Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer
Americans are notorious for having short memories and that’s unfortunate when people and actions that merit rememberance are so quickly and easily forgotten. A pair of Omaha sisters, Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moors, are starring in an Omaha Community Playhous production of the Emily Mann play Having Our Say that features the real-life experiences of the Delany sisters, whose lives intersected with much of the African-American experience in the late 19th century and most of the 20th century. The Metoyer sisters are struck by the close parallels between the high achieving, activist Delany family and their own. In doing interviews to promote the play the Metoyers are getting the chance to educate the public about the important work their parents Ray and Lois Metoyer did in the civil rights movement here. My story about this art imitating life experience includes comments from the Metoyers’ brother, Ray.
Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten
Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Art imitates life when siblings Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore evoke the Delany sisters in the African-American oral-history show Having Our Say at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Just as the play’s real-life Sadie and Bessie Delany followed their family’s barrier-breaking path the Metoyers hail from high achievers and activists. The black branch of the Delanys’ mixed race Southern lineage produced land owners and professionals. Their father was the first black bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Sadie became a teacher. Bessie, a dentist. Similarly, the Metoyers trace the mixed heritage on their father’s side to the Melrose Plantation in La. where ancestors formed a black aristocracy, Their mother and her family made the black migration from Miss. to the North for a better life.
The Metoyers, both veteran Omaha theater performers, say they’ve never before played roles whose familial-cultural threads adhere so closely to their own lives. Like their counterparts, the Metoyers put much stock in faith and education. The play’s also giving the sisters and their brother Raymond Metoyer, an Atlanta, Ga. broadcast journalist whose news career started in Omaha, a platform to discuss the vital work done by their late parents, Ray and Lois Metoyer, in the struggle to secure equal rights here. The couple were involved in the Nebraska Urban League, which the senior Metoyer once headed, the local chapter of the NAACP and the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). They participated in marches. They had their family integrate a neighborhood. They sent their kids to white schools.
Their father was active in the 4CL’s predecessor, the De Porres Club.
“We knew our parents were trailblazers but we held a lot inside and this ([play) gives us a voice to be able to elevate them,” Lanette says.
“I’m really happy about this opportunity to bring to light all the things our parents did and worked so hard for,” Camille says.
“I’m very proud of my parents,” Raymond says. “They were very much strong foot soldiers in the civil rights movement in Omaha. They were part of a collective effort to improve housing, education and employment for minorities. They were more interested in the results than in individual glory, which seems to be something lost today. Working together to make things better was very much part of what they believed in and pushed for as a part of that collective.
“They instilled in us that same striving for being better.”
The siblings say their parents shared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that blacks “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Lanette says her kid brother, L.A. musician Louis Metoyer “became exactly what our parents wanted for all of us because he got to reap all the benefits of us moving into an all-white neighborhood. He was able to play with white kids and make lasting friendships.”
Camille says, “Out of all of us I think he is the one who sees no color.”
Raymond says his folks believed in “leading by example” and thus his aspirational father, a Boys Town senior counselor and owner of the family’s barbecue joint on North 24th Street, took great pains with his appearance and speech.
“It wasn’t just about getting there. it was about how you handled yourself when you got there that made a difference,” he says.. “Our father always carried himself with dignity and strength. He projected the image he wanted people to see African-Americans could portray. He was just trying to show he belonged, that he was a significant member of the community because he had a right to be. My mother had that same persona. Both our parents instilled that in us. too.”
Raymond’s continued this leadership legacy in the National Association for Black Journalists and in his civil rights documentaries (Who Killed Emmett Till?). He admires his sisters for continuing the legacy as well.
“I’m so proud of my sisters being in this play because they’re carrying themselves with the same dignity they were brought up with.”
As kids the siblings got caught up in some of their folks’ activism.
Camille was 8 when she was taken out of school to accompany her parents in a 1963 4CL demonstration for open housing at City Hall.
The marchers proved well-schooled in nonviolent civil disobedience.
“We were walking around in a circle in the chambers carrying placards,” recalls Camille. “We were asked to disperse and of course we refused, and then they called the police in and we all sat down on the floor. I was with my dad in his lap when the police literally picked the two of us up and carried us out with me still on his lap.”
Before Metoyer, with Camille in tow, got transported to police headquarters officers let him down. As he carried Camille in his arms a news photographer snapped a picture of this dignified, loving black father comforting his adorable little girl, who sported braids and with tortoise shell frame eyeglasses. The photo made the wires.
The events made an impression on Camille.
“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important and I knew it was about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”
Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten
Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.
“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together,” says Camille, “and all the conversation was about what was going on.”
The Metoyer children often tagged along with their progressive parents to meetings and gatherings. It meant getting to hear and meet Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson, in 1964 and 1969, respectively. Between those events the Metoyers integrated the Maple Village neighborhood in northwest Omaha in 1966.
“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the frontlines,” says Lanette.
Raymond recalls the angry stares the family got just while driving through all-white areas. A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in. On move-in day some neighbors gathered outside to glare. At night his armed father and grandfather stood guard inside. It reminded his mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Miss. The house only got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.
Camille and Lanette remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. At their various schools the kids encountered racism. They followed the example and admonition of their parents, whom Camille says “always addressed discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.’”
Little by little the Metoyers found acceptance if not always fairness.
The OCP production of the Tony-nominated Having Our Say by Emily Mann, a past Great Plains Theatre Conference guest playwright, is a catharsis for the sisters.
“Doing this play has helped us in our relationship as sisters,” says Lanette. “We love to laugh just like the Delanys do. We’re storytellers like them. That tie between us now is stronger, especially after going through what Camille went through this past year (breast cancer).”
On another personal note, the play honors figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.
“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” says Camille.
The play runs through Feb. 9. For show times-tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunityplayhouse.com.
I was honored to recently author two iBooks for the Omaha Public Schools‘ Making Invisible Histories Visible project. Both have to do with civil rights. One is on the Great Migration as seen through the eyes of some Omaha women who migrated here from the Deep South. The other is about discrimination as seen through the eyes of Omahans who integrated Peony Park. Omaha artists made wonderful illustrations for the books and OPS teachers devised curriculum around the books’ themes for use in classrooms.
You can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-
You can link to a PDF of the Great Migration iBook at-
You can link to a PDF of the Peony Park iBook at-
- ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ author Leo Adam Biga doing book events Nov. 19, Nov. 23, Nov. 26, Dec. 3 and Dec. 11 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Lit Fest Offers a Written Word Feast (leoadambiga.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)
Great Migration Stories: For African Americans Who Left the South for Omaha, the Specter of Down Home is Never Far Away
No matter where African Americans live today there’s a very high probability that someone in their family tree and maybe even several someone got up and out of the South before the major Civil Rights protections took effect. Making the move north or west of east was all about pursuing a better life. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) offers a small window into a few migration stories.
And you can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-
Great Migration Stories: For African Americans Who Left the South for Omaha, the Specter of Down Home is Never Far Away
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The July 31-August 5 Native Omaha Days will feature metro-wide black heritage celebrations that on the surface don’t seem to have much to do with the American South. But when local African American families gather for the biennial Days most can point to someone in their family tree who migrated from the South.
The same holds true for almost any black family gathering of any size here. Whatever the occasion, there’s likely a Southern strain rich in history, tradition and nostalgia.
The Great Migration saw millions of African Americans leave the oppressive pre-civil rights South for parts all over the nation from the 1920s through the 1960s. Everyone who participated in the movement has a story. That’s certainly the case with two Omaha women who made the migration during its waning years, Luriese Moore and Lorraine Jackson.
Moore, 72, came from Boligee, Ala. in 1959 in her late teens. Her family had been sharecroppers but eventually become land owners.
“My grandparents lived and worked on the white man’s land,” she says. “Most everything went to the white man. They didn’t have a chance to show anything for their labors. That’s why my daddy was so inspired to get something of his own. He made it reality, too, when he saved up enough to buy 98 acres of land. He farmed it on weekends when home from his steel mill job in Tuscaloosa.
“My brothers and I grew up working the land. You got up when the sun rose and you almost worked until the sun set.”
The family still retains the property today.
Lorraine Jackson, 66, migrated from Brookhaven, Miss. in 1964 at age 17. Her grandparents were sharecroppers but eventually bought the cotton-rich land they toiled on and handed the 53 acres down to Jackson’s parents. Picking cotton was a back-breaking, finger-cutting chore. Adding insult to injury, you got cheated at the end of the day.
“You were supposed to get $3 for picking a hundred pounds but it seemed like you could never get a hundred pounds because the scales were loaded. But if you wanted to make money you picked cotton. I saved my money,” says Jackson.
The land she sweated on is still in the family’s hands.
Jackson says by the time she graduated high school she couldn’t stand being a second-class citizen anymore. She and her friends wanted out.
“That was the thing to do, you got out, you left.”
When Mississipians who’d already made the migration wrote or called or came back with news of plentiful jobs and things to do, it acted as a recruitment pitch.
“They would tell you about all the bright lights in the big cities and all the places you could go. They told you can have a better life. It made an impression that I needed to get away. I thought it was right for me. Besides, I was kind of rambunctious. I wasn’t the type to just sit there and say nothing or do nothing.
“I remember about a month before I left threatening my mom that I was going to sit at the Woolworth’s counter in town and she about had a heart attack. I said, ‘Mama, all they’re going to do is ask me to leave.’ It was time for me and I said, ‘I’m outta here.’”
Jackson came by train eager to start her new life.
Moore came by Greyhound bus and she says on the way here she was filled with mixed emotions of excitement and fear.
Each woman was among the movement”s last generation.
Another Omaha woman, Emma Hart, 87, was born in rural Ark. in 1926 but raised here, making her a child of the Great Migration.
