The African-American diaspora migration from the South helped populate Omaha in the 20th century. Railroad and packing house jobs were the lure. From the late 1960s on, a reverse trend has seen African-Americans leave here en mass for more progressive climes. A variant to these patterns finds thousands returning each odd-numbered August for a biennial community reunion known as Native Omaha Days.
This 21st reunion happens July 31 through August 7. Featured events range from gospel and jazz concerts to talks, vendor displays, a parade and a ball.
Nobody’s quite sure how many native Omahans living outside the state head home for it to rekindle relationships and visit old haunts.
Thomas Warren, president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, which this year hosts its 90-year anniversary gala during Native Omaha Days, may put it best:
“People make it a purpose to come back.”
Former resident Reshon Dixon left Omaha for Atlanta 24 years ago and she’s been coming back ever since, except when military commitments prevented it. She hopes to free up her schedule for this year’s fest.
“I’m trying to. I usually plan a year ahead to come back.”
She said she brought her children for it when they were young because “that’s pretty much where our roots are from.” She’s delighted her now grown kids are “planning to come back this year.”
Serial nonprofit executive Viv Ewing said Native Omaha Days touches deep currents.
“People look at this event very fondly. In the off-year it’s not being held, people ask when is it happening again and why isn’t it every year because it’s such a great time bringing the community together with family and old friends. People look forward to it.
“There are people who have moved away who plan their vacations so that they come back to Omaha during this particular time, and that says a lot about what this event means to many people across the country.”
Even Omaha residents keep their calendars open for it.
“I’ve cut business trips as well as vacations short in order to make sure I was at home during this biennial celebration,” Warren said.
Sheila Jackson, vice president of the nonprofit that organizes it, said, “It’s one big reunion, one big family all coming together.”
Juanita Johnson, an Omaha transplant from Chicago, is impressed by the intentionality with which “people come together to embrace their commonality and their love of North Omaha.” She added, “It instills pride. It has a lot of excitement, high spirits, energy and enthusiasm.”
As president of the Long School Neighborhood Association and 24th Street Corridor Alliance, Johnson feels Native Omaha Days could play a greater role in community activation and empowerment.
“I think there’s an opportunity for unity to develop from it if it’s nurtured beyond just every two years.”
Empowerment Network Director of Operations Vicki Quaites-Ferris hopes it can contribute to a more cohesive community. “We don’t want the unity to just be for seven days. We want that to overflow so that when people leave we still feel that sense of pride coming from a community that really is seeing a rebirth.”
Ewing said even though it only happens every two years, the celebration is by now an Omaha tradition.
“It’s been around for four decades. It’s a huge thing.”
No one imagined it would endure.
“I never would have dreamt it’d be this big,” co-founder Bettie McDonald said. “I feel good knowing it got started, it’s still going and people are still excited about it.”
She said it’s little wonder though so many return given how powerful the draw of home is.
“They get emotional when they come back and see their people. It’s fun to see them greet each other. They hug and kiss and go on, hollering and screaming. It’s just a joyous thing to see.”
Dixon said even though she’s lived nearly as long in Atlanta as she did in Omaha, “I’m a Cornhusker first and a Peach second.”
Likewise for Paul Bryant, who also left Omaha for Atlanta, there’s no doubt where his allegiance lies.
“Omaha will always be home. I’m fifth generation. I’m proud of my family, I’m proud of Omaha. Native Omaha Days gives people another reason to come back.”
A little extra enticement doesn’t hurt either.
“We really plan things for them to make them want to come back home,” said McDonald. She drew from the fabled reunion her large family – the Bryant-Fishers – has held since 1917 as the model for Native Omaha Days. Thus, when her family convenes its centennial reunion picnic on Sunday, August 13, it will cap a week’s worth of events, including a parade and gala dinner-dance.
