“This town is sick… I’m not speaking of open sores, either — nothing as simple as the ghetto on the ‘Near North Side,’ where all but a handful of 30,000 Omaha Negroes live. No, our sickness is in the bloodstream — in our inner posture. We are an undemocratic city.” – Rev. James T. Stewart, director of Social Action for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha in 1963.
Protesters with 4CL protesting in Omaha in the 1960s.
Across the United States today, there is a re-emerging awareness among white people that white privilege, structural racism, segregation, and systemic discrimination are all still hard at work in the U.S. However, people of color have never known anything but those realities.
More than a 50 years ago, a group of African American activists banded together to form a group that would challenge those structures in Omaha. The Citizens Civic Committee for Civil Liberties, called 4CL, they were focused the future of the Black community in Omaha, and for the future of democracy in the United States.
In 1947, a group of students gathered to form the De Porres Club with a Catholic priest, Father John DeMarkoe. Practicing nonviolent protest before Dr. King and the Birmingham campaign, the De Porres Club slowly folded after 4CL launched and their once-young members joined the new group.
Omaha’s civil rights movement was coordinated by 4CL, and they set the agenda for action throughout the city. They had three main goals to be achieved through the Nebraska Legislature:
To ensure equal housing opportunities
To create equal job opportunities for African Americans
To secure integrated schools through busing for all African American students.
A local newspaper covers a 4CL picket over segregation at the S.S. Kresge Co. store in downtown Omaha.
Civil Rights Campaigns
A period magazine article reported that “according to Elizabeth Davis Pittman, an attractive Negro attorney,
‘The powers in this city are not so much angry as they are resentful because it is their consciences that are being picketed.'”
Starting in 1963, 4CL held rallies around Omaha to end segregation. Picketing, stand-ins during city council meetings and other efforts were among their methods. Some of their campaigns included:
July 1963 – A pray-in is held at Omaha City Hall to promote the establishment of a local equal opportunity employment ordinance.
1963 – Rev. Rudolph McNair leads a 4CL march of 150 people against the creation of the Omaha Human Rights Commission (HRC), which was intended to placate Civil Rights activists. It didn’t work.
1963 – Desegregating Peony Park to allow African Americans to swim in the pool. It worked.
Desegregating Reed’s Ice Cream – Accepting African Americans’ money, Reed’s refused to hire African American workers. When they hired one Black person, the campaign ended.
Desegregating the local Coca Cola bottling company – Accepting African Americans’ money, Reed’s refused to hire African American workers.
Desegregating Fair Housing sing-ins
Desegregating Harkert Café
Desegregating Edholm-Sherman Laundry
Desegregating the Omaha and Council Bluffs Streetcar Company
Desegregating the S.S. Kresge Co. store
The leaders of the 4CL gathering in the 1960s.
The 4CL met regularly at Zion Baptist Church, gathering African Americans and unifying the Near North Side community. There were four pastors that led 4CL, including Rev. Rudolph McNair of Zion and Rev. R.F. Jenkins. Omaha Civil Rights leader Dorothy Eure was also active in
The City of Omaha created a “Bi-racial Committee” in 1963 in response to the 4CL being formed. The mayor appointed everyone on the committee, mostly very influential white people. They held a rally of more than 10,000 people later that year. However, the 4CL and other groups were suspicious of what became known as the Human Rights Commission, largely because they saw it as a stalling tactic.
“We integrated different places and we petitioned for jobs and open housing. We marched on city hall. We did things like this that brought about some changes. We were considered troublemakers and that’s what it takes to get the changes.”
I can’t figure out what happened to 4CL. Rev. Jenkins died in 1980. Apparently, 4CL stopped making news after 1982, when the Omaha World-Herald stopped reporting on them. The Omaha Star reported on them just a few years ago, but I can’t afford the subscription cost for their archives.
If you know any other details about the Citizens Civic Committee for Civil Liberties, please share in the comments below! Thank you!
The REST of Omaha’s Civil Rights Movement
4CL did not exist in a vacuum. Instead, it was part of a movement across the nation and throughout Omaha. Before 4CL, the DePorres Club had affected the city in many ways. At the same time 4CL was so active, the Black Panthers were organizing across the city with food outreach and summer education programs, including Omaha’s Freedom School. BANTU, or Black African Nationalism through Unity, was a youth-led anti-racism campaign active in several high schools. A LOT was happening.
On the other side, segregation continued too. According to research by David Bristow, Mister C’s was a target for the Omaha NAACP Youth Council activism, and they demonstrated until he changed the practice of discriminating against African Americans. Mister C’s refused to serve African Americans in the dining area, instead insisting they take their food at the back door and leave the facility. Other places targeted during this era included Linoma beach and Merritt beach.
While African Americans have known about police racism for more than a century, white people across the US are beginning to acknowledge the effects of legalized harassment, white privilege, systematic discrimination, the school-to-prison pipeline and other forms of white supremacy that constantly plunder communities and the entire nation of its potential, power and purpose. With a vibrant, vital, and obvious story, Vivian Strong must be remembered today.
A 14-year-old student named Vivian Strong was killed on June 26, 1969 by an Omaha policeman named James Loder.
Vivian’s sister, Carol, said in a 2009 interview that she and her sister were at a party at an empty unit in the projects. When the police showed up, Carol went to tell her sister they were there. Vivian was shocked, and fled through the back door. Carol went through the front.
Seeing a group of young people scatter and run out the back door, officer Loder drew his weapon. According to the youth, he was indiscriminate, not telling anyone to stop or freeze, or anything. Instead, he just fired his gun one time.
Vivian was shot at the base of the skull as she ran, and died immediately.
According to Buddy Hogan, a young man living in the area at the time, Loder’s partner that night was an African American patrolman named Jimmy Smith. Jimmy lived across the street from the Hilltop Housing Projects. Hogan writes that Smith tackled Loder and disarmed him after he killed Vivian.
This was the fourth summer of tension in the Near North Side neighborhood, and it was spreading up N. 24th quickly.
Soon after Vivian was killed, a crowd gathered along N. 24th, next to where the murder happened. By midnight, the crowd was so angry and focused that they started rioting. That night, two businesses owned by Jews were targeted; the next night a ten-block area was on fire.
Firefighters blasting the flames were accompanied by police riding on their trucks. In the following days, almost two dozen people were hospitalized after being attacked by the crowd. Rioting went on for three days.
Police claimed “many of the acts of violence… including sniping incidents, a firebombing, and break-ins, were more deliberate. Officials postulated that ‘militants from other cities’ had come to Omaha to participate in the violence.” Crowd sizes were reported between 100 and 1,500 participants.
Within six months, Loder was acquitted of a manslaughter charge.
Protests and More Rioting
Despite what the riots looked like and what the local media reported, there was a big commitment to peaceful protests within Omaha’s Black community. African American youth in North Omaha organized their own picketing and marches, and felt some movement because of their commitment. The youth council for Omaha eventually secured additional money for positive after school, weekend and summer activities.
However, their efforts were usually eclipsed by violence.
When the verdict came out that Loder was not going to be indicted, riots flared back up. Smashing windows, looting merchandise and lighting fires along the way, the crowds moved the riot from 23rd to 24th Streets and from Clark to Lake Street. The rioting brought “21 arrests, 88 injuries, and $750,000 in property damage.” According to national media accounts, “vandalism and looting were reported by police in an area 55 blocks long and 24 blocks wide.” Black Panthers protected Black-owned businesses with armed guards, but their abilities were limited at best.
Shortly after, martial law called when the Nebraska National Guardsmen was called in. As the violence ended, the neighborhood watched buildings smolder for the next week.
In the blink of an eye, grocery stores, hardware stores, cleaners, gas stations, and cafes were completely gone. And never replaced.
Instead, the City of Omaha bulldozed block after block, and left the empty lots as reminders of the riots. There are still vacant lots along N. 24th Street today, and the area has never recovered its once-vibrant reality.
Omaha’s Black Panthers opened the Vivian Strong Liberation School for Children the summer she was killed. However, two leaders of that movement in Omaha, David Rice (today called Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa) and Ed Poindexter, were later indicted by the FBI for murdering an Omaha policeman. Soon after, Vivian’s uncle was implicatedof being guilt for the murder of the officer, but Omaha police and others have never pursued that lead. Police gave conflicting reports at their trial. That didn’t change anything though, and they were wrongly indicted.
Mondo died in prison in 2016 after spending all these years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Ed Poindexter is still serving a sentence for the murder he didn’t commit, either.
Officer James Loder
James Lamarr Loder (1939–) was the son of an actress who was famous in the 1930s and 40s, Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000). After serving in the Air Force for eight years, he joined the Omaha Police Department. He was 30-years-old when he killed Vivian, and he hadn’t been on the police force for long. Arrested for the murder, he was released on $500 bail and suspended from the police department for 15 days. In September 1969, he when to court against charges from the Douglas County prosecutor. Six months later, he was found innocent of all charges.
Incidentally, Loder was estranged from his mother for almost his whole life. She abandoned him as a child, and when confronted with his existence, suggested he was adopted. Hedy disowned him all of the rest of her life. He was denied an inheritance after she died. In 2001, an investigation recognized his genealogy. That year he was 61-years-old and working as a security guard on the riverboat casino in Council Bluffs. He had previously taken a small settlement to stay away from the inheritance, less than many non-family inheritors.
Today, James L. Loder apparently lives in Millard near the airport. There are no monuments or historic markers designating the site of the killing, riots or telling the story of the aftermath.
Omaha’s original federally-funded public housing projects were cut from the mould. Built as long, low terrace-style apartments and as tall towers, they were well-cared for when they were filled with white people, and poorly up-kept and deeply despised when filled with African Americans. Regardless, they were home to thousands of families striving for something more, something closer to the American dream.
Once upon a time, there was a massive public housing project located at the intersection of North 24th and Paul Streets in the Near North Side neighborhood. Originally named the “Northside Village Public Housing Project,” the name was officially changed in honor of the famous Omaha tribe leader Logan Fontenelle. Starting in the late 1970s, these projects were unofficially known as “Little Vietnam”. They were called that in reference to the Vietnam War because of the violence that plagued the area for more than 25 years of their existence. They’re gone now, and many African American and white people act like they’d rather forget they ever existed.
In 1996, they were completely demolished and replaced by the mixed-income Conestoga Place neighborhood. This is a history of the Logan Fontenelle Projects.
Before there was a Logan Fontenelle Housing Project, there were houses, churches and other buildings filling this section of the Near North Side neighborhood. Located immediately north of downtown Omaha, the Near North Side is a historic district that was originally home to many European immigrant families, eventually becoming the center of Omaha’s African American culture, commerce and religious communities.
The original half of the Logan Fontenelle Projects was opened in 1938. Located at North 24th and Paul Streets, the second half was finished in 1941, finishing the final section to Clark and North 20th Street. At its peak, there were more than 550 units in the projects for more than 2,100 residents.
Built by the federal government, these projects were originally the home to hundreds of new immigrants to the United States who were coming primarily eastern European countries, including Czechs, Slovaks, German Jews and others. Fleeing the oppression of the Nazi empire, these people desperately needed places to live and the government was trying to employ people through its Depression Era agency, the Public Works Administration.
Designed for utility, the projects were built as long, two story buildings. They were wrapped around a central courtyard with a playground owned by the City of Omaha. The Omaha School District maintained the Kellom Elementary School along the southern side of the projects.
These units were applauded for giving equal housing opportunities to whites and Blacks when they first opened. However, even early on, Logan Fontenelle was called “the ghetto.”
Designed to be temporary housing, when residents couldn’t escape the tension of poverty, they were originally charged more to stay. Eventually that practice stopped, and more and more the boundaries of the projects formed barriers to move out of, instead of opportunities to move beyond.
As the European immigration ended after World War Two, white inhabitants of the projects continued to become better paid and moved out of Logan Fontenelle. The projects were still necessary though, and conditions became worse. In the 1950s, labor problems at the Omaha Stockyards and Black migration from the South brought a new rush of African Americans emigration to Omaha. The segregation that had kept Black families out of Logan Fontenelle Projects ended; however, it was replaced by segregation within the projects. There were separate units for Black families and white families, and kids weren’t allowed to play together.
Within a decade, the projects were almost entirely African American. By this point, the projects were the only modern homes available to Blacks in Omaha. Obvious from the surging Civil Rights movement in Omaha, the families in Logan Fontenelle were increasingly unhappy with the segregation, neglect, and racism they faced everyday in their neighborhood. Omaha’s police department notoriously over-policed the area, working to ensure Blacks stayed within carefully decided lines drawn by the city’s real estate, insurance, and bank industries. The neighboring Kellom school became entirely segregated shortly after African Americans moved into the projects, too.
Conditions got worse at the projects over the years. Buildings weren’t kept in good condition, as the need for low-income housing became greater, the units got packed. Too many people living in too few places in a confined area created a boiling pot of violence and righteous indignation. Despite struggling with this issue for decades, the Nebraska Legislature and Omaha Housing Authority couldn’t manage to relieve the situation.
The projects led many people to achieve and succeed, escaping the clutches of community depression, racism, and white privilege. Baseball player Bob Gibson grew up in Logan Fontenelle, just like media titan Cathy Hughes of Radio One.
Others never made it out.
Police Violence and Riots
In 1969, a police officer shot an unarmed Black youth in the head near the projects. Vivian Strong, a 14-year-old who lived in Logan Fontenelle, came to see a neighbor getting arrested by police. When police called at her and her friends, they ran away. An officer pulled out his gun and shot her dead.
After a judge found the officer not guilty, youth from the projects and surrounding neighborhood descended on the North 24th Street commercial district and started rioting. Firebombing a dozen buildings, the riot took several days to stop, with armed National Guard members eventually sending all the protesters and rioters home. This was one of four major riots that ate away North Omaha’s commercial and cultural heart.
Citizens in the projects regularly clashed with police, who alternately ignored Logan Fontenelle and over-policed the area. In a recent memoir, one Omaha policeman bragged they were allowed to keep their practices after being suspended by a chief for these practices. “Luckily for me that chief of police did not last much longer.” [*] A
Alternately though, police regularly ignored the neighborhood too. In 1988, The New York Times reported on a part of Logan Fontenelle called the crack corner for its drug deals.
With remorse by few and no obituary, the Omaha Housing Authority began demolishing the projects in 1991, and finished completely in 1995. Today, there is no plaque where they stood. There’s little acknowledgment anywhere beyond the Wikipedia article I wrote.
After being forcibly kept in the projects for more than 40 years by racist policies and practices, a group of African Americans sued the federal government for disallowing them to move from Logan Fontenelle. In 1994, they won a US Supreme Court trial called Hawkins v. Cisneros that called on the federal Housing and Urban Development agency and the Omaha Housing Authority to development options to the segregated projects.
Since then, the area was redeveloped with suburban-style single-family homes, New Urbanist-type houses, and businesses.
Redlining happens when lenders, insurers, landlords and real estate agents steer African Americans or others towards specific parts of a city that are informally or formally segregated. The history of North Omaha includes redlining starting during the 1920s, and being made illegal in the 1960s. This article explores that history, including the context in which it happened and some of the outcomes.
A Long History of Discrimination
Omaha has a long history of racism. From its earliest years, a group of vigilantes that called themselves the “Omaha Claim Club” made of the city’s recognized founding fathers forced out “undesirable” settlers. While there’s no record of their backgrounds, these unfortunate individuals were undoubtably from countries, languages, families and faiths Omaha’s good ol’ boys didn’t like. Burning out homesteads, lynching, and other forms of terrorism were used by this club for the entire first decade of the city’s history.
This is a historic drawing showing the Omaha Claim Club dunking “an obstinate Irishman” in the Missouri River.
This went on, focusing first on Italians, Irish, Czechs and Poles. The Greeks in South Omaha were burnt out of the neighborhood, while the Poles and Irish were set against each other in a fight for a church. Racism and discrimination were evident everywhere in Omaha.
Black in Omaha
After they were settled through the 1870s, the focus turned on a generation of Blacks moving to Omaha from the South. At first wrangled through the dangerous troughs of Omaha’s wide open economic and cultural systems, Southern Blacks became acclimated to the city, starting their own businesses and gaining a foothold.
Early on, living in the Near North Side neighborhood meant living among Blacks, Czechs, Scandinavians, Germans and others. Omaha’s Jewish community was located in North Omaha, with several synagogues, businesses, and other institutions spread throughout the area. Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists and others were all there as well. Long School and others had Americanization classes for all the European immigrants, and the community was a hodgepodge of ethnic and racial identities. Many groups self-segregated, while others were forced into isolation.
One of those communities was Omaha’s African American community.
The Robins Drug Store was at N. 24th and Grant Streets.
However, despite being isolated – or because of it – Blacks began to flourish in North Omaha. They rented storefronts from Jewish building owners along N. 24th, built churches and social halls, created their own institutions and soon began to flourish around Lake Street. By 1920, the Near North Omaha neighborhood was home to an “Old Colored Folks Home” and the “Colored” YWCA sponsored a group of Black Red Cross nurses. African American families shopped in Black-owned businesses, attended Black churches, sent students to Black schools, and sent the dead to Black caretakers. [Read Unity in the Community by OPS students.] They also did business with whites and Jewish people, rented homes from white landlords, and were sometimes allowed to interact with white people in downtown Omaha, despite many businesses having signs in their windows reading “No Negroes Allowed.”
Hatred Becomes Obvious
When it became obvious to the city’s white establishment that new Black doctors, lawyers and other professionals were going to succeed, they took careful steps to ensure Blacks would stay in one place and not threaten the white business foundation.
At first it was mere economic neglect after the 1913 tornado tore through much of the Black neighborhood. Businesses, houses and other institutions were never rebuilt, while white peoples’ churches and social halls took the opportunity to leave the neighborhood permanently.
Tom Dennison was Omaha’s political boss, largely responsible for getting people elected onto city council for more than 30 years. He also controlled the mayor, who for much of his reign over Omaha was “Cowboy” Jim Dahlman. Dennison, called the Old Grey Wolf, controlled the so-called Sporting District, where the sports were gambling, drinking and prostitution. He was the master criminal and crime boss of the city, too.
As early as 1890, he might have caused Omaha’s first recorded lynching of a Black man. He may have orchestrated the white riots that threatened the Near North Side in 1909. There’s no end to what he might have done.
What we know for sure is that in 1918, Dennison’s mayoral candidate, Dahlman, lost to a reformer named Edward Smith. A year later, Dennison orchestrated a race riot of 20,000 people which culminated in the lynching of an African American, the near lynching of Smith, and the almost total destruction of the new county court, finished only two years earlier. Two people were charged for this act of wanton violence, and neither of them was Dennison. However, two years later Dahlman was re-elected as mayor.
The US Army establishes martial law boundaries in North Omaha in 1919, and they have been used since.
The mob had turned to the Near North Side neighborhood in order to bring their hatred of Blacks to bear on the commercial, social and cultural success there. However, they were met by heavy machine guns and troops from North Omaha’s Fort Omaha, and failed to cause any significant physical damage. However, this was the beginning of official segregation in Omaha’s housing: the Army commanding blacks to stay within a specific area where they could protect them, and that area become red lined. According to one researcher,
“This protective isolation was enacted only for temporary safety reasons; however, it quickly became a type of martial law where African Americans were restricted to the Near North Side neighborhood.”
This hatred continue to strike at the Near North Side. For instance, in 1926 the home of Malcolm Little, a child growing up on Pinkney Street, was burnt to the ground by the KKK. Young Malcolm’s father was a Black advocate, and upset the white power structure in the city. The child grew up to become a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States called Malcolm X.
After the riots of 1919, the Near North Side were made completely segregated.
Red lining prohibited Blacks from living south of Cuming Street or north of Locust, so they made the most of their neighborhood. (Special thanks to Professor Palma Strand at Creighton University for sharing the HOLC map at the top of this article!) However, the tactics for getting whites out of those neighborhoods and keeping African Americans from other neighborhoods weren’t so clear.
Marchers in a 1965 Civil Rights protest in Omaha.
Using racism to scare white Omahans, real estate agents and politicians agreed on an informal system of segregation called red lining. Deciding where Blacks could live and where they could not live, they went office to office among the city’s real estate industry and drew red lines on maps of the city. Within those boundaries, houses and businesses could be owned and rented to Blacks. Outside, they could not.
Other city services followed suit. The schools within the red lined area became exclusively Black schools, while the streetcars that went through picked up fewer passengers than other neighborhoods. All of this began around 1890, with the full brunt of red lining evident by the 1920s.
One approach was called blockbusting. Trying to scare people to sell quickly and for cheap, real estate agents would run newspaper ads selling houses and businesses that warned white “The blacks are coming!” This forced housing and commercial property land prices to drop, which were kept low with media hyper-reporting and exaggerating neighborhood crime, which still happens in Omaha.
In 1950, residents of Kountze Place received a mailer saying it was their duty to keep the neighborhood from “a black invasion.” Believing this hate mail, they created a race restrictive covenant prohibiting homeowners from renting or selling to African Americans.
This circa 1940s real estate business card plainly shows that racism was used to keep Florence white.
Other industries colluded with red lining tactics. Using the same maps as real estate agents, insurance agents prohibited Blacks from getting homeowners insurance, and kept Black businesses from receiving fair pricing for their policies. Banks did the same by steering Black families to the Near North Omaha neighborhood.
These forces worked together to prevent African Americans from seeing houses outside of Near North Omaha. They used tactics such as fictitious waiting lists, unequal renting and purchasing terms, and charged ridiculously high down payments when purchasing should have cost less. Obvious tactics were used, including advertising “white only” neighborhoods and enforcing race-restrictive covenants. [City of Omaha Human Rights and Relations Commission]
As the trickle of European immigrants to America ceased during the Great Depression, whites started moving out of the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects in Near North Omaha, too. Originally moving to the more westerly Hilltop Projects, HUD eventually bought units in Northwest Omaha, and then moving to mixed income housing. For more than three decades though, public housing in Omaha became synonymous with segregated housing, as whites wouldn’t live there and they weren’t expected to.
This system became more and more entrenched. In 1935, the Federal Housing Administration forced home builders to comply with race-restrictive guidelines, further endorsing the city’s racist policies.
Specific Omaha Neighborhoods that Formerly had Race Restrictions
Sacred Heart neighborhood
Gifford Park neighborhood
Kountze Place neighborhood
Prospect Hill neighborhood
Minne Lusa neighborhood
Miller Park neighborhood
Monmouth Park neighborhood
Success In Spite of It All
During this period of initial red lining, North 24th Street became a fantastic business district and cultural heart for Near North Omaha. Dozens of businesses owned by Blacks or run by Blacks lined the street, while churches, clubs, saloons, groceries, caretakers, and others went up and down the block. Vibrant foot traffic, cars and buggies, and other signs of life filled the area all of the time. Filled with affordable single family homes, deluxe multifamily apartments and reasonable duplexes, the area did well.
Immediately after World War II, African Americans in Near North Omaha began demanding integration. Struggling hard to challenge the city’s deep-seated racist attitudes and structures, Black protesters began challenging racist red lining policies, while well-meaning white ministers tried integrating their church congregations. Mildred Brown worked with youth activists in the DePorres Club, and Whitney Young led the city’s Urban League to court against Omaha’s discriminatory practices. Change came.
Red lining, blockbusting and other practices were called out, and the system of race-restrictive covenants surrounding Near North Omaha began falling. Bus and street car service began serving the neighborhood more fairly, and the city’s schools committed to ending segregation. In 1963, Peony Park ended their segregation practices, and African Americans were allowed to shop at Crossroads Mall.
However, with the struggle came challenges. In 1966, youth protesting the city’s lack of services to them at N. 24th and Lake began throwing bricks in store windows. BANTU was accused of rallying violence, while Ernie Chambers became involved in stopping other riots. Two of Omaha’s Black Panther leaders were set up and indicted on murder charges against an Omaha police officer, while another police officer shot an unarmed African American teenage woman in the back. Between 1966 and 1971, many of the Black-owned businesses and seemingly all of the white-owned ones were burnt down along N. 24th. Dilapidated and vacant houses were quickly bulldozed by the City of Omaha, which seemingly adopted a policy of benign neglect focused on predominately African American neighborhoods in North Omaha.
In 1975, the City of Omaha worked with the US Department of Transportation to demolish an entire swath of homes, businesses and other institutions in North Omaha. In building Highway 75, they created a visible “red line” that segregated the community further.
The City of Omaha adopted a formal “open housing ordinance” in 1969 that effectively ended red lining and race restrictive covenants.
However, the impacts of the history of red lining in North Omaha are still evident. White people didn’t just slowly trickle out of the community; they fled, following a trend called white flight. Working class and middle class whites went to a new band of houses constructed in northwest Omaha and west Omaha between the 1940s and 1970s. White flight led to North Omaha institutions such as Omaha University, Immanuel Hospital and the Poor Clares moving west, while businesses including car dealers and grocery stores simply closed or also moved west.
Red lining didn’t leave quickly. In 1971, Omaha’s school district was brought to court for colluding with real estate companies concerning the location of schools and proposed subdivisions. This showed the district helped create segregated subdivisions, and was judged as evidence of the School district’s general segregationist practices.
Inadequate transportation, insufficient utilities, inappropriately heavy tax burdens, poor maintenance of homes, dysfunctional commercial enterprises, and many other factors ensure that North Omaha remains segregated today. With failing schools, miserable social and cultural conditions and unchecked crime plaguing many neighborhoods, the entire North Omaha community is continually trodden upon by the City’s civic leaders.
There are still empty lots along N. 24th Street from four riots between 1966 and 1971.
The City of Omaha incentivizes corporate investment throughout all of the rest of the city without an eye towards North Omaha.
Metro Transit still undersupplies buses throughout North Omaha, where vast numbers of workers have to commute to West Omaha for work, to shop, and for recreation.
Focused on building new streets in West Omaha, old streets in North Omaha are literally crumbling from the lack of maintenance.
White flight is still happening right now in far North Omaha, and neighborhoods where African Americans are moving into for the first time today are feeling threatened by their presence.
Token sewage updating projects along N. 24th and N. 30th are expected to placate community concerns, while parks, street lights, and law enforcement dwindles throughout the area.
And African Americans are routinely, systematically and intentionally targeted by segregationist policies, racist practices, and discriminatory beliefs by whites throughout the entire city. Not every white and not all the time – but every African American in the vast majority of circumstances.
Since I was a teen in North Omaha in the 1980s, there have been several plans to revitalize the community. Many focused on business and employment as the answer, while some included churches and schools. Today, the most popular plans connect all those dots, along with strong families, healthy environments and safe neighborhoods. However, just in the last five years little has happened, and North Omaha is unsure whether the cycle of broken promises will ever stop.
In the meantime, gang violence, drug use and a lot of other crime is ravishing goodwill and high sentiment among optimistic Omaha. It looks like the career of Senator Chambers is wrapping up without a lot of other significant leaders stepping forward. Those that do seem entrenched in moneymaking schemes and exploiting the hope of people who need better.
There’s no clear path to the future for racial integration in Omaha. As the predominant economic, political and social power holders in the city, it is apparent that white people in Omaha do not want to live next door to African Americans. However, since no red lining is better than any red lining, maybe we should simply celebrate the progress that’s been made since it did exist.
