Dana College Legend Marion Hudson, The Greatest Athlete You’ve Never Heard of Before (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
Dana College in Blair, Neb. unexpectedly closed its doors this month, bringing an end to a small but proud institution. One chapter in the school’s history concerns an almost mythic-like figure named Marion Hudson. The following article tells the remarkable story of this gifted, multi-sport athlete who seemingly came out of nowhere to leave his mark behind at Dana. It was the early 1950s and he was a black student-athlete of legendary ability on Omaha‘s north side. Circumstances prevented him from ever demonstrating his talents in sanctioned high school competition, but the word got out and when all white Dana was looking to integrate its campus school officials asked around who might be a good candidate and they were referred to Hudson. He went there and immediately made an impact as a student-athlete. As you’ll read, his athletic exploits read like something out of fiction, but they were quite real. The reason you’ve never heard of Hudson is he never tried out for the Olympics in track and field and he never turned pro in football, levels of competition many felt he was capable of. Hudson’s life after college revolved around work and family, and then a series of health problems began breaking down his body. When I met him at the nursing home he resided in he was but a shell of his former self physically, but he still retained a fighting spirit and a sense of humor. He’s since passed.
My story was part of a series I wrote on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends entitled Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. It appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) during 2004-2005. I hope to turn the series into a book. Dana College and Marion Hudson are both gone now, but they’ve left behind a rich legacy, and this is my small tribute to them.
In the coming days I will be adding more stories from the series on this site, including profiles of legends Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, and Johnny Rodgers, and profiles of other great athletes who, like Marion Hudson, you may not have heard of but deserve your attention.
Dana College Legend Marion Hudson, The Greatest Athlete You’ve Never Heard of Before (From my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of my series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness
You may think you know a lot about Omaha’s rich inner city athletic heritage. Sure, you know Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlin Briscoe, Johnny Rodgers, Mike McGee, Ahman Green. But chances are you’ve never even heard of Marion Hudson, which doesn’t change the fact he’s arguably the greatest athlete to ever come out of Omaha or, for that matter, Nebraska, and consequently among the finest athletes in American history.
Outside the small circle of survivors who competed with him or watched his athletic brilliance unfold in sport after sport, this little-known giant from the 1950s is rarely mentioned. He remains obscure today because he competed for a tiny private school, Dana College near Blair, Neb., and never went pro. But, as you will see, he should be known alongside those others, both for the unique circumstances that brought him there and for his possessing such phenomenal all-around skills that some of his football and track records still stand 50 years later.
Choose any measure or cliche of athletic prowess and it can be accurately applied to Hudson. He could run like the wind. He was as strong as a bull. He could swing a bat with power. Throw a ball a mile. Jump out of the gym. “Yeah, they called me the Boy with Springs in His Legs,” he said from the Sorensen Rehabilitation and Assisted Living Facility in north Omaha he now calls home. Words are a struggle. What’s left of his body contorts from the strain, his gnarled fingers twitching and his wide face screwing up in a grimace. His once strapping body ravaged by the affects of diabetes and a series of strokes.
Hudson navigates his power wheelchair in the center’s dining hall to greet a rare visitor. His legs above his knees were amputated years ago and his left side is partially paralyzed. He wears a T-shirt and his sweat pants are knotted at the nubs of his stumps. An ever-present cap reads Pilgrim Baptist Church, where he was married and still worships today. He flashes the winning smile that made him the big man on campus at Dana long ago, and where he’s been recently rediscovered. In 2003, Dana hosted a Marion Hudson Day and dedicated a scholarship in his name. Friends take him up to the school to catch an occasional athletic event.
There, he is a symbol for possibilities. Before he enrolled in 1952, the school never had a black student. Like his boyhood hero, Jackie Robinson, Hudson endured indignities in breaking down barriers. He couldn’t stay or eat with the team on road trips. He absorbed name calling. His character and achievement set an example. Within a year of his arrival, more blacks followed. A quiet man, he let his performances on the field, the cinder track and the court speak loudest for him.
He dominated whatever sport was in season. But it was in track and field he showed the full range of his abilities. For proof of his extraordinary gifts, one only has to look at the numbers. A versatile competitor in college, Hudson would routinely enter as many as seven or eight individual events in a single meet. There was the javelin, the discus and shot put, the 120 high hurdles, the 220 low hurdles, the 100 and 220-yard dashes, the broad jump, hop-step-and-jump and high jump and the 880-yard relay. On average, he’d win four or five, placing highly in others, often going up against big school foes. At his last college meet, he won seven events and placed second in another. He was among the nation’s leaders in his specialities. All the more remarkable considering he had a bad throwing hand, a collapsed lung and chronic asthma. It was difficult for him to recover from one event to the next.
But, as usual, Hudson found a way. “He was built so good, he was able to compensate,” said Rodney Wead, a former Omaha social services director who grew up with Hudson and competed with him at Central High School and at Dana, where Wead, a year younger, followed him. “I can’t tell you the number of times he would run a 9-point something 100-yard-dash and come back and jump 23-8 or 24-feet and then run over and throw the javelin 200-feet and then anchor our relay team.”
“He could do so many things,” said Richard Nared, a cousin and former fine athlete himself at Central High. Don Benning, the UNO wrestling coaching legend who played one season in the same backfield with Hudson at Dana, said, “He had tremendous speed and strength. He could do a lot of things really well. He was ahead of his time in terms of his ability in track. He was a great all-around athlete.” Benning said any conversation about Omaha’s athletic greats must include Hudson.
The Dana community has even come to refer to Hudson as “our own Jim Thorpe,” a comparison not without merit.
Nebraska (R) Congressman Tom Osborne’s superb athletic career at Hastings College roughly coincided with Hudson’s Dana glory years. In a fax sent to Hudson on the eve of his special day at Dana, Osborne described him as “one of the best athletes in Nebraska’s history.” Wead said Osborne has told him Hudson “was probably the most gifted individual in track and field he had ever seen.”
The points Hudson earned all by himself outpaced entire teams and accounted for most of Dana’s totals, helping the Vikings become a track powerhouse. He was a champion at major events like the Kansas Relays. He once outscored the combined Big 7 at the Drake Relays. His career personal record marks in his three best events — 9.9 in the 100-yard-dash, 24-6 in the broad jump, 46-2 1/4 in the hop-step-and- jump and 208-8 1/2 in the javelin — ranked near the top in the country, regardless of division. His broad jump and javelin bests were near 1952 Olympic-winning marks. His school long jump and javelin records have yet to be broken.
But, as usual with Hudson, there’s a story behind these numbers that puts in perspective what he did and offers tantalizing speculation about how much more he may have achieved. For example, Hudson never competed in organized track and field before college. He can’t recall using starting blocks early in his college sprinting career. He taught himself how to high jump. The javelin he threw was an awkward, unstable wood model that wobbled.
“Of all his events, I think the javelin was his best,” Wead said. “If only there’d been a coach to teach him how to really throw it. The good javelin throwers hold the javelin behind them as they approach their mark and they use a crossover step for momentum and balance in their release. Well, he would hold it out front and kind of juggle it as he was running, and then he’d almost come to a complete stop before throwing it. Can you imagine if someone taught him the proper footwork and mechanics, how much farther he would have thrown that darn thing?”
Hudson said his most enduring memory from his track days is the 202-foot missile he launched to win the 1954 Drake Relays.
“I threw it, and it sang. It vibrated as it left my hand. Yeah, any time I got a good one off, it would whistle in the air,” he said, breaking into a big smile and laugh.
How he even came to throw the javelin is a tale befitting his legend. The story goes that Hudson was walking across the track infield, where a teammate, Lynn Farrens, let loose some javelin tosses. His interest peaked, Hudson asked if he could give it a try. Using an unorthodox grip, Hudson let one fly far beyond Farrens’ marks. His teammates recount a similar Paul Bunyan moment in the long jump. Hudson was just messing around in the pit at practice one day when he uncorked a series of jumps that landed clear outside the pit, some 24 feet from the take-off board.
Observers feel Hudson may have had a shot at the Olympics as a decathlete, but the opportunity never presented itself. He did not fare well one of the few times he competed in the decathlon — finishing 10th at the 1955 Kansas Relays. Wead said Hudson was at a distinct disadvantage due to his asthma and impaired lung.
On the gridiron, Hudson was an explosive runner who, despite missing much of his junior year due to injury and playing in a Split-T formation offense that spread the ball around, he still racked up 2,383 rushing yards, on an eye-popping 7.78 yards per carry, and 30 touchdowns for his career. His rushing average has never been approached. He broke off dozens of long runs from scrimmage, displaying a combination of speed and power rarely found then.
“All I needed was a crack in the line, and I was gone,” Hudson said.
Nared, who made the pilgrimage up to Dana to see his cuz play, said, “They didn’t even see him coming because he’d either run by you or he’d run over you. He was awesome. They couldn’t really touch him. He had the speed of a Marshal Faulk. The moves of a Gale Sayers. The power of a Walter Payton. They hated to see him come through the line.” Hudson was, by all accounts, also a dangerous receiver and kick returner and played a mean defensive back.
He was a star from the start for Dana, showcasing his big play capabilities right away with a 75-yard touchdown reception versus Tarkio and an 87-yard scoring scamper against Iowa Central his freshman season. He also had a flair for the dramatic — tearing free for that 87-yarder on the first play from scrimmage. “The very first time I took a handoff, I squeezed between the line and I took off running and 100 yards later I was in the end zone. I remember that just like it was yesterday,” he said. The very next year he burned Iowa Central on another 87-yard scoring jaunt, this time to open the second half in wet and muddy conditions. “People from Dana still talk about that run,” said Wead, who has served on the school’s board of trustees.
Nared said Hudson developed a following from Omaha. “People would come to see Marion play. Even the older guys. They all knew about him. They knew he was a tremendous athlete. You’d have 60-70 cars full of people come up and see him play on a Friday night. They wanted to see something different, and they saw it.” “Yeah, they’d come out to see Hudson run,” Marion confirmed with pride. “He was so awesome in college he would literally have crowds of people follow him,” recalled Wead, who ran track with him. “They knew he was coming. Sometimes it was hard for him to get his jumps together for all the fans milling about. They loved to watch him throw the javelin. Then or now it’s rare to see a black javelin thrower. And here was this handsome, strong black man throwing it 200-odd feet.”
In basketball, Hudson played a different game from the rest. His was an air-born artist of swooping, soaring drives and slam dunks in an era of set shooters and backdoor cutters. The 6-0 Hudson, able to dunk from a standing jump under the basket, was a solid contributor, averaging about 9 points a game for the Vikings, although he did go-off some nights, like the career-high 31 he had versus Luther College. “Everything I threw up at the basket that game went in,” he said.
Multi-sport phenom Jim Thorpe was often a point of comparison for Marion Hudson and his athletic versatility
Like any bigger-than-life figure, Hudson’s legend began in childhood. A Floridian by birth, he did part of his early growing up in Omaha, where his family moved just prior to the start of World War II. The packing houses drew them and other blacks who migrated here from the deep south. The newcomer quickly earned a rep as a great natural athlete. He competed for the High Y Monarchs, a select North Omaha YMCA-based basketball team coached by Josh Gibson, an older brother of pitching great Bob Gibson. He ran roughshod over older players in the infamous Cold Bowl, an annual no-holds-barred football contest at Burdette Field. He outran and outkicked everybody in soccer, a sport once hugely popular in the inner city. In softball, he swatted balls so far they broke windows in the school across the way.
