Omaha has lost one of its most respected and exibited artists, Wanda Ewing. As a memoriam to her, I am posting for the first on this blog a story I did about an exhibition of hers some years ago. When the assignment came I already knew her work and like most folks who experienced it I was quite impressed. I very much wanted to do a full-blown profile of her but I only got the go-ahead to focus on the exhibit. She was very gracious with her time in helping me understand where she was coming from in her work. Her untimely death has taken most of us, even though who knew her far better than me, by complete surprise. Facebook posts about her are filled with shock and admiration.
You can appreciate her work at http://www.wandaewing.com. The Omaha World-Herald should have a notice in the next day or so.
Wanda Ewing Exhibit: Bougie is as Bougie Does
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Wanda Ewing is at it again. The Omaha printmaker known for her provocative spin on African-American images has created a sardonic collection of reductive linocuts and acrylic paintings that considers aspects of beauty, race and social status. The work has been organized in the solo exhibition, Bougie, at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, where it continues through December 2.
The title comes from a slang term, derived from the French word bourgeois, used in the black community as a put down for anyone acting “uppity,” said Ewing, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It speaks to the level of acceptance due to your social and economic background, your physical appearance, all of it.”
She explores bougie through the template of popular magazine culture and its vacuous lifestyle advice. The heart of the show is 12 faux glossy covers, each a reductive linocut with vinyl lettering on acetate, depicting a slick monthly women’s mag of her imagination called Bougie. The garish covers are inspired by Essence and other Cosmo knockoffs whose content places style over substance.
Among the “bougie markers,” as Ewing calls them, are black cover girls with straight or long hair and “story tags” that embody those things compelling to bougie women — shopping, how to lose weight, money and getting a man. Some of the teasers get right to the point: “Not Hood enough? 25 ways to get ghetto fabulous.” Another reads, “It’s what’s on the outside that counts.” Among the many double entendres are, “Tom Tom Club, back on the scene” and “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”
“I wanted to achieve something that was funny to read, but had some grit to it,” she said.
Each “issue” is adorned by a head and shoulders illustration of a black glamazoid female, the features made just monstrous enough that it’s hard to recognize the real-life celebs Ewing based them on. One vixen is based on home girl Gabrielle Union. Other iconic models include Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Tyra Banks, Janet Jackson, Eve, Star Jones and Queen Latifah.
Ewing “distorted” the images, in part, she said, as “I didn’t want them to be necessarily commentary on the celebrity, because it’s not about that,”
These cover girls represent impossible beauty standards and thus, in Ewing’s hands, become primping, leering creatures for the fashionista industry. Like the figures in her popular Pinup suite, she said, bougie women “are not shrinking violets.”
Contrasted with the plastic mag images are big, bold, beautiful head portraits of more realistically rendered black women and their different hair styles — bald, straight, permed, afroed, cornrowed — executed in intense acrylic and latex on canvas. These are celebratory tributes of black womanhood. The figures-colors jump out in the manner of comic book or billboard art. “I’m still holding onto being influenced by Pop Art,” Ewing said. “I love color. I’m not afraid of color.” The Hair Dresser Dummy works, as she calls them, are a reaction to the stamped-out glam look of the old Barbie Dress Doll series. Ewing’s “dolls” embody the inner and outer beauty of black women, distinct features and all. We’re talking serious soul, here.
There are also fetching portraits of women that play with the images of Aunt Jemima and Mammy and that refer to German half-doll figures Ewing ran across. Another painting, Cornucopia, is of a reposed woman’s opened legs amid a cascade of flowers — an ode to the source of life that a woman’s loins represent.
All these variations on the female form also comment on how “the art world likes to celebrate women,” she said, “especially if they’re naked and in pieces.”
Bougie examines women as objects and the whole “black is-black ain’t” debate that Ewing’s work often engages. Glam mags help inform the discussion. Ewing said black models were once shades darker and displayed kinkier hair than today, when they have a decidedly more European appearance. “I grew up looking at these images and felt bad because as hard as I tried, I couldn’t achieve what was being shown,” she said. At least before, she said, publications offered “a variety of the ways black women looked. Now, these magazines idealize the same type of woman with the same kind of features. I find that interesting and damaging on so many levels.”
Like the figures in her Pinup series, Bougie’s women are too self-possessed or confident to care what anyone thinks of them.
Leave it to a master satirist, Omaha author Timothy Schaffert, to put Ewing’s new work in relief. In an essay accompanying the show, he comments:
“The women…demonstrate a giddy indifference to their objectification, defying any interpretations other than the ones they choose to convey. See what you want to see, the women seem to be saying. You can’t change who I am, they taunt. Ewing portrays women in the act of posing, women possibly conscious of their degradation yet nonetheless seducing us with their self confidence. For Ewing’s women, the beauty myth becomes just another beauty mark…
“And yet the politics of fashion are what give Ewing’s work its sinister and satirical bent. Just beyond the coy winks and the toothpaste-peddling smiles and curve-hugging skirts of these fine black women is the sense that the images aren’t just about them” but about “the various co-conspirators in the invention of glamour. In Ewing’s work, black women assert themselves into the commercial, white-centric iconography of prettiness, and the result is at times funny, at times sad, at times grotesque, but often charming. Her women rise above the didactic, each one becoming a character in her own right, in full control of her lovely image.”
In the final analysis, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
“Although this work is coming from an artist who is black, it is not limited to just the black community,” Ewing said. “Ultimately, the work is about beauty. That’s a conversation everyone can contribute to.”
A conversation is exactly what her work will provoke.
The Sheldon Gallery is located at 12th & R Streets. Admission is free. For gallery hours, call 402.472.2461 or visit www.sheldonartgallery.org.
- Bougie… Insult or Badge of Honour? (crazyramblingsofaconversatingadult.wordpress.com)
- Black women need more self esteem. (blacksforabetterlife.wordpress.com)
There can’t be too many people who’ve done what Dan Goodwin and Robert Armstrong of Omaha have done. Both men we’re at the historic 1963 March on Washington that became famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1995 Goodwin went to D.C,.for the Million Man March. In 2009 Armstrong journeyed to the nation’s capital for Barack Obama’s first presidential inaugration. That’s a lot of history between these two African American gentlemen. Those weren’t their only brushes with history either. They recently spoke with me about their memories from the ’63 March on Washington for the following story to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com). My path has interesected with them before. You’ll find on this blog a cover story I did about Goodwin and his Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop that I refer to in the story. That earlier piece is called “We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds Too.” Also available on the blog are two cover stories I did about the noted race documentary A Time for Burning, which as I allude to in the story shot some pivotal scenes at the shop. And I was embedded with a group of Nebraskans, among them Armstrong, who bused to the 2009 O’Bama inauguration. That story can be found under the heading, “Freedom Riders: A Get on the Bus Inauguration Diary.”
Omahans Recall Historic 1963 March on Washington
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omahans Robert Armstrong and Dan Goodwin were among the estimated quarter of a million people gathered 50 years ago on the National Mall for the historic event. As young black men active in the civil rights movement they went to show solidarity for the cause of equality. Each was a military veteran and family man. Each had felt the sting of racism and gotten busy confronting it.