The Omaha metro area is in the top 50 most segregated cities in the United States. It should also be noted that lending companies, mortgage agents, banks and real estate agents still practice a form of red lining through the delineation of entire neighborhoods’ values.
Reflecting the rest of the city’s reality, schools in Omaha are highly segregated today. With a hiring disparity noted started in the 1950s, Omaha Public Schools still predominately hire white teachers. School busing to promote integration was forced on the city by the federal government beginning in 1976. The city’s school district won a court decision in 1999 to end it. Many Omahans feel good about the racial makeup of Omaha schools. However, as a recent article states, “School segregation is much bigger than a few schools in the South.”
“Red areas represent those neighborhoods in which the things that are now taking place in the Yellow neighborhoods, have already happened. They are characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or infiltration of it. Low percentage of home ownership, very poor maintenance and often vandalism prevail. Unstable incomes of the people and difficult collections are usually prevalent. The areas are broader than the so-called slum districts. Some mortgage lenders may refuse to make loans in these neighborhoods and other will lend only on a conservative basis.”
Along the tree-lined streets and fine middle and upper class homes of Kountze Place in North Omaha, the staff of Omaha’s Presbyterian Theological Seminary decided in the early 20th century to start a new university. For 30 years, the neighborhood was home to the eventual University of Nebraska at Omaha. This is a short history of that time, starting from the beginning.
Colleges in Omaha
The University of Omaha opened in North Omaha in 1907. Its locations included Redick Hall, Jacobs Gymnasium, Science Hall and Joslyn Hall. It moved away in 1937.
The first higher education institution in Nebraska was proposed for the town of Saratoga in 1863. It never came together though. Omaha was just over 20 years old when its first higher education facility Omaha. Before 1900, the city’s religiously affiliated universities and colleges were increasingly popular and successful. Creighton University, Omaha’s most famous higher ed facility, was founded in 1878 by Catholics. Clarkson College began in 1888 and was started by the Episcopal church. The Nebraska Methodist College was started in 1891, and the Omaha Medical College was started as a private business in 1880. It was into that reality that the Presbyterians decided the city needed a non-religious higher education institution.
An original sign for North Omaha’s University of Omaha campus.
In 1908, a group of faculty from the Seminary founded the University of Omaha. It was private, nonreligious and coed. Seeking to start a higher ed institution that was “free from ecclesiastical control,” they also wanted to ensure “sound learning and practical education.” They succeeded.
The site of the University was on North Omaha’s 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition. The Redick Mansion, which was built as a farmhouse in the 1870s, predated the Expo. However, everything else on the site of the campus was built on the site.
Redick Mansion: 24th and Pratt Street (Built in 1875; Redick Hall in 1907; deconstructed in 1917)
Jacobs Gymnasium: 3624 North 24th Street (Built in 1916; demolished in 1964)
Temporary Library:24th and Pratt Street
Joslyn Hall: Renamed the “University Apartments” 3620 North 24th Street (Built in 1916; demolished in 1964)
Saratoga Science Hall:24th and Ames Avenue (Built in 1892; Science Hall starting in 1927; demolished in 1938)
Saratoga Field:24th and Meredith Avenue (1925 to 1928)
South Lab Building No. 11: Designed by John Latenser and Sons sometime between 1916 and 1920. I’m unsure of whether it was built and at what location.
North Wing Addition: Designed by John Latenser and Sons before 1930, I’m unsure of whether it was built and at what location.
North Lab: Designed before 1930, this was designed by John Latenser and Sons, also. I’m unsure of whether it was built and at what location.
North Lab: Designed in 1930 by John Latenser and Sons, I’m unsure of whether it was built and at what location.
The Redick Mansion, University of Omaha’s first building.
The first building was the Redick Mansion, located at North 24th and Pratt Streets. During the first year, 26 students came to the University of Omaha. In the Reddick Hall, students took basic courses, socialized, and otherwise partook of everything college students could. In 1917, Redick Hall was sold and moved to Minnesota, where it was used as a resort. It burnt down in the 1950s.
Jacobs Gymnasium was built for the University in 1916. Jacobs Hall was a gymnasium facing North 24th Street, built with $14,000 from the sale of land donated by Lillian Maul. The building was named in honor of her deceased son, John C. Jacobs. Jacobs Gym featured a large room, there was a sitting area on a balcony above the floor.
The interior of the Jacobs Gym.
The exterior of the Jacobs Gymnasium, built in 1910.
The Omaha University girls basketball team in 1922. They played at Jacobs Gymnasium.
After the University stopped using it, Jacobs Gymnasium was repurposed. It was demolished in 1964, and the Omaha Housing Authority built Evans Tower, a low-income senior home, in its place.
Jacobs Hall with N. 24th Street’s trolley tracks, circa 1917.
Omaha University’s Joslyn Hall, opened in 1917 near North 24th and Pratt Streets.
George Joslyn, a wealthy printer in Omaha, contributed a lot of his money to charities around Omaha. You know him from the home built for his wife Sarah, which we call the Joslyn Castle. She contributed the money for the Joslyn Art Museum in memory of her husband after he died. However, when he was still young George donated $25,000 to Omaha University in 1915. The new building, called Joslyn Hall, was finished in January 1917 just south of Redick Hall. With three stories and a basement, the building had thirty classrooms, an auditorium and a small library. Science labs, the music department and several other areas were originally located there.
Saratoga Science Hall
Built in the first decade of the twentieth century, North Omaha’s Saratoga School went unused during World War I. Desperate for space, Omaha University started using the building as its science hall from 1917 to 1925.
Omaha University Science Hall, circa 1925.
A science club gatherings outside the Science Hall in the 1920s.
In 1927, businessmen formed the North Omaha Activities Association in order to redevelop Saratoga School’s playing field into a football field for the University’s football team. New bleachers were built for a thousand spectactors, and the Saratoga Field was home to OU’s football team until 1951.
Omaha University’s Saratoga Field, with the Saratoga Science Hall in the background, circa 1925.
There were other buildings, too. The University of Omaha College of Commerce and Finance was located at 1307 Farnam Street, and the College of Law was at 1307 Farnam Street. They stayed in these places from from around 1918 until each of the colleges were consolidated at the present-day UNO campus in 1938. There were at least three other buildings on the North 24th and Evans campus (called the “U” Campus) as well, but I have not located them yet.
Staff offices, location unknown.
The “Magnificent Campus”
In the early 1920s a proposed “magnificent campus” was slated for development between Florence Boulevard and North 25th Avenue. With twenty three buildings, the campus had two clusters of buildings. However, this campus was never built.
The original general conceptual plan for the University of Omaha, est. 1908.
Instead of building the magnificent campus, by the Great Depression the city was talking about moving Omaha University. By 1938, the campus officially moved to 60th and Dodge Street. Some of the old campus buildings were supposedly redeveloped as apartments and offices, but I can’t find any evidence of them.
In June 1964, Jacobs and Joslyn Halls were the last two original OU buildings left. They were demolished that year, and there is apparently no evidence of the campus left today.
If you like the photos you see here, go like at this awesome photoset by UNO’s Criss Library on Flickr. Its a great collection and begins to hint at what life was like on the campus.
Finally, here’s a snapshot of what the neighborhood is laid out like today for you to compare with the Magnificent Campus plan above:
The approximate location of North Omaha’s historic Omaha University Magnificent Campus plan.
Jacobs Gymnasium was built at 3624 North 24th Street in 1916. After the University moved in 1937, it became the WPA Gym and served as a public facility for a decade. The building was demolished in 1964.
Joslyn Hall was built in 1916 at 3620 North 24th Street. Part of the original Omaha University campus, it was renamed the “University Apartments” when the University moved in 1937. It was demolished in 1964).
These are random pics from the University of Omaha campus in North Omaha. They include the Music Auditorium, Library and Office of the Dean, all located in Joslyn Hall.
These are pics from the original Omaha University campus in North Omaha. Pictured are the Saratoga Science Hall and two interior pics.
Campus life glows in these 1928 pics from the original Omaha University campus in North Omaha. This is the Office of the President, Gymnasium and Art Class Room.
This is a 1928 advertisement for the University of Omaha. It includes the departments of the University and the address of the campus.
This is a 1928 advertisement for the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company service to and from the University of Omaha and its various facilities.
I’m on a quest to find the oldest building—whether its a house, commercial building, church or whatever—in North Omaha. Of course, the Florence Mill and the Bank of Florence are the reigning champs. However, I’m finding glimmers and glimpses of other old places that I want to shine a light on. The following homes were all built in 1885 or earlier.
The oldest neighborhoods in the North Omaha community are Florence and the Near North Side, which is immediately north of North Downtown and south of Pratt Street. Other outlying houses and buildings may exist, but are largely hidden by the newer developments around them.
Here are ten of the oldest buildings in North Omaha, with the oldest one at the end. Note that there is no other order to what’s listed here. I originally published this in July 2015, and I updated it in August 2019.
Home #1: 2902 North 25th Street
Built in 1870, this house in Kountze Place has 1900 square feet with 6 rooms and 2 bathrooms. Built in the Victorian style, originally it would have had Eastlake features, including ornate porch detailing and flourishes around the home.
Home #2: 1117 North 20th Street
This 1885 home is 800 square feet. At 130-years-old, it pre-dates paved streets, running water, indoor bathrooms, streetlights, and regular horse-drawn streetcar service.
Home #3: 3030 Evans Street
This 1886 brick house was built in a frontier vernacular style. It has almost 2,000 square feet in two stories, with an eight-foot-tall ceiling in a block basement. There are four bedrooms in the home, with a central chimney. It sits on a long, narrow lot.
Home #4: 1818 North 26th Street
This 132-year-old home was built long before the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in North Omaha. Its a single story with three bedrooms in 688 square feet. It was built in 1883.
Home #4: 6327 Florence Boulevard
Built in 1869, this house was originally located at Fort Omaha, and as of 2017, is 127-years-old. Originally building 15 in the wood-framed Omaha Barracks, it stood at the fort until approximately 1900. That year, eccentric bachelor brothers William and Oliver Grenville bought it and moved it to Florence Boulevard. Originally located across the street from their commercial greenhouses, the home has stood there since. Originally located on 2.5 acres, today it has 2,550 square feet in the house with four bedrooms, and includes 1.25 acres of land. There’s also a 125-year-old barn down the cliff behind the house.
Home #5: 2617 Parker Street
Built in 1883, this 132-year-old home is a brick-two-story with three bedrooms. It has Victorian flourishes on a long and narrow lot. The house has more than 1,400 square feet.
Home #6: 2537 Patrick Avenue
This is a 131-year-old brick house. Built in 1885, it has three bedrooms in more than 1,500 square feet.
Home #7: 1120 North 20th Street
This house is among the very oldest houses in North Omaha at 140-years-old. This home was built in 1875, and straddles the edge of North Omaha and North Downtown.
Home #8: 1102 North 24th Street
Built in 1883, this is a four-bedroom house. It has more than 1,600 square feet with an unfinished basement, and sits on a large lot. UPDATE: This house was demolished in 2015.
Home #9: 4922 Ames Avenue
A 144-year-old home in Omaha that’s hasn’t been designated as an Omaha Landmark and isn’t listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its been a country home, turned into a plush estate, cut up with a suburban club, and carved into a housing development. But the Mergen House stands strong, and its history needs to be told. Read about it here.
Home #10: 8621 North 31st Street
By far the oldest home in my survey comes from a neighborhood renowned for its age. The Florence area was settled long before Omaha, with the Mormons establishing a town here called Cutler’s Park in 1846. While little is left from that time, in 1856 the town of Florence was platted. This house, located just off North 30th Street, was built in 1859. At just below 800 square feet, is has two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a combined kitchen/dining room/living room. That’s it. Oh, and a cool little porch. An interesting fact is that the basement is bigger than the rest of the house. Hmm…
These are the oldest homes I’ve found in North Omaha on my initial scan. There are some important things to keep in mind while reading this list:
The Near North Omaha neighborhood, located between Locust and Cuming, 16th and 30th, was originally platted as country estates for politicians. They built a few large homes and small mansions along 16th and further north, but left the rest of the community for residential and commercial development.
Much of Near North Omaha was in-filled with apartments and duplexes starting in the 1890s and extending into the late 1920s.
A massive tornado swept through Near North Omaha in 1913 that demolished many old homes.
Starting in the 1960s, there was a program by the City of Omaha to demolish dilapidated or ill-kept multi-family homes in North Omaha. This led to many older buildings being town down.
Much of the commercial area along North 24th was demolished by rioting in the 1960s and 70s. These buildings included old storefronts and apartments.
The Fort Omaha campus has several old houses, including the General George Crook House built in 1879.
I will keep hunting, and as always I would love to hear from YOU about what you know! Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
This house isn’t standing anymore. Starting as a small cabin in 1851, this house was finished in 1853. It was the Mitchell house, and stood as a landmark in Florence for more than a century. Mitchell was the founder of the town, and its named after his niece. See the tree growing through the second floor porch? Mitchell built the porch to wrap around the tree instead of cutting it down. The house was demolished in 1964.
Despite its reputation, North Omaha has always been a place for extravagance, embellishment and architectural celebration. Dozens of homes are remarkable today for their illustration of various housing designs that aren’t present throughout the rest of the city, and they deserve to be highlighted. Following are descriptions of popular architectural styles in North Omaha.
Eastlake – Stick
Making craftsmanship obvious and celebrating details, the Eastlake – Stick style of architecture layered homes with fancy woodwork on the outside and inside of the home. Dense hardwoods were used for clapboard and lattice, doorways and windows, as well as fishscale siding, twisted railings, extravagant cornices and much more. Most of the examples of this style have been destroyed; one of the best remaining examples is the Edgar Zabriskie House in the Bemis Park Landmark Heritage District. These homes were once found throughout the Near North Side, along Florence Boulevard, Bemis Park, Orchard Park, Bedford Place, Kountze Place and many other neighborhoods.
North Omaha’s predominant historical housing structure style may be the American Foursquare. Built from the 1890s through the 1930s, they were simple, large homes for lower middle class families. Basically square, they were two and 1/2 stories tall with a very boxy design. They featured a dormer in the center of the roof and often had a large front porch with wide stairs. Usually with arched entries between common rooms inside, they also had built-in cabinetry and Craftsman-style woodwork. These examples are on Evans St. near N. 25th.
Many of the American Foursquare homes in North Omaha were built as Sears houses, with complete kits shipped straight through the community on the Belt Line Railway, and then trucked into the neighborhoods. These homes can be found in several neighborhoods, including the Minne Lusa, Miller Park, Saratoga, Kountze Park, Near North Side, Long School, Highlander, Prospect Hill, Walnut Hill, Orchard Hill, Fontenelle, and Belevedre, among others.
Arts and Crafts and Craftsman
Charles Storz’s North Omaha home was built in the Arts and Crafts style. Simple, fine hand-crafter woodwork and other craftsmanship was everywhere in this home, including the design as well as the fixtures, fabrics, furnishings and more. There are exposed beams throughout the first floor of the interiors of the homes. There were also exposed rafter ends and eave brackets outside, holding up roofs with wide overhangs. Its located near N. 23rd and Wirt Streets. The entire North Omaha community was infilled with the popular, mass manufactured Craftsman style homes between 1910 and 1940, with one such example at 2448 Crown Point Ave. These homes, smaller than their Arts and Crafts cousins, were generally single-story, with many of the same features as the larger versions. However, they were mass-produced by the Sears and Roebucks Corporation, and have many repeating features.
As you drive along Florence Boulevard, many historic styles pop out. One of the most distinguished is called Colonial Revival. Most of them have rectangular shapes and symmetrical appearances. They look like Colonial-era houses, bringing together columned entries, columns and more. Sometimes they will have full-width porches with slender classical columns, an front door that shines through and six or eight pane windows. This North Omaha example is on Florence Boulevard north of Ames Avenue.
One of my favorite styles of buildings in North Omaha is called Commercial Vernacular. Old commercial style buildings in North Omaha were built between 1860 and 1910, with flat roofs, flat fronts and few details or ornamentation. This example is located at N. 30th and Evans Street.
From the 1870s through the 1890s, the Italianate style was all the rage in Omaha for houses and commercial buildings. In homes, they were either square, rectangular, or L-shaped. They had two-stories with low-pitched roofs and wide eaves and tall narrow windows. There were usually small front porches, and sometimes a cupola on the roof. Few of these homes remain in all of Omaha. One of the hotbeds is Fort Omaha, where the officers quarters were in this style. The example here is North Omaha’s General Crook’s house.
Late Gothic Revival
Built like the European churches and castles of the Middle Ages, the Late Gothic Revival style brought major English and French work to the United States. Heavy buildings, these schools, houses and churches, often used heavy bricks and other masonry. They can look like mini-castles, and often have towers or other battlements. The Sacred Heart Catholic Church is a perfect example of what this looked like in North Omaha at N. 22nd and Binney Streets.
Built in 1897, the Sherman Apartments were one of Omaha’s first apartment buildings. Built just a few years after the monumental Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, they were designed in the Neo-Classical Revival style. Made to echo the ancient Greek and Roman architectural orders, there are pedimented porticos, large-scale columns, and frequent arches throughout. The Sherman is symmetrical, as are more Neo-Classical Revival styled buildings. Buildings are usually symmetrically arranged and are often of large proportion. Other buildings in the area in this style include the former Calvin Presbyterian Church building along N. 24th Street, and the John E. Reagan house in the Kountze Place neighborhood.
North Omaha’s St. John’s AME Church is a stellar example of Prairie Style architecture. With low, horizontal proportions and sheltering overhangs, the church has a stone belt course that highlights the horizontality of the building’s design. The Bethlehem Baptist Church at N. 21st and Browne reflects this style, too.
The Queen Anne style sought to exude opulence and success. With turrets, dormers, a number of chimneys and wide, wraparound porches, they were obvious and immodest. One of the most lavishly designed homes in North Omaha, the John P. Bay House, is a prime model of the Queen Anne style. Its asymmetrical, picturesque and uninhibited. Popular in the late 1800s, Queen Annes showed the world how successful families were becoming.
With semi-arched windows and doors, the Romanesque style was popular in the late 1880s and early 1890s. With a massive, solid feel, the use of turrets added to the strength of this style. The Holy Family Catholic Church is pictured here. I also like the houses on Izard at N. 18th Streets. Beautifully designed, they are late 1890s and proud of it.
Spanish Renaissance Revival
Tucked away in North Omaha’s Florence neighborhood is a fine residential example of the Spanish Renaissance Revival Style that was all the rage across the U.S. in the 1920s. The style includes curvy gables, small niches around the buildings, tile roofs, and decorative carvings and moldings. Houses are generally stucco-walled with tile roofs. The Fred M. Crane House at 6141 Florence Boulevard has a Spanish Colonialdesign that is distinct in the community. There are other fine examples scattered across North Omaha, including the Minne Lusa neighborhood and others.
Art Deco & Art Moderne
Art Deco takes its name from a French expo in 1925 where architects started using its stylized approaches in residential, commercial and public uses immediately. In North Omaha, one linear of this style is located at N. 25th and Ames Ave. on a former commercial addition. The geometric lines, rounded corners and subtle details. The former fire station at 2202 Ames Ave. was designed in the Art Deco style, too.
Popular in Omaha from the 1940s through the 1970s, the Mid-Century Modern style was futuristic and functional. Every part of the home was affected by this style, including the interior design, furniture and decoration, and the actual mechanics of the home, including central vacuums and air conditioning. While many west Omaha developments encapsulated Mid-Century Modern in every home, this style was relatively rare in North Omaha, and the remaining structures in this design are few and far between. The Mid-Century Modern style is obvious in North Omaha’s St. Richard’s Catholic School and Rectory and in an exceptional ranch style home located at 1815 John A. Creighton Boulevard.
Period Revival Styles
North Omaha is also packed with Period Revival style structures. Built between the turn of the century and World War Two, they were built to look like buildings from across the U.S. and around the world, both in modern times and older ones, too. These houses, and others, include unusual and picturesque appearances, with different shapes and materials projecting different effects as the builder thought was important. Styles throughout the community include some of the following:
The Buford House at 1804 N. 30th Street was built in an adapted Tudor style, along with the Miller Park pavilion further north on N. 30th St. A smaller version of the Tudor style is called the Minimal Traditional, with a prime example located at 5337 North 25th St.
The Margaret Apartments along N. 16th are a simplified example of Jacobean style.
A Dutch Colonial Revival house is located at 5024 Florence Boulevard, with several others in the neighborhood surrounding it.
There are a few neighborhoods that offer a mix of all of these, or several. Perhaps the jewel for mixing them is the Minne Lusa Historic District, which includes more than 400 homes built before WWII. It has a tremendous wealth of beauty and utility, and is affordable for many modern families. For a more historical example of how these home styles mixed, check out my Wirt Street Home Tour.
This summary of North Omaha’s architectural styles can offer students of history, architecture and sociology an interesting study. With affordability, a premier location and spectacular construction, there is hope for all these buildings and many more than weren’t included. I hope you’ll take initiative and discover more of North Omaha beyond this entry – then write to me and share what you’ve found!
Please leave any comments, including ideas and criticisms, below! Thanks.
Here are some of the catalogue pages for Sears Catalogue houses that can be found across North Omaha. They reflect many of the styles mentioned above. These homes arrived in the community between 1908 and 1940, they were ordered through the mail and sent to Omaha via railroad. Coming as completely cut, ready to build packages, they would travel along the Belt Line Rail Road, and then be trucked to the neighborhoods.
North Omaha has been home to several large mansions and estates, especially in its early years. Built in the grand tradition of the United States’ wealthy families, they were intended to broadcast success, ensure comfort and secure lusciousness right after the pioneer era of young Omaha.
Built throughout the area north of Omaha, these fine homes belonged to real estate moguls, nouveau riche businessmen, and old Eastern inheritors that moved west. Some were elegant and restrained, while others simply oozed money. None of these mansions were built to be accessible, either; instead, they all sat on regal country estates that were determined to be inaccessible to the everyman workers living in the city.
There were even rows of mansions in North Omaha. For instance, on Wirt Street between 18th and 22nd, there were more than a dozen very large houses with many rooms. The Major Wilcox mansion at 2100 Wirt was next to the Weller mansion at 2102 Wirt, which was down the street from the Alfred Jones mansion at 2018 Wirt.
This article is a history of early mansions and country estates in North Omaha.
The most famous mansion built in North Omaha is probably the Mayne Mansion, also known as the Redick Mansion. The house had 20 rooms total. In 1909, John Redick’s son sold the mansion and a city block’s worth of land to the University of Omaha. They renamed it Redick Hall and used it as their primary building for the five years. In 1916 the University sold the mansion to a resort on Keeley Island on Lake Shetek near Currie, Minnesota. Renamed the Valhalla Pavilion, it burnt down in a fire in 1928.
Poppleton was an early lawyer, politician and real estate speculator in Omaha. Serving as a Nebraska Territorial legislator, he was also the second mayor of Omaha. He built his large brick mansion with 15 rooms overlooking the Missouri River valley.
A businessman and investor, J. J. Brown ran a wholesaling company in Omaha. With his 12 room mansion on the bluffs along sixteenth, he meant to should the world his wealth. It featured a large porch and 11 foot high ceilings in almost all of the rooms. There was a large drawing room where he hosted his daughter’s high society wedding in 1896. Brown died in 1901. In 1903, the home became the second location for the Wise Memorial Hospital. After they moved in 1908, the mansion was destroyed.
The year after his mansion was finished, McCreary retired to his estate and focused on improving his land. Located immediately north of John Redick’s estate, McCreary had ten acres of land. McCreary started with a two story Italianate style home that had a dozen rooms, just outside the city limits. Popular Omaha builder Francis Dellone and his brother designed and built the home for McCreary. In the 1890s, McCreary added another floor to the house for a total of 15 rooms. In 1905, McCreary sold his home and it became the Swedish Mission Hospital. It was integrated into an expansion of the hospital in 1926, and demolished entirely in 1967.
Built by an Englishman named Frank Bailey, this home is a fine example of the Eastlake style. Its beautiful features highlight the spectacular beauty of the Eastlake style, which valued ways to manipulate wood into looking beautiful. Its ironic, too: Bailey was one of Omaha’s premier brickmakers, operating a large plant that produced thousands of bricks daily.
6. Mercer Mansion
Address: 3920 Cuming Street
Architecture: Queen Anne Revival Style
As the chief surgeon of the Union Pacific Railroad, Dr. Samuel Mercer traveled the U.S. and saw many places. When he retired from the railroad, he founded Omaha’s first hospital and got into real estate by developing North Omaha’s exclusive Walnut Hill neighborhood. The jewel of the area was his home, a grand 23-room red brick mansion built in the Queen Anne style. Costing more than $60,000 to build, it features a four story tower and exquisite woodwork throughout the home. In the 1920s, the Victorian trim was removed and the house was subdivided into apartments. However, today the home is still owned by Mercer’s descendents, who are essential to the entire city’s history.
7. Smyth House
Address: 710 North 38th Street
Architecture: Neo-Classical Revival
The Smyth House was built in 1906 in Omaha’s new Gold Coast District. Still standing today, it includes beautiful gardens under a canopy of 100 year old oak trees, and is the private residence of the Herchenbach family, who purchased the property in August 2013.
Built by Territorial Governor Alvin Saunders, this fine mansion was built by the last governor as a celebration of his wealth after losing his money during the financial panic of 1873. That year he was forced to sell his downtown home, built during his governorship. He built this one better, using brick and the finest architecture of the period. It may have stood for almost a century afterwards.
9. Nash Mansion
Address: 3806 Burt Street
Architecture: Queen Anne / Eastlake Style
This home featured a lot of exquisite woodwork that was typical of the Eastlake style. It had a soaring tower, stately chimneys and beautiful first floor wraparound porch are that was accentuated by second story porches, as well as a grand entry stairway and other beautiful features. The Queen Anne tower came down in a fire in about 1909. The house had been unoccupied since 1928 when Mrs. Nash died.
The Dexter Thomas House was a Queen Anne style mansion built in the 1870s. Highlighting the beauty of wood, the photo above shows the house had beautiful corner posts, lintels, and window frames. Even when the Thomas House sprawls toward the rear, the tall windows and steep roofs keep us looking skyward. There are also carved brackets and spandrels, clipped gable roofs, a detailed sash, and knee-braces on the porch posts. Oh, and the four story tower, there’s that too. The mansion had a long history before its demolition.
Just after the turn-of-the-century, a wagon maker named T. F. Stroud built a fine Southern-style estate in North Omaha. With more than 1,800 acres, his home was situated off Florence Boulevard north of the old town of Saratoga on Browne Street. The Stroud Mansion was built with at least nine rooms, including six bedrooms. Over the next 50 years, the home switched hands several times and was eventually demolished to make room for the Omaha Housing Authority’s senior home called the Florence Tower.
12. Zabriskie Mansion
Address: 3524 Hawthorne Avenue
Architecture: Stick / Eastlake / Queen Anne
One of the first homes in Bemis Park, the Zabriskie Mansion is one of the finest Queen Anne style structures ever in Omaha. Its original owner was a ship officer, American Civil War veteran, Union Pacific general agent and accountant. Multiple wall surfaces, high multiple rooftops, a round turret, straight and round-arched windows and prominent gables and chimneys have been preserved excellently, and today is in excellent condition.
