At one time, Omaha had 1,000 Civil War veterans, and among them, North Omaha was home to several notable men who served. After 1930 though, just a few were left and they were regularly acknowledged for their age and accomplishments. One of them was an accomplished African American businessman, bandleader and music teacher. This is a biography of “Professor” Josiah “P.J.” Waddle (1849-1939).
Early Life and the War
Born into slavery in Springfield, Missouri, P.J. Waddle had his father’s enslaver’s last name. He lived in Missouri with his mother though, who raised him and two siblings on their enslaver’s farm. When he was 83-years-old, Waddle told the World-Herald, that his enslaver was “a hard man, and beat me many times.”
When he was age 12-years-old, young Josiah Waddle met a troop of US Army soldiers encamped near his enslaver’s farm. After they explained the Civil War to him, he tried enlisting then but was rejected because he was too young. For the next two years though, he intentionally learned blacksmithing and mechanical skills so he could serve in the US Army. After being rented by his master to Native Americans in the Creek Nation in Arkansas, he returned to Missouri, only to leave his farm and go to Fort Leavenworth to try enlisting again in early 1863. He was initially rejected again, but allowed to assist a captain with his horses. After being abandoned by that troop though, he finally joined later in 1863 when he was 14-years-old at Fort Scott, Kansas. He joined the U.S. Army 79th Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment, where he served with Company H as an orderly and drummer.
The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was organized from the 1st Kansas at Fort Scott, Kansas on January 13, 1863. During his enlistment, the 1st Kansas Colored and the 79th USCT were involved in several battles, including the Battle of Sherwood, Missouri in May 1863; the Battle of Poison Springs, Arkansas in April 1864; the Battle of Jenkins Ferry, Arkansas later that month; and the Battle of Flat Rock in the Cherokee Nation in September. According to the Omaha Star, saw “two years and seven months of actual service.”
Waddle told the story of how he had to convince his company to raid the farm in Springfield where his father was a slave. They were successful, but initially the elder Waddle did not want to go with them. According to a report in the Omaha Guide, “He was afraid to take the venture.” However, after he was rescued Mr. Waddle became a soldier i nthe same unit as his son, becoming the chief cook for his regiment.
After the war Josiah Waddle served for a few more months, and was discharged in October 1865 at Fort Leavenworth. His family had moved to Topeka, Kansas, after Emancipation, and he moved there to live with them for the next decade.
Coming to Nebraska
His sister got married and moved to Nebraska City in 1875, and P.J. moved there to live near her a year later. Apparently, Waddle was the first Black barber in Nebraska City when he got there in 1876. That city had a notably large population of Black people, but he left in 1878 to open a barber shop in Council Bluffs. Two years later, he moved to Omaha in 1880 when he was 31 years old. A barber by profession, Waddle first opened a shop near 10th and Harney Streets. In 1885, Waddle moved his mother from Topeka to Omaha after her husband died, and opened a much nicer barber shop at North 16th and Webster Streets, which was in the original Near North Side neighborhood. According to a 1936 interview, “Mr. Waddle received the bulk of his trade from employees of the Union Pacific Railroad, catering to white people only.” His name first appears in the Omaha World-Herald in 1894, when he and another barber argued over who owned the tools of their shared practice.
In 1900, Waddle moved to Minneapolis for a few years. A year later, he moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he organized his first band. All of the musicians in it were white, a first for Canada. Returning to Omaha in 1902, he organized a band with Black musicians. Opening a barber shop on North 14th Street, his new band played county fairs, carnivals and chautauquas for several years. He and his first wife had two children who both died young, Emma (1878-1882) and Gertrude (1880-1882). They are buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery.
In 1914, he organized his first all-women’s band. It was a successful business that toured the entire country playing minstrel shows and carnivals. On one of these tours, he met his second wife, Belle (1874-1952), in Oklahoma. They moved to 2807 North 24th Street after they were married in 1916.
Drums, Piano, Leadership and Teaching
According to a 1938 Works Progress Administration interview, the first African American musical group in Omaha was established by Waddles in 1902. Regularly playing throughout the city, it was a 15-piece band and orchestra. During this era, Waddle was called “Professor” because he was a master pianist who reputably could play better than anyone. During the ragtime era of the early 20th century, Waddle was credited with training the young Lloyd Hunter (18??-1961) in North Omaha in around 1915 when jazz was emerging.
In 1925, he formed his second women’s band called the Waddle’s Ladies Concert Band. Another all-women’s band made up 18 to 22-year-old women who were the descendants of Civil War vets and former slaves. For a decade they played around Omaha with horns, saxophones, trap drums, and a bass drum. Talking about the women’s band performing Waddle at a national GAR event, Waddle said, “There never has been anything like it before. I don’t believe they’ll ever forget Omaha when they hear and see these girls. And who should be able to play more stirring music at a GAR convention than the children and grandchildren of those who were freed from bondage by the Grand Army of the Republic?” This band wasn’t as successful as his first all-women’s band, but he was satisfied by it when many of the players went on to start their own bands or join big-name outfits.
As a teacher, he regularly bought instruments for students in addition to teaching them how to play. In addition to the other bands he led, in 1935 he taught an 11-piece family orchestra. Their first performance was at Bethel AME.
Waddle was a longtime member of St. John’s AME Church and contributed his musical abilities there. Later in his life, he kept a shop on the northeast corner of North 26th and Lake Streets, and then near North 24th and Lake Streets. At the end of his life, he and Belle lived at 2411 Lake Street.
One of the Last…
Waddle was a lifelong member of the Grand Army of the Republic George A. Custer Post #7 in Omaha.
Regularly acknowledged as one of the last Civil War veterans in Omaha, Waddle’s 80th birthday was celebrated by several organizations around Omaha, including the U.S. Grant Chapter of the Women’s Relief Corps, the Garfield Circle, and the Betsy Ross Tent.
Two years later, he was among 38 Civil War veterans in Omaha acknowledged by the the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a “fraternal organization composed of veterans of the United States Army in the Civil War.
In 1938, 89-year-old Waddle took an all-expenses paid trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The federal government paid for he and Mrs. Waddle to ride a Pullman car there and back, which was “a marvelous trip, interspersed with perfect service and hospitality.” He later said it was the best trip he had ever taken. Throughout his life, Waddle regularly attended local, state and national GAR events.
He died at home in 1939 at the age of 90. Today, in 2022, there are no streets, schools, or organizations named in honor of Professor Waddle. No historical plaques recognize his contributions to the culture of North Omaha, and almost everyone has forgotten that he ever existed.
Josiah Waddle is buried at Forest Lawn.
Special thanks to Ryan Roenfeld for his contributions to this article.