Bryant, a nephew of McDonald, is coming back for the family’s centennial. He’s done Native Omaha Days plenty of times before. He feels both Native Omaha Days and reunions like his family’s are ways “we pass on the legacies to the next generation.” He laments “some of the younger generations don’t understand it” and therefore “don’t respect the celebratory nature of what goes on – the passing of the torch, the knowing who-you-are, where-you-come-from. They just haven’t been taught.”
Sheila Jackson said it takes maturity to get it. “You don’t really appreciate Native Omaha Days until you get to be like in your 40s. That’s when you really get the hang of it. When you’re younger, it’s not a big thing to you. But when you get older, it seems to mean more.”
Sometime during the week, most celebrants end up at 24th and Lake Streets – the historic hub for the Black community. There’s even a stroll down memory lane and tours. The crowd swells after hours.
“It’s almost Omaha’s equivalent of Mardi Gras, where you’ll have thousands people just converge on the intersection of 24th and Lake, with no real plans or organized activities,” Warren said. “But you know you can go to that area and see old friends, many of whom you may not have seen for several years. It gives you that real sense of community.”
Fair Deal Village Marketplace manager Terri Sanders, who said she’s bound to run into old Central High classmates, called it “a multigenerational celebration.”
Touchstone places abound, but that intersection is what Warren termed “the epicenter.”
“I’m always on 24th and Lake when I’m home,” said homegrown media mogul Cathy Hughes, who will be the grand marshall for this year’s parade. “I love standing there seeing who’s coming by and people saying, ‘Cathy, is that you?’ I always park at the Omaha Star and walk down to 24th and Lake.”
“I do end up at 24th and Lake where everybody else is,” Dixon said. “You just bump into so many people. I mean, people you went to kindergarten with. It’s so hilarious.
So, yes, 24th and Lake, 24th Street period, is definitely iconic for North Omahans.”
That emerging arts and culture district will be hopping between the Elks Club, Love’s Jazz & Arts Center, the Union for Contemporary Art, Omaha Rockets Kanteen,
Jesse’s Place, the Fair Deal Cafe and, a bit southwest of there, the Stage II Lounge.
Native Omaha Days’ multi-faceted celebration is organized by the Native Omahans Club, which “promotes social and general welfare, common good, scholarships, cultural, social and recreational activities for the inner city and North Omaha community.” Native Omaha Days is its every-other-year vehicle for welcoming back those who left and for igniting reunions.
The week includes several big gatherings. One of the biggest, the Homecoming Parade on Saturday, August 6, on North 30th Street, will feature drill teams, floats and star entrepreneur Cathy Hughes, the founder-owner of two major networks – Radio One and TV One. She recently produced her first film, the aptly titled, Media.
Hughes is the latest in a long line of native and guest celebrities who’ve served as parade grand marshall: Terence Crawford, Dick Gregory, Gabrielle Union.
During the celebration, Hughes will be honored at a Thursday, August 3 ceremony renaming a section of Paxton Blvd., where she grew up, after her. She finds it a bit surreal that signs will read Cathy Hughes Boulevard.
“I grew up in a time when Black folks had to live in North Omaha. Never would I have assumed that as conservative as Omaha, Neb. is they would ever consider naming a street after a Black woman who happened to grow up there. And not just a Black woman, but a woman, period. When I was young. Omaha was totally male-dominated. So I’m just truly honored.”
“Native Omaha Days does not forget people that are from Omaha,” Reshon Dixon said. “They acknowledge them, and I think that’s great.”
During the Urban League’s Friday, August 4 gala concert featuring national recording artist Brian McKnight at the Holland Performing Arts Center, two community recognition awards will be presented. The Whitney M. Young Jr. Legacy Award will go to Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney. The Charles B. Washington Community Service Award will go to Empowerment Network president Willie Barney.
Maroney and Barney are key players in North Omaha redevelopment-revitalization. Warren said it’s fitting they’re being honored during Native Omaha Days, when so many gathering in North O will have “the opportunity to see some of those improvements.”
Quaites-Ferris said Native Omaha Days is a great platform.
