Blacks of Distinction II
Omaha’s African-American community is replete with doers, past and present, and every once in a while a local newspaper has me write profiles of some of these leaders, who range from community activists and small business owners to educators to administrators and executives. The following four individuals all made a difference here and though at least one has now passed on and another has retired and still another has moved out of the area, their impact remains. You’ll find a separate post on this blog titled Blacks of Distinction that profiles four different individuals. You’ll also find in the African American Culture category more than 100 stories about various facets and figures of the Omaha black community.
Blacks of Distinction II
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Edmae Swain: A Pioneering Educator
Edmae Swain helped change the face of public education locally when, in 1964, she became the first African-American female principal in the Omaha Public Schools. Upon arriving in Omaha from St. Louis at the end of World War II, she got a job with OPS as a substitute teacher, the only option then available to black educators in Omaha’s segregated public schools. She subbed at Howard Kennedy School, one of a few all-black schools serving the near northside. In 1947 she was among the first blacks hired as a regular teacher. She was assigned to Long School. She remained there until OPS Superintendent Paul Miller appointed her principal of Lake School. Years before, Eugene Skinner became the first black administrator here. Until her hiring, there hadn’t been another. Progress seemed to had passed over Omaha.
That’s why news of her appointment, coming as it did the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed, made headlines as far away as Kansas City and her native St. Louis and touched off a celebration at the home she and her husband, Howard Swain, Sr., shared with their son, Howard, Jr. In the context of the fight for equal rights, hers was a victory for Omaha’s black community and the wider freedom struggle.
“Yes it was,” Swain said. “It’s certainly one of the positive results of the struggle,” said retired Omaha educator Edwardene Armstrong, a teacher under Swain at Lake.
Recently, in the comfortable Immanuel Village suite that Edmae and Howard, Sr., now reside in, the 88-year-old Swain paged through a scrapbook containing the congratulatory telegrams and letters she received 41 years ago. For her, the most meaningful message came from the man that showed confidence in her — Paul Miller. A controversial figure, he had only a brief tenure as superintendent here, she said, because “he was too progressive for Omaha.” In his letter to her, he alluded to the pressure Swain felt in assuming the mantle for her race:
“I am glad to know you are nervous because this is your recognition of the fact that it is a big step from the classroom to the principal’s office…” I am confident “you will make this step cautiously yet firmly and with resolution to serve.”
Swain recalls having “butterflies” in her stomach a long time after getting that long overdue, high-profile post. She didn’t want to do anything that could reflect badly on her or her people. “More was expected of me. Therefore, there were things I just couldn’t do and places I couldn’t go after I became principal. I felt like I was in a bubble. All eyes were on me,” she said. Failure, she added, was not an option. “I knew I had to do it. I had to succeed for myself and all black Americans. I had to do well to make it possible for anyone that came after me.”
Despite the pressure, she made the transition with her characteristic grace and reserve. Friend and fellow educator Thelma Costen said that Swain, as always, carried herself “in a dignified manner. She was very firm and maintained excellent discipline. Everything was done in a positive manner.” Edwardene Armstrong said Swain handled the situation well. “Whatever pressures there were, it didn’t show. Edmae Swain is kind of a born leader. Her organizational skills are among her great assets. She was more than capable” when the opportunity came.
A few years later, Swain once again made history. When named principal at predominantly white Jackson School, she became the first black educator assigned to an Omaha public school outside the near northside. “I don’t know if she thinks of herself as a pioneer, but she really is,” said Costen. As before, Swain took on the job with professionalism. For Swain, it wasn’t so much about making history as breaking down another barrier. About time, too. It was another steep challenge, but faced with those circumstances, she said, “You do what you have to do.”
Any misgivings Swain had about how she’d be accepted at Jackson were soon eased by the support parents showed her. She was relieved. “They really embraced me. They had a wonderful PTA. A husband and wife were presidents and they saw to it parents participated in everything. They were all very cooperative. Anything I thought I needed, they would get it for me. I couldn’t ask for anything more.” The reception, she noted, “could have been far different,” particularly as her appointment coincided with the school district’s court-ordered desegregation plan – a hot-button issue that incited violence in other communities.