Built by Omaha settler Alfred Jones toward the end of his life, the home at 2018 Wirt Street sat on a 10 acre lot that was covered by fruit trees. Notorious madame Anna Wilson bought it after the turn of the century, filling it with her huge library and fine art, as well as covering the grounds with beautiful flowers and other fineries. When she died in 1911, it was bequeathed to the Omaha Old Folks’ Home, which sold it. The house was then sold several other times before it was demolished.
Started being built by Florence banker James M. Parker, the Parker Mansion was finished by his son Fred. However, Fred wasn’t satisfied with any part of his father’s estate, including the hundreds of acres he inherited spread throughout North Omaha. He sold most of it off, keeping a 10-acre estate and building a grant museum on the boundary between Florence and Omaha. Sprawling across his compound, there were mystery tunnels, beautiful art and ghost stories surrounding the Parker Estate. It was all dismantled and demolished by 1956 though, and today there’s no trace left.
Built by a land speculator named Victor Lantry, the historic Lantry – Thompson Mansion was built in 1891 at 3524 State Street. The 4,000 sf house has 6 bedrooms and sits on 4 acres on land that were originally platted in 1871. Located across the street from Notre Dame at N. 36th and State, it originally sat on a plot of land that had more than 200 acres. Today, it has 4 acres, but retains much of its original beauty.
Mansion 16. The Old Rectory
Address: 6141 Florence Boulevard
Architecture: Second Spanish Colonial Revival
The Old Rectory is at 6141 Florence Boulevard in the Miller Park neighborhood. Built in 1916 estate along Omaha’s Prettiest Mile, it was a private home for several years. Its most notorious resident was Tom Dennison, Omaha’s boss for several years. For more than 20 years, it was a rectory for Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, ending that job in 1962. In 1981, the Brenners renovated the home and named it The Old Rectory.
Mansion 17. John P. Bay Mansion
Address: 2024 Binney Street
Architecture: Queen Anne
The John P. Bay Mansion was built for an early ice tycoon in Omaha. The 1887 Queen Anne style beauty was designed by architect George L. Fisher, and built in the heart of the fashionable Kountze Place neighborhood. In 1981, it was designated an Omaha Landmark by the City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission.
The McLain Mansion was built for a wealthy Ohio businessman who was a pioneer in Omaha City. J.J. and Mary McLain were Methodist activists who started hospitals and care societies. Their home became the Old Peoples’ Home in the 1890s, and served in that role for 20 years. After becoming the Woodbine Apartments, the building fell into disrepair and was demolished after a fire in 1969.
Originally called Riverview, this large Antebellum style mansion was built around 1900 and was said to be “one of the most beautiful viewpoints in the city.” The mansion was renamed Hillcrest and had a huge two-story, columned home built in style of a Southern plantation mansion. By 1967, the mansion was gone and the lot was selected to become one of GOCA’s temporary “recreation areas” for poverty-ridden areas.
There have been many, many other mansions and estates in North Omaha that I am only beginning to uncover. The include…
Weller Mansion, 2102 Wirt Street—17 rooms that became the Kountze Place Hospital. In 1919, it sold for $25,000.
North Omaha’s Ernie Chambers has been a enlightened, phenomenal and powerful political representative and social leader over the last 40 years. His politics are straight-forward, obvious and spot-on, every single time. He confronts white privilege constantly, challenges injustice regularly and demands respect for the people he serves as a politician.
In 2010, Nebraska Educational Television (NET) created a poignant and honest portrayal of Senator Chambers. I am honored to share it here on the North Omaha History Blog. Its short, so watch the whole thing.
A 1931 picture of Pilgrim Baptist Church’s Vacation Bible School.
The history of North Omaha doesn’t belong to any single person or organization. Instead, it belongs to the entire community, and ironically, it belongs to the future.
Within the next few years, there is going to be a surge of interest in North Omaha’s history. More people are going to claim the heritage and legacy of a section of the city that’s been neglected for too long.
The Walnut Hill Pumping Station, once a shining star of Omaha’s parks system.
The cobblestone streets that were seen as derelict for the last 50 years will start to be seen as quaint and valuable. The old institutions and homes that have been forgotten and neglected are going to resurface as hidden gems and carefully resurface in their roles as cultural beacons. The social halls, churches and businesses denied from relevance since the 1960s are going to come back, desired for their high quality constructio and architectural substance. At the same time, old showcase homes are going to sparkle once again as their owners sell and new ones move in. Ancient neighborhoods as old as the city are going to make comebacks as good as any Cornhusker team ever has.
The former A&P Super Market, located near North 24th and Ames Avenue.
At the same time, there will be more recognition for the nieghborhood’s heritage from the government, businesses and private individuals who are becoming increasingly passionate about reclaiming Omaha’s lost heritage. The Empowerment Network recognizes this in their North Omaha Village Plan, while the Restoration Exchange is working to make it more evident to everyone.
The recent identification of the Minne Lisa Historical District is the tip of an iceberg where people and government recognize the fiscal and cultural value tucked away across North Omaha. This recognition is going to catapult home values in this end of the city back toward full worth, simultaneously transforming the community by ensuring high commitment home ownership. Owners and occupants who are dedicated to maintaining and reinvigorating home values will flood the neighborhoods throughout the community. This will push out some current residents, but will also have the effect of securing many home owners’ investments and stopping the hemorrhageing of money from the community. Architects like Linda Williams of ShotgunHaus are at the cutting edge of this effort.
The old Minne Lusa Pumping Station, once located at the Florence Water Works in North Omaha.
New and renewed institutions will continue to grow, including the Carver Bank, Great Plains Black History Museum, and Historic Florence. All of these and more are absolutely essential to the future of North Omaha history.
Schools and youth-serving organizations across North Omaha have to turn a new eye towards the community’s history. Curricula and programs need to be established and supported that connect young people to the people, places and events that have come before them. Programs like Omaha Public Schools Invisible History Project and nonprofit outreach like the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation have to be supported, funded and sustained in their pursuits to these ends. New programs have to be started, too, while old programs like the River City Roundup need to be reimagined to embrace the new research I’m surfacing on this blog.
The Church of the Sacred Heart at North 22nd and Binney in North Omaha.
Ultimately though, the greatest part of the history of North Omaha is that it’s being embraced by the present, today. We have to stay focused on drawing this out and shining a positive, powerful light on the wonderful truth of this region in Omaha: It’s here now, it has been here in the last, and despite some peoples’ wishes otherwise, it’s going to be here in the future. THAT is what I’m working for today; how about you?
The second Methodist Hospital, once located in North Omaha at North 36th and Cuming Streets.
This is an interesting history of Fort Omaha. Every school student in North Omaha is taught about the fort, that it existed and stuff happened there. But what they are taught and what the average Omahan knows pales in comparison to the actual history of the place.
Here are five interesting facts about Fort Omaha.
A snow-covered Fort Omaha sits quiet in wintertime, circa 1880s.
Fact One: Fort Omaha Was Built To Make Money.
Omaha had an early banking mogul named Augustus Kountze. He and his brother Herman were determined to make their riches in their adopted boom town, and set out by doing it through loaning money and providing a place for savings to be held.
Their banking eventually allowed them to buy land, which they did across Omaha. Their holdings focused on North Omaha, including the areas that eventually held the posh Kountze Place suburb and Fort Omaha.
As soon as the fort was built out in the 1870s, Kountze’s holdings around the military reservation started to sell. His pockets got swollen and those of his friends were filled, too. Good investment!
When Fort Omaha became the Headquarters for the Department of the Platte in 1878, it covered land from the Missouri River into Montana and from Canada to Texas. More of Omaha’s land became valuable, and Kountze’s other holdings beyond North Omaha developed, too.
Fort Omaha was built to make money because of the railroads. As the United States pushed west, they dotted the land with forts to suppress the Indian tribes and protect the settlers from each other. The Fort made money for the government by protecting the product emerging from the West that they taxed. It made money for the speculators who, like Kountze, needed young Omaha to build, grow and expand so they could get wealthy. It worked!
Before balloons, Fort Omaha was home to the US Army Dirigible Unit in the early 1900s.
Fact Two: Fort Omaha Has A Vital Place In American History.
Fort Omaha was the first place in the United States of America that Native Americans were recognized as human beings by the law.
In 1879 the Ponca chief Standing Bear defied the United States’ orders that he move with his tribe to Oklahoma. After being given terrible land in that state in exchange for their claims in northeast Nebraska, Standing Bear led a band of Poncas back to their old land to reclaim what was theirs.
Ordered to imprison Standing Bear as a sign to other Indians, General Crook arrested the chief and locked him up at Fort Omaha.
General Crook ended up surprising everyone though.
During the subsequent trial at the Fort, Crook wore his full military uniform, proceeding to testify on behalf of Standing Bear and his tribe. Standing Bear won the case, was given some of his tribe’s land back, and was addressed as a human for the first time in American history. That’s why Fort Omaha has a vital place in this nation’s history.
Here are US Army Military Police from Fort Omaha circa 1900, courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.
Fact Three: Fort Omaha Was An Experimentation Site For Technology That Didn’t Last.
In 1916, became home to the United States Army’s American Expeditionary Section’s brand new balloon unit. The Fort Omaha Balloon School had two hangers on the south end of the military reservation, along with a launching and landing ground called Florence Field.
After a few years the entirety of the school was moved to Texas. Meanwhile, in the early 1920s Florence Field was sold to a man named George Martin, who planned a neighborhood there and subdivided it. The neighborhood had a grand driveway, beautiful homes of many varieties, and sat just north of the popular Miller Park. Today, Minne Lusa is still a beautiful neighborhood!
Here’s a dashing group of US Army motorcyclists circa WWI.
Fact Four: Fort Omaha Was A Prison Camp.
During World War II, Fort Omaha was home to a supply battalion and was used as a work camp for prisoners-of-war. They were mostly Italian prisoners, and were assigned to military duties only at Fort Omaha with no off-post labor so were not visible to the general public.
The US Army Balloon Corps School was held at Fort Omaha.
Fact Five: Barely Anybody Actually Cared About The Fort.
Fort Omaha was built for the Indian Wars and was largely forgotten by the 1890s. It was abandoned in 1896. At the turn of the century it became a muster point for troops to ship out for the Spanish American War.
In 1907, Fort Omaha had hangers built for a few dirigibles, but that program was abandoned two years later. In 1908 though, the Fort Omaha Balloon School was opened. That facility was take from Fort Omaha and moved to Texas in 1917. In 1909, the Fort became the Army’s Signal Corps School; in 1913 it was abandoned.
By the 1920s, the Fort had fallen quiet again. It became a supply base and work camp for prisoners of war during World War II.
In 1947, command of the Fort was given to the Navy. Soon after, the Fort was named a Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center. In 1951 Fort Omaha was designated the U.S. Naval Personnel Center, a role it continues to play today.
The rest of the Fort was given to Metro Community College in the 1970s, and as they say, the rest is history!
US Army Signal Corps soldiers practice at Fort Omaha circa WWI.
Fact Six: Miller Park Racists Hated US Army Troops
According to the Omaha World-Herald, a regiment of Black soldiers was stationed at Fort Omaha. White people in the surrounding neighborhood protested a lot, writing letters to the newspaper and their elected officials. African American community leaders and politicians took it upon themselves to sound out loudly on behalf of the troops. Nebraska State Legislator John Singleton worked with Gene Thomas, a past commander of the Legion Post of Spanish War Veterans, and others to promote the inclusion of the troops there. The neighborhood eventually shut up.
Today, Fort Omaha is in the middle of a massive construction boom and expansion, due to investment from MCC. Its exciting to see what the future holds, but important to remember what was truly interesting from its history.
The history of African American politics in North Omaha first emerged in the 1870s. It has fluctuated a lot since then, with some periods of a lot of activity (1890s, 1910s, 1950s, 1970s, and 2010s) and other periods with no apparent activity.
This is just a collected history. Someone needs to interview people in and associated with North Omaha’s African American community in order to find the real details behind all of the following events. This type of process will also bring out the details that a broad scan like this cannot show.
Allen Jones was the president of Omaha’s Colored Commercial Club in 1921.
This isn’t intended to be just a list of African American firsts, which are important but don’t tell the whole story. This also isn’t just about party politics, or local politics. Instead, this list includes political, social, economic and cultural developments that affected African Americans and all Omahans.
1868:Edwin Overall leads a fight to end the segregation in Omaha schools, and in 1869 the system ended.
1869: The first African American to hold a government job in Nebraska is Overall when he was appointed as the general delivery clerk for the post office. He was the first black mail carrier in the state and the only Black man to hold a government position in Nebraska until the 1880s. He worked for the post office until he died in 1901.
1871: Overall organized the Progressive Age Association, the first literary society in Omaha. An important gathering place for Omaha’s African American community, members included Dr. W. H. C. Stephenson, Matthew O. Ricketts, Abraham W. Parker, W. H. Washington, Rev. R. Ricketts, E. S. Clellans, J. Johnson, C. C. Cary, and Overall’s wife.
1880: African American Republicans met on August 18 in North Omaha, and elected W.H.C. Stephenson to be among the delegates sent to the Nebraska Republican Convention.
1880: On August 30, W. H. C. Stephenson, James O. Adams, Edwin R. Overall, John R. Simpson, and Peter Williams organized a Nebraska State Convention of Colored Americans.
1880:Matthew Ricketts was admitted to the Omaha Medical College, which became the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
1880:One of Edwin Overall‘s daughters was a candidate for teacher in the Omaha Public Schools, but was denied by the board due to her race.
1884: Matthew Ricketts was the first African American to graduate from a Nebraska college or university, and the first African American doctor in Nebraska.
1884: Comfort Baker became the first African American to graduate a high school in Omaha, finishing at Omaha High School at the age of 15.
1885: Edwin Overall, the son of a slave, became one of Omaha’s wealthiest citizens when his father dies and leaves him a fortune. Overall invested widely in real estate and was a director and later president of the Missouri and Nebraska Coal Mining Company.
1888: Emmanuel Clenlans was a delegate to the Nebraska Republican Convention.
1889: Silas Robbins became the first African American to be admitted to the bar in Nebraska and the first African American lawyer in Nebraska.
1889:Vic Walker joined the Omaha Metropolitan Police force, serving five years, including two years as a Court Officer and as a Deputy Chief of Police.
1889: F. L. Barnett established a weekly Negro newspaper called the Progress in Omaha.
1890: Millard Singleton, an African American government employee in Omaha, helps found Nebraska’s Afro-American League.
1891: An African American named George Smith was lynched at the Douglas County Courthouse, accused as a suspect for allegedly attacking a young girl. While little is known about Smith, reports of the incident described a mob dragging Smith from his cell, before any court trial, and hanging him from a nearby street post.
1892: Dr. Ricketts became the first African American to be elected to the Nebraska State Legislature.
1892: Cyrus D. Bell, an ex-slave, established the Afro-American Sentinel in Omaha.
1893: The Enterprise, published by George F. Franklin, launched. It was the longest lived of any Blacks newspapers published in Nebraska until The Omaha Star took the title.
1893: The fourth annual Nebraska State convention of the National Afro-American League, was organized by Vic Walker, Jessie Merriam, E. G. Rozzelle, and Silas Robbins.
1895: George Franklin, Millard Singleton, Matthew Ricketts, and James Bryant were the Omaha delegates to the Nebraska meeting of the National Afro-American League
1895: The Omaha Negro Women’s Club was founded with a focus on “education, respectability and reform.”
1895:Ella Mahammitt is vice-president of the National Federation of Afro-American Women headed by Margaret James Murray (wife of Booker T. Washington)
1895: The Enterprise begins publishing a weekly column by Ella Mahammitt.
1895: Lucy Gambol became Omaha Public Schools’ the first African-American teacher, teaching there until 1905.
1895: Millard Singleton was named a Justice of the Peace in the Eighth Ward in Omaha.
1895: Dr. Ricketts advocates for the first age of consent for marriage in Nebraska, relying on a petition of 500 African-American women in Omaha. It passes.
1896: Thomas P. Mahammitt takes ownership of The Enterprise, including nationally notable authors such as his wife Ella, Mrs. E. E. Guy, J. A. Childs, Josephine Sloan Yates, Mrs. E. Turner, Comfort Baker, Victoria Earle Matthews, and Margaret James Murray.
1896: In a controversial move, George Franklin holds the position of Douglas County Assessor and City of Omaha Inspector of Weights and Measures at the same time.
1896: The National Federation of Colored Women formed its first chapter in North Omaha. By the 1930s, they had five chapters in Omaha. Ella Mahammitt was the president of the Omaha Colored Woman’s Club.
1896: North Omaha African American leader Ophelia Clenlans was appointed a member of the executive board of the National Federation of Afro-American Women.
1896: Ella Mahammitt was a committee member of the National Association of Colored Women under president Mary Church Terrell.
1898: Communist spokesman and one-time leader of American forces in the Spanish Civil War Harry Haywood was born in Omaha.
1898: Edwin R. Overall, John Albert Williams and Cyrus D. Bell played especially important roles organizing activities for African Americans at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in North Omaha. Various meetings of national black organizations took place during the exposition, including:
The National Congress of Representatives of White and Colored Americans is organized by Edwin Overall
The National Colored Press Association
1898: When the Spanish-American War began, Vic Walker voluntarily organized a company of black soldiers to serve in the Third Nebraska Regiment. The company wasn’t accepted though, since the Third Nebraska Volunteer Infantry wasn’t enlisted until July 1899. While some of the men recruited served in other companies, Walker remained in Omaha.
1898: African Americans in Omaha gather to call for federal action to stop lynchings and violence in the South. Leaders in these efforts included Vic Walker, Millard Singleton, John Williams, E. H. Hall and others.
1898: Tom Dennison finances Vic Walker when he buys a notorious bar at 12th and Capitol called The Midway, where he put an opium den in the basement. Considered Denison’s black lieutenant, Walker was called “King of the Midway.” He paid Dennison back through ballot stuffing and registration falsification.
1898: Eula Overall served five years as the second ever African American teacher in Omaha Public Schools.
1898: Edwin Overall was elected General Statistician at the annual meeting of the National Federation of Colored Labor of the United States.
This was the second Douglas County Courthouse, where George Smith was taken from and lynched by a white mob.
Between 1900 and 1920
1900: Thomas Mahammitt becomes the City of Omaha Inspector of Weights and Measures.
1901: Thomas Mahammitt, publisher of The Enterprise, joins the executive committee of the Western Negro Press Association.
1902: Clarence Wigington, Omaha’s first African American architect, begins his career, eventually design the Broomfield Rowhouse, Zion Baptist Church, and the second St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church building, among others.
1902: After failing to deliver the votes Tom Dennison needed for an election, Vic Walker lost ownership of his bar. Attempting to get back at him, he began to prosecute allies of Dennison. He also filed corruption charges against police officers. Dennison had police officers Martin Shields and John Brady attack Walker on February 26. Charged with carrying a concealed weapon and resisting an officer, the officers beat Walker severely. The case against Walker was dismissed by the courts though, and believing Shields wanted to kill him, Walker took him to court. During the trial witnesses were not to be found, and Shields was found not guilty. Walker left Omaha shortly after that.
1903: Jack Broomfield assumes leadership of Omaha’s African-American community, controlling political and criminal activity throughout North Omaha for several years. He becomes Tom Dennison’s new Black lieutenant.
1905: Thomas Mahammitt’s The Enterprise 1906, rallies against a city council candidate who wished to exclude the sale of certain property to blacks in Omaha.
1906: Omaha’s Hose Company #12 hired the first African-American firefighters in the city.
1907: Thomas Mahammitt advocated for a boycott of firms who refused to serve blacks.
1908: African America Harrison Pinkett becomes the first university-trained lawyer in the State of Nebraska.
1908: W.E.B. DuBois visits his friend and ally Harrison Pinkett in Omaha.
1908: A race riot breaks out in Brownsville, Texas, after Black soldiers there are accused of attacking a white woman. Harrison Pinkett defends a group of African American soldiers at Fort Omaha accused in the 1906 Brownsville Affair.
1910: After a tremendous upset victory by African-American boxer Jack Johnson in Reno, Nevada, mobs of whites roamed throughout North Omaha rioting, as they did in cities across the U.S. The mobs wounded several black men in the city, killing one.
1910: Rowena Moore was born. She was a union and civic activist, and founder of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.
1910: The City of Omaha names John Grant Pegg the Inspector of Weights and Measures, making him the first African American appointed to that position.
1911: Lawyer Harrison Pinkett went against Tom Dennison’s supposed city government machine by supporting Omaha’s Anti-Saloon League.
1912: The Omaha chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded, the first NAACP chapter west of the Mississippi.
1914: Harrison Pinkett is heavily involved in the prosecution of black businesses in Omaha’s Midway, also called the Sporting District, which was the city’s red light district.
1915: The Omaha Monitor, edited and published by Rev. John Albert Williams, was established in North Omaha. It was nationally read. It ceased publication in 1929.
1915: The first film company owned by African Americans, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, was founded in Omaha.
1916: Harrison Pinkett was a part of campaigns in 1916 to make Douglass County a dry county, again butting heads with Tom Dennison.
1916: George Wells Parker started helping African Americans resettle in Omaha using The Monitor newspaper to advocate and educate, and sending mailers to the South.
1917: George Wells Parker founded the Hamitic League of the World in Omaha, committed to black nationalism.
1919: Around September 1st, police raid at a downtown hotel and shoot a black bellboy named Eugene Scott. The Omaha Bee called the shooting as reckless and indiscriminate, noting it as the “crowning achievement” of a “disgraceful and incompetent” Omaha police department.
1919: Omaha NAACP organized a rally in protest of over 600 people against the racist reporting of Omaha newspapers, including the World-Herald.
1919: W.E.B. DuBois spoke at the Omaha Civic Auditorium with Mayor Ed Smith in attendance.
1919: William Monroe Trotter, editor of the radical Boston Guardian, spoke at Zion Baptist Church.
1919:Will Brown was lynched in downtown Omaha as part of the “Red Summer”. U.S. Army soldiers from Fort Omaha were called to stop the rioting. Reestablishing control and stationed in South Omaha to prevent any more mobs from forming, the troops established a temporary base in North Omaha at 24th and Lake streets to prevent any further murders of black citizens. Orders were issued that any citizen with a gun faced immediate arrest. All blacks were ordered to remain indoors.
1920s: National Federation of Colored Women had five chapters in North Omaha with more than 750 members
1920: A relatively short-lived paper was started called the New Era, established in Omaha and published until 1926 by George W. Parker.
1920: Harrison Pinkett works with others to form the Colored Commercial Club to help blacks in Omaha secure employment and to encourage business enterprises among African Americans.
1920: The Baptist minister Earl Little founded the Omaha chapter of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Dr. John A. Singleton in 1928, while a Nebraska Legislator.
Between 1921 and 1950
1920: St. John AME Church built a factory for the employment of the women in the church.
1921: The Omaha and Council Bluffs Colored Ministerial Alliance demanded that Tom Dennison’s cabarets in the Sporting District “wherein there is unwarranted mingling of the races” be closed indefinitely.
1921: Harrison Pinkett hired George Wells Parker to be editor of a new Black newspaper called The New Era.
1922: Parker leaves The New Era and created a new 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.
1923: John Williams, W. W. Peebles and Harrison Pinkett protest against the Omaha World-Herald publishing remarks of KKK imperial wizard Hiram Wesley Evans.
1925: Malcolm Little was born in Omaha. Later he took the name Malcolm X and became a significant leader in the United States.
1925: Bertha Calloway was born. She was the founder of Omaha’s Negro History Society and the Great Plains Black History Museum.
1927: The largest Negro newspaper west of the Missouri River for a period of time, the Omaha Guide, was established by B. V. and C. C. Galloway in Omaha. The paper had a circulation of over twenty-five thousand and an advertisers’ list including business firms from coast to coast.
1927: Dr. John Andrew Singleton, an African American dentist and civil rights activist, represents North Omaha in the Nebraska Legislature.
1927: Harrison Pinkett survives an attack by a man with a gun who was screaming against Pinkett’s anti-gambling efforts in Omaha.
1928: The first chapter National Urban League west of the Mississippi River was formed in Omaha.
1929: Dr. Aaron Manasses McMillan represents North Omaha in the Nebraska Legislature.
1930: A clandestine group started called the Knights and Daughters of Tabor in Omaha. Also known as the “Knights of Liberty”, it was a secret African-American organization whose goal was “nothing less than the destruction of slavery.”
1930: 1930, two men placed an iron cross covered with oil-soaked burlap and set it on fire on the lawn of African American community leader, dentist and politician John Singleton. John was away, but his wife and niece were there. His father, Millard Singleton, also a community leader, arrived shortly and tore down the cross in front of a large crowd.
1934: Thomas Mahammitt becomes the first African American to be awarded the “Silver Beaver Award” by the Boy Scouts of America.
1934: Thomas Mahammitt was voted Omaha’s “most distinguished Negro citizen” for his civic activities.
1930s: Redlining and race restrictive covenants become popular and widespread throughout North Omaha.
1930s: In the 1930s and 1940s African Americans were part of successful interracial organizing teams in Omaha’s meatpacking industry.
1947: A group of students developed the DePorres Club. In the 1950s, the offices of the Omaha Star hosted the DePorres Club after Creighton banned them from campus. The club hosted a community center called the Omaha DePorres Center to meet the needs of low-income families. It eventually started branches in Denver and Kansas City. According to one historian, “Their goals and tactics foreshadowed the efforts of civil rights activists throughout the nation in the 1960s.”
1948: African American doctor Aaron McMillan opens the People’s Hospital on 20th and Grace Streets, closing it in 1953.
1948: At age 80, Thomas Mahammitt retired as scoutmaster of Troop 79 at Long School.
1949: The Omaha Urban League honors Thomas Mahammitt for his work on inter-racial co-operation.
1950: Whitney Young became the director of Omaha’s Urban League.
The Hamitic League of the World was founded by George Wells Parker in Omaha
Between 1951 and 1980
1952: The DePorres Club started the Omaha Bus Boycott, which lasted until 1954. Mildred Brown, a leader of the boycott, extolled readers of The Omaha Star to “Don’t ride Omaha’s buses or streetcars. If you must ride, protest by using 18 pennies.” Focusing on ending the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company’s policy of not hiring black drivers, the boycott was successful.
1954: the City of Omaha Fire Department was formally integrated.
1954: The Fair Deal Cafe opened at North 24th Street. It was regarded as the “Black City Hall”. It closed in 2003.
1958: Salem Baptist Church hosted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a major speaking event in Omaha.
1958: A group of African American educators in Omaha Public Schools started a professional caucus called Concerned and Caring Educators that continues to this day.
1960: Omaha’s public housing was desegregated.
1960: Construction began on the North Freeway. It is a physical barrier separating the African American community, undermining the businesses on 24th and 30th Streets, and is largely disregarded by North Omaha residents.