Armstrong had been a member of the NAACP Youth Council in his native St. Joseph, Mo., where he participated in demonstrations. He led the integration of a movie theater in his hometown. By 1963 Omaha native Goodwin already made his Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop a haven for political discourse. It’s where Ernie Chambers held court en route to winning election to the Nebraska Legislature. Goodwin was involved in the social action group 4CL and its efforts to combat discrimination. Goodiwin helped organize a local speaking appearance by Omaha native Malcolm X the next year and his shop played a prominent role in the 1968 race documentary A Time for Burning.
At the time of the march Armstrong was teaching high school with his wife Edwardene in east Texas. The couple moved to Omaha a year later. She embarked on a teaching career with the Omaha Public Schools, whose quota of black male teachers denied him getting on there. He broke barriers as the first black professional to work at Mutual of Omaha’s home office and went on to a city government career, eventually heading the Omaha Housing Authority.
He attended the 1963 march to honor his late father, an AFL-CIO field representative. The union co-organized the march. In 1960 the family home hosted AFL-CIO titan Walter Reuther, other labor leaders and King. Mere months before the ’63 march Armstrong’s father, who was slated to attend, was killed in an automobile accident and his son felt compelled to go in his place.
Goodwin says he attended the march because “I felt I needed to be involved…” He shared the expectations of Armstrong and others that it would foster change. “We hoped it would bring people together. Of course we needed more than a feel good moment.”
Despite oppressive heat that summer day the crowds were larger than anticipated and none of the predicted disturbances occurred. Neither Armstrong nor Goodwin had ever seen that many folks assembled at one time. They couldn’t get anywhere close to the Lincoln Memorial, where the presenters were, and the sound from the speakers wasn’t always clear but both men were struck by the prevailing calm mood.
“The atmosphere was tremendous, it was awesome,” recalls Goodwin. “In a word what I saw was unity. People felt for the day or for that period of time empowered. It made you feel like some things were really going to change.”
Armstrong remembers “the sense of purpose of people knowing why they were there – the fight for freedom, integration,” adding, “We had no idea of the magnitude of the people that were going to be there. That was overwhelming, seeing all the people from so many different places.”
Before King came on civil rights stalwarts Reuther, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins spoke. Artists Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Anderson performed. As the program drew on the crowd grew a bit restless, anxious to get out of the sun. That changed when King launched into what became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.
“About three minutes into it you realized this is a different kind of speech,” says Armstrong. “You could hear the attention go back to the podium. When he got to the point about the blank check (“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”) people really got into listening to what he was saying. From that point all attention was on him.
“When people talk about Dr. King’s speech they concentrate on the ‘I Have a Dream’ portion because that’s what people wanted to hear. But they seem to have forgotten he also talked about accountability and responsibility…We saw his speech as a call to action.”
It was the culmination of a black pride-filled gathering.
“I felt like it was our day,” says Goodwin. “I just felt like we really had something going on.”
Armstrong says, “You felt good about the day, the day had gone well. We’d heard a great speech and we hoped the nation would rally to offer more freedom, jobs, integration.” Back home, pragmatic reality set in that “the discrimination you faced yesterday” was still there.
“People went back and fought for the things they talked about that day. It still took a lot of work by a lot of people in different locations in different ways to make these things happen.”
Goodwin saw the march as a positive thing that ushered in major civil rights protections but he says the dream MLK and others envisioned is far from being fulfilled.
“I feel a strong sense of disappointment about the way things are today. Racism is hot and heavy in this country.”
Both Goodwin and Armstrong returned to the site of the ’63 march for more recent history-making occasions, In 1995 Goodwin bused into D.C. for the Million Man March and in 2009 Armstrong and his wife joined other area residents on a bus trip to the Obama inauguration.
Armstrong says Obama’s swearing in as the nation’s first black president “was a much happier occasion than the March on Washington,” adding, “The inauguration was a celebration – the march was a plea for justice.” Goodwin feels Obama’s presidency has been rendered more symbolic than anything by partisan politics.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.
- Obama to speak on 50th anniversary of March on Washington (upi.com)
- March on Washington leader John Lewis: ‘This is not a post-racial society’ (theguardian.com)
- 50th anniversary of King speech to be marked (newsday.com)
- Obama says income inequality could worsen racial tensions (thegrio.com)
Pamela Jo Berry is a photographer who doesn’t like her picture taken. She’s very shy and she’s very particular about her image. Thus you won’t see a picture of her here. But what you will see is her heart. The mixed media artist displays her big, warm heart in everything she does, including the North Omaha Summer Arts festival she just dreamed up herself and has staged three consecutive years now out of her own pocket and with in-kind donations from friends, fellow artists, and supporters. The grassroots event is very much an expression of her passion for art in all its many forms, her deep spirituality, and her abiding love for her North Omaha community. As always, this year’s featival culminates in an Arts Crawl up and down a section of North 30th Street that not coincidentally is also her neighborhood. The crawl runs from 6 to 9 p.m. and Berry’s organized an eclectic roster of artists to show their work. Berry’s done something here that should be a lesson to us all. She saw a need for more public art in her community and instead of bemoaning its absence she went about creating a festival that brings art there.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Pamela Jo Berry saw a need for more art offerings in the section of northeast Omaha where she resides and decided to do something about it.
With the help of friends and venues the photographer and mixed media artist created North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) in 2011 to serve the area north of Ames Ave. along the 30th Street corridor, The free public festival is a homespun hodgepodge of writing and quilting classes, a gospel concert and an arts crawl. She says all of it’s “open to anyone interested in participating.”
“It actually came about as wanting to put a taste of art in the area,” she says.
This year’s festival has already seen: a Creative Writing Journey for Women workshop series taught by best-selling romance novelist Kim Whiteside (who publishes under Kim Louise) of Omaha; and a Free Motion Quilting course taught by former Union for Contemporary Art resident Shea Wilkinson.
A free home-cooked dinner was served before each class.
The June 22 gospel concert at Miller Park featured the Cadence Ensemble, Highly Favored and Eric and Doriette Jordan.
That leaves the August 9 Arts Crawl, from 6 to 9 p.m., featuring artists, art talks and homemade food and refreshments at the following sites:
Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd. Work and art talk by sculptress Pamela Conyers-Hinson
Blessed Sacrament Church, 6316 North 30th St.
Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th St.
Jehovah Shammah Church International, 3020 Huntington Ave.
Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Ave.
Solomon Girls Center/Heartland Family Service, 6720 North 30th St.
Other artists featured in the Arts Crawl include: Whiteside, Wilkerson, Peggy Jones, Linda Garcia, Reginald LeFlore III and Gerard Pefung.
Berry’s also showing her own work.
It’s only natural for Berry to utilize churches because she’s a deeply spiritual woman who sees the festival, like her own artwork, as a faith-led mission.
“It’s just an extension of who I am as a follower of Christ.”
The normally shy Berry, whose extrovert daughter is local actress and playwright Beaufield Berry puts herself out there with NOSA because she feels called to it
“When you see something as a ministry you kind of go with it,” she says. “This gives me a chance to share. North Omaha Summer Arts is quite important to me.”