When she got to Jackson hers was the only black face with the exception of a lone female student. “I said to her, ‘Well, there’s two of us here now. We’ve integrated the building.’” Even with forced busing, few blacks ended up going to school there. It remained that way, she said, until she retired from education in 1977. It was another case of “talking about integration” but not doing much about it.
Inequality, discrimination and segregation are evils that Swain, who’s active in the NAACP, Urban League, Zion Baptist Church and National Baptist Convention, fought against. She participated in civil rights demonstrations. Once, while a teacher at Long School, she called her principal to say, “’I won’t be coming in. The activists are having a walk-in at city hall and I have to march with the group.’ When I got to school, my principal complimented me for doing what I felt was the thing to do.”
A recipient of the NAACP’s Freedom Fighter Award, Swain led a sheltered life as a girl growing up in the black neighborhood of St. Louis known as The Ville. Her parents later explained to her they purposely kept her away from the prejudice blacks encountered outside the hood. It was only a matter of time, however, before Swain ran into racism. She got her first brush with Jim Crow on a train trip down south. At a railroad station, she saw a sign reading, For Whites Only. And on the train itself she found strictly segregated dining cars and waiting rooms.
“That was really when I first knew there was something different about us.”
With little formal schooling of their own, Swain’s hog carrier father and homemaker mother worked hard to ensure Edmae and her sister got an education that prepared them to move ahead. “They had no formal education but they knew the advantages of our getting an education, and they saw to it we went to museums and libraries and places they thought would be helpful.” Even as a girl, Edmae was enamored with the idea of being a teacher, making sure she always assumed the role when she and her friends played school. It wasn’t long before she graduated from Stowe Teachers College in St. Louis and began her 44-year education career.
Like any former educator, she enjoys the successes of her former students, many of whom have gone on to fine professional careers, including a judge and an attorney she stays in contact with. “It makes me feel good knowing what I did wasn’t in vain. Maybe I gave them something to strive for.”
She’s seen many changes in the education system and decries today’s loss of discipline at school and in the home. She feels things were better when a village really did raise a child. Even though she virulently opposes segregation, she said the black schools model of the past did have the advantage of students being taught by committed staff who looked and sounded like the kids. “There was a strength in that,” she said. Besides making sure her students left school every day “knowing something new,” she included black history lessons not in the standard curriculum.
It turns out Swain’s still a trailblazer all these years later. When she and her husband moved into Immanuel Village a few years ago, they became the community’s first black residents. One other black couple has followed them since. Another example of how the struggle for equality continues. Her deep faith tells her “all things are possible with God” and that “we shall overcome some day.”
Erline Patrick: A Professional Woman with a Social Conscience
For a newcomer, Erline Patrick has made her presence felt since coming to work at Creighton University in 2001 after years in public school administration and senior government management service. Community involvement is the hallmark of her accomplished, far-ranging life and career that’s featured challenging jobs in many locations. Her local activities reflect her interests in education, theater, music, women’s issues and multi-cultural diversity. In only a short time, this stunning African-American woman has touched many lives here. Soon, though, she’ll be leaving for an as-yet unknown new challenge. This time it’s Phoenix, where her husband, Omaha Housing Authority director Alphonso Patrick, has taken a new post. Public service runs in this couple’s blood, and where service calls, they go.
As interim associate dean of faculty affairs and development in the Creighton School of Medicine, Erline Patrick provides administrative support to the school’s faculty, oversees recruitment of minority medical professionals and prepares grants that funnel millions of dollars towards the institution’s research efforts. Yet, somehow she finds time to volunteer. Her many good works here include: serving on the boards of the Jesuit Middle School and the John Beasley Theater & Workshop and as a Governor-appointed member of the Women’s Health Initiative Advisory Council; performing as cantor at St. Cecilia’s Cathedral; and mentoring folks on campus and in the community. She offers advice. She puts people together. She contributes funds. She sends care packages. She frets. She prays.
All this comes naturally to Patrick, a big sister, mother, grandmother and wife whose heart has never really left the roles of teacher and principal she filled back east. She talks wistfully about “how much I’ve missed working with young people,” but still makes a point of “mentoring young people. It’s very dear to me.”
