From the beginning of organized sports in the United States, there was racial segregation. When it first became popular in New York City in the 1850s, baseball was segregated too. From 1947 to 1949, Omaha was home to a semi-professional independent Black baseball team. Organized by African American impresario Will Calhoun (1908-1959), the team included several great baseball players. This is a history of the Omaha Rockets.
History of African American Baseball in Omaha
Before the Omaha Rockets played, there were at least three other Black baseball teams in Omaha. They included the Omaha Giants from 1911 to 1915; the Omaha Black Tigers during the 1948 season; and the Omaha Monarchs.
“I’ve got a little money. I know why so many of these teams failed,” Will said. “They tried to get by on a shoestring and didn’t have anything to offer the public.”
—Will Calhoun, as quoted in the January 19, 1947 Omaha World-Herald
The Omaha Rockets were a barnstorming team, and throughout the seasons they played they covered a circuit throughout the Midwest including all of Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, Colorada, Minnesota and elsewhere. Former Negro League player and native Omahan Mat Pascale (1891-19??) was the booking agent for the Omaha Rockets, lining up games with more than 25 teams across the Midwest. He booked the Rockets in the Pioneer Nite League, and with the Nebraska Independent League.
Over the years when they played in Omaha, the Rockets games were held at several locations including Levi Carter Park and in Council Bluffs.
In May 1947, owner and manager Will Calhoun organized the team with a week of practice before they started playing their first season. Calhoun, who owned a hotel at 2423 Lake Street, “got the baseball bug” in 1946. After travel restrictions were lifted nationwide after World War II, many new Black baseball teams sprung up because other teams were segregated. Calhoun set up preliminary training with the Kansas City Monarchs, a longtime team of the Negro National League, and paid for a bus with beds, two sets of uniforms for each player, baseballs and bats and part of the salaries for the team. The Omaha Rockets players stayed at the Calhoun Hotel in the heart of North Omaha’s Black business district.
His first star was Jewell Day, who hit 38 home runs when he played for the Los Angeles White Sox in 1946. Other players with high expectations during the first season included two former Monarchs: second baseman Syl Murphy and shortstop Dedee Saunders, who was also the field captain. Their first game was played in Huron, South Dakota, followed by their first home field game at Creighton’s field and in Oakland, Nebraska.
Standout players from the 1947 roster included Satchel Paige (1906-1982), who was a pitcher in the Rockets’ first season at the end of a career as a legendary player throughout the nation. Mickey Stubblefield (b. 1926), who was a pitcher with the Omaha Rockets in 1947 after he left the Navy. After one season, he joined the Kansas City Monarchs. He left professional baseball in 1951 after his arm gave out on him. Pitcher Gene Collins (1925-1998) later played for the Kansas City Monarchs, several Mexican teams, and was sold to the Chicago White Sox before he left the game. Future professional football Hall of Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane was with the team that season, too.
Clarence Bryant, Pitcher
Clark, Third Baseman
Eugene Collins, Pitcher
Collins, Third Baseman / First Baseman
Robert Lee Daniels, Pitcher
Daniels, Shortstop / Outfield
Jewell Day, Catcher / Third Baseman
Del Douglas, Outfield / Shortstop
Ted Espinosa, Pitcher
Gay, First Baseman
Edgar Glen, Pitcher
Dick Lane, Outfield
Mc Kay O
Ken Morris, Outfield / Catcher
Sylvester Murphy, Second Baseman
Charles Napoleon, Outfield / Pitcher
Herschel Oliver, Catcher /Outfield / Pitcher
Satchel Paige, Pitcher
Sanders, Third Baseman / Catcher
Horatius Saunders, Pitcher
Clifford Stafford, Pitcher
Mickey Stubblefield, Pitcher
Walters, Catcher / Outfield
Tom West, Pitcher
Ralph Williams, Catcher / Outfield
Bill Wright, Outfield
Charles Wright, Pitcher
Daniels, Shortstop / Outfield
During the second season in 1948, Will Calhoun kept owning and managing the Omaha Rockets.
“I think we have a better team than a year ago,” Calhoun declared.
—As quoted in the May 20, 1948 Omaha World-Herald
Jim Allen, Outfield
A.G. Barnett, Catcher
Cliff Bergin, Pitcher
Don Bishop, Pitcher
Cannon, Pitcher / Outfield
Ed Clark, First Baseman
Jim Massie, Shortstop /3B
Bill McCrary, Shortstop
Kenny Morris, Third Baseman
Murphy, Second Baseman
Dee Dee Saunders, Catcher / Manager
John Senters, Pitcher
Jim Stevens, Pitcher / Outfield
Chophouse Walters, Outfield / Pitcher
Al Watts, Infield
Zip Webb, Outfield
Cotton Williams, Pitcher
“We have a good mixture of old and young players to start with,” Massingale said, “Like all pro clubs, we probably will have to make some changes.”
—Mack Massingale, quoted in the May 17, 1949 Omaha World-Herald
For the third season of the Omaha Rockets in 1949, owner Calhoun brought on Mack Massingale, former Kansas City Monarchs catcher. Jim Nash was the number one pitcher for the team, and five of the previous season’s players came back, and two prime members were missing: Kenny Morris and William McCreary.
Conley, Second Baseman
Loudell Jameson, Pitcher
James Massey, Second Baseman / Third Baseman
Bill McCary, Pitcher / Shortstop
James Stephens, Outfield
Charles Utley, Shortstop
Gilberto Varona, First Baseman
Joe Webb, Catcher
“This has been the worst year I can remember for Negro teams,” Mat said, “The weather was partly to blame but I can’t give you the other big reasons. The Rockets… were more fortunate than many.”
—Mat Pascale, as quoted in the August 8, 1950 edition of the Omaha World-Herald
In 1950, the team became the official farm team for the Kansas City Monarchs. One of their alumni, James “Cool Pappa” Bell, managed the team that season. However, the Negro baseball circuit fell apart that season when major league teams hired the players en masse. The Omaha Rockets team disbanded in August 1950. In addition to the quote above, Pascale went on to say, “They at least had enough money to get the players home or to jobs.”
In the mid-1950s, non-major baseball leagues died across the country, and the Omaha Rockets were victim to the skids. After Calhoun was arrested and the Omaha Rockets came to an end, Omaha’s baseball teams were fewer and farther apart. As one book said,
“Ghost parks, where minor leaguers once played, now abandoned and idle, had weeds in the outfields and cobwebs in the grandstands, and unused fields left gaps in local baseball interest.”
—From Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and His Great Black Teams by Alan J. Pollock (2012)
Will Calhoun was convicted of murder in 1953. A drifter at his hotel threatened his wife Ann (1922-1994) when Calhoun got his gun and shot the man. When his plea of self-defense was rejected, the judge held over the trial and Calhoun never served time.
They legacy of the Rockets’ schedule meant impressing upon spectators and fellow players that Omaha was a baseball town, and that African Americans in Omaha played the game with dedication.
Bob Gibson (b. 1935) was an outstanding baseball player from Omaha who purportedly played for the Rockets after playing at Tech High and before joining professional baseball, but didn’t show up on the team rosters.
In 2017, restauranteer Donald Curry named his new eatery the Omaha Rockets Canteen at North 24th and Lake Streets in honor of the team.
A beer empire soaked North Omaha in success, including a massive brewery on North 16th and a gorgeous home on Wirt Street. It was 1909 when Charles Storz (1859-1932) built his massive Arts and Crafts style home at 1901 Wirt Street in the fashionable Kountze Place neighborhood. This is a history of the Charles Storz house.
About Charles Storz
Charles Storz was born in 1859 in Benningen, Germany, and immigrated to the United States in the 1870s to work at the Columbia Brewery where his brother Gottlieb Storz was brewmaster. He became Gottlieb’s brewmaster when the Storz Brewery opened at North 16th and Charles Streets. At some point before 1889 though, he began running his own bar at North 24th and Clark Streets.
In the 1890s, the Storz Brewery opened a series of tied houses across Omaha and beyond. These were pubs that only sold the brewery’s labels. When federal law made it illegal for breweries to have tied houses, Charles Storz started managing the pub at the site of the brewery, which was at 1837 North 16th Street. The Storz Pub became a “soft drink parlor” during Prohibition, and Charles Storz continued to run it.
Charles’ German-born wife Wilhelmina died at age 53 in 1919, a decade after her house was finished. Ten years later in 1929, Charles Storz was in a serious car accident that wounded him greatly, forcing his retirement.
In 1932, Charles Storz was struck by a car as he walked home across North 16th Street. After beginning to recover at Methodist Hospital, he died that October at the age of 73. He was buried next to his wife at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Building the Storz House
In 1909, 50-year-old Charles Storz celebrated his success with the building of a fine house. Located at 1901 Wirt Street, the house was designed by popular local architects Fisher and Lawrie. The wealthy suburb of Kountze Place was host to the Trans-Mississippi Expo just a decade earlier, and lots in the neighborhood were valuable property. There are several mansions and large residences on either side of the home, and for 40 years two streetcar lines traveled within blocks. There are large churches nearby, too, including the North Presbyterian Church, and movie theaters including the Corby Theater.
A wood frame, three story house, the design represents a faithful execution of the Arts & Crafts style. Emphasizing hand-crafted wooden excellence, there were various woods used throughout the house, along with fine detailing and more. Outside, the house has a wide porch, deep eves and strong bracing for the roof. The house is three stories tall and has 3,890 square feet. There are five bedrooms and two bathrooms, and ten total rooms throughout the house.
The Kountze Place neighborhood stayed upscale through the 1920s. After the 1919 lynching of Will Brown, the Near North Side neighborhood experienced massive white flight. Wayne McPherson, Clay Pulver and several others owned the house between the 1930s and the 1950s. During those 20 years, block busting by real estate agents became more aggressive as real estate agents struck the neighborhood around the Charles Storz House too, and by 1940 the neighborhood was falling out of fashion with white people.
In the meantime, African Americans moved into Kountze Place with many buying large, beautiful homes in great condition. While many were kept up well throughout the years, the Charles Storz House fell into disrepair by the late 1970s.
Saving the Home
The homeowners had a hard time maintaining the house. When the City of Omaha threatened to demolish it because of its condition, historical preservation advocates called for the house to be saved. The City of Omaha bought it from the homeowners and developed plans to restore the house and turn it into a duplex. In early 1982 the city signed over the house to Omaha’s original historic property advocacy leader, a nonprofit called Landmarks, Inc.
Partnering with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Consumer Services Organization in 1983, Landmarks, Inc. used City of Omaha money and federal dollars to restore the home. After it was completed, in May 1983 there was a public open house to show off work completed. At the same time, several other homes along Wirt Street were restored and there was talk of establishing a historic district between Wirt, Binney and Spencer Streets. However, that never happened.
In 1984 it was designated an official Omaha Landmark, and today it remains in good condition.
When the automobile industry was just getting started, every major city in the United States had at least one manufacturer. In Omaha, there were several including the Ottomobile, Ford trucks, and the Omaha Car, which lasted for just over a year between 1912 and 1913. This is a history of the Omaha Motor Car Company in North Omaha.
In early 1912, a designer named David W. Henry designed the Omaha 30 car. After learning the craft of automotive design and manufacturing over a decade with the Columbia Automobile Company in Connecticut, Henry established a company in Muskogen, Michigan in 1910, and another in Mason City, Iowa in 1911. After Henry secured a group of Omaha businessmen to invest in his idea, in February 1912 the Omaha Motor Car Company was incorporated. Investors in the company included local businessman Walter Moise, W. L. Huffman Automobile Company and the State Bank of Omaha, and the company was organized with $1,000,000 in stock. E. E. Howell was the president of the board of directors.
Within a month, Henry released plans for a two-story factory at 4311 North 20th Street in the Saratoga neighborhood‘s manufacturing district along the Belt Line Railroad, and planned to have their first car finished by April 10, 1912. The first model was a touring car called the Omaha 30. It was a four cylinder car that was nine feet, 10 inches long.
In the meanwhile the company needed space to build their products, so they leased room in the newly constructed Stroud Company factory located immediately south. Stroud made road construction equipment and had extra room in their plant. Henry speculated that the company would build 1,000 cars between May 1912 and May 1913.
A Turn for the Worse
By July 1913, the company had problems. Henry was trying to eject W. A. Gordon and W. L. Huffman from the board of directors. The W. L. Huffman Automobile Company sold Hupmobiles from a showroom on Farnam. The companies competed with each other for resources, with more than one switching from the Omaha Motor Car Company to Huffman Automobile Company and vice versa.
Gordon, who also owned stock in Omaha Motor Car Company, took Henry to court for “obtaining money under a false pretense.” Apparently, Henry wrote a bad check to Gordon. Meanwhile, Gordon held onto stock for the company after verbally telling Henry he sold it, which he hadn’t reported to the company officially. Meanwhile, Henry was owed $2,000 and Gordon disclaimed any responsibility because he didn’t own stock any longer, according to his word.
By October 1913, the company declared bankruptcy. The company claimed $10,140 in assets, including six finished cars, several unfinished cars, tools and office furniture. It owed approximately $42,000 in debt to creditors.
W. L. Huffman petitioned federal courts to intervene in the liquidation of the completed cars, and in late October an auction was stopped so he could claim the property. It wasn’t until May 1914 that the courts awarded him custody of the cars. According to an announcement in the Omaha World-Herald, Huffman immediately sold them on the market.
Another auction was held early in November, and soon after W. H. Miles announced he bought the Omaha Motor Car Company factory and sought to hire apprentices. However, in early December, Miles announced the sale of “the complete stock of the Omaha Motor Co.,” including “chassis, bodies, fenders, hoods, radiators, springs, wheels, lamps, electric horns, coils, batteries, shock absorbers, rear axles, gears; also a lot of small parts that any repair man can use to good advantage.”
Today, there’s no sign that the Omaha Motor Car Company ever existed. There is no historic marker, plaque or other signage on the location, and history books have largely forgotten the involvement of David W. Henry in the city’s history.
In 1916, Henry was reportedly organizing a new multi-million dollar company to build a four-wheel drive.
Built in 1916, the W. L. Huffman Automobile Company’s Hupmobile building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1914, and declared an Omaha Landmark in 1916. For all intents and purposes he won any contest he had with Henry.
In 1890, a major Detroit-based chair manufacturer called Murphy, Wasey and Company arrived in a big way in North Omaha. Located at 3167-77 Spaulding Street along what was then called North 32nd (aka John A. Creighton Boulevard) and the Belt Line Railway, the company built a large factory and employed a hundred people. It was a five-story behemoth where they manufactured chairs and mattresses, and shipped them throughout the Midwest on the Belt Line. This is a history of the factory.
Murphy, Wasey and Company
By 1900, a report in the Omaha World-Herald said “The Omaha factory is now receiving a carload a day from the Detroit factory, and it working overtime but still is running behind on orders.” However, the same year the plant shut down and the business sold all the machinery within.
Beebe and Runyan Furniture Company
In 1901, Beebe and Runyan Furniture of Council Bluffs took over the building. Ordering new machinery, the plant began operations on February 1. Hiring more than 100 workers immediately, the company made “parlor furniture” including couches, sofas, and other upholstered furniture. They also made mattresses there. Their goods were shipped nationally through their warehouse on Grace Street, with sales coordinated through a storeroom at 1538 North 16th Street across from the Storz Brewery.
To honor the leasing of this factory, the Beebe and Runyan Furniture Company ordered a big train that had 50 fifty-five foot cars with the “single largest shipment ever sent by the manufacturer of one company in the West.” It had 60 cars with more than $70,000 in cargo, and was decorated with more than 800 American flags. The train was “over a half a mile in length” and was the largest train of its kind to ever leave the Mattoon Company of Sheboygan and arrived in Omaha.
Changes, Then Fire
By 1912, the M. E. Smith Furniture Company leased the building and was using it as a warehouse. Their main plant employed “600 girls” at 10th and Douglas, and they used the Belt Line to ship their goods in and out of Omaha. In December 1913, the furniture company sold the building to the Sherman and McConnell Drug Company for use as a warehouse.
On November 22, 1914 the Sherman and McConnell Drug Company warehouse suffered a massive fire with an unknown cause, losing about $60,000 in the process, or $1.5m in 2019 value. In the course of the fire, the building burned down along with 17 vehicles and the nearby Druid Hill Depot, valued at $2,000. The south end of the building, which is two and three stories and 35,000 square feet of floor space, was saved. The rest of the building burned to the ground.
The Overland Warehouse Company bought the remaining factory from Sherman and McConnell in 1916. The Union Packing Company moved into the part of the space and established a fruit and vegetable canning operation. Supposedly featuring a capacity of 60,000 cans of pork and beans daily, Omaha had high expectations for the food manufacturer. Ketchup, salad dressing and chili sauce were all made there. Their capacity in 1916 called for 25,000 bushels of tomatoes every 24 hours, and they employed “60 – 75 girls.” Greenhouses were built on 10 additional acres around the factory to grow tomato seeds.
In 1917, the Nebraska Tire and Rubber Company bought a part of the building for its plant. Plans were for the company to launch in May of 1918, with machinery to hire 75 people to manufacture tires. They made 500 tires and 400 tubes daily in 1919. Starting in 1925, the company ran into hard times though. Conducting seasonal shutdowns, the company started releasing workers in the summer time when sales diminished. By 1928, they were fighting off rumors that they’d closed entirely the previous summer. The next year, the company started selling tires from the factory direct to consumers. However, without notice otherwise, a bankruptcy auction was held in 1931. The rubber factory machinery, tire molds, vulcanizers, boilers, motors, hydraulic press, and other equipment were all put up for sale.
United Mineral Prospect Company
In 1934, the United Mineral Products Company remodeled the building, using the address at 3173 Spaulding Street even though it was the same building as before. A year later, the company incorporated. Its business focused on mining, oil prospecting, gasoline, grease, petroleum and natural gas. They were also in mining, transporting, grinding and selling chalk, limestone and other mineral products. That operation closed in 1952.
In the late 1950s, the Omaha Stove Company emerged at the address. In 1959, the Roberts Supply Company moved into the same address. Their business focused on plumbing supplies. Even though it was founded in 1866, the stove company only stayed in business through 1962. Roberts Supply went bankrupt in 1977. Two closed locations moved their inventory and equipment to the warehouse, and an auction was held.
The GDO (Garage Door Openers) Company operated there in the late 1960s.
In 1980 the building was for sale as a 100,000 square foot warehouse.
Today, part of the building is recorded as having 133,000 square feet, and it is home of Office Furniture Installers. Opened in 1993, it was moved to this facility in 2003 and has been there since.
Omaha is a city of immigrants, and North Omaha is no exception. Along with its historic African American community and wealthy white settlers, the community has been home to Jews, Scandinavians, English and other Europeans. Among this plethora of diversity are Italians from across their homeland who came for jobs, homes and connections. This is a history of Italians in North Omaha.
Omaha’s First Italians
Starting in the 1850s, Omaha City attracted Italians who ran bars, barber shops and more. Pioneers from Northern Italia settled downtown. By the 1880s, Calabrians started moving to the city to work on the railroads, at the lead smelter and in other labor jobs. These families went on to open the fruit stands, groceries and other businesses that thrived. Settling around South 24th and Poppleton, they and the first Italians in the city appear largely irrelevant to North Omaha’s growth. At the turn of the century, the Salerno brothers stated recruiting fellow Sicilians to come to Omaha, and they grew the Italian community around South 10th and Pierce Streets, which became known as Little Italy before World War I. Neighborhood institutions like the Bank of Sicily and Saint Philomena’s Cathedral were essential for Italian strength in Omaha.
Italians were segregated from the rest of Omaha, both because they chose to be and because they were forced to be. Gathering together allowed Italians to build camaraderie, including economic, religious, cultural and social customs. However, it was also out of necessity since Italians weren’t allowed to move into other neighborhoods, work at some businesses or otherwise integrate into Omaha.
New Italians, New Neighborhood
However, the two neighborhoods south of downtown didn’t keep ALL the Italians in the city. From the early 20th century through the 1950s, Italian immigrants from northern, central and southern Italy lived throughout much of Omaha’s Near North Side neighborhood. Specifically, their homes, businesses and churches extended from North 15th to North 22nd Streets, and from Izard Street on the south to Locust Street on the north.
The Holy Family parish started in 1876 in a little frame building at North 17th and Cuming Streets. This temporary chapel served until 1883 when the present church was partially built. In 1897, the parish boundaries were from Cass Street on the south to Grace Street on the north; from North 20th Street on the west to the Missouri River on the east.
Starting at the turn of the century, Omaha’s parishes were divided among ethnic groups for many years. From the 1930s through 1961, since its surrounding neighborhood was Italian Holy Family was an Italian parish. Its priests were Italian, parishioners were Italian and its traditions were Italian. They celebrated Italian saints and feasts, and played Italian music during their festivals. As late as 1970, Omaha had 14 designated national parishes, but only two still held regular services in their native languages.
Holy Family was the center of social life for North Omaha’s Italian community, too. Weddings were held there in old Italian fashion through the early 1960s, with half-mile long processions, large meals and hundreds of people attending. Parish children attended the Holy Family School on the first floor of the church, too, for more than 80 years.
The parish has been committed to social justice since the 1960s, too. Father John McCaslin led that development starting in 1967, and the church has grown in its outreach since then. They supported Sienna House from its inception, as well as offering food banks and other outreach, too.
Saint Alfio Society
Starting in 1929, the parish hosted the Saint Alfio Society. Soon after, the Saint Alfio Hall was built at North 17th and Clark Streets. Focused on mutual aid for Italian immigrants, the society held annual festivals and parades, fireworks and other events as well, all to raise money to help their countrymen. The society sponsored its first large parade during Saint Alfio’s saint week in May.
In 1930, the society shipped a statue of Saint Alfio from Italy to Omaha. When the statue originally arrived in September 1930, it was brought to the Omaha City Auditorium for public viewing for a week. Afterwards, it was placed at Holy Family, where Father Patrick F. Cooney and a celebration was held.
Saint Alfio Festival
Annually afterwards, the Saint Alfio Festival centered on the carrying of a statue of Saint Alfio throughout the neighborhood. After a long procession, the parade culminated in the placement of the statue in an archway outside the church. The festival was located on North 17th from Nicholas to Clark. A large carnival was then held and a benediction was held for young women involved in the society. The festival included a special mass, the shooting of cannons filled with confetti, 22 concession stands, 15 shows and a variety of rides. Starting in 1938, the feast week was eight days long, with events culminating an annual dance. Omaha’s entire Italian community was invited, and thousands regularly attended through the 1950s. That year, the Saint Alfio Arch was located at North 17th and Grace Streets by the Saint Alfio Hall.
The Omaha Italian-American Band directed by Vincent Emmanuel regularly played carnivals and festivals held in the streets and lots around Saint Alfio Hall, too. In the 1930s, men who organized the festival leadership included Joe Baldanza, John Laferia, Franco Franck, Alfio Sapienza and Franco Ferraro. In the 1950s, the organizing committee included A. Alessandro, R. De Marco, A. Sapienza, M. F. De Marco, P. F. Mascarello, and Al Cascio.
There were several businesses that identified specifically as Italian-owned over the 20+ years of the Italian neighborhood in North Omaha. They included grocery stores such as the Nicholas Street Market at 1108 North 17th Street and the Troia Market at 1702 Clark Street. The Troia family ran their store in the neighborhood from 1932 through 1966. Reflecting the movement of Italians from the neighborhood was a neighboring grocery store called Montclair Market. Located on the corner of North 30th and Cuming Street, Anthony S. Battiato and his brother Dominic J. Battiato opened the business in the 1940s.
The Italian ethnic designation for Holy Family was ended in the early 1960s when the church was made open to members from across the city. The neighborhood around the church became mostly industrial, and with the construction of Interstate 480 through the southern part of the neighborhood many homes were destroyed. In a 1976 interview, Rev. McCaslin said as discrimination against Italians ended and members became more affluent in the 1950s, many families moved away from the inner-city neighborhood to west Omaha. Immediately post-World War II, Italian families went to the Miller Park and Minne Lusa neighborhoods where restaurants like Mister C’s reflected their heritage; many of the East Omaha truck farms were run by Italians, and; the intersection of 30th and Ames became home to an Italian sandwich shop that stayed open for 20 years.
While Holy Family stayed open after then, the Italian neighborhood in North Omaha did not.
The Kountze Place neighborhood was built for middle- and upper-class Omahans seeking a streetcar suburb suitable for building large homes, raising fine families and enjoying the fruit of their labors. Indicative of the Victorian era, the home was designed in the Eastlake or Stick style, which featured a lot of woodwork and embellishments to really show the owners wealthy to anyone looking. This is a history of the Copeland Home at 1922 Wirt Street in North Omaha.
Building A Fine Home
Maynard Bassett Copeland (1855-1953) came to Omaha after working as a school teacher in Massachusetts. His job was the manage the Omaha branch of Disbrow and Company, a custom millwork business. Copeland was the nephew and protege of Martin Disbrow, the founder of the company. After building a large factory at North 12th and Nicholas Streets in 1886 for the company, Copeland constructed his fine home in the exclusive Kountze Place neighborhood in 1888.
The manufacturer of sash, doors and other fixtures for fine homes, it was only appropriate that Copeland used a lot of his company’s products when he built a fine home for his wife. According to lore shared by a descendant, many of the rooms in the house were referred to by their wood rather than function, such as the mahogany room, the oak room and so on.
Starting in the 1890s, Mrs. Mary Louisa Copeland (1858-1930) was very involved in missionary work through her membership at Plymouth Congregational Church in North Omaha. In 1909, the Copeland’s daughter Louise was a junior at Omaha High School when she won a national essay contest for the Daughters of the American Revolution.
There was a carriage house in the back, and Copeland kept a garden and a cow for fresh milk for years. The house held a butler’s pantry, maid’s quarters with a back staircase, and a speaking tube to talk to the kitchen from the upstairs bedroom. The 1913 Easter Sunday tornado demolished the front porch shown above, and it was replaced with a new one that extended the full length of the house afterwards.