She sees NOSA as a much needed asset for an underserved community challenged by poverty, crime, scarce amenities and a perception problem.
“In the area of North Omaha where we live we could find no art,” she says. “We knew it was there, we just had to uncover it. We knew art would bring hope and peace and most of all community to our neighborhood. We’ve seen it grow, we’ve noticed the interest and the benefits…and we want it to continue to flourish.”
Nebraska Arts Council Heritage Arts Manager Deborah Bunting says NOSA is part of the new energy and sense of community being built in North O.
Berry, who works with Omaha Community Playhouse education director Denise Chapman in organizing the fest, says while the number of people who engage with NOSA is still small it positions North O as a place of beauty, creativity and potential.
“The impact of art in places deemed ‘artless’, the impact of music to create growth and connectedness, the impact of strangers coming together for a common goal of creativity, creating opportunity, is magical. We want the community of North Omaha, particularly the youth, to open themselves up to creativity, of what is possible and to be a part of.”
Berry, who regularly attends Trinity Lutheran, says her pastors, Revs. John and Liz Backus, “have been very supportive” as have pastors at other churches she’s enlisted.
John Backus admires Berry’s efforts.
“Her open spirit is a challenge to everyone to make things better. She successfully combines her passion for her art with her passion for the world around her. Her contribution has been of unimaginable value in bringing one more hope to the North Omaha area, cultural opportunities, and the chance to meet neighbors in an atmosphere of elevation and inspiration.”
Berry says her decision to create NOSA was much like her decision 20-plus years ago as a young single mother to make art her life.
“I just made a choice one day to go ahead and try it and do it.”
She succeeded too with commissions, exhibitions, Nebraska Arts Council residencies and a Mid-America Arts Alllance fellowship. Just as her art career got in full swing a series of challenges, including a chronic illness, interrupted her plans. It’s taken time for her to learn to budget her energy.
“What you do is end up trying to work your life around it and try to make it work around your life, but you’ve got to take your time with it, so you step back and you slowly come back into it. It’s almost like I’m starting over again with creating.”
She’s producing and exhibiting again. She currently has a show of mixed media work in the Mulitcultural Affairs office at Creighton University’s Harper Building.
“Art opportunities keep popping up. I guess this is my time to be an artist again. I’m making things from found objects. In my last show I had older images shown along with the new images I’ve made. All of it’s an expression of the spiritual side of my life.”
She says a turning point in her artistic life came with photographing the homeless, “It helped me to understand that in order to tell a true story the subject needs to be a partner and shown the same respect I would want.”
Where she used to be consumed trying to make things perfect, she says she’s now fine keeping imperfections in her work. Her mixed media piece “Change” includes a torn photograph she views as a metaphor for the permutations life holds.
“Going through changes you realize your flaws,” she says. “I’m not perfect, nobody is. So now when I make the artwork I am not so set on making it perfect. I make it from the heart. It’s very liberating.”
That same easy attitude infuses NOSA. Berry appreciates that after a long lull the 24th and Lake Street hub is alive with arts activities again thanks to Loves Jazz and Arts Center, Carver Bank, the Union for Contemporary Art and the Great Plains Black History Museum. NOSA fills a gap further north and offers programs the others don’t. She likes that NOSA has a quirky, do-its-own-thing vibe.
“You can do that when you’re not paying attention to what everyone else is saying. You’re free to do whatever you want to.”
In putting NOSA together Berry calls on fellow African American female creatives.
“There are artists I admire and am friends with. I’m not walking this myself believe me.”
The artists feel a kinship with Berry, whose big heart and bright spirit they respond to. Peggy Jones says of Berry, “She is committed, passionate and has great love for both the arts and her community. Pam is a tireless advocate for helping people tell their own stories and create art because she is a true believer in the way the arts can be used for expression as well as heal and connect disparate groups.”
Berry likes that she and her “sisters” produce a festival that not only gets people to experience different forms of art but that gives them a chance to create art and to get it seen. Students in the creative writing class pen pieces published in an anthology and students in the quilting class get their work shown in the Arts Crawl.
For Berry, it’s all about giving North O its due.
“I love my community.”
For details visit http://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.
- Cherish the Day: North Omaha (yperspective.wordpress.com)
- Kelly: Homecoming event a parade down memory lane (omaha.com)
- North Omaha Summer Arts Presents: Freelance Writing Academy Seminars with Leo Adam Biga (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
The Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha is always looking for new ways to connect with audiences and in the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I share the latest attempt to bring theater to where people live. The conference’s PlayFest is presenting Neighborhood Tapestries in two well-defined inner city communities that don’t always have the kind of access to theater that other communities do. The idea of these tapestries is for people of these communities to share various aspects of their neighborhood’s art, music, culture, and history.
Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The play’s still the thing with the Great Plains Theatre Conference but organizers are making a concerted effort to expand theater’s definition in order to connect more people to it.
The May 26-29 PlayFest is the Metropolitan Community College conference’s answer to making theater more accessible. That means staging works at nontraditional sites, including one along the riverfront, and, new this year, holding Neighborhood Tapestries in the inner city.
The inaugural tapestries, a cross-between a chautauqua, a street arts event, a storytelling festival, a salon and a variety show, will happen outdoor on separate dates in North and South Omaha. Each neighborhood’s art, culture and history will be celebrated through a loose program of music, poetry, stories, dance and other creative expressions. The performers will include professionals and amateurs.
Union for Contemporary Art
Chapman, an actress and stage director, is the Omaha Community Playhouse education director and a Metropolitan Community College theater instructor. She’s worked with a team to produce the event.
“We’re creating a thread,” she says. “We are thinking of our show as a block. So who are these people on the block? Borrowing from Sesame Street. who are the people in your neighborhood? We want to have this musical and movement throughline with these transitional words and the sharing of these stories as people get up and talk about community and food, growing up on the North Side, memories of their mothers and just all these different people you might encounter on a street in North Omaha.
“That thread allows us to plug in people as we get them, as they see fit. Who knows what could happen with the evening. We’ve got that flexibility. It’s not a rigid the-curtain-opens and this-series-of-events needs to happen for the show to make sense and come to some conclusion. Instead it’s this nice woven piece that says here are some things that happened, here are some reflections, here is some music , here’s a body in space moving. Hopefully at the end you’re like, Oh, let’s get around this circle and have a conversation.”
She says GPTC producing artistic director Kevin Lawler gave her a “very open” script to take the event wherever she wanted.
“I’m excited about this project because it allows us to explore the concept that we’re all performers with this urge to tell a story or to share this happening or to recount this thing that happened to us. But where’s the platform for that? When do we get together and do it? What we’re doing is throwing some artists and musicians and actors in the mix. It’s engaging us as theater practitioners to not be so static in our art form and it engages the community to understand that theater isn’t this other thing that happens on the other side of the city.”
Featured storytellers include Nancy Williams, Felicia Webster, Peggy Jones and Dominque Morgan, all of whom will riff and reflect on indelible characters and places from North O’s past and present.
Jazz-blues guitarist George Walker will lay down some smooth licks.