She began teaching in her native, then-segregated Charlotte, N.C. and, later, in Lancaster, Penn. and Hartford, Conn. She eventually headed schools in Charlotte and Hartford, turning around a troubled urban high school with her characteristic high expectations and down home ways. Like any good leader, she makes people want to please her. She exudes warm Southern charm and displays genuine hospitality. She holds fast to old school values. She shares wise counsel with a mix of managerial authority and motherly concern. She is at once a professional to admire and a friend to confide in. A real mensch.
“It’s very important to me to be able to empower people. To help people reach their potential. To feel that I’m making a difference,” she said. “Most of my adult life I’ve been in management and leadership positions. I guess I must be a kind of born leader. I’ll be quiet and not stand out in a crowd — until somebody needs to take over…then I’ll do whatever needs to be done.”
A stickler for getting things right, she demands much from those she leads. “Today, there isn’t nearly the strive for a superior product there once was. I will not accept a shoddy product. I still hold myself to that standard, and anywhere I work will be held to that standard. And I may not be liked for it, but that’s just the way I am. I try not to be a tyrant about it.” She feels enough isn’t expected of today’s youth. “It’s appalling to hear some of our young people talk and to read their writing. A lot of that ‘dumbing down’ has been driven by television and by less structured home environments. The standards just aren’t as high.”
Aiming high was embedded in her by her mother and teachers. Her parents had little formal education. They’d been farmers and sharecroppers. Once moved to the city (Charlotte, N.C.), her father worked factories and construction and cut hair on weekends. Her mother was a domestic for well-to-do whites. “Mama was the matriarch and really guided us. She encouraged us all to go to college.” Erline and three of her four siblings ended up with college degrees.
A star in and out of the classroom, Erline was into everything at school. Her precocious talents as a singer, orator and writer included penning a song for the Decca Records label. For a time, her fine, church-honed singing voice earned her “a little bit of money singing with big bands in Charlotte. I was quite a little shapely, attractive young thing. I had a lot of admirers. But Mama trusted me. Besides, I knew how to take care of myself and the guys knew not to bother me.” Her torch singer days ended with a scholarship to Talladega College in Alabama, where she acted in theater productions and sang in the choir. Her knack for science led her to major in biology. Instead of once hoped for careers in drama or medicine, she chose teaching. With her versatility, she could have done anything. As a professor told her — Take what you have, and make what you want. That credo, she said, “has helped me tremendously. It motivates me to feel that all things are possible.”
Always in search of new horizons, she no sooner began teaching then she started work on her master’s degree in urban education. Then came her 6th Year Degree in administration and supervision. She earned two National Science Foundation grants, including one from Columbia University. She was later a National Education Policy Fellow at George Washington University. It wasn’t long after she earned her Ph.D in educational administration that she left the field for the private sector. And then Washington politics called her, first as a U.S. Senate staff member and then as a senior manager with the Small Business Administration. She made the grade wherever she went. “One of my strengths is that I’m a quick study. Wherever I’ve gone, there’s been a steep learning curve that I’ve mastered,” she said. She credits coming so far so fast to her faith. “How else could I be where I am today? So many miracles have happened in my life. I just don’t know what I would do without the Lord and that strength,” she said.
What appealed to her about The Beltway? “I wanted to learn about the legislative system and how it worked. It was new. It was exciting. And one of my goals was to work for then-Vice President George Bush. Then, in that serendipitous way my life has about it, he was elected President and I got a Presidential Appointment. It’s purely political. Somebody recommends you to the President’s chief-of-staff. At the time, I was in the Senate with Lowell Weiker. He lost the election. So, I was looking for the next thing to do when, before I knew it, I had an interview for a position in the Small Business Administration.” She got the job.
