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A Young Artist Steps Out of the Shadows of a Towering Presence in His Life

September 3, 2011 1 comment

Legacy is a powerful thing, and when the shadow cast by a an older, highly accomplished figure looms large it can be a paralyzing specter of expectation to live up to for a young person following in those footsteps. In the case of the late celebrated realist figurative artist Kent Bellows, his larger-than-life presence in life and in death has not stymied the emergence of his talented nephew, Neil Griess, who is very much charting his own path as an artist to be watched. The following piece I did on Griess for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared three years ago, fast on the heels of Griess, then a high school senior, winning the same national award his uncle Kent Bellows had won 40 years earlier. Now, Griess is a college senior at the University of Nebraska, where he’s a studio art major, and is once again making waves with his work. Griess, who like his uncle did creates elaborate sets for his hyper-realistic paintings, had a work selected for a show at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha in early 2011 and another of his works has been selected for a new show, The Fascinators, the inaugural Charlotte Street Biennial of Regional BFA/MFA Candidates at La Esquina in Kansas City, Mo. You can read a short piece I did about Neil’s famous uncle, Kent Bellows, on this blog.

 

 

Painting by Neil Griess, Placemats (Charrette), 2011, 25 x 32.5 inches, oil on panel.

Painting ©by Neil Griess, Placemats (Charrette), 2011

 

 

A Young Artist Steps Out of the Shadows of a Towering Presence in His Life

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)

If 18-year-old award-winning visual artist Neil Griess of Omaha feels pressure to live up to the legacy of his maternal uncle Kent Bellows, he doesn’t betray it. Work by Bellows, the late American master of figurative realism, is in major private/public art collections. We’re talking the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.

In 2005 Bellows died at age 56 of natural causes in his Leavenworth Street studio/home, now preserved by the Bellows Foundation as an education center. The Omaha iconoclast was a player in New York art circles via his association with the Tatistcheff and Forum galleries. His paintings/drawings sold out wherever they exhibited. Interest in his work continues high.

A May Westside High School grad, Griess has far to go to reach such status, but perhaps not as far as you’d think. With his parents Jim and Robin Griess and his Westside art teacher Shawn Blevins on hand at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on June 15, Griess accepted the Portfolio Gold Honor in the national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which included a $10,000 cash prize. Griess, one of 12 Portfolio Gold winners from around the nation, trod onto the hallowed stage to accept the award. The presenter draped a large gold medal over him as the full, black tie-attired house applauded.

Forty years earlier Bellows won in the same competition. Other name artists have won, too, including Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol. The recognition brought Bellows scholarship opportunities at prestigious art schools. Griess too has been deluged with offers. Bellows studied at then-Omaha University. Starting in the fall, Griess will study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln under realist painter Keith Jacobshagen, a friend of Bellows.

What makes the prospect of Griess’s future development alluring is that he works in the same style as Bellows did – meticulous realism. Their dense work renders persons, objects, settings in such rigorous detail that it draws viewers into an infinite space invested with meaning. With almost any Bellows, Griess said, “it feels like you can get lost in it.” Even up close, he said, “you can’t really derive how he did it.” The technique and the process are as invisible and ineffable as Bellows was enigmatic.

Griess said he’s always been drawn to realism. “Yeah, I always thought realistic work is the direction I would want to go if I continued art,” he said. He can’t exactly pinpoint why. “I don’t know. It’s interesting,” he said, “because you’re not trying to reproduce this object or this person…but more capturing it, I suppose, in a specific moment, a specific point in time.” Or as Bellows once put it in an interview, the goal is to capture what’s beyond the photograph to “what is actually happening…to capture the subject’s soul…the subject’s inner life.”

“And that’s something I wanted to try to do with the eight paintings for my portfolio,” Griess said. “I think if something’s rendered so fully and to its ultimate height, it feels like you can enter the work and like feel that draped cloth in a piece,” he said, referring to a Bellows print on the wall of his home, the image’s tactile realism begging to be touched.

 

 

Neil Griess

Neill Griess, ©Photo by Andrew Dickinson

 

 

Naturally, Griess aspires to reach the mastery of Bellows, but by no means does he intend to be an imitator.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve tried to emulate him, although in certain instances I was when I was like really young, drawing based off some of the nudes he had done,” a smiling, nearly blushing Griess said, wiping his soft brown bangs from his face.

He’d especially like for his work to attain the openendedness that Bellows captured. In a Bellows work no single prescribed meaning is imposed on the viewer; rather the image invites viewers to glean their own meanings.

“That’s a quality I want to develop myself,” Griess said.

The process Griess uses to create his own work, much of it completed in a small, well-lit downstairs home work space he calls “thrown together” but that is neatly arrayed with brushes, pencils, acrylic paint tubes, is in the vein of photo-realism. He first photographs his subjects and with the resulting image as a guide he uses a pencil to map out the canvas before painting.

“I always paint based off pictures (photographs),” Griess said. “I grid everything out. I take that approach. Laying out a painting you still need to draw. It’s an important skill for getting things right when you finally start painting.”

The artist applies a clear plastic grid over a printed out photo of his subject and with a pencil divides the surface into squares running the length and width of the image. He transfers his grid to a board, which is what he paints on these days. He begins by drawing the major shapes or forms contained in each square onto the board before applying brush to paint and brush strokes to board.

“I pretty much just figure out where one square in the picture would be on the board and then from that one square I go to the next one” and so on, he said. “I add the smaller details later.”

Griess shares many predilections his late uncle indulged, including a love of film, a fascination with the fantastic, a passion for creating elaborate sets or backdrops for his work, although to date Griess has only employed sets to stop motion animation, and an interest in action figures and miniatures. Then there’s the fact Griess is left-handed, just as Bellows was.

“A lot of things line up like that,” Griess said. “Because I know he’s done all this great work it’s kind of like me now trying to discover what things I’m interested in beyond his work…to decide what I’ll ultimately be doing in my art. Of course this is an influence I’ll always keep while doing it.”

“Untitled” oil painting ©by Neil Griess

 

The art strain runs deep, as Griess’s maternal grandfather was a commercial artist and watercolorist, his mother is a watercolorist, one brother is a ceramicist/sculptor and another brother writes computer video game programs. “So I come from a long lineage of artists or creative thinkers,” Griess said.

Growing up, Griess was exposed to dozens of Bellows prints that adorn the walls of the family home. One of the nephew’s favorites, Nuclear Winter, is displayed in his bedroom. He felt drawn to Bellows as any adolescent would to a cool adult doing his own thing. “I admired him so much. He was probably the most charismatic, funny, interesting person that I know or probably will know,” Griess said.

The parallels between the two were obvious two weekends ago in New York City. It was the kid’s first time in the Big Apple, where in a whirlwind few days his path intersected with the path Bellows took in setting the art world on fire.

Just as Bellows attracted notice beyond his years, once cultivating Warren Buffett and his late first wife Susan Buffett as patrons, Griess, too, found himself the center of attention from older admirers at a post-awards dinner. The scene was the ritzy Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. There were congratulations, even autograph requests. “I got some very great compliments,” Griess said. Among the well-wishers was New York thespian Jason Butler Harner, who hosted the awards.

“He seemed very enthusiastic and impressed by my work, so that was great,” Griess said of Harner. “One of the guys that asked for my autograph said everyone was kind of talking about my work specifically, and that was nice. One woman actually came up to me and said my work brought tears to her eyes because of how young I am and I’m able to produce work like that.”

The plaudits began the night before, at Reeves Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, where selections of work by Griess and other Portfolio gold winners were shown. It was then, Griess said, that Alliance for Young Artists & Writers Chairman Dwight E. Lee “told me how much he loved my work.” At dinner the next night, Griess said,  “he gave me his card and said if I should ever want to sell art work I should contact him.” Westside teachers and others have expressed interest in buying Neil’s work.

“I’m actually selling paintings this summer,” Griess said. “I’ve sold one already, so I’m starting to learn how it feels to part with something.”

As if that wasn’t enough, the June 14 issue of USA Today reproduced one of his paintings to illustrate a Life Section story on the awards. “The one picture they chose was mine — my painting Pool Boy,” Griess said. “That was a really nice surprise. My dad ran up and down the floors in the hotel acquiring more” copies.

Pool Boy is one of many self-portraits and portraits Griess has executed. Portraiture was a favorite form for Bellows as well. One difference is that while Bellows was known for a dark, brooding nature that made him look severe if not downright scary, Griess has a sweet face and demeanor. That’s not to say there wasn’t whimsy in Bellows or his work or that Griess and his art is all peaches and cream.

The award, the praise, the contacts, Griess said, “are obviously great exposure for me and a great thing I can put on the resume. I would say it’s probably the best recognition I could have received operating within a high school.”

Griess submitted eight works to the Scholastic competition but gave little thought to winning, as he photographed his entrees himself and the images he submitted were less than flattering to the works themselves.

“Because of the fact I did not have great pictures of these paintings I submitted, I kind of dismissed the idea that anything would happen with this,” he said. “But then I got the call (saying he’d won) and I couldn’t really believe it for a good amount of time. I was basically sitting at home on a Friday night when I got this call out of the blue. I was pretty unprepared…Surprisingly. I think I handled it well, although afterwards I was like shaking in disbelief for 15 minutes.”

The artist created his winning series for Westside’s Advanced Portfolio class, which he said allows student artists rare autonomy in finding their vision-voice.

“Not many high school classes give you that much freedom in developing your own line of thinking for a series of paintings…I think it kind of helped me develop my own thinking for how I want to approach my art,” he said. “In the typical class you kind of just think in terms of the assignment and what they’re expecting you to see as the outcome, not how you would best display your own ideas or get your own point across.”

Griess hit upon the theme of high contrast at night, playing with different light sources. Some of the inspiration for what’s depicted in the work, he said, comes from Russian fairy tales — “I’ve always been interested in fairy tales” — and some of it comes from what was going on in his life at the time. His girlfriend, Erica, a film studies major at Northwestern University, is the subject of more than one work. She’s a casual portrait study in a piece called “Home Again” and her absence informs another piece in which an anxious Griess cowers on his front porch, alone at night, a doll seen inside a window providing no solace.

“With some of my paintings I first kind of get like this mental image and then when I’m painting it, even weeks after, I start to think about why I needed to do that or what was the significance of it,” he said.

©Kent Bellows’s self-portraits

 

 

Just as Bellows sought out great art in his travels, Griess spent his weekend in New York soaking up treasures at the Met. He and his folks also made special visits there and to the Forum gallery to see Bellows’ work in each venue. The splendor of it all, Griess said, “made me want to go back home and start working again.”

Griess didn’t need all the hype to feel an artistic kinship to his uncle. He just wished Bellows could have been there. “I was probably more wishing he could have been involved in this with me and seen the work I did to win this award,” he said. He regrets too never discussing their shared sweet affliction. “I was a shy kid and probably still am. I wouldn’t have necessarily been ready to talk with him about art or these other interests we shared,” Griess said. “Now I would say I would definitely be ready to talk to him about things.”

It’s probably unfair to say Griess lived in the shadow of Bellows, but Bellows was a giant among artists and a looming presence in the life of the the sensitive young artist-nephew. A legacy he could not escape. Griess wasn’t necessarily a slacker before Bellows’ death, but then again he acknowledges he didn’t exactly apply himself to his art. When Bellows passed, Griess suddenly got busy, approaching his own art with a greater sense of urgency.

“After his death is when I really started to get serious about drawing and painting and that’s when I started to do better things and win awards,” Griess said. “I realized he would no longer be there to kind of give me advice or look at what I’m doing, so in some strange way that pushed me, It was kind of a way to deal with it. I mean, also I realized I need to be doing this for myself, too.”

War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horrors in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace

August 18, 2011 2 comments

Here is a story I did in 1996 in the flood of refugees coming to America from war-ravaged Bosnia and Serbia. I tell the story of two families from Saravejo whose lives were turned upside down when the city fell under siege. Rusmir and Hari stayed behind to fight, as their wives and children narrowly escaped, eventually to the West. The men were eventually reunited with their families and ended up starting new lives in America. In my hometown of Omaha no less.  I came across this story when I learned about a music and dance performance that a local choreographer organized as a way of commemorating the experience of these Bosnian refugees.  The cathartic performance served as a bridge between the war that changed everything and the peace they had to flee their homeland to find.

 

 

 

War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horror’s in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Even with United States peacekeeping troops stationed in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the war-ravaged nation and troubled Balkan region remain a shrouded mystery to many Americans.

But on two successive nights in October, audiences packing a Creighton University theater came face-to-face with the tragic, ultimately triumphant odyssey of Omaha’s Bosnian war refugees.

The forum for this unusual intersection of cultures was the finale of an October 25-26 Omaha Modern Dance Collective concert. The closing piece, “Day of Forgiveness,” featured a melting pot of dancers and musicians, but most poignantly, local Bosnian refugees performing as a five-piece band

The work incorporated vigorous Bosnian folk dances and songs symbolizing the relative harmony in Bosnia before the war and the healing so sorely needed there now. Ironically, a dance whose context was an ethnic war, joined Croats, Muslims and Serbs in a unifying celebration.

The refugees are among a growing, diverse Bosnian colony that has sprung up in Omaha since 1993. They say the Bosnia they knew was free of ethnic and religious strife until Serb nationalism began rearing its ugly head. Many are natives of Sarajevo, where they enjoyed an upscale, Western European lifestyle. Since escaping the carnage to start over in America, they’ve forged a tranquil Little Sarajevo in Omaha.

“Bosnia was like a small United States, where many different cultures, many different religions lived together,” says the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Rusmir Hadzisulejmanovic, 41, formerly a marketing manager with a Sarajevo publishing firm. Today, he works as a handy man and attends Metropolitan Community College. “We prepared a good life in our country. We had nice jobs. We made good money. But somebody from outside tried to destroy that. And we lost everything in one day.”

Fellow refugee and musician Muharem “Hari” Sakic, 39, a friend of Rusmir’s from before the war, was an import-export executive and now works odd jobs while attending Metro. Hari says, “In Sarajevo we never cared what religion you were. And none of us care about that now. It doesn’t matter. We only care what kind of person you are.”

Both men are Muslim. Rusmir’s wife is Serb; Hari’s, Croation-Catholic. They say mixed marriages such as theirs were typical.

The two men fought side-by-side defending their beloved Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital devastated by Serb aggressors. Talking with Rusmir and Hari today, surrounded by loved ones in their safe, comfortable southwest Omaha apartments, it’s hard to imagine them as fierce soldiers engaged in a life and death struggle with forces who outnumbered and outgunned them. But then Rusmir passes around snapshots of he and Hari in camouflage fatigues, armed to the teeth, outside the burned-out shell of a train station. A later photo shows Rusmir, usually a burly 240 pounds, looking pale, drawn and shrunken from the near-starvation war diet.

War Hits Home

Although Serbia invaded Croatia by late 1990, beginning the pattern of pogroms and atrocities it repeated elsewhere in the former Yugoslav Republic, most Bosnians never suspected the conflict would affect them. But it did, beginning, shockingly and viciously at noon, April 4, 1992, when Serb artillery units dug in atop the hills overlooking Saravejo launched an unprovoked, indiscriminate attack on the city’s homes, streets and businesses.

Rusmir was eating lunch in a cafeteria when the first explosions rocked the city. He was trapped there until morning. “I saw many, many damaged houses and cars and dead people in the streets. It was the first time in my life I saw something like that,” he recalls. It was the start of a three-year siege that killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.

 

 

 

 

At the family’s apartment he found his wife Zorana, 39, and their children Ida and Igor, then ages 8 and 2, respectively, unharmed, but “very scared.” He immediately set about finding a safe way out for them. Escape was essential, since Ida suffers from a serious kidney disease requiring frequent medical treatment, and his family’s Muslim surname made them targets for invading Serbs. As for himself, he had no choice but to stay – and fight.

The roads and fields leading out of town were killing zones, manned by roaming Serb militia. Air service was disrupted. With the help of Jewish friends he finally got his family approved for a flight to Belgrade, Serbia several days later. On the day of departure Zorana and the kids boarded a bus for the tense ride to the Serbian-held airport. As it was too dangerous to be seen together, Rusmir followed behind in a car.

The scene at the airport was chaotic. Hundreds of people milled about the tarmac, frantic not to be left behind. When a mad dash for the plane began, Zorana, carrying Igor in one arm, felt Ida being pulled away by the surging crowd. She grabbed hold of her daughter and hung on until they were aboard.

From a distance Rusmir watched the plane lift off safely, carrying his family to an uncertain fate. It was the last flight out for many months. Three-and-a-half years passed before he saw his family again.

While in Belgrade, Zorana and the kids stayed at a hotel. Zorana made Ida promise (Igor was too young) never to say their Muslim name aloud, but only her Serb maiden name, Vojnovic. Zorana says she felt “shame” at denying her true identity and “guilty” for what some Serbs were doing to Muslims. “It was very hard.”

