Sellers Award Winner for 2015 Announced

The Lincoln Star, August 17, 1955


The winner of the Sellers Award, which recognizes the best article published in Nebraska History Journal in the course of the previous year, has been announced. Brian Sarnacki’s article “‘In the Biting Stage’: The 1955 Nebraska State Penitentiary Riots and Violent Prison Activism” from the Spring 2015 issue is the winner. Sarnacki is a PhD candidate in the history department at UNL. This year’s judges were John Calvert, Britta McEwen, and Adam Sundberg of Creighton University. Dr. Calvert writes: “We found the article to be a compelling and well-written account of the violent disturbances, born out of prisoners’ grievances, that led to changes in the state’s correctional services.” On the evening of August 16, 1955, Lincoln residents were startled to see smoke rising from the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Rioting inmates had set fire to their workplaces, and police and national guardsmen gathered to take back the prison by force if necessary. The event culminated a series of violent protests meant to draw attention to inhumane conditions and abuse by guards. The article was published just a few months before the May 10, 2015 riot at Tecumseh State Prison, which resulted in the death of two inmates. You can read a teaser of the article in a 2015 NSHS blog “Nebraska Prisoners ‘in the biting stage’” here. Or, you can read the article in its entirety on the NSHS web site by following the link here.

Shown here many years before the 1955 riots, the “jail” housed prisoners in solitary confinement. The lower level was known as “the hole.” NSHS RG2418-5-05


The James L. Sellers Memorial Award was created in 1967. The award consists of a plaque, a lifetime membership with the Nebraska State Historical Society, and $1,000 from the NSHS Foundation, through the support of Catherine Sellers Angle. Judges (usually three) are provided by a Nebraska college or university history department that is not represented by an article in the judging pool. The judges are solicited by the editor of Nebraska History. Articles are evaluated on use of primary sources, quality of research and writing, and reader interest. The Society staff and members of the executive board are eligible to receive the Sellers Award and have received it in the past. The award will be given to Sarnacki at the NSHS annual meeting on October 14.

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