By my estimate, since 1854 North Omaha has been home to more than 250,000 African Americans. Media, politicians, businesses and others in Omaha paint the community in one color, but that’s wholly racist. This is a story about a rancher, gardener, cook, writer, poet, educator, activist and lecturer who moved to North Omaha for a while to escape the tyranny of white supremacy. This is a biography of Daisy Anderson.
A Backdrop to Her Life
As a 96-year-old Union widow, in 1997 Daisy Graham Anderson Leonard (1900-1998) went to Gettysburg and shook hands with a Confederate widow. That was 134 years after the battle, 76 years after she married a Union veteran, and more than 60 years after she lived in North Omaha.
Born December 4, 1900, Daisy was one of eight children who grew up poor in rural Arkansas. A teacher in a rural Black school, in 1922 she was introduced to Robert Ball Anderson (1843-1930) while he was visiting her town. The couple were married shortly after, and Daisy moved to western Nebraska. There, she enjoyed Anderson’s 22-room mansion that sat on 2,000 acres in Box Butte County. They had 20 ranch hands and two cooks, and traveled lavishly throughout the United States. Ball farmed there until 1920, when he retired at the ago of 77-years-old. Throughout their relationship, Daisy listened to Robert’s stories about enslavement, the Civil War, his life as one of the first settlers in western Nebraska, and how he became the wealthiest Black man in Nebraska. In 1927, she finished her book chronicling his life called From Slavery to Affluence: Memoirs of Robert Anderson, Ex-Slave. Just three years later, Robert died tragically in a car accident.
The North Omaha Connection
The Johnsons lived together on their ranch near Hemingford, Nebraska, from 1922 to 1930. Despite their wealth the couple stared down racism constantly. One story says that at the Hemingford Methodist Episcopal Church, Daisy was turned away from participating in women’s group activities because of her race. When her family arrived to live with them from rural Arkansas, they were looked down upon by white townspeople who were suspicious of Black people. The white population of Hemingford constantly referred to Mr. Anderson with racial epitaphs, as well as calling him “Uncle Bob” and “Zip Coon,” both hateful, patronizing minstrel caricatures that mocked him.
Throughout their marriage, the Johnsons came to Omaha several times. The last was in 1930 when the body of Robert Ball Anderson was sent to a North Omaha mortuary before being shipped to Hemingford for burial.
After he died, Daisy’s life changed almost immediately. From many accounts, she lost her wealth by squandering it, spending carelessly and otherwise not knowing how to handle it. This account was even shared by her in her speeches and otherwise.
HOWEVER… In 1935, the Omaha World-Herald printed an article entitled, “Wealthy Negro’s Widow Plans Suit for $50,000.” The story is that four years after Robert Anderson died, Daisy was suing Sheriff George P. Jones (1871-1941) of Box Butte County after he and four other men searched her place illegally in July 1934. After trashing her home, they jailed her in August 1934 for three days. They moved her out of her house afterwards.
Daisy came to North Omaha and lived at 2025 Willis Avenue in late 1934 and 1935. Her land was entirely gone (“lost”) by March 1935, when the Omaha World-Herald covered the suit she was bringing against the sheriff. In that article she was quoted saying, “I feel that the land was lost to me because I couldn’t get the cooperation that I had the right to expect from the people there. But I don’t care about that — I am pressing these lawsuits because I desire justice. The law of Nebraska guarantees certain rights and privileges which I did not receive.” Her lawyers that March were E.T. Dolan and George H. Merten.
In July 1935, Mrs. Anderson brought her issue before the Omaha NAACP board of directors to be considered for legal representation. After listening to her case for a while, they sent Charles Davis to her home to listen to the rest of the story. His recommendation to the board was that the case was outside their reach, so they did not pursue it.
In 1937, she moved near her sister in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to live the rest of her life. Working from the ground up, Daisy rebuilt and in 1967, she published the second part of the book, which she named Have You No Shame? The book featured her life’s story, and new interest in her and Mr. Anderson’s stories emerged. Throughout, Mrs. Anderson admonishes white readers for our failure to do enough to end racism.
Remembering Daisy and Robert Anderson
The Negro Historical Society of Nebraska picked up the story of Mr. and Mrs. Anderson in 1968. Obtaining original copies of the book, iconic local historian Bertha Calloway went to Colorado and talked with Mrs. Anderson’s brother. Working towards creating a textbook for classrooms, the Anderson’s stories were compiled with other Black western Nebraskans. In 1970, Ms. Calloway produced a documentary for NETV called “The Black Frontier” that included the Andersons and their role in the history of western Nebraska.
In the last three decades of her life, Daisy Anderson spoke to crowds across the country about racial harmony, freedom and justice. In 1993, she was introduced to Pope John Paul II in Denver and in 1997, she gave President Bill Clinton with a copy of the book. She was one of the three surviving Civil War widows, and in 1998 after she died, The New York Times wrote, “the arithmetic suggesting that Miss Daisy may have been the last woman married to a man born into Southern bondage is compelling.”
Daisy received the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Colorado Holiday Commission’s Humanitarian Award in 1992 at the age of 1991. She was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in Little Rock after she died in 1998.
Although Daisy wasn’t in Omaha long, her story is unique among the throngs who have come through the city. The house she lived in on Willis Avenue is long gone, and today there is no memory of her anywhere in Omaha. Her book lives on though.
You Might Like…
- Daisy of Strawberry Park by Carla Jones in 1976.
- “Robert Ball Anderson, Ex-Slave, A Pioneer in Western Nebraska, 1884-1930” by Darold D Wax on pages 163-192 of Nebraska History 64 in 1983.
- “Tales from the Tread: Honoring Daisy Anderson by Candice Bannister for Steamboat Pilot & Today on February 18, 2022.
- Daisy Anderson (1900?-1998) in The Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
- “Daisy Anderson, 97, Widow of Former Slave and Union Soldier” by Robert Mcg. Thomas Jr. on September 26, 1998 in The New York Times.
- “Robert Anderson’s Log Cabin” at Dobby’s Frontier Town in Alliance, Nebraska