In 2020, the hoarse throats that have long called for racial justice had their calls answered and strengthened when protesters took to the streets across the United States. In Omaha, thousands demonstrated across the city. They called for an end to police brutality, solutions for social inequality and, above all, change they could believe in. In Omaha, Black Americans have long been the minority. Their history is a catalogue of oppression, protest and small inches forward. At The Reader we’ve tried to put together an extensive, but in no way exhaustive, list to show that the past is always informing the future.
July 4, 1854
The city of Omaha is informally established at a picnic by White claim-stakers from Council Bluffs in what has been Indian Country since 1700, on the site of present day Central High School. The Omaha Tribe sells the majority of its tribal land, four million acres (16,000 km²), to the United States for less than 22 cents an acre.
Census lists 13 African Americans, likely slaves, in Nebraska Territory. Total population of the territory was 2,732 and encompassed areas of modern-day Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, and Montana.
Sally Bayne arrived in Omaha and is counted as the first free African American to settle in the Nebraska Territory.
1860 – 1870
Methodist circuit preacher Moses Shinn begins selling his land, site of the modern-day Kellom neighborhood (Cuming to Hamilton, 27th to 29th Streets.) For the first 50 years, the neighborhood is populated primarily by White immigrants, including Russian, Eastern European Jewish and Scandinavian families and fewer Black families.
Nebraska Territory bans slavery. There are conflicting reports of how many African Americans lived in the area at this time, 25 or 81.
Emancipation Proclamation ended the practice of slavery in the Union, technically also applying to the rebellious Confederate states.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude, except as “punishment for a crime.”
Reconstruction. Some 4 million former slaves are freed, but restrictive “Black codes” on labor and behavior are quickly passed in the South. Outraged Republican senators in the North intervened with “Radical Reconstruction,” passing laws to protect emancipated Blacks. In 1867, Black men gained a voice in government for the first time in American history, but a violent backlash soon restores white supremacy.
The oldest African American congregation in Nebraska, St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, is founded in North Omaha on the corner of 18th and Webster streets.
Nebraska is the first state to join the Union after the Civil War. As a condition of statehood, it is forced by Congress to remove a “whites only” voting restriction from its state constitution. The state motto “Equality Before the Law” reflected Nebraska’s willingness to extend suffrage to Black Americans.
The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the restriction of voting rights for (male) citizens “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
About 800 Black Americans live in Nebraska, settling in towns near jobs in hotels, restaurants and rail yards. Some pioneers tried farming on their own, which required capital they didn’t have. Those that did claim homesteads mostly came one by one in the early 1870s, scattering statewide.
The Compromise of 1877 was an informal, unwritten deal that settled the intensely disputed 1876 U.S. presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes (R) and Samuel J. Tilden (D). The dispute was resolved in a backroom meeting between senators and allies of Hayes. They agreed Hayes would be president on the condition that Republicans withdraw all federal troops from the South, thus ending Reconstruction.
Southern Democrats’ promises to protect civil and political rights of Blacks were not kept after Hayes took office. As federal interference in Southern affairs waned, Southern legislatures passed a series of “Jim Crow” laws 10 years after “Radical Reconstruction,” requiring the separation of whites from “persons of color” on public transportation, in schools, parks, restaurants, theaters, etc.
As federal troops pulled out of the South and segregationist laws were passed, Nebraska and other western states offered millions of acres of free land for Black farmers to claim.
Mass exodus of Southern Black families, known as the “Exodusters.” Between March and April, 6,200 “Exodusters” arrived in St. Louis en route to Kansas and Nebraska.
The first acknowledgment of Native Americans’ human rights by the U.S. Government occurs during the trial of Standing Bear v. Crook.
About 8,900 Black citizens living in Nebraska. Many settled in western Nebraska rather than Omaha, as there was free land available for them under the Homestead Act.
Dr. Matthew Ricketts, a physician in North Omaha, is the first African American man elected to the Nebraska State Legislature, serving two terms. He was also the first African American to graduate from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in Omaha. Ricketts is credited with opening Omaha’s first African American firefighting company; securing appointments for African Americans in Omaha’s city government and Nebraska state government; and serving throughout the community in philanthropic and service oriented organizations.
April 17, 1905
More than 800 students, children of European immigrant laborers in South Omaha, protested the presence of Japanese students, the children of strikebreakers. Protesting students locked adults out of their school buildings.
The Greek Town Riot destroyed a successful Greek immigrant community in South Omaha. A European ethnic mob of 3,000 burnt the community to the ground after a Greek man mortally wounded an ethnic Irish policeman while being taken into custody. Greek residents were forced to leave town.