Many other Omahans are variously fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of the migration. Few first generation migrants survive. A large extended family in Omaha made their exodus here from Evergreen, Ala. over a generation’s time. A group of Christians from Brewton, Ala. migrated here in 1917 to found Pilgrim Baptist Church. Practically every black family, church, club or organization has its own migration connection and story.
The precise circumstances and motivations for leaving the South varied but the common denominator was a desire for “a better way of life,” says Hart. That’s what drove her parents to come in 1921. The Big Four packinghouses were booming then. The promise of steady work there was still a powerful lure decades later when Moore and Jackson’s generation made the move north.
Migrants may not have thought of it in these terms, but implicit in their pursuit of a better life was the search for self-determination. Only by leaving the South, they felt, could they fully engage with and benefit from all that America offered.
Moore’s parents could not exercise their right to vote in the South without courting danger. She says her father risked his anyway by driving black protestors to voting rights marches. He left her a legacy and bequest she couldn’t ignore.
“My dad sacrificed his life. He could’ve got killed doing what he was doing, just to get the vote. My mother was concerned about Daddy getting killed because if you had a lot of people in your car during that time when the protests were happening the Klan would think you were freedom riders coming from the North.
“Daddy always preached to us, ‘Hey, when y’all get the chance to vote you vote,’ and I’ve never missed voting. The people before us gave their lives so we could vote.”
Moore married in Ala. Her husband moved to Omaha ahead of her to find work and a place to live. After she joined him they started a family. She worked for a time in a packinghouse, then she got on at J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store downtown. Her three brothers all moved here for a time and worked packings jobs. Those jobs were vital for many black families getting a foothold here.
“That’s where we really got our start, my husband and I,” she says. “We ended up buying two homes. It was good paying money at the time compared to other jobs we could get.”
Always looking to better herself Moore attended a local beauty college and she eventually opened her own salon – something she likely would not have been able to do then down South. Her clientele here included white customers, which would have never happened there.
Jackson, who married and raised a family in Omaha, worked in he Blackstone Hotel kitchen before going to beauty school and opening her own shop. She catered to customers of all races. An older brother preceded her to Omaha and drove a city bus for 35 years.
Both women continue doing hair today.
Emma Hart married and raised a family in Omaha, where she was almost never without work. She and many of her relatives worked in the packinghouses. Her first job came in a military laundry during World War II. Then she got on at Cudahy and when it closed she performed an undisclosed job in a sensitive area at Strategic Air Command. Two first cousins, brothers William and Monroe Coleman, enjoyed long, distinguished careers as Omaha Police Department officers. They could not have managed equivalent careers in the South then and even if they could it’s doubtful Monroe could have reached the post of acting deputy director he achieved here.
Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Story of America’s Great Migration, says, “The only way blacks could be recognized (as citizens) was to leave one part of their own country for another part. That’s why they’re like immigrants but they’re not immigrants. To me, it makes the story even more poignant because they had to do what immigrants had to to do just to become (full) citizens.”
“It wasn’t a political movement in the formal sense of the word but it had the impact of seeking political asylum or defection, almost in comparison to the Cold War when people tried to get on the other side of the Iron Curtain and had to go to great lengths to do so. This is a similar kind of defection that occurred within the borders of our own country and yet the people who were part of it didn’t see themselves as part of any demographic wave, they saw themselves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom.”
Life outside the South was hardly paradise. Blacks still encountered segregation and discrimination in employment, housing, education, recreation. The De Porres Club and the 4CL staged marches and demonstrations against inequities here. Late 1960s civil disturbances in northeast Omaha expressed rage over police misconduct. Moore and Jackson experienced first hand blacks’ confinement to a small swath of North Omaha by housing covenants and red lining. Public places were not always accommodating. Many local businesses and organizations used exclusionary practices to deny or discourage black employment and patronage.
“To a certain point there were no restrictions,” says Jackson, “but there were some undertones. You could go anywhere. There were no signs that said you couldn’t. But because I lived it I could feel it but nobody really could do anything about it. You know subtle things when you see them.”
She recalls being made to feel invisible by the way people ignored her or talked past her.
In terms of housing barriers, she says, “My goal was to move past 30th Street because I couldn’t for so long, and I did. Some goals you just had to accomplish.”
Still, restrictions here were nothing like what they were in places like Mississippi, where state-sanctioned apartheid was brutally enforced.
“MIssissippi didn’t play, It was like a foreign country,” says Jackson.
When a member of her own family got into a dispute with a white person he had to skip town in the dead of night and stay way for years before it was safe to return.
Many blacks saw no option but to pack up everything they owned and leave everything they knew to start all over in some strange new city.
“I think the fact they would go to such great lengths is an indication of the desire and desperation and hopefulness they had that this next place will be a good place for me,” says Wilkerson.
This epic internal movement of a people wasn’t an organized thing but an organic response to harsh social-economic conditions. Punitive Jim Crow laws severely curtailed the rights of blacks. Widespread drought and blight forced many blacks off the land they worked as sharecroppers or farmers. The prospect of better paying industrial jobs in places like Omaha and Chicago, where packinghouses and railroads hired minorities, was all the reason people needed to move.
“Ultimately a migration is about determining for one’s self how one’s life is going to be and merely by living they are fulfilling the destiny and imperatives of their migration,” says Wilkerson. “For those who decided they could no longer live with the repression, they opted to plot out a course of their own choosing, and that is what a migration truly is. By just leaving they are doing the very thing they’re seeking to achieve. The leaving itself is the act of self-determination and courage.”
Those who made the trek to forge new lives elsewhere encouraged others to follow. Thus, an uninterrupted stream of migrants flowed from the South to forever change the makeup and dynamic of cities in the East, the North and the West.
Some streams fed into receiving cities located on direct rail lines from the South. Where black enclaves from certain states got established up North, they became magnets that drew ever more blacks. While Omaha received migrants from all parts of the South it primarily drew transplants from Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Ironlcally, where Omaha once offered more opportunity than the South, the situation has reversed and countless Omaha blacks, many of them children and grandchildren of the Great Migration, have made a reverse migration.
But when Luriese Moore came in the late ’50s there was no doubt the Midwest was an improvement over the South. “I found it much better,” she says. For starters, there was nothing like the overt segregation she knew growing up.
“Everything was black and white just all over (there). It was just a way of life. We didn’t like it but it’s what was happening. They had one side of the street for colored and the other side for white. They had one water fountain for the black people and one for the white people. When you went into a store you just didn’t get in on the white side because you knew where you were supposed to be. We couldn’t go in some exclusive stores in my hometown that sold very fine clothes. They didn’t want us to try on hats and things.
“Up here the integration and everything was all new to me. It was just totally different from where we were. I didn’t see the signs we saw in Ala. for blacks only or whites only. You could just go to anywhere you wanted to here. You could go to any store you wanted to.”
Blacks were not immune from harassment, intimidation, threats, outright violence in places like Omaha – witness the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and resulting race riot – but the South was a much more treacherous landscape.
Lorraine Jackson says while she never laid eyes on the Ku Klux Klan during the time she lived in Miss., their presence was felt in incidents like cross burnings.
“They were there. They were killing people. We saw a lot of cross burnings in front of people’s houses. We knew those people, we went to church together. That was scary. You never get that fear out of your mind. It was a fear that you had because really you hadn’t done anything, you were just black and that’s all you had to be.”
She says blacks perceived to be too aspirational or ambitious by the white ruling class could be targets. A cross burning was a message to stay in you place.
“I mean, you really had to walk careful,” says Jackson. “You were expected to work in the fields and things like that.”
Moore recalls similar menace in Alabama.
“There was one town right out from Birmingham that was known to be very dangerous and to hang black people, You could not be on the highway too much at night either because they would end up shooting you or running you off the road. Oh, I don’t even want to think about it. I had kind of pushed it out of my mind.
“My parents were wonderful parents because we were sheltered from a lot of things going on down there, Those were very crucial times. Where I came from if you didn’t do what they told you to then then they would start going around your house and everything. If they wanted your property they made it awfully painful for you to keep it. They’d start doing things to your family, pestering you, messing with you, like running you off the road. People would say, so and so had an accident, well they wouldn’t have an accident, they would be run off the road. It was mean. It was not a pleasant thing. We saw a lot of that down there.”
Moore appreciates how far African Americans have come in her lifetime.
“We’ve come to a place where things are much better and I thank God for it. We have come a long ways. When we sing ‘we shall overcome,’ well, we have overcome. I’m glad we’ve moved past that. During the time it was happening it was a bitter feeling. I felt angry. i was looking at race as the human race and they were looking at color. I just couldn’t see how a person could treat another person like that .Sin causes people to lose sight of life and to do terrible things to each other.”
Jackson says the root of racism people’s “fear of what they don’t know.”
Emma Hart doesn’t recall her parents mentioning any specific fear they fled. The poor sharecroppers just went where the jobs were and when two relatives came and made a go of it here, Emma’s parents followed.
Where Emma’s relatives in the South attended all black country schools she attended integrated Omaha grade and high schools and where her relatives lived strictly segregated lives she lived in an integrated South Omaha neighborhood.
“Everything was mixed in South Omaha,” she says.
On one of only two visits she made to the South she experienced the hand of Jim Crow when the passenger train she was on left St. Louis for Ark. and blacks were forced to change cars for the segregated leg of the trip. That same racial protocol applied when Jackson took the train and Moore rode the bus in Jim Crow land.
Even when Moore made auto trips to the South she was reminded of what she’d left behind. “There were certain places they wouldn’t even sell us gas,” she says. “We couldn’t even get any food to eat, we had to pack up our own food to take south and to come back until we hit the St. Louis line.”
Hart may not have grown up in the South but she’s retained many Southern traditions she was brought up in, from fish fries to soul food feasts featuring recipes handed down over generations.
Lorraine Jackson keeps her Southern heritage close to her. “I brought my traditions – like Sunday dinners with the family. I raised my kids with the same culture and the same core values. There isn’t much I changed. I remained who I was – a daughter of the South. I’m very proud of it.”