Then she was hired to manage the Minority Small Business and Capital Ownership Development Program, which oversees billions in federal procurements. “It was a huge responsibility,” she said. She took an unusual route to this senior-most management level. “I won the position competitively over many other candidates. I never took a civil service test. It was the first time it had ever been done in the agency.” She paid a price for being viewed as an interloper, “I really thought that if you do a job well, you’ll be admired. But you’re not. It’s just the opposite. It’s almost as if they’re waiting for you to falter. I think a part of it has to do with race and gender. It’s the white male patriarchal thing. Even now, I can be sitting in a board room and I’ll say something everybody agrees with, but until it comes out of the mouth of a white male, no attention is paid to it. It’s also a function of being an outsider, and that’s been the story of my post-education career. It doesn’t matter what you bring to the table. If you’re from the outside and if you rise quickly through the ranks, you’re the target of viciousness.”
Later, she fought against such attitudes as head of the SBA’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Civil Rights Compliance. Creighton’s been a different story. “To their credit, Dr. Dan Wilson (former School of Medicine dean) and Father John Schlegel (CU president) saw the strength of my being an outside. I’ve gained so much here. I’ve made so many friends. And I think I’ve brought about needed change.” Now, as she readies to relocate again, she wants to indulge her artistic side. “I want to do a little more now that satisfies my soul. I don’t think I’ve used the talent enough God gave me.” In Omaha, she’s shown glimpses of that talent. Her contralto, mezzo soprano voice graces St. Cecilia’s masses, where she sings an occasional spiritual, and Creighton functions. She was Mama in The Beasley Theater’s staging of A Raisin in the Sun, a part she played in college.
“She’s an incredible talent,” said theater namesake, John Beasley. “She’s done an amazing job for us. She’s a woman full of knowledge. She’s even kept me in check at times. ‘Now, John…’ she’ll say. “That’s why I have respect for her. And she has a tremendous heart. She’s very thoughtful of others. I think she’s just a treasure. We’ll miss her, but she’s assured us she will come back to work at the theater.”
Until then, look out, Phoenix. A whirlwind named Erline is coming your way.
Al Goodwin: Community Development Catalyst
North Omaha economic development catalyst Al Goodwin grew up in a near northside teeming with commerce. This self-described “product of the area” is proud of his roots. In the 1950s, it was a tight, self-sufficient, well-maintained district where residents could get any good or service imaginable from the rows of businesses operating up and down North 24th Street. Day and night, the streets flowed with a tide of folks shopping, running errands, taking in movies, dining out, catching live music acts, feeding their soul, hailing a cab or jumping a streetcar.
Of course, this enclave was enforced by defacto segregation that told blacks to “stay in their place.” In this apartheid system, blacks did for themselves because they had to and, in the process, created a thriving, cohesive environment built on strong families and institutions,. By the time Goodwin graduated from Omaha University in the late-’60s, the community was hemorrhaging from riots that destroyed properties and scared off many merchants and residents. By the ’70s, the once bustling North 24th strip was a tattered eyesore of boarded-up, abandoned buildings and weed-choked vacant lots. Then, like a stake in the heart, the North Freeway’s construction severed the community — uprooting hundreds of families and razing many fine homes. Finally, in the face of attitudes and practices that denied blacks fair housing, good jobs and equal rights, young and middle-aged blacks left Omaha in droves to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.
Ever since the riots and the later youth gang epidemic that surfaced in the ‘80s, the area’s real and perceived crime problems have cast a shadow of fear and doubt over the community that’s kept both potential business investors and home owners away. Today, the near northside lacks many basic goods and services and its old housing stock and sewer system is in need of repair. Recently, however, signs of a turnaround have been cropping up in a series of housing, commercial and public developments. Al Goodwin is behind some of these and plans to be part of more.
He’s remained through it all, devoting his entire professional life to reviving the community he regards as home. As president of the Omaha Economic Development Corporation (OEDC), which he’s headed since founding the non-profit 401C3 in 1977, he leads Omaha’s oldest and perhaps largest entity dedicated to inner city revitalization. His work has won him respect as a key architect for change.
“I’ve always had a deep interest in and genuine love for my community,” he said. “You have to enjoy what you do for a living, and I thoroughly enjoy having a vision to make things better and pulling together the resources to do what needs to be done and which others are not willing to step up and do.”