Whatever the action was, he was in the thick of it. “He was always exceptional. Always gifted,” Wead said. “Every time the guys would see Marion coming, they wanted him for their team,” Nared said. “Whatever team got him, they would always win.” Like any great athlete, Hudson worked at it. He mastered any sport he attempted and developed his own innovative training methods. As Wead recalled, obstacles, like fences, became hurdles Hudson cleared with ease.
At the cramped old Y Hudson would sky “higher than the rim on dunks and almost bump his head on the ceiling,” Nared said. Hudson’s hops were so explosive that when jumping center, Nared said, “the refs would blow their whistles and have them re-jump, telling him, ‘You’re jumping too soon.’ You know what Marion would say ‘Throw the ball higher.’ And he’d go up and get it again.”
Hudson improvised homemade pole vaults from sticks or branches for negotiating taller structures. He built himself up physically by shoveling loads of coal and lugging blocks of ice. He’s credited with introducing weight training at Dana, where dumbbells and barbells became the rage
“Marion was a good 195-pounds. All muscle. Quite dangerous and intimidating if you were in his way,” Wead said.
Just before starting high school, Hudson left with his family for Alaska, where his father was stationed with the Navy Air Corps during the war. Living in Kodiak, Hudson played some prep hoops and, in true mythic tradition, once had a run-in with a bear. He was delivering newspapers on his bicycle when, he said, “I came around a bend and there HE stood. I scared him. I took off down the hill and he was running behind me. But I made it back to the car. I got there, and there were bears all around it. Sniffing at it. I scared them, too.”
The family moved back here in 1951, just in time for his senior year at Central, but too late for him to compete athletically. Already a legend in The Hood for his remarkable running, jumping, throwing skills in area youth leagues and pickup games, he sat on the sidelines the entire term. Well, not quite. Football coach Frank Smagacz let him practice with the team even though he was ineligible to play. The coach knew he had a gem who loved the game. By virtue of never officially competing at the prep level in Nebraska, Hudson never had a chance to earn a letter, much less add his name to any state high school boys record books.
Still, his athletic and academic props were enough that when Dana College sought to integrate its student ranks, officials put out feelers for a suitable candidate and Hudson was recommended by Central coaches and faculty. This was 1952, only a few years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball and still years before the Freedom Fighter marches of Martin Luther King.
Dana students raised the funds to establish the scholarship Hudson received. The rest is history. His record-breaking athletic feats stand out, but he was more than just a jock. “He’s a bright and able guy,” Wead said. “He was a good biologist. He put his skills to work after college. He had a great baritone and toured with the Dana chorus.” Then there was how he dealt with the burden of his pioneering role.
Hudson has always said he felt welcomed and supported by his mostly white teammates, Wead said, “He had his buddies protecting him.” As black student-athletes, Wead and Hudson avoided trouble by staying away from Blair, where racial epithets were known to fly. Hudson was denied service and rooms on road trips to Kansas and Texas. As his rep grew, he was a targeted athlete. “They tried to hurt him a few times with dirty shots. Once, he lay there on the field for awhile and then he finally got up. It was scary,” Nared said. “I limped off,” Hudson said.
Wead said Hudson weathered the discrimination the same way he’s responded to the devastation of his body: “It was hard, but he handled it with grace.”
Beyond the glory, Hudson’s post-Dana life has been bittersweet. He lived in Minnesota after college, working for Honeywell 3M. Hard times forced him to change jobs. He went through two marriages. By the ‘70s, he moved back to Omaha, where he met and married Ella, with whom he raised a family, including foster children. He lent his singing voice to various choirs. He moved from job to job. His health problems then surfaced. “I began to see things happen to his body when he was in his early 40s,” Wead said. Complications from asthma and diabetes debilitated him and after the strokes and amputations he was placed in the professional care setting. “Hudson’s had a tough life. He just didn’t get a good shot in life. He’s kind of become a forgotten guy,” Wead said.
That ignoble fate prompted retired Scribner, Neb. schoolteacher Alex Meyer, a former track athlete who grew up idolizing Hudson, to befriend his idol. Meyer convinced Dana to hold its Marion Hudson Day, which Hudson attended with his family. Meyer visits Hudson often and takes him back to Dana for events. “Marion needed some attention. He deserves it. I was concerned that one of the great legends of Nebraska was wasting away with hardly anybody coming to see him,” Meyer said. “He did some superhuman things. He inspired me. I just try to keep Marion and others focused on his accomplishments. It’s my magnificent obsession.”
The humble Hudson called the new found attention “very nice. It seems like everything I went through was all worthwhile now.” His only regrets are not giving pro football a try. He has no doubt he could have played at the next level.
If nothing else, Hudson’s tale reveals how the story of Omaha’s inner city athletic greats is bigger than you imagined and remains incomplete without his legacy being included with that of his more famous counterparts. Hail, hail Marion Hudson.
- Dana College CLOSES After 126 Years (huffingtonpost.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
This set of profiles is from my large collection of African-American subjects. Read on and you will meet a gallery of compelling individuals who each made a difference in his or her own way. These figures represent a variety of endeavors and expertise, but what they all share in common is a passion for what they do. Along the way, they learned some hard lessons, and their individual and collective wisdom should give us all food for thought. The oldest of these subjects, Marcus Mac McGee, passed away shortly after these profiles appeared about 9 or 10 years ago. The story, which is really five stories in one, originally appeared in the New Horizons.
Blacks of Distinction
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Frank Peak, Still An Activist After All These Years
Today, as administrator of community outreach service for the Creighton University Medical Center Partnership in Health and co-administrator of the Omaha Urban Area Health Education Center, he carries on the mission of the Panthers to help empower African-Americans.
The Omaha native returned home after a six-year (1962-1968) hitch in the U.S. Navy as a photographer’s mate 2nd class, duty that saw him hop from ship to ship in the South China Sea and from one hot zone to another in Vietnam, variously photographing or processing images of military life and wartime action.
The North High grad came back with marketable skills but couldn’t get a job in the media here. He went into the service in the first place, he said, to escape the limited horizons that blacks like himself and his peers faced at home.
“There weren’t a lot of opportunities for blacks in the city of Omaha.”
In the Navy he found what he believed to be a future career path when he was sent to photography school in Pensacola, Florida and excelled. It was a good fit, he said, as he’d always been a shutterbug. “I had always liked photography and I always took pictures with little Brownies and stuff.”
His duty entailed working as a military photojournalist and photo lab technician. Many of the pictures he took or processed were reproduced in civilian and military publications worldwide. In 1965 he prepared the production stills for an NBC television news documentary on the 25th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. He said the network even offered him a job, but he had to turn it down, as he’d already reenlisted. Despite that lost opportunity, he counts his Navy experience as one of the best periods of his life. Not only did he learn to become an expert photographer but he got to travel all over the Far East, much of the time with his younger brother, William, who followed him into the service.
The service is also where Peak became politicized as a strong, proud black man engaged in the struggle for equality.
“Back in the ‘60s there was such a lot of turmoil related to the war, related to the whole race struggle. You know, Malcolm, Martin…It all tied together. There were a lot of riots going on at a lot of the bases and on the ships. There was both bonding and animosity then between whites and blacks. It was a challenging time. ”
A buddy he was stationed with overseas helped Peak gain a deeper understanding of the black experience.
“I had a close friend, Bennie, who was a Navy photographer, too. He was from Savannah, Georgia and he really began to educate me. He was the one that really initiated me into the black experience. That’s when the term black was radical. Coming from Omaha, I was isolated from a lot of things he’d been involved in down South. Interestingly, I ended up a member of the Black Panther party and he ended up a member of the Black Muslims.”
After Peak got out of the Navy and came back to find doors still closed to him, despite the obvious skills he’d gained, he was disillusioned.
For example, he said the Omaha World-Herald wouldn’t even look at his portfolio when he applied there. For years, he said the local daily had only one black photographer on staff and made it clear they weren’t interested in hiring another.
Frustrated with the obstacles he and his fellow African-Americans faced, he was ripe for recruitment into the Black Panthers, a controversial organization that several of his activist friends joined. But he didn’t join right away. He was working as a photo technician when something happened that changed his mind. A black girl named Vivian Strong died from shots fired by a white Omaha police officer. The tragedy, which many in the black community saw as a racially motivated killing, touched off several nights of rioting on the north side.
“I got involved with the Black Panther party after that,” Peak said.
The Panther platform was an expression of the black power movement that sought, Peak said, “self-determination and liberation” for African-Americans. “It was about building capacity into the black community. It was working to end police violence in the black community. It was organizing breakfast programs for our children. Tutoring kids. Holding rallies, organizing protests and standing up for our rights.”
What made the Panthers dangerous in the minds of many authorities were the party’s incendiary language, paramilitary appearance — some members openly brandished firearms — and militant attitude.
“Our premise was we wanted our rights by any means necessary,” said Peak, a philosophy he feels was misconstrued by law enforcement as a subversive plot to undermine and overthrow the government. “What we meant by that was we wanted our education, we wanted to be a part of the political process, we wanted to be a part of determining our own destiny. We even asked, as part of our platform, to have a plebiscite, where blacks would vote to directly determine, for themselves, their own fate.”
Instead, the leadership of the Panthers and other radical black power groups were “crushed” and “dismantled” in a systematic crackdown led by the FBI. In Omaha, Peak was among those arrested and questioned when two local Panthers, Ed Poindexter and David Rice, were implicated and later convicted in the 1970 killing of Omaha police officer Larry Minard. The pair’s guilt or innocence has long been disputed. Appeals for new trials or new evidentiary hearings continue to this today. Peak was friends with both men and he believes they’re wrongfully imprisoned. “I don’t believe they got a fair trial,” he said. Ironically, it was his cousin, Duane Peak, who allegedly acted at the men’s behest in making the 911 call that lured Minard to the house where a suitcase bomb detonated. Doubt’s been cast on whether Duane Peak made the call or not and on the veracity of his court testimony.
Frank Peak traces “the roots” of his advocacy career to his time with the Panthers, when he helped set up “a liberation” school and breakfast program for kids. He said the Panther mission has been “very much diversified” in the work being done today by former party members in the political, social, health, education and human service fields. “The struggle goes on.”
He and other young blacks here were inspired to affect change from within by mentors. “Theodore Johnson put together community health programs. Dr. Earl Persons got us involved in the black political caucus. Jessie Allen got us involved as delegates to the Democratic party. He really brought us around and politicized us to mainstream politics. Dan Goodwin and Ernie Chambers had a great influence on us, too. They made sure we were accountable. They had high standards for us.” There was also Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, reporter/activist Charlie Washington and others. Peak’s education continued at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he earned a bachelor’s in journalism and psychology and a master’s in public administration. Lively discussions about black aspirations unfolded at UNO, the Urban League, Panther headquarters, Charlie Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe and Dan Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop.
The spirit of those ideals lives on in his post-Panthers work, ranging from substance abuse counseling to community health advocacy to he and his wife, Lyris Crowdy Peak, an Omaha Head Start administrator, serving as adoptive and foster parents. He sees today’s drug and gang culture as a major threat. He rues that standards once seen as sacrosanct have “gone out the window” in this age of relativism.
“The only way change is going to occur is if people make it happen,” he said. “If you wait around for somebody else to make it happen, it might not…So, we all have a responsibility to make a contribution and I’m trying to make one.”
He enjoys being a liaison between Creighton and the community in support of health initiatives, screenings and services aimed at minorities. “We just finished glaucoma screenings in south Omaha and we put together the first African-American prostate cancer campaign in north Omaha. We sponsor programs like My Sister’s Keeper, a breast cancer survivors program focused on African-American women.” He said in addition to assessment and treatment, Creighton also provides follow-up services and referrals for those lacking the access, the means, the insurance or the primary care provider to have their health care needs met.