“You had to say some Serb name to save your life,” notes Hari, whose family took similar precautions. Like Rusmir and Zorana, Hari and his wife Marina were desperate to get their daughter Lana out, as she has a kidney condition similar to Ida’s. Marina and Sakic’s kids eventually fled to Croatia.

In Belgrade Zorana often confronted Serb enmity, such as when a hospital denied Ida treatment fate learning her real name. From Belgrade, they fled to norther Croatia, staying with relatives and friends.

Life in Croatia had a semblance of normality until Croat-Muslim hostilities erupted. Then Zorana was denied work and Ida expelled from school and refused care. A human rights organization did fly Zorana and the kids to London, where her brother lived, but they were denied residency and returned to Croatia. Growing more desperate, she pleaded her family’s case at every embassy, to no avail.

With few resources and options left she heard about the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a humanitarian agency offering visas based on medical need. After her first entreaties were rejected she went to IOM’s offices “every morning for three months,” before finally getting the visa that eventually brought them to Omaha in October, 1993. Zorana was among the first group of Bosnian and Croatian refugees to arrive here.

Omaha – A New Home, A New Life

Why Omaha? Dr. Linda Ford, a local physician affiliated with IOM, was matched with the family as a medical caseworker and mentor. Zorana says Ford was her “main moral support” when she first arrived. “She showed me how to live on my own. She was a great help.”

Ford arranged for the family to live at the home of Dr. Dan Halm and at her urging Zorana, an attorney in Saravejo, earned a para-legal degree at UNO while working part-time jobs. Zorana now works full-time at Mutual of Omaha. Ford says the contacts Zorana made here as a result of her own refugee experience have aided other Bosnians in settling here, including Rusmir’s sister and brother-in-law. Since moving her family to the Woodcreek Apartments, Zorana has guided 12 other refugee families there.

Barbarism, Heroism and Sacrifice

Meanwhile, Rusmir, who as a young man served in the Yugoslav equivalent of the CIA, had joined Hari and others in mobilizing the local Bosnian Army, It was a civilian army comprised of Muslims, Croats and Serbs, They lacked even the most basic supplies. Uniforms were improvised from sleeping bags. Many soldiers fought in athletic shoes. Shelling and sniper fire continued day and night. The streets and outlying areas were a grim no-man’s land. The only respite was an occasional cease-fire or relief convoy.

 

 

 

 

As the siege progressed conditions worsened. Rusmir’s and Hari’s homes were destroyed. But life went on. “In war it’s not possible to keep a normal life, but we tried,” says Rusmir. For example, school-age kids who remained behind still attended classes, and Hari’s wife Marina gave birth to their son, Adi, on May 22, 1992.

“At that time the situation was terrible, especially for babies. No food, no water, no electricity , no nothing,” Hari recalls.

Somehow, they hung on. Marina and their two children got out as part of a Red Cross convoy that fall.

Hari and Rusmir fought in a special unit that took them behind enemy lines to wreak havoc, do reconnaissance, collect intelligence and capture prisoners. Miraculously, neither was wounded.

“I was many times in a very dangerous position,” says Rusmir. “I know how to use a gun and a knife. That helped me to survive. I’m lucky, you know? I survived.”

Two of his best friends did not – Dragan Postic and Zelicko Filipovic.

Rusmir witnessed acts of barbarism, heroism and sacrifice, An artillery shell landed amidst a group of school kids during recess, killing and maiming dozens. “That was very awful.” In the heat of battle, a comrade jumped on an enemy tank and dropped hand grenades inside the open turret, killing himself and the tank’s crew. Despite overwhelming odds and losses the city held. “We stopped them…we survived,” Rusmir says.

By the time a United States-brokered and NATO-enforced peace halted the war in 1995, Rusmir, who’d stayed gallantly (“Stubbornly,”says Zorana) on to protect his homeland and care for his ill father, felt very alone. Except for his father, there was nothing left – no home, no job, no family, no future. Hari was gone, too, escaping on 1994 on foot via a tunnel dug under the Saravejo airport, and then over the mountains into Croatia, where after a long search he was reunited with his family.

The Sakics emigrated here in January, 1995.

Music – Celebration and Mourning

Every refugee has a story. The Bosnians’ story is of suddenly being cast as warriors and wanderers in an ethnically-cleansed netherworld where borders and names suddenly meant the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between living or dying.

 

 

 

 

It all happened before – to their parents and grandparents in World War II. It’s a story burned in their memories and hearts and told in stirring words, music and dance.

Their music inspired choreographer Josie Metal-Corbin to create “Day of Forgiveness.” The professor of dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha first heard the music when a former student and Bosnian emigre brought the band to her class. They played about 10 minutes and right away I knew I had to do something with this music,” Metal-Corbin recalls. “I was very taken by it, I’m part Italian and part Slovak, and this music really spoke to me. It’s very passionate.”

After months of working with the musicians and UNO’s resident dance troupe she directs, the Moving Company, Metal-Corbin grew close to the refugees and their families, particularly Rusmir, Zorana and their children, now ages 12 and 6. Zorana acted as the project’s interpreter and cultural guide.

During the Creighton concert, which marked the dance’s premiere, Rusmir and the other, all-male musicians exuberantly accompanied the rousing dance from a rear corner of the stage.

Rusmir, who grew up singing and playing the romantic tunes that accompanied the dance, says, “I feel the songs in my heart, in my soul, in my blood.” Song and dance are a big part of Bosnian celebrations, which can last from evening through dawn.

A Gypsy song – “Djurdjevdan” (“Day of the Flowers”) – was chosen by Metal-Corbin to give the dance its thematic design. The song, like the dance she adapted from it, tells of a holiday when people go to a river to cleanse themselves with water and flowers as an act of atonement and plea for forgiveness. According to Rusmir, the song and dance reflect Bosnians’ forgiving nature.

 

 

 

 

“What is very hard about the war is that we lost so many friends. We lost neighbors. We lost family members. And for what? Really for nothing. We tried to keep Bosnia in Bosnian borders. But I can forgive,” Rusmir says, “because my wife and kids are alive. My father is alive. It’s time for forgiveness, for one reason – the war must stop, always, I cannot live with hate. My people are not like that. You can kick me, you can beat me…I will always find a reason to forgive you. That is the Bosnian soul.”

Hari, though, cannot so easily let go of the memory of Marina and their two children barely escaping a direct artillery hit on their Sarajevo apartment. “Forgive, yes, but forget, no,” he says. “I must try never to forget.” Even now, the whine of a siren and the clap of thunder are nervous reminders of incoming artillery rounds. “That is the kind of sound you can never forget,” Hari says.

He still wakes up in a cold sweat at the thought of the three-finger sign used by Chetnik Serbs in carrying out their terror campaigns. “When they started to use that sign,” he says, “the poison came. It meant. ‘You are not with us.’ Then the killing started.”

As a haunting reminder of what the dance was about, an enlarged news photo in the background pictured the tearful reunion of a Bosnian refugee family. The image had special meaning for Rusmir and Hari, who had only recently reunited with their own families. For them, the dance was their own personal commemoration of loss, celebration of survival, offering of thanks and granting of forgiveness.

Adding further resonance, virtually the entire local Bosnian refugee colony attended out of a deep communal sense of pride in their rich culture, one they’re eager to share with the wider Omaha community they’ve felt so welcomed by.

 

 

Josie Metal-Corbin

 

 

Zorana was there. “I was real proud, but at the same time I was kind of sad,” she says. “It was the music of our country – but in a different country. I was real touched when I saw Americans feel the same we do. I wanted to cry.”

Zorana, whose journey with her children across the war-torn region took a year before she found safe passage to America, adds that forgiveness must never come at the price of wisdom. “I would not let anybody to that to us again. Yo can trick us one time, but just one time.”

Yes, these Bosnians, are remarkably free of bitterness, but they do feel betrayed by the European community’s delayed, timid intervention. Zorana says, “You cannot wait so long and be so passive. You cannot say, ‘Oh, this is not my war. I don’t want to be bothered – they’re not killing me.’ Because tomorrow they may come to your house and try to kill you.” Hari says, “All the time we waited for a miracle.”

Rusmir decries the Serbs’ targeting of civilians. Hari hopes “world justice catches the war criminals, so that they will never sleep good again.”

New Pioneers

With the aid of Neb.Republican U.S. House of Representatives member John Christensen Rusmir finally got permission to immigrate and was reunited with his family last November. Once here there were many adjustments to make. Igor didn’t remember him. Ida was slow to warm to a father she hadn’t seen for so long. Rusmir spoke no English. The family barely got by. But in classic immigrant tradition they’ve adapted and now call Omaha – a city they’d never heard of before – their home.

“It is hard. But step by step, day by day, we make connections, we make new friends we make a good life, too. We feel like Bosnian pioneers in Omaha and Nebraska,” says Rusmir, who hopes to start a construction business with Hari.

Zorana

The Bosnians like America and feel sure they’ll thrive here. Their children already have, with many earning top grades in school. Ida and Lana are both healthy and doing fine. The Bosnians are deeply grateful to America, which Hari calls “a dream country” for its warm reception.

Hari says, “In America I can once again live like a normal person. There’s no fear that somebody will knock on my door and ask, ‘Who are you?’ and say, ‘You’re guilty.’ We are safe here. Many Americans have helped to give us a chance. Thanks America. We are sure that we will be a success.”

Zorana downplays their heroic struggle, saying, “You need to go on if you think ou have some tomorrow. You need to believe in yourself. Then nothing is impossible.”

America is, after all, the land of opportunity.

“You give me a chance to be equal,” she says. “To work. To be a citizen. I wanted my children to be Bosnian, but now I want them to be American. Here, you can be proud of your last name. You don’t have to feel ashamed.”

A Long Way from Home, Two Kosovo Albanian Families Escape Hell to Start Over in America

August 18, 2011 3 comments

This story from a decade ago or so is one of two I have done that try to paint a human, intimate portrait of the late 20th century European wars that erupted in the aftermath of the end of Communist rule, when generations of long-simmering ethnic hatred spilled over in the power grabs that ensued. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) portrays the journey of two Kosovo Albanian families escaping the chaos and horror of war in their homeland to starting new lives in America.  The second story along these lines, which I will be posting soon, tells a similar journey, only of a Bosnian family. There were numerous atrocities to go around in these wars, and on both sides, but the sad truth of the matter is that every day men, women, and children like the people I write about got caught up in the carnage. The result: untold hundreds of thousands dead and injured; broken societies and families; hatred that perpetuates from one generation to the next; retaliation attacks; refugee cultures; and the recipe for ongoing tensions that will only continue flaring until there is true reconciliation.  The related articles below indicate the region is still a cauldron of unrest.

 

 

 

 

A Long Way from Home, Two Kosovo Albanian Families Escape Hell to Start Over in America                                     

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Uprooted
Among the mass exodus of ethnic Albanians fleeing their embattled native Kosovo last year were two young couples who met in a refugee camp and ended up starting new lives together in Omaha. Gazmend and Fortesa Ademi and Basri and Valbona Jashari left Kosovo during the March-May 1999 NATO bombing campaign targeting Serbian military strongholds.

With Serb troops ousted and NATO peacekeepers in their place, many refugees returned to the ravaged province. The couples, however, opted for asylum in America. After arriving here July 1 under the auspices of a humanitarian agency, they lived five weeks with their Bellevue sponsors, the Theresa and Richard Guinan family, whose parish — St. Bernadette Catholic Church — lent aid. The Kosovars, who today share a unit in the Applewood Pointe Apartments near 96th & Q Streets, are now first-time parents: the Ademis of a 5-month-old boy, Eduard, and the Jasharis of a 3-month-old girl, Elita.

Last August, Basri Jashari’s sister, Elfeti, her husband and their five children moved to Omaha (sponsored by Kountze Memorial Church). Another 59 Kosovars settled in Lincoln. The U.S. State Department reports some 14,000 Kosovars found asylum in America. Of the more than 800,000 refugees who fled the province, most have gone home, including some who came to Nebraska.

War may have been the catalyst for Kosovo Albanians’ leaving their homeland, but the events prompting their expulsion are rooted in long-standing ethnic conflict. During a recent interview at their apartment, Gazmend Ademi and Basri Jashari told, in broken English, their personal odyssey into exile. As the men spoke, sometimes animatedly, their wives listened while tending to their babies.

Only in their early 20s, the Kosovars exhibit a heavy, world-weary demeanor beyond their years. They carry the burden of any refugee: being apart from the people and culture they love. With a patriotic Albanian song playing in the background (“the music, it gives us power to live…to go on,” Ademi said) and defiance burning in their eyes, the men lamented all they have lost and left behind and expressed enmity for Serb aggressors who threw their lives into turmoil.

“We never wanted what happened. We never wanted this. THEY wanted the war. It’s like old Albanian men used to say, ‘Don’t ever trust the Serbs. They don’t keep their word,’” Ademi said. Do the refugees hate the Serbs? “No, I just don’t like them,” Jashari said, adding, “I know not every Serbian was guilty. But I still hate the cops.”

 

 

 

 

Aside from bitterness, sadness consumes them. Ademi said, “Sometimes I stop and think, Why do I have to go through all these things? It’s just too much. I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss everything in Kosovo. That’s why I’ll go back. But, for now, things are still bad there. Many people have no work, no homes. What the Serbs couldn’t take they destroyed. When I speak to my friends by phone they all tell me to stay where I am.” Or, as Jashari simply put it, “It’s better here.”

Watch Out for the Dark
Conflicts between ethnic Albanians and Serbs were part of the uneasy landscape Ademi and Jashari grew up in. Born and raised in southeastern Kosovo cities 40 kilometers apart, the two came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the ugly rhetoric of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb nationalism turned openly hostile. Serb aggression in Bosnia erupted into full-scale war that United Nations forces helped quell. Although ethnic Albanians comprised the vast majority of Kosovo, Serbs controlled key institutions, most tellingly the police and military, which became oppressive occupying forces.

Ademi and Jashari say police routinely interrogated and arrested people without cause, extorting payment in return for safe passage or release. The harassment didn’t always end there. “For just a little thing they could arrest you or beat you or kill you. If they stopped you and demanded money, and you didn’t pay, your car was gone or you were gone,” Jashari said. “You had to pay,” Ademi said.

As Milosevic pressed for a Greater Serbia, life became more restrictive for ethnic Albanians (schools were closed and the display and teaching of Albanian heritage banned), whose Muslim culture contrasted with Serb Orthodox Christianity. The Ademis and Jasharis received much of their education in makeshift schools housed in basements and cellars. When young ethnic Albanians began fleeing Kosovo to avoid military service in the raging Balkans War, a moratorium on passports was enacted. Freedom could be bought, with a bribe, but most Kosovars could not afford it. Ademi, a bartender, and Jashari, a university student, faced bleak prospects. Jobs were scarce and those available paid low wages, yet prices for goods and services remained high. Bartering and blackmarket trading prevailed.

The start of the Kosovo War is generally agreed upon as March 23, 1998, when a Serb police action ended in the massacre of some 50 civilians and ignited the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to escalate its armed resistance. However, for rank and file ethnic Albanians “the war started much earlier,” Jashari said. As early as 1989 the Serb political-military machine tightened its noose around Kosovo. Ademi and Jashari say they witnessed friends beaten by cops. Ademi said a cousin was held and tortured for days in a police station without legal counsel.

 

 

 

 

At mass demonstrations he recalls police firing tear-gas, even bullets, into crowds. Once, he said, a cop guarding a train load of tanks drew his weapon on he and some friends taking a short cut through a rail yard. In such a climate, once carefree days spent playing soccer or shopping in open air markets were replaced by caution. Nights were most ominous, with the Black Hand, a secret police/paramilitary force, roaming the streets. “After the dark would come, people who were out on the streets were taken away. Many were killed. Everybody was afraid from here,” Ademi said, clutching his chest. “Walking home every night I was afraid what might happen. I didn’t know if I was going to make it back. If you saw a car coming you turned back into the road and stayed until it passed. When they passed, you were like, ‘Whew, I made it okay.’”

Amid brutal police tactics and outright terrorist acts, the KLA began striking back with savage retaliatory attacks of its own, which led to Serb reprisals. When entreaties and threats by the U.N., the European Union and the West failed to get Milosevic to back down, a controversial U.S.-led NATO military response followed.

A Taste of Freedom
The night of the first air strikes prompted celebrations.

“We were very happy. We were waiting for this day,” Jashari said. “Some people started to shout, “NATO, NATO” and “Clinton, Clinton.” Everybody was cheering and shaking hands.” Any sign of air power brought hope, even though the concussion from bombs and missiles shook and even shattered windows. “Every time I saw the planes in the air I could feel myself a little bit more…free,” Ademi said. “I prayed for the noise of those planes.”

