Native Omaha Days is a biennial, first-week-in-August nostalgia trip for current and former residents reliving the black-is-beautiful experience of their youth. Among the many touchstones of African-American life here is the newspaper serving that community, The Omaha Star.
From its 1938 founding by Mildred Brown, the paper has continued a legacy of black women publishers and editors. When Brown died in 1989, her niece, Marguerita Washington, took the helm. Upon her 2016 passing, Phyllis Hicks took the reins. And since Hicks retired in early 2019, Frankie Williams has assumed interim publisher-editor roles as the paper’s come under the ownership of the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center.
Now wholly owned by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Star is able to participate in emerging interest from foundations to support local journalism. That’s already bearing fruit. On July 17, it was announced the Star was one of 23 projects from across the country to receive funding from the Facebook Journalism Project and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The Star project aims to “tackle responsible neighborhood development and gentrification in one of Omaha’s historically underserved communities through collaboration with neighborhood associations and deep reporting.”
The grant will certainly help as the paper struggles to find sustainability in this tenuous time for print media.
To address those challenges, Williams also aims to increase the paper’s visibility. The Star held a July 27 gala screening of The Wiz at Bryant Park and will have a conspicuous display in the Native Omaha Days stroll and parade.
As the paper steps into the future, Brown’s matriarchal presence still looms large. The apartment-office she kept at the Star is a shrine in this National Register of Historic Places building. The loud, proud Brown was often the only woman present in the circle of power she convened there.
“She was performing in a man’s role,” Williams said, “and did it very well.”
Brown’s trademark white-carnation corsage was her calling card at myriad social-community events she made it her business to attend.
Scores of youth worked for her as carriers and sales staff. She paid for many young people’s education and mentored numerous others.
Omaha native Paul Bryant credits “Aunt Millie” with supporting him through his “starving student” days. He came to admire her social entrepreneurship, which he modeled in his own work.
“Mildred Brown was a fighter who used intellect, tenacity and moral authority to win,” he said. “She was a visionary trailblazer decades ahead of her time.”
For Williams, heading up the Star now is a “full-circle” event. In 1968, Williams sold ads and edited a teen page for the Star while attending Central High School. She recalls Brown holding court.
“This was a gathering place for community leaders,” Williams said of the paper’s offices. When news broke of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, she witnessed a procession of leaders seek out Brown. “Hers was definitely a voice of reason,” she said. “She was a thinker and strategist. I wouldn’t say calm, though. She was a very forceful person.”
Brown wanted Williams to one day succeed her. But it was too far off and daunting a prospect for an 18-year-old to process then. After decades working in youth services in Atlanta and Omaha, Williams returned to the fold 11 years ago to assist Washington and Hicks.
Now that she’s in the post Brown groomed her for, she’s fully aware of her role as a steward.
“I am grateful to be here,” she said. “I can’t be Mildred, nor would I try to be. The thing I can do is carry her torch and make sure the legacy lives on. I want to take care of it.”
Williams agrees with Terri Sanders, a board member of the Mildred Brown Center, who says “the paper’s in good hands” under the center’s ownership.
“There were a lot of people interested in purchasing it, and still are,” Williams said. “But I’m happy it happened like this.”
Sanders feels the Mildred Brown Center board and Star staff share a mission. “Part of our job is to reacquaint or introduce people to The Omaha Star and why it is important,” she said.
The Mildred Brown Center awards scholarships, operates the Junior Journalist Program and sends the Star interns.
“We’ve had several interns and scholarship recipients go on to do well,” said Sanders, including, most prominently, her own daughter Symone Sanders, a national Democratic Party consultant and news panelist.
Two generations earlier, Urban One founder Cathy Hughes got her media start with Brown, whose example inspired her own entrepreneurial drive.
Despite female-centric leadership, the paper’s been a vehicle for such strong male voices as long-time state senator Ernie Chambers, historian and author Matthew Stelly, community activist Walter Brooks, the late civil rights activist and journalist Charles B. Washington and Leo Louis, the new president of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.
Reshon Dixon, who resides in Atlanta, is among the legion of native Omahans living elsewhere who subscribe to the Star to stay connected with Black Omaha goings-on. It’s how she keeps up with events and deaths.
Sustaining the paper on ad revenues and subscriptions alone is “never enough,” Williams said. “We’re just making enough to keep the doors open.”
Another revenue stream is the fee-based online archive accessed by students, academics, historians and journalists across the nation, Sanders said.
Williams aims to increase subscriptions by moving from a column-heavy, soft news pub to a harder-news biweekly. “It’s a work in progress,” she said. “Everyone is feeling their way, but I feel assured everyone is working to enhance what we’ve done in the past.”
“Our advantage is we are a trusted source,” she said. “Being relevant is even more important to maintain credibility. One of the tag-lines Marguerita and Phyllis used is: We report positive news. But we’re doing a disservice if we’re not trying to educate and inform our readers. We need to report pertinent news.”
“With the political climate the way it is,” she added, “we would do a disservice to our community not to talk about the hard topics.”
Williams is ever-conscious of legacy.
“When I make decisions, I do think about how Mildred Brown would have handled this,” she said.
“Black women started it, black women have led it, and it is my hope that will continue throughout the life of the paper,” Sanders said. “To lose that would be to lose the flavor of what the Omaha Star is and was.”
“I think it is wonderful women still run the Star,” Bryant said. “My prayer is that they have as much impact on the community as Mildred Brown did.”
Reshon Dixon seconds the sentiment by saying the legacy is “a testimony to the community.”
Native Omahan Amber Ruffin, writer-performer on Late Night with Seth Meyers, said, “I love the fact the Star has been led by black women for its whole existence. It makes me feel proud to be a black Omahan.”
Williams feels the future is “bright.” She’s impressed by young North O leaders. Perhaps one of them will be the torchbearer taking the paper to its centennial.
“We have a pool of young people to mentor and to help along their journey,” she said. “Hopefully, when the time comes, one of them will be able to step up.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.