“I’m somebody who believes in what he does. People ask me, Do you like your job? I say, Well, if you get paid for doing something you’d do for free, how could you not like it? That’s my philosophy. To think maybe in some small way you’ve been a part of growing a greater society, then that’s all the reward I need.”
Charles Hall’s Fair Deal
As landmarks go, the Fair Deal Cafe doesn’t look like much. The drab exterior is distressed by age and weather. Inside, it is a plain throwback to classic diners with its formica-topped tables, tile floor, glass-encased dessert counter and tin-stamped ceiling. Like the decor, the prices seem left over from another era, with most meals costing well under $6. What it lacks in ambience, it makes up for in the quality of its food, which has been praised in newspapers from Denver to Chicago.
Owner and chef Charles Hall has made The Fair Deal the main course in Omaha for authentic soul food since the early 1950s, dishing-up delicious down home fare with a liberal dose of Southern seasoning and Midwest hospitality. Known near and far, the Fair Deal has seen some high old times in its day.
Located at 2118 No. 24th Street, the cafe is where Hall met his second wife, Audentria (Dennie), his partner at home and in business for 40 years. She died in 1997. The couple shared kitchen duties (“She bringing up breakfast and me bringing up dinner,” is how Hall puts it.) until she fell ill in 1996. These days, without his beloved wife around “looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do,” the place seems awfully empty to Hall. “It’s nothing like it used to be,” he said. In its prime, it was open dawn to midnight six days a week, and celebrities (from Bill Cosby to Ella Fitzgerald to Jesse Jackson) often passed through. When still open Sundays, it was THE meeting place for the after-church crowd. Today, it is only open for lunch and breakfast.
The place, virtually unchanged since it opened sometime in the 1940s (nobody is exactly sure when), is one of those hole-in-the-wall joints steeped in history and character. During the Civil Rights struggle it was commonly referred to as “the black city hall” for the melting pot of activists, politicos and dignitaries gathered there to hash-out issues over steaming plates of food. While not quite the bustling crossroads or nerve center it once was, a faithful crowd of blue and white collar diners still enjoy good eats and robust conversation there.
Fair Deal Cafe
Running the place is more of “a chore” now for Hall, whose step-grandson Troy helps out. After years of talking about selling the place, Hall is finally preparing to turn it over to new blood, although he expects to stay on awhile to break-in the new, as of now unannounced, owners. “I’m so happy,” he said. “I’ve been trying so hard and so long to sell it. I’m going to help the new owners ease into it as much as I can and teach them what I have been doing, because I want them to make it.” What will Hall do with all his new spare time? “I don’t know, but I look forward to sitting on my butt for a few months.” After years of rising at 4:30 a.m. to get a head-start on preparing grits, rice and potatoes for the cafe’s popular breakfast offerings, he can finally sleep past dawn.
The 80-year-old Hall is justifiably proud of the legacy he will leave behind. The secret to his and the cafe’s success, he said, is really no secret at all — just “hard work.” No short-cuts are taken in preparing its genuine comfort food, whose made-from-scratch favorites include greens, beans, black-eyed peas, corn bread, chops, chitlins, sirloin tips, ham-hocks, pig’s feet, ox tails and candied sweet potatoes.
In the cafe’s halcyon days, Charles and Dennie did it all together, with nary a cross word uttered between them. What was their magic? “I can’t put my finger on it except to say it was very evident we were in love,” he said. “We worked together over 40 years and we never argued. We were partners and friends and mates and lovers.” There was a time when the cafe was one of countless black-owned businesses in the district. “North 24th Street had every type of business anybody would need. Every block was jammed,” Hall recalls. After the civil unrest of the late ‘60s, many entrepreneurs pulled up stakes. But the Halls remained. “I had a going business, and just to close the doors and watch it crumble to dust didn’t seem like a reasonable idea. My wife and I managed to eke out a living. We never did get rich, but we stayed and fought the battle.” They also gave back to the community, hiring many young people as wait staff and lending money for their college studies.
Besides his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, when he was an officer in the Medical Administrative Corps assigned to China, India, Burma, Japan and the Philippines, Hall has remained a home body. Born in Horatio, Arkansas in 1920, he moved with his family to Omaha at age 4 and grew up just blocks from the cafe. “Almost all my life I have lived within a four or mile radius of this area. I didn’t plan it that way. But, in retrospect, it just felt right. It’s home,” he said. After working as a butcher, he got a job at the cafe, little knowing the owners would move away six months later to leave him with the place to run. He fell in love with both Dennie and the joint, and the rest is history. “I guess it was meant to be.”
Deadeye Marcus Mac McGee
When Marcus “Mac” McGee of Omaha thinks about what it means to have lived 100 years, he ponders a good long while. After all, considering a lifespan covering the entire 20th century means contemplating a whole lot of history, and that takes some doing. It is an especially daunting task for McGee, who, in his prime, buried three wives, raised five daughters, prospered as the owner of his own barbershop, served as the state’s first black barbershop inspector, earned people’s trust as a pillar of the north Omaha community and commanded respect as an expert marksman. Yes, it has been quite a journey so far for this descendant of African-American slaves and white slave owners.
A recent visitor to McGee’s room at the Maple Crest Care Center in Benson remarked how 100 years is a long time. “It sure is,” McGee said in his sweet-as-molasses voice, his small bright face beaming at the thought of all the high times he has seen. In a life full of rich happenings, McGee’s memories return again and again to the first and last of his loves — shooting and barbering. For decades, he avidly hunted small game and shot trap. In his late 80s he could still hit 100 out of 100 targets on the range. Yes, there was a time when McGee could shoot with anyone. He won more than his share of prizes at area trapshooting meets — from hams and turkeys to trophies to cold hard cash. As his reputation began to spread, he found fewer and fewer challengers willing to take him on. “I would break that target so easy. I’d tear it up every time. I’d whip them fellas down to the bricks. They wouldn’t tackle me. Oh, man, I was tough,” he said.
As owner and operator of the now defunct Tuxedo Barbershop on North 24th Street, he ran an Old School establishment where no fancy hair styles were welcome. Just a neat, clean cut from sparkling clippers and a smooth, close shave from well-honed straight-edge razors. “The best times for me was when I got that shop there. I got the business going really good. It was quite a shop. We had three chairs in there. New linoleum on the floor. There were two other barbers with me. We had a lot of customers. Sometimes we’d have 10-15 people outside the door waiting for us to come in. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed working on them — and I worked on them too. I’d give them good haircuts. I was quite a barber. Yes, sir, we used to lay some hair on the floor.”
McGee’s Tuxedo Barbershop was located in the Jewell Building
A fussy sort who has always taken great pains with his appearance, he made his own hunting vests, fashioned his own shells and watched what he ate. “I was particular about a lot of things,” he said. Unlike many Maple-Crest residents, who are disabled and disheveled, McGee walks on his own two feet and remains well-groomed and nattily-attired at all times. He entrusts his own smartly-trimmed hair to a barbering protege. Last September, McGee cut a dashing figure for a 100th birthday party held in his honor at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church. A crowd of family and friends, including dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, gathered to pay tribute to this man of small stature but big deeds. Too bad he could not share it all with his wife of 53 years, LaVerne, who died in 1996.
Born and raised along the Mississippi-Louisiana border, McGee’s family of ten escaped the worst of Jim Crow intolerance as landowners under the auspices of his white grandmother Kizzie McGee, the daughter of the former plantation’s owner. McGee’s people hacked out a largely self-sufficient life down on the delta. It was there he learned to shoot and to cut hair. He left school early to help provide for the family’s needs, variously bagging wild game for the dinner table and cutting people’s hair for spare change. Just out of his teens, he followed the path of many Southern blacks and ventured north, where conditions were more hospitable and jobs more plentiful. During his wanderings he picked up money cutting heads of railroad gang crewmen and field laborers he encountered out on the open road.
He made his way to Omaha in the early 1920s, finding work in an Omaha packing plant before opening his Tuxedo shop in the historic Jewel Building. People often came to him for advice and loans. He ran the shop some 50 years before closing it in the late 1970s. He wasn’t done cutting heads though. He barbered another decade at the shop of a man he once employed before injuries suffered in an auto accident finally forced him to put down his clippers at age 88. “I loved to work. I don’t know why people retire.” As much as he regrets not working anymore, he pines even more for the chance to shoot again. “I miss everything about shooting.” He said he even dreams about being back on the hunt or on the range. Naturally, he never misses. “I always take the target. Yeah, man, I was one tough shooter.”
Proud, Poised Mary Dean Pearson
A life of distinction does not happen overnight. In the case of Omaha executive, educator, child advocate, community leader, wife and mother Mary Dean Pearson, the road to success began just outside Marion, La., where she grew up as one of nine brothers and sisters in a fiercely independent black family during the post World War II era — a period when the South was still segregated. From as far back as she can remember, Pearson (then Hunt) knew exactly what was expected of her and her siblings– great things. “I grew up in the South during the Crow era and my father instilled in all of his children a very profound sense of obligation to improve on what we were born into. To make it better. Whether that was our immediate economic circumstances or social status or whatever,” she said.
Despite the fact her parents, Ed and Rosa Hunt, never got very far in school they were high achievers. He was a respected landowner and entrepreneur and, together with Rosa, set rigorously high standards for their children. Even the daughters were expected to do chores, to complete high school and, unusual for the time, to attend college. “My father was a very driven, very aggressive man who believed it was our right and our duty to do well everyday. And to do only well. The consequences were quite severe if you didn’t do well. He also instilled a work ethic, which is probably unparalleled, in all of us,” said Pearson, a former Omaha Public Schools teacher and past director of the Nebraska Department of Social Services who, since 1995, has been president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Omaha, Inc.
“I was his workhorse from time to time. I call him the father of women’s lib because he never hesitated to say, ‘Baby, do this,’ even if it was a heavy job traditionally reserved for men. I really credit him with helping me understand that anything that needed to be done, I perhaps had the capability of doing it, and so I just approached everything with that can-do sensibility. I got that from him, no doubt.”
Where her father cracked the whip, her mother applied the salve. “My mother was a gentle soul who was the one always to seek peace and to seek a solution. I think my attempt to become a peacemaker and facilitator was my desire to be more like her. She created an absolutely wonderful balance for our family. They were a dynamite team.” For Pearson, the lessons her parents taught her are bedrock values that never go out of style: “Honesty, integrity, loyalty, perseverance.”
Pearson and her siblings did not let their parents down, either. They became professionals and small business owners. She graduated with a liberal arts degree from Grambling State University, hoping for a career in law. Her plans were put on hold, however, after marrying her old beau Tom Harvey, who got a teaching contract in Omaha, where the young couple moved in the late 1960s. She tried finding work here to earn enough money for law school but found doors closed to her because of her color. Then, she joined the National Teacher Corps, a federal teaching training program pairing liberal arts majors with students in inner city schools. She soon found she could make a difference in young lives and abandoned law for education. “I discovered there were some young folks in this world who were absolutely starving for intellectual challenge, and I enjoyed providing that to them.”
As part of the program she earned a master’s degree in education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where former College of Education dean Paul Kennedy became the strong new mentor figure in her life. “If I ever thought I was going to slack off once I had left my father, I was wrong. Paul Kennedy saw my soul and demanded the very best from me.” After earning her teaching degree at UNO, she embarked on a 20-year education career that included serving as an OPS classroom teacher, assistant principal and principal. She treasures her experiences as an educator and holds the role of educator in the highest esteem.
“As a classroom teacher you can actually see you have touched someone. The satisfaction is immediate. As an administrator, the obligation is to give every child, every learner, the maximum opportunity for success. It is to say, ‘All children can learn.’” She is “proudest” of how successful some of her former students are. “They are carrying on the lessons they were taught to make our society a better one as teachers, lawyers, doctors, ministers.”
