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  Fall / Winter 2010 Issue Excerpts

Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue.
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Introduction · David L. Bristow, Editor

The notion that some races are naturally inferior to others is one of the most effective conscience-soothing and money-making ideas in history. It buttressed colonialism and Manifest Destiny. It let Christian slave owners sleep at night. It supplied employers with cheap laborers who had few other options. It handed politicians another tool with which to maintain power by manipulating public fears and prejudices. It has played a role in many of the bloodier chapters of our history, and it is not yet properly spoken of only in the past tense.

African American history is the story of a long struggle against this idea, and black Nebraskans are part of this story. While in no way comprehensive, this special issue of Nebraska History examines portions of black history from the time of Nebraska statehood in 1867 through the 1950s.

For those who understand black history mainly as a story of the South and of major Northern cities, these half-dozen essays will contain plenty of surprises. Lynchings and segregated schools are usually portrayed as Southern phenomena, but Orville Menard and David Peavler prove otherwise. Abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass is associated with the East Coast, but Tekla Johnson, John Wunder, and Abigail Anderson describe his personal connection with a Nebraska woman who was his adopted sister. The black cultural movement of the 1920s is often known as the Harlem Renaissance, but Jennifer Hildebrand shows that the New Negro Movement (as it is more properly called) was truly national--even flowering in Lincoln, Nebraska. And while the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955-56 is one of the best-known events of the Civil Rights Movement, Amy Forss describes how four years earlier, Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown and other activists led a successful boycott of an Omaha bus company that refused to hire black drivers.

As the first state to join the Union after the Civil War, Nebraska was shaped by the contemporary national discussion about race and civil rights. As a condition of statehood, Congress forced Nebraska to guarantee voting rights to black men in its constitution. As James Potter shows, even our state motto, "Equality Before the Law," was prompted by the Civil War's reshaping of the nation's political and racial landscape--and was an ideal that would long await fulfillment.

Thoughts on the Motto

"Equality Before the Law": Thoughts on the Origin of Nebraska's State Motto · James E. Potter

"Equality Before the Law," Nebraska's state motto, is unique among the fifty states. Only Wyoming's motto, "Equal Rights," expresses a similar idea. Both mottos date from the post-Civil War years of the 1860s and both relate to the granting of political and civil rights previously denied to certain Americans: most black men, free or slave, and women of whatever racial background.

On June 14, 1867, Governor David Butler signed H.R. 41, "An Act to Provide for Procuring a Seal for the State of Nebraska." Isaac Wiles, a member of the Nebraska House of Representatives from Plattsmouth, Cass County, introduced the act as provided by section thirteen of article three of the 1866 state constitution, which required a "Great Seal of the State of Nebraska" for use by the governor in the transaction of official business. H.R. 41 specified the seal's design and the motto that was to appear thereon: "Equality Before the Law."

Shortly before his death on January 20, 1921, Wiles recalled the genesis of the motto. He had proposed two alternative phrases, one being "Equality Before the Law" and the other "Equal Rights for All." Before introducing the bill, he consulted with Elmer S. Dundy, later famous as the presiding judge in the Standing Bear trial but then an associate justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court. Dundy preferred the former phrase. Accordingly, "Equality Before the Law" was adopted as the motto that appears on the Great Seal, the state flag, and on the east and west pylons flanking the north entrance to the state capitol building.

Wiles also said that the motto did not refer to slavery or to granting equal rights to both black and white Nebraskans. Addison E. Sheldon of the Nebraska State Historical Society later wrote, "His impression was distinct that it originated from the early controversies over land locations in the Missouri River counties and was inspired by the frontier sentiment in favor of giving every man an equal chance to secure a home on the public domain."

Considering the political issues dominating Nebraska and national politics in 1866 and 1867 and a statement Wiles made in 1892, it is clear that the ninety-year-old man's memory deceived him in the 1920s when he reflected on his reasons for proposing "Equality Before the Law" as the state motto. Fewer than four months before the motto's adoption, Congress had forced the Nebraska legislature to remove a "whites only" voting restriction from the state constitution as a condition for approving Nebraska's statehood (at the time, only men were afforded voting rights). When the legislature agreed to Congress's "fundamental condition" during a special session in February 1867, Wiles was among its members. The legislature's decision was certainly a concession to "Equality Before the Law" as it applied to male suffrage. Nebraska was subsequently admitted as the thirty-seventh state on March 1, 1867.