1910 – 1920
Due in part to the Great Migration, Omaha’s Black population doubles, reaching 10,315 or about 5% of the total population. At this time, around 80% of the city’s overall population is employed in livestock-related jobs. Company owners had aggressively recruited Black workers as strikebreakers, fueling anger and hostility among working-class White men.
A local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is formed in Omaha.
“The Birth of a Nation” is released, a 3-hour silent film about the Civil War and Reconstruction. The white public generally accepted its racist narrative as historical fact. The film is credited with reinvigorating membership in the KKK, particularly in the Midwest.
1916 – 1970s
The Great Migration of former slaves from the rural South begins and continues for about 60 years. In 1916, 90% of all African-Americans were living in the South and by the ‘70s, 47% were living in cities of the North and West.
September 28, 1919
Will Brown, a Black meatpacking employee, is lynched by an angry white mob in front of the Douglas County Courthouse, unjustly accused of raping a White woman. No one is ever charged in his death.
Violent strikes break out in the South Omaha meatpacking plants in reaction to African-American and Eastern-European workers, as well as attempts by labor to organize the plants. The KKK creates its first Nebraska “Klavern” in Omaha. Earl Little, Malcolm X’s father, founds the Omaha chapter of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.
First wave of white flight from North Omaha following 1919 riots and ongoing racial tension in Omaha and other cities during the Red Summer. Black families were unable to exit, due to housing covenants common in the 1920s and validated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1926. So-called “Gentlemens’ Agreements,” these restrictive covenants legally prevented Black residents from renting property outside of North Omaha. This isolation necessitated a self-sufficiency that contributed to thriving Black and Jewish-owned businesses on North 24th St. during this period. In 1935, Omaha’s Black and poor immigrant neighborhoods would be clearly defined and ghettoized by redlining maps used by banks and real estate agents. Further restrictions on conveyance (rental, lease, sale, transfer) were often included, effectively defining the racial makeup most of the neighborhoods in Omaha during the first decades after establishment.
The Nineteenth Amendment is ratified, giving U.S. women the right to vote. However, the Amendment. However, many Native and Asian women are still not considered citizens. Election officials regularly obstructed access of minority women to the ballot box, using fraud, intimidation, poll taxes and state violence. This repression of rights was not deemed illegal until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Jewell Building was erected in 1923 at 2221 N. 24th Street by James Jewell, Sr. Its premier nightclub “Dreamland” hosted many legendary musical jazz and blues artists, including Dinah Washington, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton.
According to Malcolm X biographer Manning Marabel, the Klu Klux Klan had grown to 45,000 members in Nebraska, added a women’s branch in 1925 and had Tri-K clubs for children. It held a state convention in Lincoln, and had 1,500 participants in a parade.
May 19, 1925
Malcolm X (then Malcolm Little) was born in Omaha. The family fled Omaha in 1926 after being terrorized by the KKK in their home. A minister’s son, X joined the Nation of Islam becoming an influential leader and a pivotal civil rights figure. His birthsite is on the National Register of Historic Places and now houses the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation at 3448 Pinkney (now Evans) Street.
The Omaha Urban League was founded.
The Great Depression begins, lasting through the late 30s.
Ninety percent of Nebraska’s Blacks citizens now live in Lincoln or Omaha.
Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) creates a “Security map” of Omaha (and all U.S cities over 400,000 people). The maps designated “Redlined” areas of a city, marked with red boundaries as “hazardous” for loans. In Omaha, these areas are located on the eastern edge of the city where poor Black and Hispanic populations are concentrated. Local bankers use these maps to deny home loans to residents within the area.
The Logan Fontenelle housing projects are completed. Conceived as temporary housing for working class European families, they were segregated until the ‘50s, and torn down in the ‘90s.
July 9, 1938
The first issue of the Omaha Star was published. The paper was founded by Mildred Brown and her husband S. Edward Gilbert. Six thousand copies were printed and sold for ten cents each. With the banner “Joy and Happiness,” the Star featured positive news about the Black community in North Omaha, Nebraska. Celebrating positive African-American families, role models and accomplishments, the Star quickly became a pillar of the North Omaha community. By 1945 it was the only Black newspaper remaining in Omaha.
World War II creates jobs in the armament industry, providing employment opportunities for women and African Americans. With large swaths of unpopulated areas far from the coasts, rural Nebraska was a prime area for training, aircraft and armament manufacturing. The Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant near Bellevue produced over 1,500 medium bombers and more than 500 B-29 Superfortresses, including the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, the “Enola Gay.” At its peak in 1945, the plant employed over 13,000 workers. Over 40 percent of the workforce were women – 5,300 workers. Only around 5 percent of the workforce was Black despite a relatively large African-American population in Omaha.