The revelry soon gave way to dread.

“The Serbs were really mad. They didn’t know what else to do, so they started to burn out everything,” said Ademi, referring to the systematic ethnic cleansing that ensued.

The Ademis and Jasharis joined a flood of refugees streaming into villages, where they presumed it was safe. They were wrong. The villages, some housing KLA bases, were burned or pillaged. Houses that once served as quarters for OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) monitors were torched or trashed. Pundits criticized the fact that, for a time, the air strikes only intensified the Serb raids and further destabilized the region. While Ademi and Jashari confirm “that’s how it was,” they contend what happened “was not NATO’s fault,” As Jashari said, “We didn’t flee because of NATO bombs. We fled because the Serbs started to attack us.”

With no where to hide, ethnic Albanians became a displaced people, moving from village to village and house to house in a desperate bid to stay ahead of marauding Serb troops. The Jasharis managed to remain at home until Serb forces closed in. Once a house was vacated, a next wave of refugees moved in and consumed whatever stores were left. “

People didn’t know where to go,” Ademi said. “They would stay a couple days and move again, helping themselves to food. People would take from all over just to stay alive.”

Ademi’s family found long-term shelter at the home of an uncle in a nearby village. Soon, they were joined by a caravan of refugees from a ransacked village, their dead and injured carted on tractors and trucks. “I carried in a young woman who was wounded in the leg. An old woman who’d been shot died later,” said Ademi, whose family took in dozens of new arrivals, swelling the house’s occupants to 50.

When, weeks into the bombing, there seemed no end in sight to the war, the Albanian Kosovars decided to cross the border into Macedonia. “Everything was going bad. Supplies were low. We thought it better to move because maybe later we could not get out. If Milosevic won, we could not live in Kosovo,” Jashari said.

While there was little choice but to flee, leaving was hard. The refugees brought only bread and the clothes on their back, “My family cried. They knew that maybe we were not coming back,” said Jashari, who left with Valbona and his family in May and made it across the border in a motorized convoy. Weeks earlier, the Ademis set-off, in two groups, for the border. Gazmend and a younger brother went ahead first, traveling on foot with a band of young men along a mountain road. A guide helped them skirt Serb patrols and checkpoints.

 

 

 

 

The men crossed the border after a 15-hour hike. Two days later Fortesa got out with Ademi’s family, enduring rain and snow on a trek along the same path. Upon reaching northern Macedonia the refugees were housed and fed by ethnic Albanians who led them to a camp, Stenkovec #2. It was there the Ademis and Jasharis, who were still single, married as insurance against being separated later. The couples befriended each other and after six weeks sleeping 10 to 20 to a tent, their applications for asylum were granted. Their shared destination: Omaha. Neither couple had American relatives.

Starting Over
Meanwhile, half-a-world away in Bellevue, Theresa and Richard Guinan followed the unfolding refugee odyssey via media reports. Moved by what they saw, the couple contacted Sen. Chuck Hagel’s office and were put in touch with Heartland Refugee Resettlement, an affiliate of the ecumenical Church World Service. The Guinans volunteered as a host family and the Ademis and Jasharis were matched with them.

Why agree to take in a four refugees? “We wanted to do more than just send money. That’s too easy. We have so much to offer here (in America) and this was our way to help,” Theresa Guinan said. After an 18-hour journey (by plane from Macedonia to Greece to New York to St. Louis to Omaha), the refugees arrived here exhausted. Fortesa Ademi, then pregnant, was sick for much of the trip. They were overwhelmed by the greeting party awaiting them at the Eppley Airfield terminal, including the Guinans, members of their church and reporters.

 

 

Gazmend Ademi

 

 

Within a week Richard Guinan found jobs for the men, as cold storage construction laborers, and they’ve been employed ever since. “They’re hard workers and their employers love them,” Theresa Guinan said. Living under one roof, the Americans and Kosovars forged deep bonds that remain strong a year later. “We love them like our own. We call them ‘our kids,’” Theresa Guinan said.

Ademi said, “Our sponsors helped us a lot. They made us feel like we were in our own home. Everything was just perfect. We call Theresa and Dick our American parents.” Still, adjusting to American life has posed many challenges, not the least of which is Omaha’s nearly non-existent Albanian community, which Ademi said has left he and the others feeling isolated. “We really haven’t had a chance to make any friends. We don’t go out too much. When we came here we meant to stay five or six years, but now I don’t how we’re going to make it. It’s really hard.” He and the others would like to meet members of the ethnic Albanian refugee colony in Lincoln.

Should the Ademis and Jasharis return to Kosovo any time soon, they know what awaits them: few prospects, a devastated infrastructure and a region littered with land mines and ethnic tensions. As efforts to form a new democracy proceed under NATO’s Joint Interim Administration, the men dream of an independent Kosovo. “That’s the best way to be. That’s what we deserve,” Ademi said.

In the wake of human rights investigations confirming Serb atrocities and of international tribunals naming Serb war criminals, the split between ethnic Albanians and their adversaries is greater than ever. Ironically and tragically, some ethnic Albanians have been engaging in ethnic cleansing reprisals against average Serb citizens. As the cycle of bigotry and violence winds on, the possibility of peaceful co-existence seems remote. Jashari described the gulf this way, “Albanian and Serbian culture is very different. That’s why the conflict is so deep.” Ademi said blood will continue to be shed “until the Serbs are out of Kosovo.” After all that has happened, he said, an ethnic Albanian like himself cannot abide living, drinking or working beside a Serb: “He’s going to be in my way. I’m going to be in his way. There’s no escaping that.”

Like the lyrics of the song playing that night at the apartment, Ademi said one thing is clear. “If you are Albanian, you are my friend. We want the same thing. If you are Serbian, then living together is too hard.” And the jingoistic beat goes on.

A Family Thing, Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

August 4, 2011 8 comments

Family. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. For the Bryant-Fisher extended family, who call home base Omaha, Neb. but have members scattered all over the nation, they keep things tight with a annual family reunion. Big deal, right?  Well, before you dismiss their get-together as routine, consider that this is a really big family, as in more than 2,200 direct descendants of family reunion founder Emma Early Bryant Fisher, by last count. Their Second Sunday in August reunion usually draws 500 or more folks, and for those milestone years it sees 700, 800, or more.  Eight generations worth come from near far. Then consider they’ve been doing this for 94 consecutive years.

 

 

 

 

A Family Thing, Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion

©by Leo Adam Biga

As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

With the “hot ghetto mess” of Native Omaha Days over, another traditional African-American summer gathering, the Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion, begins.

The biennial Native Omaha Days began in 1977. But it’s a newbie compared to the historic annual reunion that dates to 1917, when Emma Early Bryant Fisher inaugurated the event with a family picnic at Mandan Park near her South Omaha home. The picnic was held there for 30 years.

Sunday’s picnic at Levi Carter Park will mark its 94th consecutive year.

The Days and the reunion coincide only every other year. Just as NOD winds down, the reunion gears up, though there’s an extra week between them this time. NOD officially runs a week. The reunion, three days.

NOD boasts signature events attracting sizable crowds. The Bryant-Fisher reunion has one main event – the sprawling, all-day August 14 picnic. The picnic moved to Carter Lake in the early 1990s.

The picnic draws the biggest family throng.

“They’re going to be at the park. If they don’t do anything else for the whole weekend or the whole year, that Sunday they will be at the park,” says family historian Arlett Brooks. “You cook your food and you pitch your tent, and you may be there for an hour or you may be there for five hours, but you go.”

This mega extended family, whose population rivals that of many Nebraska towns, takes over a few acres at Carter Lake.

The Bryants and Fishers exert a considerable presence wherever they encamp. They comprise what’s believed to be the largest African-American family around, extending over 12 branches. They’re so large they conduct their own census. At last count they numbered more than 2,200 direct descendants.

If this year is like others, 500 to 800 souls will gather Sunday.

“People just don’t realize the magnitude of it until they get there,” says Brooks, whose sister Cheryl Secret and mother Patricia Moss are family stalwarts.

The enormity of the history and scope is a point of family pride.

“I think it’s associated with pride, it’s associated with tradition, respect for our elders. By continuing this we’re respecting our great-grandmother,” says Secret.

For milestone reunions like the 90th in 2007, when upwards of 1,000 or more gathered, the family throws its own Saturday parade on North 24th Street.

In this frantic age, the reunion expresses solidarity and consistency. The family likes to say no matter where you are in the world, you know the reunion will be held on the second Sunday in August ,come hell or high water. Neither storms nor floods will deter it.

“Nothing has ever stopped it,” says Secret. “You don’t even look at the weather, you just go.”

“We’ve been rained on a lot of times, but not rained out,” says Moss, who by her reckoning hasn’t missed a reunion during her 85 years.

Having something to count on helps this enormous family remain tight.

“It’s wonderful to have that bond, to have something that brings us together as opposed to separating us,” says Paul Bryant. “We need more things like that in society – showing love as opposed to hate or indifference.”

“We may not see each other every day, but if you need us we’re there. That’s how we are,” says Juanita Sutton.

Meeting and greeting at the picnic is an invitation for young and old to share where they fit on the vast family tree. “If someone says, ‘How are you related?’ it’s an honor to be able to go down the line as to how you belong in the family,” says Secret.

 

 

width:200 and height: 120 and picwidth: 200 and pciheight: 120

 

 

Arlett’s daughter, Makida Brooks, says, “It means a whole lot, just knowing I can go anywhere and not be alone. I can go anywhere by myself and be pretty sure I’m going to be in the same area as one of my relatives, so I’m going to be okay, wherever I go.”

On their Dozens of Cousins Facebook page, Makida says, “We send messages, ‘Do we have any cousins in Alabama? In Buffalo, New York.? In L.A.? Most places we do. On Facebook I have 500-600 friends and 90 percent of them are my relatives. I don’t accept you if I don’t know you, so you have to be related to me.”

Moss, whose grandmother was reunion founder Emma Early, does old school social networking at the picnic, where she seeks her closest cousins.

“When I could walk I used to walk from one end of Carter Lake all the way to the other to make sure I saw every one of my cousins, especially my first cousins,” says Moss, who as an elder now has relatives come and wait on her.

When she was still spry, her daughters shadowed her as she made the rounds. It ignited their interest in family lore.

“We got to visit and develop relationships with all 12 families because we were with her,” says Brooks.

Patricia’s daughters cherish their mother’s and other elders’ tales.

“She loves telling us stories,” says Secret. “She’ll tell stories about racial things that happened in South Omaha, where they kind of pushed the blacks out, and how her father’s family stayed put. Her uncle sat on the porch with a shotgun and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ They stood their ground.

“When we’re like this, just sitting around, all you gotta do is just give her a little hint of what direction you want to go, and she’ll just start sharing stories.”

As if on cue, Patricia recalls how long-ago customs were enforced at the picnic.

“I remember when we were kids my grandmother had all of the cousins sit at one table. The sisters (daughters, daughters-in-law) had to wait on everybody before they could eat. My grandmother would sit down with the men and she’d have her dinner and she’d make sure all the kids had theirs, and then the sisters could sit down and eat.”

Where a pavilion or large tent once accommodated the picnic, she says, “It’s got so big, now each family’s got their own tent.”

The Bryant-Fisher thing turns Carter Lake into a multi-colored tent city. Black folks of every shade and hue mingle. Eight generations worth. Some sport Bryant-Fisher T-shirts, complete with the family crest. Some “wear” the logo as body art. Jazz, blues and R&B mix with hip-hop.

One could mistake it all for Native Omaha Days. But don’t confuse the two. The family is protective of what they have and don’t like sharing the spotlight.

The reunion’s longevity and large turnout regularly attract media notice, even gaining Guinness Book of World Records mention. During election cycles the picnic’s known to bring out politicians in search of votes.

Party crashers are not unheard of.

“Oh, yeah, but they’re kind of welcome, as long as they’re not bringing trouble,” says Mary Alice Bryant. “To me, what’s great, with all the violence in Omaha, we’ve never had one incident, not one.”

Rev. Doyle Bryant, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, says his family’s commitment to staying connected, and the reunion’s high profile, explain why it’s endured and why it’s coveted by outsiders.

“This family reunion is nationally known, that has a lot to do it. When you get that type of notoriety you don’t want it to die out. We have people coming from all over the country to participate.”

“I know some families struggle to keep the family together, but I grew up with us always having it. It’s just expected,” says Arlett Brooks. “I think a lot of people admire that we could have kept it going that long.”

“There’s not too many that have gone on this many years,” says Marcelyn Frezell. “I think it has encouraged other families to have family reunions.”

But there are posers, too.

“We’ve got a whole lot of wannabes,” says Patricia Moss.

With a family this size, it’s impossible to know everyone.

“I think it’s intimidating, especially for the people who come from out of town maybe only every five years,” says Secret. “You walk through the park and you know all these people are your relatives, but you just don’t have a clue who they all are.

“I think the more we go down in generations the less connection they seem to have with each other. That’s something we talk about, we really need to work on – the young people getting to know each other to maintain the closeness and bonds with one another.”

 

 

Paul Bryant says he had to overcome his own shyness to fully partake in the reunion.
“You just have to get a comfort zone being around that many people and realizing all these people are family. They’re here to represent family, and you are a part of the family. Whether you’re a Bryant or a Fisher, at every tent you’re welcome, and that’s the way I conduct myself now. I walk right up to another tent, ‘Hey, you guys got anything to drink over here?’ ‘Sure, help yourself.’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘Paul Bryant. I’m the son of Doyle Bryant, who was the son of….”

And the lineage beat goes on.

There have been countless occasions when two young people who are sweet on each other find out they’re cousins.

“I had six children and every last one of my kids, every last one of ‘em, brought        somebody home as their girlfriend or their boyfriend,” says Moss. “When I got through questioning them, they were cousins. And we all live right here in Omaha. That’s what I couldn’t understand – how they don’t know each other.”

Arlett and Cheryl had it happen to them, as did most of their cousins.

“I went all the way through high school with a guy and one year I seen him at the family picnic. He said, ‘This is my family,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, where have you been all of these years?’ Sometimes, they’ve been there and you’ve been there, you just haven’t seen each other,” says Arlett.

Someone she works with turned out to be a cousin. “We’re very close now.”

Cheryl began a family genealogy book 16 years ago. Arlett’s revised it every five years. The family consults it when there’s a question.

“I took the initiative to research and find out all of the generations underneath my mother’s generation,” says Secret. “If someone can’t go down that line and tell me who their grandmother was or who their great-grandmother was, then you know they’re a wannabe or they married in or they’re somebody’s friend.”

Not that friends aren’t welcome, they are. “I have two girlfriends I’ve been knowing all my life, and they don’t miss it,” says Mary Alice Bryant.

Coming on the heels of Native Omaha Days, it makes for two weeks of black pride heritage celebrations.

Emma Early Bryant Fisher
Thousands flocked back for the July 27-August 1 Days. They came from Georgia, Alabama, Texas, California, Back East and every which way. Hundreds will do the same for the reunion. Some stay for both.

Folks catch up with family and friends, revisit old haunts and make the rounds. The Days is a succession of reunions, picnics, barbecues and block parties. There’s music, dancing, card playing. Church. A parade down North 30th. A communal picnic at Elmwood Park. A Blue Monday at local watering holes to tie one on before parting-is-such-sweet-sorrow goodbyes.

The Bryants-Fishers turn out in force at The Days. A family matriarch, Bettie McDonald, co-founded the event and its sponsoring Native Omahans Club. Not surprisingly, the itinerary is patterned after that of the Bryant-Fisher bash.

Though the Dozens of Cousins picnic has changed, one thing that hasn’t is the dawn fish-fry breakfast, followed by a church service. Other activities include a talent contest, volleyball, foot races, fishing. Pokeno, gin and dominos are the favored card games.

There’s a formal dinner dance Friday night at the Lake Point Center, a Family Fun Day Saturday at Fun-Plex and various odds and ends.

When the family has a parade, Bryant-Fisher floats and drill teams pass by the Native Omahans Club on North 24th. The building doubles as the family clubhouse for Dozens of Cousins meetings and fish-fry dinners.

Just as The Days ends on a blue note, some relatives will ring out the reunion on Monday at the club or a bar – tilting back a few to bid each other farewell, till next year.

For Paul Bryant, the reunion’s been a given his whole life, and with it the realization his family is far from ordinary.

“Some of my earliest childhood memories are at family picnics at Mandan Park,” he says, “and of some of the same things still going on today. The dance contest, the races. We used to almost always go down to the bottom of the hill to play football.

“The little kids would watch the older kids. ‘Oh,he plays for Central! He’s my cousin?’ Then you become older and you become the one the little guys are watching. Then you get older still and admire someone like my cousin Galen Gullie, who made us all proud playing ball for Bryan (High). In my day, I was kind of doing that.”

