Omaha and the “Red Summer” of 1919
World War I was over, but the nation was not at peace.
The year 1919 was a time of unemployment, food shortages, violent strikes, fears of a Communist uprising, and white mobs waging war on black communities in Washington DC, Chicago, and dozens of other cities.
Omaha, too, was “a city in ferment” in the words of historian Michael L. Lawson. That summer the city was crisscrossed with picket lines by striking boilermakers, bricklayers, tailors, telegraphers, teamsters, truck drivers, stockyard and railroad workers, and cooks and waiters.
On June 21 the Central Labor Union threatened to call a general strike of the city’s 30,000 union workers in support of the Teamsters. Mayor Ed Smith warned that he was ready to call up the American Legion—private citizens—to “fight if necessary” to put it down. Hundreds of ex-soldiers told the mayor they were ready.
Omaha Bee, June 25, 1919.
The Teamsters strike was settled before it came to that, but Smith grew increasingly unpopular as the summer wore on. He had been elected as a reform candidate, promising to clean up Omaha. The city’s longtime mayor, Jim Dahlman, was widely seen as a puppet of crime boss Tom Dennison. Now the Omaha Police Department had a “morals squad” that was widely seen as abusing its authority with brutal vice raids. Smith’s enemies circulated petitions for the recall the mayor and city commissioners.
Consumer prices, meanwhile, soared to record highs during the war. Prices rose nearly twice as fast as income, and the public was angered by rumors of hoarding, price gouging, and rent profiteering. Illegal bootleg whiskey was selling for $5 to $8 a pint—a hardship for drinkers at a time when the average hourly wage was 56 cents, but it provided a booming source of revenue for Dennison and his cronies.
Armour packing plant at the Omaha's Union Stockyards, 1919. RG3474-3204
As labor strikes flared across the city, some unions won wage increases, while others lost their jobs to non-union employees. Some of the strikebreakers were black. Omaha’s African American population had grown quickly during the “Great Migration” of the World War I years. Across the country, black workers fled appalling conditions in the South for northern factory jobs. White unions usually didn’t admit black workers, and Omaha meatpackers brought in hundreds of black non-union workers as strikebreakers. The Bee and Daily News further stoked racial resentment with lurid headlines about purported black crime.
Meanwhile, wartime food shortages continued and prices soared. By August, Smith was warning of food riots.
Omaha Bee, Aug. 5, 1919.
By September the city was primed to explode.
Read Michael L. Lawson’s complete article, “Omaha, a City in Ferment: Summer of 1919” (PDF from Nebraska History, Fall 1977).