Unlike organizations that mainly give lip service to affecting positive change, Goodwin can point to brick and mortar evidence of progress in the various multi-family housing, commercial and renovation projects his company’s engineered. OEDC’s renovation of the historic Jewell Building, home of the Dreamland Ballroom, preserved a piece of North 24th Street’s rich legacy. It’s where OEDC offices at. The largest of its projects, Kellom Heights, is a seven-phased, mixed-use residential and commercial development completed during the 1990s. Bounded by Cuming on the north, Hamilton on the south, 24th Street on the east and the North Freeway on the west, the 40-acre project features 378 living units and a retail/office strip center. Associated businesses, notably a State Farm service center, have been drawn to the area by the renewed economic activity there.
Today, Kellom Heights is a bright flower blooming in a once depressed area. Despite it and other hopeful signs like it, the near northside is still dismissed by many outsiders as a ghetto. Few investors — then or now — have the vision to see beyond the blight. Yet, Goodwin’s somehow succeeded in selling enough people on the dream that OEDC has pumped $40 million of reinvestment into the area, not to mention the many homes, businesses, services and jobs generated. He said this success stems from its strong board, strategic planning and rigorous standards.
Goodwin, a math and economics major in college, can crunch the numbers with the best in making the case for north Omaha investment. He can dangle tax credits in front of investors. He can appeal to people’s social conscience.
“When we first started, there were many professionals that advised us not to do redevelopment in the area,” he said. “‘How are you going to attract people into the area?’ they asked. But in spite of those comments we put together a public-private community-based partnership that raised and leveraged more than $19 million to complete the (Kellom) development over a 10-year period.”
“Above industry” occupancy rates in Kellom’s living-retail-office spaces have more than justified the investments made in the project. “That’s certainly an example of what can be done,” he said. Another example is the now under construction Long School Marketplace that’s building a new 63,500 square-foot commercial center at 24th and Hamilton. Future plans envision going “further north” with commercial-residential efforts designed to “bring the population back into the area” as well as provide “assistance to residents who want to improve their own property.”
He said the monies invested in such projects come back in the form of an increased tax and spending base. “We take unused properties that were off the tax rolls and make them into revenue generating properties. It makes economic sense.” Besides, he said “there are unique business opportunities in north Omaha’s underserved market. In a four or five square mile area, there’s only one grocery store and no dry cleaning establishment. Basic, fundamental kinds of services are absent,” he said. Few are willing to take the plunge, however, due to the area’s bad rap. Despite perceptions to the contrary, he said North O boasts a strong work force, plentiful disposable income, stable institutions and safe neighborhoods. “One of the things we want to do is change the perception by making investments here and by attracting national and regional retailers into the area,” he said.
He feels the only way to rebuild the inner city is with investment and the only way to achieve long-term growth is if the area gains economic parity with the rest of Omaha. More homes, businesses and amenities will create more commerce. In addition to the new market potential the area holds, he said it’s well-positioned by its close proximity to the airport, freeway, convention center-arena, riverfront and Creighton University. With Creighton and the riverfront booming, Goodwin wants north Omaha to share in the growth and not be isolated from it.
“Any development taking place near there should and must include north Omaha. We can’t have a thriving area adjacent to a declining one. It certainly is to the advantage of those entities that have made investments nearby to see north Omaha revitalized, not deteriorated. And we want to be part of the planning and implementation process — not left out or behind. All the development taking place ought to be seamless. There should be connectivity. That way you get a bigger multiplier effect for all. As they say, all ships rise together. Omaha is small enough and our problems manageable enough that we can do this very successfully and without it taking masses amounts of money to make any significant change. And while I’ve seen some progress, there’s much more that needs to be done.”
Goodwin, a player in the emerging riverfront scene and Creighton expansion, said, “I think we’ve got to be careful that, unintentionally or otherwise, artificial barriers are not put in place that would turn their back on north Omaha.” He feels people of color should no longer have to settle for leftovers when it comes to opportunity. He hopes one day the words of Martin Luther King are fully realized and all people can “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” His beliefs are a product of his formative years. Of the Civil Rights Movement and parents who stressed he and his siblings make a difference in the struggle for equal rights. “If ever you want to be remembered for anything, you should be remembered for making a difference. If I can look back at my life and career and say that I’ve made a positive difference, then I think I’ve accomplished a lot,” he said.