The entire essay appears in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue.

Frederick Douglass's Nebraska Sister

Always on My Mind: Frederick Douglass's Nebraska Sister · Tekla Ali Johnson, John R. Wunder, and Abigail B. Anderson

Biographers of Frederick Douglass have long misunderstood the importance of African American women in his life, and therefore miss nuances which help explain him. The discovery in Lincoln, Nebraska, of correspondence between Douglass and another former slave, Ruth Cox Adams (aka Harriet Bailey), has significantly lessened the void of information on the famous abolitionist's inner circle, and sheds new light on his relationships with women.

This essay builds upon William McFeely's 1991 biography of Douglass, which at the time of its publication was the most thorough scholarly work on the famous abolitionist. However, even McFeely mistakenly believes that Adams, who lived with the Douglasses after her escape from slavery, and Bailey, a long-term member of the Douglass home, were two different people.

A 2003 discovery in Lincoln, Nebraska, proves otherwise. That year, student interns and staff at the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Department's Historic Research Division located documents relating to Douglass's life. The Adams-Douglass letters, a wedding dress purchased by Douglass for "Harriet," and a handcrafted box given by Douglass to Adams, provide conclusive evidence that Ruth Cox Adams and Harriet Bailey were one and the same. Furthermore, the search for Adams's actual relationship to Douglass led to the discovery of a previously unknown 1893 speech and interview that Douglass gave in Omaha, Nebraska.

The story emerging from the ten surviving Adams-Douglass letters, along with several biographical sketches of Adams's life, is an example of the formation of extended families through fictive kinships in the postbellum African American world. These materials also offer insight into private events that may have shaped Douglass's passionate lectures on education and on women's rights.

By the time he published his third and final autobiographical narrative, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), Douglass had deeply pondered his childhood under bondage and its effect upon him. Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in 1817, he was taken from his mother, Harriet Bailey, when she resumed her work as an enslaved woman. Douglass's strong emotional attachment to women and his concern over society's ill-treatment of them, his love of literacy and equality, and the importance which he placed upon family, both immediate and extended, may have had their roots in his separation from his mother. Douglass recalled wishing for his mother even though he didn't see her often. "I never think of this terrible interference of slavery with my infantile affection. . . without a feeling to which I can give no adequate expression." As an abolitionist, he lectured on the separation of African American families in the South as one of slavery's most horrific features.

Douglass was reared on the Lloyd Plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, and lost all contact with his siblings in 1838 when he escaped from slavery and adopted the surname "Douglass" to better evade slavecatchers. Once free, he did not remain alone for long; his immediate household soon grew to envelop two African American women, one through marriage, and the other through fictive kinship.

Douglass became engaged to Anna Murray while he was still enslaved. The daughter of freed slaves, Murray was different from many free Africans in Baltimore, some of whom sought to distance themselves from enslaved blacks out of a perpetual deference to whites. Anna Murray refused to participate in discriminatory behavior, and Douglass developed a deep appreciation for Murray's core values. She gave Douglass the money that he needed to catch a train and boat from Maryland. She joined him in New York City shortly after his escape, and the couple wed on September 15, 1838. They settled in Lynn, Massachusetts, where Murray Douglass worked as a shoe binder and as a hostess to fugitive slaves and abolitionists who stayed at the Douglass home. Her independent thinking led to a mutual respect with the highly intellectual Douglass and she remained his closest confidant until her death.

The Douglasses were not married long when they opened their doors to Ruth Cox Adams after her flight from slavery. Adams lived with the Douglasses from about 1842 until her marriage in 1847.

Born on a Maryland plantation, Adams had cared for her master's children and acted as a nurse. In a brief family history entitled "Lest We Forget," Adams's granddaughter describes how a cousin helped Adams, then in her early twenties, escape from slavery. Adams later told her grandchildren about her flight along the Underground Railroad. Conducted by Quakers, she stayed in attics during the day and traveled by night through Maryland into Pennsylvania and finally to New York-the same route that Douglass had earlier taken to freedom.

Adams later recalled that she first met Douglass at an abolitionist meeting that he held on the eastern shore of Maryland about 1840. However, it is not likely that Douglass appeared at anti-slavery meetings in a slave state at that time, since he had run away from slavery in 1838 and was a fugitive. Douglass lectured primarily in the North. Adams's memory of having seen Douglass lecture against slavery opens the possibility that while they were still both enslaved, she may have attended some of the Sabbath School meetings that Douglass held in the 1830s. At such gatherings, Douglass taught young men and women to write and encouraged them to find a way to freedom.

