Posts Tagged ‘African American’

Nebraska’s Changing Face; UNO’s Changing Face

March 18, 2014 Leave a comment

I wrote the following  feature and sidebar exploring some trends about the changing face of Neb. and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my alma mater.  Slowly but surely the state and some of its institutions are becoming more diverse.  Some of the changes can be readily seen already, others not so much, but in a few decades they will be more obvious.   It’s a healthy thing that’s happening, though diversity is still taking far too long to be fully felt and lived and embraced in all quarters, but that’s for another story.





Nebraska’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga


Nebraska’s “Plain Jane” sameness has long extended to its racial makeup. Diversity hasn’t held much truck here. Even when the foreign-born population was at its peak in the state’s first half century, the newcomers were predominantly of European ancestry.

An African-American migration from the Deep South to Omaha in the early 1900s established the city’s black base. Until a new immigration wave in the 1990s brought an influx of Africans and Latinos-Hispanics to greater Neb., the composite face of this Great Plains state was decidedly monotone.

The perception of Flyover Country as a bastion of white farmers has never been completely accurate. The state’s two largest metropolitan areas, for example, have always boasted some heterogeneity. Urban areas like Omaha and urban institutions such as the University of Nebraska at Omaha express more racial-ethnic diversity because of longstanding minority settlement patterns and the university drawing heavily from the metro.

But it is true Neb.’s minority population has always been among the nation’s smallest, which only supported the stereotype.

Finally, though, its minority numbers are going up and its diversity broadening.

Still, if Nebraskans posed for a group portrait as recently as 1980 more than 9 of every 10 would have beeb white. Only 6 percent identified as African-Americans, Latino-Hispanics, Native Americans or Asians.

The lack of diversity extended virtually everywhere. The largest minority group then, blacks, was highly concentrated in Omaha. Despite slow, steady gains blacks still account for only 13 percent of the city’s population and 4 percent of the state’s population.

But as recently announced by UNO researchers, Neb. is changing and with it the face of the state. A group picture taken today would reveal a noticeable difference compared to a quarter century ago, with whites now accounting for 8 of every 10 residents. Indeed, the state’s minority population has more than doubled the past four decades, with by far the largest increase among Latinos-Hispanics, who now comprise the largest minority segment. Latinos-Hispanics are on a linear growth trajectory. They tend to be young and their women of childbearing age.

Minority growth has been even greater in select communities, such as Lexington, where meat processing attracted newcomers.

Celebrated native son filmmaker Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” – set and shot primarily in the northeast part of the state – accurately portrays a slice of Neb.’s past and present through a large ensemble of characters, all of whom but two are white. The exceptions are both Hispanic. The Oscar-winning writer-director may next make a partly Spanish-language feature about the impact of the immigrant population on Neb.’s towns and cities.

New UNO Center for Public Affairs Research projections posit that by 2050 the state’s portrait will dramatically change as a result of major demographic trends well under way. Within four decades minorities will account for about 40 percent of the entire population. Nearly a quarter of the projected 2050 population of 2.2 million, or some 500,000, will be Latino-Hispanic.

It’s a sea change for a state whose diversity was traditionally confined to a few enclaves of color. Immigration, migration and natural causes are driving this new minority surge.

Everything is relative though. So while CPAR Research Coordinator David Drzod says, “Our diversity will increase,” he adds, “Neb. is one of the less diverse places countrywide and other states are going to become more diverse as well.”

Still, the snapshot of Neb. is changing due to real demographic shifts with significant longterm consequences. Just as the majority white base is holding static or declining, non-whites are proliferating. The results can be seen in the ever more diverse profiles of some communities, neighborhoods, schools and other settings.

Thus, for the first time in Neb. diversity is becoming more lived reality than aspirational goal.

Economic conditions were the main driver for the sharp rise in Latinos-Hispanics migrating here. Plentiful jobs, a low cost of living, coupled with aggressive industry recruitment, lured people to move here from places with comparatively weak economies, high cost of living and job shortages. Neb. grew its Latino-Hispanic base from points of origin in California, Texas. Mexico, Central America and South America, The state also saw its African and Asian populations increase as refugees from Sudan and Bhutan, for example, resettled here.

Drozd says, “People are not coming as directly for new jobs like in the ’90s when the meat processors were expanding and recruiting. We expect to see some regional migration that Neb. has typically seen from smaller locations to more urban locations that tend to have a diverse pool of job opportunities within various industries.”

While migration has slowed from its peak waves it’s expected to continue in fits and starts. Migration, researchers agree is “a wildcard” that can’t be accurately forecast, but Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Research Associate Lissette Aliaga Linares notes an uptick in Latinos-Hispanics from Arizona, which OLLAS Director Lourdes Gouvia attributes to that state’s anti-immigrant policies.

Drozd says Neb.’s minority experience is consistent with some surrounding states and inconsistent with others.

“We are typical of the Great Plains in that we tend to suffer from outmigration especially of young college-aged whites, which is counteracted by in-migration and increase in the minority population groups. On the other hand Neb. is unique in that we are growing faster in some of our metropolitan areas and not holding our population as well as some of the more rural areas.”






The emergence of more minorities is perhaps most visible in urban inner city public schools, where student enrollment naturally reflects the heavily minority communities these schools serve. Minority enrollment in the Omaha Public Schools stands at 68 percent.

“The diversity of UNO will continue to grow and one only has to look at the demographics in the metro area to understand that traditional middle school and high school students will increasingly be students of color,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed.

Some outstate school districts are now majority Latino-Hispanic.

The impact of diversity in this small population state that suffers from brain drain cannot be overstated.

“There’s a large part of Neb. that would be having population decline if it were not for minority growth,” says Drozd. “There’s all sorts of implications with respect to aging, the workforce, health care, education. From a gerontology standpoint you have the possibility of seeing a younger, more diverse working-age population caring for a predominantly white non-Hispanic aging population and will there be any issues associated there. With programs like Social Security you’re going to be relying more and more on an immigrant population to support payments for predominantly white people collecting from the program. So there are potentials for tension there and of course political ramifications and all sorts of factors.”

Gouveia, a sociology professor, reminds that “Latinos are going to imitate some trends of the larger population the more urban and educated they become,” adding. “The more women are able to work outside the home fertility rates will drop and the population will begin to age. It’s the life cycle.”

As minorities grow they become a larger sector of the tax and voting base that elected officials and prospective candidates must recognize.

Drozd says communities must adapt, whether offering English-as-a-Second Language programs or multicultural competency classes, in order to best serve minorities and their particular needs.

As more minorities graduate high school educators and employers hope that many of these college-bound grads and working-age young adults will attend school and find jobs in-state.

“As people have become upwardly mobile in Neb.’s past that has led to outmigration out of the state,” says Drozd. “It’s going to be a very policy relevant factor because people born in the early ’90s are now hitting age 18. Even if they choose a Neb. college where are they going to go to work? Will there be jobs and associated positions for them here in the state or will they go out of state?”

Just as preparing students to succeed in school is critical, so is preparing a workforce for today’s service and skilled jobs.

“Let’s make no mistake about this, without immigration Nebraskans may have to rethink how they are going to have a viable economy that produces not only jobs but payrolls that produce taxes from which an aging population will benefit greatly,” says Gouveia. “Without this population there won’t be services this Boomer population and this aspiring mini-global city of Omaha depends on. These are increasingly service economies and that means it’s very important for the economy to increasingly be based on higher pay jobs likely to grow, such as information technology or biotechnology.

“That also means educational institutions need to be able to truly know how to train this generation of children of immigrants. The children may not be immigrants themselves but a large number have immigrant parents who endured very poor, disadvantageous conditions that tend to disadvantage the educational achievement of their children. We have to have multidimensional. multidisciplinary perspectives to understand who this population is. And that goes to our research also.”

She believes minorities will succeed to the extent opportunities allow.

“We haven’t addressed the serious barriers to education that would guarantee that new face of America and of Neb. becomes a face with equal opportunities to participate in the prosperity all of us will want to share.” She says if barriers to upward mobility aren’t removed “it may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that’s been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population were it not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and future.”





Daniel J. Shipp, UNO associate vice chancellor for student affairs, says schools must find ways to support minority students.

“When combined with the typical struggles of new college students the demographics of race-ethnicity will create even more difficult challenges in both access to and success in college. Not only must we continue to open our doors wider to traditionally under-served student populations but once on campus it is critical for all of us to see their success as a top institutional and community priority.”

UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Pelema Morrice urges educators and employers to appreciate diversity’s many forms.

“We always focus on racial-ethnic diversity but I think intellectual diversity, geographic diversity, cultural diversity, all those different forms of diversity, really add a lot of value to everyone’s experience. There’s plenty of evidence that the more diverse environment we’re in the more we all have opportunities to learn from each other.

“So I think it’s incredibly important for an institution to be a welcoming and diverse environment where folks can learn from each other at a higher level. I think that adds to the educational experience and it provides students with really good training to go out and be productive citizens and to be successful in the workplace.”

Diversity is also the way of this flatter, interconnected world.

Reed from UNO’s Academic and Student Affairs office, says “Our students will grow up in a much more global environment requiring exposure to difference cultures and different experiences.”

Where diversity often must be programmed, Gouveia is heartened by students’ inherent embrace of it. “About this new Neb. mosaic, one thing I’m particularly hopeful about is the younger generation. I love our new students. From any background they are so much more prepared and so much more ahead of where we are as professors or department chairs or deans in terms of knowing how to do diversity. We are the ones who are often behind them.”

As Neb. becomes more multi-hued, UNO’s Morrice says representative stakeholders should discuss what diversity holds for the state.

“With these new demographics coming forward it means our student base will obviously be more diverse than it is now and that means the outcomes will be more diverse and so we’ll see more diverse workplaces and communities within the state. We’re just a piece of that puzzle but I think it’s a good collective conversation for everyone to have as the state continues to grow and it becomes clear that there will be different faces at the table.”





UNO’s Changing Face

©by Leo Adam Biga


The same demographic trends on pace to make the United States a minority majority population by 2050 and making Neb. a more racially-ethnically diverse place in the second decade of the new millennium, are increasingly being expressed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Roughly a quarter of UNO’s 2013-2014 freshman class is minority and just under 20 percent of the school’s entire undergraduate enrollment is minority. Both are record marks for the school. In 2000, for example, UNO’s minority enrollment stood at 9 percent. The minority numbers are even greater among graduate students.

The 11 percent rise in UNO minority enrollment from 2000 until now reflects in large measure the Latino-Hispanic boom that happened in-state from 1980 to 2010, when that segment increased from about 37,000 to 167,000. The Latino-Hispanic population is expected to add another 370,000 residents by 2050, according to UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

As a public institution with a state-wide reach, UNO’s a model for the changing face of Neb. Drawing principally from the Omaha metropolitan area, which as the state’s largest urban center has always been Neb.’s most racially-ethnically diverse spot, UNO is, as expected, one of the most diverse campuses in the University of Nebraska system.

At the University of Nebraska-Kearney minority undergraduate enrollment has nearly doubled since 1995. Today, nearly a quarter of its students are non-white or non-resident alien. Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reports the most diverse student body in its history. UNL’s  2,328 minority undergrads are about 12 percent of the undergraduate total, a 9 percent increase just from last year. Just as at UNO, the largest minority gains at each school are in the Latino-Hispanic and international students categories,





As minorities comprise a growing segment of the state’s mainstream and of its public schools’ enrollment, institutions are tasked with incorporating these populations and responding to their needs.

