Precisely at 10 a.m. on June 20, 1952, a stylishly dressed middle-aged black woman named Mildred Brown urged the Omaha City Council to “do all in their power to see that Negroes were hired as bus drivers and therefore end the lily-white hiring practices of the Omaha & Council Bluffs Street-car Company.” Speaking slowly, enunciating each word and standing at her tallest, five feet, five inches, the publisher of the Omaha Star newspaper and representative of the De Porres Club directed her comments to the council chairman: “I say to you, your honor, the mayor, if the tram company will not hire Negroes as drivers we prevail on you to remove the franchise of the bus company.” Straightening the corsage fastened to her fuchsia colored suit jacket, she abruptly turned on her match- ing colored high heels. Approaching her chair, Brown looked over her shoulder at the row of white men in ties, and said, “If our boys can drive jeeps, tanks and jet planes in Korea in the fight to save democracy, make democracy work at home.”
Born in Alabama in 1905, Mildred Brown was the owner, publisher, and editor of the Omaha Star, which she cofounded in 1938. An iconoclastic leader, Brown nurtured, encouraged, and spoke for her black readership until her death in 1989. But the years of her most intense civil rights activity coincide with the existence of the De Porres Club, a pioneering civil rights organization in Omaha that was active between 1947 and 1960. As one of the nation’s few black newspaper women and the only black woman to publish a newspaper in Nebraska, Brown occupied a unique historic position. The two entities staged successful boycotts, sit-ins and picketing ten years before the national civil rights movement. [From the Introduction]
Brown, Max Brownell, her common-law second husband, and the interracial De Porres members tested racial employment policies and customer treatment among local businesses. If any of the club members were refused a job application or service, the store owners were quickly reminded of the law. If the owners still didn’t comply, a warrant for their arrest was issued. The De Porres Club rarely lost a case. Brown’s Star newspaper played a key role in challenging and changing unfair hiring practices and unequal customer treatment at several businesses on the Near North Side. Her newspaper kept readers informed on noncompliant businesses and printed flyers for community boycotts. Brown’s local activism would later augment the national movement in the urban North.
The newspaper owner started her grassroots movement against discriminatory hiring policies in February 1948. She requested a neighborhood meeting and instructed Star readers to meet her at the black Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) building. Brown chose this location not only because of she was a member of the organization but also because of the association’s opposition to lynching, promotion of better race relations and empowerment of women. At the appointed date and time about thirty-five people arrived at the YWCA. The interracial group listened to Brown expound on the unfairness of white business owners accepting the black community as customers but refusing to consider them as employees. Brown’s staffers researched 534 available occupations listed in the 1940 census. They discovered Omaha’s “negroes have no employment in as many as 96 occupations.” Despite the fact that skilled black men and women applied for those positions, their applications met with rejection. On the day of Brown’s meeting, about a thousand black citizens from the Near North Side were seeking work, while employed were “at jobs far below their status, both in rank and pay.”
Her newspaper campaign for equal opportunity employment gained momentum from the De Porres Club. Father Joh Markoe and six white Creighton University students founded the activist organization on November 3, 1947; additional branches appeared in Kansas City and Denver by the mid 1950s. The De Porres Club’s first meeting in Omaha attracted an interracial crowd of forty-seven. Markoe, a tall, silver-haired former West Point graduate recently banished from Saint Louis University’s Jesuit community, was looking forward to creating change in Omaha. He was already known for his eccentric habit of smoking old cigarette butts he found on the ground. Years earlier the priest took a vow against luxury, so allied himself used cigarettes only. Father Markoe already one Arthur McCaw, Nebraska’s black state treasurer and was good friends with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been McCaw’s Sunday school teacher. At the meeting Markoe delivered the opening prayer. Afterward, he explained to those gathered that the organization borrowed its name from black Dominican friar Martin de Porres, a long deceased biracial monk, best known for his slave-ship ministry. Markoe informed the gathering that the club’s goals were “better racial relations through constructive actions, to banish every form of compulsory segregation and abolish and and all forms of discrimination against individuals because of race, color or creed.” Or, in the private words of the Jesuit priest, “to kick Jim Crow’s ass out of Omaha.”
The De Porres Club taught its members to challenge discriminatory behaviors in the city of Omaha. African American Bertha Calloway (also founder of the Great Plains Black History Museum) and her husband James joined the club “because Omaha was a racist town, you couldn’t eat downtown.” She recalled the Jesuit priest encouraging members to fight racism. “Father Markoe tried to keep quiet, but he talked about white people like you wouldn’t believe, and then after he’d do his little talk, we would get together and have little meetings.” Black De Porres member Dorothy Eure remembered those original breakout sessions. “Not only did we discuss the evils or racism, but we developed plans and strategy, maneuvering our small force to correct these vicious acts. The city of Omaha, similar to other urban midwestern cities, reinforced souther de jure laws as accepted de facto segregation.
The De Porres Club jumpstarted northern Omaha’s equality campaign when it discovered an old but valuable legal precedent. The 1893 Nebraska Civil Rights Statute supplied necessary legal leverage against discrimination.
Brown encouraged De Porres members to file discrimination suits against local venue, such Harry’s Tea Club, Pignotti’s Donut Shop, the Paxton Hotel, Eppley Airfield, and the Greyhound bus station; sometimes the De Porres organization had between eight and ten simultaneous different suits.
Calloway recalled visiting Pignotti’s Donut shop with a white friend named Peggy. The server refused to acknowledge them. The two girls asked the owner, Pignotti, to come to their table. The following conversation ensued:
Peggy said, “Don’t you know me Mr. Pignotti, [we] go to the same church.”
Pignotti replied, “Yes, I know you but I’m not serving them, you’re gonna have to leave.”
Peggy said,” In the name of Christ, how can you do this?”
He answered, “Hey, if I serve them I’ll lose business, I’m not gonna start serving colored people in here.”
Calloway let him know she had the right to file charges.
Pignotti replied, “I don’t give a damn whether you file charges against me or not, I’m not serving you.”
Calloway filed charges at Omaha’s Police Court. During Pignotti’s lunch break the following day, an officer served him with a warrant.
At the court proceedings Pignotti pointed to Calloway and said,”That’s the one that had me arrested like I was a common criminal. All I did, [was say] I’m not serving colored in my place.”
Judge Palmer replied, “Well, I don’t blame you but you’re gonna have to pay [the] $25 fine.”
The judge turned to Calloway and said, “Now that DePorres Club, what are you guys up to? Are you all Communists or something?”
The FBI maintained daily surveillance of the De Porres Club. [Club President Denny] Holland recalled how the mail to the De Porres Club arrived resealed and the telephone lines were tapped. Federal agents kept logbooks and eventually directly questioned Holland.
Despite strong local resistance from the white community and federal surveillance working with city administration, Brown through the Star and with the DePorres Club led successful campaigns to desegregate businesses and push for equal employment, culminating with its success against Omaha’s largest streetcar company with a boycott that predated the famous Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott by four years.
Forss’ book documents the story of an incredibly brave and forward-thinking woman and the very nasty civil rights fight fought here. Brown’s fight evolved to tackle discriminatory housing and “restrictive covenants in the 1950s, which in turn led to the black community’s desegregation of Omaha Peony Park in the 1960s and the Omaha Public School system in the 1970s.” It’s a fascinating and required reading for anyone that wants to know the bravest parts of our history.
Black Print with a White Carnation: Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star is available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.