Adams's recollection demands further study of Frederick Douglass's involvement in stations of the Underground Railroad below the Mason Dixon line. His role was probably much greater than scholars have assumed. Adams reports that Douglass met her en route and took her to live with his wife and children. "I never knew all the details of her running away except the cousins who were to help her North," Ruth Adams's granddaughter Alice Coffee later wrote. Apparently, Adams was spirited northward in a group of young women and their children. "It seems as though F. D. [Frederick Douglass] was there the same night. He was so sure that grandma was his sister," Coffee writes.

The entire essay appears in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue.

A Double Mixture

"A Double Mixture": Equality and Economy in the Integration of Nebraska Schools, 1858-1883 · David J. Peavler Trowbridge

Most Americans associate the history of school segregation with Southern and urban communities, a physical distance that may create a sense of separation among readers of Nebraska History. Nevertheless, for a time during the later nineteenth century, at least two Nebraska towns maintained segregated schools. The story of how these schools were created and the ways that African Americans confronted the color line in Nebraska does more than simply expand the geographic borders of historiography. The story of segregation in the schools of Omaha and Nebraska City challenges existing scholarship by demonstrating that demographic and financial matters played a leading role in the decision to operate separate schools. Legal protest, moral suasion, and the unified efforts of the black communities of Omaha and Nebraska City led to the elimination of Jim Crow in the schools of Nebraska. Of equal importance, however, was the fact that the demographics of these two cities made the operation of separate schools a financial burden.

Separate schools for black children were common throughout Iowa until the 1870s, largely due to an 1868 Iowa Supreme Court decision outlawing separate schools in Muscatine. In neighboring Missouri, school segregation was legally mandated after the Civil War--a move many opposed at that time as being too liberal considering the state's tradition of excluding black pupils and the financial burden of maintaining additional schools. The measure was especially contentious in Kansas, where dozens of legal challenges beginning in 1880 culminated in the most famous civil rights case of the twentieth century, Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). The history of school segregation in Nebraska is equally instructive, yet it has been overlooked largely due to the casual assertion that the schools of Nebraska were never segregated.

Nebraska's first school laws were passed in 1855 and mirrored those of Kansas and Iowa with their implied exclusion of black children. These laws directed officials to record the names of white children aged five to twenty-one who resided in their district as a basis for organizing schools. The law was revised in 1858 and included lengthy provisions for the enumeration of scholars that included the word "white" in about half of its clauses, while omitting the word at other times. The omission of the word "white" in some instances suggests that lawmakers did not feel they needed to make explicit what everyone already knew; the schools of antebellum Nebraska were intended for the exclusive use of white children. Only eighty-two African Americans were recorded in Nebraska Territory in the 1860 census, and most white Nebraskans sought to prevent black migration to their communities. Hostility towards the potential for increased black migration led white political leaders to the amend the school law in 1860, inserting the word "white" wherever lawmakers deemed it was missing but also exempting African Americans from taxes raised for school purposes.

Exclusion may have been the rule until the word "white" was removed from the school law in 1867. However, it is likely that a handful of teachers on the frontier were more impressed by the sincerity of a young scholar at their schoolhouse door than a law that did not explicitly ban black students. In addition, many school officials in this new realm created as a territory in 1854 under the doctrine of Popular Sovereignty were likely content to allow for local control on a potentially divisive issue involving race. Finally, there is little reason to believe that local officials knew about or scrupulously adhered to every provision of the school law. The director of the Eight Mile Grove Township in Cass County complained in 1860 that the "common clod-hopper" could not comprehend these laws and even attorneys disagreed about their provisions. A county superintendent echoed these concerns, stating that few residents understood the law because teachers and parents had little inclination to track down the law or search its lengthy clauses. Regarding the specific issue of black exclusion, even the territorial auditor, who also served as commissioner of common schools, admitted his uncertainty as to whether the law excluded blacks by its use of the word "white."