1962: The Black Panthers Party (BPP) starts operating in Omaha. They work with anti-poverty agencies, on a petition drive, operated a liberation school (Freedom School) for children, publish a newsletter and worked on a breakfast program.
1963: The Citizens Civic Committee for Civil Liberties, or 4CL, was founded in Omaha. The group rallied throughout the city to demand civil rights for all African Americans through picketing, stand-ins during city council meetings and other efforts. They set forth the formal agenda for Omaha’s civil rights movement, with three main goals to be achieved through state legislation: to ensure equal housing opportunities and equal job opportunities for African Americans, and to secure integrated schools through busing for all African American students.
1963: local youth activists were successful in bringing down the color barrier at Peony Park, the city’s main amusement park, after protesting at the admission gates for several weeks.
1963: Civil rights demonstrations in Omaha led to the creation of the Omaha Human Rights Commission. This commission was regarded as a sham by many.
1964: Malcolm X spoke in Omaha.
1963: the Black Association for Nationalism Through Unity (BANTU) was a unique Omaha youth activism group that organized African American students in the city’s high schools. Focusing on black power and self-determination, BANTU claimed concessions from the Omaha City Council, with Senator Edward R. Danners lobbying the Nebraska State Legislature on their behalf.
1966: In July, riots begin near 24th and Lake during the heat of the summer with no recreational activities available to local young people. Riots, including throwing firebombs and demolishing storefronts, continue for three days until the Army National Guard is called to stop it.
1966: In August, riots happen after police kill a 19-year-old African American who was reportedly burglarizing a house.
1966: The documentary film, A Time for Burning, was nominated for an Oscar. It was focused on North Omaha’s racial tensions and a young leader named Ernie Chambers.
1968: An integrated crowd protesting racist presidential candidate George Wallace’s speech downtown was dispersed by riot police. Fleeing crowds firebombed North Omaha businesses, turned over cars and caused other damage. Ernie Chambers is credited with stopping the riots the next day.
1968: Local youth Ed Poindexter was Chairman of the Omaha affiliate chapter, and college student David Rice (Mondo we Langa) became the Minister of Information of the local BPP chapter.
1968: The FBI establishes COINTELPRO offices in Omaha to conduct surveillance on North Omaha’s African American political activities, with Director J. Edgar Hoover telling The New York Times the BPP was “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
1969: Riots happen again after an Omaha Police officer shoots an unarmed African American girl named Vivian Strong in the back. Three buildings were firebombed, and 180 riot police were used to stop the riots.
1970: Black Panther Party leaders Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice) and Edward Poindexter were charged and convicted of the murder of Omaha Police Officer Larry Minard with a bomb. At the time they were charged, they were leaders of the BPP’s National Committee to Combat Fascism.
1970: Lois Mark Stalvey’s book, The Education of a WASP, was published about Omaha’s integration efforts and brings a spotlight to the city across the U.S.
1971: Omaha Public Schools starts its integrated school busing program as a result of the 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education ruling enforcing Desegregation busing in the United States.
1976: The Negro History Society formally opened the Great Plains Black History Museum with the goal of celebrating African American contributions to the city and region.
Dr. Matthew Ricketts (1858–1917) was the first African American college graduate, lawyer and state legislator in Nebraska.
From 1981 to the Present
1981: Fred Conley became the first African American elected to the Omaha City Council.
1992: Carol Woods Harris became the first African American elected to the Douglas County Board and served until 2004.
1996: the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects were torn down, and by the end of the decade, all of the city’s large scale housing projects were gone.
2002: The City of Omaha installed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Cornerstone Memorial at the NW corner of 24th & Lake Streets in 2002.
2003: Native Omahan Thomas Warren was named the city’s first African-American Chief of Police for the Omaha Police Department.
2005: Ernie Chambers became the longest-serving State Senator in Nebraska history
Timeline of African American Politicians in Omaha
Did you know there have been at least 11 members of the Nebraska Legislature representing North Omaha who were and/or are African American? In my research, I have located…
I only share this information in an attempt to raise awareness. As a white male who grew up near 24th and Fort, I have a lot of respect for this history and I understand that its not particularly my own. However, I feel indebted to the African Americans I learned from, was mentored by and who I still hold love for in my heart. If you have any questions, comments, concerns, considerations or ideas, please leave a comment below.
What would you add? Share your thoughts, additions, corrections and information in the section below.
North Omaha History Podcast Episode 2: Early African American Leaders in Omaha – Adam Fletcher Sasse takes us back to the 19th century to let us know about Omaha’s earliest African American leaders including Silas Robbins, Dr. Matthew Ricketts, the Singleton family, John Grant Pegg and into the 20th century with Clarence Wigington and Mildred Brown. (March 7, 2017; 15 mins) Listen online or download on iTunes
North Omaha History Podcast Episode 3: Early North Omaha Community Leaders, Part 1 – In this episode, Adam Fletcher Sasse talks about early leaders in the Omaha community, including, believe it or not, Brigham Young! Also, learn about the founders of Florence, Saratoga, and Sulphur Springs, as well as the Kountze brothers. (March 7, 2017; 14 mins). Listen online or download on iTunes
When the Trans-Mississippi Exposition happened in North Omaha in 1898, the city wanted to make sure all visitors knew how easy it was to get to the site. Using some promotional materials from that time, I’ve written a history of streetcars in North Omaha in the 1890s.
This history surely changed a lot between then and 1955, when the last streetcars ran in the city. However, this short account provides some details about what the lines looked like at their height in the city’s north end.
Were There REALLY Streetcars in North O?
Streetcar barn at 24th and Ames in North Omaha, courtesy of Don Ross.
In the 1890s, Omaha’s streetcar system was operated by private companies, with the majority of the lines owned by the Omaha Street Railway Company. The lines served Omaha, Dundee, Florence, Council Bluffs, and South Omaha, totaling 126.5 miles long with 445 cars and almost 600 employees. It cost $.5 to ride anywhere in Omaha. By the end of streetcar service, the Omaha-Council Bluffs Railway and Bridge Company owned all of the lines and cars and employed all the operators and mechanics.
In the 1890s, there were three competing companies serving North Omaha. One was a horse-power streetcar company; another was a cable car company. They were powered by by a constantly moving cable under the trolley tracks like San Francisco. Then there was a streetcar company. Eventually, the smaller companies were bought out and they were all merged into one company.
Where Did They Go?
A horse-drawn streetcar from North Omaha’s earliest lines in the 1880s (est).
A.J. Hanscom and James G. Megeath were the city’s first boomers for streetcars. After donating the land for Hanscom Park in 1872, lots of people wanted to have a streetcar line that ran to it. It took a decade for that to happen though, and in 1882 Sunday service there started. Here’s a nice, short history of the city’s companies.
In North Omaha, the first streetcars operated in the Near North Omaha neighborhood. Their first spread northward was along North 16th and North 24th towards the fashionable Kountze Place neighborhood; soon afterwards they reached the Miller Park neighborhood along North 24th and North 30th.
North Omaha was so packed with streetcars that there were at least three maintenance barns in the community. The smallest of the three was located at North 26th and Lake; the oldest was at 22nd and Nicholas; and the largest and most grand was at 24th and Ames.
The streetcar schedules actually played a role in many North Omaha neighborhoods growing and transforming. As their schedules became more reliable and frequent, the fancy, exclusive neighborhoods along North 16th, Wirt Street, Sprague Street and north Florence Boulevard went from being upscale with mostly high-end single family residences towards mixing in multi-family buildings including duplexes, flats, and and apartment buildings. This happened throughout North Omaha.
The streetcars were vital to the health and well-being of the North Omaha community.
When the lines were taken out of North Omaha, the neighborhood began its decline. Since 1955, more than 60% of the multi-family units that were built in North Omaha have been demolished.
Many single-family suburban neighborhoods that eventually comprised North Omaha were also enabled to grow because of streetcars, including Minne Lusa, Miller Park, Benson, and Dundee.
What Did They Do?
The streetcar heading to 30th and Fort in the 1910s (est).
In 1898, the streetcar lines throughout North Omaha looked like these:
Dodge and North 20th Street Line
Route: From Lake south on 20th to Dodge, east on I lodge to 10th, south on 10th to Pacific.
Transferred at 10th and Pierce to Harney line going east:
At 13th street going east to 13th line going south.
At 13th street going west to Walnut Hill line going north or south.
At 14th street going west to Sherman Avenue and South Omaha line going north or south.
At 16th street going west to Park and 24th street line going north or south.
At 20th and Dodge going south to Harney line south or west.
At 20th and Dodge going north to Harney line west. At 20th and Cuming to Walnut Hill line west.
At 20th and Cuming going north to Park and 24th street line west.
At 20th and Lake streets to Lake street line going west.
This was a power station for North Omaha’s streetcars that was located at N. 27th and Lake Streets in circa 1915.
Hanscom Park and North 24th Street Line
Route: From Sprague south on 24th to Cuming, east on Cuming to 16th, south on 16th to Leavenworth, west on Leavenworth to 29th Ave, south on 29th Ave. to Hickory, east on Hickory to 29th, south on 29th to Dupont, west branch from 29th Ave. west on Pacific to 32nd. south on 32nd to Center.
Transferred at 24th and Cuming going south to Walnut Hill line going east or west:
At 24th and Cuming, going north to Walnut Hill line going west
At 20th and Cuming, going east to Dodge street line going south.
At 16th and Dodge to the Dodge line going east.
At 16th and Farnam to Farnam line going west.
At Leavenworth and Park Avenue to Leavenworth line going west.
At Pacific street going west or south.
At 16th and Harney streets going north to Harney line going east or west.
At 24th and Lake streets, going west on Lake street.
At 24th and Ames Avenue on Ames Avenue going west.
At 16th and Leavenworth going north to South Omaha and Sherman Avenue line going north or south.
The southeast corner of N. 24th and Ames was home to this gigantic streetcar barn for more than 50 years.
The Sherman Avenue and South Omaha Line
Route: From 36th east on Ames to Commercial, southeast on Commercial to Sherman Avenue, south on Sherman Avenue to Clark, west on Clark to 17th, south on 17th to Cass, east on Cass to 14th, south on 14th to Howard, west on Howard to 16th, south on 16th to Vinton, west on Vinton to 24th, south on 24th to South Omaha.
Transferred at 24th and Ames Avenue east to I and 24th street line going south.
At Locust street to East Omaha line.
At Dodge and 14th street to Dodge street line going east.
At 14th and Harney streets to Harney line going east.
At 24th and N streets to L street line going south.
At 24th and N streets to Albright line going south.
At 16th and Leavenworth to Park Avenue and 24th street line going west.
A suburban streetcar heading through East Omaha in the 1940s (est).
The Farnam and 41st Street Line
Route: From William north on 10th to Farnam, west on Farnam to 41st.
Transferred at 16th street going east to Park Avenue and 24th street line going north or south.
At 20th street going east to Harney line going north.
At loth and Pierce to Harney line going north or east.
Also to Dodge street line going north.
At 13th street going east to Walnut Hill and south 13th Street line going south.
Walnut Hill and South 16th Street Line
Route: From 45th southeast on Military Avenue to Hamilton, east on Hamilton to 40th, south on Win to Cuming, east on Cuming to 16th, south on 16th to Webster, east on Webster to 13th to B.
Transfers at 84th and Cuming going east to Park and 24th street line going north and east.
At 18th and Dodge going south to Dodge street line going east At 13th and Farnam going north to Farnam street line going west.
At 80th and Cuming going east to Dodge street line north and south.
At 13th and Dodge going north to Dodge street Line going west.
Route: From 45th northwest and west on Military Avenue to Benson.
Transferred to Walnut Hill line at 15th and Military Avenue.
Route: From Farnam north to Dodge, east on Dodge to 40th, north on 19th to California, west on California to 51st
Transferred to Farnam street line at list and Farnam.
East Omaha Line
Route: From Sherman Avenue east on Locust to 29th street, Bast Omaha. Cortland Beach branch extends north from Locust on 13th street, East Omaha, to Cortland Beach.
Transferred to Sherman Avenue line at Locust and Sherman Avenue.
In the decade after the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, streetcar service was expanded greatly throughout North Omaha, connecting Florence to the city, drawing in Ames Avenue, Fort Street, and other commercial areas along N. 16th, N. 24th and N. 30th Streets. Walnut Hill, Benson, Dundee, and several western neighborhoods in North Omaha were also served for the first time.
Streetcars in Omaha crossing through a neighborhood in the 1940s (est). This is what the N. 24th line looked like.
Streetcars Were Segregated
Not everyone loved North Omaha’s streetcars all the time.
The Omaha-Council Bluffs Streetcar and Bridge Company was largely segregated through 1954. Hiring only white conductors, the African Americans who worked for the company and its predecessors were only allowed to work in the machine shop and as cleaners. This made the company an obvious target for civil rights protests.
Starting in the late 1940s they were the target of a general boycott called by the DePorres Club, a central group in Omaha’s civil rights movement. The group targeted the railroad for its segregation practices and poor service to the Near North Side neighborhood. African Americans were also segregated to sitting in the back of streetcars throughout the entire existence of the service.
This is the interior of the streetcar barn at N. 24th and Ames in the 1940s.
There Was Labor Strife
There was a lot of labor strife between the streetcar company owners and the workers who ran the services and kept the cars running.
In 1935, a strike led to the shutdown of the city’s lines for more than a week. There were beatings, riots and a lot of violence associated with this particular strike. Other smaller strikes had happened, but this one caused a lot of change in the system.
A est. 1930s streetcar heading to 30th and Fort
Florence Boulevard was renowned for not having tracks, and as a result, people called the boulevard “the only suitable driveway in the city.”
There was a streetcar that ran throughout Omaha that only collected mail. The lines ran right to the back of the downtown post office, and the mail delivery was known to be rapid and effective. That didn’t last long though.
In 1899, after the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, many of the large streetcars that carried big numbers of people were taken out of service. Residents in North Omaha’s Walnut Hill suburb got so frustrated they took over several streetcars in the city to protest. The company responded by increasing the service to their neighborhood for a short time.
Omaha’s streetcars were built in Omaha, which was a rarity at the time.
Early advertisements for the Minne Lusa neighborhood, which was founded in 1914, flaunt the streetcar lines on North 24th and North 30th. The same advertisements for individual homes do not discuss detached garages, since they weren’t relevant for the streetcar commuter.
Public transportation routes in North Omaha started switching from electric streetcars to gas buses in 1952, and the last streetcar in Omaha ran in 1955. Since then, there’s been no form of light rail, trolleys, streetcars or otherwise in the city.
A few years ago, a major study concluded that modern streetcars are one of the best ways Omaha’s mass transit can develop in the years to come. Only time will tell if this actually happens though…
This map is from Richard Orr’s SPECTACULAR book on Omaha streetcars.
North Omaha Streetcar Tour
Want to drive or walk in North Omaha where streetcars and their passengers went? Here’s a tour of historical locations, including the streets, stations and other points along the way! In 1889, there were three kinds of cars that ran on rails in North Omaha: horse-drawn, electric, and cable cars. By 1926, there were only electric streetcars.
Nicholas Street Carbarn belonging to the Omaha Street Railway, southeast corner of North 20th and Nicholas Streets
Site of the Nicholas Street Powerhouse belonging to the Omaha Motor Railway, northeast corner of North 23rd and Nicholas Streets
Site of the Cablecar Depot, northwest corner of North 20th and Lake Streets
Site of a Streetcar Barn belonging to the Omaha Motor Railway, north side of Ames Avenue at Commercial Ave
Site of the Streetcar War, North 30th and Ames Avenue. In 1889, 200 horsecar rail layers battled 100 electric car rail layers to see who would control this intersection.
By now, many North Omahans are familiar with the grand, wonderful, exuberant and spectacular event know as the Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898. However, not many people know that the “event of the century” almost didn’t happen in banker Augustus Kountze’s land centered on 24th and Evans.
In planning for at least three years before it was launched, the Expo committee worked diligently for many months to identify the absolute perfect place to hold the event. Led by early Omaha banker Gurdon Wattles, this committee was stocked with business leaders and other informed by locally important people including David Mercer and William Jennings Bryan.
Starting at the end of 1895, this committee considered five sites, none of which included Kountze Place.
Site 1: East Omaha
An 1895 map of East Omaha. Note the area being discussed is left of the Cutoff Lake.
The East Omaha site referred to land between Cutoff Lake (Carter Lake) to the south and (the now-gone) Florence Lake to the north. It included almost 1,000 level acres that were dotted with trees and was near a lot of water. Less than three miles north from Omaha’s downtown post office, North 16th Street ran right to the site, and a new bridge across the Missouri River made the site accessible from Iowa. The city of Council Bluffs favored this site.
Site 2: Elmwood Park
An early photo of Elmwood Park.
At 215 acres, the Elmwood Park site was just over three miles west of the post office. In 1895, the Nebraska state fairgrounds were directly south of the park and would be used. The second largest in H.W.S. Cleveland’s Omaha park designs, it was donated to the city in 1889. Described as a romantic spot with many beautiful elm trees, it was originally 55 acres (today it is over 200 acres). By 1892, scenic roadways were added and a seven acre lake was installed. Early on, the park had a popular mineral spring with magnesia, soda and various other minerals. (It was capped in the 1940s.) Here’s the Omaha Public Library history of Elmwood Park.
Site 3: Riverview Park
An est. 1900s image of a lake at Riverview Park.
The Riverview Park site originally offered 66 acres of very hilly land, along with leases secured for another 300 acres all around the park. It was only two miles from the post office. Eventually the park totaled 111 acres. Here is a nice, short history of the park. Here is the Omaha Public Library’s history of the park.
Site 4: Hanscom Park
An est 1890s postcard from Hanscom Park.
Hanscom Park offered 50 acres for the Expo. One of the city’s oldest parks, it was donated in 1872 by A.J. Hanscom and James Megeath. In 1889, H.W.S. Cleveland was hired to landscape the park. Eventually, it had two lakes, a small waterfall, flower beds, fountains and a forest. There were also more than two miles of roads installed. West of the public park, more than 200 additional acres were secured for the Expo. The site was only two miles from the downtown post office, and had paved streets leading to it from all directions. Here is a history of the park from the Omaha Public Library.
Site 5: Miller Park
An est. 1890s postcard from Miller Park.
Miller Park sits on 80 acres that are four miles from the original downtown post office. Two street car lines ran nearly to the park along North 24th and North 30th. There was reportedly no natural water available for the lakes wanted at the Expo, but a large water main ran nearby from the Florence Water Works. Leases were obtained for an additional 400 acres of property to the north of the park, where today’s beautiful Minne Lusa neighborhood sits. There were also plans to use the then-defunct Fort Omaha.
Site 6: The Winner Was… Kountze Park!
A rare evening image of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition at what became Kountze Park.
We know the Kountze Place site was eventually selected. Turns out, Historical documents say why it was chosen, and why it wasn’t listed among early candidates. A blogger called Omababe wrote a tremendously readable history of the Expo that I recommend.
Hidden deep in the heart of North Omaha is a jewel of a street, filled with abundant American foursquare houses, long yards and hints of its glory 100 years ago. This section of wirt street, from north 16th to north 24th streets, was once home to some of the predominant names in the beautiful Kountze Place development.
It was also home to more than simple Foursquare style homes. In addition to the stout middle class houses, there were some exquisite examples of high style in Omaha history. This article highlights those beauties, which suggest a future for the Wirt Street historic district.
William O. Wirt was a “wide awake and energetic” businessman in Council Bluffs starting in the 1870s. His store there, the Boston Tea Company, was said to be a full-service grocery store that was completely stocked with everything the early settler would need for their westward travels. Somewhere along the way, he did somebody a favor and likely ended up with a street in North Omaha named after him.
Somehow, Wirt Street became a hotbed for substantial architecture in North Omaha—and that’s saying a lot, given the area’s historically powerful architectural history. Imagine gas lamps and cobblestone streets lining the way starting in the 1880s, and let’s start on an excursion through Omaha history…
Starting at Sherman Street
Starting in the 1860s and 1870s, Sherman Street, aka North 16th Street, was a rural escape for wealthy businessmen suffering the daily grind in young Omaha City. They would toil at their factories, offices and warehouses in today’s downtown area, then ride fancy carriages to their country escapes overlooking the Missouri River. Those mansions sat along N. 16th.
In the 1880s, that strip evolved when the streetcar lines were laid along this stretch up to Lothrop. Suddenly, white collar workers were hopping off the streetcars and into fancy apartment buildings along the way. The old mansions were either torn down, converted into apartments, or held onto tightly by their old owners.
Starting on N. 14th St., Wirt is routinely stocked with large, 2 1/2 story American Foursquare homes. There are a lot of large, house-wide porches and dormers poking out from attics, as well as partially exposed basement foundations and old driveways. The curbs were cut sharp in the old days, and they generally haven’t been replaced or well kept since then. Grass covers a few spots. Some homeowners are keeping up their houses though, and we’re going to look at the most spectacular of them.
The Kountze Place neighborhood was originally platted by Augustus Kountze in the 1870s. After a delay of construction during a long recession, in the 1880s it began to fill in. After the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition, this was highly sought-after land and many of the following homes were built in the following decade. Houses built after 1920 were mostly in-fill, and don’t reflect the overall stately manner of the homes on the Wirt Street Historic District.
Built in Omaha’s once-posh Kountze Place suburb, today Wirt Street sits in the heart of North Omaha. The houses featured here are ones I love, but its easy to see there are plenty more that could and should be added. If you know of others that belong here, please comment below.
Its hard to say what once existed, but here are a few houses between N. 16th and N. 24th Streets that still exist today that make this street so notable.
George Shepard House
1802 Wirt Street was finished in 1887. Called the George F. Shepard House, it was built by a stonemason who personalized much of the residence with marble and stone etchings. With 5 bedrooms at 4415 square feet, it is the largest existent house on the street today. This home is the template for the Queen Anne/Beaux-Arts architectural style used in this period, with an asymmetrical floor and roof plan, a rounded turret, a wraparound porch, and the shingles used on the third floor to offset the brickwork on the first two levels. There’s a generous lawn with historically accurate flora throughout it, all of which is well-kept.
1805 Wirt Street
1805 Wirt Street was completed in 1908. At just over 3,300 square feet, it is the second largest house along this section of Wirt today. This is a Classical Revival style home, with a dark brown brick exterior and white wood trim, and tall pillars on the front, which also features an asymmetrical, yet finely balanced appeal. Two stories and a full attic give this home its substantive appearance, along with a well-kept, broad lawn and greenery.
1812 Wirt Street was built by the namesake of the David Cole Creamery. His business was so lucrative that it enabled him to build this fine Eastlake style home, including more than 8 rooms and at least 2,000 square feet. The David Cole Creamery was located at 10th and Howard Street.
Van Cort House
2210 Wirt Street was finished in 1893. This 2,750 square foot Queen Anne style home was built with brick and mortar, and wood clapboard on the partial third floor. Featuring a wraparound porch with a corner turret, the home has several distinct Victorian features, including flourished windows and porch details.
2120 Wirt Street
2120 Wirt Street was finished in 1910. Built in the Period Dutch Colonial Revival style, this house has a unique cross-gable grambel roof covering the second floor. It also features a rounded porch and arched dormers, with an accent window above the second floor south-facing windows. The home is in good condition and has a large yard that is cared for.
1902 Wirt Street
1902 Wirt Street was built in 1900. With 3,000 square feet and a wraparound porch, this home represents a high point in neighborhood construction. Its square tower represents a high Victorian adaptation with a simplified plain wood exterior. The house is surrounded by an ample lawn which is well-kept.
Charles Storz House
1901 Wirt Street is also known as the Charles Storz House. Storz, the brother of Storz Brewery owner Gottlieb Storz, finished building the house in 1890, with almost 3,900 square feet throughout the 2 1/2 story house. With its wraparound porch and variety of exterior finishes, this is an Arts and Crafts style home. The mostly symmetrical home is complimented by the offset porch. A small, central bay window on the second floor is an interesting feature, as are the exposed eaves on the porch and roofline. The lawn is well-kept and the trees are in magnificent condition.
M. B. Copeland House
The Copeland House at 1920 Wirt Street was built in 1888 in a contemporary Midwestern style, featuring stone and mortar exterior with some stucco and a multi-pitched roof. With just over 2,000 square feet, its not the largest house on this page. However, it has many interesting features, including three stories, two beautiful bay window sets on the front and east-facing side, and a tall, semi-exposed basement. It has a mature lawn with beautiful trees.
Wirt Street was thick with mansions. Starting in 1890, the Major Wilcox mansion at 2100 Wirt was next to the Weller mansion at 2102 Wirt, which was down the street from the Alfred Jones mansion at 2018 Wirt. None of these exist today, but their memories haunt the street and remind people what was great in Kountze Place.
Other houses to note include the pictured house at 2115 Wirt St. is a stately wood frame Victorian built in 1890. Clocking in at 2,700 square feet, it is covered in interestingly patterned wood siding and is in poor condition. There is also 2024 Wirt St., which was built in 1900. It is a wood frame Victorian with almost 2,900 square feet. The house is largely overgrown and doesn’t appear occupied. As I said earlier, there are many American foursquare houses on Wirt, too. Many have wide hipped roofs with thick porches and beautiful yards. There are several that top 3,000 square feet.
2214 Wirt Street was built in the 1870s as a mansion for J.J. and Mary McLain, an enterprising couple from Ohio. After Mary became involved in a charity, she donated their house to become the Old Peoples Home in the 1890s. Designed in the Italianate Revival style popular in post-pioneer Omaha, the building was three stories with a full basement. It had at least 24 rooms, as well as a large front porch. After sitting empty, it was demolished after a fire in 1969.
A. D. Jones / Anna Wilson Mansion
Built by Omaha pioneer Alfred D. Jones, the mansion at 2018 Wirt Street represented the height of his success. With ten rooms of the finest dark brick, the house sat on a ten-acre fruit orchard when he built it in 1891. In 1906, notorious Omaha madam Anna Wilson bought it and lived there until 1911 when she passed away. The house changed hands over and over after that, and was torn down by the 1980s.
2024 Wirt Street
2024 Wirt Street is a 2,900 square foot house built in 1900. Representing the high Queen Anne style, it has scalloped siding on three stories. Although its historical provenance was plainly obvious, this house was demolished in 2017.
1907 Wirt Street
Architect George Lee Fisher designed the house at 1907 Wirt Street in Kountze Place for himself, and it was built in 1887. When Charles Storz was seeking a well-appointed lot for his mansion, he chose the spot next door to the Fisher House.
There is no Wirt Street Historic District – yet. Its just a good idea I had after scanning these magnificent homes. Following are some other interesting imaginings you could ponder…
Coming home from your bustling job downtown, it would have been a lovely walk up or down Wirt Street from your N. 16th St. streetcar. On a weekend day, you might have grabbed a bite to eat at Brown’s Quick Lunch Restaurant on N. 16th, or taken a lovely walk to Kountze Park for a stroll around the lake. Maybe you walked around the Omaha University campus to watch the freshmen frolicking on the lawns. In 1890, the Presbyterian Hospital of Omaha was established at 1626 Wirt Street. Maybe you went there to see your sick grandmother.