By 1986 Pearson was ready for some new challenges. Starting with her term as executive director of Girls Incorporated through her stewardship of the state’s social services agency (at then Gov. Ben Nelson’s request) and up to her current post as head of the Boys and Girls Clubs, she has focused on programs for disadvantaged youths that “improve their life chances.” While Pearson can one day see herself exploring new challenges outside the social service arena, she would miss impacting children. “Of all the groups present in our society, children are the one one group who need an advocate more than any other.”
Mildred Lee , Standing Her Ground
When brazen drug dealers threatened over-running her north Omaha neighborhood in the early 1990s, Mildred Lee reacted like most residents — at first. With an open-air drug market operating 24-hours a day within yards of her well-maintained property, she saw children wading through discarded drug paraphernalia and strewn garbage. She saw neighbors growing fearful. She saw things heading toward a violent end. That’s when she made it her crusade to pick-up debris and to let the pushers and addicts know by her defiant demeanor she wanted them out. She hoped they would all just go away. They didn’t.
As the criminal activity increased, Lee considered moving, but the idea of being run out of her own house infuriated her. A dedicated walker, she refused letting some punks stop her hikes. “I thought, ‘If I live in the neighborhood, I’m going to walk in the neighborhood.’ They attempted to intimidate me, but I wasn’t afraid of them. I just didn’t back off.” As months passed and she realized others on her block were too afraid to do anything, this widow, mother and grandmother decided to act. “I was disgusted. I could see that nobody else was going to do it, so I thought, ‘I’ll just do it myself.’”
Fed up, she called a friend, Rev. J.D. Williams, who had worked with local law enforcement to rid his own district of bad apples. He set-up a meeting with Omaha Police Department officials, who informed Lee they were aware of the problem but were waiting for residents to come forward to ask what could be done to reclaim the area.
What happened next was a transforming experience for Lee, who went from bystander to activist in a matter of weeks. It just so happened her coming forward coincided with the city’s first Weed and Seed program, a federally-funded initiative to weed out undesirables and to seed areas with positive activities. Several things happened next. First, the Fairfax Neighborhood Association was formed and Lee was elected its president. The association acted as a watchdog and liaison with law enforcement.
Then the Mayor’s Office proposed a Take Our Neighborhood Back rally to showcase residents’ solidarity against crime. The Mad Dads lent their support to the event, which saw a parade of citizens chanting and holding anti-drug slogans outside known drug dens and a convoy of trucks displaying caskets as a dramatic reminder that drugs kill. Police on horseback added symbolic fanfare. A brigade of citizens armed with rakes, shovels and brooms swept up litter in the area and others hauled away old appliances and assorted other junk from residents’ homes and deposited the items in dumpsters. As a reminder to criminals that police were ever-vigilant, a mobile command unit was stationed on-site around the clock. No parking and no loitering signs were posted on streets. Finally, sting operations conducted by police and FBI resulted in dozens of arrests.
Under Lee’s leadership, the Fairfax Association launched a latchkey program for school-age children at New Life Presbyterian Church, painted houses for elderly residents, converted a vacant lot into a mini-park and hosted Neighborhood Night Out block parties among other good works. Recognized as the driving force behind it all, Lee was asked to serve on the city’s Weed and Seed steering committee and her ideas were sought by public and private leaders. Not bad for someone who had never been a community activist before. She never had time. She was always too busy working (as an employment interviewer with the Nebraska Job Service) and, after her husband died from a massive heart attack at age 36, raising their four children alone.
As Lee became a focal point for taking back her neighborhood, she began fielding inquiries from residents of other areas facing similar problems. She shared her experiences in talks before vcommunity groups and received a slew of honors for her community betterment efforts, including the 1999 Spirit of Women award. With her work here now finished, Lee is preparing to move down South to start a new life with her new husband. The legacy she leaves behind is a community now brimming with active neighborhood associations, many modeled after Fairfax.
“One of the reasons we’ve gotten attention is we’re the neighborhood that stood up first,” she said. The whole experience, she said, has been empowering for her. “It brought to light a lot of things I didn’t know I could do. I never thought of being a leader before. But when you’re put in a certain position, you do what you have to do.” The message she imparts with audiences today is that we can all make a difference, if we care enough to try. “Most people are afraid. They don’t want anything to do with it. But they don’t realize you’ve already got something to do with it if drug dealers are in your neighborhood. You’ve just got to take charge. You can’t just sit back and wait for somebody else to do it.” She said doing good works gets to be contagious. “When other people see all you’re doing, then they want to start doing more too.”
- Stephan Salisbury: Stage-Managing the War on Terror: Ensnaring Terrorists Demands Creativity (huffingtonpost.com)
- Challenging Judge Walker (theroot.com)
- The White City (2009) (newgeography.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Big Bad Buddy Miles (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Myers Funeral Home is an institution in northeast Omaha‘s African-American community, and like with any long-standing family business there is a story behind the facade, in this case a legacy of caring and community. My article originally appeared in the New Horizons.
The Myers Legacy of Caring and Community
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Strictly speaking, a funeral home is in the business of death. But in the larger scheme of things, a mortuary is where people gather to celebrate life. It’s where tributes are paid, memories are recalled, mourning is done. It’s a place for taking stock. One where offering condolences shares equal billing with commemorating high times. In a combination of sacred and secular under one roof, everything from prayers are said to stories told to secrets shared. It encapsulates the end of some things and the continuation of others. It’s where we face both our own mortality and the imperative that life goes on. Perhaps more than anywhere outside a place of worship, the mortuary engages our deepest sense of family and community.
Besides organizing the myriad of details that services encompass, funeral directors act as surrogate family members for grieving loved ones, providing advice on legal, financial and assundry other matters. It means being a good neighbor and citizen. It’s all part of being a trusted and committed member of the community.
“It’s more than just being a funeral director. It’s like I used to tell people, ‘Look, you called me to perform a service, and I’m here to do it. Think of me really as a part of the family. We’re all working together because we have a job to do. My role is to see it goes the way it’s supposed to go,” said Robert L. Myers, former owner and retired director of Myers Funeral Home in Omaha. The dapper 86-year-old with the Cab Calloway looks and savoir-faire ways lives with his wife of 54 years, Bertha, a retired music educator, guidance counselor, choir director and concert pianist, at Immanuel Village in northwest Omaha. After the death of his first wife, with whom he had two daughters, he married Bertha, who raised the girls as her own. They became educators like her.
For Myers, community service extended to social causes. Much of his volunteering focused on improving the plight of he and his fellow African-Americans at a time when de facto segregation treated them as second-class citizens.
He learned the importance of civic-minded conviction from his father, W.L. Myers, the revered founder of Myers Funeral Home — 2416 North 22nd Street — Nebraska’s oldest continuously run African-American owned and operated business. Since the funeral parlor’s 1921 Omaha opening, three generations of Myers have overseen it. W.L. ran things from 1921 until 1947, when his eldest son, Robert, went into partnership with him. Then, in 1950, W.L. retired and Robert took over. He was soon joined by his brother, Kenneth, with whom he formed a partnership before they incorporated. In the early ‘70s, Kenneth handed over the enterprise to his son and Robert’s nephew, Larry Myers, Jr, who still owns and operates it today.
The Myers name has been a fixture on the northeast Omaha landscape for 84 years. From its start until now, it’s presided over everyone from the who’s-who of the local African-American scene to the working class to the indigent.
W.L. saw to it no one was turned away for lack of funds. He assisted people in their time of need with more than a well-turned out funeral, too.
“Families come in helpless. They’ve had a death. It’s a traumatic event. They don’t know what to do. They’re upset. They need some guidance. Dad was more interested in counseling and guiding people than he was in the financial part of it,” Myers said. “He’d tell them which way to go. What extra step they should take. How to handle their business affairs. How to dispose of their property. They’d plead, ‘What am I going to do, Mr. Myers?’ He’d say, ‘Don’t worry about it. You just ask me anything you want.’ I’d say the same thing. That’s where I learned a lot from him. Be fair and be truthful. He was that, so people would call him because they knew he would lead them in the right way. Money was secondary.”
Myers said his father’s goodwill helped build a reputation for fairness that served him and the funeral home well.
“A lot of times, people couldn’t pay him, especially back in the Depression days. He did a lot of charity service. He would talk to Mom about it. ‘They don’t have any money,’ he’d say. ‘Well, go ahead and give ‘em a service,’ she’d tell him. He’d try and reassure her with, ‘It’ll come back some way or another down the line.’ And as a result, he got a lot of repeat business. The next time those people came back, why they were able to pay him. They’d say, ‘I remember you helped me out. I’ll never forget that and I want to employ you again, and this time I’ll take care of it myself.’ Word of mouth about his generosity built his business.”
The Golden Rule became the family credo. “Compassion. That’s what we learned from Dad. He wouldn’t let anybody take advantage of our people. He looked out for our people and saw that they were treated fairly,” he said.
“Back in those days, a lot of our people couldn’t read and write and were afraid of dealing with white collar types, who were usually Caucasian and liked to assert their authority over minorities. Dad used to take folks to the insurance office or the social security office or the pension office, so he could talk eyeball to eyeball with these bureaucrats. That way, our people wouldn’t be intimidated. If the suits got confrontational, he would take over and intercede. He’d say, ‘Wait a minute. Back off.’ He’d speak for the people. ‘Now then, she has what coming to her?’ He’d do the paperwork for them. We’d carry people through the process.”
Myers said his father rarely if ever made a promise he couldn’t keep.
“The word is the bond. That was my dad,” Myers said. “And that’s what I developed, too, in dealing with people. If I say something, you can go to the bank with it.” That reputation for integrity carries a solemn responsibility. “People reveal confidences to you that you would not divulge for love of money. Everything is confidential. You appreciate that type of trust.”
His father no sooner got the funeral home rolling than the Great Depression hit. W.L. plowed profits right back into his business, including relocating to its present site and making expansions. He never skimped on services to clients.
In an era before specialization, Myers said, a funeral director was a jack-of-all-trades. “We did everything from car mechanics to medicine to law to vocal singing to counseling to barber-beautician work to yard work.” Keeping a fleet of cars running meant doing repairs themselves. W.L. graced services with his fine singing voice, an inherited talent Robert shared with mourners. Robert’s mother, Essie, played organ. His wife, Bertha did, too. Describing his father as “a self-made and self-educated man,” Myers said W.L. enjoyed the challenge of doing for himself, no matter how far afield the endeavor was from his formal mortuary training.
“He was very hungry for knowledge. He read incessantly. Anything pertaining to this line of work, to business, to the law…He sent off for correspondence courses. He just wanted to know as much as he could about everything. He knew a lot more than some of these so-called educated people. He could stand toe-to-toe and converse. Doctors and lawyers respected his intellect.”
The patriarch’s “classic American success story” began in New London, Mo., a rural enclave near Hannibal. He sprang from white, black and Native American ancestry. His folks were poor, hard-working, God-fearing farmers. His mother also ran a cafe catering to farmers. Born in 1883, W.L. enjoyed the country life immortalized by Mark Twain. Myers said his father felt compelled from an early age to intern the remains of wildlife he came upon during his Huck Finn-like youth. “He just felt every living thing should have a decent burial. That was his compassion. He just loved to funeralize — to speak words and what-not in a service. I think he had the calling before he realized what he was doing. That just led him into the real thing.”
