Mildred Brown and the De Porres Club: Collective Activism in Omaha

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 co-founded 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 and 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 wanted 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.

This is an excerpt from “Mildred Brown and the De Porres  Club: Collective Activism in Omaha, Nebraska’s, Near North Side, 1947-1960” by Amy Helene Forss, which appeared in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Nebraska History.

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

Making Rain

Making Rain

How pioneer trails shaped Omaha streets

How pioneer trails shaped Omaha streets

Marker Monday: Atlas D Missile Site A

Marker Monday: Atlas D Missile Site A

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.

Education Digital Learning Resources

Find games, lists, and more to enhance your history education curriculum.

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.

History Nebraska Services

Digital Resources

Find all of our digital resources, files, videos, and more, all in one easy-to-search page!

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.