“The good news for Omaha is that UNO has a proud tradition of supporting minority students through various educational equity and learning community investments such as Goodrich, Project Achieve and the newer Thompson Learning Community,” says UNO Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Daniel J. Shipp. “These programs provide student participants with a network of caring and concerned faculty, staff and peer mentors that help students to succeed and thrive in college. Moving forward, I expect we will continue to build on our national reputation for attracting and supporting the growing numbers of minority students and their families in the Omaha area and beyond.”

“Minority students are an important population but they are only one of an increasing mosaic of diversity at UNO, whether they are military, first generation, students of color or adult learners or transfer students,” says UNO Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs B.J. Reed. “We are working every day to ensure that these students feel welcome at UNO and have the type of support services and environment that will make them want to be want to be here and to be successful. We do this for all our special populations of students. We have programs and learning communities as well as staff specifically directed at helping ease their transition to UNO and success in their academic goals.”

Reed says hiring faculty and staff who reflect the changing face of UNO “is a top priority,” adding, “We have made important strides in diversifying our staff but we lag behind where we want to be here and also with recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty. We are working on reviewing existing policies and procedures and looking at incentives and support efforts to increase the diversity of faculty and staff to reflect the changing demographics of our student body.”

There’s wide agreement that diversity is a net sum experience for all involved.

“The benefits are substantial,” Reed says. “The workplace is becoming increasingly diverse and employers need and want an increasingly diverse group of employees. We cannot underestimate the shift occurring here. We need to provide a strong educational workforce for employers and UNO must be positioned to do that effectively.”





Office of Latino and Latin American Studies Director and Sociology Professor Lourdes Gouveia agrees that educators at UNO and elsewhere must increasingly consider diversity and its impact.

“We have to educate our professionals and student populations in ways that allow them to be skilled about global issues and diversity and to have multicultural competencies as the world is very connected,” she says. “But also we need to address structural barriers that may prevent Neb. from truly harnessing what we call this demographic bonus that has been gifted to this state. A state that was losing population if not for minority growth and international migration would be in serious trouble today to have a viable economy and a future.”

Wanda Ewing Exhibit: Bougie is as Bougie Does

December 8, 2013 2 comments

Omaha has lost one of its most respected and exibited artists, Wanda Ewing.  As a memoriam to her, I am posting for the first on this blog a story I did about an exhibition of hers some years ago.  When the assignment came I already knew her work and like most folks who experienced it I was quite impressed.  I very much wanted to do a full-blown profile of her but I only got the go-ahead to focus on the exhibit.  She was very gracious with her time in helping me understand where she was coming from in her work.  Her untimely death has taken most of us, even though who knew her far better than me, by complete surprise.  Facebook posts about her are filled with shock and admiration.

You can appreciate her work at  The Omaha World-Herald should have a notice in the next day or so.




Wanda Ewing Exhibit: Bougie is as Bougie Does

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (





Wanda Ewing is at it again. The Omaha printmaker known for her provocative spin on African-American images has created a sardonic collection of reductive linocuts and acrylic paintings that considers aspects of beauty, race and social status. The work has been organized in the solo exhibition, Bougie, at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, where it continues through December 2.

The title comes from a slang term, derived from the French word bourgeois, used in the black community as a put down for anyone acting “uppity,” said Ewing, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It speaks to the level of acceptance due to your social and economic background, your physical appearance, all of it.”

She explores bougie through the template of popular magazine culture and its vacuous lifestyle advice. The heart of the show is 12 faux glossy covers, each a reductive linocut with vinyl lettering on acetate, depicting a slick monthly women’s mag of her imagination called Bougie. The garish covers are inspired by Essence and other Cosmo knockoffs whose content places style over substance.

Among the “bougie markers,” as Ewing calls them, are black cover girls with straight or long hair and “story tags” that embody those things compelling to bougie women — shopping, how to lose weight, money and getting a man. Some of the teasers get right to the point: “Not Hood enough? 25 ways to get ghetto fabulous.” Another reads, “It’s what’s on the outside that counts.” Among the many double entendres are, “Tom Tom Club, back on the scene” and “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”

“I wanted to achieve something that was funny to read, but had some grit to it,” she said.

Each “issue” is adorned by a head and shoulders illustration of a black glamazoid female, the features made just monstrous enough that it’s hard to recognize the real-life celebs Ewing based them on. One vixen is based on home girl Gabrielle Union. Other iconic models include Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Tyra Banks, Janet Jackson, Eve, Star Jones and Queen Latifah.

Ewing “distorted” the images, in part, she said, as “I didn’t want them to be necessarily commentary on the celebrity, because it’s not about that,”

These cover girls represent impossible beauty standards and thus, in Ewing’s hands, become primping, leering creatures for the fashionista industry. Like the figures in her popular Pinup suite, she said, bougie women “are not shrinking violets.”

Contrasted with the plastic mag images are big, bold, beautiful head portraits of more realistically rendered black women and their different hair styles — bald, straight, permed, afroed, cornrowed — executed in intense acrylic and latex on canvas. These are celebratory tributes of black womanhood. The figures-colors jump out in the manner of comic book or billboard art. “I’m still holding onto being influenced by Pop Art,” Ewing said. “I love color. I’m not afraid of color.” The Hair Dresser Dummy works, as she calls them, are a reaction to the stamped-out glam look of the old Barbie Dress Doll series. Ewing’s “dolls” embody the inner and outer beauty of black


women, distinct features and all. We’re talking serious soul, here.



There are also fetching portraits of women that play with the images of Aunt Jemima and Mammy and that refer to German half-doll figures Ewing ran across. Another painting, Cornucopia, is of a reposed woman’s opened legs amid a cascade of flowers — an ode to the source of life that a woman’s loins represent.

All these variations on the female form also comment on how “the art world likes to celebrate women,” she said, “especially if they’re naked and in pieces.”

 examines women as objects and the whole “black is-black ain’t” debate that Ewing’s work often engages. Glam mags help inform the discussion. Ewing said black models were once shades darker and displayed kinkier hair than today, when they have a decidedly more European appearance. “I grew up looking at these images and felt bad because as hard as I tried, I couldn’t achieve what was being shown,” she said. At least before, she said, publications offered “a variety of the ways black women looked. Now, these magazines idealize the same type of woman with the same kind of features. I find that interesting and damaging on so many levels.”

Like the figures in her Pinup series, Bougie’s women are too self-possessed or confident to care what anyone thinks of them.

Leave it to a master satirist, Omaha author Timothy Schaffert, to put Ewing’s new work in relief. In an essay accompanying the show, he comments:

“The women…demonstrate a giddy indifference to their objectification, defying any interpretations other than the ones they choose to convey. See what you want to see, the women seem to be saying. You can’t change who I am, they taunt. Ewing portrays women in the act of posing, women possibly conscious of their degradation yet nonetheless seducing us with their self confidence. For Ewing’s women, the beauty myth becomes just another beauty mark…

“And yet the politics of fashion are what give Ewing’s work its sinister and satirical bent. Just beyond the coy winks and the toothpaste-peddling smiles and curve-hugging skirts of these fine black women is the sense that the images aren’t just about them” but about “the various co-conspirators in the invention of glamour. In Ewing’s work, black women assert themselves into the commercial, white-centric iconography of prettiness, and the result is at times funny, at times sad, at times grotesque, but often charming. Her women rise above the didactic, each one becoming a character in her own right, in full control of her lovely image.”

In the final analysis, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

“Although this work is coming from an artist who is black, it is not limited to just the black community,” Ewing said. “Ultimately, the work is about beauty. That’s a conversation everyone can contribute to.”

A conversation is exactly what her work will provoke.

The Sheldon Gallery is located at 12th & R Streets. Admission is free. For gallery hours, call 402.472.2461 or visit

Great Migration Stories: For African Americans Who Left the South for Omaha, the Specter of Down Home is Never Far Away

July 30, 2013 4 comments

No matter where African Americans live today there’s a very high probability that someone in their family tree and maybe even several someone got up and out of the South before the major Civil Rights protections took effect.  Making the move north or west of east was all about pursuing a better life.  The following story for The Reader ( offers a small window into a few migration stories.

A variation of this story is told in a new iBook I recently authored for the Omaha Public Schools and its Making Invisible Histories Visible project.
You can link to a PDF of the Great Migration iBook at-
You can link to a PDF of my ibook about an integration effort at Omaha’s Peony Park at-

And you can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-

Great Migration Stories: For African Americans Who Left the South for Omaha, the Specter of Down Home is Never Far Away

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (

The July 31-August 5 Native Omaha Days will feature metro-wide black heritage celebrations that on the surface don’t seem to have much to do with the American South. But when local African American families gather for the biennial Days most can point to someone in their family tree who migrated from the South.

The same holds true for almost any black family gathering of any size here. Whatever the occasion, there’s likely a Southern strain rich in history, tradition and nostalgia.

The Great Migration saw millions of African Americans leave the oppressive pre-civil rights South for parts all over the nation from the 1920s through the 1960s. Everyone who participated in the movement has a story. That’s certainly the case with two Omaha women who made the migration during its waning years, Luriese Moore and Lorraine Jackson.

Moore, 72, came from Boligee, Ala. in 1959 in her late teens. Her family had been sharecroppers but eventually become land owners.

“My grandparents lived and worked on the white man’s land,” she says. “Most everything went to the white man. They didn’t have a chance to show anything for their labors. That’s why my daddy was so inspired to get something of his own. He made it reality, too, when he saved up enough to buy 98 acres of land. He farmed it on weekends when home from his steel mill job in Tuscaloosa.

“My brothers and I grew up working the land. You got up when the sun rose and you almost worked until the sun set.”

The family still retains the property today.

Lorraine Jackson, 66, migrated from Brookhaven, Miss. in 1964 at age 17. Her grandparents were sharecroppers but eventually bought the cotton-rich land they toiled on and handed the 53 acres down to Jackson’s parents. Picking cotton was a back-breaking, finger-cutting chore. Adding insult to injury, you got cheated at the end of the day.

“You were supposed to get $3 for picking a hundred pounds but it seemed like you could never get a hundred pounds because the scales were loaded. But if you wanted to make money you picked cotton. I saved my money,” says Jackson.

The land she sweated on is still in the family’s hands.

Jackson says by the time she graduated high school she couldn’t stand being a second-class citizen anymore. She and her friends wanted out.

“That was the thing to do, you got out, you left.”

When Mississipians who’d already made the migration wrote or called or came back with news of plentiful jobs and things to do, it acted as a recruitment pitch.

“They would tell you about all the bright lights in the big cities and all the places you could go. They told you can have a better life. It made an impression that I needed to get away. I thought it was right for me. Besides, I was kind of rambunctious. I wasn’t the type to just sit there and say nothing or do nothing.

“I remember about a month before I left threatening my mom that I was going to sit at the Woolworth’s counter in town and she about had a heart attack. I said, ‘Mama, all they’re going to do is ask me to leave.’  It was time for me and I said, ‘I’m outta here.’”

Jackson came by train eager to start her new life.

Moore came by Greyhound bus and she says on the way here she was filled with mixed emotions of excitement and fear.

Each woman was among the movement”s last generation.