Member youth from the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club will present an art project they created. Works by Union for Contemporary Art fellows will be displayed.
Chapman sees possibilities for future North O programs like Tapestries that celebrate its essence. She says such programs are invitations for the public to experience art and own it through their own stories.
“Then you start having those conversations and then you realize the world is a lot smaller than you think it is,” she says. “It just starts to close the gap. So yeah I think there’s a real possibility for it to grow and create these little pockets of reminders that we’re all performers and we all need our platforms for creation.”
The May 29 South Omaha tapestry will take a similar approach in fleshing out the character and personalities of that part of town. The site is Omaha South High’s Collins Stadium, 22nd Ave. and M Street. Director Scott Working, the theater program coordinator at MCC, says he’s put together an event with “a little music, a little storytelling, a little poetry to let people know some of the stories and some of the history of the neighborhood.”
He says he got a big assist from Marina Rosado in finding Latino participants. Rosado, a graphic designer, community television host and leader of her own theater troupe, La Puerta, will also emcee the program. She led Working to retired corporate executive David Catalan, now a published poet. Catalan’s slated to read from three poems written as a homage to his parents.
Rosado also referred Working to artist and storyteller Linda Garcia.
“I will be doing a storytelling segment based on my Abuelita (Grandmother) Stories,” says Garcia. “The story I am telling is an actual story of my abuelita, Refugio ‘Cuca’ Hembertt, and my exposure to her insatiable reading habits. That led to my discovery and connection with languages and the power of words.*
Even Louie M’s Burger Lust owner Louie Marcuzzo has been marshaled to tell South O tales.
Also on tap are performances by the South High School Louder Than a Bomb slam poetry team, Ballet Folklorico Xitol, the Dave Salmons polka duo and a youth mariachi band. Working also plans to bring alive an El Museo Latino exhibit of Latinos in Omaha. Individuals will read aloud in English the subects’ bios as a video of the subjects reading their own stories in Spanish plays. He says his inspiration for the evening’s revolving format is the Encyclopedia Shows that local artists and poets put on.
“It’s a combination of like standup and poetry and music and theater,” Working says. “It’s relaxed, it’s fun. Plus, I don’t think I could get David Catalan and Louie Marcuzzo to come to six rehearsals to get it right. I trust them.”
Rosado embraces the format.
“I believe in the power of art. Music, dance, literature, theater and all cultural expressions can change a person’s life. That’s why I am so excited about the event. Scott has a genuine interest in showcasing the best of our community. Tapices is the word in Spanish for tapestries and I can hardly wait to see the unique piece of art that will be made at the end of this month.”
Catalan feels much the same, saying, “Stories told as a performing art leave lasting impressions on audiences and motivate many to learn more about heritage and ancestry.” He applauds Metro for its outreach to inner city Omaha’s “rich cultural history in the transitional ethnic populations.”
Lawler says Tapestries enables the conference “to be more rooted in the community,” particularly underserved communities. “I wanted to go further into involving the community and being something relevant for the community. That’s why I want to generate these stories from the community. It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s working but what are we doing that’s not working very well’ That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theater is just priced out of society’s ability to go. That doesn’t work.”
Just as Chapman feels Tapestries can continue to mine North O’s rich subject matter, Working feels the same about South O. He adds that other neighborhoods, from Benson to Bellevue, could be mined as well.
Both the North O and South O events kick off with food, art displays and music at 6:30 p.m. Storytelling begins at 7:30.
For the complete PlayFest schedule, visit http://www.mccneb,edu/theatreconference.
- Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevin Lawler Guides Ever Evolving Theater Conference to Put More Focus on Fewer Plays and Playwrights and to Connect Deeper with Community (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Artists running with opportunity to go to the next level; Carver Bank resident artists bring new life to area
The following cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a group of artists looking to take things to the next level at the Carver Bank cultural center and residency program in North Omaha has received some nice buzz. The four artists couldn’t be more different from each other. Each is doing his or her own thing and having success with it but they themselves and others feel there’s room for them to grow and to make an even bigger splash. It will be interesting to observe what they do individually and collectively from this point forward.
The inaugural resident artists at the Carver Bank cultural center couldn’t be more unalike in some ways and more congruent in others.
Carver is the new Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and Rebuild Foundation endeavor at 2416 Lake Street that houses a Big Mama‘s Sandwich Shop, a gallery- performance space and artist studios. Artist and urban planner Theaster Gates of Chicago is the facilitator-instigator of the project. Caver is one of several projects he’s done through his Rebuild Foundation that repurposes abandoned structures in inner cities to house art-culture activities that engage with community.
Each Omaha native participant was selected in line with Carver’s mission of providing work spaces and showcase opportunities for underserved artists of color whose creativity deserves wider support and recognition
The artists cut across a wide range of disciplines and starting with the Carver’s March 29 grand opening they’ve been displaying their respective chops in performances, readings, exhibitions.
Program director Jessica Scheuerman says the artists “care deeply about the cultural resurgence of the Near North Side,” adding, “In addition to their individual practices, they have quickly taken to the role of host and are developing public programming that will enrich the space throughout the year and expand the roster of artists presented in the space.”
Shannon Marie is a 20-something hip hop and R&B artist. The single mom works full time to support her dream of making it big out of her hometown.
Dereck Higgins, 58, is a pioneer of the Omaha alternative music scene as a bass player, drummer and arranger. This champion of psychedelia recently left his career as a licensed mental health professional to devote all his energies to his art.
Bart Vargas, the lone visual artist of the group, is a 40-year-old art educator and creator of salvage-based paintings and sculptures.
Portia Vivienne Love, 56, is a sometime singer and full-time poet and writing workshop presenter now also penning murder mystery short stories and novels.
Three of the four have close ties to the symbolically potent 24th and Lake area. Once the commercial-entertainment hub of the local African American community, its live music scene used to draw national artists. Love’s late father, saxophonist Preston Love Sr., cultivated his music passion there as a fan and player. The catty-cornered Loves Jazz & Arts Center is named after him. Higgins’ late father, James “Red” Higgins, was a contemporary of Love’s and also haunted the Deuce Four.
Marie, who’s real name is Ennis, grew up a few blocks from Carver. She’s adamant about developing a national name for her writing and singing.
“I’m definitely confident about it,” says Marie, who’s produced several mix tapes. “It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s where you want to go. I can make it happen.”
If it doesn’t happen here she may leave to try her hand elsewhere, though she admits she needs more polish.
“I feel like I need to be more prepared before I step out with the big dogs.”
She got serious about rapping as a junior at Benson High School. Her early professional forays taught her lessons about not selling out.
“I would contact promoters and they’d just kind of brush me off like, ‘Who is this chick?’ Now when they have something going on I’m one of the first people they contact. I’ve gained their respect. They’ve seen the growth and they know I have people backing me.”
Her YouTube videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. Her Omaha fan following is such she gets recognized most everywhere she goes.
Gone are the days when promoters tried extracting sexual favors from an aspiring newbie. “It’s a male-dominated industry and sometimes guys look at females like a piece of meat. You have to be confident to let people know, Hey, you cant treat me like this. Now they’re like, ‘She’s just about her business. She’s not about sleeping her way to the top.’