District 2 Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown said Goodwin already has. “He’s left his mark — no doubt. He’s improved areas the private sector would not touch. And hopefully that drive and energy will stick around. My only worry is that when Al Goodwin retires, who’s out there to replace him?” Goodwin is hopeful. “There are people with dreams and vision that are making things happen to capitalize on the area’s rich heritage of jazz and sports,” he said, referring to recent streetscape improvements along North 24th, the completed jazz park, the soon-to-open Love Cultural Arts and Jazz Center and reports of a new sports museum. “This can serve as a linchpin to attact people back into the neighborhood.”
Dan Goodwin: A Strong Man True to His Beliefs
©by Leo Adam Biga
Dan Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop, a classic six-chair operation at 3116 No. 24th Street, is where it all comes down. Old-school owner Dan Goodwin has been cutting heads there for half-a-century. He’s been listening to the pulse of his people all that time, using the airy environs as a lively forum for free expression.
Like any barbershop, his place is where customers come to relax, get a cut or shave and say what’s on their mind. Goodwin likes good conversation. He invites an open exchange of ideas. He isn’t afraid of folks voicing strong viewpoints.
In the 1960s he took on a brash young man by the name of Ernie Chambers as a barber. Soon, the Spencer Street became a forum for Chambers and his advocacy of black concerns and criticism of white racism. Anyone wanting to know the current black thought came to hear Ernie or others sound off. Along with the Fair Deal Cafe and a few other north side spots, it’s where young blacks met to air grievances, address problems, float ideas and formulate strategies and tactics in the civil rights struggle and black power movement.
“A lot of people came down to this barbershop to hear him speak to the problems. To be honest, a lot of people feared him because he spoke out so strong. He’s tough. Even now, he asks no quarters and he gives no quarters. He says what he wants to say and he’ll say it the way he wants to say it,” Goodwin said.
“A lot of people came to talk to me to discuss issues and it was a place where others would meet when they wanted to talk and just speak freely about what was on their mind. It was like a gathering place,” Chambers said.
The shop is immortalized thanks to Chambers being filmed there for segments of the 1967 Oscar-nominated documentary A Time for Burning, which focused on white Omaha’s staunch resistance to the kind of black independence he embodied.
He remained a part-time barber there even after becoming a state senator. His barber chair not only served as lectern and pulpit but as an extension of his public office and a conduit for his District 11 constituents. This was all made possible by Goodwin welcoming a vital ideological discourse and debate in his shop.
“Definitely,” Chambers said.
As outspoken as Goodwin is himself, he said he couldn’t very well deny the floor to someone else who believes in the credo — “I have to tell it like it is.”
Chambers found in Goodwin a kindred spirit. “I liked the kind of person he was. We got along very well. He’s true to his beliefs. He rented me a chair and I stayed there for years and years.” In him, Goodwin found “a young man who could articulate like nobody I’ve ever known. He always had answers. He did his homework. He knew what he was doing and saying. People were really impressed with him. And we communicated real good. We were really seeing things so much alike.” Not that they didn’t disagree. “Oh, we used to argue nose to nose.”
Even though Chambers long ago left his barber chair to focus full-time on his duties in the Nebraska Legislature, the two men remain close. “We talk all the time,” Goodwin said. “He’s a great influence. I’m just impressed with his brilliance. So, it’s friendship and mutual respect.”
He loathes the possibility of Chambers being forced out of office by term limits. “It’ll be a big void. Nobody’s more committed. His whole life is what he does in the legislature. I mean, everyday he’s working on something involving the people.”
Goodwin isn’t loud or rash when offering his own considered opinions. He listens intently to what others say. But, make no mistake, he’s The Man in the shop. He commands respect by virtue of the dues he’s paid as a small businessman, community activist, role model and mentor.
In the ‘60s he hit the streets protesting injustice as a member of the 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties). Unlike other organizations here that were reluctant “to confront” the system, the 4CL “believed in going out and demonstrating. It was an action group,” he said. “We integrated different places and we petitioned for jobs and open housing. We marched on city hall. We did things like this that brought about some changes. We were considered troublemakers and that’s what it takes to get the changes.”