Every now and then, she says, she just has to prepare “some fried chicken and biscuits from scratch” for that taste of home.
She’s sure the way she and her siblings were raised helps explain why they’ve all done well.
“All of us graduated from high school. Some of us went to college. A sister has a master’s degree. It’s amazing we’re successful. I think it was the upbringing. In that time we lived in we had to be strong, we had to be respectful. We had a work ethic – that was another good thing. Faith was a big factor, too.”
Jackson and Moore have made regular pilgrimages to the South since moving to Omaha. They marvel at its transformation.
Moore says she never dreamed her hometown of Boligee would have a black mayor, but it does. She’s also pleasantly surprised by all the open interracial relationships, blended church congregations and mixed gatherings she sees.
Jackson says, “When I go back to Mississippi it almost shocks me to see the change. Sometimes it catches me by surprise and I think, Where am I? It’s almost better than it is here.”
Both women say that when they gather with family or friends who share their past it’s the good times they recall, not the bad times. And whether their kids and grandkids know it or not, the family’s Southern roots get expressed in the food they eat and in the church they attend and in various other ways. These Daughters of the South may have left but their hearts still reside down home.
- The Jungle and The Great Migration (piperhuguley.com)
- 2013 Stroll Down Memory Lane: Native Omaha Days Celebration (yperspective.wordpress.com)
- To Remember the Great Northern Migration (local.answers.com)
- Following My Father’s Footsteps In A 2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe (automobilemag.com)
Documentary Shines Light on Civil Rights Powerbroker Whitney Young, Producer Bonnie Boswell to Discuss the Film and Young
The name is familiar to some and totally unknown to others, but a new documentary leaves no doubt about the significant role Whitney Young Jr. played in the civil rights movement. The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights makes a compelling case for Young being an overlooked giant of that progressive and momentous social justice effort to give African Americans the equality promised by law and practiced in every day life they were so long denied. The film’s producer, Bonnie Boswell, is the niece of the late Whitney Young, whose work to secure better lives for his people was largely done behind the scenes, in boardrooms and offices, rather than in public forums. My story about the film, Boswell’s motivation to do it, and her take on Young is in the current issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com). A screening and discussion with Boswell is scheduled March 28 at Film Streams in Omaha, where Young served as head of the Urban League of Nebraskas in the early 1950s.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
While Malcolm X moved with his family from Omaha as a child and only returned once as an adult, Young served as Urban League of Nebraska president from 1950 to 1953. Young faced racism first-hand growing up in the South and serving in the U.S. Army. In Omaha he found blacks severely restricted in terms of where they could live, work, eat and recreate. He worked with DePorres Club president Father John Markoe and Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown in mounting challenges to discrimination and segregation. He forged alliances with local business and civic leaders to try and improve opportunities for minorities.
Those mediating experiences undoubtedly informed his later work as National Urban League executive director from 1961 until his untimely death in 1971, a tenure that coincided with momentous civil rights events.
Young. who’s been called “the inside man of the black revolution,” is the subject of a new documentary produced by his niece, television journalist Bonnie Boswell. A free 7 p.m. screening of her PBS-telecast film, The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights, is set for March 28 at Film Streams. A Q&A with Boswell follows.
Boswell says she was motivated in part to do the project to ensure Young’s role in history got “the credit” it deserved because his contributions had become obscured over time. “The other reason I wanted to do the film,” she says, “is that I think it’s important to lift up people like Whitney Young, of whom there are many, who do work behind the scenes people don’t necessarily know about, who get things done, who make cities work. I think it’s important for future generations to have a sense of, as they start thinking about their lives, it’s not necessarily about getting your name in the newspaper or your picture on the front of some magazine but about being effective and getting a job done. I think we need to encourage people to take pride in that.”
Whitney Young and Bonnie Boswell
The most enduring images from the struggle for self-determination remain the public protests, marches and speeches that pricked the heart and conscience of a nation divided by race. Beyond the raised fists and voices, however, was the largely unseen and unheard back room maneuvering of activists, lawyers, politicians, ministers and others. These social justice soldiers brokered most of the change that delivered equal rights protections to African Americans.
Young was perhaps the most significant inside player among this largely unheralded vanguard of freedom fighters. Trained as a social worker, he used his pragmatist problem solving and people skills to gain access to corporate boardrooms and the White House to advance the case for equality as a good thing for America. Though famous in his time, his work was overshadowed by that of Martin Luther King Jr., who remains the enduring face of the movement.
Boswell says she fixed on doing the film after speaking at a Whitney Young health center in 2002 and reflecting on how her uncle’s diplomatic approach to facilitating compromise amid the tumultuous ’60s could be instructive for leaders negotiating our own ultra partisan, divisive times.
“I was concerned America was continuing to engage in overseas wars and the gap between rich and poor was widening, and I was like, Can’t we do better? Then as I studied the role he played as a mediator and a bridge-builder I thought, This is exactly the kind of person we need to have as a role model and more people need to know his story so he really can be that role model.”
Young with LBJ
Young with JFK
Now that she’s helped reclaim his legacy, what does she imagine Young would make of America today?
“I think he would be gratified and also disappointed. I think we’ve clearly made a lot of progress in many areas. We have a lot of work to do for true equity and we should be about continuing that job. I think he would want us to be picking up the baton that others left.”
Boswell says viewers would do well to remember that both MLK and Young challenged America to live up to its larger ideal of creating a better America.
“It went far beyond race, it was about the beloved community, the just society, our democracy, so we have to continue that work.”
The documentary is also extremely personal. Boswell’s early rearing came at the hands of her uncle’s and mother’s parents at the Lincoln Institute in Kentucky, where her grandfather was principal. She learned the same values her grandparents taught them. As a girl she adored her uncle but as a afro-wearing young woman caught up in Black Power fervor she favored the militancy of Stokely Carmichael to the diplomacy of Whitney Young. Her film makes clear the movement required many approaches to affect needed change.
As a middle-aged woman today, she says, “I certainly have come to appreciate Whitney’s role and the subtleties of things he was dealing with that I didn’t have the maturity to really understand. I was much more emotional about discrimination, period. He grew up in a time when you couldn’t afford to be so emotional and I didn’t understand that. I can definitely appreciate his legacy more today.”
The civil rights champion’s name adorns schools, organizations and empowerment programs around the nation. In Omaha the Urban League of Nebraska’s Whitney Young Jr. Academy offers life and career skills to youths.
Ticket reservations for the film screening-discussion are recommended. Call 402-933-0259 or visit http://www.filmstreams.org.
- ‘Independent Lens: The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights’ (Review) (popmatters.com)
- Boardrooms And Beyond: Remembering Civil Rights ‘Power Broker’ Whitney Young (npr.org)
- New film tells story of unsung civil rights leader Whitney Young Jr (thegrio.com)
- New Film Tells Story Of Unsung Civil Rights Leader (huffingtonpost.com)
- ‘The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights’ a New PBS Documentary (atlantablackstar.com)
Beaty’s One-Man Dramatization of the Diaspora Considers What Freedom Looks Like for African Americans
In the theater few artists have what it takes to pull off a one-man or one-woman show that requires creating multiple characters of all different ages and persuasions and that are both believable and compelling. Daniel Beaty is such a rare artist. He’s performing his one-man show Emergency Feb. 15 at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha and it’s a must-see for its thought-provoking and entertaining take on what freedom means to African Americans in the context of the specter of slavery amidst the land of liberty. My story will soon be appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Beaty’s One-Man Dramatization of the Diaspora Considers What Freedom Looks Like for African Americans
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When writer-actor-composer Daniel Beaty conjures the 25-plus characters he portrays in his provocative one-man show, Emergency, it’s well to remember his riffs on the African-American experience are informed by his own life.
His award-winning play, which he performs Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center, is a bold meditation on freedom. It imagines a slave ship rising out of the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty in present-day New York City. When this worst symbol of slavery rears its ugly head before our greatest symbol of freedom it throws into relief the inconvenient truth that liberty still eludes many African Americans.
“This is a metaphor for what stands in front of our freedom,” Beaty says. “Emergency is an exploration of what it means to be free – free to love, free to have hope, free to find one’s purpose and to live a life that’s bold and fully expressed.”
He says the ideas behind the show come from his own growing up as well as observations he made as a former New York City public schools arts educator, where every day reality contradicted America’s promise of equal opportunity.
“Because of my own personal upbringing and life story I really saw myself reflected in the lives of so many of these young people dealing with similar issues of parents battling incarceration or addiction or poverty,” he says. “It really clarified my purpose as a writer and performer to ask the questions, Why are we here? How can things be better? What world are we leaving for our children? It became clear to me the unhealed legacy of slavery is still impacting the hearts and minds of so many people. It goes back to the breakdown of the family that happened during slavery and our children not being told the story of our history in this country and not understanding the roots of economic disparity.”
For Beaty, the cyclical, generational problems that hold many blacks back have their origins in the psychic shackles of slavery.
“Why do you think there are more black people who are poor and in prison than any other group? Because we’re inferior? No. The ghetto is a modern-day plantation. And don’t get it twisted, I’m not just talking about poor people. You can have a six-figure income, a Ph.D., and still be a slave in your mind.
“I don’t believe in telling the story as excuse-making. People overcome and do the extraordinary every day. But I do believe in telling the story for the sake of context and saying, ‘You may have been born in the ghetto and your mom and your grandmother may have been in the ghetto and there’s a root for this economic disparity. But the same way there’s a root for that disparity there is a story of tremendous overcoming and possibility that can also inspire you to be greater than your circumstances may cause you to believe you can be.”
Beaty’s a case in point. The Dayton, Ohio native’s father became a career criminal and heroin addict. With his father in and out of prison Beaty and his older brother were raised by their social worker mother, Shirley Magee.