The first African American from Omaha to graduate from flight training at Tuskegee Airfield and earn his wings in the US Army Air Corps was Tech High School 1939 valedictorian Captain Alfonza W. Davis. He was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, a recipient of the Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Unit Citation. Davis was assumed to be dead after going missing on or about July 30, 1945, over the Adriatic Sea.
The Omaha Star joins in the “Double V” campaign started by an African American newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier. Double V was a slogan and drive to promote the fight for democracy in overseas campaigns and at the home front in the United States for African Americans. The Double V refers to the “V for victory” sign prominently displayed by countries fighting “for victory over aggression, slavery, and tyranny,” but adopts a second “V” to represent the double victory for African Americans fighting for freedom overseas and at home.
The Carver Savings and Loan Association opened at 2416 Lake Street in 1944, the first African-American financial institution in Omaha. In the 1950s, Whitney Young, then head of Omaha’s Urban League, worked with the Carver S&L to create a special lending program for prospective African-American home buyers. It was designed to fight the city’s segregationist redlining practices, by which banks restricted loans in neighborhoods they thought less successful (generally minority). Through the Carter program, Omaha’s Black families were able to buy more homes within three years than in the preceding decade through other banks in the city.
The Omaha DePorres Club is formed on the Creighton University campus. Two of the earliest members are Omaha Star Publisher Mildred Brown and activist and historian Bertha Calloway. After being kicked off the CU campus, the group met for about two years in a vacant store at 24th and Grace, then moved to the offices of the Omaha Star.
1948 – 1953
Dr. Aaron Manasses McMillan, a noted missionary doctor, Omaha politician and African American community leader opened The People’s Hospital at North 20th and Grace Streets. The hospital was open to all African American patients, who were almost always turned away from White-run hospitals. Services were offered on a sliding-fee scale basis. In 1953, the City of Omaha shut down the hospital, citing that the building didn’t meet city code. However, the building served as an apartment building for at least another 20 years. (History of North Omaha, Adam Sasse)
Civil rights leader Whitney Young becomes the president of the Urban League in North Omaha. During his tenure he helps Black workers into jobs previously held only by Whites and triples the chapter’s number of paying members. While in Omaha, Young taught at the University of Nebraska and Creighton University. He was named Executive Director of the National Urban League in 1961. His secretary is the daughter of the lady that helped hide Malcolm X as a baby.
The NCAA moved the College World Series to Rosenblatt Stadium, (then known as Omaha Municipal Stadium).
Development of highways and new housing led white middle class families to settle in West Omaha. Unfair lending practices, real estate covenants and redlining keep non-White families from purchasing homes in the area.
Hilltop Homes and Spencer Homes were part of the same construction project on both sides of 30th and Lake Streets. Intended as housing for Black and European immigrants, with time they became completely segregated. Hilltop was demolished in 1995, replaced by Salem Baptist Church. Spencer Homes will be demolished and replaced as part of $25 million “Choice Neighborhoods Initiative” HUD grant.
Pleasantview Public Housing Projects are opened on North 30th Street. Includes a 6-story, 51-unit apartment building intended for childless, elderly residents. The other 184 units are two-story buildings spread across 14 acres.
Harold C. Whiteside opened his Skeet’s BBQ restaurant at 2201 N. 24th St. David Deal took over in 1978 and it remained open until his death in 2019.
Second wave of white flight from North Omaha after riots destroy many businesses on the North 24th Street corridor. Concurrently, redlining was struck down by the Supreme Court, and the US Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in the early 60s. African American families could now move into the Kountze Place neighborhood, which previously had race restrictive covenants in place.
Omaha community leader Bertha Calloway founds the Negro Historical Society.
Members of the De Porres Club reform as “The Citizens Civic Committee for Civil Liberties,” (4CL) holding nonviolent rallies around Omaha to end segregation. Picketing, sing-ins and stand-ins were among their methods. Campaigns included: Protesting the Omaha City Council, protesting the Omaha World-Herald for its racist coverage against African Americans and for not hiring them to work for the newspaper; desegregating Peony Park, Reed’s Ice Cream, Coca Cola Bottling Company, Harkert Cafe, Edholm-Sherman Laundry, Omaha and Council Bluffs Streetcar Co., and the S.S. Kresge Co. store.
After decades of many state officials refusing to register African American women to vote, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 explicitly forbids discriminatory restrictions on voting eligibility, with enough teeth to enforce its provisions.