Another Omaha woman, Emma Hart, 87, was born in rural Ark. in 1926 but raised here, making her a child of the Great Migration.

Many other Omahans are variously fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of the migration. Few first generation migrants survive. A large extended family in Omaha made their exodus here from Evergreen, Ala. over a generation’s time. A group of Christians from Brewton, Ala. migrated here in 1917 to found Pilgrim Baptist Church. Practically every black family, church, club or organization has its own migration connection and story.

The precise circumstances and motivations for leaving the South varied but the common denominator was a desire for “a better way of life,” says Hart. That’s what drove her parents to come in 1921. The Big Four packinghouses were booming then. The promise of steady work there was still a powerful lure decades later when Moore and Jackson’s generation made the move north.

Migrants may not have thought of it in these terms, but implicit in their pursuit of a better life was the search for self-determination. Only by leaving the South, they felt, could they fully engage with and benefit from all that America offered.

Moore’s parents could not exercise their right to vote in the South without courting danger. She says her father risked his anyway by driving black protestors to voting rights marches. He left her a legacy and bequest she couldn’t ignore.

“My dad sacrificed his life. He could’ve got killed doing what he was doing, just to get the vote. My mother was concerned about Daddy getting killed because if you had a lot of people in your car during that time when the protests were happening the Klan would think you were freedom riders coming from the North.

“Daddy always preached to us, ‘Hey, when y’all get the chance to vote you vote,’ and I’ve never missed voting. The people before us gave their lives so we could vote.”

Moore married in Ala. Her husband moved to Omaha ahead of her to find work and a place to live. After she joined him they started a family. She worked for a time in a packinghouse, then she got on at J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store downtown. Her three brothers all moved here for a time and worked packings jobs. Those jobs were vital for many black families getting a foothold here.

“That’s where we really got our start, my husband and I,” she says. “We ended up buying two homes. It was good paying money at the time compared to other jobs we could get.”

Always looking to better herself Moore attended a local beauty college and she eventually opened her own salon – something she likely would not have been able to do then down South. Her clientele here included white customers, which would have never happened there.

Jackson, who married and raised a family in Omaha, worked in he Blackstone Hotel kitchen before going to beauty school and opening her own shop. She catered to customers of all races. An older brother preceded her to Omaha and drove a city bus for 35 years.

Both women continue doing hair today.

Emma Hart married and raised a family in Omaha, where she was almost never without work. She and many of her relatives worked in the packinghouses. Her first job came in a military laundry during World War II. Then she got on at Cudahy and when it closed she performed an undisclosed job in a sensitive area at Strategic Air Command. Two first cousins, brothers William and Monroe Coleman, enjoyed long, distinguished careers as Omaha Police Department officers. They could not have managed equivalent careers in the South then and even if they could it’s doubtful Monroe could have reached the post of acting deputy director he achieved here.

Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Story of America’s Great Migration, says, “The only way blacks could be recognized (as citizens) was to leave one part of their own country for another part. That’s why they’re like immigrants but they’re not immigrants. To me, it makes the story even more poignant because they had to do what immigrants had to to do just to become (full) citizens.”

“It wasn’t a political movement in the formal sense of the word but it had the impact of seeking political asylum or defection, almost in comparison to the Cold War when people tried to get on the other side of the Iron Curtain and had to go to great lengths to do so. This is a similar kind of defection that occurred within the borders of our own country and yet the people who were part of it didn’t see themselves as part of any demographic wave, they saw themselves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom.”

Life outside the South was hardly paradise. Blacks still encountered segregation and discrimination in employment, housing, education, recreation. The De Porres Club and the 4CL staged marches and demonstrations against inequities here. Late 1960s civil disturbances in northeast Omaha expressed rage over police misconduct. Moore and Jackson experienced first hand blacks’ confinement to a small swath of North Omaha by housing covenants and red lining. Public places were not always accommodating. Many local businesses and organizations used exclusionary practices to deny or discourage black employment and patronage.

“To a certain point there were no restrictions,” says Jackson, “but there were some undertones. You could go anywhere. There were no signs that said you couldn’t. But because I lived it I could feel it but nobody really could do anything about it. You know subtle things when you see them.”

She recalls being made to feel invisible by the way people ignored her or talked past her.

In terms of housing barriers, she says, “My goal was to move past 30th Street because I couldn’t for so long, and I did. Some goals you just had to accomplish.”

Still, restrictions here were nothing like what they were in places like Mississippi, where state-sanctioned apartheid was brutally enforced.

“MIssissippi didn’t play, It was like a foreign country,” says Jackson.

When a member of her own family got into a dispute with a white person he had to skip town in the dead of night and stay way for years before it was safe to return.

Many blacks saw no option but to pack up everything they owned and leave everything they knew to start all over in some strange new city.

“I think the fact they would go to such great lengths is an indication of the desire and desperation and hopefulness they had that this next place will be a good place for me,” says Wilkerson.

This epic internal movement of a people wasn’t an organized thing but an organic response to harsh social-economic conditions. Punitive Jim Crow laws severely curtailed the rights of blacks. Widespread drought and blight forced many blacks off the land they worked as sharecroppers or farmers. The prospect of better paying industrial jobs in places like Omaha and Chicago, where packinghouses and railroads hired minorities, was all the reason people needed to move.

“Ultimately a migration is about determining for one’s self how one’s life is going to be and merely by living they are fulfilling the destiny and imperatives of their migration,” says Wilkerson. “For those who decided they could no longer live with the repression, they opted to  plot out a course of their own choosing, and that is what a migration truly is. By just leaving they are doing the very thing they’re seeking to achieve. The leaving itself is the act of self-determination and courage.”

Isabel Wilkerson

Those who made the trek to forge new lives elsewhere encouraged others to follow. Thus, an uninterrupted stream of migrants flowed from the South to forever change the makeup and dynamic of cities in the East, the North and the West.

Some streams fed into receiving cities located on direct rail lines from the South. Where black enclaves from certain states got established up North, they became magnets that drew ever more blacks. While Omaha received migrants from all parts of the South it primarily drew transplants from Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Ironlcally, where Omaha once offered more opportunity than the South, the situation has reversed and countless Omaha blacks, many of them children and grandchildren of the Great Migration, have made a reverse migration.

But when Luriese Moore came in the late ’50s there was no doubt the Midwest was an improvement over the South. “I found it much better,” she says. For starters, there was nothing like the overt segregation she knew growing up.

“Everything was black and white just all over (there). It was just a way of life. We didn’t like it but it’s what was happening. They had one side of the street for colored and the other side for white. They had one water fountain for the black people and one for the white people. When you went into a store you just didn’t get in on the white side because you knew where you were supposed to be. We couldn’t go in some exclusive stores in my hometown that sold very fine clothes. They didn’t want us to try on hats and things.

“Up here the integration and everything was all new to me. It was just totally different from where we were. I didn’t see the signs we saw in Ala. for blacks only or whites only. You could just go to anywhere you wanted to here. You could go to any store you wanted to.”

Blacks were not immune from harassment, intimidation, threats, outright violence in places like Omaha – witness the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and resulting race riot – but the South was a much more treacherous landscape.

Lorraine Jackson says while she never laid eyes on the Ku Klux Klan during the time she lived in Miss., their presence was felt in incidents like cross burnings.

“They were there. They were killing people. We saw a lot of cross burnings in front of people’s houses. We knew those people, we went to church together. That was scary. You never get that fear out of your mind. It was a fear that you had because really you hadn’t done anything, you were just black and that’s all you had to be.”

She says blacks perceived to be too aspirational or ambitious by the white ruling class could be targets. A cross burning was a message to stay in you place.

“I mean, you really had to walk careful,” says Jackson. “You were expected to work in the fields and things like that.”

Moore recalls similar menace in Alabama.

“There was one town right out from Birmingham that was known to be very dangerous and to hang black people, You could not be on the highway too much at night either because they would end up shooting you or running you off the road. Oh, I don’t even want to think about it. I had kind of pushed it out of my mind.

“My parents were wonderful parents because we were sheltered from a lot of things going on down there, Those were very crucial times. Where I came from if you didn’t do what they told you to then then they would start going around your house and everything. If they wanted your property they made it awfully painful for you to keep it. They’d start doing things to your family, pestering you, messing with you, like running you off the road. People would say, so and so had an accident, well they wouldn’t have an accident, they would be run off the road. It was mean. It was not a pleasant thing. We saw a lot of that down there.”

Moore appreciates how far African Americans have come in her lifetime.

“We’ve come to a place where things are much better and I thank God for it. We have come a long ways. When we sing ‘we shall overcome,’ well, we have overcome. I’m glad we’ve moved past that. During the time it was happening it was a bitter feeling. I felt angry. i was looking at race as the human race and they were looking at color. I just couldn’t see how a person could treat another person like that .Sin causes people to lose sight of life and to do terrible things to each other.”

Jackson says the root of racism people’s “fear of what they don’t know.”

Emma Hart doesn’t recall her parents mentioning any specific fear they fled. The poor sharecroppers just went where the jobs were and when two relatives came and made a go of it here, Emma’s parents followed.

Where Emma’s relatives in the South attended all black country schools she attended integrated Omaha grade and high schools and where her relatives lived  strictly segregated lives she lived in an integrated South Omaha neighborhood.

“Everything was mixed in South Omaha,” she says.

On one of only two visits she made to the South she experienced the hand of Jim Crow when the passenger train she was on left St. Louis for Ark. and blacks were forced to change cars for the segregated leg of the trip. That same racial protocol applied when Jackson took the train and Moore rode the bus in Jim Crow land.

Even when Moore made auto trips to the South she was reminded of what she’d left behind. “There were certain places they wouldn’t even sell us gas,” she says. “We couldn’t even get any food to eat, we had to pack up our own food to take south and to come back until we hit the St. Louis line.”

Hart may not have grown up in the South but she’s retained many Southern traditions she was brought up in, from fish fries to soul food feasts featuring recipes handed down over generations.

Lorraine Jackson keeps her Southern heritage close to her. “I brought my traditions – like Sunday dinners with the family. I raised my kids with the same culture and the same core values. There isn’t much I changed. I remained who I was – a daughter of the South. I’m very proud of it.”

Every now and then, she says, she just has to prepare “some fried chicken and biscuits from scratch” for that taste of home.

She’s sure the way she and her siblings were raised helps explain why they’ve all done well.

“All of us graduated from high school. Some of us went to college. A sister has a master’s degree. It’s amazing we’re successful. I think it was the upbringing. In that time we lived in we had to be strong, we had to be respectful. We had a work ethic – that was another good thing. Faith was a big factor, too.”

Jackson and Moore have made regular pilgrimages to the South since moving to Omaha. They marvel at its transformation.

Moore says she never dreamed her hometown of Boligee would have a black mayor, but it does. She’s also pleasantly surprised by all the open interracial relationships, blended church congregations and mixed gatherings she sees.

Jackson says, “When I go back to Mississippi it almost shocks me to see the change. Sometimes it catches me by surprise and I think, Where am I? It’s almost better than it is here.”

Both women say that when they gather with family or friends who share their past it’s the good times they recall, not the bad times. And whether their kids and grandkids know it or not, the family’s Southern roots get expressed in the food they eat and in the church they attend and in various other ways. These Daughters of the South may have left but their hearts still reside down home.