“My mother is a phenomenal woman. She grew up very poor in a small North Carolina town. She and her family participated in boycotts and sit-ins. She saw the becoming and the challenges of that period in our history. She’s just a fighter by nature, so in the midst of my father’s incarceration and addiction she made sure we were provided for at the expense of her own rest. She worked long hours and took care of her children.”
Daniel’s prodigious writing and speaking skills set him on a path to higher education. The Yale University and American Conservatory Theater graduate has written a string of solo (Through the Night) and ensemble (Resurrection) plays that have garnered acclaim.
Dedicated to being an “artist activist,” he says his activism is “rooted in everything I write anyway but I’m more and more being asked to participate in causes, in conversations around social issues. I personally believe that with a platform of fame or celebrity comes the responsibility to be a participant in the social discourse. With the privilege of people saying we listen to you, we want to hear from you comes a responsibility to give voice to those who don’t have that voice. That’s a big lesson I was taught by some of my mentors like Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Bill Cosby, who used the platform of their celebrity or performance to talk about important issues.”
He feels there’s also a healing and bridging his work offers audiences.
“One of the main reasons I choose to perform and write solo plays is because I believe inherent in seeing one person portray dozens of characters in a truthful, three-dimensional manner is the message that we are all connected. I sincerely believe our greatest problems as a world are rooted in the illusion we are separate from one another and different from one another. Certainly there are points of difference but I sincerely believe we are more alike than we are unalike,” he says.
“I think it’s in the space of understanding our shared humanity that we have the best possibility of healing the social economic disparities and ending the violence that plague societies. We are responsible to each other and for each other.”
He says his work falls in line with the African-American oral tradition and its contemporary spoken word off-shoots.
“One of the framing devices of the play is a nationally televised competition of slam poets called ‘America’s Next Top Poet,’ It’s a riff on the reality TV talent competitions we have today and a platform for various characters in the show who are thematically responding to the various things happening in the play.
“I look at slam poetry as having its roots in the black arts movement of the 1960s and while I certainly have respect for certain hip hop artists and particularly the roots of hip hop the slam poetry I endeavor to write is poetry about uplift, and investigating a social-political human scene in need of urgent, passionate exploration. I don’t write about things I would consider every day, mundane or not in support of us becoming our best selves as human beings. I write about things I feel are very urgent, like the state of our young people, the state of our families.”
Outside the New York theater scene he’s perhaps best known for having been a Def Poetry Jam regular. His performance there of the poem “Knock, Knock,” taken from his own Emergency, became a YouTube sensation. He uses slam poetry and spoken word as testimonies that comment on the incendiary events of his plays. He likes what can be expressed through the slam style.
“I actually call the moments of heightened poetic expression in my shows soul arias. They’re moments of direct address that are these passionate two to three minute explosions of poetic expression that crystalize not only an idea or theme but an emotional feeling in a powerful, poignant way that can parallel the aria in opera or the soliloquy in Shakespeare.
“‘Knock, Knock’ is a perfect example.”
The searing poem affirms that parents’ bad decisions need not define their children’s lives.
Knock knock for me.
For as long as you are free,
These prison gates cannot contain my spirit.
The best of me still lives in you.
Knock knock with the knowledge that you are my son,
But you are not my choices.
Yes, we are our fathers’ sons and daughters,
But we are not their choices.
For despite their absences,
We are still here,
With the power to change this world
One little boy and girl at a time.
“Ultimately what I discovered is that no matter where we come from or where we are in terms of challenges or difficulties we have the power to create our lives,” Beaty says. “My deepest pain was the path to my highest purpose. By really dealing with the challenges of my past and looking at them straight in the face I discovered I have a story to tell. I’m able to create the kind of life I want out of clarity of who I’m choosing to be, not out of fear of who I could be based on my past.”
It’s a message he’ll share with youths during his Sherwood Foundation-sponsored Omaha visit in workshops at North, South and Central high schools and with the Young, Gifted & Black teen troupe at The Rose Theater.
For updates about the artist visit http://www.danielbeaty.com.
For tickets to Emergency, visit TicketOmaha.com.
- Kelly: Yale grad bringing show – a ‘powerful’ statement on race – to Omaha (omaha.com)
- Def Jam Poetry: Daniel Beaty’s “Knock Knock”…Oldie, but a goodie! (komplexkulture.wordpress.com)
The following story was supposed to have appeared in The Reader (www.thereader) but human error resulted in a much shorter version being published. Fortunately I can publish it here and on the paper’s website and link it to Facebook and Twitter and all the rest of the social media universe. The piece explores one of the first intentional interracial housing developments in Omaha and perhaps anywhere in the Midwest or the nation as a whole. The suburban New Horizons addition was created in the 1960s as a sanctuary free of the red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants that relegated blacks to specific, designated, and confining areas to live. Blacks found no barriers to build or rent or move into New Horizons, where their neighbors might be black or white. This social action or experiment largely worked, too, though decades later the neighborhood has lost the diversity it once had and is now mostly white. The cruelest cut with what happened to the article not being published as it should have been in the paper is that this story is very personal to me. You see, my late life partner, Joslen Johnson Shaw, grew up in New Horizons. She was African American, Her parents, George and Juanita Johnson, built there in 1969 and were among the first residents in the neighborhood, black or white. The Johnsons were barrier breakers in more ways than this. They didn’t let racism or discrimination stand in the way of their aspirations. Before moving to New Horizons Joslen accoompanied her folks to open houses and saw with her own eyes as realtors and homeowners shunned and ignored them. As Joslen’s mother, Juanita, put it, “It was if we were invisible.” My primary source for the story is Juanita, who still lives in New Horizons. Joslen and I bought a home of our own in New Horizons six years ago. It’s just around the corner from Juanita’s place. I’m sitting in my office in that home as I type and post this. The other main source is Joslen’s brother, Marty. I wrote the story for them and in memory of Joslen and her late father, George. I wanted to make sure I got it right and that’s why it upset me when the story I cared so much about didn’t wind up in the paper as it should have. Well, here it is the way it was supposed to be there. This one’s for you, honey.
For The Reader
©by Leo Adam Biga
It took the civil rights movement to bring segregation in the United States into sharp relief. The South was the epicenter of the racial equality battle but American-style apartheid as well as attempts to dismantle it were everywhere, including Nebraska.
Omaha prides itself on hospitality yet African Americans here could not always live or or work or play or attend school where they wanted through the 1960s. In response to housing and work discrimination, for example, protest marches, sit-ins and other advocacy efforts organized.
With homeowners, realtors and banks discouraging blacks from white neighborhoods, it took extraordinary measures for blacks to integrate some sections of the city. One remedy was the creation of a new subdivision, appropriately named New Horizons, located on the then-western outskirts of the city, just off 108th Street between Dodge and Blondo and just north of Old Mill. The backs of the western-most homes abut 108th Street and the easternmost residences face 105th Street. Homes also extend from Nicholas Street on the north to Burt Street on the south. The interracial developers designed the new addition as an integrated neighborhood open to all. By all accounts their vision was fulfilled.
Situated in what was then-countryside New Horizons was established in 1965 and the first houses were built soon after on the tiered land. Corn fields stretched south, west and east of this built-from-the-ground-up neighborhood only a stone’s throw away from small working farms and stables. The two major east-west thoroughfares in the area, Dodge and Blondo, were two lanes each then.
New Horizons neighborhood
This story chronicles the experiences of some past and present residents of this mixed race community, including what precipitated their moving there. They don’t necessarily view New Horizons as having been a social action or social experiment but that’s exactly what it was. It was revolutionary for the time, especially by Omaha standards, where even hometown icon and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was frustrated in his attempts to move into the neighborhood of his choice. If he couldn’t find satisfaction, then every day people like George and Juanita Johnson stood little chance.
In the mid-1960s the Johnsons were a college-educated, two-income married couple on an upwardly mobile track, but neither their names nor their positions gave them any influence to change that era’s prevailing discrimination. He was a Benson High art teacher. She was a North High math instructor and guidance counselor. They’d recently started a family and next sought buying a new, larger home near a park and good schools.
The North Omaha residents had built a house at 38th and Bedford but having outgrown it they set their sights on moving to wherever they could find their dream home. As African Americans, however, their aspirational pursuits, like those of countless other persons of color, were blocked.
It was a time when blacks were routinely subjected to unfair housing practices, some subtle, others blatant, that effectively confined them to living in a small geographic area. Regardless of means, if you were black in Omaha then you had little choice but to live, as the Johnsons did, in the area bounded by Cuming Street on the south, Ames Avenue on the north, 40th Street on the west and 16th Street on the east. The northeast inner city became the black “ghetto.” Getting out of it required a migration not alike that of blacks migrating from the Deep South.
In many ways Omaha’s de facto segregation was as pernicious and long lasting as any on the books in the South, resulting in a divided city that clearly demarcated the Near Northside as Black Omaha. Red lining real estate tactics, discriminatory banking practices, restrictive housing covenants and unfair hiring standards made it difficult if not impossible for blacks to live and work in many parts of their own city, denied and discouraged simply due to the color of their skin.
Though blacks live everywhere in the metro today, Omaha’s geographic segregation persists – with most blacks in Omaha still residing in North Omaha – in part due to the lasting imprint of the housing discrimination that once ruled the day.
Better opportunities in education, employment and housing slowly emerged in response to equal rights pleas, marches, mandates, laws and court rulings.
“Things were just beginning to open up with schools and jobs and activities in Omaha but you had to look for them. You know, you would see pictures in the paper of things happening, of activities that should have been open to everyone, but because of restrictive housing they really weren’t,” says Juanita Johnson.
She says an entire apparatus or conspiracy of bigoted hearts kept white areas off limits to blacks. Realtors and others acted as overseers in steering blacks to all black enclaves or to undesirable neighborhoods deemed ready for integration.
