A History of the Bryant Center

Bryant Center, North Omaha, Nebraska

At a time when North Omaha was imploding, there wasn’t a lot that community members agreed on. In 1966, a lot of young African Americans seemed restless and angry, while older white people were anxious to flee the businesses they ran in the Near North Side after riots happened. One move happened that almost everyone agreed on, and that was the opening of a new community facility along North 24th Street. This is a history of the Bryant Resource Center.

Welcome the Bryant Cage Center

Bryant Center, North Omaha, Nebraska
29e57The Bryant Cage Center, including several basketball courts, is dedicated on September 12, 1966. The notables there included the governor of Nebraska, mayor of Omaha, State Senator Edward Danner, and local sports star Bob Boozer.

The St. Benedict School was started in 1923 at 2423 Grant Street in the Near North Side of North Omaha. Staffed by nuns and funded by the Black parish and the Omaha Archdiocese, it was a segregated school that was devoted to serving the neighborhood for decades.

After the first rioting happened in the Near North Side starting July 4, 1966, there was immediately a consensus among elected officials, community leaders, and young people themselves that there needed to be more for youth to do in the Near North Side. There were no roller rinks, bowling alleys, drive-ins, or large public parks for them to hang out in. Store owners along North 24th Street reported feeling afraid of Black youth when they came into their stores, and did all they could to discourage them coming inside.

Young people were bored.

In the meantime, the Omaha Archdiocese regarded St. Benedict’s School as a failing enterprise. It was hard to get students to stay in the Catholic school, renowned for its rigidity and strictness, didn’t appeal to a lot of families in the neighborhood. Sacred Heart, another Catholic School a mile away, was open to integration at that point, and the Catholics began plotting how to close St. Benedict’s School permanently.

In summer 1966, the Archdiocese donated land behind the school to become a new basketball facility for neighborhood youth. Named in honor of longtime Black musician, band leader, and youth worker George Bryant (1877-1971), the facility was covered with asphalt, given new paint for the courts, bleachers, and lighting. Bryant was a devout Catholic and longtime member of St. Benedict’s.

As it was dedicated, the Bryant Cage Center originally featured four large basketball courts along North 24th Street and two smaller ones along Burdette, and a playground.

The Bryant Cage Center opened next door to the school in 1966. It was named in honor of longtime community icon George Bryant, who led the Dan Desdunes Band for more than 20 years. Bryant was at the dedication ceremony and led the band as they played that day. The facility was built with resources from labor unions, construction firms, suppliers, business and professional people, as well as religious groups and GOCA.

Becoming a Community Institution

Entitled "Opening day at the George Bryant Center," this pic is from the June 22, 1972 edition of The Omaha Star.
Entitled “Opening day at the George Bryant Center,” this pic is from the June 22, 1972 edition of The Omaha Star.

In 1968, the school closed permanently, and the Bryant Center was given use of the entire building. Credited as being an outgrowth of the St. Benedict School youth club, the center operated boxing, a Head Start program, a senior center, and other important activities throughout the year, and continued being an important institution in the neighborhood. The Catholic Social Action Center was also located there.

For years the organization struggled with funding, and as early as 1970 it was threatened with closing. Operating as a summer center though, they expanded programs and won grants from the City of Omaha.

In 1973, the City of Omaha Parks and Recreation Department recommended to the Omaha City Council that Bryant be taken over and operated as an official city community center. This took the Bryant staff off guard, and they fought for the center to remain open. That year Preston Love, Sr. dreamed out loud in an Omaha World-Herald article about the Bryant Center offering a music education program in honor of the late performer.

The Omaha World-Herald frequently referred to the Bryant Center as a “ghetto project.”

The Bryant Center Today

Bryant Center, North Omaha, Nebraska
A 2013 pic of youth playing basketball at the Bryant Center. Pic taken from the Bryant Resource Center facebook page.

A 2001 Omaha World-Herald story reported that St. Benedict Church started the Bryant Resource Center in 1985 as a separate nonprofit organization “to offer educational, cultural, recreational and economic opportunities to improve the well – being and vocational capabilities of north Omaha residents.” The church donated the school building to the nonprofit organization. That year, federal and city grants as well as private fundraising led to a renovation of the interior using volunteer labor from the church.

After the center had been closed for several years, after a summer of bad street violence in the area a new nonprofit was started in 2010 as well. This time, $40,000 in funds were raised by the parish but failed to keep it open.

In 2014, a contest led to renovations at the Bryant Cage Center. Throughout the years Bryant has operated sporadically at times, including being entirely closed for years at a time.

St. Benedict’s continues operating the center today, relying on grants from the City of Omaha, as well as private funds, and provide programming in a variety of areas.

Over the years, a number of celebrities visited the Bryant Center including Oscar Robinson, Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union.

The building, which is a commercial vernacular structure dating from 1926, is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has not been designated an official Omaha Landmark.

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