Alfred D. Jones, the first postmaster of Omaha and a pioneer present in a lot of the city’s early history, once owned a house at 2018 Wirt Street. In 1894, he watched his mother-in-law die in his house, and probably didn’t even bother to take her to the neighboring hospital – born in 1799, she was practically ancient for her times, having lived to age 95. She didn’t quite make it long enough to stay at the Christian Women’s Association Old Folks’ Home, which was once right down the street from Jones’ house.
A century later, you may send your kids your kids to the King Science Center, or attended church at one of the twenty churches within the nearest blocks. Taking the bus up N. 24th, if it was the 1950s you might’ve stopped at 24th and Lake or across the street from the original school where King is. During that time period, one of your neighbors at 2727 Wirt Street would have been Omaha’s first African American school principal, Eugene Skinner. He later became the first African American to hold the positions of director and assistant superintendent for OPS, too. His house was eventually bulldozed to make the North Freeway.
Today, you may take a long drive to get groceries, but if you live in one of the beauties shown above, I understand why you’re willing to take it. Thank you for keeping your houses, Wirt Street. I salute you and all the people who live in your most hallowed halls!
Just like school districts everywhere, Omaha Public Schools has had a challenge serving disengaged students ever since students were mandated to go to school by compulsory school law. In Nebraska, that year was 1887. After a few decades, the Fort Street Special School for Incorrigible Boys was their answer to the challenge these students posed.
Different Types of Students
Instead of being able to self-select not to attend school, students were now forced to sit through classes whether or not they wanted to be there. In order to enforce behavior that was favorable for how teachers wanted to instruct students, teachers and principals often used corporal punishment to ensure student compliance.
But teachers weren’t intentionally cruel then, as they aren’t now, either. They wanted to teach every student, and they wrestled with those they couldn’t reach. Of course, students who couldn’t be taught the ways teachers were teaching them were called “backwards”, so maybe there was a little cruelty then.
There were students then who teachers weren’t capable of teaching, and students who couldn’t learn from those teachers. Coupled with the newly opened Commercial High School, the Omaha School Board believed that the two schools were perfectly coupled for meeting the needs of commerce and industry.
A New School
In 1913, OPS began planning for a school for boys who “had no interest in school at all” and were considered “mischief makers”. Referred to as a “parental school,” The buildings at the new school were the original wooden buildings of Miller Park School. Superintendent E. U. Graff of the Omaha school district was adamant, “The new school is not a reformatory, a penitentiary, an asylum or a jail, as some seem to image. It is an attempt to fit the public school system to the needs of individuals. The big system deals principally with ‘the average child,” and not all children are of that sort.”
In 1913, the Miller Park buildings were moved to the 30th and Browne site and used for the new Fort School. Eventually, the same buildings were moved to become Minne Lusa Elementary School. constructed a building near North 30th and Fort Streets in the Miller Park neighborhood, and opened it in January 1914. Its address was 5100 N. 30th Street, at the corner of 30th and Browne.
Alternatively called “a school for tinkerers,” the Fort Street School Special School for Boys had 20 students enrolled in the beginning, and by August of 1913 there were 50. By December, there was a waiting list of 17. Another room was added to the school the following year.
A former school truancy officer named E. D. Gepson was the first principal, and a year later, Frederick Wilson Bason became his assistant principal.
“I expect to arrange for instruction in painting, woodworking and drawing especially. Through hand work we will teach the boy who no longer cares for direct instruction from the books.”
E. U. Graff, superintendent, Omaha School District (1913)
The school was opened to provide manual training in printing, agriculture metal, and drafting. There were metal and wood working shops, as well as a repair shop so students could learn to fix small items.
The boys used their creativity to learn. A buzzer and gong system throughout the school signaled class periods from an old clock mechanism that was wired to electricity, and it was built by a student. Their were constantly in project-based learning activities. In 1916, schools around the city were asked to submit birdhouses to a conservation project at Forest Lawn Cemetery. Most schools sent 20; the Fort Street School sent 40.
The school also emphasized using athletics to connect its students with learning and with students in buildings around the city. Starting in 1913, they used golf at Miller Park to do this. Later, baseball, basketball and football were seen as tools.
The Fort Street School began as a place where bad kids were sent. However, in time it became a place that students wanted to go. It earned a reputation as a place that was actually fun to learn at, and that drew interested students out of the woodwork. However, its success became its downfall.
In 1918, Assistant Principal Bason was reassigned to South High School, where he stayed for a few years before moving back to Chicago, where he worked as an engineer with railroads.
Established earlier than the Fort Street School, Omaha’s Commercial High School was originally located on Leavenworth Street. A success of its own, in 1920 the school board moved forward with building a grand new facility nearer to Omaha’s central area.
In 1923, a massive new school was opened at the corner of North 30th and Cuming. Planned as the replacement of Commercial High School, the new building was called Technical High School. Since the Fort Street School was becoming too full and offered some similar courses as Tech, it was soon after closed and its students sent to attend the new school.
Closed, Merged and Moved
Made of two buildings, the Fort School was moved to become the Minne Lusa School in 1917 and 1919. The operations of the school were merged into Tech, and eventually, the memory of the Fort Street Special School for Boys diminished from the memory of the neighborhood, the city and its students. With the expansion of Metro Community College right across the street from the old school site though, maybe the idea of practical, hands on learning is being reclaimed.
This is a 1920s map of Omaha focusing on Benson and showing some of North Omaha.
After an early history filled with American Indian hunting grounds, fur trading posts, fleeing religious groups, and people living Gophertown and other places around North Omaha, the community’s history kept growing.
North Omaha grew in little towns; it grew in isolated ethnic neighborhoods; and it grew around churches and schools. The reasons it grew varied, but always depended on the people who were growing it.
This is a middle history of North Omaha covering the era between the 1870s and 1950s. A lot happened in those 80s years, and I tried to give each topic covered here an introduction, but not much more. I hope its useful!
Historic locations in North Omaha’s Saratoga neighborhood.
Historic locations along North Omaha’s North 16th neighborhood.
Historic sites in North Omaha’s Miller Park neighborhood.
Historic sites in North Omaha’s Minne Lusa neighborhood.
Where the early history of North Omaha was made of rugged settlers and town builders, the middle history is about community building, struggling, and ambitious businessmen. While downtown Omaha was growing in strides from the 1860s through the 1880s, North Omaha became an area filled with countryside estates for wealthy people and hovels for poor folks. Through this period it eventually fills in, and whites start to move out.
Some of the earliest neighborhoods in North Omaha include the Near North Side and Walnut Hill. The pioneer towns of Florence, East Omaha and Saratoga (including Sulphur Springs) continued growing at their own paces. North 16th was called Sherman Avenue and only had country estates on it, and North 24th was called Saunders Street. North 30th wasn’t hobbled together until 1900, and Cuming Street was the only east-west main street.
In early Omaha history, North 16th Street (called Sherman Avenue for a while) was the main northbound road out of Omaha, heading north to Florence. Cuming Street headed west, and split to the northwest to take riders to Fremont. the Winter Quarters Road continued north to Blair. Several wealthy Omahans built their estates in present-day North Omaha, including A.J. Poppleton, Herman Kountze, former Territorial Governor Alvin Saunders, and John Reddick.
The Redick Mansion was built at 3612 North 24th Street, at the edge of Herman Kountze’s platted claim, in 1875. The Redick Mansion would later play an important role in the development of North Omaha, and eventually the city as a whole.
Other towns popped up around the area during this time, including DeBolt, Middleville, and Briggs.
50 Years of Growth
The rest of modern-day North Omaha developed moderately. The Near North Side, closest to downtown, developed quickly in this middle period by providing moderate-sized homes, apartments and flats for working class European immigrants and African Americans.
During that same period, from the 1870s through the 1880s, a small neighborhood of African American families developed nearby and was called “Portertown”; eventually, the African American population of Omaha came to reside throughout much of the North Omaha area. By the 1910s, the size of the African American community threatened whites so much that the neighborhood was redlined, effectively forcing African Americans to stay alienated and isolated in a specific area.
East Omaha became an enclave of low income whites, including the area around the old Florence Lake and Lake Nakoma, now known as Carter Lake, once known as Cutoff Lake. The lake was a hotbed of local sporting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and featured sailing events, rowing clubs, Bungalow City, and the Omaha Gun Club.
In the next 50 years, European ethnic groups in the area included Jewish people from Russian, Latvia, Lithuania and other eastern European countries; Scandanavians, including Norwegians and Swedes; Germans; and English people, whose distinct architectural styles can still be seen around Saratoga. Eventually, the neighborhoods around the town of Florence, including Minne Lusa, Miller Park and Belvedere all sprang up.
The Florence Boulevard developed spectacularly, first as “The Most Beautiful Mile in America”, and later as a suburban driving road with wonderful views of the river. Starting with the development of the Minne Lusa neighborhood, in the 1910s the area near Florence became home to a Danish immigrant community. With a variety of churches and social clubs, the neighborhood was the cultural center for many of North Omaha’s working class and middle-class whites.
Neighborhoods grew around the old Prospect Hill Cemetery, showing up as Orchard Hill, Prospect Hill and other areas. Benson became popular, had a trolly and other features, including the once amusement park at Krug Park. The neighborhood surrounding Fontenelle Park filled in nicely, weaving along the once recreational drive of Fontenelle Boulevard.
But the most important neighborhood in North Omaha during this period was easily Kountze Place. Platted by pioneer Omaha banker Herman Kountze, this neighborhood became a wealthy suburb built for doctors, lawyers and other white collar business owners. Before opulent houses and spectacular churches were built there, though, Kountze had to attract buyers. To do that, he donated land to a group of business leaders who were launching a grand event to promote the city.
Allen Jones, president of the Omaha Colored Commercial Club, was atypical of the leaders of business at the turn of the century.
Early businesses and housing were propelled by the introduction of a horse-driven street railroad in the 1870s, and electrical streetcar lines operated in North Omaha until 1955. There were lines throughout the city, and depots across North Omaha. They included the Weber Street Station, the Oak Chatham Depot, the Lake Street Station, the Druid Hill Station, and the Walnut Hill Station. Benson and Florence had depots, too. Streetcars were very important to the development of the community.
Some early businesses in North Omaha were established by Jewish immigrants, who became part of the larger community of successful business people who built downtown Omaha.
African Americans established a strong business district in the area of 24th and Lake Streets in the 1920s, including clothing, barbers, butchers, tailors, morticians and recreational businesses.
There were more than twenty movie theaters in the history of North Omaha. Some examples include the Minne Lusa Theater, a one-screen neighborhood movie house that opened in the mid-1920s; the Diamond, the Corby, the Lothrop, the Beacon, the Loyal, the Ritz, and the North Star Theatre.
Lincoln Motion Pictures was America’s first Black-owned movie production company, located right in North Omaha. The Lincoln company was a minor success that moved to Los Angeles and produced several “race films” over its 5 year run. The McFarlan Moving Picture Company was also a Black-owned movie production company in North Omaha.
There were also pool halls, social halls, bowling alleys, bars and dancehalls throughout the neighborhood.
Driving for Fun
In 1875, the Omaha Driving Park Association bought land between Laird and Boyd Streets, and 16th to 20th Streets for horse racing, specifically, trotters. Commercial Avenue lined the park from 16th to 24th Street.
A fair association leased it, added some features, and held the Douglas County Fair and the Nebraska State Fair there for many years. But that park got boring, and by 1899 it was mostly ignored. Later, the land was platted and houses were built after WWII. Some of the businesses started while the park was still there still exist today, including J.F. Bloom and Company, started in 1879 to build monuments.
North Omaha’s Beers
Several beers have been made in North Omaha, including the city of Omaha’s biggest. The Storz Brewery was one of the major employers in North Omaha. Located along 16th Avenue and Clark Street, it was finished in 1894 and stayed open into the 1970s. The Storz Brewery was 600 feet tall and had a capacity of 150,000 barrels a year, making it one of the largest breweries in the region. The entire facility occupied more than 15 buildings with red-tiled floors and walls, burnished stainless steel and copper fixtures.
North Omaha had its fair share of roceries, bakeries, meat, poultry and fish markets, clothing, drug, hardware and shoe stores and more. There were also hucksters, peddlers, and salesmen. North Omaha’s immigrant communities in North Omaha also worked in packing houses, smelters, junkyards and on the railroads.
From the 1920s through the 1950s, Reed’s Ice Cream Company operated 63 small “ice cream bungalows” that distributed their ice cream across Omaha, including more than a dozen stands in North Omaha. Founded in 1929 by Claude Reed, the company plant was located at 3106 North 24th Street. They sold up to 22,000 cones a day in Council Bluffs and Omaha. They were also notorious for their segregation practices, both forcing African Americans away from eating in their stores and refusing to hire Black workers until a prolonged protest of their business led them to hiring an African American in the 1950s. The business moved from Omaha less than a decade later.
By 1955 there were a few commercial buildings along Ames Avenue and North 30th Street. Two businesses along North 30th Street included the Wax Paper Products Company and the Independent Biscuit Company. Other businesses in North Omaha included the Vercruysse Dairy, located on the southwest corner of North 52nd Street and Ames Avenue, and more than 100 others. The North Omaha Business Men’s Association made numerous contributions to Omaha commerce, culture, and education.
A Great Big Party
The interior of the Agricultural Building at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition in North Omaha.
During this period early Omaha banker Herman Kountze owned a large parcel of land in North Omaha, which he platted as a subdivision called Kountze Place. An early homeowner in the neighborhood was John P. Bay, the co-founder and owner of an ice company in Florence that supplied to the railroads, breweries and packing houses of the Midwest. His home was built at 2024 Binney Street in 1887.
On May 17, 1883, Buffalo Bill founded his famous Wild West, Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition in the aforementioned Omaha Driving Park. More than 8,000 people attended the first exhibition at a location near 18th and Sprague Streets. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show later returned to North Omaha for the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in 1898. Held in conjunction with the Expo, an Indian Congress drew more than 500 American Indians representing 35 tribes to the area, as well.
The year after the Trans-Mississippi Expo, North Omaha also hosted the Greater America Expo in 1899. This expo wasn’t as successful, as broad or as purposeful as its predecessor.
Kountze Place developed mightily after the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, with developments including large homes and several mansions built around the Expo’s only remnant, Kountze Park, which was finished the year after the Expo in 1899.
A number of other landmarks were built in Kountze Place after the Expo. They included the beautiful Sacred Heart Church finished in 1902 at 2206 Binney Street; the George Shepherd house, erected in 1903 at 1802 Wirt Street; and the George Kelly house built in 1904 at 1924 Binney Street; and the The Charles Storz House located at 1901 Wirt Street.
Later, North Omaha grew major parks in the form of Miller Park, Fontenelle Park and Adams Park, all connected by the city’s extravagant boulevards system.
Omaha’s Boulevard System
Strolling easily throughout North Omaha was a seemingly luxurious, comfortable drive for the city’s new automobiles. Starting downtown and flowing up Florence Boulevard all the way north, you could take JJ Pershing Drive out of the city, or wind down through Minne Lusa Boulevard and through Miller Park. Then you’d take Belvedere Boulevard west to Fontenelle Boulevard, then travel through Benson. When you got there you could catch Military Road to Dodge, go east until you got to Turner Boulevard, then start all over again going north on a completely different route! It was an amazing time.
East Omaha’s once-vital Pershing School, part of the old district 39.
Schools were built throughout North Omaha during the middle history of the area. One shining example was Technical High School, constructed in the 1920s to serve North Omaha. While it closed in the 1970s, today the building continues to serve as the Omaha Public Schools District Offices.
The Reddick Mansion, mentioned earlier, was originally built in 1875. In 1909, it became the home of Omaha’s municipal college, locally known as Omaha University. For almost 30 years after, Omaha University grew in North Omaha, including lecture halls, residence buildings and a large gymnasium. The football team played on a large, well-developed field at Saratoga School and the neighborhood was a proud host through the 1930s. The North Omaha Businessmen’s Association was responsible for developing a new athletic field at the original Omaha Municipal University in 1928,. Then, in 1937, the University of Omaha moved to Dodge Street, and North Omaha’s higher education was almost lost.
Another early builder in the neighborhood was the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary, which built a 40-room school for ministers at 3303 North 21st Place in 1891. It operated in the neighborhood through 1943. In the 1970s, that building was demolished and in the 1980s was replaced with modern apartments.
The Metropolitan Community College, originally known as Metropolitan Technical College, was opened at Fort Omaha in the heart of North Omaha in 1974, and today is the only higher education organization operating in the neighborhood.
Soldiers at North Omaha’s Fort Omaha pose for a group picture informally.
In the 1860s, Omaha City fought hard to land an Army outfit to guard the city’s new railroad, the Union Pacific. At Omaha, the U.P.R.R. intersected conveniently with the Missouri River boat trade and the wagon trains.
Everyone seemed to be heading west across the Great Platte River Road, the Oregon Trail, the California Trail and other roads west. Since the United States was aggressively attacking American Indian tribes all across the West, the pioneers knew they needed military protection.
After originally building their barracks in the present-day Near North Side, Herman Kountze’s brother Augustus offered the Army a cheap deal on 70 acres of his land. They accepted the offer, and Fort Omaha was born. It served forts throughout the Plains and up the Missouri, supplying them with soldiers, reinforcements and more as the years went by.
Around the time of World War I, North Omaha was home to the Florence Field. The field was home to huge blimps that were intended for reconnaissance and bombing, and their flyers saw action in France throughout the war.
In the 1960s the US Navy leased a parcel of the Fort’s property to build a US Marine Corps Reserve facility at North 30th and Laurel Streets.
Many important churches flourished during this period of North Omaha’s history. They included St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal, Salem Baptist, Pearl Memorial Methodist Episcopal, and others.
Catholic parishes grew extensively with new Irish and German immigrant families. Holy Family Church, Sacred Heart Church and School, St. Philip Neri, St. Richard and St. Bernard were some of the early churches serving neighborhoods around North Omaha. St. Benedict was established for
Activities in North Omaha, particularly the locating of the Nebraska State Fair at the Omaha Driving Park, led to the formation of the civic and business association Ak-Sar-Ben in 1895.
A streetcar going through the business corner of North 33rd and Parker in the 1910s.
The importance of several arterial streets was confirmed in a prominent business journal in 1890, that noted, “North Sixteenth, Cuming and North Twenty-fourth streets on the north and northwest are… prominent business streets, radiating from the commercial center into the resident portions of the city.” There were also streetcars for more than 75 years, and interstates for more than 50. The city’s boulevard system was introduced and popularized during these years, and several subdivisions were built for their walkability and bikability at the turn of the 20th century.
The 1913 Easter Sunday Tornado happened on March 23, and wrecked havoc on North Omaha.
North Omaha has suffered in severe Plains weather. In 1902 a major early spring storm demolished a lot of the neighborhood in the Monmouth Park neighborhood. The tornado-like activity destroyed the original Immanuel Hospital and closed North Omaha’s Franklin School.
The most significant weather-related event to hit Omaha was the Easter Sunday tornado of 1913 that destroyed many of the area’s businesses and neighborhoods. It cut a path of destruction through the city that was seven miles long and a quarter of a mile wide.
In the city as a whole, 140 people died and 400 were injured. Twenty-three hundred people were homeless; with 800 houses destroyed and 2000 damaged. In the 1913 Easter Sunday Tornado, the Idlewild Pool Hall at 2307 North 24th Street was the scene of the greatest loss of life. The owner, C. W. Dillard, and 13 customers were killed as they tried to take shelter on the south side of the pool hall’s basement. The victims were crushed by falling debris or overcome by smoke from fires begun when wood stoves used for heating overturned.
North 24th Street was laid waste. The victims were removed to the Webster Telephone Exchange Building. The building was a central headquarters as the community recovered. Operators went to work despite the building missing all of its windows.
These are SOME of the historic neighborhoods of North Omaha.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Jewish immigrants became involved in the Progressive and socialist movements. However, as wealth accumulated within their community and they became more accepted throughout Omaha’s most discriminatory neighborhoods, Jewish people began moving away from North Omaha en masse. Starting around the 1900s, African Americans began moving into North Omaha. Recruited for jobs by the meatpacking industry, African American migrants doubled their population in Omaha between 1910 and 1920, with a population among western cities second only to Los Angeles.
By the late 19th century, the community already had three churches, which contributed much to its life. The African-American community culture in North Omaha developed a musical legacy of blues and jazz through the 1950s.
In 1938 Mildred Brown and her husband founded the Omaha Star newspaper, since 1945 the only black paper in the state. Brown kept it going by herself for more than 40 years until her death in 1989. Since her death, her niece took it over.
In the late early history of North Omaha, many civil rights groups were established in North Omaha. By the 1930s and 40s, the black community together with white labor organizing partners worked against the segregated practices of the meatpacking plants. Through their organizing the interracial United Packinghouse Workers of America, part of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), they began to win concessions from management. The UPWA was integrated and progressive, also supporting integration of public facilities in Omaha, and the larger Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
At the same time, many ethnic fraternities in North Omaha closed or morphed, becoming open to general populations who spoke English. The European-language churches built all across North Omaha between the 1870s and 1920s all converted to English during this era, and places like Danish Vennelyst Park went from being ethnic enclaves to being open for anyone who could afford to use the private spaces.
The Area Changes Again
A comparison of the 24th and Lake Historic District in 1963 and in 2013.
After World War II, the area changed again.
African Americans came home from the war and wanted to experience the freedoms they’d earned around the world for others. In Omaha, they faced deep discrimination, including segregation in employment, housing, law enforcement, education, and other areas.
All wasn’t grim though. In the 1940s, North Omaha was the home to the African-American players of the Omaha Rockets independent baseball team. The team played exhibition games against Negro League teams from across the U.S. It had several important players. Many of the hopping clubs from before the war had closed, but stalwarts like the Dreamland Ballroom and the Carnation soldiered on with good times.
Many African Americans were self-employed during this time, working off the books as house cleaners and day laborers. Some found stable and well-paying employment in the packinghouses of South Omaha, commuting everyday from North Omaha there.
During that same era, 15,000 people worked in the meatpacking industry in Omaha, but within a decade, fully half the city’s workforce worked in the meatpacking industry. Omaha became the largest meatpacker in the United States. As the packing industry changed in the 1960s and moved operations closer to the meat producers, Omaha lost 10,000 jobs. This meant a loss of political power as well for African Americans and other working-class people.
At the same time, North Omaha’s white neighborhoods were flourishing. The working class Europeans were building wealth and prioritizing affording higher education for their children, sending kids far away to Lincoln to go to the University of Nebraska, or keeping them near home to go to the newly-minted University of Omaha campus on West Dodge Road. Omaha University was ripped from North Omaha in the mid-1930s, and the new campus was established in 1937.
Many of the hospitals established in North Omaha in the early history of the community were closed during the middle history of the area, too. The Swedish Mission Hospital on N. 24th became the Evangelical Covenant Hospital in 1928, and that closed permanently in 1937 because of the Great Depression.
During the middle history of North Omaha, the northern European immigrants who founded the Near North Side moved north towards Florence, building up the Minne Lusa Historic District, the neighborhoods along Fontenelle Boulevard, and all of Florence. African Americans took over the Near North Side, taking on many of the homes, apartments and businesses. They also patronized the remaining Jewish-owned businesses, all that was left of the once-burgeoning N. 24th Street. African Americans in Omaha managed to break through the redlining designed to keep them in the Near North Side during this era, too, moving northward into the once-lavish Kountze Place district.
However, just under the surface the area was boiling. Neighborhoods started fluctuating wildly during the middle history of North Omaha, as white flight took hold and white privilege flared its ugly head. White people began abandoning the area quickly by the late 1950s… but that’s for the next installment of this history!
The place where I grew up, Omaha’s Miller Park neighborhood, rushes through my imagination a lot. I want to see it acknowledged, appreciated and accentuated every day. This article is my acknowledgment of the past and contribution to the future.
Coming From Where I’m From
The Miller Park neighborhood was the place where I learned to race dirt bikes, built forts, caught crawdads and threw newspapers. It was also were I got jumped more than a dozen times, watched gang bangers flood into and decimate the blocks, and heard drive-bys and other gun shots rattle all through my youth. Mamasan and Papasan, Mrs. Abernathy, Cal’s mom and Betty were all guardians who watched over me, while my spiritual teachers, Steve and Jamie and especially Helen taught me there. My brother and I got in fights while my sisters herded in wild cats and guinea pigs in the backyard, all in the Miller Park neighborhood.
I got my first job throwing newspapers for the Omaha World-Herald in the Miller Park neighborhood, and later Idu Maduli introduced me to my life’s calling. My dad’s awesome night hikes started in this neighborhood, and my love of the outdoors was impressed on me here through the Cub Scout den my mom led and the the Boy Scout troop my dad started where my friends and I earned our Eagle Scout awards. I love the Miller Park neighborhood dearly to this day, more than 20 years after I left.
In my teens I found a love for the mystery of the neighborhood’s history. The stories from old timers felt like they clashed with the realities I lived and my friends went through. Good ol’ days seemed to clash with real nows, juxtaposing soft suburban fantasies against the gritty depression of poverty that felt like it surrounded me.
This dichotomy is what tripped my trigger about North Omaha history, and its why I research and write this blog today. I’ve learned that my neighborhood is filled with gems in the forms of substantive historic homes, churches, a beautiful school and its once glorious namesake park. Here is what I’ve learned.
The Miller Park neighborhood developed in fits and starts.
As the 1890 map above shows, the Miller Park neighborhood was largely empty of development at that point. You can see the Rockford block and Seymore’s Addition, which were both north and east of present-day North 27th and Fort Streets. Two popular dirt roads traveled north and south through the neighborhood then, with one being Florence Avenue and the other, Butler Street. There were other smaller roads heading north, including Saunders Street, Beacon Street, Taylor Street and College Street. Don’t recognize those names? Today, Florence Avenue is Florence Boulevard; Butler Street is North 30th; Saunders Street/College Street is now called North 24th. Taylor Street is now North 27th, and Beacon Street became North 29th. Two east-west roads in the area had names: Browne Avenue stayed the same, and Park Street became Saratoga Avenue.Within a decade though, the neighborhood was really taking off. By 1900, there were several businesses clustered at North 30th and Fort for the soldiers and early airmen serving there. These included drug stores, restaurants, laundries, and similar businesses.
Writing about the 1890s, a 1935 history of Omaha reported that Dr. Miller and W. R. Adams developed the neighborhood “from a cornfield”. Throughout the neighborhood they planted 16,000 trees they’d bought from former Nebraska Governor Furnas.
One of the earliest developments in the neighborhood was called Firestone Boulevard, which is present-day North 28th Street.
In 1914, developer Charles Martin launched his first well-known addition in the neighborhood. Known as Belle Isle, it lies on the northeast corner of the Miller Park neighborhood, extending from Crown Point Ave to Kansas Ave and North 24th Street to North 27th Street. The 60 lots within this plat are generally 44’x136’. His next project, which was much more substantive, was the Minne Lusa neighborhood north of the park.