“We contacted some realtors and they showed us some places north. They told us we could be blockbusters and open up some new neighborhoods,” Johnson recalls. “The realtors decided which areas were going to integrate and which areas weren’t. They would watch the housing trends and determine, ‘We’ll let this block go now.” But the neighborhoods they were offering to us didn’t show much potential, they didn’t look like they were going to stay good working neighborhoods, they didn’t look like they were stable. There were several for rent signs on properties.”
She’s sure some realtors she and her late husband George dealt with were merely “going through the motions” to placate them. “They just showed us places that we would not have been interested in anyway – houses that were too small for what we wanted. We didn’t want a place that would have other houses six feet on either side. We wanted to find a house or build a house on a good-sized lot that had room for yard and play space for kids.”
Even though the Johnsons were eager and prepared to buy, it was as if their money was no good and their wishes didn’t matter. The more they looked for a home and were turned away the more incredulous they grew.
“We went to several open houses and at some of them it was as if we were invisible,” Johnson says. “I mean, they would greet people in front of us, they would greet people that were coming in behind us and it was just as if we weren’t there. I really can’t say there was anything (racial) said, it was more or less as if we were invisible walking through the places. We just thought they were stupid to behave in this way and we laughed at them.”
The Johnsons experienced the same frustration in their desire for a better life that the fictional Younger family encountered in Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin in the Sun. Though the Youngers meet much resistance in the story, they eventually fulfill their goal of moving out of the inner city tenement they rent into a suburban home of their own. That play’s powerful dramatization, later adapted to the screen, made quite an impact on blacks facing the same issues in real life.
“I think that helped to motivate a lot of us in that it appeared to be possible and that this could happen to us as individuals,” says Johnson.
But there were societal-cultural roadblocks to achieving that dream. Being shunned, ignored and disrespected the way the Johnsons and so many of their black peers were elicited hard feelings in some, discouraged others and in the case of the Johnsons, motivated them even more.
The fact that we had been looking for a place and were just tired of running into barriers,” Johnson says, is what made the prospect of building a home in New Horizons “so attractive.” She says New Horizons represented a balancing-the-scales effort at “an integrated community of middle to upscale housing that was out far enough from the main part of the city that people wouldn’t say we were living in the ghetto – that we were in a suburban house just like anyone else.”
Moving to a racially blended suburb also promised a diversity fast disappearing in northeast Omaha, where white flight left the area predominantly African American. The suburbs also meant access to better performing schools.
“We wanted to be in a situation where we could have the best for our children, the best opportunities, and we wanted them to be exposed to the cultural advantages I knew other children were being exposed to,” she says. “We wanted our kids to have the opportunities to participate in whatever they were really interested in doing and not be kept out or let in because they were black. We knew we wanted an opportunity for the kids to have a really integrated education.”
Enter New Horizons. Its late developers were prominent Omaha veterinarian, Dr. A.B. Pittman, architect Golden Zenon and architect-civil engineer J.Z. Jizba. Pittman and Zenon were African American and Jizba was white.
For Pittman, New Horizons was an expression of a commitment to helping his own people realize their dreams and to bridging the divide between people of different races and creeds. He was president of the Omaha branches of the National Urban League and the National Council of Christians and Jews.
“My father was always concerned about getting people better housing,” says his daughter Antoinette “Toni” Pittman. “He was on the board of the Urban League Housing Foundation (now Family Housing Advisory Services), the Omaha Planning Board and the Omaha Housing Authority. Even before New Horizons he was involved in a housing development around 27th and Hamilton that the North Freeway took out. He was just concerned with people bettering themselves. He just did it, he didn’t talk about it.”
Pittman struck a personal blow for equal housing by buying a home at 97th and Dodge. In order to avoid potential obstacles or opposition he had a proxy buy it for him and then hand over the deed, explains his daughter, who grew up there. She says hers was the only black family there and fortunately they met no resistance.
The Johnsons were friends with the Pittmans through the northeast Omaha Episcopal church they both attended, St. Philip’s.
“Probably George and A.B. and Zinnon had been talking about this and it just seemed it was available at the right time and we were in the right position to make that decision and build there. We were looking at getting settled before any more time went by,” says Johnson.
The Johnsons moved into their newly built split-level home in the spring of 1969. Their late daughter, Joslen Johnson Shaw, was 9 at the time and their son Marty 4.
She says finally getting into the house they’d so long sought brought a mix of feelings, including relief.
“We were just real anxious to get settled in what we knew was going to be our permanent home.”
Another black family there with the same surname, though no relation, felt the same sense of accomplishment.
“I remember the day we moved in there my father standing in front of the house and being so proud,” says Glenda Johnson Moore, whose parents Walter and Bernice Johnson had weathered the same frustrations George and Juanita did in seeking a new home. “Who would have ever thought my father would have moved in that neighborhood? That was unheard of. It was great. I mean, it was a big thing.”
It was enough of a newsworthy event that the Omaha World-Herald did a story.
For the most part, New Horizons lived up to its promise, with a nearly 50-50 split of blacks and whites at the start. A Hispanic family also became early residents there.
“It worked out fine,” says Juanita Johnson, who adds that the neighborhood association and occasional neighborhood picnics enjoyed nearly even black and white participation. Her best friends there were black and white. She suspects most if not all the whites who moved into New Horizons were not looking to make any kind of social statement about diversity.
“I think they were people that really didn’t care, they were just looking for housing.”
That was true of Corinne Murphy and her late husband William, who built their home in 1970 directly north of George and Juanita’s. Though the Murphys knew about the open integration policy it didn’t factor one way or the other in their decision. “We were just looking for a place where they were building houses and this happened to be one of the places they were building them,” says Corrine. “I just liked the neighborhood. It had a nice park. There weren’t too many people yet.”
She says the idea of living in a racially mixed neighborhood “didn’t bother us” and that, if anything, she admired her new black neighbors, most of whom were professionals. “They were a lot smarter and better off than I was. They all had good paying jobs and were well educated. I got along with them all.”
She says her five kids became fast friends with the black kids in the neighborhood.
“Marty Johnson and my son Rory were very good friends. There was a time when they were walking home from school and kids were picking on Marty and my Rory just got right in the middle of that argument with those kids and made sure he got home OK. Yeah, they were best friends, they really liked each other. They still do.”
Marty says neither the white kids he befriended there nor their parents ever betrayed any hint of racism.
“I was always up at their houses playing and their parents were always very friendly and welcoming to me, and they’d always come down and play at our house.”
Whatever sport was in season, he says, neighborhood kids would join in playing it, older kids, young kids, black kids, white kids.
“Looking back on it now somebody driving by having no idea what this neighborhood was about would probably be really surprised to see all these kids of different colors playing together. It was probably very unique. I look back at it and I think, ‘Oh wow,’ it was probably pretty groundbreaking.”
Lee Valley, an adjacent neighborhood built around the same time as New Horizons, stood in sharp contrast because it lacked any diversity. The Horizons kids would occasionally challenge the Valley kids to a game of football or baseball and the marked difference in their makeup was hard to ignore.
“We were this totally mixed group of kids playing these white kids,” Marty says.
The area school Marty and Joslen attended, Edison, was all white until the Johnson siblings and some of their fellow black Horizons neighbors attended there. Marty says he never ran into racism in the neighborhood but did at school.
Glenda Johnson Moore also had a hard time adjusting to otherwise all white schools but her Horizons experience wasn’t all peaches and cream.
“The people that lived across the street from us were extremely racist,” she says. “We were called names. It got better eventually but you felt it, you absolutely you felt it. It was uncomfortable for a long time.”
Overall, she’s grateful to have grown up there.
“I’m glad I had the diversity. It’s made me a stronger person, it’s made me who I am today. I can communicate to anybody. It was a good place, it was a good thing.”
Juanita Johnson says she wanted her kids to have the enrichment that comes from diverse experiences because her “progressive” parents wanted the same for her. Her father Saybert Hanger was one of the area’s first black attorneys and a federal meat inspector. Her mother Ione Hanger was an elementary school teacher in the Omaha Public Schools and later taught at Creighton University. Johnson says her parents wanted full opportunities for all kids “and I was fortunate enough that they pushed and encouraged me to break barriers.”
At Omaha Central High, circa 1945, Juanita was the only black student on the year book and school newspaper staffs. She received her master’s from Creighton University at a time when few blacks attended there. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s International House she resided with students from around the world and she attended interracial camps that attracted students from the four corners.
Similarly, her husband cultivated black and white friends growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa and he integrated Wayne State (Neb.) College.
It’s not coincidental both Marty and Joslen involved themselves in activities, including her showing horses, that meant interacting mainly with whites. Joslen integrated Brownell-Talbot School. Many of their friends were white. Each ended up with a white life partner.
Marty says, “I think my well-rounded life is because my parents were always exposing me to different things. They really were pioneers in a lot of different things. This was the pattern of their life – breaking barriers. If there was a barrier they certainly eliminated it. They were groundbreaking and cool and somewhat courageous, too.”
His mother says all of it was meant to foster a time when “I didn’t want my children to have to look at the things they were doing as being barrier breakers. If they wanted to try out for something they could just go ahead and try and either be good enough to be accepted that every other child was accepted or refused because they weren’t good enough, but not because of their color.”
Juanita and George were also intentional about keeping their family’s ties to Omaha’s traditional African American community alive. For example, they continued attending their home parish, St. Philips, whose congregation was entirely black. Marty took music lessons from an instructor in northeast Omaha. Joslen was active in Jack and Jill, a social club designed to reconnect young blacks dispersed when their families moved from the Near Northside.
Marty says he appreciates “all that my parents exposed us to and always giving us opportunities. I feel very fortunate they made the choices they made. It’s pretty amazing to me how forward thinking they were.”