By the time his wife died in 1930, Maynard Copeland was president of the Disbrow Company. He lived another 23 years after his wife, all of them at the family home he’d built so many years before, and they are buried together at Forest Lawn.
A 1946 feature in the Omaha World-Herald highlighted the career of M. B. Copeland, who served the business for 65 years starting in 1881. Opening the Omaha office in 1886, he became president of the business in 1912. The newspaper said Copeland was the chairman of Disbrow Company board of directors and regarded as a dean among Omaha businessmen when he died. The company was sold in 1982 and the factory remained in operation for several years afterwards. Today it stands empty, but included on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Nicholas Street Historic District.
When it was sold in 1953, it was advertised as having 10-rooms including six bedrooms and a 4-car garage.
Life After The Builders
When Copeland died,
my grandmother sold the house with the stipulation it be torn down, as she didn’t want anyone outside the family to live in it—in my opinion, quite a shame! I’m told she sold it for the same amount it cost to build, $10,000.
Special thanks to David Wright for contributing information and the historic pic for this article!
Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church was a short-lived attempt by a fleeting denomination to maintain a significant presence in North Omaha. Ultimately failing, they did succeed in ensuring the legacy of a gorgeous landmark that celebrates its 110th anniversary in 2020. This is a history of Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church at 3105 North 24th Street in North Omaha.
Second Presbyterian Church was one of the oldest churches in Nebraska, originally established in 1861. When it reestablished itself as part of the Saunders Street Mission Chapel in 1881, the church was renamed North Presbyterian and grew more. Then, with a vigorous new minister in 1887, the congregation doubled its size. With a new building at North 24th and Nicholas Streets, it became Second Presbyterian Church in 1890. When they moved, the church sold Second Presbyterian to a Jewish congregation called B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholem.
In October 1887, Knox Presbyterian Church was organized in North Omaha. Built on hopes and dreams of a thriving congregation, they first met in a storefront at North 19th and Lake Streets in the Near North Side neighborhood. After that, the church grew quickly and they bought a church, then grew some more and built a church.
Merger to form North Presbyterian
In 1908, Second Presbyterian and Knox Presbyterian merged to become the North Presbyterian Church. They built a grand church at the corner of North 24th and Wirt Streets on the edge of the wealthy suburban Kountze Place neighborhood in 1910. Designed by Frederick Henninger in the Neo-Classical Revival style, the building features four colossal limestone Ionic columns holding large portico in front of a gigantic dome. Henninger was clearly inspired by the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition that happened on this site just a decade before North Presbyterian was established.
Merger to form Calvin Memorial Presbyterian
White flight took exacted a toll on the Kountze Place neighborhood. With their fears stoked by racist media and politicians, white residents were afraid of their new African American neighbors who started moving in during the late 1940s. That decade, middle- and upper-class white congregants of North Presbyterian Church started moving en masse to west Omaha. The toll on the church included members and money.
In 1954, the church was merged with Hillside Presbyterian Church, a historically Black church in the Near Northside Neighborhood. Prior to this, Hillside had absorbed a formerly all-white congregation called Bethany Presbyterian Church. Bethany was Omaha’s first German Presbyterian church that was founded in 1881 and located at North 20th and Willis Streets. When they merged, both African American and white congregants formed the new Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Funded as an outreach mission by the Nebraska Presbyterians, the congregation thrived for several decades. Initially celebrated as an integrated congregation, the African American minister of Hillside, Rev. Charles Taylor, became minister of the new congregation and stayed with it for several years afterwards.
In 1962 after redlining was formally ended by the federal Fair Housing Act, white flight intensified and Calvin Memorial’s congregation became all African American within a decade. Black congregants carried it forward into the 1990s.
In 1985, the church building was declared an Omaha Landmark by the Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission. The next year in 1986, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Becoming a New Church
After years of diminishing congregation size and a lack of support for their missionary purpose, Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church was merged with Fairview Presbyterian Church in 1991, and the new congregation was named the New Life Presbyterian. They stayed at the site of the former Fairview Presbyterian Church at North 40th and Pratt Streets, and are still there today.
The former North Presbyterian / Calvin Memorial Presbyterian building became home to a new ministry called the Church of Jesus Christ Whole Truth in 1992. In 2015, the congregation hosted a Thanksgiving dinner at the North Omaha Salvation Army on 24th Street, serving 500 people under the leadership of Pastor Frank Parker. The IRS lists the church active today, although its Facebook hasn’t been updated in years and they don’t have an online presence otherwise.
The building stands though, and is a spectacular landmark for the renaissance of North 24th Street. Between its status as a local landmark and its listing as a nationally important building, I hope a plaque is installed outside insisting the entire city recognizes its beauty and history.
Built in 1952, the Hilltop Homes were located on the southwest corner of North 30th and Lake Streets. Part of the same construction spree as the Spencer Homes and the Pleasantview Homes, they were demolished in 1995. Today, Salem Baptist Church and Walgreen’s are located on the 14-acre site. This is a history of the Hilltop Projects in North Omaha.
Before the Projects
Before Hilltop was there, the southwest corner of 30th and Lake Streets was originally home to the Ittner Brothers brickyard, a company that made the bricks that built early Omaha. John Ittner was one of the original owners of the land after the area was opened for settlement in 1854. The Ittner Brothers brickyard ran from 1880 to 1909, and after being bought by the J. F. Smith Brick Company, the corner remained a production center until 1918. The 175-foot-tall chimney for the brickyard stood on the corner from 1880 to 1931. Estimated to weigh 600 tons, debris fell 50 feet in every direction when it fell to the southwest. Most of the broken bricks were buried on the site when it fell.
A Construction Spree
According to several books and papers, the Hilltop Projects were strategically positioned to maintain the adherence of Omaha’s African American population to the redlining that first segregated the city in 1919.
Built as one of three public housing projects on the edges of the Near North Side, Hilltop housed at least 200 families at any given point during most of the 40+ years it existed. There were 225 units in 46 two-story buildings there. It bordered the Pleasantview Projects to the south, as well as Omaha’s most important historical cemetery called Prospect Hill.
Problems in the Projects
Offices for Hilltop were at 3012 Grant Street. In 1969, the important Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer participated in the dedication of a childrens’ activities center at Hilltop.
Throughout the years, Hilltop was frequently beleaguered by the media and politicians for the problems it faced. Residents were often blamed for these problems, and despite the complex being gone for more than 20 years now, its still blamed. For instance, a 2017 article in Omaha magazine said,
In a 1982 survey of participants by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, nearly 82% of residents said that had no familiarity of the staff serving them at Hilltop.
A New Vision
The Omaha Housing Authority began implementing so-called scattered-site housing in the 1960s. There were public housing units spread into individual houses and not clustered in apartments. Two decades later, OHA became committed to its exclusive usage. This meant the projects had to go.
In 1995, the Hilltop Projects were demolished, and later in the 2000s, Pleasantview was completely demolished. In 1999 Salem Baptist Church built a new church on the corner of North 30th and Lake Streets, taking up all of the site of the former Hilltop. They also were responsible for the development of a Walgreen’s and other commercial storefronts at the intersection.
Within the next decade, the rest of the surrounding was recreated as an “urban village” designed to build on surrounding institutions like the Charles Drew Health Center, the Urban League and the Miami Heights neighborhood. Plans called for mixed-income and mixed-type housing, neighborhood services, and an intergenerational community center, and the Highlander neighborhood was built as a result.
In 1951, OHA announced development of the projects on both the east and west sides of North 30th Street extending from Burdette south to Parker Street. Completely demolished in 2010, today the ultra-modern, mixed income Highlander neighborhood sits on the 15 acres once here, along with the Charles Drew Health Center. This article is a history of the Pleasantview Homes Public Housing Project in North Omaha.
Originally called the Near North Side Projects, it was changed to Parker Street Projects, then to Pleasantview within a year of it being announced. A popular Omaha architecture firm called Leo A. Daly Company designed the complex. The Pleasantview Towers was a 6-story, 51-unit apartment building, and the other 184 units in the Pleasantview Homes two-story buildings were spread across 14 acres. In late 1953, the minimum cost of project was billed at $3.1 million.
In August 1953, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Matzke became the first residents in the new six-story tower at Pleasantview. With 51 one-bedroom apartments, the tower was built for elderly people and two-person families without children. Mr. Matzke and his wife were elderly and owned “a simple home on a modest acreage” before they moved into the tower. When a fire destroyed that house and illness struck him, the couple were relieved to get a new apartment there. Mr. Matzke died in 1956 at age 80.
The original administration offices for Pleasantview were located at 1915 North 30th Street on the northwest corner of 30th and Parker. Voter registration and voting often happened there in the early years. In 1969, the Douglas County Hospital opened an outreach clinic in the tower at Pleasantview. Planned Parenthood maintained a clinic in Pleasantview from 1968 to 1982.
Scattered-site housing was introduced by the Omaha Housing Authority in the 1960s. These were public housing units spread into individual houses and not clustered in apartments. Two decades later, OHA became committed to their exclusive usage and the demolition of the projects.
In the 2000s, Pleasantview was completely demolished, as were the neighborhood Hilltop Projects in 1995. Within the next decade, the area where they both sat was recreated as an “urban village” designed to build on surrounding institutions like Salem Baptist Church, the Charles Drew Health Center, the Urban League and the Miami Heights neighborhood. Plans called for mixed-income and mixed-type housing, neighborhood services, and an intergenerational community center, and the Highlander neighborhood was built as a result.
Public housing was introduced in Omaha in 1937 when the federal Housing Act was passed. This act made federal loans to the city for the construction of low-income public housing.
In the 1930s, the City of Omaha first created an informal housing authority meant to address the housing needs of low-income European immigrants. Seeking to coordinate with the federal government, Omaha joined cities across the nation with this type of program. Starting in 1934, the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC, depended on these entities to disperse their funding. The Omaha Housing Authority was ultimately responsible for creating the HOLC map which codified Omaha’s longstanding redlining practices that segregated Black people into the Near North Side.
An Intro to OHA
The Omaha Housing Authority, or OHA, is the government entity responsible for the planning, construction and maintenance of the city’s public housing efforts. Formed in 1937, OHA’s first effort was to oversee the federal construction project by the Works Progress Administration with workers from the Carter Lake CCC Camp that came to be known as the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects (see below for details).
Before World War II, public housing was promoted as a way to employ men who couldn’t find work because of the depression. This resulted in 1,000+ units built in North Omaha. After the war, public housing was used as a way to employ men who came back from the military and couldn’t find work because it didn’t exist. The public housing building boom in the United States continued into the 1950s, including a spree in North Omaha that results in more than 1,000 new units between 1951 and 1954.
The original OHA board of commissioners was comprised of five members serving five-year terms. Today, commissioners are appointed by the mayor of Omaha and confirmed by the Omaha City Council to serve staggered five-year terms. According to their website, commissioners “set policies governing the operations of OHA and chartering the direction of current and future programs.”
For the first 30 years of Omaha’s projects, the OHA “believed it’s sole function was to provide a place where the poor could live.” In 1966, they began “turning our attention to the human problems as well – providing furniture, food and clothing.” Starting in 1966, its first tenant relations director started to meet those needs.
For more than 50 years, the rent in OHA’s public housing projects was approximately 25% of a family’s income, no matter what the makeup was. Single parent families, multi-generational homes, elderly clients and others paid according to this formula.
Projects in North Omaha
A product of the Great Depression, the first public housing projects in Omaha were started in 1938 and were eventually called the Logan Fontenelle Projects. Between 1951 and 1953, three other complexes were built in North Omaha: Pleasantview, Hilltop and Spencer Homes. All of them were built in and around Omaha’s Near North Side, a historically African American neighborhood. They were built here to ensure the effectiveness of redlining and to act as buffers to keep the African American population from expanding beyond this area.
A 1947 report said OHA operated four public housing projects in North Omaha: Pleasantview; Hilltop Homes; Logan Fontenelle, and; Spencer Homes. Citywide, they had six projects with 1,303 rental units.
Within the next three decades, that number increased, and in 1974, the newspaper reported that 10,000 people lived in 3,750 housing units owned or leased by OHA. The agency owned 1,395 units in 11 buildings, and 1,778 units in five projects. At that point, there were 1,202 units of scattered site housing. A concept introduced in the 1960s, scattered site housing offers apartment and housing units spread out in different areas of Omaha. For the last 25 years, OHA has offered residents in these units rental support, case management services, employment support, and other support services. That same year under a new program, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, began supporting individual families to move into scattered site housing en masse. This was a change from former policies that focused HUD finances specifically on projects.
In 1951, OHA announced development of public housing projects on both sides of North 30th Street, from Burdette south to Parker Street. Originally called the Near North Side Projects, it was changed to Parker Street Projects, then to Pleasantview within a year of it being announced. The Leo A. Daly Company designed the complex in 1953. Originally featuring 300 units, there were initially 16 one- and two-story buildings, and a single large tower with a second one planned. In late 1953, the minimum cost of project was billed at $3.1 million. The Pleasantview Public Housing Projects were demolished in 2010 and replaced by the ultra-modern mixed income Highlander neighborhood. Find details in my article, “A History of the Pleasantview Projects in North Omaha.“
Built in 1952, the Hilltop Homes were part of the same construction project as the Spencer Homes. Located on the southwest corner of North 30th and Lake Streets, they started as mixed race housing for African Americans and European immigrants, slowly becoming completely segregated with only African American residents. In 1969, the important Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer participated in the dedication of a childrens’ activities center at Hilltop. The Hilltop Homes Public Housing Projects were demolished in 1995 and replaced by Salem Baptist Church and a Walgreen’s. Discover some of their history in my article called, “A History of North Omaha’s Hilltop Projects.”
Originally called the North Side Housing Project, construction on the Logan Fontenelle Projects began in 1938. They were the first public housing projects in Omaha, and were completed in 1941. Noted Omaha architect Everett S. Dodds served as the manager for the design and building of the development. The office for Logan Fontenelle was at 1401 North 22nd Street. They were demolished starting in 1991 and completely gone by 1996, replaced by the mixed-income Conestoga neighborhood. Learn more in my article, A History of the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects.
The Spencer Homes Public Housing Projects at North 30th and Spencer Streets were opened in June 1952. Designed by the the Leo A. Daly Company, there were originally 165 units here. Ernie Chambers lived in Spencer Homes in the 1970s. In 1981, 57 units were demolished to make room for the North Freeway, which was being expanded from Lake Street northward to present-day Sorenson Pkwy. The demolished units were replaced with new units in 1983, and Spencer Homes was effectively split into two separate areas by the freeway. In 2019, it was announced that the federal government awarded the City of Omaha money to demolish the Spencer Homes and replace them with a new mixed-income development. Learn more from my article, A History of the Spencer Homes Public Housing Projects.
Tall Towers for the Elderly
From the 1950s through the 1970s, OHA built a series of high-rise apartment buildings as public housing projects for the elderly. The towers located north of Dodge and west of North 72nd Street include:
There are several other towers for the elderly outside of North Omaha, too.
Problems in the Projects
Public housing and the Omaha Housing Authority have faced a lot of criticism throughout the decades. Following are some of the main areas that have concerned different people.
The Omaha Housing Authority and the public housing projects they operated were under nearly constant criticism from the 1940s through the 2010s, and continue today. A litany of problems faced the projects, including management issues like finding and keeping tenants; property maintenance and modernization; fiscal management; federal government regulations, and; communicating with tenants. Charges laid against public housing residents included gang membership, rampant violence, drug use and sales, and many other ills. The OHA has also been frequently cited as a problem itself. Plagued by criticism of bureaucracy, overspending, under-financing and many other issues, the agency has also been charged with racism, classism and blatant disregard for the very people its supposed to serve. Throughout the years, critics of the OHA have included Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers, the late Charles Washington, and the late Judge Elizabeth Pittman, among many others.
When they were first constructed in 1938, the Logan Fontenelle Projects were intended for Eastern European and Jewish immigrants flooding into Omaha. However, within a year the Omaha Housing Authority built another section equal to the size of the first one. Apparently they were flooded with requests from African Americans, and because Omaha was segregated and the federal government was encouraging that, the other section was built for Blacks segregated from whites. By the 1960s, conditions in the city resulted in almost all of the city’s housing projects being African American. A 1986 article by Donald L Stevens Jr in Nebraska History magazine called “Government, Interest Groups, and the People: Urban Renewal in Omaha, 1954-1970” highlighted the racist undertones of public housing practices in Omaha for the 16-year period studied.
Between 1953 and 1993, no new public housing for low-income families was built in Omaha. Worst still, the condition of the old units was left to deteriorate into abysmal conditions. That meant raggedy paint and flooring, out-dated and broken appliances, terribly unclean public spaces, and deplorable outdoor areas around many buildings. Broken windows and bolted doors were common, and elevators, stairways and yards were rough. Pest control was an issue in the projects from the time the first one opened in 1938 through 1996. There are a lot of memories of cockroaches, rats, mice and other vermin that caused sickness and disease throughout the decades. Almost every effort to prevent, intervene and otherwise stop these deplorable conditions seemed to fail, whether it was the poor shape of the physical spaces, pest control and other problems. In a 1982 resident survey, parking was a major issue at Pleasantview. Logan Fontenelle and Hilltop had parking issues too. Other major issues identified in the same survey included the exterior condition of the projects, the slowness of fixing problems, and a feeling that residents’ privacy was routinely disrespected. Most respondents mentioned their neighbors’ behavior as a problem, along with the appearance of the outdoor areas.
Rent rises were always a problem in the projects. Happening across the years, there were sometimes jumps of 50% and more. According to a 1969 edition of the Omaha World-Herald, “This is intentional, officials said, because it is believed that most elderly tenants would qualify for additional Old Age Assistance if their rents are increased.” Non-elderly families who weren’t on welfare assistance and those who were old but not old enough for assistance were always unduly affected.
By 1955, there were more than 1,700 young people under the age of 15 living in the Pleasantview, Hilltop and Spencer public housing projects. In December of that year, the projects’ “Mother Council” requested more activities for kids. Mayor Johnny Rosenblatt was there, and said “We know that something must be done to provide them with both something to play with and a place to play.” Starting in the early 1960s, the Nebraska State Employment Services hired youth from the projects to staff recreation programs in the summer, too.
Throughout their existence, North Omaha’s public housing projects were slighted, slammed and otherwise lambasted for being bastions for illegal drugs, violence and criminal enterprise. In the 1940s when the Logan Fontenelle Projects were primarily Eastern Europeans, the residences were routinely reported as being home to too many “delinquent” youth. In the 1950s and 60s, the new projects called Spencer, Hilltop and Pleasantview were cited in the newspapers for vagrancy, bad parenting, and partying by teens and adults. However, all that changed course after 1966. That year police response was at it lowest in Logan Fontenelle, youth programs had been cut, and there was no relief from the summer heat for residents in the projects and surrounding neighborhoods. With the first rioting happening that summer along North 24th and North 16th, police and politicians routinely hammered the projects as being hotbeds for crime and criminals. Then, in 1969 when an Omaha Police Department officer shot and killed a 14-year-old African American girl named Vivian Strong, the lid came off the white supremacist leadership of Omaha and all fingers pointed at the projects again. After that point, the media ensured Omahans everywhere understood that all drugs, gangs and violence in the city emanated from the projects. Even the executive director of OHA ensured this trope was upheld, saying to the media, “According to arrest and search warrants in 1988, 18 to 20 percent of all drug activity in the city of Omaha occurred within public housing.” As recently as 2017, a local newspaper reflected on those times and similarly upheld the trope by saying, “the plague of drugs, murders, and gang activity had turned the area’s housing projects into a localized war zone.” This perspective doomed the projects to their fates, and by 2000 there were no signs of large scale public housing left in North Omaha.
Leadership of the OHA has been challenged since the 1960s. One of the most divisive figures in the history of Omaha’s public housing was an individual named Robert Armstrong. Armstrong was hired as the executive director of OHA in 1986. From that point forward, he appeared hellbent on demolishing every public housing project in Omaha, moving public money into private pockets, and relinquishing the rights of low-income residents to build and sustain their own communities.
Replacing the Projects
Across the decades, resources were clustered around the Pleasantview, Hilltop and Spencer Street Projects. With so much determination to replace highly concentrated poverty within projects, the redevelopment of these places seemed inevitable. Starting in 1996 and lasting through 2019, these projects were demolished. Redevelopment in these areas will emphasize existing community assets including Howard Kennedy Elementary School, the Omaha Early Learning Center at Kennedy, the Charles Drew Health Center and the new Highlander Accelerator Building, a commercial and community center.
Popular Omaha journalist Leo Biga (who is from North O) responded to one of my Facebook posts about the projects a few years ago saying “Beware of the carpetbaggers” in reference to those who had demolished the projects and replaced them with shabbier housing. He preceded that by writing, “There is no doubt that at every level of public and private leadership, North O was systematically drained of its resources or denied the resources that other districts enjoyed.” This belief about the negative impact of removing the community within the projects at Hilltop and Pleasantview, Logan Fontenelle, Spencer and elsewhere is pervasive. Time continues to show its true.
In 1995, the Hilltop Projects were demolished, and in the 2000s, the Pleasantview Public Housing Projects were completely demolished. Within the next decade, the area was recreated as an “urban village” designed to build on surrounding institutions like Salem Baptist Church, the Charles Drew Health Center, the Urban League and the Miami Heights neighborhood. Plans called for mixed-income and mixed-type housing, neighborhood services, and an intergenerational community center.
Over the last decade, the Highlander neighborhood was built on the site of Pleasantview at North 30th and Parker. 10 apartments, town houses and row houses house more than 300 people, with 60% of the units subsidized for moderate-income people, and 40% available at market-rates.
Located at North 22nd and Grace, the Conestoga Place neighborhood was built on the site of Logan Fontenelle. Seeking to replace the concentrated poverty of the projects with single-family housing for mixed income households, the neighborhood was comprised of various professional and working-class families of different races. A 1995 report said white homeowners lived in 20% of the houses in Conestoga Place. Today, there are 38 homes in this neighborhood.
In 2019, the federal government announced an award for the City of Omaha to replace the Spencer Homes with mixed-income housing. Additionally, the stretch of North 30th Street nearby will be uplifted, too, and existing community resources will be leveraged to support and build the area as well.
Despite criticism, many people in Omaha believe these changes are good for North Omaha and the city as a whole. Steven Abraham, a former resident commissioner for Omaha Housing Authority, stood up for the transformations underway.
“This is not gentrification. I don’t know how I can say it in more plainer words. This is not gentrification… And the people that are there, the people have been displaced, have first choice on what is taking place with this development so the people that are currently there, the people that are currently there, they have first choice in this new development.”
Abraham’s perspective seems to be shared increasingly throughout the community. However, there’s still a seed of doubt in some conversations reflecting years of misguidance, distrust and the resulting conspiratorial beliefs.
Nonprofits Providing Housing
Many nonprofit organizations have developed and operated low-income housing in North Omaha throughout the years. The Family Housing Advisory Services has a mission “to improve the quality of life and eliminate poverty by helping people achieve housing stability and financial security.” They teach people about housing, finances, household management and more issues surrounding housing. The most prolific nonprofit housing organizations in Omaha was founded in 1983, and is called the Holy Name Housing Corporation. Holy Name builds new houses and renovates old ones, working citywide with private and public dollars to “rebuild communities.” Other organizations that have provided low-income housing throughout Omaha’s history have included United Ministries of Northeast Omaha, Urban Housing Foundation of Omaha.
Modern Public Housing in North Omaha
Public housing continues to be needed in North Omaha and citywide. As of 2018, OHA administers over 2700 public housing units and over 3700 Section 8 units. Its jurisdiction includes Omaha, Ralston, Papillion, LaVista, and Millard. The Douglas County Housing Authority covers the rest of the county. According to the OHA website, Section 8 is a “housing choice voucher program [that] is the federal government’s major program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing available in the private market.”
All of the units available through OHA today include the senior living towers, scattered site housing, and various apartment buildings in North Omaha. For instance, the Alamo Apartments sit at 120 North 36th Street in the Gifford Park neighborhood and the historic Strehlow Gardens was rejuvenated and renamed as the Ernie Chambers Court at 4401 North 21st Street.
Criticism and concern of OHA continues. As recently as 2018, late community activist Mathew Stelly suggested racism still rules the roost by reporting in the North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance,
“The treatment and on-going segregation of the black community persists despite a current shift to ‘re-segregation’ where density is being shifted from houses to apartments in mid- town, and public housing to far west Omaha…”
—Mathew Stelly, North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance (NONA) Newsletter, September 2018
More Than Housing
In the last 50 years, OHA has provided various services to residents in public housing programs. These have included job readiness training, educational, cultural and recreational activities. Specifically, they programs include a family self sufficiency program; a homeownership program; elderly and disabled services programs and activities; food pantries; field trips; community resource fairs and health fairs; medical and mental healthcare screening services; holiday events; nutrition workshops; flu shot programs; diabetes education; home healthcare referrals; employment programs and services; youth athletics; and scholarship opportunities.
The senior living towers each has a governance body called a residence association. A group of representative residents is elects to the board to facilitate communication and recreation activities for that tower.
According to OHA, these activities are funded through partnerships with businesses and community organizations, HUD grants, private funding, and donations to the OHA Foundation.
Remembering What Has Gone
As former OHA commissioner Abraham said, “Omaha Housing Authority moving forward as an organization will have to strengthen community relationships with the residents and service providers to address many of the issues we see today. I’m hopeful that we’ll be having a different conversation in the future about how housing disparities are addressed.” His analysis shows the way forward for OHA, and begins to allude to possibilities for Omaha in general.
However, as is frequently said but little acknowledged, those who fail to remember the past are destined to repeat it in the future.