But W.L.’s journey to full-fledged mortician took many hard turns before coming to fruition. As a young man he found part-time work burying Indians for the State of Oklahoma. Later, he worked in a coal mine in Buxton, Iowa, a largely-black company town that died when the coal ran out. He eventually scraped together enough money to enter the Worsham School of Embalming in St. Louis. When his money was exhausted, he took a garment factory job in Minneapolis, where he was gainfully employed the next eight years. He made foreman. In 1908 he married Essie, mother of Robert, Kenneth and their now deceased older sisters, Florence and Hazel.
The good times ended when W.L.’s black heritage was discovered and he was summarily fired — accused of “passing.” With a family to support, he next made the brave move of picking up and moving to Chicago. There, he worked odd jobs while studying at Barnes School of Anatomy in pursuit of his mortuary dream.
Upon graduating from Barnes in 1910 he was hired as an embalmer at a Muskogee, Ok. funeral home. After a long tenure there he was again betrayed when the owner, whom he taught the embalming art, fired him, saying he no longer needed his services. It was a slap in the face to a loyal employee.
Tired of the abuse, W.L. opened the original Myers Funeral Home in 1918 in Hannibal, where Robert was born. When slow to recover from a bout of typhoid fever he’d contracted down south, doctors ordered W.L. to more northern climes. So, in 1921 he packed his family in a touring car en route to Minneapolis when a fateful stopover in Omaha to visit friends changed the course of their lives.
It just so happened a former Omaha funeral home at 2518 Lake Street was up for grabs in an estate sale. W.L. liked the set-up and the fact Omaha was a thriving town. North 24th Street teemed with commerce then. The packing houses and railroads employed many blacks. Despite little cash, he rashly proposed putting down what little scratch he had between his own meager finances and what friends contributed and to pay the balance out of the proceeds of his planned business. The deal was struck and that’s how W.L. and Myers Funeral Home came to be Omaha institutions. As his son Robert said, “He wasn’t heading here. He was stopped here.” Character and compassion did the rest.
Myers admires his parents’ fortitude. “Dad was a school-of-hard-knocks guy. He was determined to do what he wanted and to make it on his own, and he succeeded in spite of many obstacles. I always appreciated how our mother and father sacrificed to give us advantages they did not have. They put all four of us through college.”
Old W.L.’s instincts about relocating here proved right. Under his aegis, Myers Funeral Home soon established itself as the premiere black mortuary in Omaha.
“He had a little competition when he came in, but it all faded away,” Myers said. “Some of the black funeral homes were fronts for whites. They didn’t have the training, the skills, the know-how, nor the techniques Dad developed over the years. Plus, he was very personable. People took to him. The clientele came to him, and he ran with it.”
The Near Northside, as it was called then, was a tight, prosperous, heterogeneous community whose commercial and residential players were a mix of professional and blue collar African-Americans, Jews, Italians, et cetera.
“Everybody was pretty much in the same boat. But we had community. We had fellowship. We had a bond through the church and what-not. So, everybody kind of looked out for everybody else,” Myers said.
As youths, Robert and Kenneth had little to do with the family business, but since the Myers lived above the mortuary, they were surrounded by its activities and the stream of people who filed through to select caskets, seek counsel, view departed. Their mother answered the phone and ushered in visitors. The boys were curious what went on in the embalming room but were forbidden inside. They knew their father expected them to follow him in the field.
“It was kind of understood. When I was in school, I looked into other areas like pharmacy and law and this, that and the other thing, but it didn’t go anywhere,” Myers said. “I guess Dad’s blood got into me because there was really nothing else I wanted to do. Besides, I liked what he was doing and the way he was doing it. I always felt the same way he did with people.”
A Lake Elementary School and Technical High School grad, Myers earned his bachelor’s degree from prestigious, historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., where Kenneth followed him. After graduating from San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, he worked in an Oakland funeral home three years. He intended staying on the west coast, but events soon changed his mind. Frustrated by an employer who resisted the modern methods Robert tried introducing, he then got word that W.L. had lost his chief assistant and could use a hand back home. The clincher was America’s entrance in World War II. Robert got a deferment from the military in light of the essential services he performed.
From 1943 until the mid-’60s, Myers had a ringside seat for some fat times in Omaha’s black community. Those and earlier halcyon days are long gone. Recalling all that the area once was and is no more is depressing.
“It is because I can think back to the Dreamland Ballroom and all the big bands that used to come there when we were kids. We used to stand outside on summer nights. They’d have a big crowd out there. The windows would be open and we could hear all this good music and, ohhhh, we’d just sit back and enjoy every minute of it. Yeah, I think back on all those things. How at night we used to stroll up and down 24th Street. Everybody knew everybody pretty much. We’d stand, greet and talk. You didn’t have to worry about anything. Yeah, I miss all that part.”
The northside featured any good or service one might seek. Social clubs abounded.
“We had a lot of black professional people there — doctors, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists. They intermingled with the white merchants, too,” he said. Then it all changed. “Between the riots’ destruction and the North Freeway’s division of a once unified community, it started going down hill. And, in later years, after the civil rights movement brought in open housing laws and our people had a chance to better themselves, many began moving out of the area’s substandard housing.”
He said northeast Omaha might have staved-off wide-spread decline had blacks been able to get home loans from banks to upgrade existing properties, but restrictive red lining practices prevented that. Through it all — the riots, white flight, the black brain drain, gang violence — Myers Funeral Home remained.
“No, we never considered moving away from there. Even though North 24th Street was pretty well shot, the churches were still central to the life of the community. People still came back into the area to attend church,” he said.
Emboldened by the civil rights movement, Robert and Bertha put themselves and their careers on the line to improve conditions. As a lifetime member of the NAACP and Urban League, he supported equal rights efforts. As a founder of the 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties) he organized and joined picket lines in the struggle to overturn racial discrimination. As a member of Mayor A.V. Sorensen’s Biracial Commitee and Human Relations Board and a director of the National Association of Christians and Jews, he promoted racial harmony. As the first black on the Omaha Board of Education (1964-1969), he fought behind the scenes to create greater opportunities for black educators.
With blacks still denied jobs by some employers, refused access to select public places and prevented from living in certain areas, Myers was among a group of black businessmen and ministers to form the 4CL and wage protest actions. The short-lived group initiated dialogues and broke down barriers, including integrating the Peony Park swimming pool. In his 4CL role, he went on the record exposing Omaha’s shameful legacy of restrictive housing covenants.
In a 1963 Omaha Star article, Myers is quoted as saying, “The wall of housing segregation” here is “just as formidable as the Berlin Wall in Germany or the Iron Curtain in Russia.” Labeling Omaha as the “Mississippi of the North,” he said the attitudes of realtors is “one of down right ghetto planning.” He and Bertha raised the issues of unfair housing practices in a personal way when they went public with their ‘60s ordeal searching for a ranch-style home in all-white districts. Realtors steered them away, some discreetly, others bluntly. The Myers finally resorted to using a front — a sympathetic white couple — for building a new residence in the Cottonwood Heights subdivision. When the Myers were revealed as the actual owners, a fight ensued. Subjected to threats and insults, they endured it all and stayed.
“That’s what my dad gave me an education for — to not accept these things. To see it for what it’s worth and to do something about it,” said Myers, who replied to a developer’s offer to move elsewhere with — “You don’t assign us a place to live.”
In a letter to the developer, Myers wrote, “Let me remind you that this is America in 1965 and…you must accept the fact there are some things money, threats or circumstances cannot change. We knew we could expect some trouble, we just figured it was part of the price we have to pay for living in a new area.”
Myers also worked for change from the inside as a member of the Omaha school board. The board had a lamentable policy that largely limited the hiring of black teachers to substitute status or, if hired full-time, placed them only in all-black schools and blocked promotion to administrative ranks. Even black educators with advanced degrees were routinely shut out.
“That was my wife’s situation. After she finished Northwestern University School of Music she couldn’t get a job here. She had to go to Detroit,” he said. Bit by bit, he got OPS to relax its policies. “The majority of school board members were in the frame of mind that they saw the unfairness of it. I was the catalyst, so to speak. All my work was done in the background in what’s called the smoke-filled back room.”
Advocating for change in a period of raging discontent brought Myers unwanted attention. He got “flak” from blacks and whites — including some who thought he was pushing too hard-too fast and others who alleged he was moving too soft-too slow. “I became something of a hot potato,” he said. “I thought I was independent and could do what I wanted because I didn’t have to rely on whites for business, but I found out people in my own community could get to me.”
The experience led Robert to retreat from public life. At least he had the satisfaction of knowing he’d carried on where his father left off. An anecdote Myers shared reveals how much his father’s approval meant to him.
“I handled a service one time when Dad was out sick. This was before my brother had joined us, so everything fell on me. I was scared,” he said. “There’s a lot to deal with. The mourners. The minister. The choir. The pallbearers. The employees. And you’re in charge of the whole thing. The whole operation has got to jell with just the right timing — from when to cue the mourners to exit to what speed the cars are to be driven. It’s all done silently — with expressions and gestures.
“Well, we went through the whole service OK. Later, a friend of the family told me. ‘Your old man told me to keep an eye on you and to watch everything you do and report back to him.’ He said he told my dad “everything was perfect — that I handled things just the way he would have’ and that my dad said, ‘That’s all I wanted to know.’ So, in that respect, Dad was still watching over me. It made me feel good to know I’d pleased him.”
- Woman Claims ‘Death at a Funeral’ Ripped Off Her Real-Life Funeral Nonsense (cinematical.com)
- A Dying Industry to Die For (fool.com)
- Home funerals making a comeback (nj.com)
Power Players, Ben Gray and Other Omaha African-American Leaders Try Improvement Through Self-Empowered Networking
|The following story on the African-American Empowerment Network in Omaha appears here just as it does in print and online in The Reader (www.thereader.com),. It is part one of a two-part cover series on the grassroots community initiative focused on making positive change to address longstanding disparities in key quality of life areas. I will post part two here after it’s published next week. I worked on and off over a period of two years assembling the data, mostly based on interviews, for these stories. As sometimes happens in my line of work, the story I submitted has been severely cut, primarily for space, and as its author I would argue it has lost something in translation — depth, texture, nuance, and perhaps. continuity, although I would be purely guessing at this point, because you see I don’t read my published work anymore, this story included. That is, I stopped reading my freshly published years ago. It just got to be too upsetting to find articles winnowed down by hundreds, even thousands of words in some cases. Too often something went wrong in the process. This is not an overly sensitive writer condemning the very useful and necessary practice of editing. Earlier today I edited, on an editor’s orders, a 3,400 word story down to 1,600 words, and all that tightening didn’t kill the story so much as focus it. Ah, but you see, I did the edit myself. The following story was truncated without my input. Now, it might be perfectly fine in its shortened form. Or it might not. Eventually, I’ll let you the reader decide. In a couple weeks I will post the version I submitted and run it on the same page with this version. You be the judge. For now though, read about an interesting effort to revitalize Omaha’s African-American communityfrom the ground up.
Power Players, Ben Gray and Other Omaha African-American Leaders Try Improvement Through Self-Empowered Networking
©by Leo Adam Biga
As seen in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It may have been 2007 when northeast Omaha’s depressed African-American community reached its limit. A demographic bound by race, history, circumstance and geography seemingly exhaled a collective sigh of exasperation to exclaim, “Enough already!” Longstanding discontent over inequities in income, housing, education, economic development and opportunity solidified into resolve by a people to take action.
Nearly four years ago, a coalition of local blacks decided to rebuild the community from within. They formed the nonprofit African-American Empowerment Network.
The effort was inspired by author and television/radio talk show host Tavis Smiley in his best selling 2006 book, The Covenant with Black America. Omaha’s Empowerment Network targeted 13 areas for improvement.