Bryant sees the reunion as continuity. An each-one-to-teach-one opportunity for older generations to impart the family heritage and tradition.

“I always knew we have a big family,” says Bryant. “When I was 8 or 10 they’d hold a program with a dinner and the mayor or someone would speak. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s something special here.’ Politicians come to the picnic and press the flesh. I mean, there’s a lot of people there and a lot of them have done some things in the community.

“As a kid, you’d see that, you’d hear that, and you knew your family had something special. And you were proud to be inheriting all that legacy.”

 

 
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Paul Bryant

 

 

He enjoys discovering some notable is a relative. He’s a notable himself. He excelled in sports in high school and college, then embarked on a fast-track corporate career before assuming leadership of the Nebraska Urban League. He found a new mission as executive director of the Wesley House, where he formed an excellence academy. Today, he’s a presenter at schools with his purpose-driven leadership program.

Bryant, his wife Robin and their three kids are widely recognized for their community service. He says high achievers in the family, whether the late coach-educator Charles Bryant or current young hoops star Galen Gullie or the family’s bona fide celebrity, actress Gabrielle Union, serve to inspire.

Union gets back for The Days some years and for the reunion others. Her appearances, lately with NBA squeeze Dwyane Wade, cause a sensation in the black community every bit as electric as the buzz Lady Gaga generates among her Little Monster fans.

The family is unapologetically possessive in claiming “Gabby” as their own. Paul Bryant’s as starstruck as the rest, but he’d rather his kids view their elders as role models and their family history as cool.

“My son can tell you, ‘My dad’s Paul Bryant, whose dad was Doyle Bryant, whose dad was Marcy Bryant, whose dad was Thurston Bryant, who’s the son of Emma Early, who’s the daughter of Wesley Early, who’s the son of a plantation owner.

“For me, it’s important to pass that down. I want every one of my kids to know their lineage as far back as we can trace it. I think that’s part of what this whole Bryant-Fisher thing is. If you don’t know, if it’s just going to the picnic Sunday and you don’t feel connected with something bigger, you miss out, you’ve got nothing to pass on.”

Makida Brooks values the experiences her elders share. “Just knowing what they had to go through and what they had to do makes me appreciate what I have now. I understand I don’t have nearly the struggles they had.”

Ninety-four years since it’s start, the reunion appears set for the future.

“I’m not expecting anything different than what has happened in the past,” says Arlett Brooks. “People will step up and make sure it continues, just like I have for my generation, and I’m sure my daughters will for their generation. It’s just expected.”

“I think it’s embedded in so many of us we couldn’t stop this thing if we wanted,” says Cheryl Secret. “I think in each tribe there are children who will make this thing happen, no matter what.

“It will go on I think for generations.”

Long-Separated Brother and Sister from Puerto Rico Reunited in Omaha

July 18, 2011 5 comments

We are all suckers for stories of long separated family members reuniting, and while I have written a few stories that have touched on this subject, it’s never been the the entire focus of an article. Until now. As soon to be published in a small Omaha newspaper called El Perico, two half siblings (a brother and sister) born in Puerto Rico recently found each other after years apart in the United States and their reunion took place in, of all places, Omaha, Neb., where it turns out the brother lives and the sister’s husband is from. In fact, the brother’s wife is from Omaha as well. The unlikely parallels and coincidences that brought them together in Omaha are legion and hopefully make for a good read. On a personal note, I actually knew some of the family members involved in this tug at your heart tale before I got into the reunion story.

 

 

 Mimi and Angel

 

 

Long-Separated Brother and Sister from Puerto Rico Reunited in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in El Perico

Omaha’s Hilton Hotel hosted a July 7 reunion between two Puerto Rico-born siblings separated almost their entire lives.

Myraida “Mimi” Goodwin knew she had a younger half brother somewhere. Likewise, Angel Rodriguez knew he had a half sister. Though they share the same father, the two had only met once, and then only briefly.

She grew up in Chicago with her single mother, who divorced her father. Angel grew up in Tampa, Fla. with his mother and step-father.

The two mothers arranged a single weekend meeting between the estranged siblings. Mimi was put on a plane to visit Angel in Tampa. She was 11, he was 8. There was never a second visit. Life moved on. Each relocated, embarked on careers, started families of their own. Decades passed without any contact.

Mimi became a women’s fashion designer. Angel, a dental assistant.

Meanwhile, in a improbable twist of fate or coincidence, each married an Omaha native. Mimi and her husband, film and television actor Randy Goodwin, live in Los Angeles with their six children. Angel, who returned to Puerto Rico for a time, actually moved to Omaha with his wife, former U.S. Army Reservist Kenyatta McCray, some years ago. They have four children.

When Mimi visited Omaha in the past, she and Angel were oblivious to their being so near. Their paths never crossed but easily could have, as Angel and Kenyatta live near Randy’s mother, Mary Goodwin.

“We’ve been back there five-six times since we’ve been married,” says Mimi. “All this time I’ve been going there and I’ve been so close to him, and I didn’t even know it.”

“There’s times when she’s probably been right up the road from me,” says Angel.

It’s only recently that Mimi rediscovered Angel. Learning that he lived in, of all places, Omaha, was too strange. “That just can’t be,” Mimi recalls saying.

“It’s crazy how it all came to be — the circumstances of it,” says Angel.

The Omaha links run even deeper, as Kenyatta and her family have known the Goodwins for years. She used to get her hair done by Randy’s brother Bryan.

“It’s overwhelming to take all of it in,” says Angel. “I can’t wrap my mind around it. Even now I still don’t believe it. I told Mimi I’m not going to believe this until you’re in front of me.”

When Mimi caught sight of Angel in the Hilton lobby last Thursday she says, “I flew into his arms,” adding, “I practically knocked him over.” Their tearful embrace lasted minutes. In the two weeks leading up to then, they traded countless texts and calls, catching up with each other’s lives, struck by how similar they are. As their weekend reunion unfolded they noticed more subtle similarities.

“I think it’s a lot of little things, not so much things we’re saying,” she says. “Like when I look at him he does certain eye movements that are the same as mine or that remind me of my dad’s. Or the way we laugh. Oh, my gosh, I can see myself in him.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird,” says Angel. “We have so many things in common it’s just crazy. It’s really neat though.”

Instead of feeling like two strangers, says Mimi, “it’s actually really familiar, it’s like we’ve known each other our entire lives.”

 

 

 Angel, Mimi and Angel’s wife, Kenyatta

 

 

All the parallels make their reunion seem like destiny fulfilled.  Angel says, “I think it was a long time coming and I think this is supposed to happen for us.” “This has to be an absolute manifestation of God‘s work,” says Mimi, “and it’s absolutely meant to be — I’m supposed to have him in my life.”

None of it may have happened if not for Mimi’s dogged search. Apart from him all those years, she hungered to reconnect and fill a hole that left her feeling incomplete. The more she was around her husband’s tight-knit family, the more she pined for her long lost brother.

“It became almost like a mission to find him because I found myself jealous of the    relationship Randy has with his family,” says Mimi. “Yeah, I have Randy and the kids, but there’s nobody like me around, and so I started trying to find him. About once a year, I would go on the Internet and type in his mother’s name and his name and whatever ever little information I had, and nothing would come up. After a while I kind of just gave up because I really didn’t know what else to do.

“I even thought of hiring somebody.”

In the end, it didn’t take a private detective, just prodding from her mother, a key lead from her father, the help of social media and perhaps some divine intervention. Never in her wildest dreams though did she expect finding Angel in Omaha.

 

 

Mimi
Mimi’s husband, Randy Goodwin

 

Connecting the dots that lead her to Angel happened June 25. She was doing a Facebook search for him when his profile popped up and listed Omaha as his residence. Before going any further, Mimi felt apprehension.

“The strange thing is I was so afraid that he wouldn’t want a relationship, and I don’t know why I felt that way. I thought, Gosh this could be awkward, what if we don’t have anything to say, what if our personalities are so different?”

After exchanging a couple texts, it was clear they were indeed blood and were two sides of the same coin. Angel explained he’d been wanting to reconnect with her, too, but just hadn’t got around yet to searching.

“She was definitely on my mind, but I guess she beat me to the punch,” he says.

Mimi says any fear they would not jive soon disappeared. “Talking to him it was like he was the other half of me. We say the same things, we like the same things, we have the same sense of humor. He was as excited as I was to have found him. It was like instant chemistry.”

He says, “It’s an awesome feeling knowing that I’m not alone in the world, that there’s somebody out there actually just like me.”

After going to bed flush with excitement, Mimi says she awoke the next morning wondering if she’d dreamed it all. “I thought, Was that real, did I really talk to him? I checked my phone and I texted, ‘Are you still there?’ And he texted back, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’”

Again, chalk it up to fate or coincidence, but Mimi and Randy were already booked to come to Omaha when she connected with Angel via the Web. Their story  became a communal celebration here, where the reunited siblings’ only desire was to finally get some alone time together. Mission accomplished. They vow never to lose track of each other again. Small chance, given their shared Omaha ties.

Coming to America: The Immigrant-Refugee Mosaic Unfolds in New Ways and in Old Ways In Omaha

July 10, 2011 12 comments

I was born and raised in America, as my parents were before me, yet when I allow myself to think about it, the immigrant experience is well engrained in my DNA. You see, both sets of my grandparents emigrated here from Europe: my father’s family, the Bigas, from Poland; my mother’s family, the Pietramales, from Italy. I always used to kid my folks about their mixed marriage. And so despite my own experience and appearance to the contrary, I am not so very far removed from the newcomer tale, though I was spared all of the struggles of leaving one’s homeland and making it in a new land that my grandparents endured. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is an attempt to chart the immigrant-refugee landscape in a place like my city, Omaha, and what it looks like to be a newcomer here.

 

 

 

Coming to America: The Immigrant-Refugee Mosaic Unfolds in New Ways and in Old Ways In Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of the story is published in The Reader

You don’t need to look far to find the tired, poor and huddled masses following America’s seductive promise as THE immigrant-refugee haven. With Omaha hosting ever more ethnic minority populations from around the globe, the metro increasingly mirrors the culturally diverse world.

Actually observing these newcomers is another matter. That’s because many stay close to their own tight-knit communities. If you want to engage them, you best go where they live, shop, eat or worship. Seen or unseen, they are part of a long, multicultural stream that’s fed Omaha since its 1854 founding. Omaha’s story, like that of America’s, is an ever evolving immigrant flow.

“It’s not a static story, it’s a very complex mosaic we have here and it takes a long time to appreciate some of the nuances of it,” says University of Nebraska at Omaha emeritus history professor Bill Pratt.

Complicating that mosaic are ethnic-religious tensions within and between certain national groups. Then there are segments of American society that express hostility, suspicion or discrimination toward The Other.

Pratt’s UNO emeritus history colleague, Harl Dalstrom, says the immigrant dynamic varies among ethnic communities and the circumstances surrounding them.

“Different groups tend to have different patterns of settlement. Each group from each country are going to have different experiences. You really have to get down to whatever the time period is,” he says. “Many folks who come today are from backgrounds even more alien to the American experience then the immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century. After all, many new arrivials today are from Africa. They’re not only black, they’re not part of the European language group, and so on.”

Nebraska’s foreign-born population increased 31 percent from 2000 to 2008. From 1990 to to 2000 that segment nearly tripled. Latinos, Asians and Africans account for most of the growth. The new groups are mainly concentrated in Omaha and Lincoln. The Omaha Public Schools now serve thousands of refugee students, including more than 1,100 from Burma, Thailand, Sudan and Somalia.

One measure of a place’s diversity, says Pratt, is its signs. Omaha’s Eurocentric, English-only commerce now has its Asian, Arabic, African, Spanish counterparts.

As low-key as many new immigrants may be, it’s fairly common now to hear their mother tongues and to see their native fashions in public. Events like World Refugee Day and Omaha Heritage Festival celebrate this diversity. Signs and symbols all of Omaha’s maturation into a more cosmopolitan, international city.

South Omaha continues its historical role as the city’s primary immigrant gateway and resettlement district. Its affordable housing, blue collar job sector and robust small business climate make it a conducive place to get started. North Omaha and mid-town accommodate growing pockets of immigrants and refugees.

For most of its history South O hosted Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians and Germans. Just south of downtown, Sicilians and Calabrese formed Little Italy. There were Jewish, Greek, Chinese and other well-defined ethnic communities as well, each replete with small businesses, most often grocery stores and restaurants.

Then, as now, anti-immigrant sentiments peaked during hard times and fell silent during good times. Riots prompted by nativist attitudes erupted in the early 1900s.

Omaha’s a welcoming place, says UNO history professor Maria Arbelaez, but here as elsewhere, barriers exist: “There is still segregation, there is still prejudice, there is still racism, sometimes overt, sometimes well hidden, and people do feel it.”

The south side’s now a largely Latino district whose eateries, food carts and shops are emblazoned with Spanish names. Not that Latinos weren’t there before. They were, just in smaller numbers and almost exclusively tracing their roots to Mexico.

“The Mexicans have always been here,” says Arbelaez.

Historically, she says, ethnic minorities go undercounted, as their racial identities fall outside census categories and they tend to be highly mobile populations. Plus, the undocumented among them have extra motivation to remain under the radar.

 

 

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Maria Arbelaez

 

 

Despite the Latino migration that’s transformed the area, remnants of South O’s immigrant past persist in such landmark venues as the Bohemian Cafe, Johnny’s Cafe, Sokol South Omaha and St. Stanislaus Catholic Church. Italian vestiges remain in Orsi’s Bakery, St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church and Sons of Italy hall.

Even though many second, third and fourth generation immigrant groups no longer live in defined ethnic neighborhoods, their heritage festivals continue.

Today, the variety of cuisines found in South O extends well beyond Mexican to encompass Guatemalan, Salvadoran and national foods from Central America, South America, Africa and many other parts of the world, too.

Exotic eats are no longer confined to South O or the Old Market, as greater Omaha is home to an ever expanding landscape of ethnic dining spots. Then there are ethnic retail stores and other expressions of cultural identity. Inner city health clinics, social service agencies and public schools serve large immigrant bases.

It’s much the same way the immigrant story played out a century ago.

The story of Early Omaha is inextricably linked to the large European immigrant waves from 1880 through 1920 that helped grow this and nearly every U.S. city and filled the industrial labor pool. The internal migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and their subsequent resettling in places like Omaha also brought an influx of new ethnic-cultural influences and workers.

In the aftermath of World War I and the Great Depression and in the first two decades of the Cold War, America grew isolationist, instituting more restrictive immigration policies, and so the steady flow slowed to a trickle. Exceptions were the millions of braceros recruited from Mexico to work in the agricultural, railroad and meatpacking industries and the many displaced persons or refugees from Europe. Omaha welcomed its share of both groups.

The heavy tides of new arrivals didn’t begin in earnest again until the mid-1960s, spurred by more open immigration policies. These waves, no longer predominantly European, but Asian, Indian, African and Latin-American, continue today. Somalia, the former Burma and Bhutan account for a large number of recent newcomers to Omaha. Each group of asylees fled homelands marred by war and political or religious persecution. A generation earlier, Sudanese escaped similar trauma. As did Soviet Jews before that. In the ‘70s, Vietmanese and Laotian refugees.

The surge in Latino immigrants and refugees the past two decades followed economic crises in Mexico and civil wars in Central and South America.

Then, as now, Omaha’s home to ethnic enclaves of foreign-born new arrivals and first generation offspring. South Omaha, once a separate municipality, earned the nickname Magic City for a dynamic growth spurt fueled by the railroads, the meatpacking plants, the stockyards, plus all the ancillary services that supported these industries. Large numbers of immigrants lived and worked in South O. The jobs lasted through the 1960s. Many contemporary immigrants and refugees work equivalent jobs in meatpacking and construction as well as in painting, lawn care, cleaning and other service sector fields.

Not all newcomers work menial jobs, reminds Arbelaez. Their ranks include professionals, skilled tradespeople, entrepreneurs. Many start micro businesses.

Just as opportunity and freedom drew the first waves of immigrants here, they remain enticing beacons of hope for those coming today.

“The pull of the (U.S.) economy is so strong,” says Arbelaez. “It’s better to get a menial job (here) than in Mexico because the pay is so much greater in the States that it allows you to support yourself and your family in Mexico.”

Whether propelled by family, economic, political or survival reasons, new arrivals expect and find a higher standard of living and greater liberty here. That doesn’t mean they don’t struggle making it. Most do. Language-cultural hurdles hinder them. Many live near the poverty line. Even basic food staples like rice stretch tight budgets. Then there’s the scarcity of jobs new arrivals traditionally fill.

Many of those originating from Third World nations or refugee camps harbor unrealistic expectations for what Sudanese community leader Malakal Goak terms “the heaven” they envision America to be. Invariably, say Goak and local refugee community leaders, reality falls short of these utopian, riches-laden dreams.