Juanita Johnson still lives in New Horizons and her next door neighbor is still Corinne Murphy. The neighborhood is not nearly as diverse as it once was and the homes show their age, but it’s held its own. Many old-line black residents have moved or died off and few new blacks have moved in. Johnson attributes the paucity of blacks there to the fact they have so many more options today. That was the whole point of New Horizons anyway – freedom to live where you want.
Now the metro’s replete with diverse neighborhoods just like New Horizons used to be and may be again.
- Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and Delights for Senior Kinship Caregiver Theresa Glass Union, Who Always Puts Family First (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- American adoptee’s discovery of his birth parents reveals a story of interrupted romance and regal ancestry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Ernie Chambers. His name variously polarizes, raises blood pressure, inspires, confounds, sparks discussion and debate, and generally elicits some kind of response . If you’re a Nebraskan, past or present, than you not only know the name but the context for why the mere mention makes it virtually impossible to take a neurtral stand about this vociferous, independent, lone wolf figure who is an open book in some ways and an enigma in other ways. His name’s traveled widely outside Nebraska as well. He first gained local and national noteriety back in the 1960s for his stirring presence in the documentary A Time for Burning. He parlayed the stage that gave him and his grassroots work as activist, advocate, guardian, and spokesperson for Omaha’s African-American community to win election to the Nebraska Legislature. He served as that body’s only black representative for 38 years, finally leaving office because of term limits, but he’s just returned to his old District 11 seat after defeating incumbant Brenda Council in the Nov. 6 general election. When he was in office before he took many controversial and brave stands and he never, ever backed down from a fight, often employing his sharp wit and procedural mastery to humble opponents and win concessions. He’s back alright, armed with much the same rhetoric he’s used since the height of the black power and civil rights movements, which begs the question: What does the 75-year-old social justice warhorse have to offer his district in an era when many of his constituents need more education, relevant job skills, living wage jobs, and transportation solutions and want economic development in North Omaha that includes them, not excludes them? Is he in touch with younger generation and professional blacks who perhaps see things differently than he does and want specific, tangible progress now? This story doesn’t address those things but a future story I write just might. Instead, the following piece for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) looks at a new political biography about Chambers by Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, who offers some insights and opinions about the man she’s long admired. The book is aptly titled, Free Radical: Ermest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race.
Free Radical Ernie Chambers the Subject of New Biography by Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally apepared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It’s fitting a new book taking the measure of Nebraska politico legend Ernie Chambers is out just as this old social justice warhorse has proven he still owns the people’s will.
In the Nov. 6 general election the 75-year-old Chambers demonstrated the pull he still maintains by decisively beating incumbent Brenda Council to regain his old state legislative seat. Public disclosure of Council’s misuse of campaign funds to support a gambling addiction undoubtedly hurt her. But she would likely have found Chambers a formidable opponent anyway.
Amid the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s, Chambers emerged as a black activist straight out of central casting. The longtime state senator was everything the white establishment feared or loathed: a young, brash, angry black man with an imposing physique, a rare eloquence, a brilliant mind, a devoted following and a dogged commitment. His goatee and muscle shirt effectively said, Fuck off.
When he saw a wrong he felt needed remedy he would not give in or remain silent, even in the face of surveillance, threat and arrest.
The Omaha native was forged from centuries of oppression and the black nationalist militancy of his times yet remained fiercely independent. He paid allegiance only to his grassroots, working poor base in northeast Omaha, whose District 11 residents elected him to nine terms in office. He stayed real cutting hair and holding court at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop for many years. He was forced out of office in 2009 only because of term limits, a petition effort widely seen as targeting him specifically.
At a Nov. 3 Community Day rally in North Omaha Chambers said:
“I don’t come to these kind of gatherings regularly. It’s not easy for me, even though I enjoy being around my brothers and sisters. But I’m a solitary person. Basically, I am a loner, and experience has created that persona for me because I’m in situations where bad things can happen and if I’m relying on somebody else and they don’t come through – I know what I would do but I don’t know what somebody else would do. I can’t depend on anybody else.
“So if I see an issue that needs to be addressed it’s for me to address it. I don’t go to committees, I don’t go to organizations, I don’t ask anybody for anything, and it’s not that I’m ungrateful or unappreciative. I just have to survive and my survival depends ultimately on me. So that’s why I do what I do.”
Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson well captures his enigmatic essence in the main title of her political biography, Free Radical, as he’s been a singularly reactive yet stable force these many decades. The subtitle, Ernest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race, refers to the context of his public service role.
Chambers was not the first black leader in Nebraska. Nor was he the first to hold public office. But he was the first to command wide respect and wield real power. During a 38-year run in the legislature that made him the longest-serving state senator in Unicameral history he mastered the art of statecraft. Trained as an attorney and possessing a facile mind even his critics admired, he adeptly manipulated legislative rules and procedures. Though he represented a small, poor constituency and uttered divisive rhetoric, fellow senators needed his support if they wanted their bills advanced. He couldn’t be ignored.
The arc of his political career is a major focus of Johnson, who at one point was in charge of his personal papers.
“She had access to information that other people didn’t have access to,” he says of his biographer.
Overall, he’s pleased with the final product and its depiction of his career.
“I don’t have any objection to what she did.”
In terms of fairly and accurately capturing his work as an elected official, he says it’s right on “as far as it went,” adding, “Many articles have been written that go into more depth on some things than Tekla wrote about in her book.” He says he understands “there are things someone will emphasize that I wouldn’t and there are things I would emphasize that they wouldn’t. But that’s the way it goes. No two people see a complex issue the same way. Even people called historians are really interpreters. They can’t write everything about everything, so they select what they think is important in order to convey the message they have in mind.”
He says he had little input into the manuscript.
“There may have been something when she got through that she sent and I dealt primarily with grammar and inconsequential things. I didn’t try to change the thrust of it or tell her what to write.”
Johnson confirms the same, saying she only sought his opinion on certain matters and even then they sometimes disagreed. In order to maintain her scholarly freedom she says she only began writing the book after she left his employ and then had little contact with him during the writing process.
In the end, he’s flattered his political life has been documented.
“I appreciate the fact that somebody thought enough of the work that I’ve done to compile material between two covers of a book and make that available to whomever may choose to read it.”
He says he’s doing interviews in support of the book “mainly because of Tekla, the amount of time and effort she put into the work, and I don’t want to say or do anything that would diminish in any respect what she has done or the value that I place on it.”
Perhaps the most telling vantage point of Chambers she gained came when she worked as his legislative aide.
“I actually got to see the day to day process,” she says of the experience.
The book began as Johnson’s history thesis at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She served as a consultant to the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha and helped catalog its collection. Today, she’s an assistant professor of history at Salem College (N.C.). Her Texas Tech University Press published book is available wherever books are sold.
Johnson says when she hit upon the idea of making Chambers her thesis study a professor told her, “That’d be great, except he won’t let you. He won’t let anybody that close to him.” She found a way in, however. “I decided to go to his office. I didn’t actually ask him. I talked to his legislative aide, Cynthia Grandberry, and said, ‘Look, I want to write my dissertation on Sen. Chambers,’ and she said, ‘Sure, if you help me clean up the office.’”
This was 2001.
“He produced such enormous volumes of materials that despite an excellent filing system he literally had overrun the file cabinets many years before. I actually spent the first two years of the project processing his papers,” says Johnson.
The project was a labor of love about a figure she idolized as a girl.
“I grew up knowing about Sen. Chambers. I’m from North Omaha and he was always sort of somewhere there in the background. As a young woman I would occasionally see him speaking at an event, especially if there was something dire that had happened in the community.”
Immersing herself in his vast collection she says she acquired a new appreciation for his advocacy and for how her own coming-of-age intersected with his work.
“One of the things I first noticed in working on the collection is that almost a third, but a full fourth for sure, of his papers are about police violence and killings, police harassment, complaints from citizens in North Omaha. It took up a large section of one of the four rooms his papers are housed in. It was enormous.
“I also found I traced back to myself. I came across police incidents that happened when I was young that I remembered Sen. Chambers speaking out against. One of those was when I was 10 years old and living in Lincoln (Neb.). On our corner Sherdell Lewis was shot (and killed). We knew him. My sister and I were his papergirls. He was shot on his doorway by Lincoln police. Shortly after the shooting the black community came to my mother’s house because they needed a place nearby (to mourn and vent).”
Johnson says many questioned whether the shooting was justified.
“I had totally forgotten about that. There’s a picture in the book of Sen. Chambers leading a protest march along with the victim’s mother.”
Similarly, she says Chambers was a vocal critic of the shooting of Vivian Strong that sparked urban unrest in Omaha in 1969 and of other cases where excessive force was used.
She says any understanding of him must start with “the deep dedication of North Omahans to Sen. Chambers because even at his own expense he would not back down when he felt like the community was endangered or when he felt there was no respect for the lives and the civil rights and human rights of people in the community.” She says coming from a bi-racial home (her father’s African American and her mother’s Caucasian) she “sort of got to peek” at how blacks and whites viewed Chambers from different lenses. She also got to know how he understood that his rails against police brutality played differently to different audiences.
“He knew it was hard to believe for whites who lived in west Omaha or small towns. because those things were so far out of their experiences.”
She admires how he never let go of what he deemed important. His response to allegations of extreme police misconduct is illustrative, she says.
“In most cases when there was a police killing in the community he would request an investigation by the city. If that wasn’t done, if it was deemed a no-fault killing, if nobody were to be held accountable, then he went to other authorities. There are several (incidents) documented in the book where he filed for federal investigations into killings with the Department of Justice.”
She says one of his lasting achievements was sponsoring and winning passage of legislation requiring a grand jury be convened and an investigation be done anytime someone dies in police custody or in jail.
“I remember him having said, “We’re tired of our people being killed.’ So this is definitely an important part of the book to me. What he says happened in North Omaha I know it happened. It was real.”
Bad things continue happening. He grieves for the gun violence plaguing his community today, much of it black on black. In too many cases innocent folks are caught in the crossfire.