“I kind of had to learn the hard way in some cases. I still have to learn a few things.
But it’s a lot better now than me being naive and saying, ‘OK, let’s just do music.’ All that glitters isn’t gold.”
A dispute with a local record label resulted in some of her original music being withheld from her. She’s moved on.
She plans a Carver event featuring herself and other empowered women who’ve overcome obstacles. She’s also planning a listening party for her new work.
“Now I’m here, I’ve got my opportunity, everything is still possible.”
Working alongside fellow residents who are “so different,” she says, “is going to be interesting.” She adds, “We really do vibe together. There’s going to be positive stuff going on. I want to support everybody and I want them to support me, too.”
She feels the love from friends, family and fans. “Everyone is excited for me.” She terms the multicultural turnout for Carver’s grand opening “a beautiful thing” and encourages all of Omaha to support its programs. “It’s for everybody.”
She’s eager to add to the area’s rich music legacy, saying, “Now it’s our time.”
Dereck Higgins is intent on opening the Carver to a broad range of artists and audiences.
“It only makes sense that if Im going to be down here I try to get some of the people that work with me everywhere else to work with me down here,” says Higgins, who jams with Nik Fackler as part of InDreama. Higgins is presenting a Night of Sound Exploration with saxophonist and electronic musician Curt Oren from 7 to 9 p.m. on June 7.
Higgins, who has his own DVH Records label and an extensive vinyl collection, makes trippy music that draws on traditional instruments as well as a panoply of electronic and ambient sounds.
“It’s personal, that’s ultimately what it is,” he says, “and that’s probably why I’m not more commercially along the way because I don’t know what genre to be in and I’m not interested in it and I don’t like it. When people say to me, ‘I don’t know what you are,’ that’s a great compliment and I want to stay there.”
Since walking off his 30-year job at Community Alliance in 2012 he’s made music his number one priority.
“I’ve always been a real artist-musician but a hobbyist. Making the break from the job and now doing this Carver thing is really allowing me to embrace truly, fully the role of artist-musician. I’m very thankful. This is a luxury. I can come down here and I can work, experimenting with music and sound ideas at my makeshift little audio studio. I’m already working on my next album.”
He creates the collage artwork that adorns his album covers.
“I’m broker now than I’ve ever been as an adult but I’m happier,” says Higgins, who along with his fellow artist residents receives a $500 a month stipend.
It’s no coincidence that Bart Vargas, the lone Carver resident artist who’s not African American, though his dreadlocks often prompt people to assume he is, makes art from salvaged materials. Just when it looked like his life was a thrown-away bust, he found salvation.
Growing up in a chaotic home with a mentally ill mother and alcoholic father Vargas sought refuge in art. “I escaped through drawing,” he says. “Drawing was a way to have control over something and make believe and go other places. When I was 16 I was young, angry and confused and this other family saw the situation and offered me a safe place and took me in. So I have my biological family and what I consider my real family – the family I associate with all these years later.”
Vargas, a Nebraska Air National Guard veteran, feels his salvage art parallels the Carver project and its adaptive reuse of the long abandoned Carver Savings & Loan building and plans to revitalize other long vacant North Omaha properties.
“Everything has a potential. The only place trash is made is in our head…when we decide something no longer has value.”
Bemis chief curator Hesse McGraw says the hope is that by nurturing artists Carver “can generate some cultural heat and create a magnetic lure in North Omaha.” Another hope, he adds, is for their work “to have an impact on public perception of the neighborhood. Imagine when the Near North Side is again known as a place that artists live and work, and where we all can be part of that resurgence.”
A self-described “mixed blood” who’s white and Mexican and not sure what else, Vargas used some of his Carver money to take DNA tests to determine his ethnicity.
“I’ve thought about doing this identity painting after finding out what my genetic markers say I am.”
Or he might adapt a painted words series he began s few years ago to express musings about “my American muttness.”
The University of Nebraska at Omaha and Metropolitan Community college art instructor says he’s already made word paintings “specific to this place or neighborhood,” adding, “I want this part of the city to become part of the work I do here. Before I even moved in I painted ‘Carver.’ My goal is to cover the walls in my little corner in Yeses. To have this wall of positivity. I want to start it out with really good energy.”
Portia Love understands why she’s identified with her father, whose band she sang with for several years, but music was his thing, not hers.
“The writing thing is mine,” says Love, who retreated into words and stories as an “introverted” adolescent and began winning recognition for her work at Marian High School.
She went on to work in and teach human services but always wrote on the side. As a veteran artist with Why Arts she conducts writing workshops for people with disabilities. She also holds workshops through the Bemis.
She’s self-published two books of poems, Eclipses of the Sun and Redefinition. She creates poems by commission for clients, placing her original works in designer boxes, frames and photo albums.
WriteLife is publishing her debut novel, The Men’s Club, as well as a book of short stories, High Heel Shoes, Bright Red Lipstick and Strange Love.
Carver appeals to her for practical reasons.
“I went after it for the working space and the recognition. I’m real if nothing else. I tear my house up doing this stuff. Now I have a studio to work out of. This is my time for me and my writing. This is an opportunity that I hope is going to put me to another level. i hate anybody trying to put limitations on me and what I do.”
Moving artists along is part of the idea.
“We hope this opportunity provides a crucial jump for the residents and that they are able to move their artistic practices to new levels,” says McGraw.
Love says Carver’s location is “significant,” adding, “The whole thing is significant. I love that Hesse (McGraw) said the Bemis cannot be this white organization that ignores the fact there are people of color in this city with talent. And yes this is the perfect place for it, 24th and Lake. I think about my dad and how much he would have loved coming through here wearing the hell out of everybody. I think he would be so overjoyed to see me excelling at something that was not his.”
Love’s hosting a poetry reading from 3 to 6 p.m. on May 25. She’s invited her fellow resident artists to add their distinct flavors.
Carver events are free and open to the public.
For Carver updates visit carverbank(at)bemiscenter.org.
- Omaha Playwright Beaufield Berry Comes into Her Own: Her Original Comedy ‘Psycho Ex Girlfriend’ Now Playing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Laura Love: Omaha’s High Yaller Gal Comes Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Laura Love assumes as many different looks as she does musical styles. She’s a mixed blood in that sense. None of it with her seems false or forced, either. She’s a genuine seeker who’s spent the better part of her life connecting with her varied roots and influences and constantly in the process of evolving, growing, redefining herself. She’s a talented musician, writer, and singer who comes from a rich music legacy. This piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is from 2008, when she came to perform a concert in our shared hometown of Omaha. A few years earlier I did an extensive cover story about her and her coming out the other side of a chaotic childhood and adolescence. You can find that earlier piece on this blog. Part of her story, and something she writes about in her superb autobiography You Ain’t Got No Easter Clothes and that I write about in that cover article, is that she’s the illegitimate daughter of the late Omaha jazz icon Preson Love Sr. You’ll find on this blog several stories I wrote about Preston.
