September 28, 2023 | Last updated Sep 7, 2023

Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot

A riot-crazed mob stormed the burning Douglas County Courthouse on September 28, 1919, and lynched an African American, Will Brown. The victim, accused of raping a white woman, had no opportunity to prove his innocence. Political boss Tom Dennison and his allies may have encouraged the lynching in order to discredit Mayor Edward P Smith, an advocate for reform.

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.

Widespread violence erupted in some twenty-five U.S. cities during the “Red Summer” of 1919. Adding to Omaha’s disquiet and distrust was a political battle between a recently elected city reform movement and an entrenched political machine eager to regain control by demonstrating the ineptness of the reformer “goo-goos.”

In its alliance with Tom “the Old Man” Dennison, Omaha’s powerful political boss, the Omaha Bee was the primary strident voice of alleged racially shocking crimes. Alarmed at the Bee’s promotion of violence and racial prejudice, the Rev. John A. Williams—first president of the local chapter of the NAACP and publisher of the Monitor, a weekly black paper—called upon the editors of the Bee and the Daily News to stop their propaganda. The Bee was charged with being the mouthpiece of a gang that ruled Omaha with the cooperation of behind-the-scene influential who decided who should run for office, with Dennison’s organization electing them. In return, according to the source, Dennison received money and control of the police department, juries, and the police court to protect the cities vice interests.

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 lynching’s of African Americans. Fifty-four blacks were lynched in the United States in 1916; by 1920 the annual number had grown to eighty-three.

Given the fuel provided by Tom Dennison and his allies, Brown may have been the victim of a politically inspired maneuver to restore the city officials dislodged by the 1918 election. Brown’s death was timely, if not timed, to provide an opportunity to strike hard at Mayor Ed Smith. Dennison’s machine won the next election.

This is an excerpt from “Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot” by Orville D Menard, which appeared in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Nebraska History. Read the full article for more information.

You may also be interested in:

Did Claude Nethaway murder his wife and frame an innocent man?” — Nethaway was accused of taking a prominent role in Brown’s lynching. It was hardly the only time he was in the news for something heinous.
Laurel Sariscsany, “‘They can’t convict anyone anyway’: The trials of the Omaha lynching and riot of 1919.” This article appears exclusively in the Fall 2019 issue of Nebraska History Magazine, received by History Nebraska members.

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

Marker Monday: Spade Ranch

Marker Monday: Spade Ranch

Nebraska’s Japanese American History

Nebraska’s Japanese American History

The Blacksmith Shop

The Blacksmith Shop

Marker Monday: Long Pine – A Railroad Town

Marker Monday: Long Pine – A Railroad Town

Fred Astaire’s Omaha Origins

Fred Astaire’s Omaha Origins

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

History Nebraska Education

Learn more about the educational programs provided at our museums, sites, and online.

History Nebraska Programs

Learn more about the programs associated with History Nebraska.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast!

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.