Omaha first considers demolishing the Kellom Heights neighborhood due to “general deterioration and dilapidation, as well as poor streets.” In 1966, an Urban Renewal Commission specifically focused on redeveloping North Omaha was proposed to the Omaha City Council, but was rejected.
Nebraska forms its chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to defend the fundamental rights of all Nebraskans.
Omaha’s James Pittman, an African American veterinarian, developed the New Horizons subdivision just southeast of 108th and Blondo Streets as Omaha’s first intentionally mixed-race neighborhood.
“A Time for Burning” is released. North Omaha barber Ernie Chambers appears in several scenes, giving scathing testimony about what it’s like to be Black in America. Nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary, listed in the National Film Registry in 2005.
July 4- 7, 1966
Beginning on a very hot July 4, a tense confrontation between police and people gathered outside at 24th and Lake Streets quickly escalated into three days of riots. Police wielded bats and threatened the crowd with arrest. Rioters demolished two police cars, threw Molotov cocktails into vacant buildings and demolished storefront windows up and down the street, causing devastating damage to businesses. National representatives from a few different organizations arrived in the city, helping local civil rights organizations come to resolve with the mayor to fund more programs for the Near North Omaha neighborhood
August 1 -3, 1966
On July 25th Eugene Nesbitt, a 19-year-old African American boy was shot and killed by an off duty policeman during a burglary. On August 1, the day after his funeral, violence erupted in North Omaha. Police were dispersed to each of those locations to break up crowds. Omaha mayor Al Sorenson, blamed the riots on the Black community and claimed they were orchestrated by the Black Panthers. The Omaha-World Herald and local television news stations blamed African Americans for the conditions they faced in their neighborhoods. At 2:30 a.m. on August 3rd, a firebomb obliterated Harry Brown’s Cafe on North 24th Street. Five people were wounded. Afterward, several nearby homes and 39 businesses reported damage, and dozens more closed or moved away immediately.
June 6, 1967
Senators of the Nebraska legislature cast their final votes — 28-21 — to kill Open Housing again.
North Omaha endures three days of riots after an inflammatory visit to Omaha by Alabama Governor George Wallace to the Civic Auditorium. The toll: One 16-year-old shot dead by a 23-year-old off-duty Omaha police office, 17 people injured, 55 people arrested, 32 buildings and 44 cars damaged, nine buildings burglarized or looted.
President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law. Titles VIII through IX are commonly known as the Fair Housing Act (FHA). This federal act is intended to protect the buyer or renter of a dwelling from seller or landlord discrimination. Its primary prohibition makes it unlawful to refuse to sell, rent to, or negotiate with any person because of that person’s inclusion in a protected class.
June 24, 1969
Omaha police officer James Loder fatally shoots 14-year-old Vivian Strong as she fled from the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects. She and some other teens had been dancing in a vacant apartment when police were summoned to investigate a break-in. As word of her death spread through the community, crowds gathered at the site of the shooting and lashed out with violent protests. Fires were set over a nine-block area, destroying grocery stores and Vivian’s favorite candy store. Rioting continued at the news Loder is released from jail on a $500 bond. He was not indicted for the shooting.
After more than a decade of pressure from the Urban League and others, the City of Omaha finally adopts an Open Housing Ordinance one year after the passing of the federal Civil Rights Act makes housing discrimination illegal. Nebraska enacted Legislative Bill 825 in 1991 (effective September 6, 1991), repealing the housing provision of the Nebraska Civil Rights Act of 1969 and establishing the Nebraska Fair Housing Act. The Nebraska Fair Housing Act makes discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, familial status and handicap (disability) illegal in connection with the sale or rental of most housing and any vacant land offered for residential construction use.
Native Omaha Days is celebrated for the first time.
Bertha Calloway opens the Great Plains Black History Museum in the Webster Telephone Exchange Buildin, 2213 Lake Street.
OPS court-ordered desegregration of Omaha Public School district in 1975 with 57,167 students enrolled in Kindergarten to 12th grade. Since then, OPS enrollment has decreased by nearly 8,000 students, yet racial segregation is a continuing trend in the city.
U.S. government took the Omaha Public Schools to court because of its segregated schools. The U.S. circuit court ordered Omaha to use busing to desegregate the district public schools, starting in September 1976. Hundreds of White residents of North Omaha moved to the city’s western suburbs where there were few African Americans. White student enrollment in the district tanked, and African-American students were encouraged to travel across the city to predominantly white schools.
The main source of funding a school receives originates from the property taxes of surrounding houses in the school’s zone. When the district was desegregated in 1975, this funding tactic was used to keep the city segregated. This meant that the value of the property in which one could afford to live determined the quality of education children received. This is the underlying reason that the schools are not consolidated into a single district.