Scattered throughout this neighborhood are several examples of its substantial architectural and cultural history that made Omaha a meaningful home for so many people. Different from its Minne Lusa neighbors, the Miller Park neighborhood filled in on its own volition without a development company or comprehensive plan. This led to several styles mixing throughout the neighborhood, from a pioneer brick house built in a vernacular style at 5415 North 24th Street to the squatty and intricate apartment building up the street at 5711th North 24 Street.
In the early 20th century, Hess and Swoboda Florists kept greenhouses in the Miller Park neighborhood. They were located along North 24th Street, from Himebaugh to Laurel, which was then called Fort Omaha Avenue and covered half a block.
The homes in the south and southwest corners of the Miller Park neighborhood are the oldest, while the ones in the Bell Isle subdivision were higher end than most of the area.
The Miller Park neighborhood is surrounded by major thoroughfares today. As mentioned earlier, North 30th and North 24th are arteries. North 30th carries US Highway 75 through the neighborhood, too. Immediately south, a commuter railroad line called the Belt Way was once a community boundary. It ran from downtown Omaha to this north end, and back south through the Adams Park neighborhood and around to downtown again.
The most famous feature of Miller Park’s transportation isn’t actually in the neighborhood. Dr. Miller succeeded in convincing the City of Omaha to build Omaha’s Prettiest Mile Boulevard to his namesake park the following year. In 1890, the roadway moved north to Reed Street, and later it became known as Florence Boulevard. In 1886, he failed to land the Trans-Mississippi Expo on his land.
It can be hard to imagine today, but when they were first laid out in the 1890s, the boulevards surrounding Miller Park were intended to serve as a loop roadway around the entire city of Omaha. Florence Boulevard was designed to and originally ran smoothly into Miller Park along the curvaceous Birch Drive. This flowing road connected to the Minne Lusa Boulevard, which would bring driving frolic-ers northbound past the Prettiest Mile Club and towards the old Blair Road. Birch Drive also connected with Belvedere Boulevard, wandering westward up the hill towards Fontenelle Boulevard and onward.
Because of its suburban relevance to the city, the neighborhood once had streetcars prowling its boundaries, too. The city’s private streetcars shot north along 24th Street, promptly heading south on the same street again after the line ended in the Minne Lusa neighborhood. The tracks leading into the neighborhood from the south on North 24th were double tracks. They were built to carry large passenger loads to Miller Park and Minne Lusa.
Streetcars also shot from North 30th along Fort Street to meet North 24th, creating a convenient loop that kept cars moving. The lines were removed when the cars were taken off-line in the 1950s. City-run buses soon took their places, and continue to operate today.
In the 1950s, the State of Nebraska hosted an Interstate Highway planning commission to ensure the entire state’s interests were represented when designing the Interstate system. This commission came perilously close to demolishing the Miller Park neighborhood, as well as the Minne Lusa neighborhood and the Florence Water Works. Luckily, a gambit to save the massive Miller Park park paid off, and the highway that would’ve become the I-480/I-680 connector was only finished to present-day Sorenson Parkway.
When I was growing up in the 1980s, the North Expressway/Sorensen Parkway/Abbott Drive intersection was being installed just south of the neighborhood. It took over the old railroad bed from the Belt Way line, which was used by other railroads for 50 years. Today, buses serve North 30th and North 24th, and Fort Street.
The Miller Park neighborhood has paved sidewalks and curbs throughout, with paved streets in moderate to poor condition throughout the neighborhood. The streets are moderately wide through the neighborhoods, with wider stretches on Fort, North 24th and North 30th. There are intermittently placed light poles throughout the whole neighborhood.
Envisioning Miller Park
Among many neighborhoods in North Omaha deserving historic status but missing it is my old neighborhood, Miller Park. Built as a distinct middle class enclave starting in the 1890s, the neighborhood grew between the south side of Miller Park and the old town of Saratoga steadily for 50 years. North 30th Street was originally connected from the Florence Main Street past Fort Omaha on purpose; the neighborhood was laid out along that line on purpose. It was originally bound by the Belt Line Rail Road on the south; Kansas Avenue and Miller Park on the north; Florence Boulevard on the east; and North 30th Street on the west.
The Miller Park neighborhood was anchored by churches, a military fort, and the park. Along almost its entire western edge is Fort Omaha, build in the 1870s to supply western US Army forts. On its northwest corner is the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, located kitty corner from the neighborhood. Flanking the east side is Florence Boulevard, which while consisting of merely two lanes heading north and south, feels separate and distinct from the rest of the community.
On its southeast corner is the old Pearl Memorial United Methodist Church, and on the northwest corner of the park is the old Miller Park Presbyterian Church. On the north is the park, and on the south was the Belt Line Rail Road. More on that follows.
The main feature of the Miller Park neighborhood was what drew people to build there and keeps people satisfied: Miller Park. Built in 1891, Dr. George L. Miller sold the land to the City of Omaha cheaply after he failed to land the Trans-Mississippi Exposition on the site.
The Miller Park
George Miller was a pioneer Omaha doctor, and by the time he sold the land to the City for a park, he was already wealthy. The city liked this location because it had softly rolling hills covered with prairie grass, small farm plots and the occasional old Gophertown remanent. Gophertown was a little bunch of sod-covered hole homes built by a group of Irish immigrants who were jobless in the 1860s. After getting rousted out within a decade, they integrated into Omaha’s European immigrant population. Their last old homes were blasted out when the City started building Miller Park in 1896.
Called the “pride of North Omaha” in a 1916 history of the city, Miller Park was said to “exemplif[y] most strikingly the transformation which time and money art the art of the landscape gardner can make.”
Designed by a popular landscape architect, Miller Park is 80 acres. Installing a softly-rounded lagoon fed by natural springs, a notable pavilion was built in 1908 along with pathways and bridges throughout the park. A gentle road criss-crossed the park, and many lovely nights were lit by fireflies with lovers walking hand-in-hand through the cottonwood trees. The park’s Birch Drive was well-reputed for its romantic, gently sloping pathway. It connected with Belevedre Boulevard, eventually taking drives to the Forest Lawn Cemetery in what the City of Omaha saw as a connection to the city’s parks and boulevard plan. Miller Park’s golf course, opened in 1916, is still in use today.
Miller’s investment continued to payoff in the years following, and his namesake neighborhood was well on its way to filling in by the time he died in 1920.
Miller Park Elementary School
One of the architectural highlights of Miller Park is its elementary school. Opened in 1912, it was originally a whole primary school that included first through eighth grades. Over the next 60 years, it hosted Scouts and recreational activities, movie nights and theater, and other activities for students and families. In the 1960s, the sixth, seventh and eighth grades were permanently moved out of the building. In the 1980s it formed a partnership with Metro Tech to support the River City Roundup Days activities held there.
Today, I work professionally in schools across the United States. What I’ve learned over time, through my studies of Omaha history in general, and through great exposure is that Miller Park School was built in a grand style that was typical in the 1910s through the 1920s. Basically, schools were thought of as human factories that churned out students as products, which teachers as managers. Miller Park School was built in this style, with students adhering to its strict regimens for more than 70 years. When I attended there in the 1980s, the building greeted the youngest students on the west end and proceeded to send them on a virtual conveyor belt around the building until they completed the forth grade.
In 2002, Miller Park Elementary School underwent a major addition and renovation, including administrative space, gymnasium, cafeteria and classrooms. Today, the school serves pre-kindergarten through fifth grades and uses a highly innovative curriculum to reach students. As a Title I school that receives special funding to support high poverty students, today Miller Park School is making great strides towards improving the neighborhood and building North Omaha’s educational success.
Fort Street Special School for Incorrigible Boys
For a decade, the Fort Street Special School for Incorrigible Boys sat at the corner of North 30th and Browne Streets. Opened in 1914, it was for boys who “had no interest in school at all” and were considered “mischief makers”. The school provided manual training in printing and agriculture, as well as metal and wood working shops, a drafting class and repair shop for small items. Attending the school soon went from being a punishment to a privilege. In the 1920s, the program moved to Technical High School.
Throughout the neighborhood, a few houses and blocks are generally distinct from all others. The house at 2905 Ellison Avenue is a beautiful American foursquare with wide eves. 2717 Fort Street has interesting elements that are unique in North Omaha. Along North 27th Avenue from Laurel to Himebaugh Avenues is a row of architecturally distinct homes I call the Miller Park Duplex Historic District that fascinate me. They wrap around the corner onto Laurel, and share a unique central greenspace between them all. 2589 Crown Pointe Avenue and its next door house, 2585 Crown Pointe, are both notable for their size and distinctive features, as is 2551 Crown Pointe. 6011 North 24th is beautiful for its simple stucco exterior, similar to its blockmates at 2409 Crown Pointe and 2417 Crown Pointe. All of them have beautifully simple exteriors that are accentuated by this treatment. Kansas Avenue, lining Miller Park, is the true crown jewel of the neighborhood. For two solid blocks, the houses are noticeably larger and more important than the rest of the neighborhood. This pattern holds true around the park, too.
The whole north end of North 24th contributes significantly to the architectural wealth of North Omaha, with notable homes in late Victorian, Tudor, foursquare, Craftsman and other styles popular from 1900 through the 1940s. From the north end of Miller Park to the southern boundary of Florence, the Minne Lusa Historic District was just listed on the National Register of Historic Places last year because of that significance, and a bit more throughout their neighborhood. (Congratulations again! I’m a HUGE fan of the Minne Lusa House and the neighborhood’s leadership!)
Originally built for working families, the Miller Park neighborhood was filled with homes for lower and moderate middle class incomes. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals generally owned the homes lining Miller Park park, while managers, small business owners and others owned homes scattered within the neighborhood. Many of the homes in Miller Park are in fair to good condition with minimal to moderate modifications. Some of the homes are in poor condition, dilapidated from years of disrepair and neglectful owners, while others have been completed demolished, leaving vacant lots an increasingly common sight throughout the neighborhood.
Like many Midwestern American suburban communities, the churches of Miller Park are institutions that bond the neighborhood together. Today, there are large buildings that hold tiny congregations, and very small buildings that hold massive congregations. When they were built, quite the opposite was true.
Trinity Lutheran Church is an old congregation that continues to operate. Their building, located across from Miller Park on the southwest corner of North 30th and Redick Streets, is also a brick and masonry beauty, although smaller than their former Presbyterian neighbors to the north. Started as a “child church” of the city’s once-massive Immanuel Lutheran Church, Trinity had a considerable Swedish population when it opened in 1922.
The Episcopal Church of the Resurrection is a relatively recent addition to the neighborhood, having only been founded in 1986. However, it was formed of two separate congregations, one for African Americans founded in 1876, and another of whites formed in the late 1900s. Since joining, they’ve served the community in a variety of ways.
There are many churches serving the Miller Park neighborhood today. They include many congregations of the Church of God in Christ, including Second Advent COGIC on North 30th; Power House COGICon Browne Street and North 25th Avenue; the Tabernacle of Faith GOGIC at North 24th and Fort Streets; and the Gethsemane COGIC at North 24th and Himebaugh Avenue. The Christ-Love Unity Church is at 29th and Ellison Avenue, and the Mount Carmel Baptist Church is located at North 27th and Camden Avenue.
Built in 1923, Miller Park Presbyterian Church was located at North 30th and Huntington Avenue, on the northwest corner of the park. Made of brick and masonry, the building was added onto considerably in the 1950s. Today, it hosts the World Fellowship Christian Center. It has three separate areas for worship, along with offices that all total 11,463 square feet. The Fellowship Hall is a massive 6,626 square feet, and the gymnasium is 6,000 square feet. Parking lot adjacent to structure.
The Pearl Memorial United Methodist Church was a longtime fixture on the southeast corner of North 24th and Ogden Avenue. Originally founded as Pearl Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, it originally met above a grocer at North 24th and Ames in the 1890s. The church opened in 1906, with a massive sanctuary. Its full size gymnasium had a locker room, performance stage and other popular amenities that served the community for more than 75 years. The church hosted basketballs leagues, roller skating, dances and many other social activities there. However, they didn’t have to keep the Sunday fellowships there for long, since an addition including classrooms, the minister’s office, a kitchen and a fellowship hall. After housing the Living Hope United Methodist Church for a few years, today the church is owned by another congregation. The Apostolic Assembly of the Faith in Jesus Christ is a Hispanic Pentecostal church, serving the North Omaha community.
The first businesses in the Miller Park neighborhood weren’t for the neighborhood! Instead, they were part of a “constellation of businesses” opened to serve the troops at Fort Omaha. Immediately outside the Fort’s main gates at North 30th and Fort Streets were restaurants, two drug stores, a theatre and other small shops for the troops.
In the era the Miller Park neighborhood was built, spending money within blocks of your house was the biggest way you spent money. It took a lot of effort to get to other parts of the city, and the convenience of being able to do anything within minutes of your home was key to Miller Park’s success. The neighborhood had multiple groceries, gas stations, hair salons, professional offices, and other amenities scattered through and along key arterials.
There was a commercial district at the intersection of North 24th and Fort Streets. Other commercial intersections included North 30th and Fort; North 30th and Laurel; and North 30th and Kansas. A little grocery store sat at 5827 North 24th, at Laurel Street. There were other commercial properties along Fort Street, North 30th, and North 24th Street, including the gas station mentioned above.
The Fort Street Grocery Store was once located at 2771 Fort Street, and a bicycle shop near North 30th and Kansas. The veterinarian office at North 30th and Laurel was once a pet store, and there were offices crammed in near 30th and Ellison, with a grocery store and hair shop set along the street before the drive thru restaurants and bars once packing the corner of 30th and Fort.
The intersection of 24th and Fort was once the hub of a thriving commercial district that included a large grocery store, dry cleaners, a drug store, a pharmacy and a bar. As early as 1914, the intersection was home to the Alamo Theatre, showing silent movies for that era. There were several grocery stores, including the Saratoga Grocery in the 1920s and a Baker’s in the 1950s and 60s. Steier Pharmacy was on the corner for 50 years before moving near N 72nd and Ames. As early as 1905, George Zimmer ran a floral shop at this intersection. A smaller grocery store called the Saratoga Food Store was located at 24th and Fort in the early 20th century.
In the 1980s and 90s, Jesse Irvin was a lawyer and counselor who kept an office on this corner. Mr. L ran his jitney service and hair salon here for a few decades, too. Another grocery store, called Miller Park Grocery, was located at 6339 North 24th Street, at the intersection of 24th and Redick Streets.
There were a variety of garages and gas stations throughout the neighborhood. In 1922, Fred S. Peterson built a garage at 24th and Laurel that still stands there today. The old Phillips 66 gas station at 5723 North 24th Street shows the reason why the neighborhood is important. Once typical in suburban landscapes across the United States 60 years ago, today this iconic building style has almost been completely erased from the nation’s map. Early on, a White Eagle Gas Station sat at N. 30th and Fort Streets.
A Commercial Federal Savings and Loan branch sat at 30th and Fort in the 1970s and 80s. It was eventually demolished and replaced by a Popeyes Chicken. At that same intersection was a Bronco’s Burger and the iconic Mister C’s (see below); Ju Jo’s Pub, and a carwash. A United Rentals was also located on that block.
Few people know that the Miller Park neighborhood once had two movie theaters operating at the same time. One was in Fort Omaha, and operated during World War II for soldiers and their dates from the neighborhood, while the other was called the Alamo Theater and later the Victoria International Theater. During WWII it showed international movies, and stayed open into the 1950s.
The social life of any neighborhood reflects the people who live there, and people generally live in neighborhoods that reflect their social priorities.
A building at the intersection of Redick Street and Minne Lusa Boulevard holds a storied, but yet untold, history that enlivens both the Miller Park and Minne Lusa neighborhoods. Built by the developer of the Minne Lusa neighborhood, it was originally called the Prettiest Mile Club in honor of its intersecting boulevard and was designed by then-popular Omaha architect Everett S. Dodds.
The club was essentially a social hub with a restaurant, dance floor and bar. This building was a hotspot in North Omaha, drawing dances, card games, fraternal groups, socials and other activities through its doors in a constant stream of middle class bliss. Dan Desdune and his band were among the performers that got people dancing in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1930, the building changed hands and was renamed the Birchwood Club. The good times continued through the 1950s and into the 1960s. At some point, the building changed hands and was renovated extensively. Today it is known as the Viking Ship and is missing any historical charm. Unfortunately, it shows all signs of continuing to fall apart.
Restaurants dotted the neighborhood. From the 1890s through today, the intersection of North 30th and Fort has always been clogged with drug stores, groceries and places to eat, drink and recreate. Early on there were cafes there, particularly serving the US Army troops at Fort Omaha, as well as local residents.
These places weren’t always inclusive though. According to the Omaha World-Herald, a regiment of Black soldiers was stationed at Fort Omaha in 1931. White people in the Miller Park neighborhood protested a lot, writing letters to the newspaper and their elected officials. African American community leaders and politicians took it upon themselves to sound out loudly on behalf of the troops. Nebraska State Legislator John Singleton worked with Gene Thomas, a past commander of the Legion Post of Spanish War Veterans, and others to promote the inclusion of the troops there. The neighborhood eventually shut up.
The intersection changed with the times. The first Bronco’s Burgers restaurant was opened in 1959 by “Bronco Billy” Barnes. It was Omaha’s first locally owned and operated fast-food restaurant at a time when “fast-food” was an entirely new concept. Business was good. It was demolished and replaced by Sonic Drive-In in the late 1990s.
At the same intersection, in 1953, Sebastiano Caniglia bought a drive-in kitty-corner to Bronco’s. It was called Caniglia’s Royal Boy Drive-In, but Caniglia started adding sit-down seating in the 1950s and closed the drive-in portion in 1970. In 1971, he renamed the restaurant “Mister C’s”, which became his nickname, too. It closed in 2006.
A Neighborhood Struggling
In the 1940s, Omaha’s routine practice of redlining Near North Omaha was ruled illegal. By the 1960s, African Americans were moving north throughout the community, and eventually they moved into the Miller Park neighborhood. When my family moved there in the 1980s, we were among the few white families left. Most of the white kids I knew from late elementary school at Sherman had moved away by the time we went to McMillan Junior High, and I only remember two other white guys in my neighborhood who went to North High with me. I think only one of them graduated. White flight, driven by white privilege, sent families out of the neighborhood and towards west Omaha, where many still live. Others moved to Florence, while others moved to other areas of North Omaha that were less threatening to their sense of well-being.
But through the 1980s, the neighborhood wasn’t struggling. My neighbors took care of me, my life was filled with adults that cared, and there were a lot of places I could go whenever, however I wanted to. When I didn’t remember, I got jumped or had to run fast.
There was a distinct day in the summer of 1988 when my friends and I gathered at the corner of 28th and Fort Streets, midway between all of our houses. That day was hot and humid, and the street was mostly empty. As we gathered there, I remember we didn’t talk about any of that though. Instead, we talked about the nightly news from the days before, and how they were announcing the arrival of the Crips and Bloods into Omaha. I remember distinctly the cadence and urgency in their talking, and how these street gangs sounded like invading hordes.
Miller Park, and the rest of North Omaha, had gangs before the Crips and Bloods. The city was a bloody mess when Tom Dennison ran it from the 1890s through the 1920s, with gangland shootings, hunting mobs and racial lynchings. Through the 1950s and 60s, a crime syndicate with links to the old Chicago and New York City mafia operated in Omaha, operating the off-track-betting (OTB) and other illicit activities. The 1970s and 80s saw the Vice Lords, Black Gangster Disciples and other drug-focused gangs move into the city. But it all changed in the summer of 1988.
Early that year Houston Alexander was still leading the SCRIBBLE CREW, Run DMC and Koo Moe Dee were hard rappers, and everyone knew Sweet 98 was a pop joke radio station. But nobody was killing each other. A year later, dudes I was in the ninth grade with were dropping out to sell crack, girls I was in middle school with started having babies, and my brother had to go away from our neighborhood for a summer to keep from getting shot. That was the beginning of the neighborhood suffering.
During this same time, the City of Omaha began routinely neglecting Miller Park as it continued turning its back on the entirety of North Omaha. Police presence was for enforcement only, and emergency service response times became notoriously poor. Streets were allowed to crumble, and still are, and absentee landlords rule much of the neighborhood still. Housing prices are still ridiculously low, affected by poor quality sewer services and other urban infrastructure that’s being left to crumble by the City.
I was one of the few people in the neighborhood who graduated from high school on time. After struggling through working at a summer camp, a restaurant and a factory warehouse in East Omaha, the year I was 20 I left the neighborhood for good. I’d grown up in hard times, saw friends and acquaintances go through hard times, and I could choose to be done with the hard times. So I did.
Now, almost 20 years later, the neighborhood is still struggling.
A simple search over the Internet on any given day shows the city’s opinion about Miller Park and all of North Omaha is worse now than ever before. That search will also show dozens of articles about drive-bys, gun fights, drug deals, carjackings, and a plethora of other crap that still happens week in and out.
With no support from the City of Omaha for substantive redevelopment, the neighborhood is literally crumbling where it stands. Its clear that Omaha’s urban planners are pursuing a “Detroit Plan” for the vast majority of North Omaha: Let the majority of the housing stock and commercial infrastructure fall apart, bulldoze the rest eventually, and if/when the demand comes back, redevelop the area according to middle and upper class expectations. If its true, that’s an unfortunate route, to say the least, if only because of what I’ve illustrated thus far. But there’s more still.
There are bright spots emerging in other parts of North Omaha. One of the brightest is featured in the graphic above: Mr. Gene Haynes, the principal of my alma mater, North High. Brother Haynes has ratcheted up the academic, athletic and cultural power of the school since taking the helm in the 90s. In turn, economic and political influence have followed. Today, North is experiencing a renaissance in and out, with new facilities, new championships, and new academic goals never met before.
In another part of North Omaha, after letting the north side of downtown Omaha rot for more than 40 years, the City of Omaha is successfully redeveloping the community with sports, entertainment, residential and commercial venues. The Near North Side neighborhood begins a long road of gentrifying to meet Creighton University’s demands. Like I mentioned, the Minne Lusa Historic District is a win, and it seems like the Florence neighborhood further north is beginning to get some legs in it’s growth. Florence Boulevard just hosted a very successful home tour last summer, and Metro Community College is building a new office building at the corner of 30th and Fort where the old Mister C’s restaurant closed almost a decade ago.
My dream for the Miller Park neighborhood is that its acknowledged for the high quality, architecturally rich housing stock in the neighborhood, along with the rich opportunities for education, recreation, spirituality and community. I want to see it become a historic district, with realized tax incentives for redevelopers who encourage home ownership among the people who live there now.
The brightest spots in the neighborhood though, those are where my heart is: the young people. The first job I ever fell in love with I got in the Miller Park neighborhood, working with Idu to use theater to teach children and youth about their personal power. Idu’s pioneering program, called “You’re the Star!”, changed my life and the lives of dozens of others. I want to work with people in the neighborhood to launch a new empowerment program that can change the lives of my kids, and the kids the whole neighborhood is raising. As always, they’re the ones who will change things for real, and the reason why I do any of this today.
My hope for the future of Miller Park, North Omaha, the Midwest, the United States and all the world remains with young people today and forevermore. Children and youth are our only hope; let’s act that way, starting now.
This is other information I found that didn’t fit into this article, but still relates to the neighborhood somehow. People had a variety of interests:
In 1952 a man named Elmer Gerfen ran an amateur radio state there with the call letters WeQMX at 2824 Fort Street.
People used to ice skate, play hockey and curl on the Miller Park Lake. There was an annual ice festival there for years.
Driving instructors from Tech High would take their students to Miller Park to teach them how to drive in snow. One recollection from a former resident was sliding cookies in the park and learning how to steer out of them.
In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Ralph N. Perkins operated the Perkins Laboratories at 2584 Laurel Avenue. Apparently, his business provided chemist and engineer services as bacteriologists who specialized in the design or redesign of swimming pools. By the 1970s, Orson Perkins, presumably Ralph Perkin’s son, was the executive director of the Nebraska Mental Health Association. He lived in his father’s home.
Miller Park Neighborhood Directory
Here are all the interesting locations I tracked down to write this article. Some go back more than 100 years, and some are present-day. This would make a fine tour through Omaha’s Miller Park neighborhood!
Fort Street Special School for Incorrigible Boys, N. 30th and Browne Ave.
Miller Park Elementary School, Ellison Ave.
Elmer Gerfen’s Amateur Radio Station WeQMX, 2824 Fort St.
Mister C’s Restaurant site, N. 30th St. and Fort St.
Bronco’s Restaurant site, N. 30th St. and Fort St.
Prettiest Mile Club, aka Birchwood Club, aka The Viking Ship, Minne Lusa Blvd. and Redick Ave.
Commercial Federal Savings and Loan, N. 30th St. and Fort St.
Ju Jo’s Pub, N. 30th St. and Fort St.
United Rentals, N. 30th St.
Peterson’s Garage, N. 24th and Laurel – Still stands there today.
Phillips 66 Gas Station, 5723 N. 24th St.
Miller Park Grocery, 6339 N. 24th St.
Saratoga Grocery and Meats, N. 24th and Fort St.
Zimmer Flowers, N. 24th and Fort St.
Baker’s Groceries, N. 24th and Fort St. – Later Safeway, then Phil’s Foodway.
Alamo Theatre, N. 24th and Fort St. – A movie theater that was open in 1914.
Grocery Store, 2702 Fort Street
Pet Store, N 30th and Laurel Sts. – Later a veteranarian
R and L’s Liquor Store, N 30th and Laurel Sts.
Bicycle Shop, N 30th and Kansas Sts.
Grocery Store, 5827 North 24th St.
Blessed Sacrament Church, North 30th and Curtis Ave. – Founded in 1919, closed in 2014.
Miller Park Presbyterian Church, North 30th and Huntington Ave.
Second Advent COGIC, North 30th
Power House COGIC, Browne Street and North 25th Ave.
Tabernacle of Faith GOGIC, North 24th and Fort Sts.
Gethsemane COGIC, North 24th and Himebaugh Ave.
Christ-Love Unity Church, 29th and Ellison Ave.
Mount Carmel Baptist Church, North 27th and Camden Ave.
Pearl Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, N. 24th and Ogden Ave.
Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, N. 30th and Kansas Ave.
Trinity Lutheran Church, N. 30th and Redick Sts.
House, 2905 Ellison Avenue is a beautiful American foursquare with wide eves.
House, 2717 Fort Street has interesting elements that are unique in North Omaha.
Miller Park Duplex Historic District, North 27th Avenue from Laurel to Himebaugh Aves., wrapper around the corner onto Laurel – Distinct post-war multi-family homes sharing a unique central green space.
House, 2589 Crown Pointe Ave.
House, 2585 Crown Pointe – Notable for its size and distinctive features
House, 2551 Crown Pointe Ave.
House, 6011 North 24th St. – Beautiful for its simple stucco exterior,
House, 2409 Crown Pointe Ave.
House, 2417 Crown Pointe Ave.
House, 5415 North 24th St.
Apartments, 5711 North 24 St.
Perkins House, 2584 Laurel Ave. – Once home to the Perkins Laboratory, it was also the office of the Nebraska Mental Health Association for a number of years.
Florence Boulevard, Odgen Ave. to Reed St. – This specific section was once called “Omaha’s Prettiest Mile”.