“I can’t tell you all what it does to me when I see something horrible happen to a young person, to anybody, but the helpless ones, the trusting ones, the ones who are trying for something better from us…they need help and we’re not there to offer it,” he said at the Nov. 3 rally.
In a public setting like the Community Day rally, the preacher’s son comes out in Chambers. the presumed agnostic, whose elocution has the melodic flair of the late jazz musician-radio host-lecturer Preston Love Sr. He holds an audience through his impassioned delivery and sheer magnetic presence. He sprinkles in metaphors and allegories from the Bible. It’s in settings like these the affinity between Chambers and the people becomes clear.
“He’s really in step with them. While Sen. Chambers didn’t form a group or join a group his ongoing dialogue with the community is the reason he maintained their trust and respect and why he actually was a liberating figure,” Johnson says. “To do that he insisted on passage of legislation that legislators could get collect calls, so he was able to get calls from all of his constituency. He also kept his job at the barbershop for years, in the summers and on the weekend, so people would have a place to come and talk with him personally.”
Chambers himself says that even when he lost his legislative seat he was still the person District 11 residents turned to for help, not black elected officials. That doesn’t surprise Johnson, who says he long ago earned people’s trust.
“He wasn’t the first person to take the role of leader in the community. Charlie Washington was a point person before him community members would go to.
But Sen. Chambers, because of his unusual ability intellectually, rhetorically, in terms of statecraft and the law and just his down to earth nature, earned an enormous following.”
Another of his greatest achievements, say Johnson and others, was getting district elections for the Omaha City Council, the Omaha School Board and the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. It’s resulted in many black elected officials for North Omaha. His open disdain for many of those representatives, whom he considers stooges for the white power structure, has distanced him from portions of the black elite class. Chambers being Chambers, he doesn’t much care.
“I think what has happened is they have been absorbed by the Democratic party and he chose to remain independent and I think that is probably the biggest divide,” says Johnson. “He was and is utterly completely free.”
Johnson believes he arrived at a point where he realized that as the lone black representative in the legislature representing a poor black constituency, the most he could do was to be their voice.
“All the legislators have to list their occupation and for a number of years he listed barber, but I think when he changed his written vocation to ‘Defender of the Downtrodden,’ it actually marked a change and a decision on his part that sort of is fatalistic. He decided that because of the politics and power lobbying that go on within the formal political parties and because of his own independence and insistence on speaking for the most disenfranchised, the poorest, and insisting government should haven in place support for their needs, he got to the point when he thought he would not be able to change the way that government in Neb. functions with respect to low income people.
“I think it was also the point when he was refused chairmanship again and again of the judiciary committee.”
In terms of legacy, she says, “he was at once respected but feared and unpopular among some of the senators. He would stop their bills if he didn’t get some of what he wanted and what he wanted was legislation or concessions that protected his people, that didn’t allow, for example, the Omaha Housing Authority to go into closed session and make decisions without public input. He did all kinds of things like that. He fought tooth and nail legislation to reduce allocations to people on aid to families with dependent children. He really fought those battles.”
“He’d get so frustrated, saying, ‘Y’all don’t know what it takes to make it on $320.’ Yes, it was rhetoric but it was heartfelt. He’s seen people struggling and he felt it was within the power of the state legislature to provide some relief. He felt at times they didn’t do it because of petty politics, because of western Neb. versus eastern Neb., because of racism, because of just indifference, and that made him angry.”
She says even though he often stood alone, he knew how to play politics.
“He never compromised his principles but he is a politician. He would come in on the weekends during the summer when session was out – this is what I gained from being able to actually observe – because he wanted to read up on all the other bills. He read up on what the interests of the other senators were. He knew their backgrounds, he knew everything about them. It’s not just the rules he employed, he played politics in terms of, ‘Look, if you want something from me, if you don’t want me to stop your bill or to filibuster, then you’re going to have to provide some concessions to things my constituents need.’”
Johnson says, “I don’t think he could have been more effective by doing it any other way. They dubbed him Dean of the Legislature because he was maximum effective for that base. I think the only way he could have been more effective is if those other senators had read as much about him and learned as much about the community he served and actually taken an interest, and I’m not saying a few didn’t, in how do we raise the standard for everybody in the state. If they had taken that position and cooperated with him more then he could have been more effective.”
Chambers operated much like his black peers in other states.
“African-American legislators across the country tended to be fairly effective just like Sen. Chambers in stopping legislation and not as effective at passing legislation. The ones who tend to be the most effective in working for the community tended to be on the out with the majority because they were battling all the time and they were always having to stand firm.”
Johnson wishes Chambers prepared the way for a successor.
“I do have a critique of him and it’s something I’ve openly talked to him about. He didn’t groom anybody (to replace him). It’s something I wish would have happened.”
As far as legacy, she feels his efforts in making Neb. the first state to pass any resolution for divestment of state funds from South Africa in protest of its apartheid practices “may be the thing he’s remembered for.”
Though serving 38 years in the legislature involved “self-sacrifice” on his part, she says it clearly hurt him when he could not run in 2008.
“I think he was not just disappointed because he had to leave for four years but the subtext for his career, besides trying to end police violence and confronting racism, was to gain political power for his constituency relative to other legislative districts in the state. His having to leave office made him feel that what he’d worked for had gone backwards because he felt the will of the people was being overridden by term limits. His constituency couldn’t elect him if they wanted to.”
She notes he ran unopposed several times and that he kept running because “I don’t think he saw anybody else as talented as he was who could really do the job as well as he did. That and the fact people let him know they wanted him to run again.” Now that he’s returning to the legislature she’s fascinated by how he and his new colleagues will work together.
“The body has changed because of term limits. The expertise that was there is no longer there. It hasn’t necessarily served Neb. well to have a constantly revolving, often times very young body at the helm. Who knows, maybe they’ll be more open to working with him. Maybe they’ll be less entrenched.”
An obvious advantage he’ll have, she says, is his vast experience.
Remarking on what people can expect from him, Chambers says, “For better or worse people have to see what it is that I am. They have to know what they’re getting if they come this way, and if they don’t like what it is I’m not the least offended. I probably wouldn’t like somebody like me. I would respect somebody like me. But likability is not an anything I cultivate because it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t achieve anything.”
He simply promises to be the same person he’s always been, which is to say someone “who never yields, never wavers, never accepts handouts from anybody, and whose only loyalty to a group is to this community.”
- Ernie Chambers, Brenda Council sharpen their barbs (omaha.com)
- Chambers returns to Legislature (omaha.com)
- Heineman welcomes Ernie back to the Chambers (AUDIO) (nebraskaradionetwork.com)
- Carver Building Rebirthed as Arts-culture Haven; Theaster Gates, Rebuild and Bemis Reimagine North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- 5 things to watch as the Nebraska legislative session begins (omaha.com)
I filed this story for a traveling Library of Congress exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic 2004 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that changed the face of education in America by law if not always practice.
Brown v. Board of Education: Educate with an Even Hand and Carry a Big Stick
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown v. Board ruling and its aftermath reveal how far America’s come on the issue of race and how far it still must go. Lauded as a landmark decision against segregated public schools and as a precursor to opening all public institutions, the decree bolstered the nascent civil rights struggle.
Brown was the end game in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund‘s challenge to the Plessy v. Ferguson separate-but-equal doctrine that sanctioned segregation. The NAACP legal team framed the argument for overturning Plessy in legal, social and moral terms.
The court’s unanimous decision held that school segregation violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th Amendment. But the integration and equity mandated by Brown has proven elusive.
One only has to look at Omaha for how insufficient the remedies to implement that finding have been. Before and even long after the ruling, black public school students here were largely confined to a few buildings on the north side. Black faculty were assigned to all black schools. It took a federal lawsuit filed by concerned Omaha parents and a resulting 1975 court-ordered busing program before the Omaha Public School district opened all its doors to students of color.
Thirty years later Omaha, like other urban centers, “is close to the point we were when Brown was decided, which is an educational system that is divided, if not solely on the basis of race, then clearly on the basis of class,” said Omaha attorney and former mayoral candidate Brenda Council. She said the problem will not be fixed until “we openly discuss it and take steps to ameliorate it.”
The OPS One City, One School District plan is the latest remedy offered by proponents of educational equity.
Suburban districts oppose the initiative and counter with options promising incentives and quotas to increase minority student placements.
Anyone interested in what led to Brown and to efforts at undoing or resisting its mandate can get a good primer on the topic by viewing With an Even Hand: Brown v. Board at Fifty at the Durham Western Heritage Museum.
The 100-plus items on display from the Library of Congress include intimate glimpses inside the precedents and processes behind Brown. There are photos, original legal briefs, even handwritten notes from Supreme Court justices and NAACP lawyers, that delineate history in the making. Some Omahans have personal connections to this history. Brenda Council’s late aunt, Geraldine Gilliam, was the first black teacher to integrate the schools in Topeka, Kansas. “I’m proud of that fact,” Council said.
Topeka native Norman Stanley, who now lives in Omaha, attended pre-Brown Topeka’s Monroe Elementary School. He was the product of a schizoid system whose elementary schools were segregated, but junior highs were integrated.
“It made no sense. You segregate a kid for the first six years and then integrate for the rest? Nobody could ever explain that to me,” Stanley said.
Although proud of the education he received under segregation, he embraced change. He was in the Air Force overseas when the Brown decision came down. “‘Thank God it’s over,’ I said. ‘By the time my grandkids are in high school, everything will be solved.’ How wrong I was.”
A Nov. 8 Durham panel discussion made clear Brown’s legacy is still a potent touchstone for equal rights advocates. Council was joined on the panel by KETV Ch. 7 “Kaleidoscope” host/producer Ben Gray, Creighton University law professor Mike Fenner and Glenwood (Iowa) Community Schools superintendent Stan Sibley.
