-1949) played a drum to march the 500 students in the building away from the school to safety. As teachers saw smoke billowing throughout the building they reportedly lost their heads and began panicking. Offie, an older student, walked briskly to Principal Allen’s office and got the drum, and loudly played it at the bottom of the stairs like he was trained. Principal Allen heard the call and began barking orders at the students to follow fire drill procedures. Young Offie saved the day, and more than 500 people cheered for him when he came out of the building. Apparently his hair and eyebrows were singed and his face was blistered from the heat. The story received national press, and Offie was awarded a medal by an insurance company in San Francisco.
The City of Omaha successfully arranged with the board of education to acquire the building in March 1898. Determined to use the building as a jail, the city paid $20,000 cash and gave the school lots for a new building at South 9th and Howard Streets. Planning different arrangements for the 400 students in the school, the board considered renting “a number of different vacant buildings.” By the end of the month, the district secured a temporary building and arrangements were made for the Omaha Police Department jail to be moved into the old Dodge Street School. Located in the Katz-Nevins building, there were eight rooms for kindergarten through high school.
Miss E. Sherley took over the school after Mr. Allen, and was the last principal of the school. In 1900, the students were sent to other schools and Dodge Street School existed no more. As the closest building, Cass Street School got many of the students. Sherley went on to become the superintendent of Los Angeles public schools.
A year after converting the school, the Omaha World-Herald was bragging about how “lively” the previous 12 months were for the Central Police Station because of its newfound proximity to crime. However, as early as 1906 there were calls to replace the old school with a new Omaha Police Department and jail in another area downtown.
The Site Today
The building was demolished in 1920, and today there’s a parking garage in it’s place. Located there from 1872 to 1898, the Dodge Street School is rarely acknowledged in history books, and there is no historical marker for it.
This is an entirely different school than the Dodge Elementary School in Omaha today.
You Might Like…
- Dodge Elementary School OPS official website