While Omaha remains an attractive destination or secondary migration site for its relatively low cost of living, healthy job market, good schools and family-friendly environment, it’s not devoid of challenges.

Kumar Gurung, a Bhutan community leader, says his people have great difficulty overcoming language-cultural barriers and finding employment. He says these struggles cause a disproportionate percentage of Bhutanese-Americans to suffer mental health problems such as depression.

The language-cultural divide is a serious barrier for newcomers, say local refugee and immigrant leaders. Clashing cultural norms of child-rearing practices and spousal relationships cause conflicts and sometimes leads to arrests.

Finding decent affordable housing is also an issue.

Many go months before starting a job, while studying to become proficient enough in English to be interview and work-ready. Those finding employment often work two or more jobs to try and make it. Omaha’s spotty public transportation system poses problems, leaders say, for individuals working overnight shifts in industrial areas where buses don’t run off-hours.

Leaders say some newcomers cannot feed their children, cover rent and pay bills on the temporary state allotment provided refugees.

“They’re really struggling,” says International Center of the Heartland & Refugee Services director Maggie Kalkowski.

Newcomers still requiring aid after six to eight months are referred to agencies like ICH, an arm of Lutheran Family Services.

 

 International Center of the Heartland in the Center Mall

 

 

 

The situation just got tougher for some due to the state ceasing welfare assistance to legal, noncitizen immigrant adults. Parents depend on the aid to help support their family households. Aid to children is not affected by the cut.

“It’s definitely going to affect some refugees here,” says Goak. “If they cannot quality for any government assistance I don’t know how they’re going to survive if they can’t find jobs.”

Goak says some refugees exhaust public aid limits before achieving self-sufficiency. No one, he says, wants new arrivals to become a chronic community burden, but he feels aid should be extended as needed.

Local pantries, Goodwill, Salvation Army, Heart Ministry Center and like agencies pick up the slack for those who fall through the cracks.

In good times or bad, assimilation is hard. It’s that much harder for illiterate individuals.

“Navigating the systems and paperwork process is still very difficult, especially for those refugees who do not read or write in their native languages,” says Southern Sudan Community Association executive director Anne Marie Kudkacz. “Assimilation can be made easier by means of programs and services available to assist refugees along the way.”

Kudlacz says new arrivals here benefit from solid support provided by two main resettlement agencies: SSC and Lutheran Family Services. Catholic Charities’ Lincoln office does resettlement and its Omaha office offers legal and additional services. Ethnic communities themselves also provide educational and other support. “Omaha has not only helpful organizations but strong ethnic groups that provide cultural support and integration,” she says.

Caseworkers, many of them from the communities they serve, assist clients with housing, banking, budgeting, interpreting and various other needs. Kalkowski says these indigenous caseworkers, all multi-lingual, become vital conduits, advisors, mediators and advocates for newcomers. “Because they are the knowledge ones, they are leaders and they’re willing to share it,” she says, “their job doesn’t end. They’re always on call. It’s a great service they do.”

Whatever the issue someone calls him with, says Goak, “it’s a big problem in their life until you solve it.”

“In my community, when you speak English they depend on you,” says Thein Soe, a local Burmese community leader and LFS caseworker.

Hamid Guled, a medical-legal interpreter and LFS caseworker for her native Somali community, says, “It’s fulfilling to me when I get to speak up for somebody who cannot speak up for themselves. I step up on their behalf — I advocate.”

“I think that advocacy is an important part of the work we do,” says Kalkowski.

In the process, she says, local merchants and landlords are educated about these populations’ special needs and clients are taught “how to navigate the American systems of healthcare, housing, legal issues, education, et cetera.”

Refugee service organizations provide English as a Second Language classes, legal assistance, micro business programs and a myriad of other assistance. Most services are free. Some require a nominal fee.

Three of Omaha’s largest and newest refugee groups — from Burma, Bhutan and Somalia — have their own community associations. The same is true of established refugee groups, such as the Sudanese. Using words like “empower” in their mission statements, the groups offer everything from ESL and driving classes to job and life skills training. They also stage activities to help members maintain their native culture.

Cultural cohesiveness is important as groups transition to being American while holding on to familiar, touchstone traditions and ways.

“Whether you come out of rural Alabama or Poland or Sicily or Mexico, you want to hang on to as much as you can that’s meaningful to you,” says historian Bill Pratt. “Not simply the language but a social structure, a social order, and so there’s often a built in cultural conservatism for new arrivals. If you come here from Mexico this is why you’d want to move into a neighborhood where there’s Mexicans. You have an emotional support system there, and then as people move up economically they move away.”

 

 

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Bill Pratt

 

 

There’s power in numbers. Thus, each organization serves as a communal network, lifeline and link for newcomers. Each provides a voice for it’s community’s needs.

Pratt says, “One of the things I think is sometimes overlooked is that these (associations) are products of these particular communities — they’re not organized by well-meaning folks outside the community, they’re not part of government, they’re part of a civic structure that comes out of that community.”

UNO’s Maria Arbelaez says grassroots community organizations often emerge in response to unmet needs. Their formation is an act of self-determination. She cautions that self-contained ethnic enclaves can isolate immigrants from the mainstream and curtail their progress. She says providers must be vigilant reaching out to immigrants and connecting them to services.

Kudlacz says collaboration among service providers and ethnic communities happens through the Omaha Refugee Task Force and the Refugee Leadership Academy, whose members identify issues and work together on addressing them.

Coming to America as an immigrant is one thing. Arriving as a refugee is another. The assimilation path for both groups is strewn with challenges. But whereas immigrants tend to be more highly educated and with some financial assets, “most refugees arrive with little more than clothing, personal items and legal refugee status documentation,” says Kudlacz. She adds that refugees generally have little education due to the disruption caused by wars or disasters in their homeland or lack of opportunities in camps they get placed from.

Lutheran Family Services’ Maggie Kalkowski admires the resilience of those coming here. She surmises today’s new arrivals face a harder road than their predecessors by virtue of the more complex social-government systems and technologies they navigate. “There’s so much more to learn,” she says. “It’s so much more demanding.” America’s bounty, she adds, is a blessing and a curse for new arrivals, who find  “overwhelming” all the choices and decisions.

One thing that hasn’t changed is new arrivals supporting family members still residing in refugee camps or countries of origin.

Hamdi Guled says, “The families back home expect, ‘OK, you’re in America, you have to send some money to support us — don’t forget about us.’ They don’t want to hear about how hard you have it in America.”

Then there’s the pressure newcomers feel to be Americanized overnight, though the reality of learning English and everything else is a long process.

“That’s a lot easier said than done,” says Pratt. “People ask today, ‘Why don’t they learn English?’ Well, it’s damn hard to learn another language when you’re working and raising kids.”

Arbelaez says immigrants-refugees here generally are “moving along into mainstream society,” but adds that full integration “takes generations.”

The cultural enrichment immigrants bring extends beyond food or language. They have something to teach about communal engagement, too.

“They still have that whole idea of it takes a village to raise a child,” says Kalkowski, “I think the values these new populations bring actually help America move more to the center, back to family, to neighborhood, to community, to working for others, instead of being focused on the greed side or what’s in it for me. It’s really valuable to us from my perspective.”


Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a Difference in Area of Great Need

July 4, 2011 1 comment

If you have visited the site a few times in the last week or two then you’ve probably noticed I’ve been changing things up even more than normal by posting stories that cover an unusually broad range of topics. That diversity of content is one of the things that I think distinguishes this site from a lot of others. The following long story is actually a package of profiles I did for The Reader (www.thereader) of ministers and churches serving predominantly African American northeast Omaha. These good shepherds are in some cases at the forefront of large community-based initiatives attempting to engineer a turnaround of the area, which has great needs, and in other cases leading smaller grassroots efforts focused on changing one block, one neighborhood at a time. The story tries to convey the role of black ministers and churches today and yesterday and where they fit into the fabric of community engagement and redevelopment.

 

 

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North 24th Street, photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

 

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a Difference in Area of Great Need

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of the story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Church is universally the tie that binds and the salve that heals. Its significance in the black community is even more profound given African Americans’ historical disenfranchisement.

“Faith has always been the element that motivated us and allowed us to continue forward in perilous times,” says Salem Baptist Church pastor Selwyn Bachus. “When we didn’t have anything else the one thing we did have was faith and the one institution we had and still have is the African American church. Every major movement in the history of African Americans has been founded on faith and out of the church. It’s the primary thing and everything else kind of grows out of that.

“You can use the visual of a bicycle wheel. Faith is that hub and the other efforts are really spokes out of that hub, which is the thing that holds it together.”

He says church remains central but its “interaction with congregants is not as intense as it once was.” As blacks’ living patterns have grown more dispersed, many no longer live in the immediate area their church occupies. Bachus says Salem members come from all over. He reminds, however, Omaha remains segregated, thus blacks still predominately live on the north side of the inner city, where most black churches are located.

With worshipers’ lives more mobile, their time more pressed, the family structure more fractured and people’s needs more acute, he says church ministries have evolved to focus on youths, couples, families, seniors. Everything from financial to computer literacy to life skills training is offered. The church is meeting place, mobilization center, sanctuary, conscience, healer, forum, refuge. It’s where fellowship’s found, tradition preserved and ritual celebrated — where the cycle of life plays out.

The black minister is shepherd, counselor, confessor, educator, orator, leader, role model and, depending on who wears the collar and what the times call for, agitator, protester, witness, critic, community organizer and social activist.

Five preachers pastoring North O churches are profiled here. Each discusses ministering to their people in times that, if not perilous, are challenging.


Apostle Vanessa Ward
, Afresh Anointing Church, 4757 No. 24th St.
From the front porch of her northeast Omaha home, Apostle Vanessa Ward describes the transformation her block’s undergone in a decade. Situated in an area called Death Valley for its frequent, sometimes fatal gun violence, the Omaha native no sooner states, “This is a high risk neighborhood,” when the crackle of gunfire interrupts the mid-summer afternoon quiet.

“We gotta pray. That was not good,” Ward says solemnly, head bowed in prayer.

©photo by Eric Gregory, Lincoln Journal Star

 

 

An ugly reminder gang bangers still menace these streets. But not on her block. Not anymore. Not since this wife and mother of four began ministering right where she lives — not just from the Sunday isolation of the pulpit at the 75-member Afresh Anointing Church (Body of Christ) she pastors. She admits she was like everyone else. Too apathetic and afraid to do anything about the chaos around her.

“This neighborhood used to be so bad there was no way you and I could be sitting outside like this,” she says to a visitor, “without filth in the street, loud music, prostitution, corner boys, as we call them, selling drugs on every corner. Oh, 10 years ago, you never would have been able to do what we’re doing now.

“I remember watching a 7-year-old in the back of my house selling drugs.”

She remembers consoling the mother of a young man killed in a driveby right in front of her house.

A large, now abandoned home she points to just up the block was a gang den.

“They would sit right there and throw dice in the daytime. Shoot, argue or do whatever they want because when the neighborhood’s disconnected nobody cares as long as it doesn’t hit my house or affect my child. And that’s a mistake.”

She says she was part of the culture of silence that prevails in North O, where “the rules of this kind of community are, don’t get involved, don’t call the law, mind your own business, pull the shade down.” Her own blind eye to it all bothered her. It led her to do some serious soul searching.

“I was praying. My main question was this: How can I be so powerful in my pulpit and powerless on my block? Why isn’t anything changing around me? Because it first had to change within me.” That revelation, she says, “took me on a journey.” She charts that journey in her new book, Somebody Do Something.

She felt called to organize a block party with food, music, information booths set up by community agencies, a police presence. It meant talking to gang members.

“The rules for a block party are that everybody on the block has to give their consent, so that forced me to have to go and approach what most would call undesirables. It took a lot of courage. It took a lot of stamina. But I just knew it needed to be done.”

She asked them to abide by three rules — no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons — and “they agreed.” From that first party in 1996 through the most recent one last July, she says, not a single incident’s occurred.

“No violence, no drug charges, nothing at any of these events that get as big as 600 people,” she says with pride and thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

The parties became the impetus for broader, long-term change or “healing.” She began doing cleanups — picking up litter. Others followed her lead. Pretty soon, homeowners were fixing up their properties and looking out for each other. It continues today. The negative elements faded away once residents interacted as concerned neighbors taking a collective stand in reclaiming their block.

“The neighbors started buying in,” she says “and now these neighbors do their own. The example was set.”

For Ward, being able to “bring a neighborhood together” is an expression of “signs and wonders” at work. That success, she says, validates what citizens can do “on a small ghetto block” and, she hopes, offers a model for doing it on a wider scale.

There’s much to emulate. Her leadership’s helped make the area’s Central Park Neighborhood Association a proactive force for positive change.

Neighbors maintain two community gardens on the block. The Peace Garden grows vegetables “that everybody in the neighborhood can glean,” she says, and the Hope Garden is a budding fruit-flower bed on one side of her house.

Ward envisions turning portions of the Hope Garden into a playground as well as a space for arts-craft activities, mentoring and job/trade training. She dreams of converting the vacant, former drug house into “a community center” for GED training, drug rehab and other services. She sees the home she now occupies one day being a mission house for those wishing to serve the neighborhood’s needs.

It’s all part of her belief that efforts to overturn social ills must be community-based, like her own “trench ministry.” Says Ward, “A lot of times if you don’t work it from the inside out what tends to happen is it doesn’t have longevity.” She realizes she needs to be right at ground zero to make the most impact. “The people need it,” she says. “They don’t know neighborhood, they don’t know community. We preach about it and we talk about it but people need to see a true evidence that Jesus is still alive. They need to touch it, it needs to be tangible.”

Just as Christ “met people where they were,” so does Ward, a highly visible figure in The Hood. Engaging people where they live, she says, requires change agents rid themselves of prejudices and resentments. She had to herself. Where before she wanted to tune out and cut off after a long day, she makes herself available 24/7. Her door always open — to anyone. She’s the block’s eyes, ears, voice, heart, soul.

“If you’re really looking to make a difference in people’s lives you’ve got to start with yourself,” she says. It’s about being authentic. “People can tell it. The street knows the street. They know if you’re faking, if you’re shaking, if you’re only going so far, if you don’t approve. It’s all over you.”

If we expect kids to leave gang life behind, she says, we need “to offer a better way.” Better options. Like real jobs. “That kind of encouragement is inclusive, it’s not exclusive.” She leads several youth ministries that attempt to do just that. The Omaha-based African American Empowerment Network she’s a part of has been working with gang members to get them to leave that life and placed in jobs. She co-chairs the Network’s crime prevention covenant with John Ewing.

Her outspoken Apostleship, she says, makes her “controversial.” Being a female minister, she says, makes her “unwelcome in some pulpits.” None of that stops her from proselytizing her concepts for building community as a speaker, panelist, trainer, facilitator and organizer. Her message is always the same: “Don’t just talk about it, don’t just preach about it, don’t just teach about it. Do something.”


Rev. Portia Cavitt
, Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Ave.
Newly installed Clair Memorial United Methodist Church pastor Rev. Portia Cavitt is still getting a feel for North Omaha. She was previously at Allen Chapel AME Church on the south side. She grew up in St. Louis and moved to Omaha for the first time in 2004 to pastor Allen. That followed years as “an itinerant Elder” serving churches in San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Hutchinson, Kan.

When Clair called on her this year, it meant changing denominations and geographic locales. She continues serving Allen until it finds a new pastor.

 

 

Pastor Portia Cavitt

 

 

She sees similarities between the two inner city sectors in terms of segregation, poverty, gang violence and education gaps. The needs in North O, she realizes, are even more pronounced. The STD-HIV/AIDS epidemic among African Americans is much on her mind. She’s active in efforts to raise awareness, promote testing and advocate safe sex. The high jobless rate found her asking employers at a Clair job fair tough questions — namely, why employers offer black applicants mostly entry level customer service-telemarketing posts that don’t pay a living wage.

Her first priority at Clair, an old-line church of 200 members atop an Ames Avenue hill, is getting to know her flock, one that’s old and weary. Members have drifted away. Her mantra to bring folks back is, “come get your hillside experience.” She wants Clair to be a “beacon of light” for an area beset by despair.

She wants believers to “come and hear a word that will encourage them, that will empower them to go out and make a difference.” That will give them a voice “to speak up and declare what is it that your community needs. I mean, is there a Neighborhood Association that would help you take pride back in your block, your home, your property, your community? That’s what I’m hoping to offer.”

For Clair or for any church to prosper, she says, there must be a multi-generational membership that includes intact families. The broken family syndrome in black culture puts a strain on community and church. Historically, she says, the black church has been an extension of the family.

Cavitt feels the black church is still the inspiration and anchor it’s always been but that as times have changed new leadership needs to emerge alongside the church.

