By David L. Bristow, Editor
(Originally posted June 2, 2020)
Someday a historian will write a Nebraska History article examining the George Floyd protests in our state. Right now we’re still reading fresh headlines and watching newly-posted videos. We’re still dazed from a montage of peaceful protests, confrontations with police, and late-night chaos in the streets of Omaha and Lincoln. We are still too close to these events to see them with the clarity of history.
But we know that we are seeing history in the making. And we know that the present situation didn’t arise solely from recent events.
Just as obviously, it didn’t arise strictly from local events. When an unarmed African American man is murdered by police in Minneapolis, and in response people take to the streets across the United States and in cities as far away as London, Berlin, and Rio de Janeiro, you know that you’re looking at the tip of a very large iceberg.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has recently launched Talking About Race, “a new online portal designed to help individuals, families, and communities talk about racism, racial identity and the way these forces shape every aspect of society, from the economy and politics to the broader American culture.”
This post isn’t nearly as ambitious, but it’s meant as a Nebraska resource for similar conversations. Here I want to look briefly at some aspects of African American history in Nebraska and link to some of our online resources. This is not a full summary of Nebraska’s black history, merely a quick sketch of the deep roots of present-day injustices, as we understand them at present.
If you read just one thing about the roots of civil unrest in Nebraska, make it this: Ashley Howard’s award-winning Nebraska History article about the 1960s uprisings, “‘And Then the Burnings Began’: Omaha’s Urban Revolts and the Meaning of Political Violence.”
That said, let’s go back further in time.
People have lived in Nebraska for thousands of years, but its history as an organized US territory begins with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The law repealed an earlier law banning slavery in this part of the country, and was so controversial that it is considered one of the major events leading to the Civil War.
In other words, Nebraska Territory was born in controversy over slavery. Slavery was legal here until the territorial legislature abolished it in 1861—overriding the governor’s veto to do so.
Thirteen years later, the State of Nebraska was born in a controversy over voting rights for black men. Our original proposed state constitution restricted voting rights to white men. That wasn’t unusual at the time. But Congress rejected Nebraska statehood until voting was open to all men (but not women). Read more and see snippets of original documents on p. 8 of this PDF.
The voting rights controversy of 1867 is how we got our state motto, “Equality Before the Law.” It was an optimistic time. Most white Americans—even most abolitionists—held deeply racist views, and yet the war ended with burst of idealism among northern Republicans. To be fair, expanding the vote was also shrewd politics, a way of creating millions of Southern Republican voters. But many Northerners, including this Nebraska man, rejoiced that the reunited nation was moving quickly toward full racial equality.
It didn’t last. Southern black voters were terrorized by “Redeemers” and the Ku Klux Klan, while Northern defense of civil rights faded quickly. J. Sterling Morton of Nebraska City (remembered as the founder of Arbor Day) was on the losing side of the abolition and voting rights arguments, but as the years passed, Morton’s racist opinions proved to be more mainstream than those of 1860s Radical Republicans.
To be an African American settler in Nebraska meant facing all the usual frontier hardships in addition to the unnecessary burdens of prejudice, a story told in Todd Guenther’s “The Empire Builders: An African American Odyssey in Nebraska and Wyoming” (PDF). It meant sending your children to segregated schools in Nebraska City (PDF), or serving in a segregated army at Fort Robinson (PDF).
Nebraska’s African American population remained small until the Great Migration of the early twentieth century. Millions of Southern blacks moved to northern cities in search of better jobs and more freedom. But the turbulent year following the end of World War I saw a violent backlash against African Americans, including the 1919 lynching of Will Brown in Omaha.
Even within the law, a black man stood little chance when accused of a crime against whites. Despite the flimsy case against him, Charles Smith died in prison for the 1917 murder of Claude Nethaway’s wife, even though it looked like Nethaway himself was the murderer.
The 1920s saw the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan, which at one time claimed 45,000 Nebraska Klan members. Civil rights leaders in those days might work a lifetime only to find conditions worse than when they started, as in the inspiring but ultimately tragic story of Omaha’s Rev. Russel Taylor (PDF).
And yet, Nebraska’s African American community persisted. Many of us learned in school of the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s, but Harlem’s flowering of black culture was part of a nationwide movement. The photography of Lincoln’s John Johnson (PDF) was one part of this assertion of black dignity and self-determination.
Following World War II, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t arise all at once, but developed piece by piece in various communities. Joe Ishikawa spent time in a US internment camp for Japanese Americans before moving to Lincoln. When, as a city employee, he discovered that the municipal swimming pool banned African Americans, he quit his job and joined local black leaders in a successful protest.
The story of the Lincoln pool is remarkable for what it reveals about Northern segregation. Not one city official defended the policy—but no one wanted to change it, either, claiming fear of public opinion.
“It’s always other people,” Ishikawa remembered thinking. “I haven’t met an honestly prejudiced person yet.”
In Omaha, meanwhile, publisher Mildred Brown was mobilizing her newspaper, the Omaha Star, against local discrimination. Brown played a key role in a multiracial coalition known as the DePorres Club. Among other accomplishments, the DePorres Club led a successful bus boycott (PDF) four years before the one in Montgomery, Alabama.
Other local civil rights groups won important victories in the 1950s and 1960s, but certain fundamental injustices remained: housing and job discrimination, unequal schools, and unequal policing—all of which bring us back to Dr. Howard’s article, “And Then the Burnings Began.” The nationwide failure of leaders and businesses to respond to nonviolent protest led to the “long hot summers” of the late 1960s.
Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald provides another view of this crucial period in his recent book, 24th and Glory: The Intersection of Civil Rights and Omaha’s Greatest Generation of Athletes. And longtime World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith documented everything from the late-1960s turmoil, to the 1970s school busing controversy, to daily life in The Black Experience Through the Lens of Rudy Smith. Both books were published with the support of History Nebraska.
This is only a partial survey of Nebraska’s African American history. It follows the story up to about fifty years ago, and even then with major gaps. (See also this special issue of Nebraska History, and this PDF of African American Resources at History Nebraska.) The idea is to show something of the long struggle for equality and to provide links to our most helpful resources.
But there’s something else, something that may only become clear as you start clicking links and diving deeper into the sources. Perhaps the most tragic thing about all this history—aside from the fact that it happened at all—is how much of it is still unresolved, how much still seems relevant in the troubled year of 2020.