The Civil War and early years of Reconstruction led to renewed interest in the issue of black education throughout the nation. In 1867 members of Omaha's black community waged a campaign for equal access to public schools. These efforts may have influenced the nearly simultaneous and unanimous resolution of the state's teachers association in favor of black education. The price of this unanimity may have been ambiguity, however, as the resolution made no mention of the crucial issue of whether Nebraska's white and black children should be educated in the same classroom. As a result, the resolution carried little significance as most Northerners agreed that some provision must be made for the education of black children. Most lawmakers in the region were concerned about the potential expense of mandating separate schools. While they typically viewed racial segregation as the most desirable solution to the question of black education, they understood that any requirement of separate schools could be financially burdensome given the demographics of the territory. As a result, during its final session in 1867, the territorial legislature passed a bill that removed the word "white" from the school laws while also striking a clause that would have mandated that separate schools be maintained.

The bill's sponsor, Augustus Harvey responded to the removal of his bill's segregation clause by voting against the bill in committee and offering the following minority report demanding that the bill be passed in its original form:

The bill as referred to the committee provides for the education of colored youth. It gives them all the privileges and advantages of the common school system, the means of a free education, and lays the foundation of their usefulness to the extent of their ability as humble members of the body politic. To the proposition of the original bill, authorizing the Boards of education to provide separate schools for colored children, the undersigned agree, and will heartily concur in any action of the House which may adopt it.

But the amendment proposed by the majority of the committee contemplates the admission of colored children to our schools on an equal footing with white youth. This is reaching too far in advance of the age. The people of Nebraska are not yet ready to send white boys and white girls to school to sit on the same seats with negroes they are not yet ready to endorse in this tacit manner the dogma of miscegenation; especially are they yet far from ready to degrade their offspring to a level with so inferior a race.

The undersigned do not believe the intention of the majority of the committee can be carried out by the people; and we do not believe that the Legislative Assembly should force upon the people a measure so obnoxious to their wishes and habits and the established principles of political equality.

The entire essay appears in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue.

Lynching of Will Brown

Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha's 1919 Race Riot · Orville D. Menard

For almost a hundred years, Will Brown's bullet-ridden and charred remains lay in an unmarked grave in the potter's field of Omaha's Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Accused of raping a white woman, Brown was taken from the burning Douglas County Courthouse by a riot-crazed mob. Beaten as he avowed his innocence, his bleeding body was dragged to swing at the end of a rope, and repeatedly shot. According to his death certificate, Brown died on September 28, 1919, age about forty, a laborer by trade, marital status unknown, birthplace unknown, as were the names of his parents. The cause of death was "bullet wounds through the body and lynched."

Today Brown has a gravestone, donated by Californian Chris Hebert, who learned in a Henry Fonda television special of Omaha's riot and Brown's murder. The donor had no connection with Omaha and asked only that "Lest we forget" be engraved on the stone. "It's too bad it took deaths like these to pave the way for the freedoms we have today. . . . I got the headstone thinking that if I could reach just one person, it was well worth the money spent."

The circumstances of the riot and Brown's death remain controversial. Was he guilty of rape or was he innocent, physically incapable of the feat? Was the riot a spontaneous eruption of fervor, reflecting a violent "spirit of the times" in a year of social and economic anxieties? Or was it a politically inspired event, designed to discredit the city's administration?

Around midnight on September 25, 1919, Milton Hoffman and Agnes Loeback were assaulted at Bancroft Street and Scenic Avenue as they were walking home after a late movie. They said their assailant robbed them at gunpoint, taking Hoffman's watch, money, and billfold, plus a ruby ring from Agnes. He ordered Hoffman to move several steps away, then dragged nineteen-year-old Loeback by her hair into a nearby ravine and raped her.

On Friday the twenty-sixth, an Omaha Bee headline proclaimed that a "black beast" had assaulted a white girl. Police and detectives combed the vicinity for two hours, joined by four hundred armed men under the leadership of Joseph Loeback (Agnes's brother) and Frank B. Raum. The group included railroad workers who knew Agnes from her job at an eatery (she also worked in a laundry). A neighbor told the searchers of a "suspicious negro" living in a house at 2418 South Fifth Street with a white woman, Virginia Jones, and a second black man, Henry Johnson. Raum and four of his men found William Brown at the house and covered him with a shotgun. Arriving on the scene, police found Brown hiding under his bed. They took him to Loeback's home nearby, bringing with them clothes found in Brown's room.