Hoops Legend Abdul-Jabbar Talks History

August 9, 2012 Leave a comment


A few years ago I got the opportunity to interview college and pro basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in advance of his giving a talk in Omaha.  He was every bit the thoughtful man he projects to be.  Before doing this short piece for The Reader ( I vaguely knew he had turned author and amateur historian with an eye towards highlighting African American achievements but I learned that he’s done much more in this area than I ever imagined and I got the sense he’s at least as proud of his work in this arena as he is of what he did on the hardwood.







Hoops Legend Abdul-Jabbar Talks History

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the man who made the sky hook and goggles signature parts of hoopsiconography, headlines the May 12 B’nai B’rith Charity Sports Banquet at the Qwest Center Omaha. Now an author, he is the rare ex-sports superstar who’s applied a social conscience after balling.

The Naismith and NBA Hall of Famer was a legend before playing his first collegiate basketball game in 1967. His schoolboy dominance at Powers Memorial in New York City made him the most prized recruit since Wilt Chamberlain. He was so unstoppable at UCLA, when still known as Lew Alcindor, that dunking was outlawed after his sophomore season. He led the Bruins to three national championships.

In only his second NBA season his expansion Milwaukee Bucks won the 1971 title. Omaha native Bob Boozer was the team’s 6th man. Abdul-Jabbar competed several times against the Kansas City-Omaha Kings at the Civic Auditorium.

The inscrutable big man added five more titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. Six times he earned the league’s MVP award. Upon retirement he was the NBA’s all-time points scorer and arguably the greatest player ever. He continues as a Lakers special assistant today.

Like the late tennis star Arthur Ashe, he’s transcended athletics to write and talk about black history. The two were student-athletes together for a year at UCLA. In a phone interview Abdul-Jabbar said Ashe asked for his help researching the book, A Hard Road to Glory. Each came out of the civil rights struggle and endured criticism for being aloof. Abdul-Jabbar’s conversion to Islam alienated some. He said his passion for chronicling the stories of African-American achievers can be traced to a high school program he took that cultivated an interest in writing and history and introduced him to unknown facets of his childhood neighborhood, Harlem.

“Very loud echoes of the Harlem Renaissance were still there to be heard. I was just instilled with a lot of pride when I read about what Harlem had meant to Black America. It was just totally inspiring,” he said. “It made me want to share that as a very natural extension for how I felt about what was going on in America and what I wanted to do about it.”

His 2007 book On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance describes Harlem’s legacy as “the capital of Black America and a place where a lot of things happened that made black Americans proud,” he said.

A story from those halcyon days is the subject of a documentary he’s producing, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Basketball Team You Never Heard Of. Featuring on-camera comments by such hoop and pop culture stars as Charles Barkley and Spike Lee, it profiles the New York Renaissance or Harlem Rens, America’s first all-black pro basketball team. Owner Bob Douglas, often called the Father of Black Basketball, created the team in the early 1920s when segregation still ruled sports and society-at-large. The Rens delivered a powerful message by routinely trouncing all comers, including white squads before white audiences, over the next three decades.





Abdul-Jabbar is delighted to have several connections to the Rens. A well-known New York high school hoops official who called some of his games, Dolly King, played for the Rens. Abdul-Jabbar’s legendary UCLA coach John Wooden played a 1930s exhibition against the Rens as a Purdue All-American.

For the 7’2 basketball great, the Rens represent the struggle “for equality that consumed black Americans in all phases of life.” He hopes the film, scheduled for a 2011 release, educates young people that today’s opportunities have been hard-earned and nothing good comes easily.

Meanwhile, he’s coping with a rare form of leukemia that an oral medication treats. He’s not had to curtail his activities.

In Omaha he’ll speak about the World War II all-black 761st tank battalion, the subject of his 2004 book, Brothers in Arms. Some dispute battalion veterans’ claims they helped liberate Dachau concentration camp. There’s no disputing their heroic, unheralded role in the Battle of the Bulge and in the Allies’ final push across France and Germany.

Part III of a Four-Part Q & A with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson on Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’

February 29, 2012 4 comments


The most significant book I have read in the past few years is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  I recently interviewed the author in advance of a talk she’s giving in Omaha, where I live.  The Omaha Star newspaper is running the Q&A I did with her in a four-part series, and I am sharing the series here.  If you’re anything like me and you thought you knew what African-Americans faced in the South that compelled so many to leave and migrate North and West, well, you soon find out in her book that there is a great deal about that experience that you didn’t have any clue about or any real undestanding of.  She tells this important story in a way that will capture your mind and your heart and prompt you to ask, “Why have I never heard of this before?”  I highly recommend the book and if you have a chance to hear her speak, I heartily recommend you listen.






Part III of a Four-Part Q & A with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson on Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration‘ 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in The Omaha Star


Part III of my interview with Isabel Wilkerson describes how she came to focus on three protagonists in her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The late Ida Mae Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling represent the major migration streams from the South.

Wilkerson will deliver a free talk about her book and sign copies April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street, in Omaha.

LAB: These three figures provide an intimate, inspiring prism into the migration.

IW: “I actually get inspired when I hear readers say they feel a connection to them because the goal was to have the reader see themselves in these people and imagine what would I have done had I been in this situation they were in.

“It’s a leap of faith to even settle on one person…that their story will carry forth in this narrative. I interviewed over 1,200 people. I narrowed it down to about 30, any of whom could have been the three, and then I narrowed it down to these three on the basis of multiple things. I needed to have one person to represent each of the migration streams. I needed to have people who left during different decades. And I needed to have people who left for different reasons.

“And I also needed people who would be distinctive on the page, people who you would recognize when you first get to them. I needed to have three beautifully flawed and yet accessible and full human beings through whom to tell the story. And people who were at the point in their lives when they would be willing to tell their story. And finally there had to be this connection between them and me because I was going to be with them for a very long time. It actually ended up being years. So you might call it chemistry.

“They were just delightfully full human beings who had a great sense of humor despite all they had been through.”





LAB: What do you most admire about them and what do you carry from each?

IW: “Each of them had distinctive survival techniques that gave a window for how anyone could survive any challenge they might face, even today. And I think I took something away from each one of them as a result of how they discovered what worked best for them to get through what they were enduring.

“For George it was this stalwart effort to confront and question and deal with the challenge head-on, no matter what the consequences. He chose the path of integrity whenever he was confronted with injustice and I think that is a tremendous lesson for anyone. It takes a great deal of courage to do that, to stand up for what you believe is right and to stand up against what you know in your heart to be wrong, and he did that, and he paid something of a price for it. He ended up having to flee for his life. He knew when to let go of a fight that was not winnable. The gift of perseverance and integrity I take from him.

“From Dr. Foster one learns the importance of excellence in all that you do. His view was it’s not worth doing unless you do it the best. He took it to an extreme.

“And from Ida Mae it’s a completely different message. It’s the one I often find myself turning to. I often hear people say, ‘I love Ida Mae,’ and I think they’re saying that because she’s the one who had the least resources of the three. She was born poor. She was a sharecroppers’ wife. They worked from sun-up to sun-down with very little in the way of renumeration. Her clothes were burlap sacks. She knew poverty beyond what most people can even imagine. The unpredictability and dangers faced on a daily basis would be beyond  the comprehension of modern day Americans

“And in spite of all that she had a way of looking at the world that was without judgment and rancor and bitterness and a sense of shame. She lived every day in the moment. It was second nature to her. She had a way of walling off negative emotions. She always looked at the world as the best it could possibly be in spite of all that she had seen, and I think that’s a lesson for everyone.”




Part II of a Four-Part Series with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson, Author of ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’

February 19, 2012 5 comments

Part II of my interview with Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, follows.  Wilkerson, who makes many appearances to speak about her book and its subject of the 20th century’s Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West, will present a free talk and signing April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street, in my hometown and place of residence, Omaha.  After reading her book and interviewing her there is no way I am going to miss her speak.  She has done a great service to the nation with her work connecting the dots of this epoch movement in history that so changed the face of America.  If you have not read her book, do so.  If you have an opportunity to hear her speak, go.  Her insights into how the migration proceeded and the impact this experience made on the participants and on the cities they left and settled in are fascinating and revelatory.

Isabel Wilkerson at a book signing



Part II of a Four-Part Series with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson, Author of ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in The Omaha Star

LAB: What interest in the Great Migration do you note in the wake of your book?

IW: “When I go out and talk about the book, wherever I go, there are people of all    backgrounds who show up. There was a woman who brought her father and they both came up and spoke with me and the daughter said, ‘Now that I’ve heard what you’ve said and I’ve got this book I’m taking him right now to a coffee shop and he’s going to tell me what happened.’ She was determined, and he agreed he would do so. So those are the kinds of things that are happening. Stories that had never been told or shared before people are feeling comfortable enough to talk about them.

“When I was in Columbus, Ohio a woman said after she read the book it made her think about how her family had gotten to Ohio and she immediately called her mother and said, ‘How did we get here?’ It turned out an uncle had been lynched and almost the entire family left as a result. Here she was in middle age and she had never known that, no one had ever sad anything. I hear that all the time – that some act of violence or threat of violence propelled somebody in the family North. They had to get out immediately and they went to Cleveland or Detroit or New York or I’m assuming even to Omaha. The fact that people hadn’t talked about it meant there’s a whole world that has existed but no one knew about it and this book attempts to uncover that.

“This is a universal human story. I like to say black history is truly American history, For one thing much of black history involves white Americans. White abolitionists helped get black americans out of slavery. In the book there’s a case of white southerners who helped ferry a single black person out of Mississippi and it could not have been done without the involvement of white Mississippians and Alabamans who helped in this elaborate effort.”





LAB: Did you grow up knowing about your family’s migration?

“No one in my family talked about the Great Migration in those terms. I knew where my mother and father had come from and I didn’t know why they did what they did or what the circumstances of their lives had been where they were from. In hindsight I am aware their circle of friends were all people from the South. But no one talked about it. It’s only in the course of the research for the book that I came to know things about my own family I didn’t know before.

“My mother was the most difficult interview of all. She did not want to talk about it. Her attitude was, ‘This happened a long time ago, why do you want to dredge up the past? what has this got to do with what were doing now? I left that a long time ago.’ The only reason she began to talk about it was I was working on the book and I told her things I was hearing and I read to her parts of the book, and then it would trigger some memory in her and make mention of something I had never heard of before.”

LAB: I imagine this suppressed history exacerbated the great open wound of race?

IW: “I completely agree with you. I talk to people all the time who have read the book…On my Facebook page I get a chance to see how it’s affected people or how they’re moved by the stories or to maybe do more research in their own family life or they see their grandparents or great grandparents and come to a greater sense of gratitude over what their forbearers did. Regardless of their background, migration is a human universal experience. It’s just a matter of knowing who and how and why they did what they did. The book triggers lots of memories.”

The Star and The Reader ( are collecting migration stories. If you or a loved one migrated from the South and ended up in Omaha or Greater Nebraska, then please email or call 402-445-4666 to schedule an interview.