Minne Lusa Boulevard – Named in honor of Spanish Fur Trader Manuel Lisa, this beautiful drive covers a creek that flows from the Miller Park pond to the Missouri River.
Birch Drive, N. 24th to N. 30th through Miller Park – Once regarded as a magnificent rural drive.
Belevedre Boulevard – Winds up from Miller Park to the Belevedre Lookout, where Lewis and Clark may have stood and looked across the Missouri River valley.
Omaha has many histories that need to be told. Places, people and events that happened over the last 160 years have been forgotten, neglected or repressed, and that’s what I am most interested in. The story of Will Brown is one such story. It represents the ugly, hateful history of this city that has driven a lot of today’s violence, ignorance and pain that has prevented North Omaha from moving forward.
Here is a powerful video featuring the lynching of Will Brown, and I highly recommend you watch the entirety of it. There is graphic content.
The following is a guest post written by Mrs. Karen Clopton, an Eastern Star member of the Prince Hall Lodge at 24th and Ames.
Druid Hall is located at 2412 Ames Avenue in North Omaha. An important landmark in the Saratoga neighborhood, the building was finished in 1914, and on April 5 2015, it will celebrate its 100 year anniversary! After opening and being occupied by several other fraternities, the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Nebraska has been located in Druid Hall since 1968.
Building a Community Hub
Druid Hall is significant not only to the ethnic history of Omaha but also to the fraternal history of Omaha. Three prestigious fraternities have either leased or owned Druid Hall over the last century. Woodmen of the World, D Louis Black Post #3421 Veterans of Foreign War and the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Nebraska.
Omaha architect Joseph P. Guth was commissioned to design Druid Hall. Guth was born and trained in Germany and worked in the engineering department of the Union Pacific Railway in Omaha until 1887, when he decided to start an independent career. He built several prominent buildings in that era of Omaha’s history, including the Prague Hotel in 1898, the Omaha Casket Company in 1905, and several other commercial and residential buildings. Guth was also fraternally connected with the Benevolent Order of the Elks.
The building was constructed to meet the community’s needs for social, cultural and fraternal activities. In 1913, several members of Druid Camp #24 formed the Druid Real Estate Company with the goal of locating the new facility. The dream for the building came out of the need for a location where the men could mingle with the “fair sex”. Their former meeting hall had no conveniences and they wanted a nicer building where both men and women could meet. After forming their company, Michael L Endres, Edward I Foster, Harrison H Bowes, P.H. Steger and O.E Davis issued stock with a pledge of $27,000. Soon they had 300 people backing them and leased the property at 2416 Ames street. Endres, who had emigrated from Bavaria in 1875 was the Douglas County treasurer at the time.
In 1915, the Woodman Druid Camp #24 had about 600 members. It was considered one of the most influential fraternal organizations on the north side, and it was the first of that fraternity in Omaha to have its own clubhouse. They held their Grand opening the week of April 5-10, 1915, with 100 new candidates inducted that week.
Hosting continuous events for social clubs, including dances every weekend, Druid Hall became the center for this section of North Omaha’s social and cultural activities. Many ethnicities in the community were represented, including German, Irish, Scandinavians and a few Italians who lived and worked in the area. Carnivals, bingo games, card parties and boxing matches were held in order to raise money to assist needy veterans and others throughout the life of the building.
The upstairs rooms were used for fraternal lodge meeting and many dances, social group and club meetings were held there. Many activities centered around the churches of North Omaha, including the Junior Luther League, North Side Progressive Club, Catholic Women of Florence, and Women of St. Phillip of Neri. They all held meetings and social events at Druid Hall nation at the time.
Capstone of the Druid Hall by Ammodramus.
Cornerstone of the Druid Hall, 2412 Ames Avenue, North Omaha, Nebraska by Ammodramus.
The Druid Hall by Ammodramus.
From the 1920s through the 1950s, ballroom dancing was very popular in Omaha, and Druid Hall was touted as one of the finest floors in the city. The Friday Night Dancing Club started with the Woodmen. It had grown to such a large membership that when they moved to the new Druid Hall Ballroom, there were 80 dancing couples for their opening night in September 1916. Dance lessons were also given and the music was provided by the Maceo Pinkard’s Saxophone Orchestra. Pinkard was very popular for his compositions, especially “Sweet Georgia Brown“, which hit big in the 1920s.
Businesses and Ownership
The main floor housed several commercial stores throughout the history of the building. The Downey Hat shop operated there from 1915 through 1928. Other businesses on the first floor included Simpson Hardware, Shever’s Furnishings and the Master Bakery Company.
In 1922, Harold Harris opened a bowling alley in the basement of the building. One of the first leagues that formed was the Danish Brotherhood.
In April 1920, the Ames Realty Corp took over the lease of the building. Through the 1920s and 30s many social groups continued to hold events, dances, political rallies and various activities in the building. Thus making Druid Hall a focal point for the neighborhood.
The D. Louis Black Post 3421 Veterans of Foreign Wars was formed in August of 1935 with 30 members of the Omaha and Florence area. They began meeting at Druid Hall in November of 1935.They became the fifth VFW post in Omaha. The first commander was Edsel Hendershot. The posts name was chosen to honor D. Louis Black a member of the 41st Machine Gun Battalion Eighty-Ninth Division. Black was born in 1892 in Kansas and moved to Omaha probably after the war. He owned a restaurant in the Minne Lusa area where he served free meals during the holidays to veterans.
The Post leased the building from Charles Gruenig and then subleased it to other organizations, thereby further supplementing their income. When Gruenig died in 1945, his estate sold the building. On March 1, 1947 D. Louis Black Post 3421 paid $7,000.00 down and signed a mortgage for $25,000.00. They also at some point purchased two lots on Meredith Avenue for parking. They paid the loan off in 10 years and held a mortgage burning ceremony on April 10 1957.
In 1967, the post decided to sell the building as more of their members moved out of the area. That’s when the Prince Hall Masons took control. In addition to their offices, hall and other facilities, the 3-5-7 Club is on the first floor today.
Omaha’s Prince Hall Masons
In 1775, the white colonial Freemasons lodge in Boston rejected 14 new petitioners on the basis of them being of African descent. These men, led by a man named Prince Hall, were initiated in March of that year by British Freemasons to their own Mason chapter. Eventually becoming known as the Prince Hall Masons, the first lodge in Nebraska organized in Omaha in 1875. By 1919, there were four Omaha lodges, and nine across the state.*
The Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Nebraska purchased the building for $35,000.00. The first activity was a Council of Deliberation by the United Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite. The cornerstone laying ceremony was held on June 9, 1968. Today, the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Nebraska continues to meet there, holding a century-long legacy that is vital not only to the history of North Omaha, but to African American history in the state of Nebraska.
You can learn more about the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Nebraska at http://www.mwphglne.org/. Contact Mrs. Karen Clopton, the author of this article.
* “A socioeconomic portrait of Prince Hall Masonry in Nebraska, 1900-1920,” by Dennis N. Mihelich. * Omaha Bee Apr 25 1915 * 1920 us census, * Omaha: the Gate city, and Douglas County, Nebraska; (Volume 2) Arthur Cooper Wakeley Chicago, The S.J. Clarke publishing co. 643-43 * Omaha World Herald March 10 1915 * Omaha World Herald Jan 15 1915 * Omaha World Herald Mar 19 1915 * Omaha World Herald May 19 1928 * Omaha World Herald Mar 21 1915 * Patterns of landscape Heritage Conservation in North Omaha-Landmarks Heritage Preservation Committee 1984. * Omaha World Herald Apr 18 1915 * Omaha World Herald Sep 17 1916 * Omaha World Herald Sep 30 1916 * Omaha World Herald Feb 16 1919 * Omaha World Herald May 1 1918 * Omaha World Herald Jan 31 1922 * Abstract Deed * Omaha World Herald Nov 28 1935 * History of D. Louis Black Post 3421 Veterans of Foreign Wars of the USA from Post Commander Kerry Lindstrom * Abstract Deed * Omaha World Herald Nov 11 1967 * Omaha World Herald Jun 9 1968
This entry is by Linda Williams, an up-and-coming architect and local historian in Omaha. Check out her bio following the story, and share your comments!
Wigington, circa 1905. (Taylor)
Growing Up in Omaha
Clarence ‘Cap’ Wigington, was Omaha’s first African-American Architect. Born in 1883 in Lawrence, Kansas, his parents moved to Omaha when he was just 5 months old. They lived throughout the city, including the Walnut Hill neighborhood. He did not start school until he was 10 years, but went on to Omaha High School (now Central) and finished eight years of school in just five years. When he was 15 years old, Wigington won three first prizes in charcoal, pencil, and pen and ink at an art competition at Omaha’s 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition.
Cap also went to art school in the evenings while he was in high school. Because of his promise and determination, two of his teachers paid half of his tuition. Finishing school, he became an apprentice to Omaha’s highly renowned architect Thomas Kimball. Kimball, who attended the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, France, brought the classical style to Omaha. His designs for St. Cecilia’s Cathedral and the city’s first public library are still among some of the most ornate designs in the downtown area. He also designed several residences in North Omaha.
Career in Omaha
Zion Baptist Church, designed by Wigington in 1910.
Wigington apprenticed for Kimball for 6 years, and despite never receiving formal training, he started his own firm in downtown Omaha. Wigington designed Zion Baptist Church at N. 22nd and Grant Streets, and a house on N. 28th Avenue and Pratt Street for a custodian; another on N. 18th and Lothrop Streets for a doctor; and a duplex just south of Midtown Omaha at 125-127 S. 38th Street. However, Wigington frequently went without commissions. Instead of sitting idle, he entered into architecture contests and often won first place prizes.
In his personal life, he married his wife Viola, who was of black, cherokee and white descent, and had two daughters, names of Mildred and Muriel. His daughter Mildred and her husband gave Wigington a grandson by the name of Michael Bohanon. During his lifetime, he also served as president of Omaha’s Urban League chapter.
With increasing racial discrimination in Omaha, Wigington left the city in the 1910s. He moved his family to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he became city architect. He designed numerous public places there, including the Central Park, high schools, and other public works. Wigington served in the Minnesota National Guard, which is where he received the nickname “Cap” while he held the rank of Captain. By 1918, Wigington petitioned Minnesota’s Governor Burnquist to formulate a separate African-American battalion. Even though the governor was active in the NAACP, he granted the petition anyway to satisfy white citizens, who still believed in segregation.
Clarence Wigington, circa 1950.
After retiring from the City of St. Paul in 1949, Wigington opened an office in Los Angeles. He moved to Kansas City, Missouri in 1967, and died later that year. Today, several of his buildings in St. Paul are on the National Register of Historic Places, and he is recognized as one of the nation’s first African American architects.
Recognizing a Legacy
A book called Cap Wigington-An Architectural Legacy in Ice and Stone explores Wigington’s architectural legacy. It also highlights the ice palaces Wigington used to design for St. Paul’s winter festivals where residences could ice skate in Central Park. The main author of the book, David Vassar Taylor, is an African-American who graduated from the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
At the end of the book, there is a final chapter that is entitled,”Who will speak for me?” In this chapter, the authors questioned Omaha and St. Paul’s memories of Wigington’s contributions to the cities’ architecture. I answered this question in Omaha for the New Years 2012 edition of the Omaha Star newspaper. Just before that, Wigington’s Broomfield and Crutchfield Row Houses appeared in a redevelopment plan for North Omaha, which recommended it be demolished.
These row houses were designed by Wigington in 1909, and submitted to a national Good Housekeeping magazine contest. He won first place, and after Omaha’s notorious 1913 Easter Tornado, the designs were built at 2502 Lake Street in the Near North Omaha neighborhood.
I wrote and published an article in the Omaha Star in order to create awareness that as with this redevelopment plan for a North Omaha neighborhood created by African-Americans, we were going to destroy our own history.
The article made its way to the current owner, Ethel Mitchell. She is an African-American historic property developer who is also from North Omaha. I met with her in the spring of 2013 at an event opening of Big Mama’s sandwich shop along with the completion of the Bemis/Carver Bank project pushed through by an African-American artist, Theater Gates, from Chicago. She thanked me for speaking up for her building and showed me the inside. It has the original wood flooring and is painted earth tones on the inside. Mitchell completed the paperwork and succeeded in having the property listed on the National Historic Register in 2007.
Today, because of my advocacy and the work of several others, the plans have been changed and the status of the Broomfield and Crutchfield Row Houses is stable. In addition to my business in Omaha, ShotgunHaus Designers, I am planning to give back to North Omaha in a variety of ways in the future.
Cap Clarence Wigington was North Omaha’s OWN architect!
Cap Clarence Wigington’s Omaha Historical Tour
Many of the buildings Cap designed are still standing in Omaha today! Take a drive through North Omaha with an additional stop in South Omaha if you want to see what this man’s skill really looked like.
Issac Bailey House, 2816 Pratt Street (1908)
Dr. L.E. Britt House, 2519 Maple Street (1912)
Thomas Peterson House, 3908 N. 18th Street (1912) – Built for a white streetcar operator
Jack Broomfield Apartments, 2502 Lake Street (1913) – Built for a kingpin of North Omaha crime and croony of Omaha’s boss Tom Dennison
Site of Crutchfield Apartments, 2510-12 Lake Street (1913) – Demolished
G. Wade Obee House, 2518 Lake Street (1913) – Built for a Black undertaker
Zion Baptist Church, 2215 Grant Street (1913)
Duplex, 125-127 S. 38th Street (1914)
Site of Apartment, 1232-34 S. 11th Street (1914)
Hollis M. Johnson House, 1820 Lothrop Street (1914) – Built for the president of Omaha Sanitary Supply
Born in 1975 and from in North Omaha, Linda Williams holds a Master of Design Studies degree in Historic Preservation from Boston Architectural College, which she received in May 2014. She is the first African-American woman to hold this degree from the school.
Linda wrote her capstone/thesis project on a community-based design center to be located in North Omaha so that the local youth and residences could learn about the architectural treasures within its neglected boundaries. She believes by doing this, pride will be re-instilled in the residences despite the negative stigma and stereotypes the weekly news reports about North Omaha.
A member of an organization called Restoration Exchange Omaha (REO), Linda gives historic tours of North Omaha’s architectural epicenter of North 24th Street, including buildings designed by Clarence ‘Cap’ Wigington.
Linda is currently working on a Master’s Degree in Architecture from the Academy of Art University. When she completes this, she will become Nebraska’s first licensed African-American female architect! Prior to her current endeavors, Linda was Nebraska’s first African-American woman to ever attend the United States Air Force Academy, where she was at from 1993-1995. Today, she is a service-connected disabled veteran.
In 1996, Linda married Ernest Gause and had two children, Andrew and Queen. Divorced since 2002, Linda currently works for a nonprofit in Omaha called the League of Human Dignity where she is a Housing Design Specialist who incorporates elements of universal design for people with physical disabilities.
Linda began her career as a draftsperson in 1996 at the University of Nebraska-Omaha in their facilities management department. Earning her bachelor of science in design from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Architecture, Linda graduated in 2001. She is only the second African-American female to graduate from this rigorous program. She interned in the Union Pacific Railroad Engineering Department, and with HDR, Inc where she worked on the UNL Culture Center. Linda served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member in 2008-09 with Omaha’s Habitat for Humanity, revamping low-income housing plans for them and coordinating their Blitz Build focused on building several houses in a week.
As a registered Tier I Small Disadvantaged Business with the City of Omaha, my business, ShotgunHaus Designers, is certified as a Woman-Owned Small Business, Economically Disadvantage Owned Small Business, Service-Connected-Disabled-Veteran Owned Small Business, and as a Minority Owned Small Business. She will soon become an 8a certified company as well.
African American patrons of a drug store on N. 24th Street in the 1940s.
As this blog tells repeatedly, the history of North Omaha is richer, deeper and more meaningful than anyone gives it credit for. In 1994, NET helped reveal some of this history through a powerful documentary called “A Street of Dreams.” From their website:
From 1994. Throughout its history, Omaha’s near north side has been the neighborhood that succeeding generations of immigrants have moved into and moved out of eventually, until protective real estate practices forced blacks to stay. The history of the community includes lynching,riots and discrimination. It also includes a vibrant community with jazz and shops and entrepreneurs. With the recent emphasis on multicultural education, this program tells an important, but little-known story of Nebraska history.
I encourage everyone to watch this video, especially young people and adults who are interested in building the city’s appreciation of North Omaha. Luckily, you can now watch the entire thing online RIGHT HERE!
One of the most powerful documentaries to ever be made in Omaha is called A Time For Burning. Nominated for an Academy Award for documentary filmmaking in 1966, the film highlights then-barber/future Nebraska legislator Ernie Chambers. A graduate of the Creighton University Law School, he was elected Senator to the Nebraska Legislature in 1970. By 2005 he had become the longest-serving state Senator in the history of Nebraska.
This is a powerful clip from the film featuring Chambers talking with the minister of a Lutheran church who was trying to integrate his congregation. Learn more about the film.
Some memories don’t want to be remembered. Growing up in North Omaha in the 1980s and 90s, they weren’t romantic times. My neighborhood around Miller Park Elementary School was in steady decline the entire time I lived there, and as far as I’ve seen and read, has been ever since. The City of Omaha has showed gross neglect for the historic homes throughout the community, and many people there experience the oppressive realities of the city every single day.
The picture above is of the area around 30th and Fort Streets in the 1980s. Its not a wonderful picture filled with light and optimism. Instead, it shows some of the construction that was ongoing in our neighborhood for a decade as Sorenson Parkway was built to shuttle people quickly past the blight we lived in. It shows the lost relic of Bronco’s, which was replaced with the corporate mess of Sonic and Popeye’s later.
It doesn’t show Mister C’s, which has been a decrepit pit of despair ever since Mr. C sold it to retire. It doesn’t show the gang bangers and street fights, drug pits or prostitution that thrive. It doesn’t show a community that tried to maintain its pride until… Well, in some ways its still trying.
Share your memories with me and lets get them online. Inconvenient but truthful history is my favorite.
One of the places that sparks my imagination greatly is when my varying interests overlap, and that’s why today’s post on BANTU particularly excites me. From the pioneering Civil Rights efforts of Dr. Matthew Ricketts
In the 1910s and 1920s, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was active in Omaha, led by young Malcolm Little’s father. They advocated a strong black nationalism. During that same era, Cyril Briggs was the editor of the African Blood Brotherhood journal, The Crusader, printing and distributing it nationwide from Omaha. George Wells Parker founded the Hamitic League of the World in Omaha, advocating for radical communist beliefs throughout the community and across the country. Harry Haywood was radicalized in Omaha during these decades, eventually gaining international recognition as a leading African American communist.
These efforts gave way to the formation of Omaha’s NAACP and Urban League chapters through to the times of the DePorres Club and 4CL, the city’s African American community had been banding together to challenge racism, segregation and discrimination throughout Omaha. Business-specific picketing, boycotts and large protests were happening across North Omaha and downtown from the 1940s through the 1960s.
However, in the 1960s the racial dynamics in Omaha shifted. As the city’s white power elite became more entrenched against civil rights and intransigent to demands, African Americans began rallying together for black power. Radical theories that scared the white power structure emanated from the city’s newly formed Black Panthers unit in the 1960s, and late in that decade, youth organizing took shape through BANTU.
In 1966, Nebraska National Guardsmen were called to North Omaha after three nights of rioting by some in the African American community, including young people.
The Black Association for Nationalism Through Unity was founded in the 1960s in North Omaha. The biggest youth-led activism to ever impact the city, BANTU was responsible for organizing youth across North Omaha. Not surprisingly, it also attracted interest from the FBI.
In addition to organizing chapters at local high schools including Central and Tech, BANTU also led several rallies and protests. In 1966, leaders of the group were instrumental in negotiating peace after a particularly violent rally thrashed North Omaha. In May, 1969, BANTU sent a letter of demands to the Omaha Public School Superintendent. They said the Omaha Public School System was “racist and non-humane,” and called for a meeting. The superintendent rejected the meeting.
The demands of the group included:
Recognizing Malcolm X’s birthday as a “Black holiday” by dismissing all classes;
Making ROTC a selective, non-credit course;
Eliminating hall passes in high schools;
Ending tracking which led students to being assigned to general, commercial or academic classes;
Removing security guards from schools;
Reinstating all Black students who were expelled by the school system, and;
Requiring Black history courses taught by Black teachers for all students.
Another instrumental moment for the organization happened in June 1969, when Vivian Strong, a teenager from the Logan Fontenelle Projects on the Near North Side, was shot and killed by an Omaha Police Officer. Strong, who was reportedly walking away from a violent crowd, was apparently not affiliated with BANTU, nor was she causing any disturbance. The crowd’s reaction went from anger to hatred: Three days of looting and rioting followed. The historical heart of the city’s African American community, North 24th Street, was pillaged with the gutting of storefronts and the firebombs that followed.
Apparently there were a number of authorities that threatened them with Nebraska’s 1949 state law prohibiting secret organizations, which affected the group because they limited their membership to Black youth only. These steps were just a precursor to the larger attempt to bring the group down.
During 1970 hearings on the Black Panther Party held in the US Congress identified BANTU as a sub-group of the BPP. At some point after that they disbanded, and have faded from the city’s memory.
Today, North 24th Street is still silenced by the brutal riots of the 60s, the sullenness of the 70s, the indifference of the 80s and the false optimism of the 90s. Recently the Omaha Chamber of Commerce launched a plan to revitalize the area, drawing little commentary from the community at large.
I have not found any information about youth activism in North Omaha online, and little about community organizing in the area in general. Sharif Liwaru’s work with the Malcolm X Foundation is at the forefront.
A product of its time, BANTU was a rallying point for youth in the area to unite through activism focused on social change. That’s where the overlap comes: my professional work revolves around community youth engagement and the natural tendency young people have towards changing the world.
I know that somewhere in the community there is a powerful spirit of change among young people; hopefully the city’s leadership knows enough to grasp it for positive change, rather than repeating the mistakes of the past. BANTU shows one way they just didn’t do it right.
The following video is a collection of pictures from the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado. This was a massive F5 tornado that ripped across the entire city. However, the vast majority of damage was done to North Omaha, and in particular the Near North Side. Most of the photos in the video are from the neighborhood, too.
In one block called Idlewild, more than 25 people died. Idlewild was a recreation hall for the African American community.
The video has no sound or narration, and was made by a user called ReelNostalgia. Make sure you like the video on youtube!
Today, Omaha suburbs routinely bill themselves having a “street of dreams” in order to sell houses. However, for more than 50 years there was one place in the city people thought of when they heard that phrase. Hopping businesses, swinging clubs and streams of human traffic came and went from these blocks. Here’s some of the history of North 24th Street, Omaha’s REAL street of dreams.
There’s a ridiculous appropriation of history that happens every year in Omaha, one that few people know the injustice of. It is taken away from African Americans, Jews, and lots of European immigrants who built Omaha throughout its first century. To show that real history, I want to begin by painting a scene for you…
Imagine yourself in 1940s North Omaha. You’re strolling along North 24th Street near Lake, and as you walk you hear squealing jazz trumpets and thumping bass lines drifted out of clubs. There and there and over there are matinees showing, and a crazy-looking action scene being filmed right off the main strip.
Walking along, you have a smile on your face and a great time on your mind. There’s a lively scene all around you, with clubs and stores, taverns and restaurants humming with activity, emotion and action.
Throughout the daytime North 24th Street is alive too. Omaha’s Jewish community, Italians, Germans and Scandinavians lived along the street, too. They ran and worked at many businesses along North 24th, and took pride in serving the African Americans, Eastern Europeans, and other people living throughout the Near North Side neighborhood then.
This is the what was called Omaha’s Street of Dreams—not some manufactured opulence in the western part of the city, but right here in North Omaha. It was called that because it seemed like anything could happen for a determined, dedicated African American or white person in Omaha, and North 24th was the place to see that go down.
For more than a century, North 24th Street was the most important street outside of downtown Omaha. There were hotels and stores, cafes and pubs, drug stores and professional offices lining the way from Dodge Street to Read Street. More than a dozen important intersections hosted streetcar stops, and light industrial development was mixed along the route. All that lasted from the time Omaha was settled into the 1960s.
However, starting in 1919, explicit racism drove white Omahans to divest from North 24th Street. Over the next 40 years, the City of Omaha practiced benign neglect for the civic infrastructure holding the strip together. Starting in the 1930s, when the City government did take action it was white supremacy thinly veiled in terms like “ghetto clearance” and “urban renewal” that were intended to remove low Starting in 1966, North 24th Street was ravaged by a series of fires, riots and bombing that has been unfairly pinned on African Americans, when in reality the strip was being abandoned en masse in the decades beforehand.
Today, North 24th Street is beginning to turn around. Community gardens, innovative enterprises and a coffee shop (!) are dotting the way, and action is underway to make life on “The Deuce” fun and wealthy again. Practically everyone agrees that in order to move forward, though, we have to look back.
To that end, here is a history of North Omaha’s 24th Street.
Beginning: 1850s to 1890s
One of the first settlements in Omaha was along present-day North 24th Street. The town of Saratoga was established in 1857 at North 24th and Grand Avenue. There was a hotel, a school, a post office and several houses, along with a brewery and several other businesses in the area. Without a formal town government, the operations of the town were wiped out by a financial panic within a year. However, the people and institutions kept on and several important events happened there over the years. Today, the neighborhood is fully integrated within urban Omaha and there are no signs, historical markers or commemorations to remember this one-time hotspot in the community.
It can be hard to imagine, but North 24th Street began as a dirt country road lined with the estates and mansions of wealthy businessmen who worked in downtown Omaha. From the 1850s through the 1880s, small farms with corn and various vegetables lined the road, along with fruit tree orchards from the wealthy estates. John McCreary was one of those early businessmen. A wealthy Ohioan, McCreary followed the Creighton family to early Omaha and was instrumental in laying the first telegraph lines that crossed the West. He built his fine mansion at the corner of Saunders and Pratt Street in 1876, where it stood for 50 years. Another mansion was built by early Omaha real estate magnate Clifford Mayne to the south of the McCreary mansion. Later bought by a local judge, this place at 3612 North 24th Street was renamed the Redick mansion and played an important role in North Omaha history after the turn of the century.
The roadway was carved along section lines in the 1850s and lined with crushed granite in the 1870s. Rolling 4.4 miles along a long, flat plain with almost no hills, North 24th Street was perfect for development in a time before earth-moving machines were invented and people needed easy locations to build homes, businesses and farms. The first name of North 24th was Saunders Street.
Named for early Nebraska Governor Alvin Saunders, Saunders Street was called North 24th Street by the 1880s. By then, there were important intersections at 24th and Dodge, 24th and Cuming, 24th and Erskine, 24th and Lake, and 24th and Fort began getting settled in earnest in that decade. During those years, wooden buildings popped up along the way while wagons could roll on further. The road originally went north to the town of Saratoga, where a driver could turn along a section line and go up to Florence. People built houses off the road, with Germans, Italians, and other European settlers coming in first.
Early businesses along the street included grocery stores, bakers, blacksmiths, lumber and hardware stores, and more. Before 1890, North 24th street was traveled by people riding horses, horse-drawn wagons, horse-drawn streetcars, early bicyclists and pedestrians. In 1888, Lothrop School was rebuilt near the corner of North 24th and Lothrop.
