The New Negro Movement (NNM)—a term used here as opposed to the commonly used “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, 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 in a way that the writing of an essay or 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.
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, but they were ultimately 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 voting rights 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. 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.
This is an excerpt from “The New Negro Movement in Lincoln, Nebraska” by Jennifer Hildebrand, which appeared in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Nebraska History.