Today there is little left to commemorate the public housing projects once concentrated in North Omaha. Memories from kids who long ago grew up there; newspaper stories about the gangs and guns and drugs they hyped as filling the projects; and remaining defensiveness and attacks take up the space they used to occupy. No historical markers, plaques or monuments acknowledge where they were located, where the thousands of families lived, where dozens of notable young people started their lives, or where the city segregated low-income Black people from white people for more than a half-century.
In Highlander, there are historical pictures emphasizing North O history. Maybe someday there will be no shame in remembering the public housing projects that were in that specific location and others throughout the community. Maybe someday we’ll remember the history of public housing projects in North Omaha.
“It is almost impossible to get a Negro into a hospital even in the charity wards in Omaha… In the few cases where a Negro is admitted, the Negro physician must turn over the case to a staff [white] physician. The patient loses the advantage of being attended by the man who has followed his case from the beginning, and the doctor loses his fees.”
—Dr. D. W. Gooden, 1927
Omaha was de facto segregated for more than 75 years. Jim Crow affected employment, education, housing, religious institutions, and more throughout the city. It also meant that African Americans would routinely and frequently be denied healthcare throughout the city.
Starting in the 1890s, several attempts were made to start Black hospitals in Omaha.
Jim Crow in the Hospitals
Researching more than a century of reports from Omaha hospitals, I found regular stories that said almost all hospitals in Omaha would take a few Black patients annually, but none accepted all Black patients regularly. Those included North Omaha’s hospitals including Creighton University Saint Joseph’s (before the 30th St hospital), Immanuel, Methodist, Swedish Covenant on 24th, Presbyterian on Wirt, and Wise on 16th.
Similarly, Black doctors weren’t allowed to practice in white hospitals, and when they brought patients in they were forced to hand over their paying patient to white doctors who then collected the fees. Black nurses were not allowed to work in white hospitals either into the 1960s, and when they finally were it was only with Black patients.
Perhaps the situation was spelled out best at a 1927 meeting of the Professional Mens’ Club in downtown Omaha. There, Dr. D. W. Gooden and attorney Harrison Pinkett, both African Americans, reported to their colleagues and the city’s business community that Omaha’s hospitals were poisoned by Jim Crow practices. Dr. Gooden said, “It is almost impossible to get a Negro into a hospital even in the charity wards in Omaha… In the few cases where a Negro is admitted, the Negro physician must turn over the case to a staff [white] physician. The patient loses the advantage of being attended by the man who has followed his case from the beginning, and the doctor loses his fees.”
The solution they proposed, similar to decades before and decades after, was to build a hospital in North Omaha where African Americans could get care without reservations, discrimination or hesitation. In other words, these African American physicians believed Omaha needed a segregated hospital.
Black Hospitals in Omaha
The hospitals started for African Americans in Omaha included the People’s Hospital (1948-1953), and Mercy Hospital (c1919-c1924). Although not hospitals, the Negro Women’s Christian Home (1915-1937) and the Charles Drew Health Center (1984-present) have been healthcare facilities that each served African Americans specifically, too.
The People’s Hospital
Located at North 20th and Grace Streets from 1948 to 1953, the People’s Hospital was the vision of one man determined to give back to the community he came from.
After serving as a Nebraska State Senator and spending a longtime as a doctor at a hospital in Angola, Dr. Aaron McMillan returned to Omaha to establish a hospital for African Americans. It was 1948, and his goal was to have a free hospital open to anyone in the community. Opening at North 20th and Grace, the People’s Hospital ran for five years.
Perhaps the first Black hospital in Omaha was at 2401 Parker Street, and was called Mercy Hospital. Mercy Hospital was located on the northwest corner of North 24th and Parker Street in the former Frenzer Hall starting in 1919 for at least five years. According to a 1975 article in the Omaha Star, Dr. Roscoe C. Riddle was the chief physician and surgeon, along with two doctors and six nurses. Dr. Riddle was also associated with an address at 817 North 16th Street.
Negro Women’s Christian Home
The Negro Women’s Christian Home was originally opened in 1907 at 3029 Pinkney Street. Throughout the years, it was known by several names until it was permanently closed in 1961.
Originally located at 933 North 25th Avenue, the Negro Women’s Christian Home was also called the Negro Old Folks Home. It was replaced in 1920 by a large house at 2306 North 22nd Street. In the 1930s, the organization moved into 3029 Pinkney Street. In the early 1950s, it was renamed the Martha T. Smith Home for the Aged in honor of a founder.
Serving Omaha’s African American community for more than 50 years, this home provided medical services to its patients. It was unique for almost its entire duration. Learn more from my article, A History of the Negro Old Folks Home.
Planning Other Black Hospitals
There were several campaigns to raise money to build new segregated hospitals in Omaha. For instance, in 1914 a group of African American doctors planned to raise $20,000 to build a segregated hospital in the Near North SIde.
In March 1922, the Supreme Royal Circle of Friends of the World appropriated $100,000 for a Black-only hospital in Omaha. An African American fraternal organization, the organization provided insurance to African-Americans and was also dedicated to the moral, physical, social and economic welfare of its members. The leader of the organization announced,
“The hospital won’t cost Omaha people a nickel. The money is appropriated. We have decided to build here. Friday night we have a mass meeting at St. John’s and if the colored people here show any interest and join our ranks the work on the building will start at once.”
—A. C. Oglesby, Supreme Grand Deputy, Friends of the World (March 29, 1922)
In May of that same year in an apparently different initiative, an African American pastor named Rev. Jefferson Davis began a campaign to fund the Omaha Mission Hospital for African Americans. However, within a month the Nebraska Negro Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association rejected Rev. Davis’ proposal on the grounds that it was impractical and infeasible. In 1935, the Negro National Hospital Fund announced it was considering building a $400,000 facility with 100 beds in Omaha. However, this was part of an ambitious national plan to construct 90 facilities nationwide, which only ever amounted to a single hospital in Chicago.
Perhaps the 1945 Provident Hospital plan of the Nebraska Negro Medical Association was the grandest vision for a Black hospital in Omaha. Led by Omaha’s Dr. Craig Morris, DDS, the group was shored up by a recommendation by the National Urban League to launch a hospital for Omaha’s African American community. However, despite all the premise, plans and promise, it never opened. Learn more from my article, A History of North Omaha’s Provident Hospital.
Individual Black Doctors
With a growing population for almost 100 years of Omaha’s history, North Omaha needed medical services specifically for its residents and got them. Historical directories show physicians had private offices throughout the community, lining popular streets like North 24th, North 30th, North 16th, and Ames Avenue.
The Omaha Negro Medical Association was formed in 1914. Led by Dr. A. G. Edwards, MD, others involved included Dr. W. W. Peebles, , DDS; Dr. J. Merchant, PhG; Dr. L. E. Britt, MD, and; Dr. J. H. Hutton, MD.
Dr. Matthew Ricketts was the first African American doctor in Omaha. Some of the other African American healthcare providers located in North Omaha in history have included:
These individuals are important to note because they provided services that others often wouldn’t, especially in the historically and currently segregated community of North Omaha. However, they weren’t enough. Over the course of a century, North Omaha had at least eight hospitals serving it.
The following is a short history of the hospitals of North Omaha. After it is an examination of the current hospitals and healthcare services in North Omaha, as well as a short scan of the public health crisis facing the community.
Segregation in Omaha’s Hospitals Today
Omaha hospitals are not formally racially segregated today. All people, regardless of race, color or creed are afforded care according to need. Most hospitals in Omaha will not turn away patients if they cannot provide proof of pay.
However… today, it is indisputable that North Omaha has a medical desert. With more than 40,000 residents in its boundaries, there is a stark absence of medical service providers of all kinds. Making it worse, the community is greatly underinsured. That leaves people who have no insurance and no money needing to travel to other parts of the city to get care. North Omaha’s residents routinely suffer 30 minute commutes for routine healthcare, and emergency care takes exceptionally long amounts of time, too.
This medical desert results in de facto segregation in Omaha’s healthcare system.
According to Ira Combs, the Community Liaison Nurse Coordinator at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, medical desert illustrated above shows how concentrated North Omaha’s denial of services is; not coincidentally, this area also has an expanding population of African Americans, too. There is a concentration of healthcare and hospitals in west Omaha now, beyond North 72nd Street. While on its surface this is due to economics and population, in reality this is caused by the racism that upholds white supremacy throughout the city.
Charles Drew Health Center
It’s important to note the role of the Charles Drew Health Center, or CDHC, in North Omaha today. In 2013, African Americans comprised 13% of the population; that year, 51% of all CDHC patients were African American. The CDHC is a modern-day response to segregation in Omaha.
The original clients of the CDHC were women, infants, and children who were low-income. Throughout its existence patients have been predominantly African American.
“In 2017 Charles Drew served over 11,745 unique patients. We facilitated over 39,000 patient visits. Patients 18 and under represented 35% of our patient population. Although 54% of our patients were uninsured – none were denied health care services due to their inability to pay.”
Charles R. Drew (1904-1950) was the most prominent African American surgeon and medical researcher in American history. He researched blood transfusions, developed improved techniques for blood storage, and created blood banks during World War II. The CDHC was founded in 1982 by residents of North Omaha to “provide complete comprehensive primary health care services to anyone in its service area, regardless of the ability to pay.”
Opened in partnership with Creighton University, the main location opened in 1984 in a converted laundromat in the Hilltop Public Housing Project at North 30th and Burdette Streets. That building was eventually demolished and replaced with a facility that today has more than 27,000 square feet of space with dozens of rooms, modern facilities and more. Throughout the years, the CDHC expanded to several other locations throughout North Omaha starting with the former Johnson Medical Building at 2912 Manderson Street in the early 1990s. Currently, there are 12 total locations including the Manderson and Burdette facilities.
Learning about the history of hospitals in North Omaha provides no relief from this picture, either, as we learn that healthcare and hospital segregation happened on a micro-scale across the last century-plus of the city’s history.
Instead, Omaha must embark on a massive scale program focused on dismantling the social / cultural / economic / structural system of white supremacy in healthcare throughout the entire city. Until then, de facto segregation will continue to be omnipresent throughout the entire city.
Originally called Riverview, the original home on this lot was built around 1900 and was said to be “one of the most beautiful viewpoints in the city.” Sitting on four lots covered with fruit trees, large shade trees and a fine lawn, the home was widely known. The original 10-bedroom house was covered in brick and wood, and by 1910 there was a new barn, all near the southwest corner of North 28th and Hamilton Streets.
In 1917, J. W. Martin contracted with a contractor named A. M. Hough to rebuild the 2-story home to include 2,880 square feet. The mansion had huge two-story, columned home built in style of a Southern plantation mansion. Newly redone, the home had 14 rooms and a dance hall with two indoor bathrooms on a half-acre. There was also a double garage, servants quarters, as well as a large chicken house. The style of architecture on the home was called Antebellum, and while that was renowned for being a Deep South style, this North Omaha home had front pillars, a house-wide balcony, large evenly spaced windows, and a symmetrical appearance.
Alfred and Elnora Brooks Jones
By 1920, the mansion became the home of Alfred and Elnora Brooks Jones and was renamed Hillcrest. Alfred Jones was a successful African American businessman with “a varied and colorful career” who ran barber shops, cafes, and entertainment businesses as well as real estate and insurance agencies. Elnora Brooks Jones was the first African American graduate of Omaha High School. He’d been a caterer in Omaha since 1888.
Starting around 1923, the Jones operated his catering business and a popular cafe at the house. Elnora and Al’s seven children worked in the business alongside their parents as cooks, waiters, maids and more. Renting out the mansion as an event space, the residence was the site of parties, concerts, church and social activities. In 1925, the Hillcrest restaurant was closed for several months, but reopened early in 1926. Later that year, the chicken coop on their property was burned down, causing $1,000 damage.
During the next few years, Jones’ operated a business as an employment company from the home. He hired African Americans as “help” to white people, including as maids, cooks, chauffeurs, waitresses, laundresses, nurses, janitors and servers. and more. That business continued for the next several years.
Elnora died in 1931. That same year, the “Al Jones Inn” appeared in the newspaper. However, it didn’t stick, and in 1933 Jones rebranded his business as the “Southern Club” at the same address.
Alfred died in 1936. Elnora and Alfred’s daughter Florence Jones ran the catering business for a few years after her fathers’ death, but didn’t continue past 1939. From 1940 to 1945, Hillcrest was a “convalescence home.” By the 1950s the mansion was made into apartments, and stayed that way for a decade.
The mansion was demolished by the late 1960s.
In 1967, the lot was selected to become one of GOCA’s temporary “recreation areas” for poverty-ridden areas.
Today, you can visit the site of Hillcrest. However, there is no historical marker, plaque or monument to this important home in North Omaha history.
Originally a pioneer town in the Nebraska Territory, by the 1890s Saratoga became a leafy suburban neighborhood with a busy commercial district, streetcar lines shooting all around and a busy railway keeping its industrial district thriving. All of this required protection from fires and other calamities, and the two fire stations at 2202-04 and 2204-06 Ames Avenue in the Saratoga neighborhood got the job done.
A Station for the Suburbs
The idea of building a fire station in the Saratoga neighborhood first came up in 1907 when the city council heard a proposal for $30,000 in bonds to “construct an engine house in the territory between Florence Boulevard and North 27th Street, north of Boyd Street.” The building was designed in 1909 by Walter T. Misener and William E. Stockham, whose joint architecture firm had a short run.
Saratoga became home to Omaha Fire Department Station #15 in 1910 when the new station was built. A two-story brick building, it housed two engines and nine firefighters, along with a chief. It was an engine house for two companies. For more than four decades, the building also housed polling stations during elections as well. The station was home to Hook and Ladder Company #5, including six new horses to pull two trucks (aka wagons!).
Battling evolving conditions throughout North Omaha, the firefighters in this station routinely covered East Omaha, Kountze Place, Collier Place and Monmouth Park, Bedford Place and the entire Saratoga neighborhood. Before 1920, they used horse-drawn wagon trucks customized with fire equipment. Firefighters in North Omaha struggled to reach the tops of 4-story homes because of rickety ladder systems, and they had to haul their water to the fires because there weren’t water mains throughout the city yet. After 1920 most of their vehicles were gasoline-powered, but struggles were still common, including flooding, fighting and lifesaving. In most of their range, streets were paved by 1920. However, there were still a lot of unpaved roads in East Omaha and even parts of North Omaha, and they sometimes struggled to do their work because of this.
The station donated liberally to the family of a firefighter who died in a warehouse fire in 1920. In 1924, a home in East Omaha burned to the ground when firefighting trucks from Engine House #15 got stuck in the muddy streets and couldn’t reach the house.
The station made the news in 1930 when a stray pig wandered in front of the building and was caught by the chief, whose name was Con Starr. The newspaper reported they planned to make the 6-month old pig into sausage and eat it.
During a rabies outbreak in 1947, the station vaccinated more than 200 dogs as part of an outreach campaign.
Building in the Art Moderne Style
The city’s fire department expanded in 1930, and the headquarters for the north battalion moved from 22nd and Lake to Station 15.
In 1938, the Works Progress Administration built a new fire station at North 22nd and Ames. Early in his long career, architect Leo J. Dworak designed the building under contract with the government. Without explaining how it was done, the newspaper reported the old station was demolished at the new one was built. Designed in the Art Modern style, it is one of the few examples of this approach to design left in Omaha today. The building was part of a fire station replacement program that was part of the Carter Lake WPA activities. Finished in 1938, there was another station built by the project at North 40th and Nicholas Streets that was demolished in the 1960s.
In 1957, the City of Omaha Fire Department officially integrated Station #15 by reassigning African American firefighters Maurice Borders and Edward Martin from the segregation station at North 22nd and Lake Streets. This move was greeted positively by the Omaha Star, but later stories reported the firefighters were poorly received by their white peers with frequent targets of racial comments and scorn, as well as actions that undermined their effectiveness. Black firefighters were routinely assigned to stay at firetrucks while white fighters went into homes to inspect the situation. That eventually ended, but it took decades for racism to be addressed within the department.
In 1978, the Omaha Fire Department announced they were replacing the station with a new building at North 34th and Ames Avenue. Reportedly in “the worse condition of any,” the station had broken water mains and regularly flooded. After sitting empty for two years, in 1980, the Omaha Star uncovered City of Omaha plans to open a community center in the fire department. However, they didn’t do that and the building continued standing empty.
A Fire Station No More
The Omaha Fire Department abandoned the station permanently in 1983. After being used as a fire truck maintenance facility for the city for a few years, a series of burglaries that year gave the department impetus to leave.
Afterward, the station became home to Habitat for Humanity’s construction supplies for more than two decades and today it still stands and houses Dino’s Storage.
While it is one of the last Art Modern style buildings in Omaha, the building is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it has not been designated a Omaha Landmark by the city’s Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission. There are no memorial plaques or historical recognition of the building’s significance.
The Saratoga School was opened at North 24th and Meredith Avenue in 1866 by local residents. It was a one-room schoolhouse, and was one of the first public schools in Nebraska.
Over the years, Saratoga School was located in at least four different buildings all within the vicinity of North 24th Streets and Ames Avenue.
First Saratoga School
The first Saratoga School was built at near Saunders Road and Grand Avenue, which today is called 24th and Grand. There are no images of the first Saratoga School, and barely any mention of it. However, in his 1857 journal about starting the town of Saratoga, founder Erastus Beadle made a few passing mentions about a school for children in the town. It was a one-room schoolhouse. When the town folded that year without being incorporated or having any form of taxation to survive, there was no obvious way for the school to survive. However, it did, and there is evidence from 1867 that shows it existed.
Second Saratoga School
The second Saratoga School surely did exist, as witnessed by the 1885 picture shown here. According to 1881 records from the State of Nebraska, Saratoga School was located in District 2. Located on the northeast corner of 24th and Ames, the Saratoga School had 5 teachers in 5 classrooms serving more than 40 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The students learned reading, writing and arithmetic, and were controlled with strict punishment. Much more than the typical pioneer schoolhouse, Saratoga School was a big building for its time.
Third Saratoga School
The town of Saratoga was annexed into Omaha in the 1890s with its school becoming part of District One, now called Omaha Public Schools. The third Saratoga School was built in that decade. It replaced the wooden school on the northeast corner of North 24th and Ames Avenue. Made of brick, it had a large central staircase at at least eight classrooms inside of it, and served students through the eighth grade.
Located in the middle of a commercial district, by 1900 it was across the street from a large streetcar barn, along with Lane Drug, the Saratoga Hotel, several grocery stores and the nearby Druid Hall. However, the area experienced a slump at the turn of the century right after the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Expo and the school was closed around 1915. In 1917, the nearby University of Omaha began using it as a science hall. When they moved campuses in the 1930s the building was demolished.
Fourth Saratoga School
The fourth Saratoga School was completed in 1926. A state-of-the-art facility, it served students through eighth grade with indoor restrooms, central heating, and plenty of classroom space for students in the neighborhood. During this era, the neighborhood around the school transitioned from being a leafy all-white suburb of Omaha to become integrated. 40 years after it was built, in 1966 the school districted added a west wing with eight new classrooms, a health room, and a cafeteria.
When Omaha Public Schools began integrated busing in 1976, African American students were taken from Saratoga School and sent to white schools in other areas. Saratoga then only had students in kindergarten through third grade. When integrated bussing ended in 1999, Saratoga served students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. In 2005, the district expanded the building again with more office space, a new library and computer lab, a teacher work area, and central air conditioning.
Ending Saratoga School
In 2017, Omaha Public Schools announced the end of Saratoga School. After more than 150 years and as the oldest school in Omaha, the building was designated to become an alternative school to serve high school age students. Today the building still exists, but Saratoga is gone.
In 1918, a new storefront was built on the northeast corner of North 30th and Laurel Avenue. For more than 30 years, the neighborhoods surrounding the intersection had been growing up, including the Acadia neighborhood, Miller Park and Belevedre Point. Fort Omaha had been across the street for more than 50 years, too. So it makes sense that little storefront has hosted a series of useful businesses, including Jacobberger Groceries, Checkerboard Grocery Store, Red and White Store, Craddock’s Bicycle Shop, and the Miller Park Animal Clinic.
A permit was issued to build the 1,100 square foot building in early 1918. By July of that year, William Jacobberger was running a grocery store there. Jacobberger got his start in Council Bluffs before moving to North Omaha, where he belonged to Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church and was active throughout the community.
By 1925 the store was for sale, and within the year it became the Sorenson Brothers Grocery. Within a few years, Elmer R. Sorenson was trying out a few different chains, using both the Checkerboard Store brand and the Red and White Store at the address. As of 1931, his brother was no longer involved.
As vice-president of the Checkerboard chain in Omaha, Elmer Sorenson was connected with more than 20 other stores in the city. He and his family lived at 3019 Belvedere Boulevard. In 1938, Sorenson was installed as a director of the “Rome of Red and White Stores” of Omaha and the vicinity. The organization represented more than 200 store owners. Labelled a “prominent grocery man” in Omaha, the Omaha World-Herald frequently reported on his activities. However, they didn’t cover him going out of business or closing the store down, but that happened at some point after 1950.
The building went for sale in November 1954. Advertised as a 24’x50′ building, the ad said it had one large room, a full cement basement, toilet and drain, and a big glass front. It was vacant when it went for sale by the Amos Grant Company.
The Ralph Craddock Bicycle Shop was located at 5901 North 30th Street between 1955 and 1965. However, it had a much longer history. Started in South Omaha in 1920, it moved to Capitol Avenue in the 1930s. Harland Ludwick owned the shop when it moved to 30th and Laurel in the early 1955, and kept it open until 1974. That year, the building was sold to a young African American veterinarian.
Dr. William Cornell Loft0n opened the Miller Park Animal Clinic in 1975. While the surrounding neighborhoods were transitioning with more African Americans moving in, Dr. Lofton offered a gentle, non-assuming service that made people feel at home and relaxed with their pets’ health.
Dr. Lofton grew up in rural Kentucky with a love of animals, especially small ones. After graduating from Kent State University in Ohio, he went to vet school at the Tuskgee Institute in Alabama. In the 1960s, he was drafted by the US Army to serve during the Vietnam War. However, they sent him to Fort Omaha to work as a food inspector. Retiring as a captain, he opened his clinic at 30th and Laurel afterwards.
My family went to Dr. Lofton for a cacophony of pets. My younger sisters had fish, guinea pigs and rabbits, while the family dog and cats went to Dr. Lofton repeatedly for all kinds of services. Dr. Lofton was also on the board for the Umoja District for Boy Scouts of America when I earned my Eagle Scout award in Troop 508. I owe a debt of gratitude to him for guiding me on my path to success.
In 1993, he was presented the Edward Danner Award for Community Service by the Urban League of Nebraska. He was also a member of the long-standing Friendly 16 Club, a social group that existed for 40 years starting in 1934.
Not everyone knew the building was a veterinarian office. Dr. Lofton never posted a sign on the exterior of the building, and with the front windows long covered up it was nearly impossible to discern what was going on in there. However, once you gained access most folks knew they were in the right place.
Dr. Lofton passed away in November 2015, and with him the business closed. Since then the building has apparently been vacant, and after a recent accident where a car wrecked into it the building was condemned by the City of Omaha.
We don’t know what the future of this address is, but now we know the past. Stay tuned and I’ll update the space with what I find out.
Parker was 34-years-old when he started recruiting African Americans from the South to move to Omaha, in 1916. In 1918, he wrote an important book called Children of the Sun.
In 1921, Harrison Pinkett hired Parker to be editor of a new Black newspaper called The New Era. However, Parker and Pinkett fought constantly about politics and the positioning of the paper within Omaha’s African American community. Parker wanted more radical politics and an Afro-centric position, and since Pinkett didn’t want to go in that direction, Parker left. It was just a year later when he established a paper called The Omaha Whip. Parker accused Pinkett of associating with the Omaha’s Ku Klux Klan and calling on Omahans to support Mayor James C. Dahlman and the rest of Dennison’s machine. However, The Omaha Whip only printed a few editions and then disappeared. No copies of the paper are known to exist today.
During that same time period he founded the Hamitic League of the World, an organization promoting Afrocentrism, which eventually evolved into the African Blood Brotherhood.
George Wells Parker died at age 49, and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery. In 2019, the City of Omaha dedicated Parker Street in North Omaha to his legacy.
The Machinery and Electricity Building was constructed at North 17th and Pratt Streets in 1897. For two years it highlighted marvels of the age, then was demolished in November 1899.
There were dozens of exhibits within the building, both by private companies and by states who wanted to highlight their machinery and electrical wares. Some of the companies exhibiting in the Machinery and Electricity Building included the Chicago Edison Co., General Electric, the Burkley Printing Co., Westinghouse, Electrical Instrument Co., and the Crane Churchill Company.
Starting in October 1899, the buildings on the Expo grounds were demolished. There was nothing left there by January 1, 1900. Today, there are 4 houses, an empty lot and a street on the same land.
For 100 years, Omahans loved the circus. During my lifetime, we wore summer clothes and packed in the auditorium. Earlier generations gathered under canvas tents held up by huge poles. The most popular place for those tents to rise was located in North Omaha. This is a history of the Circus Grounds aka the Exhibition Grounds aka the Show Grounds that were at North 20th and Paul Streets.
From the 1870s through the 1930s, the circus grounds hosted dozens of shows, performances, exhibitions and even the “Greatest Show on Earth,” over and over.
The Performances and Companies
During the earliest years of the grounds during the 1870s, traveling museums and menageries would come to the show grounds and display their exhibits to paying customers. Advertising in the Omaha Daily News and the Omaha Herald, hundreds of people would attend for .10 a day and have a lot of fun marveling, gawking and taking in exotic, strange and unique performances and displays.
During the 1890s, huge circuses started arriving in Omaha. Using huge crews of temporary labor and circus workers, these companies would launch huge tents and spread dozens of wagons across the circus grounds. Sometimes there’d be a midway with barkers, sideshows and games. Other times spectators would simply pour into the temporary bleachers inside the tent at designated times, and they’d watch the show.