Efforts by the Network and partners are the latest attempted remedies. In the 1940s and ’50s the De Porres Club pressed for civil rights. In the ’60s the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties or 4CL, took up the banner. Well into the ’70s federally funded programs and agencies spurred by the Great Society and its War on Poverty operated here. At various times the Urban League of Nebraska and the Omaha Chapter of the NAACP have led on social justice and community betterment issues.
When the last in a series of major civil disturbances in the late 60s badly damaged the old North 24th St. business-entertainment hub, many businesses left. Few new businesses have opened.
Northeast Omaha’s chronic gun violence contributed to the perception of an unsafe environment. It is regarded as a mission district dependent on government assistance, social services and philanthropy.
President and consultant at Innovations By Design, LLC, Tawanna Black, also vice-chair of the board for the Network, and co-chair for the race relations covenant, summed it up. “In the absence of African-Americans in powerful political or economic positions to drive this, small changes have occurred but nothing major. The Network really flips that theory on its head and says,”Why are we waiting for the power to be given? Let’s own the power that’s within.’ It’s an empowerment thing. It means more than just a name on a piece of paper.
It’s really what it’s all about empowering people to take control of themselves. A process committed to that is completely new in this community.”
“There’s been a lot of psychological damage done to us as a people. Historically we just allow things to happen to us and what we have to do is starting taking control of our own destiny and that means also having skin in the game,” said Omaha City Councilman and Network violence intervention-prevention chair Ben Gray.
Empower Omaha drafted a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships community covenant. Through monthly community meetings, periodic summits and prayer walks, neighborhood cleanups, block parties and surveys, the Network interfaces with residents through a North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance.
“We keep the community engaged, we listen to the community, we write down what they say. I think that’s how we get the buy-in from the community,” said director of operations Vicki Quaites-Ferris. “Most things implemented actually come as a result of listening to the community.”
Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter said the Network’s an integral part of neighborhood cleanups. Network strategies encompass neighborhoods, housing, employment, education, family, faith, crime, etc. The strategies come from community leaders, residents and best practices in other cities. Not a direct service provider, the Network partners with others to support or facilitate programs.
The Network was in place before a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed black Omaha poverty rates as among the nation’s worst. What was already known is that many youths underachieve in school — only half graduate. There is an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, a preponderance of single-parent homes and little economic development or opportunity. Newly detailed were high jobless rates and low household income levels. Freeway construction disrupted, some say severed, a tight community. As restrictive housing practices waned, upwardly mobile blacks moved west. Others left the state.
Many feel the city needs to make an “It stops here” pledge.
Rev. Jeremiah McGhee doubts the larger community yet appreciates a revitalized north Omaha is good for all of Omaha.
The city has managed a united front against gun violence. The Network has endorsements from Mayor Jim Suttle, Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes and some 100 public-private partners for the Omaha 360 anti-violence coalition.
Connecting the dots, it became clear that despair is rooted in certain realities: entrenched gang and drug culture; fractured families; a lack of positive role models; barriers to educational, job, home ownership and business opportunities; a sense that no one cares.
Douglas County Treasurer and Network chair John Ewing knows it from his former career as an Omaha cop and Empowerment prayer walks and community meetings. He said residents complain of violence, lack of economic opportunities, that they feel abandoned, neglected, overlooked, forgotten. It leads to a sense of hopelessness. And northeast Omaha’s lost some 11,000 households over time. A diminished tax, voter, consumer base diluted the minimal clout it had to hold public and private sectors accountable the economic and social ills.
“There’s been a lot of benign neglect that’s gone on in north Omaha by the majority community and I don’t hesitate in saying that because it’s a fact,” said Gray.”But what we’ve got to do now is rather than point fingers and place blame put together the necessary mechanism to fix it. We’ve got so much work to do and we’ve got so many areas that we’re operating in.”
Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis spearheads a formed Economic Strategy Taskforce whose goals address economic viability. Those include preparing every African-American for a sustainable living-wage job; moving persons from unemployment or underemployment to full employment and from jobs to careers; encouraging entrepreneurship by increasing access to credit and capital.
The Network endorses a from-birth-to-career strategy.
Davis has long been active, starting black businesses and providing college scholarships to black students. Entities like the African-American Academic Achievement Council, 100 Black Men, 100 Black Women, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Urban League of Nebraska, along with black churches, have done their part. Pockets of progress have appeared in some new home construction, a few business parks, a refurbished section of North 24th St. and new quarters for anchors Salem Baptist Church, the Urban League and Charles Drew Health Center. Nothing large-scale has been attempted.
A recent Pew Partnership for Civic Change report found that of 33,000 metro businesses, only 200 are black-owned – most are single owner-operator endeavors.
Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant, said “We work within the framework of what’s already going on, trying to make it cooperative … Why are people still falling through the cracks – what else do we need to do?”
Where most Network players are native Omahans like Hunter, the driving force is a transplant, Willie Barney, who until recently was a strategic consultant. The Iowa native worked in media marketing for Lee Enterprises and moved here for an Omaha World-Herald post. He worked on Salem Baptist Church’s administrative team when he galvanized efforts to create the Network. He served as the Network’s unpaid president and facilitator, then as a consultant, and is now its second paid staff member.
“In evolving over time we’ve stayed true to our mission,”said Barney. “We said we want to be positive and pro-active and to build partnerships … with the entire city. It has to be bottom-up and top-down for it to be anywhere close to being successful — individuals, families, leaders at all levels working together collaboratively.”
The effort started focusing on seven core areas: jobs, business-economic development, education-youth development, voting, violence prevention, housing-neighborhoods-transportation and engagement.
Evidence of the Network’s wide reach was seen during its annual Harmony Week (May 21-29), when dozens of organizations and thousands of people across the Metro participated in expressions of unity and community engagement.
In 2009 the organization opened an office in the historic Jewell Building in the heart of North O, across from the Omaha Star.
The Network boosted its presence via an expanded website, Facebook page and Revive! Omaha Magazine, which Barney’s SMB Enterprises LLC publishes. A TV spot features Network leaders reciting, like a creed, the Empowerment credo:
“We can change Omaha. It’s time to rebuild the village. Family by family, block by block, school by school, church by church, business by business. Each person doing their part.
Working together, let’s transform Omaha. Do your part. Live the covenant.”
The Network’s first full-time staffer was Quaites-Ferris, a former deputy assistant to former Mayor Mike Fahey said. Three-and-a-half years in, the Network has a track record.
Barney said whatever course the Network adopts, it relies on others to carry it out.
“At the end of the day it’s ENCAP, the Urban League, Omaha Economic Development Corporation that are doing the work. But I think because we’re here we’ve helped facilitate potentially more partnerships than would have happened before.”
Malcolm X Memorial Foundation president Sharif Liwaru said he feels the Network’s facilitator rather than direct service provider role “is still hard for people to grasp.”Barney concurred. While Liwaru and community activist Leo Louis feel the Network effectively engages established organizations and leaders, they advocate more outreach be done to new, more loosely organized groups as well as to youths.
“We’re doing more to really make sure it is an inclusive process,” said Barney.”If they don’t come, we’ll go to them, and we’re not perfect, we make mistakes, but we keep pushing forward.”
In mid-2008 the Network noted workforce development gaps for at-risk youth and launched a life skills and jobs program. No one wanted a summer like 2007, when there were 31 reported shootings in 31 days during one stretch. Program participants included kids failing in school and drop-outs , ex and active gang members. Barney and Gray contacted employers to secure 150 paid internships. The program was repeated last summer, with enrollees split between returning and new participants. Barney said many “transitioned back into school, some went on to get GEDs and others got offers for fulltime work.” 2009 saw hundreds more jobs created by federal stimulus funds and private donors. The Urban League facilitated.
Minus any federal funds in 2010, the number of summer jobs provided at-risk youth this year will be closer to 500, rather than last year’s 800.
“In a lot of instances we basically have to start from scratch — we have to teach people how to fill out an application, how to successfully interview, how to do some things we take for granted,” said Gray. “This is a big job because you’ve got to change attitudes as well as change behavior. Neither is easy, but you’ve got to get it done because the only other choice is to build more jails and at the end of the day that’s costing us three to four times as much money as to provide jobs and job training and proper schooling.”
Barney said the group launched a multifaceted violence prevention collaboration. “It’s not just telling folks, ‘Don’t do this,’ now we’re providing options.”
Impact One Community Connection, formerly New World Youth Development, was formed to do gang intervention-prevention. The Network also collaborates with ENCAP, the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership (formerly GOACA).
Teresa Hunter said she, Barney and others were impressed “a group of youths wanted to continue meeting and talking about the issues and the remedies. They wanted to keep coming back and to make a change.”
In turn, said Barney, participants “were amazed somebody cared enough to spend all that time one-on-one with them and to help them get a job. They will flat out tell you no one has ever given them these opportunities before. Even some of the kids on the street that everybody totally discounts and that people said there’s no way you’re going to reach, well, we reached them.”
Recruiting them, he said, was largely the work of the late Roy Davenport and of Gray. Both brought longtime gang intervention experience.
The Network’s aligned itself with the Omaha Police Department, particularly the Northeast Precinct, and North Omaha Weed & Seed to do Safe Night Outs and other efforts for improving police-community relations.
Gray, who leads an emergency response team, said street work is where it’s at in reaching past or present gangbangers.
“You got to meet them where they are. If you are not willing to get out in those blocks, in those neighborhoods, in those houses where they live, you are not going to reach those young people. You gotta be at the hospitals, you gotta be at the funerals, you gotta be constantly talking about not retaliating … about going in a different direction. That’s very time consuming, painstaking, difficult work and there are no set hours. We have ex-gang members employed through Impact One. They monitor the streets on a regular basis.”
Gray lauds the Network for “putting its neck on the line” to even do this outreach, saying it’s a microcosm for how a wounded community can heal. “We have people that have been disappointed so much they’re not willing to necessarily buy-in until they have seen some stability in you going down the road getting a few things accomplished, and then you’ll hopefully get that groundswell of people that will come on board with you.”
Barney said the Network “has the opportunity to really make a tremendous difference. Some of it will be over time, some of it will be dramatic,” such as the 36 percent reduction in gun violence in July-August 2008.
Barney said he’s sure some people feel the Network effort is not open enough, or that they don’t have a voice. He wants them to contact him. “We’ll sit down and we’ll meet and we’ll listen and try the best we can to make adjustments.”
“We are building a long-term foundation. We’re getting more and more people engaged, more people are stepping forward. That doesn’t mean the violence is going to stop today or next week. I keep saying to folks, ‘It did not happen overnight and it will not be solved overnight. ‘We’ve seen some things slowly move in the right direction.”
Geraldine Wesley with Long School Neighborhood Association embraces the Network “getting people’s hopes up to empower” North O, adding, “If they carry out all the things they intend to do, it would be good.”
“Well, right now its just ideas, there’s nothing concrete as far as I know,” she said. I am waiting for the results. It’s going to be a long process, I know that. I hope I’ll live to see it.”
- Black church: Place of empowerment (cnn.com)
- Empowerment via the new media (thehill.com)
- Urban League at 100: Pledging to put black America back to work (thegrio.com)
- BLACK ENTERPRISE Announces Plans for 40th Anniversary Celebration (prnewswire.com)
- Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Rich Music History Long Untold is Revealed and Celebrated at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
When I became aware of the fact that Father Edward Flanagan, the Catholic priest and Boys Town founder whom Spencer Tracy won an Oscar portraying in the classic MGM movie, was close friends with prominent American Jewish leader Henry Monsky, I was intrigued. Then when I discovered that Monsky was a key figure in the formation, survival, and growth of Boys Town, I knew there was a story to be told. I like how men of two different faiths found enough common ground to work together for the greater good. My story originally appeared in the Jewish Press.