Laura Love: Omaha’s High Yaller Gal Comes Home
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha native Laura Love defies labels. As a light-skinned, Seattle-based, African American singer-songwriter whose work gravitates to folk, country, bluegrass Americana, she’s heard it all. That she’s not a down sister. That acoustic roots music is uncool for a black person to play. That it belongs to whites or, in the case of the Negro spirituals and slave songs she recaptures, it’s outdated, passe.
Love, who performs an 8 p.m. concert with singer-songwriter-guitarist Jen Todd on Friday, Feb. 15 at the Holland Performing Arts Center, said the more she immerses herself in the music the more she’s drawn to it. “This is great music. It’s rhythmic, its soulful, it’s got harmonies, it’s got our spiritual history, our cultural history. The Bible-centric sentiments in it, to hold on and of endless, boundless love, are expressed beautifully and eloquently, so I’ve really come to love the music.”
She sees a small resurgence of black artists returning to this heritage sound and the instruments identified with it — banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar. Her own new band, Harper’s Ferry, includes black banjo, fiddle and dobro players.
The wry Love variously calls her hybrid style folk-funk, Afro-Celtic or hip-Alachian. Her latest CD, NeGrass (2006, Octoroon Biograph), refers to what she is — a black woman performing bluegrass. The concept album is inspired by her slave ancestors’ journey to freedom. She delivers her sagely-observed, incisively-phrased original songs, along with traditional spirituals, field hollers and folk tunes, in a soaring, soulful voice, accompanied by her electric bass licks and backed by a seasoned Nashville ensemble. The work is infused with indignation and pride.
The bitter, joyous fruit of race runs through NeGrass, a sarcastic yet hopeful plea for understanding. Her song “Passing” deals with the notion that shades of skin color affect how people are perceived. Love said her own European-like features elicit different responses than her sister Lisa’s darker, African-like features.
“When are we going to fully realize how much richer the world and life and our experiences would be if we would just move past really insignificant differences in the color of our skin?” she said.
Another stigma the sisters struggled with was being the illegitimate offspring of Preston Love Sr., the late Omaha jazz musician. Their mother, Wini Jones, sang in a band he led. Their attempts to connect with him and his family had mixed results.
Laura’s searing 2004 CD and book, You Ain’t Got No Easter Clothes, chart her coming-of-age odyssey in Omaha and Lincoln. Growing up she confronted issues of race, identity and belonging amid her mother’s mental collapse. Nebraska’s where Love discovered her voice and the father and family she never knew.
Her father’s dogmatic stance that jazz music is the exclusive province of blacks, she said, is no different then blacks dismissing bluegrass as the sole domain of whites. She makes no such distinctions.
“There’s virtually no place in American music where the music of white people is not influenced by blacks and the music of black people is not influenced by whites,” she said, “and that’s a good thing. Music is dynamic, it’s not static. It comes from some place and it evolves to a place. It’s like it’s always being expanded and to narrow it…is kind of backwards thinking. I feel like my richest experiences as a musician and an artist are playing with people from other cultures.”
A keen, outspoken observer, Love resists limitations. “Maybe if Barack wins the presidency we’ll feel we don’t have to fit so clearly into categories anymore. We can just branch out and do what feels good to us,” she said.
Her vocal opposition to George W. Bush, articulated in her song “I Want Him Gone,” has seen her solo bookings drop in red states. She won’t be silenced. “I can’t be happy-happy while the world burns,” she said. All you can do, she added, is “just get out there and say it and play it the way you want.”
Given her links to Nebraska, she’s curious about who will come to her Friday gig. She doesn’t expect many black folks. Then again, she might meet a new relative. It’s happened before.
- The Omaha Star Celebrates 75 Years of Black Woman Legacy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Playwright Beaufield Berry Comes into Her Own: Her Original Comedy ‘Psycho Ex Girlfriend’ Now Playing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
If you’re not from Omaha or you don’t live here then you may be surprised to learn this nondescript Midwesten city is the home to a sizable African American community with a rich history. It may further surprise you to know that a significant figure in the American black press of the mid to late 20th century was a transplanted Omahan and a woman to boot, Mildren Brown, who founded, published and edited the Omaha Star, which became the leading and eventually only black owned and operated newspaper serving the community. As my story below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) reveals, Brown heavily influenced two black women who became media titans: Chicago Crusader publisher-editor Dorothy Leavell and Radio One chairperson Cathy Hughes. When Brown died in 1989 the paper passed onto to her niece Marguerita Washington, thus continuing the publication’s black woman legacy.
NOTE: The story posted here is a longer version than the story that appears in The Reader.
The Omaha Star Celebrates 75 Years of Black Woman Legacy
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In this fluid transmedia age an old warhorse of a newspaper, the Omaha Star, celebrates 75 years of continuous publication at an April 19 Scholarship Banquet benefiting the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center.
The Star may not be known for exceptional reporting but it does own a groundbreaking gender and activist lineage. Its late publisher, Mildred Brown, was among very few women, white or black, to run a newspaper of its size and reach. She and her first husband co-launched the Star in 1938 though Brown was the real driving force behind it. Within a few years she divorced and from that point on served as sole publisher and editor until her death in 1989.
A black woman at the head of a successful media enterprise inspired Chicago Crusader publisher-editor Dorothy Leavell, the featured speaker at the April gala, and Radio One chairperson Cathy Hughes.
Though several years younger, Leavell’s career paralleled Brown’s when her first husband, Balm Leavell Jr., who founded the Crusader, died and she took over as a young single mother. She expanded the Crusader empire to reach hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Leavell’s also served as president of the National Newspapers Publishers Association, a trade organization representing hundreds of African American newspapers, and chairperson of Amalgamated Publishers, a company thats sells national advertising to black papers.
As a fledgling journalist Leavell pattered herself after the “strong black woman” she saw in Brown. She admired the way Brown handled herself amid their mostly male peer publisher colleagues.
“She had a profound affect on me because…the men would try to discount you but they couldn’t discount Mildred. She was a strong personality, She would stand her ground. I always say, Mildred put the ‘n’ in nerve. Mildred was no-nonsense with those guys.
“Seeing how she would not let them relegate her to a female role was certainly an influence on me and as a result when I became a publisher I insisted I be accorded the same courtesy and respect accorded the males. I would net let anyone take me lightly because they did not take Mildred lightly.”
The history of the Star, located in a former mortuary at 2216 North 24th St., is bound up in the story of Brown. The dynamic entrepreneur became synonymous with the paper for her front page editorials, out-front activism, personal style and legendary salesmanship. She often sported a fresh carnation pinned to her shoulder, a hat crowning her head and fitted gloves over her hands,
The Alabama native and former educator migrated north with her then-husband, Shirl Edward Gilbert, a pharmacist. The couple started a newspaper, the Silent Messenger. in Sioux City, Iowa. In 1937 they were recruited to Omaha to work for the city’s then-black newspaper, The Guide, whose co-publisher, Charles Galloway, Brown remained friends with even after she quit to start the Star.
The Star chronicled black people’s lives through the Depression, World War II, the Great Migration, the civil rights movement and America‘s changing face post-Vietnam and Watergate. When North 24th St. burned in outbreaks of civil disobedience this militant who didn’t believe in “breaking glass” called for both calm and redress.