Part I of a Four-Part Q & A with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson On Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’

February 15, 2012 6 comments

One of the best nonfiction reads of my life is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. A journalist by trade, Wilkerson proves herself a historian of the first order with her exhaustive, compelling, always insightful, and often moving work about the sprawling, decades-long migration of African-Americans from the South to the North, West and points in between.  This epoch movement of people and culture  transformed the nation but went largely unreported in the mainstream media because it was not organized in any formal sense and it played out quietly in countless streams and currents and eddies over such long time and across such a vast expanse.  The Great Migration had no leader or organization.  Instead, each individual, couple, family, and group that made the courageous leap of faith to leave Jim Crow for a strange promised land far away acted independently in  asserting their self-determination. The mere act of leaving was as brave and militant a thing to do as any recognized civil rights action. The book has been out now for more than a year, but it took me awhile to catch up with it.  I am so glad I did.  As Wilkerson will be speaking about her book April 12 in Omaha, where I live, I recently interviewed her.  I am presenting the interview here in a four-part Q & A that will also run in The Omaha Star.  If you haven’t read the book, do so.  It  manages to do the seemingly impossible by taking on this epic story in all its complexity and scope and yet makes it an intimate journey by focusing on three individuals, Ida Mae, Robert, and George, who become the prism through which we experience the migration journey alongside them.  I thought I knew a lot about the black experience until she immersed me in this world, and now I realize how little I really do know and how much more I have yet to learn.

Part I of a Four-Part Q & A with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson On Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’: Author to Speak in Omaha April 12

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in the Omaha Star

Isabel Wilkerson



This is the first of a four-part interview Leo Adam Biga conducted with award-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson about her 2010 best-seller, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Her critically praised book explores the mid-20th century African-American migration from the South to all points North and West.

Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, is giving a free book talk April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street. She’ll sign copies afterwards.

LAB: What were your hopes for the book?

IW: “I have many hopes for the book when it comes to the potential impact on the reader. This migration and demographic experience had been discussed primarily in scholarly terms until recently. My goal was first to try to understand what people who never spoke about what they had endured had actually been through. I really wanted to be able to hear the stories and make it possible for anyone who would listen to know what they had endured so it wouldn’t be lost to history.

“I felt the migration had such magnitude and impact on our country and yet it was not an entire chapter in 20th century history books. It did not command the attention I felt it deserved given how massive it was and how much it affected our culture. I find it surprising even now if you look at a high school history book that it’s just a paragraph if mentioned at all. I felt it needed to take its rightful place in history and that perhaps one way to do that would be to actually go back to the people who lived it and to convert their stories into a narrative people would want to read and live through the journey with them.

“I wanted to hear the stories before it was too late and to in some way validate the experiences of the people who lived it but who had been unwilling or unable or in too much pain to even talk about it.”



LAB: Has the book sparked more migration inquiries?

IW: “I have been reading newspaper stories from around the country where journalists have been inspired to go and interview people in their own communities who were part of this. Every single city in the North, the Midwest and the West was affected by this migration, so there would be people alive in all these cities that have been part of the migration. They’re getting up in years and their stories would need to be captured soon if they’re to be captured at all, and that’s the urgency with which I went about interviewing the 1,200 people I did. Because I was aware with each passing, day, month, year we were losing them, and with each person passing away you’re losing part of the archives before it can even be recorded.

“The interviews were in some ways like a casting call. I was auditioning people for the role of protagonist in the book, but in doing so I was also hearing many stories and building my own understanding and archive of what people endured. Not all of them clearly made it in the book but they all helped to inform the work and provided insight into some aspect I otherwise wouldn’t have understood. Hearing these things many times from different people helped make it a more authentic, richer work.”

LAB: Did the fact your parents were migrants add import for you?

IW: “Yes, my mother was from Georgia and my father from Virginia and they would never have met had there been no Great Migration, which is one of the realities that really inspired me to want to write this book. The majority of African-Americans and Americans on the whole had somebody in their backgrounds do what the people of this book did. Whatever the migration stream, whole new lineages and cultures were created. That’s what happens in a migration.

“I became really inspired by the idea a single decision can literally change certainly a family line but also even a country. I realized this was so much bigger than a simple move and I think perhaps it’s been misunderstood as that.”

The Star and The Reader are collecting African-American migration stories. If you or a loved one migrated from the South email or call 402-445-4666 to schedule an interview.

Leola Keeps the Faith at Her North Side Music Shop

September 2, 2011 5 comments



Here is the promised cover profile I did on Leola McDonald, whose Leola’s Records and Tapes shop in North Omaha was an African American cultural bastion for years before she decided to close the operation. This piece for The Reader ( appeared as business was appreciably slowing for her, and as the short follow up piece I posted earlier here reported, she eventually called it quits. It was no great surprise. The times were changing, and she wasn’t changing with them. She said so herself. The writing was on the wall and so it was just a matter of time.





Leola Keeps the Faith at Her North Side Music Shop

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


The iridescent, rainbow-palette mural splayed across the brick west wall spells LEOLA’S in big block letters. The name on the side of the Omaha music store formally known as Leola’s Records and Tapes belongs to founder/owner Leola McDonald. Both the handle and the woman are synonymous with music on the north side.

Her small shop at 56th and Ames Avenue is where today’s beat generation heads for the latest hip hop and rap tracks, including hard to find mixes and chopped and screwed versions of hit cuts.

Bright as the colors decorating that wall is Leola’s own passion for music.

“I love music. I always have. I used to play it all. At one point in my life I even sang. I sang in the church choir,” said the former Leola Ann Francis.

A 68-year-old church lady who prefers gospel may not be what you expect behind the counter of an urban music store carrying CDs and tapes with R-rated lyrics, but that’s exactly what you get. Her operation is pretty much a one-woman show. Oh, her grandkids come by to help some, but “mostly I do it by myself,” she said.

As its sole proprietor, she’s there seven days a week. Waiting on customers. Answering the phone. Registering sales. Bantering back and forth with whoever saunters on in, some just to “conversate” with her. Others to inquire after new releases. The door bell rings and it’s a young man, Eric Miller, who’s been shopping there since he was a boy.

“Hi, Miss Leola.” “What you want, babe?” “I’m lookin’ for that CD that got, uh, Slim Thug and, um, Young Zee-Zee on it…” She searches the shelves in back of her. Another young man comes in, hawking a box-full of high-end electronic gadgets. Leola tells him, “Honey, my money’s funny and my change is strange. I’m broke.”

Whatever brings them there, she greets all with — “Hey, sweetie” or “Hey, babe” or “How ya doin’?” or “What’s up, doc?” — in a musky voice that years of cigarette smoking ruined for singing. She used to love to sing. In the Sunday baptist church choir as a youth. In church-sponsored competitions. She once dreamed of performing professionally. That was a long time ago.

“I could sing once in my life…I won every contest I got into. But I messed up my own voice. I started smoking and drinking. I was grown. I could do what I wanted to do. But didn’t nobody suffer for it but me. Now, I can’t carry a tune across the street and bring it back in one piece,” she likes to say.

That doesn’t change her passion. That’s why she’s still at her store every day when most women her age are retired.

“I love music and I love people. So, it’s easy for me. And you really have to to deal with this because you can get some fools in here, and sometimes it’s more than one, and you have to deal with ‘em,” said the Omaha native, who divided her growing up between here and Cheyenne, Wyoming, where her mother moved after splitting up with her father.

Then there’s “that crap they call rap” she feels obliged to carry. It’s what sells these days. It doesn’t mean she has to like it, though. Still, she must be familiar with the artists and their work. Like it or not, it’s what customers want.

“Yeah, I pretty much have to be up on all of it now. I don’t particularly care for it, but hey, maybe if I was these kids’ age…But I don’t think I would go in for it. To me, it’s nothin’ but noise. But different strokes for different folks,” she said.







Eric Miller said despite the generation and taste gap, McDonald stocks what’s in vogue. “You can find things here you can’t find at a lot of places,” he said. Carmelette Snoddy said she prefers Leola’s for its “quality. Like with these mixed CDs,” she said, holding up a few, “you can buy them off the streets, but they’re not quality. They don’t play as good.”

Leola tries to ensure customers know what they’re getting.

“If they don’t know what something sounds like, I’ll play the music for them, so they’re not just buying something blind. I’ve always done that,” she said.

Long before rap, back when jazz, blues, R & B and soul ruled the charts, she was a respected black music source. Music buff Billy Melton of Omaha said he often relied on her opinion in compiling some of his extensive collection.

“She’s very studious. She knows music. She always had what I was looking for,” Melton said. “And she loves what she’s doing now, too. She’s been faithful to that music line. I just wish she would have stayed with the older music, but there’s no money in that. She knows I love music and she’s given me pictures and things of older artists over the years. She’s quite a gal.”





Her savvy got her a job at the Hutsut, a now defunct music store. Then an advertising salesperson with the Omaha Star, she called on the store one day. When she saw the clerks couldn’t answer customers’ questions about black music, she offered to help. The owner agreed and she so impressed him he hired her on the spot.

She and a partner soon opened their own store, Mystical Sounds. She then went solo. Leola’s followed. For a time, she ran both. For the last 30 years, just Leola’s.

While most of her store’s inventory is given over to current CDs or tapes, she reserves a few bins and racks for old-school vinyl recordings.

Her own personal collection of CDs, LPs, 45s and 8-tracks, drawn from four decades in the business, is all R & B and gospel.

Gospel music to me is like no other. I love it. Nothing compares…There’s just something about it.”

There’s another reason she opens the doors of her business daily. As a small independent, she’s squeezed by national chains and bled by music pirates. With so many under selling her, she can’t afford not to light up the neon Open sign.

“I don’t have a choice. I have to work. If I didn’t have to work, God knows at my age I wouldn’t be. I’m sure doing this for the love of it. Besides, I’m too old to go get a job. I can’t even think about it. But if push comes to shove and that’s what I have to do to survive…”





Profits are down as a result of black marketeers. Her no-return policy is aimed at pirates who buy CDs, copy for resell and bring back for a refund. “Like I tell ‘em, I wasn’t born yesterday. I was born the day before yesterday. You have too much competition from the bootleggers,” she said. “They stand on the street and they make more than I do sittin’ up here. Why, it’s not fair…I have sat up in here all day long and gone from open to close and walked out the door with $20. Before, it might have been $500-$600 in the drawer. So, there’s no comparison.”

That’s why she takes umbrage when some suggest she pack it in and rest easy on her supposed riches. “If I had the money people tell me I have I probably wouldn’t be here,” she said. “But I love to work.” It’s not as if she has a pension or retirement fund to fall back on. “No, when you work for yourself, unless you save or invest your own money, you don’t have any. And I had four kids to raise, so I didn’t do any saving,” said the twice-married, twice-divorced McDonald.

Single is something she never counted on being at 68. But things never quite worked out with the men in her life. Like any young woman coming of age in the 1950s, she bought into the happily-ever-after ideal.

“I never wanted to be (single). It just happened. Back then, you were to get married, have some kids and be happy. Well, I got married, had the kids, but damn if I was happy,” she said, laughing at herself. She takes it all in stride. “If you don’t have any regrets, you haven’t had any life,” she said.

Faith has a way of healing wounds and easing doubts. Church is where she renews herself. Mount Nebo Baptist Church is where she gives praise and worship.

“I’ve always liked church. It’s been a very short time I wasn’t in the church. Now, I go every Sunday and, if I can, Wednesdays, too. It’s just that I enjoy it so much.”