Loeback and Hoffman identified Brown as their assailant. Her description of him tallied with that of a mugger in the vicinity three weeks earlier. Agnes also identified the clothing, including a white felt hat that had been worn by a man seen in the Gibson neighborhood. Later, however, Agnes stated that her attacker was black, but "I can't say whether he [Brown] is the man or not." Hoffman, arriving at the Loeback home, identified Brown "with not the least bit of doubt but what he is the Negro who" held him at gunpoint while he raped Agnes.

By then a crowd of some 250 men and women had gathered around the house, shouting that Brown should be lynched. They struggled with the police and twice succeeded in putting a rope around Brown's neck. Despite slashing of tires and beatings, the police prevented a lynching and took Brown first to the police department's jail, and then to the new Douglas County Courthouse jail, where they believed he would be safer. Chief of Police Marshall Eberstein said he did not know if Brown was guilty and that further investigation was necessary.

Across the nation, stories of racial violence were headline news in what was called the "Red Summer." A September 27 editorial in the Omaha World-Herald decried police protection, claiming that women and girls were left helpless. "Our women must be protected at all costs," the newspaper insisted. Omahans had been reading for weeks, especially in the Bee, of police failures to keep the peace, and shocking accounts of black men assaulting white women.

In addition to the enmity aroused by putative rapes, racial tension was fueled by numerous additional sources of discontent. During the second decade of the twentieth century, societal turmoil aggravated race relations as thousands of blacks migrated to the north in what was known as the Second Great Exodus. (The first was 1870-79.) Omaha's black population doubled from 5,143 in 1910 to 10,315 in 1920. (Omaha's 1920 white population was 191,601.) Wartime worker shortages in northern cities lured blacks seeking better paying jobs, better lifestyles, and the promise of freedom from Jim Crow. Factory agents recruited black workers, paying railway or reduced fares and offering unskilled jobs with railroads and meat-packing plants.

The 1918 armistice quieted the guns in Europe, but hostilities increased on the home front. Labor unrest was widespread. White union members striking for recognition and higher wages confronted black strikebreakers, exacerbating racial animosities. The teamsters went on strike in June 1919, and bricklayers, street and railway workers, and others followed, mostly failing to reach their goals. The Central Labor Union unsuccessfully tried to organize a general strike in Omaha, where police claimed that agents of the Industrial Workers of the World were forming a committee to work for the impending strike. Rumors circulated of black strikebreakers to be imported from East St. Louis.

Returning veterans seeking jobs in a tightened employment market discovered a "New Negro," one anticipating that long-endured indignities and denial of rights would now pass into history. The war to make the world safe for democracy had been won, but black Americans found their own situation largely unchanged in their postwar world. President Woodrow Wilson had even sent a representative to France to warn black troops not to expect French democracy when they returned home.

Discontent grew in the black community. In Omaha and elsewhere, jobs open to blacks offered low wages, were concentrated in packing plants and railroads, and involved servile positions as porters, janitors, and waiters. Segregated neighborhoods offered substandard housing and minimal streets and amenities. Low wages made utilities unaffordable. Prejudice, intolerance, and frustration in the white community flourished amid a mindset of white superiority and a conviction that blacks should be submissive and "know their place."

A potent and combustible component of the racial divide was sex--the longstanding notion of black men preying on white women. A day before Brown's lynching, U.S. Senator John Sharp Williams proclaimed that "the protection of a woman transcends all law of every description, human or divine," legitimizing the mostly sex-related lynchings of African Americans. Fifty-four blacks were lynched in the United States in 1916; by 1920 the annual number had grown to eighty-three.

The entire essay appears in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue.

New Negro Movement

The New Negro Movement in Lincoln, Nebraska · Jennifer Hildebrand

We are possessed, you know, with the idea that it is necessary to be white, to be beautiful. Nine times out of ten it is just the reverse. It takes lots of training or a tremendous effort to down the idea that thin lips and a straight nose is the apogee of beauty. But once free you can look back with a sigh of relief and wonder how anyone could be so deluded.
-- Aaron Douglas

Why do not more young colored men and women take up photography as a career? The average white photographer does not know how to deal with colored skins and having neither sense of the delicate beauty or tone nor will to learn, he makes a horrible botch of portraying them.
-- W. E. B. Du Bois