After about a decade of studies, the City of Omaha finalizes a plan to run the North Freeway through the Spencer Housing Projects. According to the 1977 government report, 11 buildings at Spencer Homes, (14-21 and 32-34) would be acquired, razed, displacing 160 people and rerouting traffic away from the 24th Street business district. Four years later, 57 units were demolished to make room for the North Freeway. New units were built to replace those lost in 1983.
The United Methodist Wesley House Community Center takes over ongoing development projects in the Kellom Heights neighborhood as the Omaha Economic Development Corporation (OEDC). According to 1978 city statistics, the Kellom Heights neighborhood population declined from 1,148 in 1960 to just 513 in 1970.
The controversial North Omaha Freeway is constructed, using eminent domain to demolish 753 homes and 25 businesses in its path. Senator. Ernie Chambers described it as a “knife, cutting through the artery in the heart of the Black community” as traffic bypassed the 24th Street Business District, splitting North Omaha in half.
Third wave of “white flight” from far North Omaha.
The Omaha Economic Development Corporation (OEDC) continues development of North Omaha with Kellom/Pilgrim Heights. The Kellom Project revitalized more than 40 acres of blighted property, and incorporated plans for mixed use in its final phase.
Residents of Logan Fontenelle win a lawsuit against Omaha’s public housing for discrimination against racial minorities. The Omaha Housing Authority completed demolition of the projects in 1995.
Reports named East Omaha “one of the most dangerous toxic waste sites in the nation” after the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed that more than 2,600 children in the area have lead poisoning. In early 2003, a large section of East Omaha was declared a Superfund site.
The City of Omaha opens Dreamland Plaza at 24th and Erskine Streets as a tribute to North Omaha’s jazz history. North 24th Street also gets a $750,000 upgrade with new brick sidewalks, ornamental diamond-shaped street lights and new trees from Ohio Street on the north to Cuming Street on the south.
Family Housing Advisory Services opens a $3.3 million building on the southwest corner of 24th and Lake, the “Lake Point Center.” Anchor tenant FHAS is a nonprofit committed to housing stability and financial security.
“Black City Hall,” the Fair Deal Cafe closes its doors after 49 years.
Love’s Jazz and Art Center located at 2510 North 24th Street offers African American art exhibits and live jazz, as well as cultural and historical preservation of African American contributions to music and art.
Fair Deal/Village East Senior Apartments is built at North 24th and Blondo streets in 2007. Offering senior housing and moderate-income units.
The Pleasantview projects are demolished and replaced by the mixed income Highlander building and neighborhood.
Groundbreaking for Kellom Villa townhomes, for qualified low-and moderate-income families living in the Kellom Heights neighborhood. The townhomes are another phase of the city’s public/private partnership with OEDC for the redevelopment of the area.
A small group of Vanguard Nebraska members posts a photo of themselves holding a White Nationalist flag during a meetup in a Benson bar. The bar’s general manager denounced the group in the press and on social media.
Another OEDC project, the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace, opens at 2118 North 24th Street, providing popup and micro-retail opportunities for entrepreneurs, a cafe and health food store. The eye-catching design utilizes shipping containers.
The Union for Contemporary Art renovates and moves into the Blue Lion Center at 2423 North 24th Street. The non-profit provides exhibition and educational spaces, youth programs, and a community gathering spot for fun , social justice and civic engagement.
The 30 Metro $20 million residential and retail complex opens on 30th and Fort Streets. Besides 110 rent-controlled apartments, anchor tenants include a Charles Drew public health clinic and T-Mobile outlet.
The Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority (MECA) board approves an agreement with the city for a $125 million mixed-use development on the 8-acre lot across from the CenturyLink Center. The plan includes a garage and new replacement parking, restaurants, stores, apartments, open space and even possibly another hotel.
Several historic buildings and warehouses located in a six-block area between 11th, 13th, Izard and Seward Streets (Millwork Commons) are undergoing a $300 million renovation. Local tech company Flywheel is the first announced tenant, and plans on moving its headquarters to Ashton warehouse at 1218 Nicholas Street.
Anti-Fascist Nebraska circulates a video of Daniel J. Kleve, a biology student at UNL claiming to be “the most active white nationalist in the Nebraska area.” Kleve was documented taking part in a white supremacist event in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
The Omaha Housing Authority announced that Omaha is receiving a $25 million “Choice Neighborhoods Initiative” grant. The funds will help demolish and replace Spencer Homes with better housing and rejuvenate a nearby stretch of North 30th. The grant comes from a Department of Housing and Urban Development program.
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