Barnum and Bailey and other shows liked to be hyperbolic in their ads, proclaiming half of all elephants in North America were in their shows, or the tallest leap ever was being made, or 400 of the greatest horses ever would perform. However, smaller shows came through, too, like the 1902 Pan-American Show with a European managerie, the triple circus hippodrome and a “Congress of Living Phenomena.”
At the turn of the 20th century, some of the Ringling Brothers Circuses coming to the North Omaha circus grounds claimed five trainloads of animals and performers, including “400 of the finest horses,” hundreds of acrobats, dozens of elephants, and countless other performers.
In 1902, the Omaha American Association anxiously promoted baseball games at the 20th and Paul circus grounds. There were also political events, religious revivals and other outdoor and big tent activities held at the site.
The circus trains would cross the Missouri River on the Union Pacific Bridge and park their operations by the Union Station. Then, the entire circus would parade through downtown Omaha, first along 10th Street to North 16th, then to North 20th to Paul Street.
In 1898, one of the circuses advertised a “double parade” leaving from the circus grounds at 3:30pm, going south on 20th to Cuming Street, east to 16th Street, south to Douglas, east on Douglas to 9th Street, south to Farnam and west of Farnam to 15th Street, north to Davenport then west to 18th Street, then to Webster to 19th and north to Paul Street, ending at the “old circus lot.”
The End of the Grounds
With no building on site and nobody to advocate for its value, in the early 1930s the circus grounds were closed permanently. Helping its demise was the 1927 fire that devastated the nearby Coliseum, which acted as a magnet for performance acts.
Activities like the grandiose circuses moved indoors to new show grounds at North 30th and Wirt Streets, into the City Auditorium or westward to AkSarBen, while others fell out of fashion and simply stopped happening.
During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration was looking for important action across the nation for people to make money on public works projects. In 1938, the WPA camp at Carter Lake took the lead in constructing the first public housing projects in Omaha, located directly north of North 20th and Paul Streets, and called the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects. In 1939, they doubled the site, effectively taking all the land from Paul to Clark Streets, from North 16th to North 23rd. Other public projects flooded the area in the years afterwards, demolishing landmarks like St. Philips Episcopal Church and the old Kellom School.
Today, there are no historic markers or commemorative plaques marking the site of the circus grounds, and barely anyone knows they ever existed. If your family is from North O though, ask you great grandmother if she remembers the circus grounds, the tents and the elephants that used to haunt 20th and Paul. Then listen to the stories and tell me in the comments section below…
The 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition needed a place for manufacturers to show off their products to visitors. The Manufactures Building was constructed at North 19th and Pratt Streets with this in mind. It stood in North Omaha from 1897 to 1899, and this is a history of it.
The building was 300 by 125 feet big with 37,500 square feet of space, and was 40 feet tall. It was made with a wood frame covered with slats and staff, and cost $56,256 to make.
The exhibits in the building cost manufacturers, and were given to states for free. The Trans-Mississippi Expo spent $5,200 on exhibits in the Manufactures Building. With 100-person committees judging the exhibits, the Manufactures Building won the most awards of any building at the Trans-Mississippi Expo wtih 17 of the highest award, and almost 1,000 gold, silver and bronze medals given to exhibitors.
The building was obliterated, and today the site is covered three house lots, part of a street, and the tennis courts at Kountze Park.
Starting in October 1899, the buildings on the Expo grounds were demolished. There was nothing left there by January 1, 1900.
More than 120 years ago, North Omaha hosted an event like a world fair. In 1898, the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition was held for six months across 180-acres by Kountze Park. This is a history of the Expo.
Planning the Expo
Starting in the early 1890s, Omaha boosters dreamed of hosting something special to build their city up. With the closer of the frontier in the 1870s, the stagnation of the railroad system in the 1880s and a nationwide economic recession that hit Omaha particularly hard in the 1890s, the city needed a shot in the arm.
The first World Expo was held in London, England in 1851. Philadelphia held the first similar event in the U.S. called the Centennial Exposition in 1876. However, it was the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 that really moved Omaha’s interests forward.
In May 1896, Senator William V. Allen of Nebraska introduced a bill “to authorize and encourage the holding of a Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition at the city of Omaha in the State of Nebraska, in the year 1898, and making an appropriation therefor.” $250,000 moved through the Senate in the Omaha Expo Bill, and the event was underway. Immediately after that, Douglas County sold $100,000 in bonds.
There were more than 120 buildings constructed for the Trans-Mississippi Expo in 1898, with many of them reused for the Greater America Expo in 1899. Construction began in late 1897, with the Administration Arch started first and finished first. By the end of 1899 all of the buildings were gone, either completely demolished or moved and reused in a different location.
There are some misunderstandings of the buildings at the Expo. Some people say they were all built of a mix of horsehair and plaster called staff. While that’s true of the 11 largest buildings surrounding the lagoon in the Grand Court and a few others, it’s untrue of the remainder of the construction there. Even the Grand Court buildings had massive wood frames within, and millions of board feet of slats for the staff to be spread across. They were built that way to make them affordable and removable; they weren’t made to be permanent.
Here is a list of buildings at the Expo grounds from 1897 to 1899.
Grand Court Buildings
The Grand Court was the main feature of the Expo. Made of a 12-block long lagoon dug into the land between North 17th and North 23rd Streets, the court was surrounded by eleven massive buildings designed in a Neo-Classical Revival style to look like Greco-Roman architecture. The included an Electrical and Machinery Hall; the Manufactures Building and International Hall designed by J. J. Humphreys of Denver; the Administration Arch designed by Walker & Kimball of Boston & Omaha; the Arch of the States designed by Walker & Kimball; the Agriculture Building designed by Cass Gilbert of St. Paul; the Government Building designed by the Life Saving Service of Washington, DC; the Fine Arts Building designed by Eames & Young of St. Louis; the Mines and Mining Building designed by S. S. Beman of Chicago; the Liberal Arts Building and Auditorium designed by Press Fisher & Lawrie of Omaha and; the Girls and Boys Building designed by Walker & Kimball.
There were dozens of buildings immediately surrounding the Grand Court. They included the Horticulture Building designed by Chas. F. Beindorff of Omaha; the Apiary designed by John McDonald of Omaha; the Dairy Building designed by F. A. Henninger of Omaha; the Service Building designed by Walker & Kimball of Boston & Omaha; the Hospital designed by Walker & Kimball of Boston & Omaha; the Fire and Police Building designed by Walker & Kimball; the Transportation Building designed by Walker & Kimball, and; the Press Building.
The states that made up the Trans-Mississippi region had their own buildings, and other states around the nation did, too. Of course they included the Nebraska Building, the largest and most expensive state building at the Expo, which was designed by Craddock & McDonald of Lincoln and Omaha. Others included the Illinois and Annex Building designed by Wilson & Marshall of Chicago; the Georgia Building designed by Dunnavant & Thompson of Nashville and Omaha; the Iowa Building designed by Josselyn & Taylor of Cedar Rapids along with the Council Bluffs/ Pottawattamie County Wigwam Building; the Wisconsin Building designed by Ferry & Clas of Milwaukee; the Minnesota Building designed by McLeod & Lamoreaux of Minneapolis; the New York Building designed by Dunham Wheeler of New York; the Kansas Building designed by John F. Stanton of Topeka; the Montana Building designed by Leo Bonet of Omaha, and; the Oregon Building.
There were a dozen buildings along the Midway. They included a Chinese village and a Moorish village; a German village and a Flemish village; an English County Fair; a Greek Theatre; a Turkish Bazaar; the “Devil’s Dance”; the Temple of Palmistry; a Moorish Maze; the Illusion Palace, and; the Sod House.
There were a lot of buildings made to entertain people. They included the Giant Seesaw, Shooting the Chutes, and the Cyclorama of the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac. The Old Plantation had a cotton field, and the the Chautauqua was more of a temporary building. Rolling the Roll was a popular ride, as was the Miniature Train along the Midway.
The Expo grounds were a collection of unique and vibrant buildings, sculptures and other construction that should be noted. Walker and Kimball designed many other notable items throughout the grounds. For instance, there were two viaducts crossing North 16th Street were beautiful art in themselves. The restaurants and towers flanking the south viaduct were regal, too. Kiosks and ticket booths throughout the Expo grounds were pretty, as well as the Band Stand waiting performances and speeches by some of the luminaries who visited the Expo, including President McKinley and John Philip Sousa.
Along with the lagoon, the water features were spectacular. Walker and Kimball designed an Electric Fountain in the basin, as well as the surround for the lagoon. Another artist designed the gigantic Nautilus Fountain, while Walker and Kimball asserted their artistic eye with the Arch of States fountains.
Even the Electrical Power Plant was a marvel, designed to generate more concentrated electricity than any world’s fair type event had seen so far.
The Trans-Mississippi Exposition ended in November 1898. Given their temporary construction, everyone intended to rip down the buildings immediately, and some buildings were demolished that winter. Almost immediately though, a scheme for another event was hatched. Many of the buildings were sold to another regime intending to host another massive event.
After the Greater America Expo was held in 1899, every building on the Expo ground was demolished. Today, there are few reminders of the spectacularly grand vision of the designers of the Expos. The Durham Museum has a model of the Grand Court and the Omaha Public Library has a massive collection of photos and relics from the event.
There isn’t a lot of physical evidence that the Trans-Mississippi Exposition ever happened, that 120 temporary buildings once made North Omaha into a Greco-Roman dreamland, or that 2,000,000 people came to play one year, and 1.3 million came the next. Instead, a few historical markers stand at the Kountze Park today giving broad sweeping viewpoints of the event without exploring the nuances that made the events matter.
The impact of the Expo is still felt in the surrounding neighborhood though. Over the next decade, Neo-Classical style architecture became important, and quite a few churches and homes were built in homage to the important Expos that felt so grand. The North Presbyterian Church, the Sherman, a few houses on Wirt, the old Reagan House, and several other buildings reflect that grandiosity.
Items Lost and Found Again
Part of the legacy of the Expo are rumors of pieces of the Expo around Omaha today. One of the definite items left is the Storz bierstube, which is located at Lauritzen Gardens. Note that this wasn’t actually part of the Trans-Mississippi Expo, but only the Greater America Expo. A lot of people remember the Riverview Park pavilion, which was made of the columns and wood from the Girls’ and Boys’ Building. After 50 years of service, apparently it rotted apart and was demolished in 1948. There’s a longstanding myth about the Minnesota State Building, build of fine northern wood as a giant log cabin. There are alternate myths that it was disassembled and floated to the Iowa/Missouri line to be an illegal brothel, and that it was disassembled and moved to the northern Pottawatomie County line. According to local historian Ryan Roenfeld, that is a complete myth with no basis in reality. For a long time, I’ve been starring at pics of the fountain at Strehlow Terrace, known as Ernie Chambers Court today. Robert Strehlow, a builder of the Expo who built the North 16th landmark apartments, rescued the fountain and placed it in his beautiful courtyard. However, when the Omaha Housing Authority renovated the apartments in the 1980s, the fountain went missing and has never been recovered. Similarly, rumors of the organs once located in the Auditorium being moved to nearby churches have never been substantiated.
There was a “miniature roller coaster,” aka a carousel at the Expo that was eventually installed at Courtland Beach. When that amusement park was closed, many of the items were moved to a new amusement park next door called the Lakeview Amusement Park, but I can’t find whether the carousel made the move.
The Giant See Saw at the Expo grounds was sold to some men that brought it to Coney Island, where it operated for another 60 years. The top of one ionic column was excavated from Kountze Park in the 1980s, and today its housed at the Durham Museum.
According to research by Omaha historian Michele Wyman, there were intentions to create a long lasting monument to the Expo. Early plans for the Arch of the States showed it being built with stone from each of the states in the Trans-Mississippi region. However, the design of the Arch took too long and the stones weren’t collected. Instead, it was made of a wooden frame and staff, and was demolished at the end of the Greater America Exposition in 1899.
Another possible commemoration took the form of the iron bridges made to carry Florence Boulevard traffic over the grand lagoon. Made in 1897, when the Expo grounds were demolished in 1899 the bridges were moved. The north bridge was taken to Miller Park to cross the Minne Lusa Creek by Redick Avenue. Eventually, the south bridge was taken there too and placed along Birch Drive, also crossing the Minne Lusa Creek. Both of them were eventually destroyed then taken away for scrap metal.
In 1998, the Trans-Mississippi Expo Memorial Committee was responsible for garnering the resources to build the Kountze Park gazebo, which stands there today. Built with elements similar to a Neo-Classical structure, this was definitely not from the original events a century earlier.
In May 2019, the Douglas County Historical Society opened an exhibit at the General Crook House featuring memorabilia from the Expo, including medals and posters and dishes and more. Things like this come up for sale regularly on Ebay and elsewhere, too, but none as rare as what the Society has.
There is a lot of missing history from the Expo though. This includes the roles of socio-economic, race and gender; the assumptions leading the the events and the outcomes; and the impact on the specific place where the Expo grounds were, North Omaha. Its apparently rarely mentioned in public school history classes, and most people in the city have no idea what happened in North Omaha in 1898 and 1899.
Of all the buildings made for the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, the Girls and Boys Building had one of the most joyful, loyal and enthusiastic receptions. Here is a short history of the building.
Fundraising for Construction
Almost $300,000. In 1898, students across the Midwest raised almost $300,000 in 2019 dollars to build their own building at Omaha’s world fair.
Under command of the Bureau of Education of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, the Girls and Boys Building was built on the backs of children. Students throughout the Trans-Mississippi region (Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Tennessee, Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, etc.) were made responsible for collecting all of the money needed to construct the building, and they did it. In response, they apparently became enthusiastic promoters and loyal attendees of events and exhibits in the building.
The Bureau sent out desperate and demanding letters to every school in the region suggesting that every student buy a share of the building for .05¢, as well as gather donations to send into the fund. School children in Omaha were responsible for raising almost $2,000.
The Bureau of Education of the Trans-Mississippi Expo was also called the Lady Board of Managers and the Women’s Board since it was all female. All of the members were white. According to one researcher, “The only African Americans who participated in the activities of the Girls and Boys Building were the child performers from the Old Plantation on ‘Childrens’ Day’.”
A newsletter called The Hatchet was published for a year to raise and maintain the building, too. Named after the myth of George Washington, The Hatchet featured poetry, songs, art and craft instructions, and was sold as a children’s magazine. Fundraising to maintain the building was very successful, too, and everyone seemed pleased with the outcomes of this particular building at the Expo.
Starting in September 1897, the estimated cost of the building was $5,000, but by 1898 the total cost of the building was $10,000, which is worth almost $300,000 in 2019 dollars. Not only did students raise that amount, but almost $1,000 over. They were wildly successful!
Construction and Design
Walker & Kimball were the architects of the building. Made of C. Howard Walker of Boston and Omaha architect Thomas R. Kimball, the firm reportedly enjoyed designing this simple space with grand ambitions.
Grading for the Girls and Boys Building began in November 1897, and construction of the building started in December. Located on the southwest corner of North 16th and Pratt Streets, the building was visible from the Grand Lagoon. Made in a “T” shape complete with large rooms called the boys’ parlor and a girls’ parlor, there were also smaller exhibition rooms and a second story restaurant in the building.
The building was designed in a non-elaborate Neo-Classical Revival style. A large central hallway that was 2,500 square feet large gave plenty of room in the interior on the first floor, and plenty of space on the flat roof for a rooftop garden and restaurant. There was a broad, wide porch with tall columns. The entrance to the hall had a stage for entertainment and speaking, with room to seat hundreds in front of it. There were also two flights of stairs leading to a balcony overlooking the room with additional room for seating.
It was formally opened on June 15, 1898.
The Girls and Boys Building had a lot of features, including a creche, a nursery and the Home Restaurant. There were smaller rooms on the sides, one of which featured baby cribs with babies in them for public viewing, as well as a confectionary, and rooms with toys, dolls and kids clothes on display and for sale, too. A book display and book giveaways happened regularly, too. There was also a female glassblower and several types of musicians in the building throughout the Expo.
Elizabeth Horton of Boston exhibited her doll collection in the building. Comprised of more than 300 dolls, they represented many cultures, traditions and values. There were a lot of different costumes on the dolls, too.
The entire building was meant to be entertaining to young people, and educational for parents and teachers.
After the Expos
During the 1899 Greater America Expo, the building was for lease for a variety of different displays. When that expo was over in November 1899, there were 200+ chairs, 15 tables and a heating stove for sale from the building. In December, Charles Anderson was responsible for selling all the reusable pieces of the building, including lumber, lath, doors and windows.
Today, there is no historical marker at the site of the Girls and Boys Building. There are historical markers for the Trans-Mississippi Expo at Kountze Park though, and an original U.S. 45-star flag that flew at the Girls and Boys Building belongs to the Omaha Public Library.
Began in 1915 and officially chartered in 1918, the Omaha NAACP has been the vanguard in fighting for African Americans for the last century of Omaha’s existence. This is a history of the chapter.
Local and National Roots
Pushing for the political, economic and social power of African Americans through community organizing, education and protest, this is a history of Omaha’s NAACP. The story of the formation of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP was also the story of the determination of Rev. John Albert Williams (1866–1933), an African American Episcopalian minister who was earnest, focused and determined to change Omaha. In 1915, the Omaha World-Herald quoted him saying about Nebraska’s anti-segregation law, “The violation of this law is becoming more flagrant every day in Omaha. This is particularly true of moving picture theaters and places of amusement where a determined process of segregation and discrimination is becoming more pronounced.” Several Civil Rights organizations existed in Omaha before the NAACP, including the Omaha Afro-American League where the “most prominent colored citizens” of Omaha gathered starting in 1892. Seeking to influence African American voters, the club was made of influential leader Walter Singleton and others. In 1898, the Western Negro Press Association met in Omaha as part of the Trans-Mississippi Expo, ostensibly to promote Black newspapers, but actually to build western support for a national Civil Rights movement. However, none of these organizations secured equal rights or otherwise for African Americans in Omaha, and their work didn’t help Rev. Williams’ cause.
He was incensed, and he was going to make change happen.
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), Ida B. Wells (1862–1931), Mary White Ovington (1865–1951) and others established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, in New York City in 1909. Fighting against lynching, segregation and for civil rights, a chapter started in Omaha in 1915.
1915: First Call to Start
In January 1915, Dr. Joel E. Spingarn (1875–1939) of New York City came to Omaha to advocate establishing a local NAACP branch. During a nationwide tour, Spingarn called a meeting at the Paxton Hotel downtown and asked the city’s wealthy white people to join him, as he was a liberal Republican white doctor from a wealthy Jewish family. Spingarn was the first Jewish leader in the NAACP, and established an annual award for the organization that continues today. The Omaha World-Herald seemed fixated on Spingarn’s support for African Americans, repeatedly mentioning that he was a millionaire who committed his fortune to advancing the cause of “the negro.” A successful and respected local attorney named John L. Kennedy (1854-1946) opened for Spingarn twice during his three-day stay in Omaha, and called on alumni from Columbia University in Omaha to attend since Spingarn was a former professor there. During Spingarn’s visit, the Omaha Public Library created a special display of books related to African Americans for the public to check out.
On the second day of his appearance, Spingarn was introduced by Rev. John Albert Williams of St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church, and he spoke on “Tests of Democracy.” During Spingarn’s talk to a mostly African American audience, he talked about segregation, mixed race marriage, and other subjects.
The chapter started work in 1915, but it was not official. They lead a campaign against the showing of The Birth of a Nation in Omaha. Although Rev. Williams used his newspaper, The Monitor, to aggressively fight against the film, the activism didn’t work and the film was shown over and over for six months, and expanded due to popular demand.
During this early unofficial era, the Omaha group was alternately referred the “Society for the Advancement of Colored People.”
1918: Second Call to Action
Mary White Ovington, a co-founder of the NAACP mentioned above, spoke in Omaha at the Grove Methodist Church (which later became the Clair Memorial United Methodist Church) in June 1918. The local chapter received its charter that year. Ovington returned to Omaha several times over the years.
Apparently, the Prince Hall Masons were instrumental in supporting Omaha’s NAACP chapter when it first launched. Because of their influence and others, the chapter had 51 initial members, which was more than the national office required.
Early activities included attending the national convention in July 1919 with a delegation including Rev. Williams, Mrs. Jessie Hale-Moss (18??-1920) and Mrs. Cecelia Wilson Jewell (1882-1946). Mrs. Hale-Moss was named president afterwards, and remained in that position for a few years. Amos Scruggs was heavily involved before the trip. Within a year, the chapter had more than 400 members. Starting in January 1919, the Omaha NAACP met every Sunday at a church in the Near North Side neighborhood.
On December 26, 1918, the Omaha chapter of the NAACP received its charter.
Campaigns and Action
Despite its reputation as a complacent or non-assertive activism organization, Omaha’s NAACP has been involved in vital actions since it was founded.
For instance, Omaha’s NAACP was immediately important in 1919.
At one of the regular chapter meeting in March, Rev. W. F. Botts (18??-1933) of Zion Baptist Church said Omaha Police Chief Marshall Eberstein (1859-1946) should protect the Black community if riots occurred here like in other cities. Someone in the audience replied that instead Blacks should be prepared to defend themselves, and Botts replied, “That’s the right spirit.” One research paper said that 120 people joined the NAACP at that meeting that night. Then, in April 1919, Mrs. Hale-Moss spoke on behalf of the chapter in local newspapers about crime lord Tom Dennison‘s men acting in blackface to terrorize white women throughout the city.
In May 1919, Rev. Williams led the Omaha chapter in a national NAACP nationwide campaign to enroll 100,000 members, “to defend the constitutional and legal rights now denied more than four-fifths of the negro race in America.” It’s unclear exactly what he did, but the local newspapers made note that he was launching the campaign locally. That same month, the chapter formed a committee to visit businesses with signs saying, “Colored Patronage Not Desired.” The committee asked more than a dozen businesses, and warned them that “other methods will be employed” if they didn’t change. At least one local dentist complied. One of the founders of the NAACP and internationally recognized leader W. E. B. Du Bois spoke in Omaha that month, too. Sponsored by local churches with support from private benefactors, Du Bois spoke about freedom and justice, and charged Omahans with rising to defeat racism. Omaha NAACP attorney Harrison Pinkett (1882-1960) spoke too, along with Mayor Ed Smith (1860-1930) and Mrs. Jessie Hale-Moss, who called on everyone in Omaha to become a member of the NAACP. The chapter had more than 1,000 members then.
A month later, there were massive labor strikes in Omaha. White workers returned from World War I battlefronts were cut from workplaces, and they were worried African Americans were going to be imported as strikebreakers the corporate employers in South Omaha and other places. In June 1919, Rev. Williams was quoted as saying, “Speaking for the Omaha branch of the National association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has a membership of 800, I desire to say… it appears that there is the usual disposition to make the negro the goat… We are unalterably opposed equally to the outrageous propaganda designed to foment prejudice against the colored race…”
“Speaking for the Omaha branch of the National association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has a membership of 800, I desire to say… it appears that there is the usual disposition to make the negro the goat… We are unalterably opposed equally to the outrageous propaganda designed to foment prejudice against the colored race…”
—Rev. John Albert Williams as quoted in “Five strikers arrested; Other warrants out,” Omaha Daily Bee, June 17, 1919, Page 2.
The NAACP stood on the side of the strikers and against strikebreaking. Along with investigating discrimination and providing legal counsel, the Omaha NAACP worked to build up the Near North Side neighborhood, including an unsuccessful effort to build a segregated YMCA and a program to buy glasses for African American students.
On July 8, 1919, the Omaha chapter of the NAACP led the defense of Ira Johnson, an African American man accused of assaulting an 18-year-old white woman. The trial started the next week. Calling one witness for the prosecution, there were no witnesses for the defense. However, there were more than 20 NAACP activists in the courtroom. According to the Omaha Bee, at the same time Johnson was being tried, three other African American men were being tried for assault cases against women, including Frank Wallace, Robert King and Jerry Dennis. In November 1919, Judge John Redick’s jury found Johnson guilty of the assault. Deliberating three hours, Johnson was quoted after the trial saying, “I knew they’d find me guilty because my face is black.” Rev. Williams said the conviction was, “Outrageous… He was convicted on public sentiment, not evidence.” Johnson was sentenced to 20 years hard labor by Judge Redick.
C. C. Galloway, a longtime leader within Omaha’s NAACP, was “highly indignant” at hearing the verdict. “This is a most unfair decision. But what can one expect with the feeling of race prejudice now prevailing in Omaha?”
Omaha’s white supremacy and hatred of African Americans was showing dramatically, and the city’s NAACP chapter reacted in kind through legal defense, political statements, cultural action and demands for social change. However, the Omaha chapter wasn’t merely reactivist against white supremacy; instead, it sought to build racial integration and peace, too. In late August 1919, a “Welcome Home” picnic was held to honor returning World War veterans. Formed with Black and white people, the committee held its celebration on August 27 at Krug Park. There were no racial problems.
However, the Omaha NAACP couldn’t have known what was coming.
The Killing of Eugene Scott
On September 1, 1919, the Omaha Police Department shot dead Eugene Scott, an African American bellboy at Hotel Plaza downtown. Supposedly, the police raided a poker game and Scott ran away. They shot him as he ran, and he died immediately. Witnesses reported to the Omaha World-Herald that the death was unnecessary, and the Omaha Bee called the shooting as reckless and indiscriminate, noting it as the “crowning achievement” of a “disgraceful and incompetent” Omaha Police Department. Omaha’s NAACP stood against the Omaha Police Department, holding a rally at St John’s AME for 750 activists and demanding accountability. The head of the police told the crowd he’d suspend two officers, and signed an agreement saying so. However, soon after he declared he wouldn’t, and Omaha’s NAACP leader, Rev. Williams, called him out in the local media. Soon after though, there was a trial of the police and they were found not guilty.