“The people still hold their pastors in high esteem as a community leader, as a spokesman for them,” she says. “But I think people today have lost their own voice and need to find their voice. Back in the ‘60s, during the civil rights movement, yes, the black church was deemed being the center. That’s where the meetings or rallies were. The pastors spoke. But there were also community leaders. And they locked hands together and the people followed and participated.

“Now I think the people have gotten quiet and they want the leaders to do the leading. But I want my congregation to realize, yes, I might be your leader but I can only do so much as we lock hands together and go together. I’m not the only spokesperson. Some of you are more equipped and knowledgeable and outspoken than I am on some issues. We need to stand and support each other on all issues.”

 

 

Clair Memorial United Methodist Church

 

 

If the disparities are to be rectified, she believes the black church will be involved  – if for no other reason than that’s where the majority of African Americans gather. It’s where pledges are made and coalitions built. “Because we still view the church as that power source,” she says. “On Sundays or during mid-week service I know the people are listening and you have an opportunity to encourage them. We try to address our violence and our unemployment issues. We’ve got to. The Bible speaks to all of that and so I have to make that come alive.”

The black church is where hope springs eternal. It’s where, she says, people “have an opportunity to band together to make a difference — as long as people can see that change is on the way. Sometimes change is slow. But as long as you’re working toward a goal, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get to it.”

Cavitt, like her friend Apostle Vanessa Ward, sees black churches beginning to work more collaboratively but still having a ways to go. “It can get better,” Cavitt says. “We are not as cohesive as we can be.”

Again, like Ward, she feels being a strong female minister poses problems for some  – making unity difficult. “We have to embrace each other and respect each other regardless if I’m a female or not. I don’t have time to play games. I won’t take a back seat to anyone. I mean, you don’t have to respect me for my sex but you should respect me for what I represent. I’m in a main line denomination at a major church. I can be a radical at times but after all of these years I have so much to offer that I can’t go backwards, I can only continue to move forward.”

The fact that Clair, which had a female minister once before, chose her is all the validation she needs. “For this church to lift my name and desire to have me says a lot about my ministry here in Omaha. They wanted a pastor like me.”

The single and childless Cavitt says “it would be nice to come home to someone who takes care of me but I don’t need that because my members are my family.”


Rev. Jeremiah McGhee
, Mt. Sinai Church, 4504 Bedford Ave.
The core needs of Omaha’s black community have changed little since the civil rights era. The black church has been there for the whole ride. Since the ‘70s Rev. Jeremiah McGhee’s worked the front lines to address inequities. He says churches play a vital role in this work but have their limitations. He notes, pastors can’t be experts in everything and seldom can a problem be tackled in isolation from others.

Thus, any serious discussion of community needs must encompass multiple factors from a broad range of informed perspectives.

“We gotta find jobs, we gotta help people get better educated, we gotta help people with their health problems, we gotta help right down the line,” he says.

 

Rev. Jeremiah McGhee

 

 

 

For churches or other organizations to face these matters alone, he says, “it gets overwhelming.” The best-intentioned efforts then tend to “fizzle out.” That’s why he’s encouraged by some new initiatives, especially the African American Empowerment Network, that target these issues through expert-based coalitions or covenants. “We’ve got our best and brightest leading,” he says. par

Ministers like himself and churches like his own, the non-denominational Mt. Sinai, a 70-member congregation he pastors, are part of the Network. The community-wide effort, he says, promotes public-private, religious-secular partnerships, thus taking the pressure off churches in an era when a shrinking social safety net finds churches offering services and programs far beyond what they once did.

Mt. Sinai’s typical of most churches today in providing things like an after-school program, a computer lab, a pantry or a homeless ministry, et cetera. It’s not like it was when he grew up, when “we were one big family — the neighborhood, the village. Because of that brokenness today, a lot more has fallen on the church.”

He says strengthening families is a must. He also says churches can be relieved of responses better suited to others as more community-based solutions develop.

“That makes it easy for us,” says McGhee, who’s married and a father of 10, “because we don’t have to be everything to everybody anymore.”

McGhee’s led Mt. Sinai to do “extensive outreach to the homeless.” It began with church volunteers feeding the homeless downtown. It expanded to sheltering people, first in members’ homes, then at the Colonial Hotel. It grew into New Creations, a five-building, 28-apartment complex converted to transitional housing for homeless men, women and families. New Creations operated from 1996 until earlier this year, when Mt. Sinai’s partnership with another non-profit failed. McGhee’s looking to restructure and reopen New Creations.

All along, he says, black churches “gave attention” to the very concerns the Empowerment Network focuses on “but we lacked experience, we lacked expertise.” Then there’s the question of time and resources and pastors spreading themselves or their churches too thin. Not to mention the resistance some put up to anything smacking of religion.

He says the black church’s traditional social justice mission has never wavered but is perhaps less visible or recognized now because its emissary may not wear a collar. “The church is there, it’s just not the pastor — it’s a member of the congregation that’s there,” he says. “As pastors we’re encouraging our people to get involved in politics, education, economics. We’ve got sophisticated, educated members of our congregations that go do those things.”

Wherever McGhee is involved he makes no bones where he’s coming from.

“We don’t want to be Bible-thumpers,” he says, “but I’m going to live my faith. You can’t expect me not to be who I am or to act the way I believe just because I’ve got a lot of people around me who maybe believe different or don’t believe at all.”

In the end, any coalition must put aside competing egos, agendas and philosophies and attend to what needs doing.

“The street’s dirty, let’s sweep. We need houses built, let’s build ‘em. We’ve got kids that are undereducated, what are going to do about that? And so as we approach those things in that way across the board we’re finding a greater acceptance,” McGhee says.

He said he and pastors of different faiths are getting better at “building relationships.” Fewer turf wars. More cooperation. More compromise.

“They listen to me, I listen to them, and we manage to work at it a lot stronger and to keep focused on the prize.”

He says it’s no accident the Network, for example, made faith the first of its 13 covenants or that members work hard at building alliances. Many steering committee-leadership team members “are very strong in faith,” he says. “They’re believers.” Some are clergy, some are not.

“We have decided we will be solutions-oriented. I have never been more impressed with African Americans that have come together who want to work together, who like each other,” he says.

All this partnering is bringing black churches in closer contact. His church was one of several on the north side to collaborate on a summer youth program at Adams Park Recreation Center. McGhee heads the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA) and says that group and other black faith-based groups are increasingly “coming together. We’re talking about things regularly. We’re keeping each other informed. We’ve got good relationships and out of those grow commitments. Now when we hear anything about what’s going on, we’re connecting.”

“Before we’d seem to come together and we’d kind of spin our wheels awhile and in the end a little got done but not as hard-hitting as today,” he says. “We’re determined. This group of pastors is working together. We share the same interests. We live in the same community. We’re pastoring the same class of folk — that are struggling. Divided we fall. We can’t make it if we don’t begin to put our heads together and work smart and that’s what we’re doing now.”

He says it’s vital churches fulfill their historical leadership mission. If churches are to lead by example, he says, they must be open. The same with the IMA, which he acknowledges has been resistant to women members.

“We’re learning to get past that,” he says, because a welcoming church excludes no one. “It’s men, it’s women, it’s interracial, its intergenerational, its interdenominational. As pastors we need to lead the way. We need the congregations and the community to see us leading and taking charge in that.”


Rev. LeRoy Adams, Morning Star Baptist Church
, 2019 Burdette St.
Morning Star Baptist Church represents the dichotomy of Omaha’s black community. Its magnificent, multi-million dollar facility bespeaks a place of worship that’s well attended and supported. With 1,500 members and growing, Morning Star is a success story. Its pastor, Rev. LeRoy Adams, a rising star in the Baptist Church nationally, in demand as an inspirational speaker and leader.

The 83-year-old institution’s a neighborhood anchor flanked by two more community stalwarts — Conestoga Magnet Center and the Hope Center. Nice new homes on North 20th Street are nearby.

 

 

Morning Star Baptist Church

 

 

Like most of North O, the area’s basically safe. The normal rhythms of daily life unwind in well-kept neighborhoods with families, businesses, schools, churches. It’s also true that routine is interrupted at times by gun violence. An illicit drug-sex trade operates openly. The perception from the outside looking in is that all of North O’s a war zone or wasteland. Not so. However, the reality is that gun violence and other social ills are persistent problems. While not unique to that area they are predominantly centered there due to a high concentration of conditions  – poverty, unemployment, gang activity — that cultivate them.

Adams, a Buffalo, N.Y. native who’s married with two kids, dislikes how the media disproportionately highlights problems over success stories in his community.

“Sometimes I get very perturbed about that because we know what’s happening here. There’s the good and there’s the bad. But we get this stereotypical negative view that North Omaha is a place of reproach. That it’s a mission field for the churches in West Omaha to come. There’s no balance. There’s no appreciation for this being a very large area that’s also doing great things.”

Like it or not, shootings on the north side get reported. He and his church hardly ignore the violence there. He’s made the issue a priority of Concerned Clergy of North Omaha, which he heads. He advises Mayor Mike Fahey on ways to intervene in the gun culture. Morning Star provides youths positive alternatives to street life. His church organized the summer sleepover program at the Adams Park rec center. The rev leads prayer marches and vigils. It’s through efforts like these black churches act as stabilizing forces every day — a fact he feels gets overlooked.

As he’s well aware, solidarity and indignation only go so far. Public-private responses that give kids alternatives to gang-street life are needed.

He agrees with friend and fellow clergyman Rev. Jeremiah McGhee that the black church has much help in the social justice struggle today. “That particular burden is not just upon us anymore,” says Adams, “it is shared by many.” Rather than diminish the church, he contends sharing the load with other institutions enhances the church’s work and increases its reach.

He says collaboration’s healthy as long as “we don’t forget and ignore the influence of the church. Our history will remind us our church has always been the foundation of change in America.” Whether a local effort like the Empowerment Network or a national one, he adds, “it comes right back to the church. Our history has always been the church. Our hope has been inspired by the church.”

An institution the size of Morning Star can also afford to extend its reach in ways little imagined in the past. For example, Adams says his church is planning to build a family life or wellness center with a range of programs, activities and services for black seniors. Additionally, he says, Morning Star’s looking “to be a little bit more entrepreneurial by creating jobs in our community” through such church-owned businesses as a book store, a restaurant and a beauty/barbershop.

This kind of economic reinvestment in the community, he says, “provides us a foothold beyond the norm” for Omaha but common among large churches in other cities. “That’s kind of where we want to lead our congregation, so that we can be a dominant presence in our community. I’m kind of excited about it.”

Adams sees the black church enjoying a renaissance today. “Not only are we growing numerically but we’re seeing this diversity,” he says. Morning Star, which he describes as “progressive,” is an illustration of these trends. It’s more than doubled its rolls since he arrived nine years ago and attracts a mixed house of worshipers by race, ethnicity, income, affiliation — from a wide geographic area.

 

 

Pastor LeRoy Adams with wife Traci

 

 

The black church is also a model for other faith groups.

“We’re seeing many other denominations taking some of our culture” — gospel music, praise and worship, call-and-response — “and adopting it to their style of worship, and that’s gratifying to see that,” says Adams.

Omaha has many black churches but he feels the bigger ones like Morning Star and Salem Baptist Church too often overshadow their smaller counterparts.

“There are several others that are doing a great job. Every church and every minister that serves in some capacity is important.”

Unlike McGhee, he sees Omaha churches “yet divided” denominationally and geographically. “There is a splinterization that exists in many ways, in many forms, in many fashions and Omaha is too small of a city to be that way,” he says. “Whether it has to do with race, reconciliation or dealing with poverty we have the persons and resources here to invest in making Omaha what she can be.” Now it’s just a matter of getting those stakeholders “involved in changing Omaha.”


Selwyn Bachus
, Salem Baptist Church, 3131 Lake St.
Salem Baptist Church is a rock in northeast Omaha. The landmark owns the largest membership, more than 3,000, and most glorious worship center of any black church in the state. In a metaphorical sense African American leaders here hope to build upon its solid foundation and that of other institutions and organizations in the area by implementing strategies that, if successful there, will revive an area smack dab in the heart of the black community.

Rev. Selwyn Bachus has pastored Salem only since 2005 but he owns a long history with the 86-year-old church dating back to his childhood in Kansas City, Mo., where his minister father was a friend of then-Salem pastor J.C. Wade. Bachus accompanied his parents on visits to Omaha and Salem, which became like a second home. That background gives Bachus, who’s married with two children, a deep appreciation for Salem’s legacy.

 

 

Pastor Selwyn Bachus

 

 

He came here after stints in Virginia and Ohio. The challenges and opportunities posed by Omaha’s inner city are similar to those of urban black communities elsewhere. When the head of Omaha’s most prosperous, influential black institution talks, people listen, and what Bachus says bodes well for a community that’s struggled to find sustainable economic development. Decades of instability have marked the area since the late ‘60s. But Bachus sees a turnaround in the offing and attributes the promise of better times ahead to a confluence of shared interests.

“I’ve lived in four different cities for fairly significant periods of time and have never been able to see the community unified in such a way. And so that excites me to see that people can bring to the table their efforts and say clearly that we want to do what’s best for the community as a whole.”

He refers to Omaha’s African American Empowerment Network and to parallel initiatives underway here whose leaders “bring expertise and experience” to focused efforts aimed at raising the black community.

Bachus is active in the Network, whose Empower Omaha covenants encompass everything from improving educational achievement to spurring economic development to creating affordable homes to supporting black businesses. The Network looks to apply all 13 covenants to the area Salem resides in.

That section is slated as a target or test site because there are anchors in place in Salem and in the neighboring Urban League of Nebraska, Charles Drew Health Center, Salem Village senior residential community and Aframerican Book Store, among others, and in the stately Miami Heights homes. A planned redevelopment of the Pleasantview projects is on the drawing board.

Even with these stabilizers, residents experience poverty, unemployment, violence, health issues and a myriad of other problems in disproportionate numbers. The Network seeks to use existing anchors as building blocks to strengthen the area overall and impact those specific inequities. Success there could be replicated throughout the community to realize the larger revival of North O envisioned.

Salem’s already made huge commitments. In 2000 its $7.5 million worship-education center opened and that’s spurred added redevelopment in the neighborhood. Its multiple ministries reach out to people across the board. It’s planning a community development center. Still only in the conceptual stages, the facility may include an early childhood development program, a gym, a stage, classrooms and a pantry. Bachus is encouraged that fellow stakeholders in the community have expressed support for the center and the various programs and activities it can host.

The synergy Bachus sees is not a moment too soon in his opinion.

“African Americans in Omaha are at a crisis point,” he says. “We’re at a crossroads. There’s extreme possibilities. There’s great possibility for greatness in our community but we have to do it now.”

The World-Herald’s reporting on the extent of poverty in Omaha’s black community, he says, “gave us a dose of reality that was not very palatable. I think it really awakened something within us.” For Bachus it’s unconscionable “a city as wealthy as Omaha” can allow the hypocrisy of “five Fortune 500 companies almost literally within a stone’s throw of a poverty stricken community.”

He expresses dismay “at seeing some of the progress made over the past 40 years begin to erode.” He says that loss, too, has been a wake up call to action. “If not now, never,” is the mantra. The time for rhetoric, he says, is over. It’s time to act.

“No longer will we talk about the problem without seeking to alleviate the problem,” he says. “If we don’t fix the problem we’re a part of the problem itself. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. Don’t protest or criticize if you’re not part of the solution.”

 

 

Salem Baptist Church

 

 

Bachus says coming out of the civil rights experience blacks “looked for a leader to motivate us and give us a vision,” ala a King or Jackson, “and I think what we’ve come to realize is there’s no one leader at this point that’s going to be able to do that. And so as a result we’ve seen the effectiveness of collaborating as leaders.”

Barack Obama may prove a catalyst for sweeping change but there’s a sense African Americans are more diffused politically-socially-religiously than assumed. Even someone as dynamic as Obama may only get the support of a segment of blacks when it comes to social policies or programs.

The days when a single figure, elected or unelected, can marshal a nationwide movement may be over. The days when the black church can be out front leading the charge may be past. But Bachus echoes his colleagues in saying the church is still a bastion of black culture, it just operates in a more collegial, cooperative, community-oriented way. That’s why Bachus and his fellow ministers now partner with a broad coalition of public and private sector figures and entities.\par

“It’s a collaborative effort that brings persons and expertise to the table to allow us to do what we do even more effectively.”

He’s optimistic about progress being made behind the scenes by the Empowerment Network and other efforts. He says the strength of these approaches is that clergy, activists and social service professionals are working with strategically-placed public-private lay leaders in key  indicators like education, employment, economic development, housing. The church is not taking a back seat but walking hand in hand with change agents, many of whom are leaders at their churches.