It’s interesting to me that this interfaith bond should happen in Omaha, a decidedly Catholic and Protestant communnity. At the time when Flanagan and Monsky forged their solidarity, the local Jewish population was much larger than it is today. But as my story points out, the relationship between Boys Town and the Omaha Jewish community remains strong all these decades later. And Omaha is receiving national attention these days for its ambitious Project Interfaith, a union of the local Episcopal, Jewish, and Muslim faith communities that is trying to lay the groundwork for a planned tri-faith campus. One can only think that Flanagan and Monsky would be pleased.
You can find more stories by me about Boys Town on this blog, including one that charts the story of the 1938 MGM movie Boys Town (“When Boys Town Bwecame the Center of the Film World”), another that explores its athletic glory years (“Rich Boys Town Sports Legacy Recalled”), and still another that looks at the investigative newspaper reporting that uncovered Boys Town’s hidden wealth (“Sun Reflection, Revisiting the Omaha Sun‘s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Expose of Boys Town”).
Fr. Edward Flanagan
Flanagan-Monsky Example Of Social Justice and Interfaith Harmony Still Shows the Way 60 Years Later
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Even as the world grows ever flatter and more interconnected, political, religious, ethnic differences still separate people into divisive factions. One need only consult history or today’s news to see how this distrust of the other is the cause of conflict. Inroads to understanding can be made. The efforts of the NAACP, the Urban League, the National Conference for Community and Justice and many other organizations bring disparate groups together in a spirit of cooperation.
Macro alliances can start at the micro level. All it takes is two persons willing to work toward the greater good. Ninety years ago in Omaha two men — a Catholic priest and a Jew — forged an enduring friendship that made famous a haven for homeless boys, shined a light on at-risk youth and demonstrated the power of unified action. Father Edward Flanagan was an Irish immigrant prelate dedicated to rescuing men from the bowery and children from delinquency. He dreamed of a home for wayward boys but lacked funds. Henry Monsky, a Jew from the Orthodox tradition, was a social activist and attorney with a law degree from Jesuit Creighton University, where he graduated top in his class (1912).
As legend has it, Monsky is the mensch who loaned Flanagan $90 to start Boys Town in 1917. For the next 30 years he served, without pay, as Flanagan’s confidante and legal counsel. Monsky also drew his law office of Monsky, Grodinsky, Marer & Cohen into tending to the home’s affairs. One partner, William Grodinsky, joined Monsky in serving on the BT board of trustees.
Like his fellow mensch, the priest, Monsky was involved in assisting children in the juvenile justice system, a cause he “felt deep in his bones, as Flanagan obviously did, too,” said Omaha historian Oliver Pollak. Recognizing they shared a vision for helping lost boys, they formed an association “of legendary proportions,” Pollak writes in his article, “The Education of Henry Monsky,” published in the journal Western States Jewish History. That association is much documented, even dramatized in the 1938 movie “Boys Town.” A Jewish merchant-benefactor in the film, Dave Morris, is based on Monsky, whose desire for anonymity led him to secure a promise from producers that neither his real name nor profession be used. Columnist Walter Winchel later revealed Monsky as the real Dave.
In 1989 the Boys Town Hall of History and the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society co-curated an exhibition, “Father Flanagan and Henry Monsky: Men of Vision,” telling these men’s story. The exhibit, which showed at Boys Town and the Jewish Community Center, traveled widely. Boys Town plans to display the exhibit again next fall for the home’s 90th anniversary celebration. 2008 is the 60th anniversary of Flanagan’s death. 2007 marked the 60th anniversary of Monsky’s passing.
“The close friendship between Father Flanagan and Mr. Monsky was very unique for its time,” said Boys Town Hall of History director Tom Lynch. “…Father Flanagan had developed an ecumenical outlook on life, especially when it came to helping children in need…Father forged many bonds with like-minded individuals of different races and religions. The first such friendship was with Henry Monsky, who represents the thousands of supporters who have assisted Boys Town…”
The bond of brotherhood these men exemplified lives on today.
“There is a respectful mutuality in the relationship between the Jewish community and Boys Town,” said Father Steve Boes, national executive director of Boys Town. At the 2005 ceremony introducing Boes as BT’s new leader “Rabbi Jonathon Gross of the Beth Israel Synagogue offered a prayer for our kids, our organization and for me. Since that day and in the spirit of Henry Monsky and Father Flanagan, we have developed a friendship meet monthly.
“Our discussions range from the social problems that affect our community to personal issues like family, exercise and prayer. I have come to value our time together and see it as a great extension of Father Flanagan’s legacy. We also have a relationship with Beth Israel Synagogue. Members have helped serve Christmas dinner to our kids who can’t return home at the holidays.”
Just as Boes and Gross make an intriguing contrast today, so did Flanagan and Monsky. Flanagan, the pale, soft-spoken, bespectaled Irish priest. Monsky, the dark-complexioned, loud, lion-headed, larger-than-life Jew.
Just as having a top flight attorney and lay Jewish leader in his corner was a coup for Flanagan and BT, having a preeminent child welfare advocate and Catholic priest on his side was a boon for Monsky and convergent Jewish interests. Each was a Great Man in his own right. Flanagan owned the ear of powerful figures on the national-international stages, traveling the globe on speaking, goodwill and fact-finding tours. He commanded large audiences through personal appearances he made, including many addresses before Jewish crowds, and interviews he gave. He openly supported interfaith alliances and Zionist causes. At the time of his death he was acting at the behest of President Harry S. Truman in appraising the war orphan situation in Europe, a mission he made the year before to Korea and Japan.
Monsky served on many civic and charitable boards and from 1938 to 1947 presided as international president of B’nai B’rith, the largest Jewish service club, at a crucible time in history. As an ardent Zionist he implored U.S. and world leaders to intervene on behalf of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He helped form the American Jewish Conference (Congress), served as editor of the National Jewish Monthly and consulted the U.S. delegation at the formation of the United Nations.
He and Omahan Sam Beber also established the AZA, the world’s largest Jewish youth organization.
Like Flanagan, Monsky was in high demand as a public speaker, addressing audiences of all persuasions, and enjoyed entree into halls of power. He, too, encouraged interfaith collaboration and served on many Catholic boards.
Henry Monsky, Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archive
No one knows precisely when or how they met but there’s no question they saw each other as kindred souls working to save endangered or abandoned youth. The fact one was Jewish and the other Catholic seemed to matter little to them.
Monsky’s widow, Daisy (Hirsch) Monsky, makes these points in the book she co-authored with Maurice Bisgyer, “Henry Monsky: The Man and His Work”:
“The profound friendship and loyal devotion between Henry and Father Flanagan was based on the fact that, despite the vast difference in their formal religion, both believed in social justice and both were willing to work to achieve it. There are innumerable stories of the bond between them…Father Flanagan always knew that Henry could be depended upon to act for the benefit of the underprivileged.”
In her book Daisy recounts the time Flanagan borrowed $25,000 from a board member in order to post bail for a boy charged with murder in Iowa. The priest learned of extenuating circumstances in the case and decided the lad would be better served at BT rather than in a youth detention center while awaiting trial. In a letter Flanagan asked Monsky to smooth over the legalities of it all:
“…Henry, this home is for saving boys, and we cannot let that boy stay in jail over there…I hope you will present the matter properly at the next meeting of the board, and explain what has been done.”
Always the trusted servant, Monsky persuaded the board to approve the loan and its repayment. Up until his trial the boy remained at Boys Town.
The story illustrates how the men shared an implicit understanding of how BT matters should be handled. The symbiotic way they operated is not surprising when you consider the two knew each from the time they were young men.
Ireland born and reared, Flanagan first came to America in 1904. That year or the next he arrived in Omaha on the coattails of older brother Patrick, a priest who started Holy Angels Church on the north side. It’s then that Edward may have first met Henry, who lived nearby. When Edward expressed interest in the priesthood, the Omaha bishop — a fellow Irishman named Harty — accepted him as a seminarian and sent him off to study in Rome. Ordained in 1912, Flanagan was assigned to Omaha, where he celebrated his first mass at Holy Angels. Monsky was studying law at nearby Creighton. After a stint in O’Neill, Neb. Flanagan returned to Omaha in 1913 at St. Patrick Catholic Church. He and Monsky soon worked together — to establish a Boy Scouts of America council and to advocate for youth with juvenile justice system judges and social workers.
A 1945 address by Flanagan at a B’nai B’rith tribute for Monsky at the Commodore Hotel in New York City alludes to their longtime friendship:
“…we have come here to honor a great man — a man with a brilliant mind and a loving heart. A man whose outstanding virtue is his love for his fellow man…Unlike most of you here, I have known him as a boy, a student at the university, a young lawyer entering upon a professional career — a fellow worker with whom it was my privilege to engage in charitable and welfare fields. He is a member of the board of Father Flanagan’s Boys Home, and my own attorney. He is my personal friend.”
The fondness they felt for each other is seen in their correspondence:
Flanagan to Monsky on the receipt of a gift:
“My dear Henry, I have received your wonderful gift…It is very kind of you, dear Henry, to think of me in this way — I don’t know what other gift would be appreciated as much right now. Wishing you God’s every blessing and success, I remain, dear Henry, Yours most sincerely…”
And on the occasion of Monsky’s marriage to Daisy:
“…I am very happy to hear this good news, for I know it makes you happy, and my whole household joins with me in wishing you both every blessing and happiness that this old world can bring to people of good will…”
Monsky, in appreciation of that note, references an honor conferred on Flanagan:
“…I know how interested you are in my welfare, and I assume that happiness that comes to me gives you the same thrill as I experienced when I witnessed your elevation (to monsignor) in last Sunday’s ceremony. I think I know as much as anyone does how well merited this recognition is. With kindest regards…”
And on the occasion of his election to international B’nai B’rith president:
“I appreciate very much your telegram…It is delightful to know, in undertaking a responsibility of this character, that one has the confidence of those with whom he has been intimately associated for so many years…”
Monsky’s admiration for Flanagan is evident in a speech he gave at a 1942 dinner celebrating BT’s 25th anniversary.
“This is a privilege that I would not like to have missed…Father Flanagan, you can be very proud for what you have contributed in the past 25 years…those of us who have been on the board have enjoyed the great privilege, not only in that we have worked with you, but accepted your philosophy of this unique institution that ‘there is no such thing as a bad boy”…It is perfectly understandable that he has become the outstanding individual in America for his work with boys.”
In 1921 Monsky chaired the speakers bureau for BT’s inaugural capital campaign, which bought the land and erected the first building for the campus.
In a letter to Daisy, Flanagan wrote about his departed friend’s service on behalf of that campaign, which raised some $25,000:
“He spent much of his time then in training our boys who constituted his principal speakers on the public platforms throughout Omaha and its environs for this campaign. He took even more interest in making this campaign a success than he did his own business, but it seems to me he did this with everything he took up…That is why he was a great man, a great friend and a great citizen.”
The home and Flanagan became national icons thanks to savvy marketing and the success of MGM’s 1938 hit Boys Town. Superstar Spencer Tracy won the Best Actor Oscar for his endearing portrayal of Flanagan and popular Mickey Rooney won new legions of fans as the plucky Whitey.
Even before the movie Flanagan and the home gained national exposure via a weekly coast-to-coast radio broadcast he delivered. But the movie brought a whole new level of attention. From its two-week, on-location shoot in Omaha to its September 7, 1938 premiere at the Omaha Theatre downtown, Boys Town was a phenomenon. Thousands of curious onlookers descended on the campus for a glimpse of the stars during the filming, which unfolded in the middle of a July heat wave. There’s some suggestion the Monskys put up Rooney at their home and that Rooney and Henry’s son, Hubert, went out on the town more than once.