Council pointed out the sad irony that 50 years after Brown, debate continues on how to fulfill its charge. She spoke of the need for “an enlightened citizenry to engage in open, honest discussion of the issues.”
Gray said equal education remains unrealized as “race, class and white privilege” have “disenfranchised” blacks, who are relegated to schools that have fewer resources. He said equality “ought not just be the law, it ought to be the moral imperative.” A vocal advocate of the OPS plan, he said segregation is back because “we’ve never, ever had a meaningful dialogue about” the issues behind it. “People of goodwill are just going to have to get out of their comfort zone and address this seriously.”
Sibley, a former OPS administrator, said, “It is true that not all of the people in the city of Omaha have a vested interest in the education of all the children in Omaha, and they really ought to. The dialogue has to happen, and if the dialogue focuses on what’s good for kids, then I think it will work out.”
Council said given the debate sparked by the OPS proposal, “It’s almost serendipitous this exhibit has come here at this time in Omaha.”
Rendered by a timid court, Brown was a gerrymandered decision built on “one compromise after another,” Fenner said. Its ambiguous 1955 order to proceed “with all deliberate speed” allowed individual states and school districts to implement the law in fits and starts or to outright ignore or defy it. It took later rulings, including forced busing, to achieve even partial and temporary desegregation.
Social trends like white flight have created entrenched suburban enclaves whose tax-rich districts serve predominantly white student bodies, resulting in the kind of defacto segregation that existed before. As whites have fled older, poorer inner city districts populated mainly by minorities, inner city schools have come to primarily serve students of color. The demarcation that exists along racial and social economic lines in schools reflects the same segregation patterns in housing.
A less than comprehensive response to the conditions that cause segregation has left loopholes for circumventing the spirit of the law. Beyond stifling diversity in schools, segregation critics contend the practice creates an unequal distribution of educational resources, thereby compromising the education of students lacking basics like books, computers, pencils, et cetera.
Mandatory busing forced the hand of school districts like OPS to integrate schools. Since the end of court-ordered busing in Omaha in 1999, OPS has lost most of its upper and middle-class student-tax base. As more students opt out of OPS for the Millard, Ralston, Elkhorn or Westside districts, OPS loses revenues and any semblance of a racially and socioeconomically balanced educational system.
The Brown exhibit includes a ’50s-era political cartoon by Bill Mauldin that sums up the struggle for equality in America. Three black children push mightily against an oversized door with the words “School Segregation” on it. Despite their best efforts, the door is only opened a crack. The caption reads: “Inch by Inch.” Brown opened the door, but forces continue to try and push it shut.
“It was a decision the majority of the country wasn’t really ready for,” Norman Stanley said. “I’m not sure even today we’re ready to do what the court told us to do.”
- Is Segregation Back in U.S. Public Schools? (nytimes.com)
- Brown v. Board site to mark ruling’s anniversary (kansas.com)
- Dept. of Education: School districts can use race-based policies to avoid segregation (wbez.org)
- Masterful: Omaha Liberty Elementary School’s Luisa Palomo Displays a Talent for Teaching and Connecting (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Jim Crow survives: Alabama (salon.com)
A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith
Rudy Smith was a lot of places where breaking news happened. That was his job as an Omaha World-Herald photojournalist. Early in his career he was there when riots broke out on the Near Northside, the largely African-American community he came from and lived in. He was there too when any number of civil rights events and figures came through town. Smith himself was active in social justice causes as a young man and sometimes the very events he covered he had an intimate connection with in his private life. The following story keys off an exhibition of his work from a few years ago that featured his civil rights-social protest photography from the 1960s. You’ll find more stories about Rudy, his wife Llana, and their daughter Quiana on this blog.
A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Coursing down North 24th Street in his car one recent afternoon, Rudy Smith retraced the path of the 1969 summer riots that erupted on Omaha’s near northside. Smith was a young Omaha World-Herald photographer then.
The disturbance he was sent to cover was a reaction to pent up discontent among black residents. Earlier riots, in 1966 and 1968, set the stage. The flash point for the 1969 unrest was the fatal shooting of teenager Vivian Strong by Omaha police officer James Loder in the Logan Fontenelle Housing projects. As word of the incident spread, a crowd gathered and mob violence broke out.
Windows were broken and fires set in dozens of commercial buildings on and off Omaha’s 24th Street strip. The riot leapfrogged east to west, from 23rd to 24th Streets, and south to north, from Clark to Lake. Looting followed. Officials declared a state of martial law. Nebraska National Guardsmen were called in to help restore order. Some structures suffered minor damage but others went up entirely in flames, leaving only gutted shells whose charred remains smoldered for days.
Smith arrived at the scene of the breaking story with more than the usual journalistic curiosity. The politically aware African-American grew up in the black area ablaze around him. As an NAACP Youth and College Chapter leader, he’d toured the devastation of Watts, trained in nonviolent resistance and advocated for the formation of a black studies program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he was a student activist. But this was different. This was home.
On the night of July 1 he found his community under siege by some of its own. The places torched belonged to people he knew. At the corner of 23rd and Clark he came upon a fire consuming the wood frame St. Paul Baptist Church, once the site of Paradise Baptist, where he’d worshiped. As he snapped pics with his Nikon 35 millimeter camera, a pair of white National Guard troops spotted him, rifles drawn. In the unfolding chaos, he said, the troopers discussed offing him and began to escort him at gun point to around the back before others intervened.
Just as he was “transformed” by the wreckage of Watts, his eyes were “opened” by the crucible of witnessing his beloved neighborhood going up in flames and then coming close to his own demise. Aspects of his maturation, disillusionment and spirituality are evident in his work. A photo depicts the illuminated church inferno in the background as firemen and guardsmen stand silhouetted in the foreground.
The stark black and white ultrachrome prints Smith made of this and other burning moments from Omaha’s civil rights struggle are displayed in the exhibition Freedom Journeynow through December 23 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2512 North 24th Street. His photos of the incendiary riots and their bleak aftermath, of large marches and rallies, of vigilant Black Panthers, a fiery Ernie Chambers and a vibrant Robert F. Kennedy depict the city’s bumpy, still unfinished road to equality.
The Smith image promoting the exhibit is of a 1968 march down the center of North 24th. Omaha Star publisher and civil rights champion Mildred Brown is in the well-dressed contingent whose demeanor bears funereal solemnity and proud defiance. A man at the head of the procession holds aloft an American flag. For Smith, an image such as this one “portrays possibilities” in the “great solidarity among young, old, white, black, clergy, lay people, radicals and moderates” who marched as one,” he said. “They all represented Omaha or what potentially could be really good about Omaha. When I look at that I think, Why couldn’t the city of Omaha be like a march? All races, creeds, socioeconomic backgrounds together going in one direction for a common cause. I see all that in the picture.”
Images from the OWH archives and other sources reveal snatches of Omaha’s early civil rights experience, including actions by the Ministerial Alliance, Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, De Porres Club, NAACP and Urban League. Polaroids by Pat Brown capture Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his only visit to Omaha, in 1958, for a conference. He’s seen relaxing at the Omaha home of Ed and Bertha Moore. Already a national figure as organizer of the Birmingham (Ala.) bus boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he’s the image of an ambitious young man with much ahead of him. Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr. joined him. Ten years later Smith photographed Robert F. Kennedy stumping for the 1968 Democratic presidential bid amid an adoring crowd at 24th and Erskine. Two weeks later RFK was shot and killed, joining MLK as a martyr for The Cause.
Omaha’s civil rights history is explored side by side with the nation’s in words and images that recreate the panels adorning the MLK Bridge on Omaha’s downtown riverfront. The exhibit is a powerful account of how Omaha was connected to and shaped by this Freedom Journey. How the demonstrations and sit-ins down south had their parallel here. So, too, the riots in places like Watts and Detroit.
Acts of arson and vandalism raged over four nights in Omaha the summer of ‘69. The monetary damage was high. The loss of hope higher. Glimpses of the fall out are seen in Smith’s images of damaged buildings like Ideal Hardware and Carter’s Cafe. On his recent drive-thru the riot’s path, he recited a long list of casualties — cleaners, grocery stores, gas stations, et cetera — on either side of 24th. Among the few unscathed spots was the Omaha Star, where Brown had a trio of Panthers, including David Poindexter, stand guard outside. Smith made a portrait of them in their berets, one, Eddie Bolden, cradling a rifle, a band of ammunition slung across his chest. “They served a valuable community service that night,” he said.
Most owners, black and white, never reopened there. Their handsome brick buildings had been home to businesses for decades. Their destruction left a physical and spiritual void. “It just kind of took the heart out of the community,” Smith said. “Nobody was going to come back here. I heard young people say so many times, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here.’ Many went away to college and never came back. That brain drain hurt. It took a toll on me watching that.”
Boarded-up ruins became a common site for blocks. For years, they stood as sad reminders of what had been lost. Only in the last decade did the city raze the last of these, often leaving only vacant lots and harsh memories in their place. “Some buildings stood like sentinels for years showing the devastation,” Smith said.
His portrait of Ernie Chambers shows an engaged leader who, in the post-riot wake, addresses a crowd begging to know, as Smith said, “Where do we go from here?’
Smith’s photos chart a community still searching for answers four decades later and provide a narrative for its scarred landscape. For him, documenting this history is all about answering questions about “the history of north Omaha and what really happened here. What was on these empty lots? Why are there no buildings there today? Who occupied them?” Minus this context, he said, “it’d be almost as if your history was whitewashed. If we’re left without our history, we perish and we’re doomed to repeat” past ills. “Those images challenge us. That was my whole purpose for shooting them…to challenge people, educate people so their history won’t be forgotten. I want these images to live beyond me to tell their own story, so that some day young people can be proud of what they see good out here because they know from whence it came.”
An in-progress oral history component of the exhibit will include Smith’s personal accounts of the civil rights struggle.
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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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