Clergy or not, Bachus says the blacks taking the lead in Omaha “have a sense of calling, a sense of direction. It doesn’t come from the world, it comes from God.”

If the black community is to arise, he’s sure it will be a faith-inspired resurrection.

More Shepherds for the Faith and the Cause

©by Leo Adam Biga

Fr. Ken Vavrina, St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, 2423 Grant St.

African American Catholics comprise a minority within a minority. Historically. Omaha’s home base for this small but persistent segment has been St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, whose black namesake and gospel music-infused services reflect black culture.

After decades serving the poorest of the poor on Native American reservations, in India and in Africa, Father Ken Vavrina ministers to Omaha’s most disadvantaged residents as St. Benedict’s pastor. He knows The Hood well. He pastored at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s. He knew Black Panthers. He was on Nprth 24th Street when it burned during the riots.

“It has not come back since then,” he says.

After serving St. Richard Church he took over St. Ben’s in 2007 at his request. Before him, assigned priests lived off-site for years, leaving a void and disconnect with parishioners and neighbors. Vavrina, a Clarkson, Neb. native, insisted he reside at the rectory. “You gotta live here. You gotta live in your community,” he says.

 

 

A service at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church

 

 

His small parish today is at “ground zero.” Yes, there are pockets of stability and revitalization but this zone’s depressed by poverty, prostitution, drugs, gangs, gun violence and scant economic development. Within view of his rectory is an open market for crack cocaine and human trafficking. On one side you buy dope. On the other, sex. Whatever your fix, suppliers stand ready. Walking a visitor outside, Vavrina points to “the girls” working the streets down the block. Parish members counsel some of these young women in the hope they’ll make better choices.

“A lot of our young boys and some girls are being sucked into the street, and they’re good kids,” he says, “but they have to develop the discipline to make short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits. We need to be able to help these kids have that discipline.”

He’s sending a message that we “won’t be intimidated by the violence” and he’s putting in place mentoring programs that impact young people where they live.

An Adopt-a-Family program matches at-risk families headed by single mothers with volunteers from metro area churches. With the right advice and support, the goal is to turn clients’ lives around. The program grew out of St. Ben’s ongoing support of a neighborhood family impacted by gun violence. The church has also rededicated the Bryant Center, a once popular recreation facility on its grounds whose outdoor basketball courts had grown largely dormant and run down until recent efforts to refurbish them. A new summer/fall hoops league with coaches, referees, strict supervision and police security has taken off.

For projects like these to work Vavrina knows ecumenical partnerships are needed and therefore he’s formed broad alliances across the public-private-Christian spectrum. For example, he often works with clergy from area Protestant churches.


Fr. Tom Fangman
, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2207 Wirt St.
The Sacred Heart Catholic Church congregation is marked by racial, ethnic, socioeconomic diversity. Like St. Ben’s, Sacred Heart embraces gospel music and black religious iconography to reflect the predominant culture it inhabits.

The church operates one of a dwindling number of inner city private schools. Sacred Heart Elementary School serves African American students from largely low income families. Few of the students are Catholic but their parents prize “a faith-based education,” says church pastor and school president Father Tom Fangman. The school’s much-copied Life Skills, Building Blocks for Success Program aims to prepare students for real world experiences.

Support comes from CUES or Christian Urban Education Services, a nonprofit whose board members of different races and faiths endorse the school’s mission and track record. Fangman says 98 percent of Sacred Heart grads complete high school compared to 72 percent of students on average from other area schools.

Sacred Heart Church

The church also serves the community via its Heart Ministry Center, which provides needy residents with clothes, household goods and food. Its pantry allows clients to self-select their own groceries. Education programs are also offered. Youth-adult ed classes cover everything from nutrition to early pregnancy to literacy.

“It’s a hub for outreach,” Fangman says. “I mean, things are just constantly happening there. We’re forming all these great relationships with the community. I would put this up with just about any social service agency in North Omaha.”

Partnerships abound, including cooperative ventures with other churches, Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Fangman says Sacred Heart provides a consistent presence in a neighborhood sorely lacking stability. “I believe we’re an anchor,” he says. “We’ve been here a long time and so we have a history. And the people in the community know the school’s making a big difference in lots of kids’ lives, which I think brings hope.”

The Omaha native’s exactly where he wants to be. “I always wanted to do inner city ministry,” he says. “It’s a ministry I find fulfilling every day.”


Rev. Johnice Orduna
, New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt St.
“I’m one of those born-and-bred called-to people, because I never knew anything but the church,” says Rev. Johnice Orduna, an Omaha native whose life’s been one long faith journey.

Orduna, a licensed/certified missionary, started out a Baptist. She’s ministered in Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian churches on the north side. One of her Nebraska Synod assignments was at Omaha’s Augustana Lutheran Church, where she brought the perspective of “a crusader” and the reputation of “a dangerous black woman” to a congregation once resistant to interracial fellowship. She did formal anti-racism training for the Lutheran Church.

As a mission developer she formed a congregation that became Fontenelle Community Church. Her ministry reached out to youths and families in crisis.

Semi-retired today, she’s now filling a temporary post at New Life Presbyterian Church, which lost its pastor. She’s doing “supply preaching” until a new pastor’s found. New Life’s a blending of the former Calvin and Fairview Presbyterian Churches, whose congregations were all-black and all-white, respectively. When the inner city parishes faced closure due to declining membership they merged, and a mixed race church was born.

Racial diversity in the pews is a rarity. She says, “We gotta get past this business of Sunday being the most segregated day of the year. If we can put our barriers down and not operate in our little heresies that say, ‘My way’s the only way to get to God,’ then we really could enrich each other.

“We haven’t gotten there. It’s too safe to do it the other way.”

 

 

New Life Presbyterian Church

 

 

She admires New Life, saying it’s a congregation “where people just come in and be who they are. I mean, they have their tiffs. We all do. But it’s never a gamebreaker. These folks have made a decision — We’re going to be here and we’re going to be together doing this, regardless, and we’ll work through whatever it takes. If more congregations would do that then we wouldn’t have these rifts. There would be so much that we could empower ourselves to do.”

In her opinion, churches get bogged down in a survival mode of maintaining the status quo. She advocates getting outside the four walls to do evangelization.

“Our neighborhoods are lost. We’ve got kids killing each other in the street who have no clue what the inside of a church looks like,” she says. “That’s where you have to be — literally out on the streets. There’s a fearlessness required. You can’t go in your house and lock the door and keep yourself safe. You gotta be willing to go to the 7-Eleven parking lot where the kids are and greet them with dignity and respect and then begin to let them know who you are and who Jesus is.

“I think Jesus is as transforming as ever but it’s how you deliver the message. You cannot assume anymore that kids are going to have heard any of that.”

Orduna rues the loss of intimacy that once permeated the black community. She believes the black church is not as unified as it was in the civil rights struggle but remains critical for instilling or restoring a “sense of community” in neighborhoods.

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By

July 4, 2011 45 comments

As the July 27-August 1 Native Omaha Days festival draws near I am posting articles I’ve written about this African-Ameican heritage and homecoming event and about closely related topics. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared some years ago, at at time when predominantly African American North Omaha was experiencing a large increase in gun violence and media reports laid out the widespread poverty and achievement gaps affecting that community. In response to dire needs, the African American Empowerment Network was formed and a concerted process begun to to bring about a revitalized North Omaha. Native Omaha leaders and others expressed hope that events like Native Omaha Days and the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame might serve to unify, heal, and instill pride to help stem the tide of hopelessness and disrespect behind the violence. Things have improved recently and North O really does seen the verge of coming back, thanks in large part to efforts by the Empowerment Network, but the stabilizing role of events like Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be forgotten or dimissed.

 

photo

Native Omaha Club photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now and All the Days Gone By

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

Organizers of the 16th biennial Native Omaha Days call it the largest gathering of African-Americans in Nebraska. That in itself makes it a significant event. Thousands fill Salem Baptist Church for the gospel fest, spill into North 24th Street for the social mixer/registration and the homecoming parade, boogie at the Qwest Center dance and chow down on soul food at a Levi Carter Lake Park picnic.

This heritage celebration held every other summer is a great big reunion with many family-class reunions around it. Parties abound. Hotels, casinos, eateries, bars fill. Jam sessions unwind. Bus tours roll. North 24th cruising commences. Stories and lies get told. It’s people of a shared roots experience coming together as one.

Unity is on the minds of natives as their community is poised at a historic juncture. Will North 24th’s heyday be recaptured through new economic-education-empowerment plans? Or will generational patterns of poverty, underemployment, single parent homes, crime and lack of opportunity continue to hold back many? What happens if the cycle of despair that grips some young lives is not broken?

“The Native Omaha homecoming is very important, but a lot of young people don’t know what it’s all about, and that really bothers me,” said Hazel Kellogg, 74, president of the sponsoring nonprofit Native Omahans Club, Inc.. “They’re the future and what we’re trying to do is make them realize how important it is to hang in with your community and to keep your community pulling together for the betterment of our people. OUR people, you know?

“We have a big problem on the north side with violence and crime and all that, and I want to reach out to young people to let them know this homecoming is all about family and friends coming home to be together and enjoy a weekend of good clean fun. Eventually the young people are going to be heading up Native Omaha Days and they need to know what it’s all about.”

She said she hopes the event is a catalyst for ongoing efforts to build up the community again. After much neglect she’s encouraged by signs of revitalization. “I’ve been through it all. I’ve been through the riots. For a long time it moved in a negative direction. Now, I’m very hopeful. We need the whole community to come together with this. Together we stand.”

Vaughn Chatman, 58, shares the same concerns. He left Omaha years ago and the problems he saw on visits from Fair Oaks, Calif., where he now lives, motivated him to found the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. The Hall seeks to restore the sense of community pride he knew. An induction ceremony held during the Days honors area black artists, athletes, activists, entrepreneurs and leaders. He feels young blacks can only feel invested in the future if exposed to successful folks who look like they do. He works with the Omaha Public Schools to have local black achievers discussed in classroom curricula as a way to give kids positive models to aspire to.

“Back in the day” is an oft-heard phrase of the week-long fest. Good and bad times comprise those memories. Just as World War II-era Omaha saw an influx of blacks from the South seeking packinghouse-railroad jobs, the last 40 years has seen an exodus due to meager economic-job prospects.
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photo by Cyclops-Optic (Jack David Hubbell)

 

Centered in northeast Omaha, the black community hub became North 24th, where  Jewish and black-owned businesses catered to every good and service and a vital live music scene thrived. Hence, many Days activities revolve around 24th, which declined after the late ‘60s riots. A few blocks have seen improvements, but much of this former “Street of Dreams” is run down or empty. Gang violence in the district is a problem. It’s concerns like these now spurring coalitions of residents and expatriate natives like Chatman to craft sustainable solutions.

For a change, Karen Davis sees “substance” in the new initiatives targeting rebirth. Enough to make the Native Omahans Club officer feel the area “can be back to where it was or even more. Businesses have come down or moved back, and I think it’s a good thing for us,” she said.

The Native Omahans Club is quartered in a former lounge at 3819 North 24th. During the Days the building and street outside overflow with people reminiscing. Visitors mix with residents, exchanging handshakes, hugs, laughter, tears. Scenes like this unfold all over — anywhere neighborhood-school chums or relatives catch up with each other to relive old times.

“We haven’t seen each other in years, so it’s just a fellowship — what we used to do, what we used to look like…It’s just big fun,” said Davis.

Like countless Omahans, Davis and Kellogg each have friends and family arriving for the Days. No one’s sure just how many out-of-state natives return or the economic impact of their stays, but organizers guess 5,000 to 8,000 make it in and spend millions here. Those hefty numbers lead some to say the event doesn’t get its just due from the city. No matter, it’s a family thing anyway.

“People come in from all over for Native Omaha Days. My family comes from Colorado, Minnesota. It’s a time I can get together with them. I have a friend from Arizona coming I haven’t seen in 20 years. I’ll be so glad to see her. Those are the things that really just keep my heart pumping,” Kellogg said. “It’s just a gala affair.”

For details on the Days visit www.nativeomahans.com or call 457-5974.

A. Marino Grocery Closes: An Omaha Italian Landmark Calls It Quits

June 22, 2011 6 comments

One of the last of the old line ethnic grocery stores in my hometown of Omaha closed down a few years ago.  The small Italian market is one my family and I shopped at quite a bit. It was the last of its kind, that is among Italian grocers. Truth be told, there are many ethnic grocers in business here today, only the owners are from the new immigrant enclaves of Latin America and Africa and Asia rather than Europe. The owner of the now defunct A. Marino Grocery, Frank Marino, inherited the business from his father. It was a throwback place little changed from back in the old days. My piece about Frank finally deciding to retire and close the place appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

On this blog you can find more stories by me related to other aspects of Omaha’s Italian-American culture, including ones on the Sons of Italy hall’s pasta feeds and the annual Santa Lucia Festival.

 

 

A. Marino Grocery Closes: An Omaha Italian Landmark Calls It Quits

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

The final days of A. Marino Grocery at 1716 South 13th Street were akin to a wake. The first week of October saw old friends, neighbors and customers file in to say goodbye to proprietor Frank Marino, 80, whose late Sicilian immigrant father, Andrea, a sheepherder back in Carlentini, opened the Italian store in 1919.

News of the closing leaked out days before the local daily ran a story about the store’s end. As word spread Marino was deluged with business. Lines of cars awaited him when he arrived one morning. Orders poured in. He and his helpers could hardly keep up. Those who hadn’t heard were disappointed by the news. Some wondered aloud where’d they get their sausage from now on.

A Navy veteran of World War II, Marino long talked of retiring but nobody believed him. Still, decades of 50-60 hour weeks take their toll. When he got an attractive offer for the building he took it. The new owner plans to renovate the space into an interior decorating office on the main level and a residence above it.

Folks stopping by for a last visit knew the store’s passing meant the loss of a prized remnant of Omaha’s ethnic past. Housed in a two-story brick structure whose upstairs apartment the family lived in and Marino was born in, the store represented the last of the Italian grocers serving Omaha’s Little Italy. While the neighborhood’s lost most vestiges of its Italian-Czech heritage, time stood still at the small store. Its narrow aisles, vintage fixtures, wood floors, solid counters, ornate display cabinets and antique scales bespoke an earlier era.

It was a living history museum of Old World charms and ways. No sanitary gloves. Meats and cheeses comingled, but regulars figured it just added to the flavor.

An aproned Marino would often be behind the deli case in back, hovering over the butcher’s block to cut, season, grind and encase choice cuts of beef for the popular sausage he made. He sold hundreds of pounds a week. He carried a full line of imported foods. Parmigiano reggiano, romano, provolone, mozzarella and fresh ricotta cheese. Prosciutto, mortadella, salami, capicolla and pepperoni. Various olives — plain or marinated. Meatballs. Homemade ravioli and other stuffed pastas. Canned tomatoes, packaged pastas, assorted peppers, et cetera. At Christmas he sold specialty candies and baccala, a salted cod used in Italian holiday dishes.

 

He’d slice, grate, measure, weigh and bag items himself. Nothing was precut. What few helpers he had were mostly old buddies. Banter between the men and with the customers was part of the experience. Characters abounded.

Marino rang up your purchases on an old-style cash register and engaged you in crackle barrel conversation from behind the massive front counter his father had made to order in 1932. Behind the counter, whose built-in drawers stored 20-pound cases of pasta, he’d light up his trademark pipe and shoot the breeze.

“I love being here and I love being around people,” he said.

It was the same way with his father. The two worked side by side for half-a-century. They had their spats, but the disagreements always blew over. There was, after all, a business to run and people to serve. His papa taught him well.

“It’s service-oriented. You’ve got to hand-wait on everybody,” Marino said.

In some cases he waited on three generations in the same family. He enjoyed the association and interaction. “I’ll miss that. There was a lot of closeness, you know.”

 

That last week people expressed heartache over the closing.

Mary Cavalieri of Omaha shopped there all her life. “It’s really sad,” she said, adding she felt she was losing “a tradition” and “a friend” in the process.

Oakland, Iowa resident Anna D’Angelo was among many who came some distance to shop there. Asked what she’ll miss most, she said, “The sausage and all the Italian specialties, and Frank. He knows everybody by name. He knows what you like. Frank never needs to see my ID. It’s that personal touch you don’t get anymore.”

Omahan Leo Ferzley, an old chum of Marino’s, said, “You hate to see it go, but what do you do? Everybody will miss it. A lot of memories.”

Marino is worried what he’ll do with all his free time. He and his wife plan their first trip to Italy. “That’s all we’ve ever talked about,” he said. One man told him that if the opportunity comes, “whatever you do, don’t pass it up.”

Customers, some whose names he didn’t even know, wished him and his wife well. One wrote a $100 check for the Marinos to treat themselves to a night on the town. As Mary Cavalieri said, “He deserves some retirement time.”