The chapter was holding its regular meeting on September 28, 1919, when word reached members of the impending riot. Afterwards, Rev. Williams’ The Monitor reported, “All expected the city’s officials to do their duty and protect their prisoner and see that nothing prevented him from having a fair trial by jury.” When the meeting finished, the members went home “ready and prepared to protect themselves and loved ones from lawlessness and riot.” In the middle of that night on September 28, Will Brown was taken from his cell by a mob of 20,000 people. The lynching included dismemberment, butchering, shooting, burning, and a car dragging the corpse through downtown.
The day after, Omaha NAACP lawyer Harrison Pinkett sent a letter to the national office that said, “The Omaha Bee is directly responsible for the lynching. lt was deliberately brought about by the Bee’s agitation to discredit our police administration. I am satisfied that the Negro who was lynched was innocent of the crime charged. The woman now admits it was a mistake to quote her as saying she was raped.”
The chapter stayed continuously involved after the murder, sending activists to the trial and demanding accountability. However, none of that led to any convictions. Will Brown was buried without a service, without graveside mourners and without a gravestone.
The “riot feeling” continued to terrorize Blacks in Omaha for weeks after the lynching. On October 1, 1919, the chapter issued a warning to African Americans throughout Omaha asking them not to go to work. The newspaper reported that hundreds of people stayed home out of concern for their safety and in protest of the injustices they faced in Omaha. White people regularly threatened to attack Blacks, and the mob terrorism so popular in the city hadn’t been trampled by the military yet.
After Will Brown
Omaha continued in its racist ways, and while never as explicitly hate-filled as the summer of 1919, Jim Crow continued in the city. The NAACP stayed on point. Meeting weekly in their business office by 24th and Lake Street, local prosecutors and politicians seemed to rue their representation in legal trials.
The NAACP sponsored several refugees from Tulsa, Oklahoma as they spoke about the particularly wicked race riot there on June 1, 1921. The refugees weren’t named, as the NAACP feared for their lives and reprecussions. The riot obliterated Greenwood Avenue, aka Black Wall Street, the most successful Black community in the United States. It was bombed, burnt down and destroyed by white people, with hundreds of Blacks murdered by vicious white mobs. The destruction of Greenwood Avenue was a fear-mongering attempt to promote white supremacy nationwide. The refugees spoke in Omaha on June 12; their whereabouts afterwards weren’t recorded.
Membership wavered in Omaha’s NAACP in the 1920s, and by 1926 the chapter was almost nonexistent. Despite reports of increased Jim Crow practices throughout the city, interest in joining the NAACP was low, and the activities of the local chapter nearly ended.
In 1930, African Americans began going to the City of Omaha’s McKinley Park swimming pool. De facto segregation had kept them away since the pool opened, and when white crowds became increasingly confrontational, the City of Omaha Parks Department drained the pool. African American lawyer and NAACP leader Dr. John Singleton protested, and the pool was eventually refilled. However, that was a brief respite, and by the 1940s the pool was removed entirely.
The chapter was revitalized by the leadership of Dr. Singleton though, and with new members and new action into the 1930s it thrived. However, as the Great Depression set in the chapter floundered.
Omaha’s Youth Council
In 1935, the Omaha NAACP Youth Council was formed. Focused on fighting segregation through picketing, letter-writing and other traditional community organizing tactics, their work led to integration in several Omaha businesses, and because they worked together with other organizations, their legacy lasts today. Meeting frequently at the Near North Side YMCA, they held social activities, teach-ins and much more.
The main organization continued onward into World War II. In 1942, the Omaha Star announced, “…the NAACP are so courageously and completely fighting our every battle for economic and civil rights. The mass meetings now being held by the NAACP are beyond a doubt the most effective and well managed in the history of Omaha.”
The president of the Omaha chapter called out the national president-elect of the Daughters of the American Revolution, or DAR, in 1945. Apparently she came to visit Omaha and refused to visit with a delegation of African American representatives, claiming she was following the historical prejudice of the American founders. Omaha president Christopher Adams reminded her of the longstanding presence of Black people in American history, including serving in Washington’s army and being in every war since. The DAR official didn’t recant though.
In 1947, attorney Harrison Pinkett was still fighting for the NAACP when he launched a bid on behalf of the chapter. An African American man was charged with disturbing the peace, but was illegally arrested without a warrant. A judge freed the man after the witness failed to appear. That same year, WOW radio featured a locally-produced broadcast sponsored by the Omaha branch for a national membership drive. The program was 15 minutes long, and featured pianist Booker Washington and the Treble Clef Choir, along with speeches by Harrison Pinkett and an appeal by Red Cross worker Bernice Grey.
While the Civil Rights movement in Omaha extends back to the 1880s and 90s, the city was surely affected by the rise of the national Civil Rights movement in the 1950s. National leaders including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Omaha native Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and others were met by Omaha’s leaders, including Rev. Kelsey Jones and Rev. Rudolph McNair, among others. Even after the March 1950 speaking appearance of Roy Wilkins, the leader of the national NAACP, at Zion Baptist Church the local NAACP chapter continued loosing luster for its efforts. (It was at the same event that Omaha was first availed of Whitney Young, the new leader of the Omaha Urban League who would become a national leader in the Civil Rights movement.)
In the vacuum created by an apparently ineffective leadership at the NAACP, other groups emerged. In 1947, the DePorres Club emerged to give young people roles in the movement. It was 1953 when Concerned and Caring Educators, or CACE, encouraged teachers in OPS to step up in the movement. By 1963, the Citizens Civic Committee for Civil Rights, or 4CP, was formed to lead the community. On the sides of the city’s movement in 1967 were the Omaha Black Panthers and BANTU, as well as affinity groups among the city’s Hispanic/Latinx community and others. Each of these arose in the shadow of what the NAACP could have been.
The NAACP had to take action to stay relevant, and that they did! In November 1950, the NAACP’s executive secretary Walter White spoke at Tech High. Addressing the racial discrimination as a propaganda tool against the U.S., his visit was sponsored by the local NAACP and the DePorres Club.
In 1951, former State Senator Johnny Owen secured the endorsement of the local chapter when he ran for Omaha City Council. While he lost, he was later named the informal “Mayor of Black Omaha” within the community.
In January 1953, the NAACP Youth Council launched a boycott of Reed’s Ice Cream in Omaha, along with the DePorres Club. Together, the group led picketing, called out boycott-breakers and made it hard for Reed’s to do business between Cuming Street and Fort Street. It lasted five months before the company changed their racist hiring practices and hired a single African American. However, the business closed permanently in 1959, selling off all their shops and their factory in North Omaha.
In 1955, Rev. E. T. Streeter led the local chapter in a court case against the Omaha Streetcar Company to end segregation on the streetcars. Beginning in April, the streetcar company wanted a new contract with the city to maintain their monopoly over the city’s public transportation. The NAACP immediately sought an anti-discrimination clause prohibiting racism in hiring. Attorneys Ralph Adams and Charles Davis fought the case for the NAACP. The streetcar company hired three Black bus drivers immediately, but the NAACP didn’t back down.
After a 1955 court finding against Peony Park’s Jim Crow practices, Black swimmer Fred Winthrop was turned away from swimming at the park. As a result, in 1963 the NAACP Youth Council led a summer-long protest against the park to end segregation there. After suffocating their business, the park relented and allowed Black swimmers.
Fight for Your Freedom
By the 1950s, there were three chapters of the NAACP in the Omaha area—Central, South and Northwest. Working together, they formed the NAACP Metropolitan Area Council. In 1963, each of the chapters were awarded their own charters. By this era, local voices were clamoring from the NAACP to change. Complaining that local money was “raised to keep the national NAACP office going or end school segregation in another part of the country or public meetings where public figures utter something pious and sometimes inspiring platitudes that lead to nothing” (Omaha Star, 8/27/54). People wanted local action with local outcomes.
In 1958, Omaha chapter President Lawrence McVoy launched a 4-point plan. He sought to:
1. Place Black teachers in Omaha’s secondary schools;
2. Obtain housing for Blacks outside the Near North Side neighborhood;
3. Increase the number of employers that would hire Blacks, especially the Omaha Public Power District and the Metropolitan Utilities District, and;
4. Boost the membership of the NAACP chapter.
Starting that year, the Omaha chapter hosted its first-ever annual Fight for Your Freedom Fund Dinner. Held for several years at the Rome Hotel downtown, the event featured local entertainment and national speakers, often from the national NAACP headquarters. Raising money helped the organization fund legal campaigns, promotional activities and other movement-building events. In the 1970s, several Freedom Fund Dinners were held at Peony Park, and later at other hotels. In the next several years there were campaigns against poor housing, the new federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, and more.
In April 1960, the NAACP boycotted five major stores in Omaha because of their discriminatory hiring practices. They won.
Omaha started celebrating Emancipation Day in 1891. Whether done as grand conferences with speakers and bands, large picnics with games and dancing, or parades and floats, these were celebrations of joy and freedom with many of the leading figures in Omaha’s Black community joining in or leading the festivities. The events died down in the early 1940s. In November 1962, the Youth Council sponsored a meeting at the Near North YMCA to plan a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation the next year.
In September 1963, the NAACP helped organize the Omaha Sorrow March through downtown Omaha. Intended to memorialize the girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, 100 protesters joined with hundreds of spectators watching the mournful march through the city’s core.
That same year, the chapter pressured the Omaha City Council to consider an open occupancy housing ordinance. Working alongside 4CL, more than 4,000 protesters gathered at the old Omaha City Hall to end racial discrimination in housing. A silent demonstration without of chants, songs, and slogans, the protest included between 500 students in grades kindergarten through twelve. According to one research paper, groups joining included the Omaha Urban League and the Urban League Guild, the Catholic Interracial Council, the Omaha Anti-Defamation league, the Black Muslims, the Mayor’s Bi-Racial Council, as well as Elks, Masons, Eastern Stars, African Methodist Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics.
Two years later, in March 1965 the Youth Council held a Youth Freedom Rally at the Near North Side YMCA to stand in solidarity with the March on Selma. That same year, the Youth Council won the integration of Omaha Public Schools clubs and after school activities. White students at Central High had repeatedly denied participation to African American students in extracurriculars, and the NAACP Youth Council took up the issue after young Black actors were denied the opportunity to participate in a school play because of their skin color. Taking the issue to the school board and the public, the district issued a statement prohibiting discrimination in clubs and after school activities based on skin color.
In 1966, the notorious North Omaha riots started. That year, despite a call to the City of Omaha asking become involved in intervening with the people leading the riots, the NAACP was shut out of the talks. Instead, the Near North Side YMCA intervened, and the NAACP replied that the mayor and governor were too concerned with appeasing the youth rather than working with the whole community to create solutions. That same year, the NAACP Metropolitan Council also adopted a resolution supporting Greater Omaha Community Action, or GOCA, in their campaign against poverty, and to support other organizations endorsing GOCA, too.
Rioting continued through 1969.
In March 1968, the NAACP Youth Council and others protested an appearance of racist presidential candidate George Wallace. Leading a peaceful picket, counter-protesters began acting violently toward the activists. When a riot broke out, police brutality led to dozens of NAACP protesters being injured. During the melee, Howard Stevenson, a sixteen-year-old African-American youth activist, was shot and killed by a police officer.
In late 1967, the Omaha NAACP selected January 1, 1968 as the right timing for Omaha’s Emancipation Day celebrations. Music was performed by the Salem Baptist Church Youth Choir, Mt. Calvary Community Choir and the Bethel Baptist Choir, and Rev. J. C. Wade of Salem was designated as the master of ceremonies.
The segregation of Omaha Public Schools has long been a target of the Omaha chapter. A 1969 study of Omaha Public Schools found that nine North Omaha schools by the Central chapter had an enrollment of 80% African American students, with five that had 97% African American enrollment. Presenting their information to the school board repeatedly, the issue would stay on the chapter’s radar into recent years as school segregation is still an issue in Omaha.
The Modern Era of Social Justice
Starting in 1970, the Civil Rights movement in Omaha took a marked turn. The reactionary groups of the 1960s couldn’t last in the face of being framed by the FBI, exploited by politicians, and abused by the Omaha Police Department. The NAACP was challenged to stay vital and keep Civil Rights in focus.
The city’s chapter was active in donating money for a 1976 legal battle in Mississippi. NAACP activists in Port Gibson, Mississippi were taken to court a decade early on charges of conspiracy for leading a boycott of local racist stores. The trial had been dragged through legal processes for years, and eventually the charges were dismissed.
According to Matthew Stelly, Omaha’s NAACP chapter grew from 170 members to 500 under the presidency of James Hart starting in 1977. He quoted Hart saying, “The white membership has increased considerably, which is very encouraging. We need support to dispel racist fears.”
A City Council Seat for African Americans?
In 1978, the chapter announced they were filing suit against the City of Omaha for failing to hold district elections for the City Council. It was believed district elections would allow an African American member to win a seat on the council, and that general elections were prohibiting that from happening. Bringing in the national NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks, he remarked to the Omaha World-Herald, “Our lawyers feel we can win in Omaha.” As of that year, there’d never been an African American on the Omaha City Council, and the district elections would allow one to be elected. Many white voters and politicians apparently stood against the measure though, with people like Omaha City Council president Steve Rosenblatt saying, “There’s no question in my mind that a Black can be elected to the council on an at-large basis.” Rosenblatt had stood against a Black councilman being appointed to a seat just a few years earlier. The mayor was also against district elections in Omaha. After a federal court ordered this style, Fred Conley became the first African American member of the Omaha City Council in 1981.
The City of Omaha vowed to keep fighting against the district elections, and the mayor swore having open, citywide elections was the best way to go. The NAACP president in 1980, Buddy Hogan, believed Omaha was unique nationally for its commitment to Jim Crow through open elections. He was quoted saying, “In the case of the City of Omaha, it is extremely possible to show discriminatory intent of the at-large scheme to deprive Black citizens of their rights.”
The opponents never won their changes though, and today there are seven district seats on the council. That same year, the chapter announced they were enlisting an unnamed law firm in their fight against landlords, employers and others to stop discrimination.
In late 1980, the organization experienced turmoil from within as Black Republicans rose to prominence. Buddy Hogan, president of the chapter in the 1970s, was said to be ousted from his seat by several Republicans including James Hart, who took his seat. Ernie Chambers was among critics who accused the Republicans of “caring more more about their personal advancement than about the Black community.”
The chapter hosted a community forum on police brutality and other complaints against the Omaha Police Department in November 1995. Rev. Everett Reynolds hosted more than 400 attendees with addresses by Ernie Chambers, Brenda Council and others. Attempting to start a citywide campaign against police misconduct, the campaign didn’t take off because there wasn’t enough evidence. Seeking to collect 150 complaints to file a federal case, they campaign fell short and ended.
In 1998, the Omaha chapter led community discussions about the case of Marvin Ammons’ death in October 1997. They also talked with national NAACP officials to consider the possibility of a federal civil rights investigation. While that didn’t lead to action, it showed the NAACP was still active. The chapter was active in organizing a community vigil a year later with 200 attendees.
Omaha’s Juneteenth Celebrations
Since 1989, the city’s NAACP chapter has sponsored the city’s Emancipation Day celebrations. That year, it was held at Corinth Memorial Baptist Church on January 12. With the goal of focusing its attention on the NAACP and the status of Black people, there was a forum and Q&A session. They did the same again in 1993. 1999 was the tenth NAACP Juneteenth celebration, with events at the Heartland of America Park downtown following a parade and Councilman Frank Brown as the Grand Marshall of the events. The Negro National Anthem was sang by Celeste Webster, and guitarist Grover Lipkins performed the Star Spangled Banner. There were also performances by West African dancers, gospel groups, the Sons of Thunder, Echoes of Melody, Ges Werk, Rhythm City, and Decision. Know Thyself Production also performed an Egyptian play. The event continues this year.
In 2006, in an effort to raise awareness about informal segregation in Omaha and the denial of equal public education opportunities for students of color, Nebraska Legislator Ernie Chambers proposed re-segregating public schools in Omaha. Nebraska Legislative Bill 1024 was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor, creating three racially identifiable districts. After a case by the NAACP against Omaha Public Schools, the plan was retracted and the Omaha Public Schools remain informally segregated today.
That same year, the NAACP came out against the expansion of the Omaha Police Department helicopter patrols and related buying. Challenging the department to focus on neighborhood foot patrols instead, President Tommie Wilson called on the purchases to stop. The department continued though, and helicopter usage in Omaha is higher today than ever.
The chapter continued calling out racial disparities in policing though, and in 2008 Mayor Fahey announced he was going to reinstate the role of an independent police auditor, close the city jail in a matter of weeks, add police officers and refocus police efforts on neighborhoods. The NAACP hailed the announcement.
Unfortunately, that year the Juneteenth parade was stopped by the Omaha Police Department because of a shooting along the route at North 22nd and Lothrop Streets. That didn’t stop the parade permanently though, and it continues today.
In 2013, several members of Omaha’s NAACP traveled together to Washington, DC for the 50th anniversary commemorations of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
An absence of white involvement in Omaha’s NAACP chapter has been noted as its downfall since nearly the beginning. The chapter was prevented from chartering in 1915 because of this; during the 1920s, the lack of white involvement was noted as the cause of the chapter’s near downfall. By the 1950s, white people were wholly missing from the Omaha chapter’s activities, and by the 1980s white people were merely reading the newspaper for information on the chapter. Luckily, Omaha’s NAACP never waited and kept progressing to the benefit of Black and white Omahans alike. As a white person who has researched and written this article, I believe our participation in the chapter is essential, including paying membership dues and becoming actively involved.
Today, the chapter continues advocacy and action throughout Omaha, and acts as a powerful agitator to make the city pay attention to justice and freedom.
Notable Things to Know
There have been many notable leaders and members of the Omaha NAACP.
Omaha’s NAACP Leaders
The founder and first president of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP was Rev. John Albert Williams (1866–1933). Jesse Hale-Moss was the president in 1920, and Henry W. Black in 1921. Milton L. Hunter was president in 1926. Rev. J. E. Blackmore was president of the Omaha NAACP in the early 1940s. Christopher Adams was the president in 1945, and Ralph Adams was president in 1947. Lawrence McVoy was the president from 1958 to 1977, and James C. Hart was president starting in 1977. Buddy Hogan was the president in the 1980s, and J. Andrew Thompson was president in the early 1990s. Rev. Everett Reynolds was president in from 1995 to 2005, and Tommie Wilson led the organization starting in 2005. She was the first female leader of the Omaha chapter. In 2010, Stephen Jackson was the president.
Today, Vickie Young is the president of the NAACP in Omaha. Under her leadership, traditional activities like the Freedom Fund Dinner and Juneteenth continue, while the chapter expands its presence and impact throughout the city.
Since their inception, the Omaha NAACP chapter has relied heavily on religious places throughout the Near North Side and beyond. For instance, St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church provided the first offices and meeting space when the chapter was getting started in 1915. St. John AME, Bethel AME, Zion Baptist, Pilgrim Baptist, Mt. Moriah Baptist, the former Calvin Memorial Presbyterian, Clair United Methodist, and St. Benedict Catholic all come up repeatedly in the first 50 years of the organization’s existence. More recently, places like the old Holiday Inn on 72nd and the downtown Doubletree Inn have become common places in the history. North 24th Street has long been a parade and celebration route for the organization, and the Charles B. Washington Branch of the Omaha Public Library has been important for more than 20 years. The old Commercial Federal Savings and Loan at North 30th and Ames was a longtime meeting place for the NAACP Youth Council.
The Omaha chapter of the NAACP has kept several offices in North Omaha. They include:
Saint Phillip the Deacon Episcopal Church was a segregated congregation originally located at 1119 and 1121 North 21st Street in North Omaha, between Nicholas and Paul Streets. Established in 1877 as a mission, in the 1970s it merged with another Episcopal congregation to become the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection.
In dusty pioneer Omaha City of 1878, a segregated Sunday School for African American children called the Trinity Mission was established by the Episcopalians in the Cozzens House hotel downtown. Rev. Dean Millspaugh started the mission with a young African American assistant named William A. Green. The mission moved to a hall on North 16th, then bought a lot at North 19th and Cuming Street. William Green was ordained in 1880, and led the mission for two years. In 1882, St. Philip the Deacon was formally established, and Rev. Green left Omaha then to lead a church in Atlanta. A new building was built from the materials at the original Trinity Cathedral, which was being replaced.
At its new Near North Side location, the church was led by a white minister named Rev. John Williams from Saint Barnabas Church. Between 1885 and 1890, the new church struggled for attendees and fiscal support. However, that Rev. Williams shouldn’t be confused with his replacement.
Rev. John Albert Williams and Sustainability
Rev. John A. Williams (1866-1933) was an African American minister, journalist, and civil rights activist. Brought to Omaha by its preeminent Bishop George Worthington, Rev. Williams started with the congregation in 1891 and established Saint Phillip the Deacon Episcopal Church as a local powerhouse and ministered there all of his life, another 44 years. When he arrived the church had just 15 members; within two years there were 250 members. Bishop Worthington, the leader of Omaha’s Episcopal churches, led Rev. Williams in a Detroit church when he was younger, and encouraged him to join the ministry. With the immediate success of Rev. Williams, the Bishop’s wife donated money for the English-style building to be constructed on North 21st Street between Nicholas and Paul Streets.
Rev. Williams was also a leader among the local Black newspapers, first as a writer for The Enterprise and then as founder of The Monitor, and frequently wrote editorials that were published as front-page articles in the Omaha World-Herald.
Providing leadership throughout the Episcopal Church, Rev. Williams was remarkable for his time. Representing the congregation in church administrative work throughout the state and beyond, he was a Greek and Latin scholar as well, an author, and a voice of conscience within the church.
It was also under Rev. Williams’ leadership that for more than 35 years, the church held the Coronation Pageant. Since Jim Crow kept Ak-Sar-Ben segregated, North Omaha’s African American community held their own formal and crowned their own king and queen.
Starting from the early years of the Civil Rights movement in Omaha in the 1910s through the 1950s, St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church was on the frontlines of the struggle for equality and justice for African Americans. Through the leadership of Rev. Williams, the church hosted The Monitor, Omaha’s premier Black newspaper between 1915 and 1928. It served as a base of Omaha’s NAACP for several years, from the time Rev. Williams started the chapter in 1919 through the 1930s. Then, as the movement gained steam in the early 1950s, members and the ministers consistently joined with other Civil Rights activists in Omaha.
Rev. Williams died February 4, 1933.
Buildings, Moving and Merger
St. Philip’s was in five locations between its establishment and the merger that created the Church of the Resurrection. They included Cozzens House, a hall on North 16th, North 19th and Cuming Streets, 1119 North 21st Street, and 2532 Binney Street.
Location 1: Cozzens House
Built in 1867 by railroad tycoon George Francis Train, the Cozzens House was a 120-room hotel in downtown Omaha. One of the first hotels in Omaha, it was considered the finest between Chicago and San Francisco when it was built. After other hotels were built around downtown afterwards, the building was rented for events, activities and groups. One of those was the Trinity Mission established in 1878. It was an offshoot of the Episcopal Church intended to serve and keep segregated Omaha’s growing Black population. Early activities included a children’s Sunday School, and then the establishment of regular Sunday worship services.
Other religious activities at the Cozzens House included the early classes for the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary, which similar to the Trinity Mission, later moved to North Omaha. After being located in its second location, a hall on North 16th Street for a few years, in 1882 a new church was built at the congregation’s third location, North 19th and Cuming Streets. In 1891, a fourth location was opened on North 21st Street.
Location 4: 1119 North 21st Street
Built in 1892, the fourth location of the congregation was constructed at 1119 North 21st Street. It was made of limestone and brick, and had exquisite oak woodwork throughout the interior. Designed in the style of an English country church, the building was consecrated in August 1893.
In 1948, the Kellom School and Recreation Project was enacted by the City of Omaha and Omaha Public Schools. Intended to build a swimming pool and school to serve the Near North Side (and keep Omaha segregated), the City demanded St. Philip surrender their building and rectory. The rectory was sold and moved to North 27th and Miami that year, and the church was demolished in 1949.
Fifth Location: 2532 Binney Street
After intensive fundraising efforts within the congregation and throughout Nebraska’s Episcopal diocese, St. Philips moved from their historic home. Originally, the diocese found a new site at North 30th and Spencer Streets. However, it was deemed too wet to build on, and a new building was constructed at 2532 Binney Street in 1949. Plans for the original site called for a large Gothic Revival style building and rectory, but the costs were too high. In 1949, Lincoln architect Fritz Craig redrew plans for St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Seward with a few changes, and those were used to build the new St. Philips. The new cornerstone was laid on June 26, 1949, and the first service in the building happened on December 18, 1949. Fundraising for the church was so successful that all loans were paid by January 8, 1950.
Built to hold 150 worshippers, the church was made of red brick and had a full basement with classrooms and a fellowship hall.
After they moved in, the congregation remained steady in attendance for almost 20 years. In 1950, the congregation dedicated a stained glass window in the new church in honor of Rev. Dr. Williams and his 42 years of service to the congregation. Another stained glass window was for Bernie B. Cowan, a longtime warden of St. Philip’s. A rose widow showing the baptism of St. Philip the Deacon was eventually installed, too. A beautiful wooden cross memorializing Rev. Dr. Williams that was dedicated to the church in 1941 was re-installed in the new building, as well. During the 1950s, St. Philip’s was credited as a success of the Episcopal church for being a strong African American congregation.
However, in the late 1960s, St. Philip’s suffered diminishing attendance. With new housing laws removing redlining and allowing Blacks to live throughout the entirety of North Omaha, many choose to move from the Near North Side and Kountze Place neighborhoods.
The Church of the Resurrection
At the same time St. Philips started straining to serve North Omaha’s Black community, St. John’s Episcopal Church by Miller Park was struggling to serve their white congregants. White flight kicked into full steam in North Omaha starting in 1966, and afterward many neighborhoods throughout the community struggled along with their churches. With white fragility dominating the hearts and minds of many white people moving from their community, African Americans were celebrating moving from the historical heart of Omaha’s Black community. This included members of St. Philip’s who were moving in around Miller Park.