With that, she turns up the boombox on a cut from the William Murphy Project’s All Day CD. The rousing choir anthem fills the store, rising, rising…the spirit moving her to answer the call…“Oh, yes…He got it together. He got them together…”. As the words “I am trusting you, to bring me through” reverberate, she hums and sings along, swaying to the beat. Hearing the lyric — “So, all you’ve got to do is…” – she finishes it with “Be strong…”

Be strong, Miss Leola, be strong.

Miss Leola Says Goodbye

September 1, 2011 10 comments

As music stores went, it wasn’t  much, but it was a fixture in Omaha’s African-American North Omaha community, and when owner Leola McDonald decided to close her Leola’s Records and Tapes the decision was met by an outpouring of regret and fond memories. I did this short piece for The Reader ( in the wake of her announcement she was closing shop. It appeared not long after a cover profile I did on Leola for the same paper. I will soon be posting that cover. She and her store are missed.





Miss Leola Says Goodbye

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Miss Leola is moving on and the African-American community she served for decades at Leola’s Records and Tapes is treating her retirement as a loss akin to a death. Since Leola McDonald announced she’s closing her music store at 5625 Ames Avenue, mourners have filed in to pay their respects.

Felix Hall was among them last Friday. “What’s up, doc, how ya’ doin’?” Leola greeted the middle-aged man from behind the counter. “Oh, pretty good,” said Hall, before choking up to proclaim, “I saw in the news you were going out of business and I just had to come in to say goodbye.” “Well, thank you, that was nice of you,” a visibly moved Leola said.

It’s been like that now for weeks.

Attired in slacks and a T-shirt imprinted with aphorisms to motherhood, Leola, a mother and grandmother, has been a surrogate parent for neighborhood kids who “grew up” in her store. One of these, Marcus Roach, 18, said he and his posse have “been coming up here for years. A lot of people come up here. Yeah, everybody knows Miss Leola.”

Jason Fisher, 31, owner of the building housing Leola’s and his own multi-media company downstairs, can attest to the respect she holds.

“Miss Leola is known immensely throughout the north Omaha community. It’s unreal what kind of impact you can have on a community in 30 years. Just about everybody knows her like she’s the President,” he said.

“I think she’s kind of like the community’s grandma,” said granddaughter Mercedes Smith. “She’s always looked out for everybody that came to her…People having a bad day come in and talk to her because they know she’ll make them feel better about who they are. She’s a good person.”

Momma’s real…always lovin’ and always levelin’ with someone,” her son Seth Smith said. Mercedes feels her grandma’s personal stamp will make her missed. “This is not like Sam Goodies or any of the other (independent) music stores closing around the country. She’s the cornerstone of the community.” “I don’t understand it, she’s been here forever,” a young man in search of a CD said.

Leola doesn’t want to leave, but business has lagged. “In the last two years I’ve seen it go down, down, down…” she said. National chains hurt enough, but there’s no competing with music pirates. “It’s so much on the streets now,” she said. The cruelest rub is when black marketeers get source material from Leola’s to burn and then under sell her with it. “It’s just sad that somebody who always tried to be fair and right and correct in everything she did has to suffer,” Smith said.


Leoloa McDonald, ©photo by Jason Fischer




The woman who’s become an institution is pragmatic about it all. “I wanted it to last a little bit longer, but I guess my biggest problem is I haven’t moved with the times,” Leola said. “I’m still over there, while the times are over here. It happened and I didn’t even realize it. I’m saddened with it and I will miss it. I enjoyed what I was doing and if I was a little bit younger I’d still be doing it.

“I was young when I started and I ain’t young no more — no parts of it.”

Her legacy and her 70th birthday will be celebrated August 11 with a 6:30 p.m. reception at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 N 24th Street.

But, as Fischer noted, “This isn’t the end of Leola’s, it’s a new beginning.” Soon after Leola closes shop around August 10, he plans to make renovations to the existing space and reopen as Leola’s Urban Avenue, a retail music store “with a singular focus on independent artists, underground music and diversified merchandising.” As for the friend Leola was to the community, he’ll try to represent. “We’ll try to keep it going,” he said.He’s keeping Leola’s in the title to play off her good name and “to carry that torch for her and her family.”

“It gives me a good feeling that somebody cares enough about me to keep the name. I appreciate it. He’s been great to me,” Leola said of Fischer.

Beyond the name, she’s sure a little piece of her will remain in the new store. “I think it will,” she said. She plans to move to Calif., where she has family.

Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry

August 20, 2011 10 comments

Two well-connected players on the Omaha entrepreneurial scene and two stalwart figures in efforts to revitalize predominantly African-American North Omaha are Michael Green and Dick Davis. The Omaha natives go way back together and they share a deep understanding of what it will take to turn around a community that lags far behind the rest of the city in terms of income, commerce, jobs, education, housing starts, et cetera.





Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry
©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


Growing up in the late 1940s-early 1950s, Michael Green and Dick Davis knew The Smell of Money from the pungent odors of the bustling packing plants and stockyards near the Southside Terrace apartments they lived in. Buddies from age 4, these now middle aged men began life in similar disadvantaged straits, yet each has gone on to make his fortune.

Instead of the old blue collar model they were exposed to as kids, they’ve achieved the Sweet Smell of Success associated with the fresh, squeaky clean halls of corporate office suites. Education got them there. Each man holds at least one post-graduate degree.

Along the way, there have been some detours. As kids they moved with their families to North O, where they became star athletes. They were teammates at Horace Mann Junior High before becoming opponents at rival high schools — Green at Tech and Davis at North. Both earned accolades for their gridiron exploits as running backs. Green, a sprint star in track, was a speed merchant, yet still rugged enough to play tackle, fullback and linebacker. Davis, a two-time unbeaten state wrestling champ, was a bruiser, yet still swift enough to outrun defenders.

The Division I football recruits reunited as teammates at Nebraska in the mid-’60s — excelling in the offensive backfield under head coach Bob Devaney and position coach Mike Corgan. They never saw action at the same time. Green, a halfback his first two years, co-captained the Huskers’ 1969 Sun Bowl championship team at fullback. Davis was in the mold of the classic blocking, short yardage fullback but he could also catch passes out of the backfield. Drafted a year apart by the NFL, they each pursued pro football careers, but not before getting their degrees — Green in economics and marketing and Davis in education. It wasn’t long before each opted to take a different route to success — one that involved brain, not brawn and three-piece-suits, not uniforms or helmets.

They ended up as executives with major Omaha companies. Today each is the owner of his own company. Green is founder, president and chief investment officer of Evergreen Capital Management, Nebraska’s only minority-owned registered investment advisor. Davis is CEO of Davis Cos., a holding company for firms providing insurance brokerage, financial consulting and contractor development services. Green handles hundreds of millions of dollars in managed assets for institutional clients. Davis Cos., with offices in multiple states, generates millions in revenues and is one of Omaha’s fastest growing firms.

The two men’s stories of entrepreneurial success are remarkable given that in the era they came up in there were few African American role models in business. Back in the day, blacks’ best hopes for good paying jobs were with the packing plants, the railroad or in construction. Few blacks made it past high school. One gateway out of the ghetto and into higher education was through athletics, and both Green and Davis were talented enough to earn scholarships to Nebraska. The opportunities and lessons NU afforded them — both in the classroom and on the field — opened up possibilities that otherwise may have eluded them.

Having come so far from such humble beginnings, neither man has lost sight of his people’s struggle. Both are immersed in efforts to address the problems and needs facing inner city African Americans. Green and Davis are leaders in a growing Omaha movement of educated and concerned blacks working together with broad private-public coalitions to make a difference in key quality of life categories. These initiatives are putting in place covenants, strategies, plans, programs and opportunities to help spur economic development, create jobs, provide scholarships and do whatever else is needed to help blacks help themselves.

Some efforts are community-driven, with Green and Davis serving as committee members/chairs. Others are spearheaded by the men themselves. For example, Davis is the driving force behind the North Omaha Foundation for Human Development, the Davis-Chambers Scholarship Endowment and Omaha 20/20, efforts aimed at community betterment, educational opportunities and economic development, respectively. Green has led a minority internship program that guides young black men and women into the financial services field. He helps direct the Ahman Green Foundation for Youth Development, which awards grants to youth organizations and holds a week-long football/academic camp. The foundation’s namesake, Husker legend Ahman Green, is his nephew.

Individually and collectively Green and Davis represent some high aspirations and achievements. They’re trying to give fellow blacks the tools to dream and reach those things for themselves. The two defied the long odds and low expectations society set for them and now actively work to improve the chances and raise the bar for others. The paths forged by these men offer a road to success. They’re putting in place guideposts for new generations to follow in their footsteps.

Recently, Green and Davis sat down with the New Horizons. In separate interviews they discussed their own journey and the road map for setting more blacks on the path to the American Dream.

Michael Green
Responsibility and leadership came early for Michael Green. As the oldest of five kids whose single mother worked outside the house, he was often charged with the task of looking after his younger siblings. His mom, Katherine Green, worked in the Douglas County Hospital kitchens before getting on with the U.S. Postal Service, where she retired after 30-plus years. Sundays meant getting dressed for services and bible school at Salem Baptist Church. He remains in awe of what his mom did to take care of the family.

“My mother raised us kids as a single working mom,” he said. “A very stable person. We didn’t know what poor was. I mean, she provided for us. We didn’t have the best of everything but we always had a place to live and food on the table. She was always home when she wasn’t working. On Saturday mornings she’d always get up and cook us a big breakfast with eggs and pancakes and everything and it conditioned me so much there’s hardly a Saturday morning I don’t crave eggs.”



Michael Green


It was an era of segregation and limited horizons for blacks but families and neighborhoods were tighter and in many ways, Green said, “it was really better times back then. Our parents worked. They provided for us. We didn’t even have the equivalent of cell phones or iPods and stuff like that, but we played, we improvised, we made our own skateboards and soap box derby carts and sling shots. If you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing bad news, as we’d say, would probably beat you home because neighbors knew who you were and knew who your parents were. They’d call and say, ‘Michael’s down the street doing this’ and by the time you got home you’d hear about it.”

His mother, he said, “had one mantra — get an education. I can remember in my childhood saying I wanted to play pro baseball. She said, ‘That’s fine, but make sure you know how to do something else.’ I had no clue what she was talking about. ‘What do you mean? I won’t have to. I’m going to play pro baseball. What else is there?’” Years passed before he knew how firmly her advice sunk in.

“It’s just funny how God works,” he said, “because it wasn’t until I walked across the stage to accept my (college) diploma that conversation popped into the front of my head. It just kind of stuck back there in my subconscious. I had made up my mind I was going to get my degree, so I knew I could do something else.”

Green didn’t get involved in organized athletics until junior high. Pickup games were common at Kountze Park, the YMCA and area schools. He and his kid brother David first flashed their speed at Horace Mann, where gym teacher/athletic coach Bob Rose saw their ability.

“He was a father on the field for many of us,” Green said of Rose. Green’s parents never married and his father was mostly out of the picture.

The Green brothers were not alone making their mark athletically on the north side. The area was then and is now a fertile ground for athletic excellence. A relatively small geographic area produced such standouts as Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer and Fred Hare. Before the Green brothers there were the Sayers brothers (Gale, Roger and Ron), the Nared boys (Rich and John) and the Boones (Ron and Co.). The same time the Greens were turning heads Dick Davis and his older brother Ricky Davis were doing the same. Leslie Webster starred. Joe Orduna, Phil Wise, Johnny Rodgers, John C. Johnson, Mike McGee and a host of others followed.