“It’s an opportunity to celebrate North Omaha and also the people who came out of North Omaha. There are people who were born in North Omaha, grew up in North Omaha and have gone on to do some wonderful things locally and on a national level. We want to celebrate those individuals and we want to celebrate individuals who are engaged in community.
“It’s a really good time to celebrate our culture,” Quaites-Ferris said. “It’s a chance to catch up on what’s going in everybody’s life.”
“I really admire the families who are so highly accomplished but have never left, who have shared their talents and expertise with Omaha,” said Hughes. She echoes many when she expresses how much it means returning for Native Omaha Days.
“Every time I come, I feel renewed,” she said. “I feel the love, the kindred spirit I shared with so many of my classmates, friends, neighbors. I always leave feeling recharged. I can’t wait.”
The celebration evokes strong feelings.
“What’s most important to me about Native Omaha Days is reuniting with old friends, getting to see their progression in life, and getting to see my city and how it’s rebuilt and changed since I left,” Dixon said. “You do get to share with people you went to school with your success.”
Juanita Johnson considers it, among other things, “a networking opportunity.”
Paul Bryant likes the positive, carefree vibe. “There we are talking about old times, laughing at each other, who got fat and how many kids we have. It’s 1:30-2 o’clock in the morning in a street crowded with people.”
“By being native, many of these individuals you know your entire life, and so there’s no pretense,” Warren said.
Outside 24th and Lake, natives flock to other places special to them.
“When I come back,” Dixon said, “my major goal is to go to Joe Tess, get down to the Old Market, the zoo, go through Carter Lake and visit Salem Baptist Church, where I was raised. My absolute favorite is going to church on Sunday and seeing my Salem family.”
Some pay respects at local cemeteries. Dixon will visit Forest Lawn, where the majority of her family’s buried.
Native Omaha Days is also an activator for family reunions that blend right into the larger event. Yards, porches and streets are filled with people barbecuing, chilling, dancing. It’s one contiguous party.
“It’s almost like how these beach communities function, where you can just go from house to house,” Hughes said.
The Afro-centric nature of Native Omaha Days is undeniable. But participants want it understood it’s not exclusive.
“It just happens to be embedded in the African-American community, where it started,” Dixon said. “Anyone can come, anyone can participate. It has become a little bit of a multicultural thing – still primarily African-American.”
Some believe it needs to be a citywide event.
“It’s not like it’s part of the city,” Bryant said. “It’s like something that’s going on in North Omaha. But it’s really not city-accepted. And why not?”
Douglas Country Treasurer John Ewing agrees. “Throughout its history it’s been viewed as an African-American event when it really could be something for the whole community to embrace.”
His wife, Viv Ewing, proposes a bigger vision.
“I would like to see it grow into a citywide attraction where people from all parts come and participate the way they do for Cinco de Mayo. I’d like to see this event grow to that level of involvement from the community.”
Terri Sanders and others want to see this heritage event marketed by the city, with banners and ads, the way it does River City Roundup or the Summer Arts Festival.
“It’s not as big as the College World Series but it’s significant because people return home and people return that are notable,” Sanders said.
Her daughter Symone Sanders, who rose to fame as Bernie Sanders’ press secretary during his Democratic presidential bid, may return. So may Gabrielle Union.
Vicki Quaites-Ferris sees it as an opportunity “for people who don’t live in North Omaha to come down and see and experience North Omaha.” She said, “Sometimes you only get one peripheral view of North Omaha. For me, it’s an opportunity to showcase North Omaha. Eat great food, listen to some wonderful music, have great conversation and enjoy the arts, culture, business and great things that may be overlooked.”
John Ewing values the picture if offers to native returnees.
“It’s a great opportunity for people who live in other places to come back and see some of the progress happening in their hometown.”
Recently completed and in-progress North O redevelopment will present celebrants more tangible progress than at anytime since the event’s mid-1970s start. On 24th Street, there’s the new Fair Deal Village Marketplace, the renovated Blue Lion Center and the Omaha Rockets Kanteen. On 30th street, three new buildings on the Metro Fort Omaha campus, the new mixed-use of the former Mister C’s site and the nearly finished Highlander Village development.