Racial issues were chomping away at Episcopal congregations in North Omaha. In 1979, a plan was hatched to solve the problems of two churches by merging them to form anew.
In 1986, St. Philip’s and St. John’s merged congregations to create an intentionally integrated church. Meeting in Saint John’s original facility, they formed the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection at North 30th and Belvedere Boulevard. Today, St. Philip Episcopal Church continues as part of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection.
The most notable minister at St. Philip’s was its longest, Rev. Dr. John Albert Williams, who along with his wife Lucy Gamble Williams was a force in the entire community. Starting in 1880, Rev. William Green was the first African American minister at the church. He left in 1888. The minister of St. Barnabas was a white man named Rev. John Williams, and he took over St. Philip’s in 1888, and led the church until 1891. That was the first year of Rev. John Albert Williams, an African American minister. He served 42 years as the minister of St. Philip’s, and died in 1933. Rev. Victor Holly served the church next from 1933 to 1937. The depression was hard on the congregation though, and Rev. Holly was replaced by Rev. Elmer Wright. However, Rev. Wright only served for a year before he died in 1938.
From 1938 to 1943, Rev. George Stams served St. Philip’s. He was succeeded by Rev. Shirley Sanchez, who served from 1943 to 1952. This was the era of the church’s property being taken by the City of Omaha, threatening its existence. Rev. Sanchez kept the congregation alive though, and secured its future before leaving. In October 1952, Rev. Soloman Jacobs started leading the church. After he resigned in 1958, Rev. Charles Taylor took over and stayed until 1962. The next year, Rev. Edward Brightman became minister.
However, Rev. Wright only served for a year before he died in 1938. From 1938 to 1943, Rev. George Stams served St. Philip’s. He was succeeded by Rev. Shirley Sanchez, who served from 1943 to 1952. This was the era of the church’s property being taken by the City of Omaha, threatening its existence. Rev. Sanchez kept the congregation alive though, and secured its future before leaving. In October 1952, Rev. Soloman Jacobs started leading the church. After he resigned in 1958, Rev. Charles Taylor took over and stayed until 1962. The next year, Rev. Edward Brightman became minister.
Lucinda Anneford Winifred Williams nee Lucy Gamble (1875-1956) was the first African American teacher in the Omaha school district. Later the wife of a successful Episcopal minister, she was also the mother of three children. Lucy was a dedicated church leader and community leader throughout North Omaha. This is a biography of her life.
Lucy’s parents, William and Evaline Gamble, were married in Lincoln in 1873 from Mobile, Alabama. William (c 1850-1910) was a former slave who became a barber and Civil Rights leader. Lucy was born in Lincoln in 1875, and her family moved to Omaha in 1880. Lucy the oldest of eight children.
As a child, starting in 1885 Lucy attended the Dodge School before transferring. Originally called East School, the Dodge School was on the southwest corner of 11th and Dodge Streets when it opened in 1876. The area around the school was called the Burnt District and one of Omaha’s original segregated neighborhoods. Lucy left Dodge School and graduated from the Pacific School at South 6th and Pacific Avenue in June 1889.
In June 1893, Lucy graduated from Omaha High School as one of the few African Americans who’d done that ever. At that time, the Omaha Public Schools ran their own teacher training program called the Omaha Normal School, and even though her high school teachers discouraged her from going, she graduated there in June 1895.
In Omaha in 1901, there was a tradition that classroom teachers must be single and leave the professional when they got married. Lucy followed tradition and left the classroom when she got married. However, when she was married in June 1901, the Omaha World-Herald was sure to mention that the entire teacher corps from Cass School attended to celebrate their comrade’s wedding.
During the 1930s, she was an adult education teacher for Omaha Public Schools, teaching at the Urban League Community Center in the Webster Telephone Exchange Building. She also taught classes at the North Side YWCA until the early 1940s.
Mrs. Williams was strongly committed to her church and community, donating thousands of hours throughout her life to improve the places she cared about most.
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church
Young Lucy’s family attended the mission church that became St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church as soon as they arrived in Omaha in 1880. Her father was an usher there for more than a decade.
When a new, handsome 25-year-old minister from Michigan arrived in 1891, Mr. and Mrs. Gamble surely weren’t expecting their 16-year-old daughter to marry him. However, after her 6-year teaching career from 1895 to 1901, it must have seemed like the right time. At age 26, Miss Lucy Gamble married the minister of St. Philip’s, Rev. John Albert Williams. With her as the first African American teacher in Omaha and and him as an ambitious religious leader, the young couple was already important to the entire city. On June 27, 1901, the Omaha World-Herald covered their wedding with a full-column description including details about lavish decorations, huge number of attendees (300+) and the couple’s honeymoon plans to visit Illinois.
As the minister’s wife, there were certain expectations for Mrs. Williams at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. Starting in 1901, she was a delegate from St. Philip’s to the annual council of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska. Mrs. Williams supported her husband’s ministry in countless ways, playing the organ at church from 1901 until the late 1940s, leading the choir successfully for several decades, and teaching Sunday School. When her husband died in 1933, she kept attending and stayed involved.
At St. Philip’s 75th anniversary celebration, Mrs. Williams was presented with flowers by Judge Elizabeth Pittman and recognized for her 50 year’ membership with the congregation. Mrs. Williams lived to become the oldest and longest member of St. Philip’s.
In the late 1890s, North Omaha was emerging as a social force for the entire city. African Americans began organizing in earnest to develop empowering social activities that would affect the entire culture they lived within. That’s probably what led the young Lucy Gamble to join the North Omaha Women’s Educational Society, where she provided an important if young voice. By the turn of the century, she also became a prominent member of community leader Ella Mahammitt’s Omaha Colored Women’s Club. Miss Gamble also wrote for Ella Mahammit’s The Enterprise, one of Omaha’s early Black newspapers.
From the 1930s through the late 1940s, Mrs. Williams served as the chairman of the board of Omaha’s Negro Old Folks Home. Honoring her husband’s legacy as founder of Omaha’s NAACP after he died, she was on the board of Omaha’s chapter in the 1930s and 40s. In 1948, Mrs. Williams was appointed to governing board of the Omaha Community Chest. Starting in 1927, she also served on the board of the segregated Near North Side YWCA through the 1940s. She was president of that board for several terms.
Mrs. Williams’ father, who was a noted Civil Rights activist in Omaha, died in 1910 in St. Paul. 23 years later, her husband died of a heart attack on Saturday afternoon, February 4, 1933.
Living in the church rectory at 1119 North 21st Street from 1901 to 1948, Mrs. Williams raised children, held social activities, hosted special guests and did much more at her home.
Rev. and Mrs. Williams had one son and two daughters. Their first child was Dorothy E. was born on October 26, 1902. Notably active in the church and throughout the community, Dorothy made history in Omaha by becoming the first black graduate of the University of Omaha in 1924. Dorothy married —– Isaac and lived in Tulsa, working as a librarian for several years. She died on October 8, 1963.
Their son Worthington L. was born in 1905. He lived around Omaha and worked a variety of labor and professional jobs throughout his life. Around 1935, he moved to Baltimore to work for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. However, after a long illness, Worthington came back to North Omaha and died in the city at age 39 in 1944.
Their daughter Catherine E. was born in April 1912. She married Arnold D. Walker in 1935, and the couple moved to Cincinnati. I haven’t found more information about her life yet.
After her husband died in 1933, Mrs. Williams moved to live with her son Worthington in his home at 2416 Miami Street. When he moved away she stayed at the address, and lived there until he died. She then lived with her daughters, first with Catherine in Cincinnati, then with Dorothy in Tulsa.
In 1948, Mrs. Williams’ longtime home, the St. Philips rectory, was physically moved from North 21st to 2712 Franklin Street as part of the Near North Side redevelopment plan. Apparently it was demolished with the development of Highway 75 though, and there’s no sign of it today. The church was demolished in that same era, and today there’s no historical marker, signage or other physical record of Mrs. Williams’ lifelong home at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.
There are conflicting reports of where Mrs. Williams died on August 26, 1956. The Omaha Star reported that it happened at her daughter Dorothy’s home in Tulsa, while the Omaha World-Herald claimed it happened at their daughter Catherine’s home in Cincinnati.
Rev. Williams and Mrs. Williams are buried in Forest Lawn.
A church minister, newspaper editor, NAACP leader, community activist, and family man, the Rev. John Albert Williams (1866-1933) was a singular leader in a simpler time who faced complex problems and made North Omaha a better place. He was widely recognized in North Omaha, in the Episcopal Church and among his family; however, today his name is nearly lost to Omaha history. This is a biography of his life.
Born in London, Ontario, Canada on February 28, 1866, John Albert Williams was one of nine children of a freed man from Virginia named Henry Williams and an African-Quebecois mother named Adeline D’Or Williams (1831-1910). London was the northern terminus of the Underground Railroad, and Henry Williams was a leader within his local community. His mother spoke French as a first language.
When his family moved to Detroit, they attended the church of Father George Worthington. John graduated from Detroit High School and the Detroit Church Academy.
In the late 1880s, Williams went to Seabury Western Theological Seminary in Minnesota to earn his Masters in Divinity. He graduated in June 1891. That month, at then-Bishop Worthington’s offer, Williams came to Omaha to serve St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. When he became a minister, Rev. Williams mother moved to Omaha to live with him. She died in 1910.
Rev. Williams married Lucinda Winifred Gamble, the first African American teacher in the Omaha Public Schools, in June 1901. When she married him, she followed the then-custom of resigning her position with the schools, as all teachers were single then.
An Episcopal Minister
An influential minister, Rev. Williams had an exceptionally long career of 41 years and was widely admired for his leadership. His career was determined in his early 20s.
Bishop Worthington’s Trinity Cathedral tried organizing a segregated congregation in 1878, and re-opened in 1887. But the worshipers died down to just 17 people in 1890 and the mission was near closing. Originally serving at Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church, Rector Williams was ordained as a minister by Bishop Worthington at St. Matthias’ Episcopal Church in Omaha in early June 1891.
On June 12, 1891, he started preaching at St. Philip’s Mission Church, a segregated mission church for African Americans in the Near North Side. It was housed in the original building for the Trinity Cathedral, which was moved to the site from downtown Omaha. Nearly closed in 1891, Rev. Williams was tasked by Bishop Worthington with rebuilding the congregation. By 1893, there were 40 regular members, and Mrs. Amelia Worthington, the Bishop’s wife, donated money for a new St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church to be constructed. It was located near North 21st and Paul Streets, the church’s address was 1121 North 21st Street. Designed in an English Saxon revival style, the congregation was re-designated from a mission to a church in 1926. Father Williams was named a Rector then.
Successes as a Minister
Rector Williams’ career as a minister was very successful, and he became locally important and nationally known in his early career. For instance, in 1916 the Baltimore-based The Church Advocate magazine wrote a page-long feature about Rev. Williams, highlighting his influence and abilities. During his career at St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church, the congregation became renowned as the “overwhelming majority of aristocrats of color” in Omaha. He was elected assistant secretary of Nebraska diocese in 1892. Washington DC’s St. Luke Episcopal Church invited him to be their minister in 1895 and again in 1904. The Nebraska diocese appointed him historian in 1906, and in 1909 he was named associate editor of the state’s Episcopal newspaper. In 1910 he was named an examining chaplain of the diocese.
Recognized in national Episcopalian media, in 1914 he was named one of the most well-known priests in the country. In May 1918, Rev. Williams published “Diocesan History, An Historical Sketch of The Associate Mission of Omaha” in The Journal of Proceedings of the Diocese of Nebraska.
Rector Williams was nominated to become the bishop of Haiti in 1922, but he stayed in Omaha. A Latin and Greek scholar, Rev. Williams tutored Creighton University students for decades. Seabury granted Rev. Williams an honorary Doctorate of Divinity by Seabury, his alma mater, in 1929. That year he entered into an honor society of Episcopalian ministers called the Order of the Sangreal. One of the few recipients to ever receive this honor, Rector Williams was the only one in Omaha history to receive it.
Rev. Dr. Williams was the rector of St. Philip’s until he died in 1933. In 1949, the congregation relocated to a new building at 2532 Binney Street, and Kellom School was built near its old location. The original church was demolished then. In 1986, St. Philip’s joined another congregation in North Omaha to integrate congregations. They launched the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, which is still open at North 30th and Belevedre Boulevard today.
Committed to Community Activism
Deeply committed to integration and fighting against Southern Jim Crow in Omaha, Rev. Dr. Williams was active from his earliest years in the city as a community organizer, vocal advocate and powerful leader. His greatest legacies in North Omaha include political action that moved mountains; establishing the only and longest running Black newspaper in Omaha for several years; and founding Omaha’s NAACP chapter.
Rev. Williams became the first African American nominated for the Omaha School Board in January 1897. He wasn’t appointed though.
Rev. Williams was involved in founding Omaha’s Anti-Lynching League in December 1894, and was president while it was active. Ida B. Wells visited Omaha under his leadership. Frequently quoted in local newspapers, he was a calming voice for the African American community. He was also a member of Omaha’s Afro-American League, and served as secretary of the Negro Press Association in 1898. Nebraska Governor Holcomb had a high degree of respect for Rev. Williams, and in 1897 he asked for a list of candidates to be part of a “Congress of Representative White and Colored Americans” during the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. After his nominations, Silas Robbins, Dr. Matthew O. Ricketts, Cyrus Bell, Rev J. C. C. Owens of St. John’s AME, and others were appointed. Meeting from August 17 to 19, the group wanted to start an association that would show biracial support for civil rights. In January 1900, he served on the organizing committee for a visit to Omaha by Booker T. Washington.
In 1901, Rev. Williams took a complaint to the school board against Ivy Reed, an 8th grade teacher at Cass School. Backed by Silas Robbins, George Dolliver and ten other African Americans, they charged Miss Reed with making discriminatory comments about African Americans during a classroom conversation about slavery. I cannot find what happened because of the complaint though.
Starting in 1906, he was the leader of the Progressive League of Douglas County, which was founded by African Americans to get Black people elected to local public offices. In that role he supported several candidates including Millard Singleton and others. Rev. Williams partnered with several Black community leaders regularly. For instance, he joined with Vic Walker and Henry Plummer to protest the demotion of black fire patrol captains in 1911. Throughout the years, some of the other community leaders he worked with included Ella Mahammitt, Edwin R. Overall, Cyrus Bell, Ferdinand Barnett, George F. Franklin, Lucille Skaggs Edwards, William Gamble and John Grant Pegg.
When the Easter Sunday tornado struck the Near North Side neighborhood in March 1913, Rev. Williams joined the citywide tornado relief committee as the only African American member.
During World War One, Rev. Williams led Omaha’s African American community in greeting Black soldiers who came through Union Station on the way to the war. Several times he rallied large crowds to greet the troops, who rode on segregated trains.
Rev. Williams had an interesting opponent when he ran to join the Omaha School Board in 1924. In a surprise move, his friend and fellow African American minister Rev. Russell Taylor threw in his hat for a seat on the Omaha School Board. Running as a progressive, Rev. Taylor was the minister at St. Paul Presbyterian Church, and a longtime friend of Rev. Williams. They were good friends: Rev. Williams officiated at Rev. Taylor’s wedding, and their families had regular Sunday dinners every week. Surprising Rev. Williams with his run, Rev. Taylor actually secured the endorsement of the president of the NAACP over Rev. Williams! With 32 other candidates on the ballot though, both men lost their run for office. The families went on with their friendship though, and kept having Sunday dinners together.
Rev. Williams was the first African American to serve on the governing board for the Omaha Community Chest starting in 1924. He stayed on the board for almost a decade. He was also on member of the board of Omaha’s Urban League.
The Only Black Newspaper
When he was a kid, John Albert Williams was a newsboy in Detroit. That was his start in journalism.
After The Enterprise folded, in July 1915 Rev. Williams launched The Monitor to encourage his Black readers to take action and make Omaha a better city. His mission was put plainly in his first editorial, was to cover the activities of African Americans in Omaha and…
He began sharing his sermons in The Enterprise, an early Black newspaper in Omaha, in 1895. With other Black newspapers come and gone in the next 20 years, Williams founded The Monitor in 1915. Smaller in size and circulation than its competitors, The Monitor ran for 13 years and had the longest run of all Black newspapers in Omaha until the 1950s. There were many themes that Rev. Williams maintained in his paper, including uplifting African Americans, making whites question white supremacy, and encouraging the Black middle class to maintain and grow its ranks. Williams regularly supported Republican politics, but occasionally uplifted socialism.
Williams’ journalistic legacy was much more than sharing the news. Using the newspaper to recruit, he called on African Americans to move from the South to Omaha, and by 1920 Omaha’s African American population doubled. Starting with the launch of the paper in 1915, he also called on the city to become involved in the NAACP.
Promoting Black Emigration
Rev. John Albert Williams was partially responsible for doubling of Omaha’s Black population between 1910 and 1920. In 1910, there were over 4,400 African Americans in Omaha; in 1920, there were over 10,300 people making up 5 percent of the city’s population. According to the Omaha World-Herald, “Omaha had the second largest black population west of the Mississippi River behind Los Angeles.” Rev. Williams aggressively promoted Omaha to African Americans in the South, going so far as to provide travel vouchers, set up reception committees when people came to Omaha, and to connect African Americans to jobs throughout the city.
As part of this effort, in 1919 Rev. Williams joined Dan Desdunes, Thomas P. Mahammitt and several others to create Omaha’s Colored Commercial Club. Working together to guide the organization, Williams extended his vision to get African Americans hired into jobs citywide.
Omaha’s NAACP Chapter
Widely regarded as the father of Omaha’s NAACP, Rev. Williams was involved in the second start of the Omaha NAACP chapter in 1914, staying president for more than a decade. He remained active with the chapter until he died.
Rev. Williams’ activism included the NAACP as well as speaking to his congregation, writing in his newspaper and providing insight throughout the Omaha community. In 1916, he protested Jim Crow streetcars in Omaha and voted against Prohibition in an Episcopal church meeting. In 1919, he rallied Omahans to support the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill and to oppose the City of Omaha’s attempt to segregate local swimming pools.
Using his platform as the NAACP leader, Rev. Williams made his words known citywide. Among the various ways he provided leadership after the 1919 lynching of Will Brown, Williams called out the city’s criminal underground by asserting the riot was caused by,
After leading St. Phillip the Deacon Episcopal Church for a decade, in 1901 Rev. Williams married a longtime church member, Lucy Gamble. Miss Gamble was the first African American teacher in Omaha Public Schools, and her family was very active throughout North Omaha and at St. Philip’s.
John and Lucy Gamble Williams had three children including a son named Worthington (1905-1944) and two daughters, Catherine (1912-????) and Dorothy (1902-1963). Dorothy become the first black graduate of the University of Omaha in 1924.
His brother, Henry W. Williams (1869-1928), lived in Omaha too. Rev. Williams officiated at his funeral when he died at age 59.
Rev. Dr. Williams raised his family and spent the remainder of his life in the St. Philips Church parsonage at 1119 North 21st Street. At the end of his life, Rev. Dr. Williams suffered health problems including a minor stroke and cerebral hemorrhage in 1929 and a heart attack at age 66, dying on February 4, 1933. His funeral was held at Trinity Cathedral.
After her husband’s death, Mrs. Williams stayed active in the church and throughout the community. She joined the board of the local NAACP chapter, led the board of the Colored Old Folks Home, and stayed involved in the church until she passed away in 1956.
Rev. Dr. Williams and Mrs. Williams are buried in Forest Lawn.
Every grand event needs grand buildings. When it was held in North Omaha, the Administration Arch of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898 had a featured grand building. This is a history of the structure.
Design and Construction
The Administration Arch was the first building designed and constructed for the Expo.
Measuring 50′ by 50′ at its base, the Administration Arch rose 150′ or 14 stories into the sky. Designed by Omaha’s premier architect Thomas Rogers Kimball, the Administration Arch straddled Florence Boulevard at Pratt Street and it was the first building designed and built. It was also heavily lit by electrical lighting. This made the building a rarity at the time since electricity was not widely used yet.
Meant to serve as a northern entrance to the Grand Court with its Neo-Classical architecture and spectacular scale, the Arch brought people into the court from the north on the Street of All Nations, also called the West Midway.
The Administration Arch was located directly across from the Arch of the States, which was also located on Florence Boulevard to bring in visitors from the south. The arches was intentionally placed opposite of each other, and the two were considered a pair. One report from the Expo said the arches, “…are the symbols of the factors which have made the exposition possible—local executive force, with the co-operation of the Trans-Mississippi states.”
Located north of the lagoon, the building was between the Manufacturing Building on the east and the Agricultural Building on the west. The Arch had a commanding view of the entire Expo, with 360 degree views in every direction.
Purpose and Usage
The Arch served as executive offices for the staff of the Expo, including the supervisor of the entire event, Gurdon Wattles. There was also a large conference room used to host organizing meetings, special receptions and other smaller events.
Because of its central location the Arch was used as a meeting place for a lot of people during the Expo.
Demolition and Legacy
The last building demolished in 1899, the Administration Arch was used the entire time from its opening to the ending. Today, there is no sign it was ever located at Florence Boulevard and Pratt Streets. There are historical markers in its place that talk about the Expo, but nothing for the Arch specifically.
My name is Adam Fletcher Sasse. I am a professional writer and speaker who runs a small consulting firm in Olympia, Washington. I am the author of North Omaha History Volumes 1, 2 & 3; the editor of NorthOmahaHistory.com; the host of the North Omaha History Podcast; and an artist focused on North Omaha’s built environment.
I grew up in North Omaha in the Miller Park neighborhood for more than a decade from the mid-1980s through the mid-90s. Growing up in these historical, predominantly African American neighborhood, I was a bit of an anomaly: I was a goofy white Canadian kid in cowboy boots and corduroy pants. But I devoured history, especially the stories of the place where I was growing up.
I graduated from North High School. While the leadership of the school was mostly African American, I don’t know if any of the teachers to have a specific appreciation or interest in the African American history of Omaha, and I don’t remember being taught anything about it. The history of the people who established the neighborhoods was hard to find, and that is part of what makes this history so alluring to me.
The other part of why I write this is because of my mentors and friends. One of my mentors was Idu Maduli, who taught me the neighborhood’s history when I was young. I also learned glimpses of the city’s history from other mentors, including Rev. Helen Saunders, many of the people at Pearl Memorial United Methodist Church, Von Trimble, and Mr. and Mrs. Hickerson, who I lived next to on Ellison Avenue. I owe all of them a debt of gratitude. My high school girlfriend was the first history sleuth I ever knew, uncovering the Trans-Mississippi Exposition when I had no idea there was a history where I lived. I can only hope to ignite young peoples’ imaginations the ways these people ignited mine when I was young.
District 61 had one school, and it was located in the town of East Omaha. Never very big but filled with pride and possibilities, Pershing School was demolished just 50 years after it opened. Today, the history of this building is lost. This article summarizes some of it.
Built in 1892, the school district had a small one-room schoolhouse. Built for the children of the workers at the East Omaha Factory District and in the surrounding truck farms, it stood until the early 1920s.
In 1926, the Pershing School was opened for almost 200 students. Named after noted World War I Army General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, students were the ones who named the building through a popular vote.
The building had two floors and a full basement, a large play yard, and several classrooms, as well as an auditorium and library. Located south of the airport, the school was at North 28th Avenue East and Perkins Street. The new Pershing School opened the same year as the Omaha Municipal Airport, later renamed for Omaha hotel magnate and philanthropist Eugene Eppley.
Through the 1930s, students at Pershing School generally stopped their formal education when they graduated there from the eighth grade. Large ceremonies were held for these “rural students” at the Douglas County Courthouse in downtown Omaha. Students who did go onto high school at that point and for years afterward took the streetcar up Locust to either Technical High or North High.
During the 1930s, the Omaha World-Herald made an interesting note that Pershing School was the only rural school starting after the annual Labor Day holiday, and every other school district started before that date. The reason they offered was that Pershing was in a “labor district,” implying the influence and affect of the laborers kept students from schools for the day.
District 61 and the Pershing School had an interesting relationship with local residents. Districts have to levy taxes against homeowners and others in order to keep schools running. However, with constant calls to lower taxes, the people of East Omaha damned their own schools’ existence. As early as 1946, school officials were warning of teacher layoffs and closure threats to the building.
After East Omaha residents voted to reduce their tax burden by lowering the school levy supporting District 61 in 1952, by 1956 the school became insoluble. By late 1958, the City of Omaha annexed East Omaha and District 61 was absorbed into the Omaha Public Schools district, or OPS.
Located near the south end of the first runway at the airport, Pershing School had many planes fly directly overhead on takeoff and landing. Starting in the 1950s, noise from jet airliners at the airport routinely halted class work. In the 1960s, a second runway was opened that diverted the heaviest traffic, and landing lights were installed on the roof of the school.
After a large drop in the local population after severe flooding in the 1950s, according to OPS during the 1960s the school’s attendance couldn’t support maintaining the building. In 1970 there were 300 students in the building. Despite that, Pershing School was closed permanently in 1976, and students were transferred to nearby Sherman Elementary School.
The building was demolished in 1977 to make room for airport expansion. Today, there are no remnants, plaques, markers or memorials for Pershing School. It’s more of the lost history of East Omaha.
Located on the southwest corner of 24th and Lake for more than 50 years, Duffy Drug was an iconic store in North Omaha. Before they were there, the site at 2424 North 24th Street was home to the farthest north drug store in Omaha. After that pharmacy, there were three others there, including Duffy Drugs. The first Black-owned business on the southwest corner of 24th and Lake was the Soul House music store in 1968. This is a history of businesses on the corner and some of the people associated with them.