The New Negro Movement (NNM)--a term that I use purposefully in contradistinction to "Harlem Renaissance"--occurred not just in Harlem, and not just in large metropolitan areas. The NNM occurred across America, even in small Midwestern cities such as Lincoln, Nebraska. Certainly it took a different form than the renaissance so frequently spoken of in Harlem. From roughly the 1890s to the 1930s, however, Lincoln's African American population began to assert itself socially, politically, economically, and culturally. In part because of both the quality and quantity of work done by literary critics, the NNM or Harlem Renaissance is often associated with literature, but New Negroes often turned to other media as they strove to control their own image: painting, sculpture, and music often allowed for a form of self-expression that resonated with some individuals in a way that the writing of an essay or an autobiography did not. Photography also provided a useful way to recreate the image of blackness in the United States. Photographs from roughly 1912 to 1925, attributed to John Johnson, provide powerful testimony of the presence of a New Negro mentality in the relatively small but urban Midwestern city of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Lincoln During the "Nadir"

The artistic creations of the NNM cannot be properly understood if they are discussed in a historical vacuum, and Lincoln and Nebraska generally have more of an African American past than is often recognized. Nebraska had a small number of black slaves before the Civil War; the first African American settler arrived in the summer of 1868. By 1870 Lincoln had its first black barber. However, African American settlers did not always feel welcome in the state. A group of 150 black immigrants from Mississippi arrived in 1879, intending to make Nebraska their home; ultimately they were forced out of the state. At the turn of the century, however, as Nebraska grew and the Great Migration of black Southerners began (a relative trickle until the floodgates opened during World War I), the black population began to increase. The packing plants and railroads of Omaha and Lincoln attracted a significant number of black workers from the South. From 1904 to 1920, Lincoln's African American population grew by more than 58 percent.

While the new settlers found opportunities not available in the South, they did not so completely escape racism and Jim Crow as they must have hoped. In the historical period often referred to as the "nadir" of African American history (1890s-1920s), Nebraska's African American population enjoyed the privilege of voting, but faced racial restrictions in other areas. At the turn of the century, "both custom and state law prevented racial intermarriage." While the ban could be interpreted as a limitation on whites as well, it was clear at the time that such restrictions, like the rules governing the segregation of the races, were meant to communicate black inferiority. Other restrictions emerged as well. In 1913, Nebraska changed its state law defining a person with one-quarter African American blood as legally "black." Under the amended law, a person with one-eighth African American (or Japanese or Chinese) heritage became legally "non-Caucasian." Though black athletes participated in sports at the University of Nebraska (NU), in 1917 the school announced that the practice would end, as some teams in their collegiate division objected to playing against African Americans.

Housing segregation in Omaha appeared in 1902, and Lincoln's developers began to place racial restrictions in property deeds by 1916.7 Though a 1933 report by the Race Relations Committee of Lincoln found that blacks were "general[ly] distribut[ed] . . . throughout the city," the chart which accompanies the committee's findings suggests that the distribution of African American families was "general" only in comparison to Southern cities that practiced extreme forms of segregation. Sixty-two percent of Lincoln's black families lived in three of the twelve wards (the first, third, and fifth). Almost 30 percent of Lincoln's African American population resided in the third ward, described by the report as "ill-kept," and "congested." The twelfth ward contained not a single African American.

Severely circumscribed employment opportunities also made it difficult for Lincoln's African American families to achieve any level of equality. A survey of 100 wage earners found a total of twenty-nine different vocations, but concluded "[t]hese consist largely of unskilled, semi-skilled, and personal service jobs. The men are employed largely as laborers, porters, waiters, janitors. The women are engaged in the most part as maids, char-women, and laundress[es]." While noting that positions with the state or federal government represented the "most lucrative jobs" held by Lincoln's black citizens, a table describing those jobs shows that they generally fit into the same categories: of the eighteen individuals with these "lucrative" jobs, six were janitors and four were charwomen. At the time the study was completed, NU employed no African Americans. As the report noted, limited employment opportunities presented a serious problem for Lincoln's African American community, because it meant that the town "affords little incentive for Negro children to pursue high education. The opportunities open to the High School graduates are similar to those who have little to no education." Ruth Greene Folley, who appeared (as Ruth Talbert) in one of Johnson's photographs as a child, experienced these limitations: she completed her teaching certificate in 1926, but found that it "was not a passport to employment; Lincoln schools did not hire African American teachers until the 1950s." The consequences were severe for Lincoln's black community. "Most of the ambitious boys and girls who have completed the high school and university courses leave the city, in quest of employment. Consequently the city loses many of its potential leaders in the Negro group."