No regrets.

As Marino told someone, “It’s the end of the line. 88 years we’ve been here. Since before I was born. It’s been good to us. But I’m 80-years-old. I think it’s time.” Besides, he said, “I’m wore out.”

Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One

June 11, 2011 71 comments

Even though I grew up in North Omaha and lived there until age 43 or so,  I didn’t experience my first Native Omaha Days until I had moved out of the area, and by then I was 45, and the only reason I did intersect with The Days then, and subsequently have since, is because I was reporting on it.  The fact that I didn’t connect with it before is not unusual because it is essentially though by no means exclusively an African American celebration, and as you can see by my picture I am a white guy. Then there’s the fact it is a highly social affair and I am anything but social, that is unless prevailed upon to be by circumstance or assignment. But I was aware of the event, admittedly vaguely so most of my life, and I eventually did press my editors at The Reader (www.thereader.com) to let me cover it. And so over the past eight years I have filed several stories related to Native Omaha Days, most of which you can now find on this blog in the run up to this year’s festival, which is July 27-August 1. The story below is my most extensive in terms of trying to capture the spirit and the tradition of The Days, which encompasses many activities and brings back thousands of native Omahans – nobody’s really sure how many – for a week or more of catching up family, friends, old haunts.

NOTE: The parade that is a highlight of The Days was traditionally held on North 24th Street but has more recently been moved to North 30th Street, where the parade pictures below were taken by Cyclops-OpticJack David Hubbell.

My blog also features many other stories related to Omaha’s African American community, past and present. Check out the stories, as I’m sure you’ll find several things that interest you, just as I have in pursuing these stories the last 12 years or so.

 

 

 

 

Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A homecoming. That’s what Native Omaha Days, a warm, rousing, week-long black heritage reunion, means to the thousands of native sons and daughters coming back in town for this biennial summer celebration. Although the spree, which unfolded July 30 through August 4 this year, features an official itinerary of activities, including a gospel night, a drill team competition, a parade, a dance and a picnic, a far larger slate of underground doings goes on between the many family and class reunions, live concerts and parties that fill out the Days. Some revelers arrive before the merriment begins, others join the fun in progress and a few stay over well after it’s done. A revival and carnival in one, the Days is a refreshing, relaxing antidote to mainstream Omaha’s uptight ways.

North Omaha bars, clubs and restaurants bustle with the influx of out-of-towners mixing with family and old friends. North 24th Street is a river of traffic as people drive the drag to see old sites and relive old times. Neighborhoods jump to the beat of hip-hop, R&B and soul resounding from house parties and family gatherings under way. Even staid Joslyn Art Museum and its stodgy Jazz on the Green take on a new earthy, urban vibe from the added black presence. As one member of the sponsoring Native Omahans Club said of the festival, “this is our Mardi Gras.”

Shirley Stapleton-Odems is typical of those making the pilgrimage. Born and raised in Omaha — a graduate of Howard Kennedy Elementary School and Technical High School — Stapleton-Odems is a small business owner in Milwaukee who wouldn’t miss the Days for anything. “Every two years I come back…and it’s hard sometimes for me to do, but no matter what I make it happen,” she said. “I have friends who come from all over the country to this, and I see some people I haven’t seen in years. We all meet here. We’re so happy to see each other. It’s a reunion thing. It’s like no matter how long you’re gone, this is still home to us.”

As Omaha jazz-blues guru Preston Love, a former Basie sideman and Motown band leader and the author of the acclaimed book A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, observed, “Omahans are clannish” by nature. “There’s a certain kindredness. Once you’re Omaha, you’re Omaha.” Or, as David Deal, whose Skeets Ribs & Chicken has been a fixture on 24th Street since 1952, puts it, “People that moved away, they’re not out-of-towners, they’re still Omahans — they just live someplace else.” Deal sees many benefits from the summer migration. “It’s an opportunity for people to come back to see who’s still here and who’s passed on. It’s an economic boost to businesses in North Omaha.”

Homecoming returnees like Stapleton-Odems feel as if they are taking part in something unique. She said, “I don’t know of any place in the country where they have something like this where so many people over so many generations come together.” Ironically, the fest’ was inspired by long-standing Los Angeles and Chicago galas where transplanted black Nebraskans celebrate their roots. Locals who’ve attended the L.A. gig say it doesn’t compare with Omaha’s, which goes to the hilt in welcoming back natives.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the most symbolic event of the week is the mammoth Saturday parade that courses down historic North 24th Street. It is an impressionistic scene of commerce and culture straight out of a Spike Lee film. On a hot August day, thousands of spectators line either side of the street, everyone insinuating their bodies into whatever patch of shade they can find. Hand-held fans provide the only breeze.

Vendors, selling everything from paintings to CDs to jewelry to hot foods and cold beverages to fresh fruits and vegetables, pitch their products under tents staked out in parking lots and grassy knolls. Grills and smokers work overtime, wafting the hickory-scented aroma of barbecue through the air. Interspersed at regular intervals between the caravan of decorated floats festooned with signs hawking various local car dealerships, beauty shops, fraternal associations and family trees are the funky drill teams, whose dancers shake their booties and grind their hips to the precise, rhythmic snaring of whirling dervish drummers. Paraders variously hand-out or toss everything from beads to suckers to grab-bags full of goodies.

A miked DJ “narrates” the action from an abandoned gas station, at one point mimicking the staccato sound of the drilling. A man bedecked in Civil War-era Union garb marches with a giant placard held overhead emblazoned with freedom slogans, barking into a bullhorn his diatribe against war mongers. A woman hands out spiritual messages.

 

 

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Long the crux of the black community, 24th Street or “Deuce Four” as denizens know it, is where spectators not only take in the parade as it passes familiar landmarks but where they greet familiar figures with How ya’ all doin’? embraces and engage in free-flowing reminiscences about days gone by. Everywhere, a reunion of some sort unfolds around you. Love is in the air.

The parade had a celebrity this time — Omaha native actress Gabrielle Union (Deliver Us From Eva). Looking fabulous in a cap, blouse and shorts, she sat atop the back seat of a convertible sedan sponsored by her father’s family, the Abrams, whose reunion concided with the fest’. “This is just all about the people of north Omaha showing pride for the community and reaching out to each other and committing to a sense of togetherness,” said Union, also a member of the Bryant-Fisher family, which has a large stake in and presence at the Days. “It’s basically like a renewal. Each generation comes down and everyone sits around and talks. It’s like a passing of oral history, which is…a staple of our community and our culture. It’s kind of cool being part of it.”

She said being back in the hood evokes many memories. “It’s funny because I see the same faces I used to hang out with here, so a lot of mischievous memories are coming back. It’s like, Do you remember the time? So, a lot of good times. A lot of times we probably shouldn’t of been having as young kids. But basically it’s just a lot of good memories and a lot of lessons learned right here on 24th.”

The three-mile parade is aptly launched at 24th and Burdette. There, Charles Hall’s now closed Fair Deal Cafe, once called “the black city hall,” provided a forum for community leaders to debate pressing issues and to map-out social action plans. Back in the day, Hall was known to give away food during the parade, which ends at Kountze Park, long a popular gathering spot in north Omaha. Across the street is Skeets, one of many soul food eateries in the area. Just down the road a piece is the Omaha Star, where legendary publisher Mildred Brown held court from the offices of her crusading black newspaper. Across the street is the Jewell Building, where James Jewell’s Dreamland Ballroom hosted black music greats from Armstrong to Basie to Ellington to Holiday, and a little further north, at 24th and Lake, is where hep cat juke joints like the M & M Lounge and McGill’s Blue Room made hay, hosting red hot jam sessions.

 

 
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Recalling when, as one brother put it, “it was real,” is part and parcel of the Days. It’s all about “remembering how 24th and Lake was…the hot spot for the black community,” said Native Omahans Club member Ann Ventry. “We had everything out here,” added NOC member Vera Johnson, who along with Bettie McDonald is credited with forming the club and originating the festival. “We had cleaners, barber shops, beauty parlors, bakeries, grocery stores, ice cream stores, restaurants, theaters, clothing stores, taxi companies, doctors’ offices. You name it, we had it. We really didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood for anything,” Johnson said. Many businesses were black-owned, too. North O was, as lifelong resident Charles Carter describes it, “it’s own entity. That was the lifestyle.”

For James Wightman, a 1973 North High and 1978 UNL grad, the homecoming is more than a chance to rejoin old friends, it’s a matter of paying homage to a legacy. “Another reason we come back and go down 24th Street is to honor where we grew up. I grew up at the Omaha Boys Club and I played ball at the Bryant Center. There was so much to do down on the north side and your parents let you walk there. Kids can’t do that anymore.” Noting its rich history of jazz and athletics, Wightman alluded to some of the notables produced by north Omaha, including major league baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers, jazzman Preston Love, social activist Malcolm X, actor John Beasley and Radio One founder and CEO Catherine Liggins Hughes.

For Helen McMillan Caraway, an Omaha native living in Los Angeles, sauntering down 24th Street brings back memories of the music lessons she took from Florentine Kingston, whose apartment was above a bakery on the strip. “After my music lesson I’d go downstairs and get a brownie or something,” she said. “I had to steer clear of the other side of the street, where there was a bar called McGill’s that my father, Dr. Aaron McMillan, told me, ‘Don’t go near.’” Being in Omaha again makes the Central High graduate think of “the good times we used to have at Carter Lake and all the football games. I loved that. I had a good time growing up here.”

For native Omahan Terry Goodwin Miller, now residing in Dallas, being back on 24th Street or “out on the stem,” as natives refer to it, means remembering where she and her best girlfriend from Omaha, Jonice Houston Isom, also of Dallas, got their first hair cut. It was at the old Tuxedo Barbershop, whose nattily attired proprietors, Marcus “Mac” McGee and James Bailey, ran a tight ship in the street level shop they ran in the Jewell Building, right next to a pool hall and directly below the Dreamland. Being in Omaha means stopping at favorite haunts, like Time Out Foods, Joe Tess Place and Bronco’s or having a last drink at the now closed Backstreet Lounge. It means, Goodwin Miller said, “renewing friendships…and talking about our lives and seeing family.” It means dressing to the nines and flashing bling-bling at the big dance and, when it’s over, feeling like “we don’t want to go home and grabbing something to eat and coming back to 24th Street to sit around and wait for people to come by that we know.”

 

 

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Goodwin Miller said the allure of renewing Omaha relationships is so strong that despite the fact she and Houston Isom live in Dallas now, “we don’t see each other there, but when we come here we’re together the whole time.”

Skeets’ David Deal knows the territory well. From his restaurant, which serves till 2 a.m., he sees native Omahans drawn, at all hours, to their old stomping grounds. He’s no different. “We’re just coming down here to have a good time and seeing people we haven’t seen in years.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as “sitting around and watching the cars go by, just like we used to back in the good old days.”

North Omaha. More than a geographic sector, it is the traditional, cultural heart of the local black community encompassing the social-historical reality of the African-American experience. Despite four decades of federally-mandated civil rights, equal opportunity, fair housing and affirmative action measures the black community here is still a largely separate, unequal minority in both economic and political terms and suffers a lingering perception problem — born out of racism — that unfairly paints the entire near northside as a crime and poverty-ridden ghetto. Pockets of despair do exist, but in fact north Omaha is a mostly stable area undergoing regentrification. There is the 24-square block Miami Heights housing-commercial development going up between 30th and 36th Streets and Miami and Lake Streets, near the new Salem Baptist Church. There is the now under construction North Omaha Love’s Jazz, Cultural Arts and Humanities Complex, named for Preston Love, on the northwest corner of 24th and Lake. The same sense of community infusing Native Omaha Days seems to be driving this latest surge of progress, which finds black professionals like attorney Brenda Council moving back to their roots.

Former NU football player James Wightman (1975-1978) has been coming back for the Days the past eight years, first from Seattle and now L.A., and he said, “I’m pretty pleased with what’s going on now in terms of the development. When I lived here there was a stampede of everybody getting out of Omaha because there weren’t as many opportunities. I look at Omaha’s growth and I see we’re a rich, thriving community now.” During the Days he stays, as many do, with family and hooks up with ex-jocks like Dennis Forrest (Central High) and Bobby Bass (Omaha Benson) to just kick it around. “We’re spread out in different locations now but we all come back and it’s like we never missed a beat.” The idea of a black pride week generating goodwill and dollars in the black community appeals to Wightman, who said, “I came to spend my money on the north side. And I’ll be back in two years.”

Wightman feels the Days can serve as a beacon of hope to today’s disenfranchised inner city youth. “I think it sends a message to the youth that there are good things happening. That people still come back because they feel a sense of family, friendship and connection that a lot of young people don’t have today. All my friends are in town for their school-family reunions and we all love each other. There’s none of this rival Bloods-Crips stuff. We talk about making a difference. It’s not just about a party, it’s a statement that we can all get along with each other.”

 

 

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“It just shows there’s a lot of good around here,” said Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown, who represents largely black District 2, “but unfortunately it’s not told by the news media.” Scanning the jam-packed parade route, a beaming Brown said, “This is a four-hour event and there’s thousands of people of all ages here and they’re smiling and enjoying themselves and there’s no problems. When you walk around you see people hugging each other. There’s tears in some of their eyes because they haven’t seen their friends, who’ve become their family.”

Family is a recurring theme of the Days. “My family all lives here.” said John Welchen, a 1973 Tech High grad now living in Inglewood, Calif. For him, the event also “means family” in the larger sense. “To me, all of the friends I grew up with and everyone I’ve become acquainted with over the years is my extended family. It’s getting a chance to just see some great friends from the past and hear a lot of old stories and enjoy a lot of laughter.”

Native Omahans living in the rush-rush-rush of impersonal big cities look forward to getting back to the slower pace and gentler ways of the Midwest. “From the time I get off the plane here I notice a difference,” said Houston Odems, who flies into Omaha from Dallas. “People are polite…kind. To me, you just can’t beat it. I tell people all the time it’s a wonderful place to have grown-up. I mean, I still know the people who sold me my first car and the people who dry-cleaned my clothes.”

Although the Days traces its start back to 1977, when the Native Omahans Club threw the first event, celebrations commemorating the ties that bind black Omahans go back well before then. As a young girl in the ‘50s, Stapleton-Odems was a majorette in an Elks drill team that strutted their stuff during 24th Street parades. “It’s a gathering that’s been gong on since I can remember,” she said.

Old-timers say the first few Native Omaha Days featured more of a 24/7, open-air, street-party atmosphere. “We were out in the middle of the street all night long just enjoying each other,” said Billy Melton, a lifelong Omahan and self-styled authority on the north side. “There was live entertainment — bands playing — every six blocks. Guys set up tents in the parks to just get with liquor. After the dances let out people would go up and down the streets till six in the morning. Everybody dressed. Everybody looking like a star. It was a party town and we knew how to party. It was something to see. No crime…nothing. Oh, yeah…there was a time when we were like that, and I’m glad to have lived in that era.”

According to Melton, an original member of the Native Omahans Club, “some people would come a week early to start bar hopping. They didn’t wait for Native Omaha Days. If certain people didn’t come here, there was no party.”

Charles Carter is no old-timer, but he recalls the stroll down memory lane that was part of past fests. “They used to have a walk with a continuous stream of people on either side of the street. What they were doing was reenacting the old days when at nighttime 24th Street was alive. There were so many people you couldn’t find a place to walk, much less park. It was unbelievable. A lot of people are like me and hold onto the thought this is the way north Omaha was at one time and it’s unfortunate our children can’t see it because there’s so much rich history there.”

Then there was the huge bash Billy Melton and his wife Martha threw at their house. “It started early in the morning and lasted all night. It was quite a thing. Music, liquor, all kinds of food. It was a big affair,” Melton said. “I had my jukebox in the backyard and we’d have dancing on the basketball court. Endless conversations. That’s what it’s all about.”

Since the emergence of gang street violence in the mid-80s, observers like Melton and Carter say the fest is more subdued, with nighttime doings confined to formal, scheduled events like the gospel night at Salem and the dance at Mancuso Hall and the 24th Street rag relegated to the North Omahans Club or other indoor venues.

A reunion ultimately means saying goodbye, hence the close of the Days is dubbed Blue Monday. Most out-of-towners have left by then, but the few stalwarts that remain mix with die-hard residents for a final round or two at various drinking holes, toasting fat times together and getting high to make the parting less painful. After a week of carousing, out-of-town revelers wear their exhaustion like a badge of honor. “You’re supposed to be tired from all this,” Houston Isom said. “There’s no such thing as sleeping during this week. I can’t even take a nap because I’ll be worried I might be missing something.” Goodwin Miller builds in recovery time, saying, “When I go home I take a day off before I go back to work.” She and the others can’t wait to do it all over again two years from now.

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