Julia Maude Filmore Foster Crissey (August 5, 1859-October 9, 1911) and her husband Charles Miller Crissey (August 4, 1857-October 23, 1888) opened a pharmacy at 2424 North 24th Street in 1886. Born Julia Foster on August 5, 1859, she was educated in Chicago and attended the Chicago College of Pharmacy. She married her husband, in 1883 and they went into business in Illinois. They came to Omaha in April 1886, where they opened shop at 24th and Lake. In an industry dominated by men, Mrs. Crissey was also the secretary of the Nebraska Pharmaceutical Association for several years.
For more than a decade, Mrs. Crissey ran the farthest north pharmacy in Omaha in a two-story building that housed the pharmacy on the first floor and apartments on the second floor. Mrs. Crissey became active in Omaha’s well-heeled social circles, helping to found the Omaha Women’s Club and a local church. When Mr. Crissey died suddenly in October 1888, Mrs. Crissey kept the business running herself. According to an international journal for pharmacists that featured her pioneering work,
“…her success is proof of her thorough mastery of the profession.”
—From “American Lady Pharmacists” in The Chemist and Druggist, March 18, 1893.
Julia married another man in the pharmaceutical business named George W. Hoobler on December 5, 1894. In 1895, Mrs. Hoobler published a journal article intriguingly called, “The Soda Fountain: Its uses and abuses,” which I think must have been an awesome study that was surely under-explored.
In 1899, G. W. Hoobler founded a company called Porter-Ryerson-Hoobler Company, an early pharmaceutical manufacturing business, then sold his share in 1907 to start a financial services business. Hoobler was also a founder of the Omaha Commercial Club, and a developer of a new auditorium in Omaha after 1911.
Mrs. Hoobler left her business to support her husband’s company. In 1910, she moved back to Illinois, where she was from, then died in October 1911.
Then in March 1899, one of Mrs. Hoobler’s clerks, Alexander Crawford Adams (1867-1933), went into business with Peter Bertrand Haight (1859-1908) and bought the Crissey Pharmacy, calling it both by its original name and the Haight-Adams Pharmacy.
The pair were charged with selling liquor without a license in 1903, but continued onward after that. Haight passed away suddenly in 1908, and Adams kept running the business. On March 23, 1913, the Easter Sunday tornado destroyed the business building, and it was rebuilt afterwards.
At one point in 1916, there were three Haight-Adams Drug Stores, including the one at 24th and Lake, one at 24th and Ames, and one at 24th and Fort.
By 1924, the establishment was operated as Reid and Duffy Drug Company. Established by Clyde J Reid (1888-1956) and Edward L. Duffy (1891-1950), the business was an investment. By 1931, Duffy owned the store on his own, and the iconic Duffy Drugs was operating. It was also called the Lake Street Drug Company. He wasn’t done with Reid though, and in 1933 they incorporated a cosmetics company together called Reid Duffy Beauty Company. Duffy’s home, built at 2535 Country Club Avenue in 1938, is part of today’s Country Club Historic District.
Duffy’s Drug was the 24th and Lake Historic District’s go-to-store. Selling pharmacy goods including drugs, first aid, healthcare and other goods, they also sold homewares, electronics and more. The store provided money orders, check cashing and other vital services as well.
Ed Duffy passed away in 1950. By June of that year, Hubert Adam Von Tersch (1904-1984) bought the store and continued running it as Duffy’s. The father of nine children, he worked at Duffy’s for seven years before he bought it. Von Tersch closed the store permanently in 1966. In 1977, Von Tersch and his wife celebrate their 50th anniversary along with their 37 granchildren and five great-grandchildren.
After the drug store closed, the Omaha Opportunities Industrialization Center, or OOIC, used the building as a classroom. Then in late 1967, the former drug store was re-opened as The Soul House, a music shop. This was the first Black-owned business ever located on the corner since it was first developed in 1886. Leo Smith (August 22, 1934-June 15, 1986), a major stockholder and the operating manager of the business, said “I think people in the so-called ‘ghetto’ must begin doing something for themselves… We have faith in the future of the area.” The business was also called Leo’s Soul House.
During the July 7, 1968 rioting along North 24th Street, Soul House mounted two large speakers outside their shop. At 3am in the morning, police smashed in the speakers, then went into the store and wrecked the turntables music was playing on. Apparently, the store had been closed and was playing music over the loud speakers “because it has a soothing effect.” According to the City of Omaha’s attorney, “the music was so loud that policemen could not hear commands of their commanding officer… nor could their hear the commands when broadcast over the speaker system of the commanders’ [sic] squad car…” A complaint brought to the Omaha City Council for repayment of the cost of the speakers and turntable was turned away.
“The cost of the speakers, as you say, won’t break us, but the destruction of an idea may.”
—Wilbur L. Phillips, representing Soul House to the Omaha City Council, July 16, 1968.
The Soul House was closed by September 1969. Smith, interviewed for an article in the newspaper that month, said the problem wasn’t solely the riots or break-ins, but “internal problems.” Presumably this meant problems among the owners.
The building hosted several different enterprises in the next 20 years. In 1975, it was a Greater Omaha Community Action, or GOCA, Center. Started to fight poverty, today the organization continues as the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership, or ENCAP, and has offices further north on 24th Street in the Saratoga neighborhood. In the early 1980s, Roosevelt’s Recreation Room was there. A video game arcade, Roosevelt’s also had pinball and a pool table. In 1995, Eliga Advertising and Champion Production was there. A media production studio, there was video and graphic arts equipment at the facility, which was owned by Eliga Ali. Ali was also president of the 24th and Lake Streets Merchants Association.
By 2000, the City of Omaha owned the entire block from 24th to 25th Streets and Lake Street to Lizzie Robinson Avenue, and apparently sought to make it available for development of cultural, entertainment or commercial purposes, or a combination of those. The Family Housing Advisory Services proposed to build a multilevel, $4 million headquarters in 2002.
The City planned to demolish all of the buildings on the corner, including Duffy’s Drug. In early 2003, a group called the Committee for the Preservation of Historic North Omaha Sites shared concerns with the city council and the Family Housing Advisory Services, specifically raising interest in the buildings’ historic importance. Leaders of the committee, including Jim Calloway, Vicki Webb and Harry Eure, proposed a large park with an amphitheater and good lighting to the city. However, the city rejected their idea and the plan proceeded.
Lake Point Center
Sitting on an acre including the corner, the new headquarters for the Family Housing Advisory Services was finished in 2004. A nonprofit started in 1968, the organization’s building has office, a community meeting space and a space for a cafe. Family Housing Advisory Services continues being housed there today. Starting in 2006, the building was referred to as the Lake Point Building.
The Lake Point Building has been home to more than just offices for a nonprofit though. Chef Mike’s was the first cafe there, and was focused on providing health fast food to North Omahans. Donald Curry’s Omaha Rockets Kanteen was there for several years, serving up Black baseball history with delicious Southern soul food. The John Beasley Theater is located in the Lake Point Building in Suite 130, too. Named in honor of the Native Omahan actor, it has hosted many performances and events. Other tenants include Omaha 100, Inc., the Empowerment Network, SBEaesthetics, Family First: A Call to Action, Spruce Staffing, Orr Psychotherapy, Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Metropolitan Omaha, and the Revive Center.
Today, there’s no sign of the 135-year-history of this corner’s importance to the health and well-being of North Omaha. No historical marker, plaque or other commemoration includes its significant buildings or events. Instead, just a modern building with little history, which is completely different from the area around it.
A special note from Susan Koch, Family Housing Advisory Services Director of Facilities, let me know there’s an awesome piece of history on display in the building: “I wanted to share with you that the post that supported the overhang in front of Duffy Drug was saved from demolition! The architects that designed our building purposefully incorporated it into our front facade. It was carefully removed from the site during construction of our building and then brought back.”
So there is a sign of the building’s history! Go check it out today, and send an email to Family Housing Advisory Services to thank them for saving it. History LIVES in North Omaha!
Emancipation Day was regularly celebrated in Omaha from 1891 to 1940. Juneteenth has been celebrated since 1977.
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in the United States. Emancipation Day is a celebration of that action. With slaves among its residents, Omaha was among the cities in the region affected by this proclamation.
With no commemoration event in Omaha recognized by white-controlled media until 1891, it’s a wonder there was ever a newspaper article about Emancipation Day celebrations. However, there were, and they continue in some form today. This article is a history of Emancipation Day and Juneteenth in Omaha.
The End of Slavery in Omaha
Nebraska struggled to end slavery for a relatively long time after it became a territory in 1854. The first-known African American in Nebraska was a slave named York who belonged to William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise made the lands that would become the Nebraska Territory slave-free. Then in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the Nebraska Territorial Legislature to decide whether slavery to be legal in the Territory. It was effectively legal until 1862.
An 1855 census of the territory showed there were 13 slaves in Nebraska, and in 1860 the census found 10 slaves in the territory. While most were attributed to being held in Nebraska City, there. were several in Omaha. Local newspapers editorialized against emancipation, and a bill to ban slavery in the Omaha City Council in 1859 was soundly defeated.
As he’d done once before, in 1860 territorial governor Samuel Black vetoed a bill passed by the legislature to ban slavery. Recognized as a pro-slavery Southern Democrat, Black claimed the wording of the bill was ineffective. The New York Times took suit, sharing the precise language with the nation.
A year before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slavery was abolished in the Nebraska Territory. The early government, including the territorial legislature, the Omaha mayors; as well as other political and economic figures in the future state argued about slavery. Opposition to slavery didn’t always win out, either, as disenfranchising Black people effectively served as a barrier to statehood for Nebraska for several years. However, with the President’s intervention, the territory moved forward by abolishing slavery.
Even then after the Nebraska Territory prohibited slavery, legislators limited suffrage to “free white males.” This clause in the proposed 1866 Nebraska State Constitution delayed Nebraska’s entrance to the Union for nearly a year, until the legislature changed it.
After it was changed in 1867, Nebraska was admitted as a state in the Union, almost all formal vestiges of slavery were gone from Omaha. In 1875, the Nebraska State constitution was formally amended to ban slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. That provision once allowed convict leasing, a system that gave prisons the power to force former slaves back into unpaid labor for private parties.
“There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Nebraska State Constitution, Article 1, Section 2 (1875)
It was another 16 years after that legislation, as well as 28 years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, before Omaha experienced its first publicly acknowledged celebration of the freedom of slaves.
The First Emancipation Day in Omaha
For several years before it happened in Omaha, there were announcements in the local newspapers about Emancipation Day events happening in other cities, including Cheyenne, Wyoming; Denver, Colorado; Washington, DC; and even Council Bluffs. All of these events were held on or around September 22nd.
In 1888, the Omaha Daily Herald was excited to announce that African Americans from Omaha were going to Council Bluffs to celebrate Emancipation Day there in honor of slaves’ freedom in the West Indies. Speeches, readings, orations, vocal and instrumental music, and a grand social were held that year. One article said the original Emancipation Day celebrations in the United States were held on August 1. That day was chosen because that’s when slaves were freed in the British West Indies in 1834, and free Blacks in the U. S. celebrated it even before their own freedom.
That might be why, if you can imagine, in September 1891 the newspaper was ecstatic to announce “the first time in Omaha it is celebrated right royally.” Sponsored by a social group called the “Cecilian Club,” African Americans gathered at Omaha’s Exposition Hall, also called the Grand Opera House, for a day of celebrations.
An African American pianist called Professor McPherson performed on a grand piano, with operas, comedies and other songs played. Miss Lenora Smith recited President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and was followed by Dr. Matthew Ricketts, who spoke about the accomplishments of African Americans since Emancipation and explored the history of slavery in the United States. Miss Mattie Walker sang “Far From Me,” and Omaha’s first African American lawyer, Silas Robbins, spoke about the “general theme of the possibilities for the negro race and even encompassing it at present.”
After that, Prof. McPherson performed on the piano again, and then attorney D. L. Lapsley spoken on the history of Black people. A. L. Anderson sang the song “Abandoned, Wild and Free,” and Prof. McPherson performed again to close the celebration. The newspaper column wrapped up by announcing “Six white men with fiddles and other instruments useful and pleasant in their day and generation struck up dance music and the younger of the colored folks were a long way from being slow to take advantage thereof, and the dance went on.” There was a large meal afterward. The newspaper didn’t elaborate on how many people attended.
1893—A report said that Dr. Ricketts led the speeches at the 1893 Emancipation Day celebration at Fairmount Park in Council Bluffs. A concert and entertainment at the Masonic temple there were included in the festivities, and there were many people in attendance from Omaha. Another announcement came from Council Bluffs the next year, too.
1896—On August 4, the newspaper told about the Triumvirate Club, a group of African Americans in Omaha who “arranged for a grand excursion and picnic to be held at Chautauqua grounds” in Fremont in 1896. Led by Dr. Ricketts, an Hon. E. H. Hall and Fred L. Smith helped lead the day. The trip included a “hand concert” by Demick’s Seventh Ward Military Band, a performance by the Jubilee Choir, as well as swimming and boating. Sporting events included a baseball game between the Triumvirate Club and Fremont High School, with the school winning 11-1 in a five-inning game. There were one- and two-mile bicycle races, as well as and running races for men and women. In the evening there was a grand concert and reception at the Masonic Temple. The train left the Webster Street Depot at 8:15am. Later, the newspaper reported that a special train of six cars was filled to overflowing “with the colored people of the town.” They started arriving back around 10pm, with the last train leaving Fremont at 1am.
On September 22rd of the same year, Mount Pisgah Baptist Church hosted Emancipation Day events at Syndicate Park in South Omaha. Opening at 10am with prayer and music, A. T. Young read the Emancipation Proclamation, then Dr. Ricketts spoke to the crowd. Lunch was followed by an organized debate between attorney Silas Robbins and Rev. G. W. Woodbey versus attorneys E. H. Hall and F. L. Smith. There was no mention of the topic of the debate. “The attendance at the park was quite satisfactory,” reported the paper without any numbers. In 1897, another celebration happened at the same park with “addresses, music, games, and basket lunch.”
1899—The Prince Hall Masons planned an excursion train for an Emancipation Day picnic in Fremont on July 10, 1899. Holding 250 passengers from Omaha, there were estimates of another 250 joining “from other directions.”
There were several years without any mention of Emancipation Day in the newspaper.
1901—In September, there was a short blurb in the Omaha World-Herald about an Emancipation Day celebration in Council Bluffs. Featuring Rev. J. W. Cluke from Omaha’s Mount Pisgah Baptist Church, there were also addresses by judges and ministers from Council Bluffs. About 100 people attended. In 1902, special excursion trains from Omaha took revelers to Nebraska City for celebrations “in due and approved style.” There were several bands, good speakers, a balloon ascension and competitions. Other trains came from Lincoln and Atchison, Kansas, and was marked to “be the biggest celebration ever attempted by the colored people of this state.” According to the paper, bout 50 people attended from Omaha.
1906—A grand parade finally was reported in Omaha again in September 1906. With 500 onlookers, African Americans marched from Jefferson Square to 15th and Howard Streets with the Omaha Military Band, which was made of African American musicians. Streetcars then took revelers to Hibbler’s Park, a private facility at 44th and Leavenworth Street. Rev. J. A. Bingaman of Zion Baptist Church was the master of ceremonies, with J. F. Bruce as the parade marshal. Mayor James Dahlman delivered the opening speech, and Rev. G. W. Wright of Mount Moriah, Silas Robbins, Fred L. Smith and John G. Pegg gave other speeches. Big meals were served to about 500 people at the park, and speaking was done around 5pm. After a large BBQ dinner was served, the Omaha Music Union Band played starting at 9pm. The event was so important the newspaper wrote a feature on it, including several photos and a large, bold banner.
1907 & 1908—A celebration was held in December 1907 in Council Bluffs, and in 1908, an African American social club called the People’s Mutual Interest Club held a celebration at Riverview Park for about 300 people. A dinner was served, and the women played a game of baseball. Formal speeches were given by Pinkett, who presided over the gathering and read the Emancipation Proclamation. W. J. Johnson spoke, and North Omaha’s architect Clarence Wigington followed him with a brief speech.
1909—The World-Herald declared “today is the Fourth of July for the colored race in America,” and there was another large celebration in September, 1909. The city’s auditorium was the scene for “several hundred” African Americans and “a small scattering of white people.” They listened to US Senators E. J. Burkett and Norris Brown, along with Mayor Dahlman, A. W. Jeffers, and Dr. Ricketts, who came back from his new home in Missouri. The Dan Desdunes Band played, and attorney Harrison J. Pinkett was the master of ceremonies. Mrs. Othello Roundtree led the North Omaha Women’s Club in providing lunches for the participants, and a 50-person choir opened the festivities. Pinkett led the event, with invocations led by Rev. Wright from Mount Moriah. Mayor Dahlman’s speech eulogized Abraham Lincoln, whose face was featured above the stage in a large oil painting. Senator Brown read the Emancipation Proclamation, and declared there was “no race problem.” Senator Burkett lectured the crowd and demanded they “do something; accomplish something… Times are as good as when your father was a boy.” Dr. Ricketts wouldn’t stand for that though, and during his speech he said,
“You have the race problem right here in Omaha… and you will always have it as long as there is discrimination between the races. You will have it as long as privileges are extended to a white woman, no matter what her morals may be, when you deny the same to the brightest, best educated and most cultured women of the negro race.
I declare that the same opportunities are not open to the individuals of my race. We are barred from them because of the prejudice of the white man. We do not contend for social equality, but we do contend for civil dignity and civil rights.”
—Dr. Matthew O. Ricketts, as quoted in “Emancipation Day duly celebrated” in the Omaha World-Herald, September 23, 1909.
After the speeches, the Mutual Interest Club and the Desdunes Amusement Company performed for a ball with 300 attendees. The paper said it “was one of the most brilliant affairs of the kind ever held in the city.” The program was printed on fine, heavy paper with Abraham Lincoln embossed on one side and American flags slathered across the other.
The Omaha Bee reveled in a controversy affecting the 1909 celebrations. They gleefully announced in a front page article that several North Omaha ministers were resentful about being named as supporters of the Emancipation Day dance that year. Rev. W. S. Dyett of St. John’s AME and Rev. John Albert Williams of St. Phillips Episcopal Church were listed among 25 others as members of the organizing committee, when apparently they had never agreed to participate. Apparently, the AME was highly opposed to dancing and couldn’t support the Grand Ball that evening. The two ministers were seen walking around the community pasting over their names on posters advertising the events.
1910 & 1911—Hibbler’s Park hosted a smaller-sounding gathering in 1910, and then in 1911 there was another large celebration. That year crowds gathered at the Golden Sheaf Park, a small private park at North 24th and Patrick Streets that was bought in 1910 by the Golden Sheaf Tabernacle. Led by acting mayor Louis Berka, others joined including Judge Ben S. Baker, Vic Rosewater, John L. Kennedy, and John Grant Pegg. The newspaper reported the audience was made of mostly women, since the event happened in the middle of the afternoon when men were working. After the politicians left, a large BBQ fundraiser was held that raised $127 to help Golden Sheaf Tabernacle pay off the cost of the park.
1913—The Knights and Daughters of Tabor hosted Emancipation Day celebrations in Omaha on September 22nd, 1913. The African American social organization held speeches, a big BBQ and other activities at North 24th and Patrick Street. The featured speaker was Frank Walker, a 100-year-old former slave. Also speaking were Judge Lee S. Estelle, James B. Wootan, John Grant Pegg and Mayor Dahlman. African American students were released from school that afternoon to attend the event.
1921—The governor of Nebraska, Samuel R. McKelvie, spoke at the 1921 Emancipation Day celebrations in Krug Park. St. John’s AME Church hosted the event, with a parade, Dan Desdunes Band, sports events and a BBQ on the program. According to the Omaha Bee, the event was used as a fundraiser to raise money for St. John’s new $100,000 church building. The World-Herald reported that,
“…many employers of negroes let them have the day off as a holiday.”
—From “Negroes celebrate Emancipation Day” in the Omaha World-Herald, September 13, 1921.
Then in September 1922, Mayor Dahlman signed a proclamation urging Omaha employers to give their African American employees half of the day off on Emancipation Day.
1923, 1924 & 1925—Governor Bryan spoke at a large Krug Park gathering in 1923. A parade downtown was following by a BBQ, sports events and the governor’s speech. The next year in 1924, 1,400 people joined in the events that began at St. John’s AME Church and went to Krug Park, then included speakers, a BBQ, dancing and the crowning of three queens. In 1925, there were 1,500 people gathered at Krug Park for Emancipation Day celebrations. They were led by attorney and Rev. John Adams, Sr. of St. John’s AME, who spoke about emancipation and the end of slavery. The chairman of the events was James A. Clarke, and the event was sponsored by St. John’s AME. Beforehand, a parade including the U. K. T. Band and several floats went through downtown Omaha. A similar program happened in 1926, including the parade and the crowning of the queen. For the first time, the write-up mentioned old-timers talking about past Emancipation Day celebrations in Omaha.
1927—This year featured several articles in the Omaha World-Herald that practically begged of Omahans to let African Americans leave work to celebrate Emancipation Day. Mentioning a big picnic, speaking and athletic events, the mayor of Chicago was scheduled to speak, too. The Krug Park events included an African Methodist Episcopal Bishop, a sermon by Omaha’s Rev. John Adams, a basket picnic, Dan Desdunes Band, and a 150-person choir.
In September 1928, a Black-owned newspaper in Omaha called The Monitor editorialized,
“It is quite right that Emancipation Day should be fittingly observed. That our people were once enslaved is nothing to be ashamed of. There have been several others, Anglo-Saxon, Greek and Roman, none excepted. It should be regarded as a community affair. For several years now a date in September has been selected for its observance in this city. It was inaugurated and conducted primarily as a commercial enterprise of the benefit of one institution. This brought just criticism. This year a sincere effort by a committee to make it a community affair. This committee invited the cooperation of all classes and organizations. They did not get it; but they tried to do so, and this is to their credit. They have moved in the right direction. September 11 is the day set for the Emancipation Day celebration and we sincerely hope that it may be a decided success, pointing the way to larger and better observance in the coming years.
—From “Emancipation Day,” in The Monitor, September 7, 1928
1931—6,000 people were expected to attend the 1931 Emancipation Day events at Krug Park. A 50 car parade led people to the park. Speeches were given that day by Omaha Mayor Metcalf and others. Prizes for events were sponsored by St. John’s AME, and included a loving cup, a ton of coal, sacks of flour and several hams.
1932—The 70th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was celebrated in September 1932 at the city auditorium. The mayor spoke again, along with Dr. John Singleton and H. L. Anderson. Dr. Wesley Jones was the master of ceremonies. The St. John’s AME choir performed, along with the Desdunes Band.
On January 12, 1933, the Omaha Urban League produced an Emancipation Day program for KOIL radio.
1934—A Krug Park program was mentioned in the paper in September 1934, but no details were provided. After that, there was no mention of Emancipation Day for several years. In 1938, radical change happened.
The New Afro-American Day
1938—Inviting African Americans from across the Midwest to attend a gathering at Omaha’s Krug Park on September 10, 1938, the new Black newspaper called the Omaha Star was an ambitious sponsor of that year’s Emancipation Day celebrations. Rebranded as “Afro-American Day,” the newspaper anticipated 20,000 participants and suggested civic organizations, clubs, fraternities, civic groups, churches and others promote the event and take part. A massive parade made of dozens of entries was planned with a police escort leading it, followed by massive activities at Krug Park. There were rides, a swing contest featuring two bands, prominent speakers, and prizes awaiting attendees. There was also free ice cream and free admittance to the park. Attendance was high, speakers were vivacious, and free ice cream was enjoyed by hundreds of children at the gathering.
1940—The Star apparently continued sponsoring gatherings for the next few years. In 1940, the newspaper sponsored a gala day with band music, ball games, speeches and free ice cream at Fontenelle Park. African Americans from surrounding Midwestern cities were invited, and there was an evening event at the pavillion. Two African American officers with the Omaha Police Department led the parade that year, and were followed by representatives of the American Legion Roosevelt Post #30, and were followed by the “Negro Fire Department Company.” The Works Progress Administration, or WPA, Band played, and dozens of other organizations joined. There was also an Afro-American Day ball that evening, along with speeches, a performance by a large choir, and a performance by the WPA Band from 8:30 to 11:30.
However, at some point the celebrations stopped. In September 1943, there was a letter to the editor of the Omaha World-Herald that remorsed,
“Wednesday was Emancipation Day and 99 out of one hundred never knew it, or that we used to have big parades and meetings with speeches on this day.”
—From “Town Tattler” in the Omaha World-Herald, September 23, 1943
Starting in September 1947, there were a number of advertisements in the Omaha Star celebrating the emancipation of African Americans from slavery.
In September 1953, the World-Herald reported on Emancipation Day at the Iowa State Penitentiary. “They start planning about two months in advance,” the warden reported. “They organize their own committees, usually headed by… a lifer, and make all their own plans.” There was no comment or report on any event in Omaha though. A similar article appeared in the September 27, 1957 edition of the Omaha Star.
On January 1, 1959, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. scheduled a Pilgrimage of Prayer for Public Schools nationwide to celebrate Emancipation Day that day. Fueling “massive resistance” nationwide, the Omaha Star featured the action and promoted joint action. As a “day of prayer and sacrifice for the sufferings of all oppressed people,” King called on ministers to move forward. Although they were direct in their reporting, the Star didn’t report on much of what happened in Omaha. The newspaper did report that Corinth Baptist Church had an Emancipation Day service on that day, including reading the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 1962, the newspaper reported that the US Congress was taking up a resolution to designate September 22, 1962, as Emancipation Proclamation centennial day. There was no report on how Omaha or its representatives responded, and the legislation didn’t pass. That November, the NAACP Youth Council sponsored a meeting at the Near North YMCA to plan a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation the next year. There were no mentions of activities in the papers for several years after that article.
1968—In the late 1960s, Emancipation Day came back into the spotlight in Omaha. With the longstanding Civil Rights movement, the previous summer’s rioting on North 24th Street, and the growing Black Power movement, the Omaha NAACP selected January 1, 1968 as the right timing for Omaha’s Emancipation Day celebrations. Musical performanced by the Salem Baptist Church Youth Choir, Mt. Calvary Community Choir and the Bethel Baptist Choir were scheduled, and Rev. J. C. Wade of Salem was designated as the master of ceremonies.