Now in his sixth decade in business at essentially the same location (his shop was originally housed in a building directly north of his present site), Goodwin has seen it all along North 24th Street. He’s been there for the high times and the low times. For the promenade of people and cars that once made this strip the hub and spot to see and be seen. For the riots that torched or trashed much of the business district. For the inevitable decline that brought a great community down and emptied out most of the buildings (his is the only one on the west side of his block). And for the revival now underway in north Omaha.
He’s never left the area, he said, “because this is where I feel comfortable.”
Chambers admires Goodwin and applauds him for remaining in the heart of the community, where he and his shop provide stability and continuity. “And especially when he continues to grow personally and intellectually. It lets people know that not everybody who could go someplace else is going to do that. This is home and this is where we stay. People do need to see that, especially the young ones. When they can see people (like Goodwin) who are in a position where they don’t have to hang around, but they choose to, that lets them know there’s something of value in our community and a benefit to staying here.”
One of 14 children, Goodwin’s bedrock values come from his late parents, Joseph and Martha. As their bible-inspired names suggest, he said, “they were “strong believers. They were the best examples of living right I ever saw in my life. If we were seeing more of that today, we wouldn’t have the kind of problems we have.”
As he looks around at the way society’s changed with its relaxation of morals and standards in things like language, clothes, drugs, music, sex and violence, he said: “I feel a lot of frustration. There used to be rules. Nobody was perfect, but at least we knew right from wrong. There were certain lines you wouldn’t cross. Now, there’s no line. The message now is, Whatever you want to do, it’s OK. It’s out there. It’s a whole different culture, the drug culture. I don’t blame kids. I blame my generation. We allowed the rule book to get thrown out. And I’m not a fool or anything. I’m not even into religion. I’m into right. I’ll believe in right till I die.”
It hurts him to see his community still embroiled in the quest for equality.
“I think this community like all communities in the inner city in America has big problems and the problems are even bigger now than they have been. Schools are in trouble. The job situation is bad. Drugs. There are so many things plaguing us now. It’s really interfered with what we called The Struggle. A lot of our young people are not even enlightened about the things we did struggle to try to change. I don’t feel real good about it sometimes, but you can’t put up your hands. You just do what you can and keep pushing.”
His own social-political consciousness was formed, in part, by his experiences in the U.S. Navy. He left Tech High at age 17 to enlist. “I was like a kid on an adventure. I never considered making it a career,” he said. “It was a good experience. But I went through a lot in the military. I went through boot camp with only one other black in my company. In the tent I was in in the Philippines, I was the only black. I’d hear things. I didn’t start nothin’, but I wouldn’t take nothin’. Every time I had a fight, they thought they could just say anything — the ‘n’ word, you name it — and I didn’t take it. But, you know what, it wasn’t that I was tough. I was dealing with cowards and they weren’t looking for much of a reaction. I must admit sometimes after I finished off one of those people, the other Caucasians would say, ‘Man, he had it coming.’”
Once back home he confronted racism all over again. “Racism’s everywhere,” he said. But as a service veteran he was outraged when an Omaha Public Schools official discouraged him from completing his high school education. And he was angry at the way his people were denied opportunities, mistreated in public places and brutalized by police. His activism began as soon as he graduated barber school and opened his own shop. Being his own boss and his own man is everything to him.
“See, I could work for anybody, but I have to be treated like everybody else. If you’re going to make it a double standard, I couldn’t take it.”
Always one to improve himself, Goodwin began weight training at 40, jogging in his 50s and competitive power lifting at 68. A world-class competitor in the masters division, the ripped 73-year-old holds many state and national records. He’s traveled as far away as India and South Africa to compete. “I’m having a lot of fun. I’m really enjoying it.” The same with barbering. “I don’t even consider retiring. I’m doing what I like. I’m doing what takes care of me. It’s mine.”
- The Great Migration Comes Home: Deep South Exiles Living in Omaha Participated in the Movement Author Isabel Wilkerson Writes About in Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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