The Jewish community in Omaha first settled along North 24th in the 1870s. Developing a strong commercial presence on North 24th Street, there were several synagogues and other Jewish facilities either on the street or within a few blocks. As more Jews came from different parts of Europe, including Germany, the Baltic states, and other countries, they developed a strong cultural presence that lasted into the 1960s. Jewish businesses included kosher meat shops, fishmongers, junkyards, tailors and more.
During this time, African Americas in Omaha lived nearer to downtown than they do today. By 1867, enough Blacks gathered in community to found Saint John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church at North 9th and Capital Streets as the first church for African Americans in Nebraska. By the 1880s, Omaha’s original “Negro district” was located at 20th and Harney Streets. However, in the 1870s as the Black community grew in numbers and successes, it expanded north to 24th.
By the 1890s, African Americans in Omaha were moving up the social, economic, and political ladder of Omaha’s predominantly white society. Black men and women formed social, political, economic and community-building organizations for education, respectability, advancement and reform. Several African American newspapers were started in the 1880s and 90s, including the Progress, the Afro-American Sentinel and The Enterprise. Early Black churches were established along North 24th, too, as well as Black-owned businesses and other enterprises.
In the 1870s and 80s, other European settlers and Americans from the East Coast and Midwest built many of the first businesses and buildings along North 24th Street. Bakeries, clothing stores, groceries, drug stores, and laundries took shape along the strip. There were businesses owned by Germans, Swedes, and other immigrants. Several churches opened along North 24th during this era, too, including Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and Catholics. For instance, the Immanuel Baptist Church opened at North 24th and Binney in 1889; the German Immanuel Baptist Church at later moved to 24th and Miami opened in 1888; Mortuaries lined the strip too, many focused on the immigrant and racial groups in the city.
By the 1880s, large landholders along North 24th Street became determined to start developing neighborhoods, selling lots and buildings houses. Perhaps the most determined was Herman Kountze, an Omaha banker who owned a large section of land from North 24th east to North 16th, and from Locust north to Sprague. During the 1890s, he laid out streets, installed sidewalks and gas-powered streetlamps, donated land for churches and set aside a large park in the middle of his neighborhood called Kountze Place. For instance, Kountze donated or sold land at discounted prices to several churches in his development, including Sacred Heart Catholic, Trinity Methodist Episcopal and many others.
The early culture along North 24th was vibrant and thriving. By 1890, there were several brick buildings from Cuming to Ames Avenue, each peppered with stores, entertainment and other facilities. Longtime institutions like Crissie’s Pharmacy, the Saratoga Hotel and other businesses were launched. Some intersections, including 24th and Lake and 24th and Fort had three-story buildings constructed by then. However, success was dotted along the way, with large estates still taking up a lot of land and large scale residential development about to happen. During the next decade, North 24th Street really took off!
Growing: 1890s to 1940s
By the late 1890s, Herman Kountze was involved in incentivizing the largest gathering in Omaha’s history to happen on his land. Despite all the attempts he made to sell properties along 24th and eastward, an economic downturn in the early 1890s stifled growth. So in 1897, he threw his lot in with a scheme to boost Omaha’s future with a huge event like a world fair called the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition.
This massive event drew more than 2 million visitors to North Omaha, and despite leaving no permanent landmarks in the neighborhood, it changed the character of the neighborhood forever. It was during this event that the first automobile in Omaha might have traveled up North 24th Street. Businesses sprung up along the street to serve tourists and others, and temporary as well as permanent buildings were constructed along the way.
There were several schools built along North 24th Street throughout the years. One of them was the Paul Street School, which was rebuilt at 1311 North 24th Street in a simple building made in 1892.
In the decade after the Expo, the Kountze Place neighborhood around North 24th Street filled in nicely.
Further north of Kountze Place, in 1909 the Redick Mansion became home to a new higher education institution called Omaha University. Built to be the city’s secular college, the University of Omaha had several degree programs and was a pillar of the community. After replacing the wooden mansion with a brick building in 1919, the campus on North 24th Street came to include several buildings. One of several higher education institutions in North Omaha, it stayed on North 24th until 1938, when the campus was moved to West Dodge Road. Today it’s called the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
With the university next door to the Evangelical Covenant Hospital, in the 1910s and 1920s several businesses sprung up in the area to support the professionals who worked in the area daily. Businesses like Hash House and the Lothrop Shoe Service were joined by Safeway and other companies in the neighborhood.
After the turn of the 20th century, the corner of North 24th and Fort developed into an important commercial node. A giant drug store, several cafes and groceries and a theater was built there to accomodate streetcar passengers from two different lines that converged there. The formerPearl Memorial United Methodist Church was opened there in 1921 after starting at North 24th and Larimore in 1906.
Jim Crow segregation supported by US Army forces struck North 24th Street in September 1919. That month, an African American worker named Will Brown was lynched downtown. In a move supposedly intended to keep North Omaha’s African American neighborhood safe from swarming white mobs who wanted to attack them, General George Wood drew a line on a map from North 24th to North 16th on the east, and from Cuming to Lake on the north and told Blacks that if they stayed within that area he could keep them safe. This segregation was made de jure in 1936 by the federal Home Owners Lending Corporation, which turned to Omaha’s real estate, insurance and bank industry to draw a red line around the neighborhood including North 24th to segregate African Americans and keep them within that area. Racism forever changed North 24th Street. During the same era that houses along North 24th were formally segregated, schools, hospitals, hotels, theaters and more was, too. Churches had been segregated for 30 years before that; businesses became more strictly segregated afterwards.
Several professional offices for African Americans were located on North 24th Street. Dr. Matthew Ricketts became the first Black person elected to serve in the Nebraska Legislature in 1892, and in 1895, Silas Robbins became the first Black lawyer admitted to the Nebraska State Bar Association. Ricketts and Robbins both had offices along a growing strip of businesses in the city, even though they were segregated from serving the majority of European residents. Several other African American doctors and other professionals have had offices of North 24th, too.
This was the era when 24th and Lake became the focal point for African American culture in Omaha. Surrounding this district were clubs and bars, offices and stores, theaters and billiards, churches and halls where Blacks would gather, spend money, spread the news and gossip, recreate and learn.
Black-owned establishments spread northwards up North 24th in the 1910s and 20s. A Black self-empowerment movement emerged in Omaha echoing the Harlem Renaissance during this time period. The economy of African Americans grew while the culture expanded. In 1925, Bethel AME opened at North 24th and Franklin Street. Several Black churches were located just off the strip too, including Saint John’s AME, Zion Baptist, and others. It was 1917 when Pilgrim Baptist Church was established in a storefront on North 24th Street. In 1920, they moved into a church at North 25th and Hamilton Street and have remained there since. In 1927, Grove Methodist Episcopal Church moved to North 22nd and Miami Streets and was renamed Clair Church. Mt. Moriah Baptist Church moved to North 24th and Ohio Streets in 1927.
All of this and much more made North 24th Street important to African Americans like never before.
For all its successes, it seems like North 24th Street was slow to inspire economic confidence. The only economic institutions I have found in the history of the street were the Metropolitan Building and Loan Association and the Carver Savings and Loan. The Metropolitan was at North 24th and Ames from 1922 to 1966, and Carter was at North 24th and Lake from 1946 to 1965. In 1890, a bank called the Citizens Bank opened at North 24th and Cuming Streets, and closed permanently in 1894.
Omaha’s best nightlife happened along North 24th Street. The most popular hangouts were Mildred Brown’s Carnation Ballroom at North 24th and Miami, and the Dreamland Ballroom, located at 2221 North 24th. The most popular Black bands from across the U.S. played to packed crowds every night of the week at both of these hallowed party places. Jim Bell’s Club Harlem at North 24th and Lake was also a high point, along with the Aloha Club and several others. Social clubs were spread throughout North 24th Street during this era, too.
During this era, The Omaha Starstarted publishing in 1938 at 2216 North 24th, and continues today. This is when North 24th was called Omaha’s Street of Dreams.
This was the zenith of North 24th Street. After World War II it was never the same.
North 24th Street Changes: 1950s to Today
After World War II, segregation along North 24th Street was paralleled by divestment in real estate and businesses, as well as a policy of benign neglect by the City of Omaha government. Streets, sewers and public transportation deteriorated while long-time investors abandoned storefronts; white business owners moved their shops; and white church congregations fled the surrounding area, especially North 24th. As commercial buildings became decrepit they were boarded up or rented without maintenance; as houses went from being single-family homes to apartments they were maintained poorly, and many were eventually demolished. Slum clearance programs struck North 24th particularly hard, as the City’s tractors turned with vengeance towards African Americans and low-income people.
During this era, North 24th Street strip stopped growing in earnest, although there were a few developments. Carver Savings and Loan, the city’s first Black-owned bank, opened in 1944. Jews continued to own a number of businesses, but white businesses were closing en masse while the number of Black-owned businesses serving the African American community stopped growing. Cafes continued, and longtime businesses like groceries, liquor stores and drug stores struggled to stay open, but they did. The Lion Products Company was on the corner of North 24th and Lake into the early 1950s.
In 1954, Charlie Hall started the Fair Deal Cafe at 2114 North 24th to become Omaha’s “Black City Hall”, which it served as for almost 50 years. There were many exceptional places to eat along North 24th Street, including the Fair Deal, Carter’s Cafeand many others. Carter’s Cafe opened in 1948, and after moving around several times, settle in just off 24th and Lake at 2514 North 24th Street. It was open for more than 35+ years.
Kellom School was opened in 1952 at 1311 North 24th Street. It was meant to be a community school and included a community center, but was severely segregated and only had African American students for several decades.
During this same period, Omaha’s gross racism raged. Eight segregated schools served African American students in North Omaha, with several clustered around North 24th Street. Whites had mostly fled the area by then, with strict agreements among realty agents preventing African Americans from buying homes outside a certain district dissected by North 24th. The movie theaters along the street that once served African Americans closed during the 1950s, along with many businesses and stores.
By the early 1960s, the Jewish community was almost wholly divested from North 24th Street. At the same time, the City of Omaha wasn’t supporting parks, sidewalk and street upkeep, and other government services in the area.
A lot of formerly white-only churches moved from North 24th Street during the 1950s and 1960s, and those that stayed tried integrating. For instance, in 1954, North Presbyterian Church at North 24th and Wirt Streets merged with a church near Benson, and in its place Hillside Presbyterian and Bethany Presbyterian formed Calvin Memorial Presbyterian in the former North Presbyterian building. Meant to be an integrated congregation, the church intentionally hoped to serve both Blacks and whites. While that congregation lasted 40 years, it ultimately failed to be integrated and was exclusively African American for more than half its existence. Today, the Church of Jesus Christ Whole Truth occupies the building and serves the all-African American neighborhood where its located.
By 1960, major institutions had been moving away from North 24th Street over the previous 20 years. The Evangelical Covenant Hospital went bankrupt in 1937; Omaha University moved to West Omaha at 60th and Dodge Streets in 1938; and the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary closed in 1943. Large employers went out of business and moved from the community, including Reed’s Ice Cream, which ran a large factory at 3106 North 24th Street. Although the owner would serve African Americans, he wouldn’t hire Blacks to work in his stores and stands. When Reed’s was boycotted by civil rights activists, their business was damaged and eventually they closed.
Without jobs and recreational activities for youth and young adults in the surrounding neighborhoods, North 24th Street became a logical target for reactive outcomes such as burglaries, robberies, vandalism and more in the early 1960s. However, what happened next caught Omaha by surprise.
Starting in 1966, four major riots ravished the ten blocks that held the majority of businesses along North 24th Street. Dozens of storefronts were destroyed and many businesses were attacked. There were large groups of protesters and rioters, including people who battled with policemen and firemen, looted businesses up and down North 24th Street, and seemingly innocent people who were attacked. Both Black-owned and white-owned businesses were destroyed. Over the course of the riots, hundreds of people were arrested, millions of dollars of buildings were destroyed, and the trust of the community was permanently shaken.
The neighborhood has never completely recovered. Since the 1980s, there have been several government and private plans to improve the street, but overall many have failed to materialize. With recent interest to improve the area, recent plans may prove more successful.
Since 2000, several new homes and businesses have been developed along North 24th Street from Cuming northwards. One of the major developments is featured next.
Blue Lion Center
The Blue Lion Center is made of two buildings located on the southeast corner of North 24th and Lake Streets. Built in 1918, there were a number of businesses here over the years, including the Calhoun Hotel, a Black hotel that served a lot of musical greats who played in North Omaha; a number of African American doctors; and Rabe’s Buffet, a popular restaurant for decades. However, the Blue Lion buildings were name after two of their most famous tenants: McGill’s Blue Room, a jazz club; and Lion Products, which sold farm equipment. According to longtime resident Debra Stewart, other historic businesses in the Blue Lion included Stewart’s Tops and Bottoms, Rags to Riches, a barber shop and nail salon, and a candy store, among others.
Today, the Blue Lion is being transformed into the home of the Union for Contemporary Arts, as well as additional space for retail or a restaurant. It should open in early 2017.
North 24th Street Historical Tour
The historic cultural center of the Near North Side neighborhood and Omaha’s African American community was indisputably North 24th Street. The following list of sites just on this street shows why.
The Majestic Theatre, 413 No. 24th
Fern Theatre, 716 North 24th St. – Opened in 1913
Citizens Bank, 24th and Cuming, Opened in 1887
Bellows Carpentry, 913 N 24th St. – 1890
Omaha Fire Department Station #6 site, 914-16 North 24th St.
Baines and Donoghue Meat Market, 933 N 24th St. – 1890
Brown Livery Stable, 1001 N 24th St. – 1890
Barth Meat Market, 1010 N 24th St. – 1890
Barker Groceries, 1013 N 24th St. – 1890
Blackman, Flour and Feed, 1014 N 24th St. – 1890
Dr. E.L. Alexander, Physician, 1024 North 24th St. – 1890
Canan Books and Stationery, 1024 North 24th St. – 1890
B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholom, 1111 North 24th St. – Located at 24th and Nicholas, this synagogue was credited for attracting many Jewish people to Omaha’s North Side. Formerly Omaha’s Second Presbyterian Church, it was converted in 1909.
Donovan Brother’s Furnaces and Supplies site, 1114 north 24th St. – A large store located here from the 1930s through the 1960s.
Brown Billiards, 1115 N 24th St. – 1890
Knights of Pythias Hall site, 1121 North 24th St. – A historic social hall serving the Near North Side from the 1870s through the 1910s.
Carlson and Erickson Shoes and Furnishing Goods, 1218 North 24th St. – 1890
Baldwin Mechantile, 1300 N 24th St. – 1890
Emerson Laundry, 1303 North 24th St. – Located here in 1913.
Butter’s Studio, 1306 North 24th St. “A poor portrait is dear at any price, but a good one is well worth the money. Ours are good and yet not expensive.”
Charles Bales, Harnessmaker, 1310 N 24th. St. – 1890
Top Notch Cafe, 1322 North 24th St. – “Special table d’hote dinner Sunday. 50 cents. Classy entertainers. If you cannot come, telephone your orders and we will deliver them.”
Ahlquist Hardware, 1327 N 24th St. – 1890
Bocock and Proctor Coal, 1330 N 24th St. – 1890
Bell’s Restaurant, 1331 N 24th St. – 1890
Carlson Meat Market, 1339 N 24th St. – 1890
Logan Fontenelle Housing Project site, 1411 North 24th St. – Located at 20th to 24th Streets, and from Paul to Seward Streets, “Little Vietnam” opened in the 1930s. Logan Fontenelle was a low-income public housing project that was torn down in the 1990s. It was the site of the murder of teenager Vivian Strong by Omaha policeman James Loder in 1969, which led to riots that devastated North 24th.
The Sanitary Ice Cream Parlor, 1425 North 24th St. – Offered a deli and a “full line of groceries” according to a 1917 Monitor ad.
Betterman Drugs, 1437 N 24th St. – 1890
North Omaha Community Development, Inc., 1502 North 24th St. – Opened in 1984, NOCD has grown from a community organizing agency to the developer of major projects such as the Horizon Townhomes and the Blue Lion Center.
Wolk Tailor, 1506 North 24th St. – “First class tailoring, Men’s second-hand clothing at bargains. All kinds of alterations and special dry cleaning,” from a 1917 Monitor ad.
Cornelius Olof Shoemaker, 1513 N 24th St. – 1890
Kosher Meat Market, 1513 North 24 St. – Operated by Sam Fried and Iz Kukljn with Jacob Shukert was the schcet, this was considered the most modern kosher market in Cmaha in 1919.
Carlson Clothing Store, 1514 North 24th St. – Established in 1890, this store sold “shoes and gents furnishings.” In a 1917 Monitor ad, they said, “Many a hard earned dollar can be saved at Carlson’s store this week.”
Drs. Wesley Jones and Herbert Wiggins, Dentist, 1518 1/2 North 24th St. – An African American physician.
Dr. G.B. Lennox, Dentist, 1602 North 24th St. – An African American physician.
Abrams Furnace, 1606 North 24th St. Provided “furnace work and general tin work of all kinds.”
Central Ice Service, 1607 North 24th St.
Franklin Theater site, 1624 North 24th St. – Open in 1921.
Building site, 1701 North 24th St. – An example of a building destroyed by fires from the 1966 riots.
Adler Bakery site, 1722 North 24th St. – A large commercial bakery that operated here through the 1960s.
Lynch Tailor, 1807 North 24th St. “Ladies suits or skits made to order. Cleaning, pressing and repairing neatly done for ladies and gents.”
American Laundry, 1809 North 24 St. – “Ladies’ and children’s fine dresses and clothes given special attention. Bundle washing. Work called for and delivered. Get our prices.”
Alhambra Theatre site, 1814 North 24th St. – Open in 1911, after its closure, the building became a roller rink, a grocery store and a miniature golf course before burning down in 1936.
Bohn Saloon, 1822 N 24th St. – 1890
Climax Tailors, 1837 North 24th St. Cleaning – Pressing – Altering. (From the 1949 Grayson’s Guide)
Schnaubers Meats, 1906 North 24th St.
DePorres Community Center, 1914 North 24th St. – The original stand-alone location.
The Hawkins Block, 2010 North 24th St. – Built in 1924 by African American Dr. Anthony L. Hawkins, this block showed the strength of Omaha’s emerging African American middle class.
King Yuen Cafe, 2010 1/2 North 24th Street, Phone JA. 8576. Featuring Chinese and American Dishes. (From the 1949 Grayson’s Guide)
Original Omaha Library building site, 2019 North 24th St. – Originally located downtown, it was moved here by 1907.
The Grotto, 2025 North 24th St. – A club starting in the 1920s that hosted the Omaha Night Owls and the Sam Turner Orchestra, among others.
Carey Neighborhood Grocery, 2120 North 24th St. – Owned by two African American brothers that owned five other stores, including another one in North Omaha at North 27th and Ohio.
Ritz Theatre site, 2041 North 24th St. The Ritz opened in the mid 1930s and was an African-American theatre that sat more than 500. The theatre closed in the 1950s and was demolished.
Crissey Drugs, 2112 North 24th St. – 1890
Fair Deal Cafe, 2118 North 24th St. – Once called Omaha’s Black City Hall, Fair Deal was open from the 1950s through the 1990s.
Dr. A.L. Hawkins, Physician, 2120 North 24th St. – An African American physician.
Jackson Lunch Room, 2122 North 24th St. – Offered short orders and 6pm dinner with special home cooking according to a 1917 Monitor ad.
Skeet’s Barbecue Drive-In, 2201 North 24th St. – A longtime establishment currently open.
Creacy’s Chicken Hut, 2210 North 24th Street. Home of Golden Brown Fried Chicken. (From the 1949 Grayson’s Guide)
Omaha Star Building, 2216 North 24th St. – Built as a mortuary, this building has been home to the Omaha Star since it was founded in 1938. The Omaha Star has been North Omaha’s premier news source ever since. This building was the second home to the DePorres Club and a safe haven for people running from the riots in the 1960s.
Jewell Building, 2221 North 24th St. – This building was home to Omaha’s spectacular Dreamland Ballroom, a prime nightspot for almost 50 years. Located in the heart of the Near North Side, the Dreamland hosted Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and many other stars.
Tuxedo Billiards, 2221 North 24th St. – This was the second location of this business.
Idlewild Hall site, 2222 North 24th St. – An African American entertainment hall, this site was packed on the early evening of March 23, 1913 when a major tornado blasted it. At least 14 people died here.
Mecca Amusement Co., 2303 North 24th St. – Offered roller skating, dancing, movies, music, an outdoor cabaret cafe, and a soft drink fountain in a 1915 Monitor ad.
Williamson and Terrell Drug Store, 2306 North 24th St.
Tuxedo Billiards, 2307 North 24th St. – This was the first location of this business.
Club House Cafe, 2310 North 24th St. Hot Home Cooked Meals and Short Orders. (From the 1949 Grayson’s Guide)
Metoyer Bar-BQ, 2311 1/2 North 24th St.
Hill’s Catering, Employment, Rentals and Real Estate site, 2324 North 24th St.
Hill’s Chicken in a Box site, 2324 North 24th St.
Goodrich Hall site, 2340 North 24th St. – Built in the 1880s, this was a social hall that was home to fraternal organizations, a church, and several other groups for many years.
Carver Savings and Loan Association building, 2416 Lake St. – This landmark building housed a bank that provided an important economic lifeline to African Americans from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Robert Kennedy speaking location, 24th and Erskine – In May 1968, Bobby Kennedy stopped his campaign entourage to get out and speak to the large African American crowd gathered here.
Diamond Moving Picture Theater site, 2410 Lake St. – This was the site of Omaha’s first Black theatre, and one of the sites most decimated by a deadly 1913 tornado. Many people were falsely thought to have died here; few actually did. The theatre was rebuilt and used for many purposes throughout the years, including its last purpose as the illustrious Cotton Club.
Standard Laundry Company, 2401 Lake St. – Located on this corner for many years, this business was opened by Edholm and Sherman.
Da-Nite Miniature Golf, 2210 North 24th St.
The Omaha Star, 2216 North 24th St. – Home to Omaha’s oldest African American newspaper.
Drs. J.A. and C.H. Singleton, Dentists, 2411 North 24th St. – African American dentists.
Lion Products Company, 2417 North 24th St. – An agricultural implements dealer
The California Shop, 2414 North 24th St – A men’s clothing store
McGill’s Blue Room, 2423-25 N 24th St. – A club that hosted many popular acts from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Drs. Craig Morris and Dr. J.H. Hutten, Dentists at 2419 1/2 North 24th St. – African American dentists.
Calhoun Hotel, 2423 Lake St. – This was an African American-friendly hotel.
Rabe’s Buffet, 2425 North 24th St. – Owned by an African American and operated for many decades.
Midway Cafe, 2418 North 24th – Owned by African AmericanJames Bell for many decades.
Drs. A.A . Foster, Price Terrell and A.M. McMillan, Physicians, 2420 North 24th St. – African American physicians.
Lewis Clothing, 2503 North 24th St. “Buy your shoes from Joe Lewis and save money. Quality guaranteed.”
Berry and Womack Drugs, 2504 N 24th St. – 1890
Althouse School of Beauty Culture, 2505 North 24th – This was the third of three locations in the schools’ history.
Osborne Shoes, 2506 North 24th St. – “18 years as cost man with shoe manufacturers. We sell only high grade, reliable shoes.” From an 1889 ad in The Excelsior.
Blue Arrow Cafe, 2509 No. 24th Street. “Best in Omaha.” Fine Food Good Coffee. (From the 1949 Grayson’s Guide)
Loves Jazz and Arts Center, 2512 North 24th St. – One of North Omaha’s present-day cultural hubs, featuring performance art and other works.
Carter’s Cafe, 2515 North 24th St. – A 35+ year institution at 24th and Lake, Ms. Carter’s Cafe served extraordinary soul food and is still home to many peoples’ best memories of delicious North O food.
Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, 2602 North 24th St. – Originally the site of a Mormon church, Mt. Moriah moved here in 1926 and built a new building in 1934.
Carnation Ballroom, 2700 North 24th St. – Located at N 24th and Miami on the southeast corner of the intersection, the Carnation was site to many grand performances and performers, including young James Brown and others.
Opportunities Industrialization Center, 2802 North 24th St. – Originally opened in a remodeled car garage and warehouse. Today it provides job training to unemployed and underemployed persons who want to upgrade their skills. Omaha’s OIC was first established in 1966 with their new building opened in 1976.
Sothmann Dry Cleaning, 3012 North 24th St.
Dr. W.W. Solomon, Physician, 3022 North 24th St.
Urban League of Nebraska, 3022 North 24th St. – Today is called Alston’s Corner and houses an art space.
Reed’s Ice Cream, 3101 North 24th. – After opening here in the 1920s, Reed’s developed a segregationist perspective in their business: African Americans were allowed to buy the ice cream, but not work for the business. This shop was picketed relentlessly by the DePorres Club in 1953, and stopped its racist hiring practices because of it. It closed in the 1960s.
Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church, 3105 North 24th St. – Built in 1910 as the North Presbyterian Church, this landmark was designed by F. A. Henninger. Its architecture was greatly influenced by the Trans-Mississippi Expo a decade earlier.
Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop, 3116 North 24th St. – Established by Dan Goodwin, Sr. in 1955, Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop has been the location of many important conversations in North Omaha history. Ernie Chambers was a barber here.
Lothrop Theatre site, 3212 North 24th St. – Opened in 1938, the Lothrop seated 480. It closed in 1955 and was demolished at some point after that.
Immanuel Baptist Church site, 3401 North 24th St. on the southeast corner of Pinkney St.
Luzianne’s (Lee’s) Ice Cream Company, 3515 North 24th St. Storefront designed by architect Edward J. Sessinghaus.
Cox Groceries, 3906 N 24th St. – 1890
Althouse School of Beauty Culture, 3619 North 24th – This was the second of three locations in the school’s history.
The McCreary Mansion, 3706 North 24th St -Built in the 1880s, this mansion became a hospital in 1905 and then was demolished in 1926.
Omaha University campus site, 3700 North 24th St. – This corner was originally the location of John Redick’s mansion. Starting in 1906, the University of Omaha was located here.
Swedish Mission Hospital, 3706 North 24th St. – After buying McCreary’s Mansion in 1905, the hospital changed names in 1928 to the Evangelical Covenant Hospital and built new buildings. It closed in 1938 and was sold to the Salvation Army that year.
Dewey Chevrolet, 3813 North 24th St. – Located here from the 1920s until ???
Native Omahans Club, 3819 North 24th St. – Founded in 1976, this group plans Native Omaha Days celebrations, including a community-wide picnic, parade, social activities and other events.
Salvation Army Rescue Home, 3824 North 24th. – Opened in 1896, this institution existed at this location in 1914.
Frolic Theater building, 4116 North 24th St. – Open in 1914
Boyer Lumber Company site, 4223 North 24th St. One of a number of businesses owned by J.A. Boyer.
Boyer’s Coal and Coke Company site, 4223 North 24th St.
Harmon and Weeth Coal and Gas site, 4811 North 24th St. in the 1930s.