1975—Dr. J. Andrew Thompson was the pastor at Corinth Memorial Baptist Church when they held an Emancipation Day service on January 1, 1975. Guest choirs and speakers from several Baptist congregations joined them, including Mt. Nebo and Pilgrim.
The Great Plains Black History Museum sponsored a research trip with five carloads of participants to attend the Hutchinson, Kansas Emancipation Proclamation Day celebration in August 1978. Researchers attended rodeos, interviewed participants, and a disco dance. They also went to a parade attended by white and Black people, as well as a community picnic with 1,000 attendees.
Becoming Juneteenth in Omaha
Emancipation Day has evolved throughout the years, and today is known as Juneteenth, Emancipation Celebration, Freedom Day, and Jun-Jun. The day marks two important dates:
The first is June 19, 1862, when Congress prohibited slavery in all current and future United States territories (though not in the states), and President Lincoln quickly signed the legislation the same day.
The second was the announcement of the end of slavery in Texas that happened on June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, and is recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in forty-five states.
1977-1984—The first celebration of Juneteenth in Omaha happened in 1977. The Woodson Center—originally established as the Omaha Negro Cultural Center—celebrated the seventh annual Juneteenth Emancipation Day Picnic on June 17, 1984 at Woodson Park at 3014 Jefferson Street. Entertainment and prizes were provided for the potluck, which was held from noon to 6pm. Dr. Rodney S. Wead of the United Methodist Community Centers was the main speaker for the event. He said,
“It is not enough to simply involved Black people and other oppressed minorities into the structures of existing society as those systems continue to press… We are all missionaries committed to standing with the poor inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
—Dr. Rodney S. Wead, as quoted in the Omaha Star, June 28, 1984.
1987—The Omaha Star announced that a “Juneteenth Committee” received broad support across from across the community in 1987. The city’s police, fire and parks departments joined the parade, along with churches, businesses, the Salem Stepping Saints, American Legion, Cookie’s Pride Drill Team, Shriners and others. Governor Kay Orr and Mayor Bernie Simon issued proclamations in support of the Juneteenth Emancipation Celebration Week, with sponsorships from the Urban League of Nebraska and the Charles Crew Health Center.
1989—The Omaha NAACP chapter has sponsored the city’s Emancipation Day celebrations since 1989. That year, it was held at Corinth Memorial Baptist Church on January 12. With the goal of focusing its attention on the NAACP and the status of Black people, there was a forum and Q&A session. They did the same again in 1993.
1999—The tenth NAACP Juneteenth celebration in Omaha happened in June 1999. With events at the Heartland of America Park downtown following a parade, Councilman Frank Brown was the Grand Marshall of the events. The Negro National Anthem was sang by Celeste Webster, and guitarist Grover Lipkins performed the Star Spangled Banner. There were also performances by West African dancers, gospel groups, the Sons of Thunder, Echoes of Melody, Ges Werk, Rhythm City, and Decision. Know Thyself Production also performed an Egyptian play.
2008—In 2008, the Charles B. Washington Branch Library hosted a Juneteenth celebration called the June Family Fair, including live music, a puppet play, a petting zoo, face painting and clowns, moonwalks, carnival rides, live music and more. Book displays featured Black history, and families were encouraged to bring lawn chairs and enjoy the evening. The Dixon Family Foundation supported the event, and Friends of the Omaha Public Library sponsored it too.
2009—The Juneteenth flag was raised at the Charles B. Washington Branch Library on June 12, 2009. Several important community members attended, and Rev. Frederick McCullough of St. John’s AME gave a prayer. There was a week of activities planned, including church services, a national prayer breakfast, and a parade. The NAACP named Rudy Smith as the Grand Marshall of the Juneteenth Parade that year, celebrating his lifelong service in the Civil Rights movement as a photographer and more.
In the last decade, the Nebraska State Legislature passed resolutions supporting celebrating Juneteenth statewide. In the last several years, several organizations throughout North Omaha have sponsored and participated in Juneteenth celebrations, including the Great Plains Black History Museum; the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation; the Charles B. Washington Branch Omaha Public Library; the Sidedoor Lounge; Carver Bank; St. John’s AME Church; the Elks Club; and others. There have also been parades, NAACP Juneteenth Community BBQs, a family fair and more.
2015—The Charles B. Washington Branch Library has continued hosting their Juneteenth celebration called the June Family Fair, with another in 2015. It featured music, bounce houses, face painting, snacks and more. It was free and ran from 1 to 4:30 p.m.
As this article shows, there have been Emancipation Day celebrations in Omaha since at least 1891. There are several unanswered questions though:
The earliest Emancipation Day celebrations were held in Washington, DC in 1864. Why did it take almost 30 years for the first celebration to happen in Omaha?
Why were early celebrations held in Council Bluffs and not Omaha? Iowa was a more racially progressive state than Nebraska; were there explicit threats to gathering in Omaha? Or was it about the size of the cities and their African American populations: Council Bluffs was on parity with Omaha for several years; were the celebrations there out of sheer size?
Why was Mayor Dahlman apparently so supportive of Emancipation Day? He was a known stooge in the pocket of Tom Dennison; were his politics purely corruption? Was his support of Black people purely self-serving?
What happened in the interceding years when there weren’t reports of Emancipation Day celebrations in Omaha? Did the gatherings happen and go unreported? Were they suspended intentionally or coincidentally?
As Omaha’s African American community continues evolving today, respecting and learning from Omaha’s Black history is essential for white people. Its also important to understand how history affects today, including the history of slavery in Omaha. For instance, its important we know that due to the work of North Omaha’s Senator Justin Wayne, in 2020 Nebraska voters will get the chance to stop allowing people to become slaves as punishment for crimes. Slavery still isn’t illegal in Nebraska!
Today, there is no plaque, historical marker or other commemoration marking Emancipation Day, Juneteenth or the Emancipation Proclamation in Omaha.
Junior’s Forgot Store Bar and Grill is located at 11909 Calhoun Road in the Ponca Hills, just beyond the Florence neighborhood in North Omaha. A community icon, it’s been open in some form for at least 120 years. This is a history of the place.
According to an article in the Omaha World-Herald archives, the Forgot Store was open in 1894.
In 1904, a local newspaper report gladly announced,
“Out on the banks of Ponca creek, about three miles north of Florence, Neb., there is a store that must be a source of joy to the farmer who has been to town to make purchases, and who, when on his way home, finds that he has forgotten something that the folks at the farm need badly. It has a sign, a crude one, compared to some of the city signs, that tells one it is the ‘Forgot Store.'”
Neighborhood grocery stores dot neighborhoods throughout Omaha, and even more so in the past. For a long time, people in the Ponca Hills loved their grocery called the Forgot Store. Located at the intersection of the Ponca Road and Calhoun Road, the Forgot Store supposedly got its name because it was the last place to get something on your way out of town in case you forgot it.
“…a Mecca for all those who pass by and have failed to remember things.”
C. S. Erikson owned it next. In the early 1920s, the building was called a roadhouse and its ownership was held as suspicious. An Omaha policeman was suspended for being a partner in the criminal enterprise, since it was used as a flophouse. However, by the late 1920s a retired doctor, Dr. Harvey Pritchard, owned it and ran it as a regular store again. He was well-respected in the community, and in Wisner, Nebraska, where he was practiced. The Cullens and the Hunts owned it afterward.
From 1975 to 1993, Mike Hickey and his wife Darlene owned the store. Long involved in the Ponca Hills neighborhood, the Hickeys were volunteers at the fire department and well respected. Junior Mathiesen, former owner of the Anchor Inn, owns it today.
As recently as 2016, Junior’s Forgot Store Bar and Grill has hosted benefits for various causes and is still an active meeting place for the community. Despite receiving some poor reviews online, the Forgot Store is held in high regard within the community and respected for its history.
In my research, I found four features about the Forgot Store in the Omaha World-Herald since 1904, including one from March 2019. Despite its roll in the community and age, there are no historical plaques, designations from the City of Omaha Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission as an official Omaha Landmark, or listing on the National Register of Historic Places for the building.
Located along the J. J. Pershing Drive and going north to the Blair Low Road, the bridge over the Ponca Creek was likely one of the first funded in Nebraska. There was mention of it being built in 1856 when other vital bridges were being constructed in the Nebraska Territory. The Ponca Road is not only road in the area, it is one of the most important to the Ponca Hills region of North Omaha.
The Ponca Road, located just beyond the bridge, is probably older than Omaha. Early reports from European settlers in the area talked about a “Indian trail” going alongside the Ponca Creek, moving along the bottom of the valley in the same way the road does today.
Once home to the Ponca School, a quick jog to the Shipley Cemetery and other fixtures along its path, the Ponca Road was an important place for a long time. The Forgot Store served as an anchor for the surrounding area for more than 75 years, and today is a fun bar for people throughout the community.
In the 1910s, it became a vibrant path for “autoists” from Omaha who liked the far-out feeling of the journey, its shady curves and beautiful hillsides, and other features. In 1919, a near-riot broke out when Ponca Hills farmers first organized against the new-fangled cars that were driving loads of instant thieves by their farms to shoot chickens, steal from their smokehouses and rip off their orchards. The farmers posted signs, waved down cars and stopped the calamities long enough for the newspaper to stop reporting on it.
In September 1909, the Ponca Improvement Club held its first meeting at the Forgot Store to talk about fixing the roads in the area. More than 50 farmers in the area gathered and the treasurer collected more than $18 in initiation fees. The invitation fee was set at $.50 and dues were paid $.15 every three months. Roads were slowly improved afterwards. Within a year, county commissioners were taking bids to improve the Loop road, and the farmers were pleased. That same year, Douglas County awarded a contract to J. W. Williams to move 10,000 pounds of dirt from the surface of the road in preparation for other improvements.
Those improvements came soon. When early roads were being paved around Omaha, the Ponca Road was covered in light gravel in a process called macademization. Eventually, it was paved too and then not remembered as anything special.
For a little while though, the road was called “The Loop” and was thought of highly. In 1921, there was a brief conversation about the State of Nebraska contributing money for the paving of a road between the Calhoun Road where it converges with Ponca Road, all the way south and east to the Florence Boulevard. Apparently this was never done, because no such road exists.
There was a period in the early 20th century when sites along Ponca Road were the location of serious archeological research into the history of Native American villages and housing before European contact in the region. These sites serve as precursors to the nearby locations of Fort Lisa, Cabànne’s Postand other transitional contact sites.
Today, the Ponca Road is a nice address to have in North Omaha. Meandering easily through a pleasant wooded rural area, it feels a world apart from Omaha, and its history lends to that feeling. While no historical markers or designation on the National Register of Historic Places honor its legacy, plenty of people have a lot of history on this fine drive.
Mount Moriah Baptist Church was founded in 1886, and moved to North Omaha in 1911. Originally called Mount Pisgah Baptist Church, it has been at North 24th and Ohio Streets since 1924. Today, Mount Moriah is the oldest African American Baptist church in Omaha.
Founding Mount Pisgah
The Baptist Church opened its first building in Omaha in 1866 at 12th and Jackson. Breaking into two new congregations soon afterwards, one new congregation was called Zion Baptist Church and moved to the Near Northside neighborhood. The other stayed at 12th and Jackson and was named Mount Pisgah Baptist Church.
The church changed its name to Mount Moriah the next year. Located at 1123 Jackson Street, the church was embroiled in controversy when a member accused the minister of attacking her in 1895. After confessing she lied, the congregation continued its services and growth. The next year, in 1896, the newspaper reveled in telling the story of a church member called Mrs. Covington who, in her excitement during a prayed, accidentally punched a fellow worshipper in the nose. This was Sister Phelps, and after the blood stopped flowing and the excitement died down, it was determined she had a broken nose. Mrs. Covington was sent home, and Mrs. Phelps kept praying. That year, Rev. G. W. Woodbey, Rev. J. Jones and Rev. J. W. Wilson preached at the church. Rev. Robert January was the minister there the next year.
Among its early activities going back to the 1880s and 90s, the church worshipped, conducted Bible study, led choirs, held church picnics, and provided public entertainment on holidays including Thanksgiving and in the summer.
A railway cook and hotel worker named Rev. George W. Wright was pastor of the church in 1907. Featured in a “Church news and topics” feature that year, he was highlighted for his vigorous fundraising, which raised $2,800 for a new church within a year of his arrival. That year, the church applied for a permit to build a new sanctuary at North 26th and Maple Streets. Wright continued his ministerial studies at the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary while he was at Mount Moriah. Wright preached at the annual Emancipation Day celebration for a few years, and was widely acknowledged as an important leader in the community.
In 1911, Mount Moriah’s congregation bought the former First German Baptist Church at North 26th and Seward Streets. The church moved into this building quickly. Two years later, the community was fortunate the congregation was in place and ready to respond after the Easter Day 1913 tornado ravaged the surrounding neighborhood. Acting as a shelter and relief center for African Americans in the deeply segregated Near North Side neighborhood, Mount Moriah stayed open to victims for a few months after the storm. That year, the church was led by Rev. Toomey from Davenport, Iowa.
Rev. W. E. D. Claybrook, D. D. was the pastor at Mount Moriah in 1915.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, there were regular revivals held by the congregation at its church. In 1916, revivalist Rev. M. H. Wilkinson of Salt Lake City came to preach several times, which led to him becoming a minister at the church. The next year, Rev. G. W. Robinson of Des Moines led revivals. Omaha’s Black churches started meeting in union services as early as 1916. Rev. Wilkinson preached to the gathering at St. John’s AME.
In 1923, the church took part in “Race Relations Sunday,” an annual national event sponsored by the National Federation of Churches. Rev. E. H. McDonald spoke to a gathering of 500 people, but there was no account for how many were African Americans and how many were white.
Opening a New Church
According to the Omaha World-Herald, the congregation started a capital campaign to build a new church in 1918. Within a month, they’d collected almost $1,500, which was worth almost $23,000 in 2018. Rev. M. H. Wilkinson led the pledging, and the campaign moved quickly between August and November.
In May 1919, a newspaper article featured the sale of the the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on the northwest corner of 24th and Ohio to Mount Moriah Baptist Church. Specifying that possession would happen in a year, the report said the congregation planned to build a new building when it secured the lot.
Rev. G. W. Day was leading the church as they began growing rapidly in 1924, and that year Mount Moriah moved to 24th and Ohio Streets. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints built a wooden building on the lot in 1911, and after it was damaged by the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado, they repaired the building and rededicated in 1916. They were ready to move again, and Mount Moriah finally owned their new lot.
Starting in the early 1920s, Mount Moriah became an important site for the Civil Rights movement when they began hosting meetings for different organizations, including the new NAACP chapter. The church also participated in collecting pledges for the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund. In 1930, the church hosted the 13th Annual Session of the New Era Association of Baptist Churches. Rev. F. P. Jones was a minister there at the time, and Omaha’s NAACP chapter continued meeting there through the 1930s. Eventually a politician, medical missionary and popular physician, Dr. Aaron McMillan‘s father was a minister at Mount Moriah in the 1920s, drawing his son to move there from out of state. Dr. McMillan would eventually lead Omaha’s NAACP as president for several years, and spoke to gatherings at the church parsonage several times in the 1940s.
Despite being the midst of the Great Depression, in June of that year Mount Moriah announced they were building a sanctuary, renovating the basement into classrooms and expanding their space dramatically, making 1934 a massive growing year for the congregation. The exterior was red cobble stones and brick, along with white wood trim across the entire space. During the 1930s, the church was regularly cited as being one of the most involved congregations in the Omaha church leadership training school. An ecumenical, integrated gathering, Mount Moriah was among the churches that always sent the most attendees. In 1938, the congregation was instrumental in a massive joint performance by the church choirs of 15 Black churches. Held in Central High’s auditorium, more than 250 people participated, with 1,500 attendees taking in the show. That year, the congregation also hosted the 21st annual gathering of the New Era Association of Baptist Churches, with dozens of representatives attending from 9 neighboring states.
The ’30s weren’t without challenges though: In 1936, a complete communion set was robbed from the church by a burglar, and never recovered. It was valued at $45. That year, Rev. E. P. Jones and Rev. J. S. Williams led the congregation. Rev. G. A. Burke came from Sioux City to lead the congregation in 1938.
Mount Moriah has been home to many notable members and ministers in the past. They included July Miles, the last remaining African-American Civil War veteran and the oldest ex-Union Pacific employee in Omaha. He passed away in 1941.
In 1946, the church hosted E. E. Strong, vice-president of the National Negro Congress, for a visit to North Omaha. Rev. David St. Clair was pastor in 1961.
From 1963 to 1971, Rev. Foster Goodlett (1920-1981) was the pastor at the church. Goodlett was also Duane Peak’s grandfather, and was questioned by the FBI when his grandson was arrested related to the murder of an Omaha policeman in 1970. From his seat at Mount Moriah, Rev. Goodlett helped host “one of the largest conventions ever held in Omaha” in 1970. From June 22 to 27, more than 14,000 Baptist Sunday school officials from across the country. The next year he became pastor emeritus at the church, continuing to preach at Mount Nebo Baptist until he passed away at age 91.
From 1989 to 2002, Rev. Larry C. Menyweather-Woods was pastor of the congregation. In addition to leading the congregation, he held positions in the Urban League of Nebraska, the NAACP, and the nonprofit North Omaha Renaissance Development Corporation. He also served as an adjunct professor of Black Studies at UNO and of theology at Creighton. The church hosted an annual music performance workshop annually for several years in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 2009, Rev. Ralph B. Lassiter, Sr. hosted a “Week of Revival,” similar to the events began by the church a century earlier. In 2010, Rev. Rodney Haynes chaired a conference on young adult ministry at the church. Under Rev. Lassiter’s leadership, in early 2019, the Risen Son Baptist Church merged with Mount Moriah. Rev. Lassiter celebrated his
Community Outreach & Social Justice
Throughout its history, Mount Moriah has continued hosting a variety of social outreach activities. Its early leadership in the Civil Rights movement and hosting of early NAACP meetings proved this as early as the 1920s. Recently, it developed senior housing in North Omaha. The congregation also has had successful gospel choirs and other rich worship experiences.
4CL, or the Citizens Civic Committee for Civil Liberties, met regularly at Mount Moriah. The vanguard of Omaha’s Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s, 4CL regularly gathered North Omaha’s most important leaders and activists. In 1967, Mount Moriah’s minister, Rev. Goodlett founded the Omaha Opportunities Industrialization Center, or OOIC.
One of the church’s most popular outreach activities began more than 35 years ago. On November 27, 1980, Rev. C. Balus Knox, Jr. led the congregation in providing a Thanksgiving Dinner for “those who can’t provide their own,” including “the poor, the sick and senior citizens not able to cook for themselves.” The congregation also delivered meals to shut-ins. Since then, Mount Moriah has provided thousands of Thanksgiving dinners throughout the years. The community has supported them with donations and volunteer labor, and they continue annually. In 2013, the dinner included more than 600 meals.
In 1989, the church started hosting Cocaine Anonymous meetings that served more than 100 adults weekly.
Christmas in the Village is an annual community outreach event in the 24th and Lake Historic District. Mount Moriah has been an integral partner since at least 2013, providing a display of live animals from the Nativity and more.
Since moving there in 1924, the building has changed in many ways. In 1925, a fire forced the congregation to rebuild extensively. A new sanctuary was added above the original structure in 1956, and in 1962 church offices and classrooms were added in an annex to the building. In May 1983, the church announced plans to build a new facility at North 72nd and Redick Avenue. Holding at least two services on the site, apparently the plan never came to fruition. The sanctuary was renovated in 2012, and the Fellowship Hall was renovated two years later in 2014. There was also a new accessible entrance added to the building that year.
Recently the church opened the Moriah Heritage Center. Through visual ecumenical history and displays, the center presents the history of African American churches in North Omaha and provides a venue for the presentation of arts, music and culture.
Today, Mount Moriah Baptist Church continues as one of the oldest Black churches in Omaha. With a history reaching back more than 130 years, its future looks bright.
For more than 35 years, North Omaha’s historian was Matthew Stelly (1954-2019). A determined advocate, organizer and agitator, Stelly was known throughout Omaha as a powerful force for community change. He spoke as the community conscience, worked tirelessly for Black empowerment, and demanded respect. This is a short biography of his life.
By his own count, Matthew Stelly wrote more than 2,500 articles during his career and won two national essay competitions. The founding director of the largest African-American neighborhood group in Nebraska, he guided the Triple One Neighborhood Association and Parents Union for more than 20 years and published the organization’s two-time nationally recognized newsletter. Throughout his life, Stelly was actively involved in community organizing and neighborhood development in several cities, including Dallas, Milwaukee and Omaha.
He was the son of Matthew and Clariece Stelly, and born in Hastings, Nebraska, on December 10, 1954. After graduating from high school in the early 1970s, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Black Studies from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. As he wrote in 2014,
“I was a key in that department as a student, as an instructor and created the ‘Julien Lafontant Perpetual Trophy.’ I was the one who linked the campus and the community, and played a major role in everything ‘black’ that was happening on campus from 1977-1981. I am the ONLY person, black or white, to have a weekly column in 5 straight semesters of The Gateway newspaper.”
Stelly took doctoral classes in Sociology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in Urban/Regional Planning from University of Iowa, and Urban Education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
According to the Omaha World-Herald, in 1978 Stelly began working to set up a chapter of the Pan-African Congress in the city. It was in this time period when he began writing articles for Omaha’s long-standing African American newspaper called the Omaha Star. In 1981, he worked for Mutual of Omaha, and in 1982, Stelly was awarded UNL’s Graduate Professional Opportunity Program Minority Fellowship. The following year he began graduate teaching at UNL. He became the executive director at the Malone Community Center in Lincoln in 1984, working there for a year. That year, the Omaha Star named him the focus of their “Star Search” column. The interviewer lauded him as a vital and important Black activist, and featured his biography and work in Lincoln, as well as his prior writing for the Star. The National Council of Black Studies acknowledged Stelly’s writings in the field of Black Studies in 1986.
By 1987, Stelly moved to Milwaukee where he taught at a community college for a year. After being awarded “Teacher of the Year” and was named co-winner of “Advisor of the Year” at Milwaukee Technical Community College, he was not invited back the following year. After that he worked as an editor and columnist at the Milwaukee Courier newspaper for five years from 1988 to 1993. He ran a community access show in Milwaukee called “Black Nouveau” from 1989 to 1990, and served on the Inner City Arts Council-Public Affairs Committee there in 1989. In 1989, the Chicago Tribune quoted Stelly as saying he, “founded the Black College Recruitment Association because he believes black students have not been served well by white colleges.”
From 1988 to 1992, Stelly also ran a company in Milwaukee called One Black Man’s Opinion Productions, Inc. In 1992, he organized Milwaukee’s first-ever Inner City Economic Development Conference, and the first-ever Tri-City Summit. He also hosted a talk show on WNOV Radio in Milwaukee from 1988 to 1992.
By 1993, Stelly was back in Omaha as an instructor at UNO. After consulting the Great Plains Black History Museum in 1993, he founded Triple One Neighborhood Association and Parents Union, or TONAPU, in 1994. Stelly published a regular TONA newsletter, let his views be known throughout Omaha, and regularly advocated for the neighborhood. He operated the association until his death.
Turn Of The Millennium
In 1997, he ran for Omaha City Council, but was forced out of the race because of residency requirements. Stelly organized the first-ever North Omaha Empowerment Conference in 2004, and two others afterwards. It was 2010 when Stelly self-published The Spook Who Sat By the Door Revisited: A 38-Year Retrospective on Race, Rioting, and Relevant Response. This 80-page booklet was a response to Sam Greenlee’s 1969 movie of the same name, and shared his interviews and reflections on how the movie and the movement succeeded and failed.
In the early 2000s, Stelly founded and published The Omaha Crusader, a Black newspaper featuring culture, news and sports. For a few years, he was based in Dallas, Texas, where he ran a company called Edu-Culture Consultants. During that era of his life, Stelly was also the director of the Plano African American Museum, and lead archivist for The Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas.
Around 2006, Bertha Calloway named Stelly the interim executive of the Great Plains Black History Museum. In 2010, Stelly organized or co-organized three large events in the community. The first was the Self-Empowerment Festival at St. Paul Baptist Church for the TONAPU. In a separate Self Empowerment Conference he facilitated later that year at the OOIC, Stelly invited Ernie Chambers to keynote. Other presenters included Ira Combs, Ziggy Thomas and Michael Payne, among others. Audience members met one-on-one with Stelly to focus on creating small businesses and nonprofits, and applying for college. A third conference that year featured John Beasley, as well as neighborhood leader Cheryl Williams and others. Stelly wrote an article in the Star, saying about Chambers and Beasley, “Both men are the personification of self-empowerment and success on their own terms.”
That same year, Stelly started the Uhuru Sasa Research Institute and published more articles in the Omaha Star. According to Stelly, Uhuru was the only African-American think tank in Nebraska, and expanded to the cities of Milwaukee, Iowa City, Minneapolis and Dallas as he moved between them. Through this organization, he offered archival assistance, strategic management of cultural heritage information, conference and event planning, project design, assistance with written reports of all types.
In 2015, he completed writing a self-published book called Power of the Pen – Essays From my Rear View, 1978-2015. Examining morality and skin color; guidelines for the black church; as well as his concerns about child murders in Atlanta; the neglect of African-American artists; and the impact of for-profit colleges on the fate and future of students of color; this book is essential Stelly-ism.
In 2017, Matthew Stelly published 42 books and set them up for sale on Amazon.com. Written over the prior 20 years, this was Stelly’s lifework. Focused on broad social critiques, most of the books examined topics including historic rioting in the United States, Blaxploitation, the Rat Pack, and African American women among other topics.