She filled her paper with aspirational stories and advocacy journalism that sought to uplift her community and expose injustice. Its banner motto reflected her own ideals:
“Dedicated to the service of the people that no good cause shall lack a champion and that evil shall not thrive unopposed.”
She printed the names of businesses that refused to hire or serve blacks. She carried guest editorials by then-Nebraska Urban League and future National Urban League head Whitney Young. She supported the Omaha civil rights groups the DePorres Club and the 4CL. She observed, “This paper broke down discrimination in this town. They called us troublemakers nothing bit troublemakers. Oh, I’m a militant, always have been.”
Upon her death her niece, former educator Marguerita Washington, assumed command of the Star and she’s still in charge today, giving the publication the distinction of being the nation’s longest running newspaper led exclusively by black women.
Omaha native Cathy Hughes, who sold Star ads in the 1960s, appreciates the paper’s “black woman legacy.” Hughes built a media empire as a single woman. Her son Alfred C. Liggins III succeeded her as Radio One CEO but she wishes she also had a daughter to pass things onto.
“I love my son. I can’t tell you how much I thank God and appreciate the fact he embraced my vision and followed in my footsteps but my only regret is that I didn’t have a daughter to go along with him because I really would have liked to continue this legacy under the banner of female leadership.”
Hughes knew many sides of Brown. who was in her life from the time she was a little girl. Brown was a friend of her parents, William Alfred Woods and Helen Jones Woods. When her father graduated from Creighton University Brown let him office inside the Star.
Asked to assess the influence Brown and the Star had on her, Hughes said, “It’s why you have me on the phone now as the founder and chairperson of Radio One, which is the parent corporation for TV One, Interactive One, Reach Media, Distribution One. It’s why I have this media conglomerate. I went through a couple decades working on my career and my personal and professional growth and development before I realized the impact the Omaha Star had had on me.”
Seeing a smart, bold black woman totally in charge made an impression on the young Hughes, who says she naturally looked up to “this woman whose personality and physical presence were bigger than life,” adding, “I can still smell the carnations to this day. Every Monday a big box of carnations that went straight into the refrigerator was delivered because she wore a fresh carnation bouquet every day of the week. She wore absolutely beautiful hats, matching outfits, shoes to match the outfits, fresh flowers. She lived in a beautiful apartment behind her business.”
Drivers chauffeured her around in a big shiny sedan.
“She had a good looking husband (Brown’s common-law second husband Max Brownell), she had a wardrobe, she had all the trappings of a media mogul. To me the Star was a conglomerate. She was NBC, ABC, and CBS combined in my mind,” says Hughes.
“The Star was to Omaha what Jet and Ebony were to the black community nationwide. You had really made it when you made the cover of the Omaha Star. Remember, during these days there were no blacks on Omaha TV, there was no black radio, the (Omaha) World-Herald basically covered crime in North Omaha. There were no alternatives, there was no other place to turn for information about you and your organization, you and your family, you and your neighborhood, you and your existence in Omaha, Neb. other than the Omaha Star.”
Hughes, who’s built a corporate dynasty in the face of sexism and racism, was impressed by the way Brown’s force of nature personality smashed barriers. She recalls her “dogged determination,” adding, “When somebody told Mildred no, that they weren’t going to take an ad, she was going to write you up and that write-up would become public record. Mildred combined her activism with her marketing and salesmanship…When people said no to Mildred she saw it as an opportunity to change their mind, she never saw it as a rejection. She didn’t take no seriously. No to her meant, ‘Oh, they must not have enough information to come to the right conclusion because no is not the right conclusion.’
“Nothing stopped Mildred.
Marguerita Washington marveled at her aunt’s drive.
“She wouldn’t give up. She was very persistent. I went with her many times to a business place where she would be told the person in charge was not available. A lot of times the boss told their secretary, ‘Just tell her I’m not here.’ Of course, she knew he was, so she would say, ‘Well, I’ll wait on him,’ and she would sit there in the lobby until finally the guy would come out and say, ‘Oh, Mildred, what do you want?’ Nine chances out of 10 she got the sell.
“She was better at the game then they were.”
Star contributing writer Walter Brooks, the 2013 Omaha Star Legacy Award honoree, doubled as Brown’s driver. Going on sales calls with her he saw her operate at parties and meetings, working the room with everyone from small business owners to corporate. He notes in a video interview:
“Mildred Brown was liked by those people. They liked her style. They respected her because they knew quite honestly nobody else could have done what she did. When you think about starting that paper in 1938 and never quitting, never backing down, always moving forward, and then the role of course that the paper played during the civil rights era, and just the fact she was so smooth and tough.”
Mildred Brown and Hubert Humphrey
Brooks saw an assertive woman supremely sure of herself. “Mrs. Brown was fearless. She was not intimidated. When she asked for an ad it wasn’t hat in hand, mealy-mouthed, please-Mr.-Charlie, it was her being received as an equal.”
Hughes says Brown was proud of leading a newspaper that at the time of her death was half a century old and she imagines if Brown were alive today she would be thrilled it’s still going strong.
“I think her crowning glory was the newspaper and its ability to continue – the longevity.”
The Star may not be the primary news source it once was for most readers but outside Revive! magazine it offers Omaha’s only black on black print perspective. It maintains a black press tradition emphasizing positive news, conveying black pride stories of individual accomplishments and informing readers of community events, as well as examining issues of inequity.
Brooks says before today’s multimedia platforms the Star was Omaha’s only reliable media source for what was happening in the black community.
“If it wasn’t in the Star in many ways it didn’t exist,” he says. “It’s primary value has always been as the one outlet we could count on to represent the black community.”
In a documentary tribute to Brown the late Omaha musician Preston Love Sr. articulated what her paper meant to its readership.
“She gave every little person on the street a shot at getting some recognition. Families were publicized for constructive things they did and successes. It’d have the picture of some young man or woman on the front page who’d got their master’s degree and that was important to people. Everybody likes publicity. If they tell you differently, they’re lying.
“People who never had their picture in the paper for anything else, there they were in the new dress they got for the dance or the affair, the new tuxedo for the guys. We were impoverished people and we had no other means of getting recognition, especially in this town.”
Its interest in the whole gamut of African American life provided fairly comprehensive coverage of goings-on in the black community.
“And because it goes back eight decades it is actually an historical repository because no one else was consistently capturing events and things taking place in the black community week after week,” notes Brooks.
Now that the Star’s archives are being digitized a new resource will soon be accessible online to anyone researching people, places and events covered by the paper over much of its history.
Today, the black owned and operated weekly remains a voice for a community not always well represented by traditional mainstream media. Subscriptions and advertisements are the lifeblood of any print publication and Brown scored ads like nobody else, sometimes using moral indignation to guilt whites into buying space.
“Especially with a tough customer or potential customer she would try to appeal to his or her conscience,” says Washington.
“She had a way of relating to business people to get them, sometimes with a little arm twisting, to advertise in her newspaper,” says Leavell.