Green and his brother David ended up at Tech, rather than at North like his childhood friend Dick Davis, because it was where mom went to school.

“Tech, like a lot of the inner city schools, has a history where a lot of family generations went through that school,” he said. “My family’s a prime example. My mom graduated from Tech. My brother and I did. Cousins. It has a lot of emotional legacy for us Tech grads, primarily because Tech is closed now.”

The feeling runs so deep that Green chairs the Tech High Auditorium Restoration Project that’s raising funds for refurbishing the building’s 2,000-plus seat venue — one that hosted world class performing artists and public figures in its heyday.

“Professionals who have come and looked at it — from acoustics experts to engineers of various kinds — have said it’s in tremendous condition and just needs to be updated and restored,” he said.

Coming out of Tech to play for the “jovial” Devaney was not a hard sell.

“He and I hit it off right away. Very down to earth. He wasn’t like the Lombardi caricature of a coach. More of a father figure,” Green said.


Bob Devaney with 1969 co-captains Dana Stephenson and Mike Green, No. 34


Something Green didn’t appreciate until years later is how Devaney showed unusual sensitivity for the time by taking into account that except for a few athletes NU had markedly few black students. He said the Old Irishman even expressed interest in enrolling more blacks at Lincoln — athletes or not — in order to create a more comfortable environment for blacks.

Green said admiringly, “He was very concerned about the black experience we would have off the field.” It would be some years yet, he said, before the black population on campus increased appreciably.

When Green played, team captain honors always went to seniors. As a senior in ‘69 he was expecting the quarterback to get the offensive captain’s nod but halfway through fall scrimmage no vote had been taken yet to name anyone. He recalled being upset after “a particularly sloppy scrimmage” in preparation for the season opener against perennial power Southern Cal. “I started yelling at everybody on the sideline. I just went off on ‘em. Then we had a team meeting to elect the captains and somebody nominated me. They all voted and it was overwhelming they wanted me to be captain. I was just shocked.”

The experience taught him something he’s carried with him through life.

“I guess what I learned is that if you’re proactive about the way you go about things you don’t wait for something to happen, you don’t wait for somebody else to do something. You see something you want to do and you figure out how you want to get it done,” he said. Even if that means saying some hard things.

That motivated approach led him to get his degree before he left school for the NFL and to have a Plan B in place in case things didn’t work out with football.

The San Diego Chargers drafted him in the later rounds. He made the cut but this was a time before free agency. Players were property that could be bought, sold, traded with impunity. Seeing veterans traded overnight, their life and the lives of their loved ones disrupted, was a wake up call.

“What was sobering for me was the business end of pro ball where if you weren’t starting you could be living in San Diego today be shipped off to Cleveland tomorrow. That happened to a guy in training camp. You were strictly at the mercy of the team…There was no contract negotiation. You had to be a real star to have some leverage. Your only alternative was to hold out.”

If the NFL didn’t pan out he was going to have other options. He said athletics taught him not only how to compete but “how to grow from defeat,” he said. “It’s not some big epiphany but every single week after a game, win or lose, we’d go into film sessions and get critiqued on what we did right and wrong. Well, that kind of process conditions you to learn from mistakes automatically. It also conditions you to not be afraid to fail. You take a real, unemotional, objective look at what happened.” That same calculated analysis has served him well in life.

When he left the Chargers, his Plan B was already in motion due to some good fortune and foresight. He’d graduated from NU in the spring of ‘70 and was preparing for his shot at the NFL when he and Husker teammate Guy Ingles were invited to participate in a promotion at Omaha National Bank (now US Bank). At the gig Green said he met bank big wig Michael Yanney and “we took a liking to each other.” The next thing Green knew, he was offered a job.

When he saw the writing on the wall after that one season in San Diego, Green came back to Omaha knowing he had a job waiting for him.

“Talk about things happening for a reason,” Green said, still struck by the sequence of events that launched his financial services career.

By the time he worked his way up to the commercial lending area, Green knew banking was a good fit. The work introduced him to small local business owners, whose entrepreneurial spirit planted the seed of a dream in him.

“I was really impressed with these people — that they had their own destinies in their own hands. They weren’t like fabulously wealthy but they were doing quite well. And the thing that attracted me was they were their own boss. That experience made me say, I want to work for myself. It was more of a dream than a plan at that point.”

Harsh reality pushed his dream into action when he realized there was a glass ceiling at the bank for women and people of color.

“I learned after awhile there was a snowball’s chance in hell of a minority becoming a senior officer at the bank,” he said. “The irony is that this same institution paid for me to get my MBA (taking night classes at UNO). They paid for the whole thing and yet they allowed me to walk out the door two years later,” he said, referring to his taking a better offer from Northern Natural Gas Co. (part of Enron).

What convinced him to leave the bank was seeing less qualified individuals promoted or hired ahead of him.

“I was there eight years, working my way up through the organization and I saw people brought into the bank that didn’t have degrees. But they had worked in the agricultural divisions of small banks. Omaha National at that time did a lot of agricultural lending. These guys would be brought in and given titles and positions of authority much higher than mine.”

In some cases, he said, the new hires got the job only because they were the sons of rich cattle ranch owners. They were all white, of course.

“That was the first real dose of corporate racism,” said Green, adding, “I would have stayed had they just treated me like they treated everybody else — because I liked banking.”

Sadly, he said the experience of blacks being passed over for upper management is still common in corporate Omaha, a red flag for a city whose black population has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates and smallest middle classes.

“Even today…you don’t have a lot of blacks, women or other minorities reporting to CEOs or to the second in command. And Omaha’s different than a lot of other cities in that,” he said. “For some reason, the practice of inclusion and diversity has not completely permeated the corporate fabric. We haven’t gotten there yet  – even after all these years.

“In a perfect world, if you threw out all the opportunities on the table and everybody had an equal chance to grab at those…and do with them what they would, then Omaha would look very much the same as far as the buildings on the outside. But the makeup of people on the inside would look very different.”

Reversing the dearth of black executives and entrepreneurs and the small black middle class can’t be mandated, he said. “There’s no government legislation that’s going to change that. That’s a social and cultural phenomenon that has to be rectified in the corporate suites.”

In his opinion there’s a disconnect in Omaha between supporting affirmative action with words and implementing it with deeds.

“And regardless of what the corporate leaders in this town say they only need to look at their organizations,” he said.

He said no matter how much lip service is paid to diversity firms will struggle recruiting and retaining people of color as long as they only have white faces at the top. “You tell me you want to welcome me into an inclusive organization,” he said, “but the picture you’re showing me is totally opposite…”

He said racial division lines in Omaha extend to select neighborhoods, country clubs, social groups and high society events that are mostly if not exclusively white.

“When we go into a different or new environment the normal human response is to look for folks who are like us and have had similar experiences to start bonding and getting immersed…” he said. Absent that, you feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

Omaha pays a heavy price for exclusion. Companies that practice diversity are less likely to locate here, he said, because they don’t see diversity in Omaha’s own executive ranks. And countless black Omahans have left here for more inclusive, more tolerant, more integrated communities that offer more opportunities.

In considering why Omaha’s not on board with diversity he said there “is one phenomenon it might be attributed to. With the exception of Union Pacific, most of the large corporations here — the Mutuals, the First Nationals. ConAgra — grew up here in this environment where there wasn’t that kind of diversity among their corporate brethren.”

After nine years in financial management at Enron Green found the corporate ladder once again only went up so high for minorities. Then the company moved to Houston. Offered a transfer, he instead opted for a buy out. This time, he didn’t have so much a Plan B in mind as he did a dream. To be his own boss. To reach it he struck a deal with Omaha investment banking firm Kirkpatrick Pettis, Smith, Polian Inc., which provided in-kind start-up help in the form of office space, clerical support and computer systems in exchange for half his revenues.

“It worked out pretty good and after three years I went out on my own,” he said.

He formed EverGreen Capital Management in 1989. Dream realized. As his business took off Green’s stature as a community leader grew with his stints on the Douglas County Board and, later, the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority, where he oversaw construction of the $300 million Qwest Center. He’s on the board of the Omaha Sports Commission, which under his watch successfully bid for such major amateur sports events, as the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.

The value-investing strategy he uses to select stocks is consistent with his credo for life. “You don’t get involved with anything that is outside your sphere of intelligence or comprehension. If I don’t understand it, I don’t invest in it. In investing, you just keep it simple.”

That same philosophy applies to his community service, particularly the north Omaha revitalization efforts he’s involved in.

The grassroots African American Empowerment Network he’s a part of has held a series of meetings to craft covenants and strategies that give blacks the means to improve their economic well being and overall quality of life.

“The Empowerment Network has done a good job of bringing together concerned citizens from all over the community to identify issues that if addressed would have a positive impact on the community,” he said. “Instead of complaining about what’s wrong we’re trying to see what we can do to make things better.”

Fundamental to the network is blacks being empowered to take action themselves.
“It’s self-determination,” Green said.

So is the public-private North Omaha Development Project he’s active in. It has major corporate players working in concert with black community leaders on committees that identify needs — from employment to enterprise zones to housing — and formulate action plans for meeting those needs. Unlike previous North O studies-plans, this Chamber-backed initiative has delegated responsibilities, timelines, deadlines and goals. “We have very powerful, committed people leading these committees who have the freedom to explore whatever solutions or make whatever recommendations they deem appropriate,” Green said. “The thing that’s different is that it not only has the support but the involvement of people from the north Omaha community who will be affected by it.”

Why is this concerted, comprehensive effort happening now? “It happens when it happens,” he said. “There are now more educated African Americans than I’ve ever known in this community and that alone equips this community to really find some positive solutions.” It appears a critical mass has been reached to foster change.

Green said finding ways to spur economic development on the north side is crucial and long overdue but will take time: “This whole process will be evolutionary and not revolutionary. This could be a generational endeavor. Do I have hope? Hell, yes.” Macro and micro approaches are needed.

“What we want to do, just like the city and state do, is provide economic incentives for businesses to locate and do business and bring employment to that area of town,” he said.

He said commercial-residential development has flourished everywhere except in Noth O. “It’s the hole in the donut,” he said” He blames negative perceptions that the area is dangerous and its residents unemployable for slowing progress.

“The challenge is to overcome that pervasive fear. It’s nothing more than rooted in racism,” said Green, who doesn’t deny that problems with crime, violence, truancy and unskilled labor exist. “The condition is simply this — poverty, unemployment, undereducation all lead to the kind of social conditions that exist in north Omaha and to stop the wheel from spinning in that direction you’re going to have to put a stake in somewhere. My frustration is that what’s not being explored is the very economic vitality that alleviates those social conditions.”

He challenges corporations to locate plants or offices there to “start creating jobs.” He said, “If you want to deal with crime start giving people the means and reasons not to go out and commit crime. You will give people the means to be consumers and investors.” He points to the rebirth of south Omaha, which not  long ago was a depressed area and is now a vibrant commercial-residential-industrial district. He said the longer Omaha waits to act, North O’s ills will only spread.

Community service runs in the family, as his wife Carolyn Green is director of operations at Girls Inc. The couple’s only child, Angela Green, worked at Girls Inc. and is now a stay-at-home mom raising her two children.