For some, like Paul Bryant, while the long awaited build-out is welcome, there are less tangible, yet no less concerning missing pieces.
“I think the development is good. But I truly wish in Omaha there was more opportunity for African-American people to be involved in the decision-making process and leadership process. But that takes a conscious decision,” Bryant said.
“What I’ve learned from Atlanta is that unlike other cities that wanted to start the integration process with children, where school kids were the guinea pigs, Atlanta started with the professions – they started integrating the jobs. Their slogan became “We’re a city too busy to hate.” So they started from the top down and that just doesn’t happen in Omaha.”
He worked in Omaha’s for-profit and non-profit sectors, before moving to Atlanta.
“A lot of things happen in Omaha that are not inclusive. This isn’t new. Growing up, I can remember Charlie Washington, Mildred Brown, Al Goodwin, Bob Armstrong, Rodney S. Wead, talking about it. The story remains the same. We’re on the outside running nonprofits and we’ve got to do what we have to do to keep afloat. But leadership, ownership, equity opportunities to get involved with projects are few and far between. If you’re not able to share in the capital, if your piece of the equation is to be the person looking for a contribution, it’s hard to determine your own future.”
Perhaps Native Omaha Days could be a gateway for African-American self-determination. It’s indisputably a means by which natives stay connected or get reconnected.
“I think its’ critical,” said Cathy Hughes, who relies on the Omaha Star and her Native Omaha Days visits to stay abreast of happenings in her beloved North O.
She and John Ewing suggest the celebration could play other roles, too.
“I think it’s a good way to lure some natives back home,” Hughes said. “As they come back and see the progress, as they feel the hometown pride, it can help give them the thought of, ‘Maybe I should retire back home in Omaha.'”
“I think Omaha could do a better job of actually recruiting some of those people who left, who are talented and have a lot to offer, to come back to Omaha,” Ewing said, “and if they’re a business owner to expand or invest in Omaha. So there’s some economic opportunities we’ve missed by not embracing it more and making it bigger.”
Ewing, Sanders and others believe Native Omaha Days infuses major dollars in hotels, restaurants, bars and other venues. The Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau does not track the celebration’s ripple effect, thus no hard data exists.
“I don’t think it’s accurately measured nor reflected in terms of the amount of revenue generated based on out-of-town visitors,” Warren said. “I suspect it has a huge impact on commerce and activity.”
Some speculate Native Omaha Days could activate or inspire homegrown businesses that plug into this migration.
“I think it can certainly be a spark or a catalyst,” Warren said. “You would like to see the momentum sustained. You hope this series of events may stimulate an idea where a potential entrepreneur or small business owner sees an opportunity based on the activity that occurs during that time frame. Someone could launch a business venture. Certainly, I think there’s that potential.”
For Native Omaha Days history and event details, visit nativeomahacub.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
Native Omaha Days schedule: July 31 – August 7
Great Plains Black History Museum Exhibit: Omaha Churches
2221 N. 24th Street
Salem Baptist Church
Welcome Home Social Mixer
Love’s Jazz & Arts Center (LJAC)
All day social mixer
Club 5216 (5216 N. 24th Street)
Ed Archibald with special guests Johnny Rodgers and John Beasley
5 p.m. to close
Shoreline Golf Course
Black City Hall Forum “Talk Down Memory Lane”
Fair Deal Cafe
11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
Urban League’s 90th anniversary with Brian McKnight
Holland Performing Arts Center
Richie Love & Friends concert
Tech High Class of 75-76 Native Omaha Dance
357 Club (2414 Ames Ave.)
9 p.m. – 2 a.m.
North 30th Street, Lake to Sprague
Great Plains Black History Museum Exhibit
Double Tree Hotel (Downtown)
Double Tree Hotel (Downtown)
7 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Big Wade and The Black Swan Theory + Johnny Brit
Day of Worship
Ron Beck and A Family Affair
All-day, various locations