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) also posed a significant threat. Composed of 1,100 members in the summer of 1922, Nebraska's KKK had 45,000 members by 1923 in the wake of an organizational drive. By 1924, "klan demonstrations, parades, and cross burnings had become common" in many parts of Nebraska, and Lincoln's "klavern, with an estimated 5,000 members, was the largest and most vocal in the state." In 1924, the KKK held its statewide convention in Lincoln, and more than a thousand klansmen paraded openly through the streets. "One mounted klansman stirred the imagination of the crowd by carrying an electric cross," noted historian Michael Schuyler. Although the klan cannot technically receive the blame for the lynching of William Brown in Omaha in 1919 (the klan was not officially organized in Nebraska at that point), the close proximity, both temporally and spatially, of a brutal lynching and the rise of a group vocally promoting white supremacy surely did not escape the consciousness of Lincoln's African American population.

The entire essay appears in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue.

De Porres Club

Mildred Brown and the De Porres Club: Collective Activism in Omaha, Nebraska's Near North Side, 1947-1960 · Amy Helene Forss

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 Streetcar 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 matching 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. Brown "was one of those individuals who became involved in the civil rights struggle long before it was fashionable."

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. During the 1940s and 1950s, she and other De Porres Club members successfully created equal employment opportunities through boycotts and through the auspices of the Star. Brown's weekly not only provided a voice for Near North Side residents, but also provided the necessary communication for collective neighborhood activism. For her, it was more than a moral campaign; she felt it was her civic responsibility as a middle-class businesswoman living in the black community.

In February 1947, the Omaha Star printed a request for a community meeting. Brown requested Near North Side residents to meet her downtown at the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) building. She chose the location not only because she was a member of the YWCA, but also because of the organization's interracial goals of anti-lynching laws, race relations, and female empowerment. Brown wished "to acquaint the people of the community with the facts of the lack of employment in the business places of this community." She wanted "freedom from fear, want, and the right to equal opportunity."

At the meeting, an interracial group of approximately thirty-five people listened to Brown expound on the unfairness of white business owners accepting the black community as customers but refusing them as employees. Brown's staffers researched 534 available occupations listed in the 1940 census. They discovered that Omaha's "Negroes have no employment in as many as 96 occupations." Skilled black men and women applied for these positions, but their applications were rejected. Approximately a thousand black Near North Side citizens seeking work remained unemployed, while the few who found employment were "working for a livelihood at jobs far below their status, both in rank and pay."

Brown told her audience they "must approach industry, commerce and big business with our problem and seek the opportunity to work and grow." She demanded that those present act quickly: "Let us resolve to be a people, and subsequently act in a way to show we appreciate employment of members of our group by patronizing all business where there can be found Negroes working." The interracial assembly agreed to convene again and elected Brown as their chairperson.

Brown's newspaper campaign for equal opportunity employment gained momentum from the De Porres Club. The Rev. John Markoe, S. J., and six white Creighton University students founded the activist organization on November 3, 1947; additional branches appeared in Kansas City, Missouri, and Denver, Colorado, by the mid 1950s. The non-university-sanctioned club demonstrated a nationwide trend between the Catholic Church and impoverished black communities. Patrick Jones's book The Selma of the North examines Father Groppi and his Milwaukee, Wisconsin, congregation joining black urban residents in a church-approved fight against racism and discrimination, while John McGreevy's Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North includes an exploration of Father Markoe and his brother William's commitment "to give and dedicate our whole lives and all our energies, as far as we are able for the work of the salvation of the Negroes in the United States."

The De Porres Club's first meeting in Omaha attracted an interracial crowd of forty-seven people. Markoe, an eccentric, tall, silver-haired former West Point graduate recently banished from St. Louis University's Jesuit community for his civil rights advocacy, delivered the opening prayer. Afterwards, he explained to those gathered that the organization borrowed its name from black Dominican Friar Martin de Porres, the seventeenth-century biracial monk best known for his slave ship ministry. (The Catholic Church canonized him in 1962.) Markoe informed his audience that although the club's goals were "better racial relations through constructive actions, to banish every form of compulsory segregation and abolish any and all forms of discrimination against individuals because of race, color or creed," its real purpose was "to kick Jim Crow's ass out of Omaha." At the end of the initial meeting, members elected twenty-one-year-old Denny Holland as club president, and Omaha Star reporter Harold Tibbs as vice-president.

The entire essay appears in the Fall / Winter 2010 issue.


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