Getting people to do the right thing, whether buying ads in her paper or giving blacks equal opportunity, extended beyond the office. Brown was part of a coterie of black professionals, including Cathy Hughes’ parents, who shared similar aspirational-activist values and put them into practice.
Mildred Brown with Father John Markoe (seated)
“It was less than a dozen of them and they really formed this close friendship and partnership in so many areas – business, education, civil rights – and in that mixture my father and Mildred became best friends,” says Hughes. “Mildred Brown was a member of an organization my parents were members of, the DePorres Club, that challenged Omaha institutions that practiced overt discrimination.”
The DePorres Club’s founder, the later Rev. John Markoe, a Jesuit priest at Creighton University, was befriended by Brown after his civil rights work made him persona non grata at the school. She allowed the interracial club to meet at the Star. The paper often printed the minutes of the club’s meetings along with listings of its social action activities.
As a girl Hughes joined her parents and Brown at demonstrations.
“I carried my first picket sign when I was around 4 or 5 years old. I grew up with community service and activism.”
She says her parents and Brown “imbued” her with the mandate “to improve the community” by standing up and speaking out for right.
Brown’s Star promoted aspirational pursuits. She often included news about herself, such as meeting visiting dignitaries or receiving some award, because she enjoyed the attention and the affirmation it provided.
Washington says, “There wasn’t a camera she didn’t like.” Some readers disapproved of Brown’s frequent appearances in the paper but Washington says, “she didn’t care.” Besides, she adds, “her being in there a lot of times was noteworthy, like when she met presidents and what have you. She hoped people would be inspired.”
Preston Love Sr. was Brown’s contemporary and sometime employee. He sold advertising off and on there for 26 years, His rise to prominence in music paralleled Brown’s in journalism. They maintained a mutual respect. After she passed he wrote, “It’s the end of an era. The paper was the center of the black community in many ways…Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star have been the most potent forces for the progress and advancement of blacks in Omaha and in this state.”
Though some felt she didn’t go far enough, others felt she did all she could.
“She was definitely considered a conservative by the Black Panther Party,” says Brooks, a one-time Panther member. He says she refrained from “the more radical hard push back approach” and instead focused on “collaboration and coalition.” Practical realities of the time constrained Brown from being too harsh in attacking racism.
Love said that “she was militant in that she was persistent in fighting for the cause” but “she wasn’t a firebrand,” adding, “What needed to be done she did it through the medium of this newspaper.”
Dorothy Leavell leaves no doubt about Brown’s activism.
“Milldred was just really an unusual woman. She was a very strong militant activist during the days when women were thought of as at home taking care of children. Mildred was a fighter who fought hard for the rights of blacks.”
Even near the end Brooks says Brown still “was totally hands on…totally in charge. Nothing went in that paper she didn’t sign off on. She was still much willing to say, ‘No, I don’t like that.’ Still very much focused on the political bent that she wanted the paper to be. She was like, ‘Yeah, I know it’s the 1980s now but this is what has worked, this is what the people want it to be, this is want the advertisers want to see.’ It was very much, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That was very much I feel her attitude.
“Not only was it hard to argue with that, but there’s the door, if you really just have a problem with this, hey, thank you for your service…”
Editorially, Brooks says he was given great freedom by her and is given even more by Washington, who’s serializing his new book about the state of black America. Outside of the late Charles B. Washington, who got his start in journalism under Brown, the Star’s not groomed any black journalists, though Washington says the Mildred B. Brown Memorial Study Center and its Junior Journalist Program is an attempt to do that.
Margeuerita Washington says that because “it’s a different day” than when her aunt ran the paper she’s given space to more militant voices her aunt would not have accommodated, including former Omaha activist Matthew Stelly and Neb. state senator Ernie Chambers.
The opinion pieces by Chambers can be particularly controversial and that’s why Brown shied away giving him a forum during her reign.
“She was afraid he might turn away some of her advertisers,” Washington says. “When I took over I felt like, ‘Well, give him a chance, and if he goes too far out on a limb. I can always tone him down some. It’s worked out fine. Only once have I had to tell him to cool it…to find another topic.”
She believes the Star remains a relevant voice today. “I think the main thing I’m proud of is this paper has really become the people’s paper. It is a sounding board. We have a number of local columnists. It’s the community’s paper with a diversity of voices.” Ad revenues and circulation numbers are way down from its heyday and took more hits during the recession but Washington says the paper is slowly “building back.”
Hughes says the Star has a vital role to play in the same way black magazines, radio stations, TV networks and websites do.
“Next to the black church black-owned media is the most important institution in our community. I think too often African Americans have looked to mainstream media to tell our story. Well, all stories go through a filter process based on the news deliverers’ experience and perception and so often our representation has not been accurate. But the reality is we have to be responsible for the dissemination of our own information because that’s the only time we can be reasonably assured it’s going to be from the right perspective, that it’s going to be from the right experience, and for the right reasons. I think the black community just intuitively understands that.
“Information is power. I think Mildred Brown understood that. It wasn’t just about a business for her, it was about a community service.”
The clout and wealth Brown earned put her in position to help others and she did.
“She was instrumental in helping St. Benedict the Moore Catholic Church build the Bryant Center,” says Hughes. “She was kind of a one woman social agency before social agencies became in vogue in indigenous communities. She helped a lot of people. If your husband was beating you, you ran to the Omaha Star. Mildred would give you some money, help you check into a hotel. Your child got arrested, it was Mildred people came to asking, ‘Can you loan me $150 to get my child out of jail?’
“Charlie Washington had a very troubled background and yet because of her he rose to being respected as one of the great journalists of his time in Omaha. Dignitaries would come and sit on Charlie’s stoop and talk to him about what was going on. He was considered iconic because of Mildred Brown.”
Hughes says Brown also assisted young people getting their education.
“She’d put them through school in a minute, go up to Creighton raising hell, going up to Duchesne (Academy) when my mother didn’t have the tuition and telling them, ‘You just wait, we’re going to get you your money, but don’t be threatening to put her out of school.’”
Washington says her aunt sponsored many college students. After her death a Creighton University journalism scholarship was established in her name. It goes to black students from Omaha area schools.
“She literally walked the walk as well as talked the talk,” says Hughes.
“She didn’t tell folks what they needed to do, she helped them do it.”
After her father died Hughes says Brown drew closer to her. “I think I was that connection for her. She continued to inspire and advise and mold me right up to the time she passed.”
The legacy of the Star is felt by Washington, who is childless and has no plans to hand it off to a relative. Her will dictates the paper will be sold upon her death. That is unless, she says, “some dashing young person comes along who I think this is just the right fit to carry it on.”
She holds out little hope someone will, in effect, endow the paper’s future operations.
“No Warren Buffett is going to come and help us,” she says, referring to the billionaire’s recent World-Herald purchase. “Unlikely.”
She intends continuing as publisher-editor for the forseeable future. “I’m in good health and I’ve still got some energy left.” A project she’d like to see happen is the renovation and expansion of the space-starved Star offices.
Tickets to the April 19 Star gala at the Downtown Hilton, 1001 Cass St., may be ordered at 402-346-4041, ext. 4 or 6.