Dick Davis
Hard times in pre-Civil Rights era Omaha did not get the late Mary Davis down and her keep-on-keeping-on attitude served her and her four children well. The single black working mom raised her kids — Ricky, Dicky, Vicky and Micky — to be confident, do-for-yourself individuals who always put family first. Her second oldest, Dick Davis, has taken this approach to unimagined heights — first as an athlete, than as an educator and more recently as a corporate and community leader. Family has played a large part in his success.

His mom worked at packing plants and all kinds of jobs to support the family while dad went AWOL. “My dad was out of the home for the vast majority of our childhood and came back into our lives when I was 34,” he said.


Dick Davis


Growing up in south Omaha and then north Omaha Davis moved several times with his family. In some cases the moves were to keep one step ahead of creditors. In other cases, mom was sick and out of work and the kids had to stay with grandma. It was all about “survival,” he said. “You try to find a home where you can.” He and Ricky both worked to help make ends meet. “Friday night was put your money on the table to see how we survive that week,” he said. All that moving around meant he attended four different elementary schools. As he learned first as a student and then as an educator in the inner city this high mobility pattern among disadvantaged kids puts them at risk for underachievement in the classroom.

As a youth he had “his challenges.” He was placed in the “slow” track in school. That affected his self-esteem, especially comparing himself to his big brother, Ricky, who excelled at everything. “I always thought I was a bit thick,” he said.

But his late brother, who died prematurely of pancreatic cancer at age 44, and his mother would not let him get down on himself. “He was unselfish in his commitment to make me as good as I could be,” he said of Ricky. “When you talk about sibling rivalry, there was none. He wanted the best for me.” Davis said he not only admired Ricky but had “strong love and affection” for him.

He recalled how a teacher once criticized in the presence of his mom, listing how he failed to measure up to Ricky. “Unmotivated, lazy, uninspired, dull. Every time he’d say something,” Davis said, “I shrunk in my seat a little bit more. When my mother and I left she said, ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘He was pretty tough.’ ‘Well, what do you think about yourself?’ I said, ‘I think I’m better than that.’ ‘Well, I think you are, too, son, so don’t worry about what other folks be thinking you gotta be doing. Worry about what you think you gotta be doing.’”

Davis was given the gift of unconditional love by his mother, who told him to not get caught up in comparisons. “She said, ‘I think every kid of mine has their unique talents and gifts, and Dick you just keep doing what you’re doing because your momma still loves you.’ And she had some very good, strong, capable kids.”

By the time he was 16, he said, “we had a stable family living situation.” He began doing better in school. Like his pal Mike Green, Davis’ athletic ability was spotted early onby Bob Rose at Horace Mann. Also by Don Benning, who coached at the north Y before coaching the wrestling team at then-Omaha U., where he developed champions. Benning saw Davis’ potential and worked with him to hone his raw talent. Once at North High Davis was dominant on the mat. For a good work out he’d go to UNO, where Benning had stiff competition for him in All-American George Crenshaw. Dick’s brother, Ricky, wrestled for Benning in college. Ricky also played football on the same teams Marlin Briscoe starred on and ran track at UNO.

Davis said his success in wrestling was the first time he got positive feedback from something he did. It told him, he said, “I am somebody. I’m a winner.” Those positive strokes prompted him “to try and get a little bit better” each day. He said the fact he was surrounded by so many great athletes in The Hood pushed him and others “to want to be better and better.” That ultra competitive environment, he said, may explain why North O owns such a rich history of sports legends.

But it was his attitude that made the difference in going from an average back to an All-American his senior year at North, when he rumbled for more than 10 yards a carry, and in going from a below par student to a high performer. Success, he’s learned, is a function of rigorous self-appraisal and self-motivation. It’s how he managed to make assistant principal at age 24 and principal before he was 30. It’s how he’s gone from one field of endeavor to another.

“It’s mindset, it’s expectations, it’s trying to figure out who you are and trying to do the best you can for who you are and not trying to be somebody else,” he said.
“There are some defining moments in your life. You need to assess who you are, what your abilities are and try to match those up the best you can to the opportunities out there.”

He said it’s vital to “recognize that where you come from doesn’t mean that’s where you’re going to end up.” He’s living proof, having come a long way from the projects and his early struggles in school to all his success. He’s done it by looking inward and applying what he’s learned to new situations.

“Knowledge and life experience is highly transferable,” he said. “Just think: I was an art guy, then a pro athlete, then an educator, then an administrator, then a corporate manager, and now an owner. The issue is there still are basic principles no matter what you do in life, so you just live by them.”

Academics and athletics became means to an end but, he said, if it hadn’t been for Nebraska giving him a football scholarship, he wouldn’t have been able to afford college. He’s sure he would have found a way to go anyway.

Always an independent thinker, Davis also has a creative side, so much so that he studied art in college, where he added a more practical major in education, which became his career once he was finished with pro football. He said he was “very analytical” in choosing education as something he could be successful at later. To ensure he graduated on time he loaded up on credits each summer.

“I was hugely focused,” he said. “I’ve always been an old soul in a young body. Now I’m finally caught up to myself.”

While at NU he supplied caricatures of Husker coaches for the 1968 football brochure. He was an All Big 8 performer on the field in ‘67, when he was also named to the all-conference and national scholastic squads. He graduated in ‘69.

Drafted by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, he also spent time with the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints. His pro career was no great shakes but he did satisfy himself he was “good enough to play at that level.” Like Mike Green, Davis was turned off by the cold, hard reality of seeint veterans who were “gifted athletes,” like ex-Huskers Wayne Meylan and Walt Barnes, ruthlessly cut. He began plotting his post-football life after doing some research and finding that, statistically, he was unlikely to last the minimum five years in the league to qualify for a pension. Even if he did, an NFL vet’s life expectancy then was 55 — the age the pension kicked in.

“The numbers didn’t add up,” he said.

Once he left the game he never looked back. Back home, he began his 10-year career with the Omaha Public Schools, first as an art teacher, than as assistant principal at his alma mater, North, and finally as principal at McMillan Junior High, where he and his mentor, Don Benning, would wrestle on their lunch break to saty in shape. At the time, McMillan was the largest junior high in Nebraska, with some 1,400 kids crammed into a building meant for 1,000. Adding to the tension that comes with overcrowding and the angst that attends adolescence was the school’s transition from a largely white student base to a predominantly black student base. Somehow Davis and his staff made it work.

“We were basically making a difference and you could see the difference. We affected change in terms of student achievement, the school culture, parental involvement. True results,” he said. “It absolutely turned me on to know we were impacting people’s lives.”

He said his success got him thinking, “If I can do this here, why can’t I do it district-wide?” He prepared by earning his master’s from UNO and his doctorate from NU. But when he made known his desire to one day be OPS superintendent he was paternalistically told he was best suited to stay at McMillan. Davis said institutions like OPS historically profile black employees as having “great people skills,” which usually confines them to teaching, principal, human resources, public relations, disciplinary positions but denies them access to the more technical finance-administrative posts required for the superintendent track.

Not seeing an opportunity to go that direction, he left to join Northern Plains Natural Gas Co. (Enron). He held out the possibility of returning but found his niche in business. “Well, life moves forward. I never went back,” he said. Still, he said, “education was the most challenging and rewarding of all the things I’ve done in my life. I’m still a teacher, just by nature, so I approach things in that way. If you look at my business-entrepreneurial career, you will see strong educational components to everything I do, because that’s my thing. Education is my thing.”

At Enron he did risk management and strategic planning but found the proverbial glass ceiling. “No question about that,” he said. But his not rising to the top, he said, had as much to do with his skills set not being the right fit for a company that was basically “nothing but accountants and engineers.” That was especially true when Enron decided “to just do piping,” which in their eyes made expendable several auxiliary companies that began as spinoffs from Northern Plains. Where Enron saw excess, Davis saw “a fabulous opportunity that could be grown.”

He went to the higher-ups to ask if he could take those auxiliary companies off their hands — scott free. To his surprise, he said, he was told yes. Davis got the suits to put it in writing and those businesses now form the core of his Davis Cos.

“Don’t you love America?” said Davis, letting loose his big booming laugh.

The Davis family has been integral to his company’s success. Wife Sharon served as president of Davis Insurance Co., which his brother Ricky founded and his mother and brother Micky joined. His daughter-in-law Lisa Davis is the Davis Cos. controller and soon-to-be CEO. Davis hopes his and his family’s success demonstrates how much is possible when we don’t place limits on ourselves.

“I believe I am an ordinary person doing extraordinary things,” he said.

The Davis story exemplifies a pay-it-forward philosophy that can work on a larger scal. He said the investment he and his wife have made in their children, Dick II and Shaynel, and in other loved ones is helping this next generation realize their dreams and control their destinies. He wants to see more black families move into financial independence and entrepreneurship so they too can invest in their future and in the future of their community.

He feels if he and other successful African Americans can get people to buy into that model than the resulting assets can accrue to the entire black community and pay dividends for generations.

“If by sharing my experiences I can inspire folks who do not believe to believe than I think that’s a good thing. That’s what we should be all about. If you can change the expectations of folks and allow them to dream, you’ve affected life very personally and that makes me feel good. If we can spread the spirit of don’t despair, I think we can move mountains.”

The slogan of the North Omaha Foundation for Human Development he founded in 1980 is, We believe in people. But Davis is about more than slogans. He’s about action. That’s why the foundation — a partnership with OPS — awards grants to youth programs and services. The Davis-Chambers Scholarship, named for Davis family members and for state Sen. Ernie Chambers, has been awarding minority students scholarships since 1989. To date, the public-private fund has given out more than $3 million for students’ higher education. He’s working on plans to grow the fund and the number of scholarships it offers.



$5 Million Joint Venture Mixed-use Facility


New North Downtown headquarters for Davis Cos.


His Omaha 20/20 initiative is an economic development catalyst aimed at helping blacks achieve full employment in jobs that lead to careers that, in turn, create  entrepreneurs and investors. The alliance partners with many of the same players in the African American Empowerment Network, whose economic and education committees he chairs, and shares the same self-empowering goals. He’s also participating in the North Omaha Development Project and Building Bright Futures. All these initiatives share a common goal of impacting the whole community.

“A rising tide raises all ships — that’s the approach we’re taking.”

Davis said everyone has a role in helping bring about needed change. “My gift is that I can bring people together that in most cases don’t talk to each other. I can also give some money, raise some funds, provide some scholarships and spur some economic development. I go to white folks and black folks and say, ‘Here’s how I’m stepping up. Tell me how you’re going to step up.’ That doesn’t mean necessarily just by money. But once you step up I want you to be accountable for it.” People are providing expertise and much more.

He said the fact that people from across the entire socioeconomic-racial-religious-political spectrum are stepping up to assume “shared responsibility and accountability is what makes it feel different” than past efforts.

Davis, who mentors youth, said that “in my first conversation with every young person I always say, ‘Do you truly understand that before you take your first step, you need to know what your 10th step is? Because if you don’t know…you’re going to have a problem getting there and you’re going to get there longer and your goal might not be there when you get there.’”

That same deliberate, forward-thinking vision is required, he said, if north Omaha and the black community are to seize this moment and this opportunity in history.

Dick Davis, like his good friend, Mike Green, said he intends to visualize and follow through those steps for success in order “to make a difference.”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 623 other followers