At the movie’s world premiere, an estimated 30,000 people filled the streets, sidewalks and roofs around the Omaha Theater. Daisy recalled the excitement of that opening night in her book:
“…the stage setting was irresistible…Klieg lights, loud speakers, all the Hollywood paraphernalia stretched for blocks…as we left the car..the master of ceremonies stopped my husband for a broadcast over the loud speaker…of his speech…In the theater we sat just in front of Father Flanagan, Bishop Ryan, Mickey Rooney and his date and other visiting celebrities. Mickey…wept at all of the touching scenes, including his own. So did Henry, whose emotions were always easily stirred.”
Besides being invited to make remarks for the pre-show program outdoors, Monsky was among the guests introduced inside the theater.
Despite the hoopla, BT officials and MGM big wigs had little confidence in the pic. Flanagan-Monsky gave away the rights to the story for a measly $5,000. The story goes they didn’t think the movie stood a prayer of making money. And they probably weren’t wise to the going rates in Hollywood. Studio files indicate MGM boss Louis B. Mayer lacked enthusiasm for the property even after it’s completion, shelving it for months before Tracy-Rooney prevailed upon him to release it. The rest is history. When the movie hit big a new problem arose — donations dried up as the public assumed BT made a killing on it, not realizing the home saw nothing from the box office receipts. A desperate Flanagan, perhaps at the urging or with the blessing of Monsky, asked MGM to get the word out that BT needed help. Tracy signed his name to an appeal letter sent donors. The money flooded in. MGM, perhaps feeling guilty, gave $250,000 for the construction of a dormitory.
The sequel to Boys Town, 1941’s Men of Boys Town, was not well received but it still carried the home’s message and name. Where Flanagan-Monsky erred in securing a small rights fee the first time, they negotiated $100,000 for the sequel, which proved a shrewd move when the movie bombed.
Boys Town further capitalized on the films when a nationally broadcast radio serial aired weekly dramatizations based on the lives of residents there.
From the 1938 movie, Boys Town
Up to the time of his death in 1947 Monsky remained a close ally of Flanagan’s and key adviser to Boys Town. He was there for it all: from a fledgling start in an old 10-room house downtown; to the purchase of the Overlook farm for the present site; to an impressive campus build-out that turned corn fields into a “city of little men” with fine educational, vocational, residential and recreational facilities; to the household name status Boys Town gained and parlayed.
The measure of high esteem in which Flanagan held Monsky and his contributions to BT is expressed in this letter to Daisy:
“…Henry was Boys Town…He is as much responsible for the fine things the public sees out there as are my associates and me, for it was through his keen mind and advice that we were able to follow a pattern of prudence and good judgment. Never in all my association with men have I found one who seemed to understand what I wanted to do and who would advise me how best to do it. Over the years we have had many difficult problems…and Henry’s handling of all these matters was one of great satisfaction. I have received from him over the years hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advice for which I paid nothing. It is only within the last few years that I was able to show my appreciation in a small way, and never have I considered anything that I did for Henry a recompense for his legal work…”
The late Hubert Monsky confirmed the selfless nature of his father in an interview for the “Men of Vision” exhibit:
“…when my father passed away, in going through his desk…found a check written to my father for $25,000 by Father Flanagan…and a note attached to it which said, ‘Henry, dear, for years your services have been given to us with no renumeration, and now that we have the funds, you must accept this.’ That check was seven months old — my father would not cash it. That was very typical of the two people. Father Ed recognized what my father had done. He appreciated it deeply and in his fashion he was trying to say…’God bless you, Henry, for a job well done.’ But my father didn’t wish to be compensated for any work that he did for Boys Town because he felt that it was a project for everybody in Omaha.”
Referring to Monsky’s work as a board of trustee member, Flanagan wrote:
“He was one of the most active members of the Board in determining policies, and was constantly concerned with anything which would further the interests of Boys Town. His fine legal mind would shine forth at these Board meetings…and I know that in following his advice we have made very few mistakes.”
Flanagan trusted Monsky’s judgment enough that he involved him in nearly all aspects of the home’s operations and interests. Further testimony of this high regard is found in the following except from a letter the priest wrote to Daisy:
“He was one of the most active members of the Board in the founding of the Boys Town Foundation Fund and in this, as in all other legal matters, resolutions, etc., he personally dictated those and gave much thought and consideration to them.
“Henry’s last and final act was giving advice and counsel in the establishment of the training program in Boys Counseling to be established at the Catholic University of America in cooperation with…Boys Town, which offers a two-year graduate training program leading to a degree, M.A., in Boys Counseling.”
Although neither made a fuss over it, Monsky’s and Flanagan’s nonsectarian brotherhood transcended their vastly different backgrounds. From the start Flanagan opened BT to boys of all races and creeds. While Jewish youths have always accounted for a tiny percentage of residents, one, Daniel Ocanto, was elected mayor of the incorporated village in 2002-2003.
Whatever faith a youth professes, BT facilitates their practice of it. “If you’re a Lutheran, I’m gonna make you a better Lutheran than you are now. If you’re a Jew, I’m gonna make you a better Jew than you are now, ” said former Boys Town director Father Val Peter. Current director Father Steve Boes said, “When we admit Jewish students to campus, we work with local synagogues to secure their religious training, and our kids are always welcomed with open arms.”
Monsky’s association with Flanagan modeled his belief in interfaith outreach. That’s why this prominent Jew served on the Catholic Commission on American Citizenship and the National Catholic Welfare Conference and on the boards of other non-Jewish organizations, including the Community Chest, the Boy Scouts, the Nebraska Conference of Social Work, the Church Peace Union and the Urban League.
Even though BT’s not Catholic per se, the fact a Catholic priest has always headed it lends it that church’s imprimatur. That was even more true during Flanagan’s regime. As far as the general public and media were concerned, the priest and BT were synonymous, making it a de facto Catholic ministry. That’s why the identification of a noted Jew like Monsky with BT was a model for how Jewish-Catholic relations could proceed both on a personal level and in regard to issues.
“They were men of different faiths,” writes Omaha historian Oliver Pollak. “Both had faith, particularly faith in the next generation….No doubt exists that Monsky and Flanagan were men of great faith whose concern for troubled youth transcended parochial boundaries.”
Every time Monsky’s involvement with BT made headlines, as it did when at Flanagan’s invitation he gave the commencement speech for the 1942 graduating class, it illustrated the possibility of Jewish-Catholic unity. Monsky’s address to the 90 8th grade and high school grads emphasized sacrifice at a time of war:
“You are, indeed, fortunate to have been taught here at Father Flanagan’s Boys Home…that life has significance, that life is purposeful…Thus conditioned, it is expected that you have the necessary equipment to assume and discharge adequately your share of the greater responsibility which each of us must bear in the present crisis…Not unlike other chapters in our nation’s history, the record of these difficult days will be resplendent with the glorious achievements of youth.”
Ties between the home and the Jewish community were strengthened by the Flanagan-Monsky bond. When elected to the BT board of trustees in ‘29 Monsky replaced another Jewish leader, the late Rabbi Frederick Cohn, of Temple Israel.
Just as Monsky’s link with BT generated Jewish outreach with the Catholic community, Flanagan’s link with Monsky led to a close relationship between B’nai B’rith and BT. Flanagan addressed several B’nai B’rith gatherings, including those in Omaha, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. He spoke before the Jewish Ladies Auxiliary of the B’nai B’rith lodge in Detroit. He was the keynote speaker for the Jewish Children’s Home of Rhode Island, the Young Men’s Jewish Council for Boys’ Clubs in Chicago and the National Conference of Christians and Jews in Minneapolis.
Evidence suggests Flanagan and Monsky recommended each other for interfaith engagements and appointments, and took satisfaction in doing so. A 1939 letter from Monsky to Flanagan refers to an invitation for the priest to speak before “a very substantial group of Jewish people in Chicago, which I am sure will give you a very acceptable audience…If acceptance of this invitation is possible, of course, I would appreciate it.” The Monsky letter also mentions “reports” about Flanagan’s appearance before another Jewish group “have pleased me very much. I am happy to note the great demand on the part of my co-religionists, and particularly B’nai B’rith lodges, for the message of Father Flanagan’s Boys Home.”
In another letter to his friend Monsky describes the positive feedback a Flanagan appearance before a B’nai B’rith group in Phillie elicited, adding that members expressed “pleasure in the fact that we appeared to be very good friends.”
The BT-BB relationship is one that continues 60 years after the two friends’ deaths.
“The B’nai B’rith historically brings its sports banquet speakers to Boys Town to meet our children” and to do media interviews, said John Melingagio, Boys Town director of public relations. “Their members also have individually or collectively done charitable activities ranging from donations of funds, services or needed items to mentoring or creating opportunities for our children in the community,”
“I just can’t shake the feeling when we do that, that the two friends are looking down and smiling at the successful legacy of their dreams,” said Gary Javitch, president of the Omaha B’nai B’rith Henry Monsky Lodge #3306.
Melingagio added its only natural for BT and the Jewish Community Center, where the local B’nai B’rith is headquartered, should be on good terms as the organizations are neighbors. Each extends open invitations to the other for various programs and activities. Boys Town and the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society at the JCC work cooperatively to update the Flanagan-Monsky exhibit.
Temple Israel senior Rabbi Aryeh Azriel said Jewish-Catholic relations ebb and flow but the “special relationshp” Flanagan and Monsky exhibited serves as an example of how people of two faith groups can interact in constructive ways. He would like to see more such comradeship and collegiality today in serious interfaith dialogues.
Examples of interfaith work abound locally.
Monsky’s alma mater, Creighton University, has a tradition of being welcoming to Jews and promoting Jewish studies. Monsky was invited to make the 1925 commencement address at Creighton. Jews Rodney Shkolnik and Larry Raful were longtime deans of the Creighton Law School. CU’s legal aid center is named after Milton Abrahams. The university is home to the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization, a post held by Leonard Greenspoon. CU’s Kripke Center, named for Rabbi Myer Kripke and his wife Dorothy, promotes understanding between the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faith communities. Despite its strong WASP roots the University of Nebraska at Omaha hosts: the Rabbi Sidney H. Brooks Lecture Series in honor of the late Omaha religious leader who worked for social justice and unity; and the Leonard and Shirley Goldstein Human Rights Lecture Series in honor of the Omaha Jewish couple long active in the Free Soviet Jewry movement.
Additionally, Rabbi Azriel of Temple Israel has served on the United Catholic Social Services board and chairs the clergy committee for Omaha Together One Community (OTOC), a faith-based social action group. He’s won recognition for his human relations work, including a Black/Jewish Dialogue initiative he led.
These efforts to be inclusive rather than exclusive and to foster fellowship rather than division coincide with the work of Project Interfaith. The Omaha Anti-Defamation League program directed by Beth Katz brings Christians, Jews and Muslims together to share the gifts of their respective faiths. Katz has traveled to the Vatican and to Israel with interfaith groups.
“Fostering healthy interfaith relations…often begins with relationships. Friendships like the one Monsky and Father Flanagan enjoyed help humanize the other, enabling us to identify and appreciate the values common to both faiths while also allowing us to explore and hopefully to respect our differences,” Katz said.
Similarly, Beth Seldin Dotan runs the Institute for Holocaust Education at the Omaha ADL. The institute’s Bearing Witness project trains Catholic educators to teach the Holocaust in their high schools. She works closely with the Archdiocese of Omaha on project curricula. Sam Fried’s Heartland Holocaust Education Fund supports college-university teaching about the Shoah.
Tolerance is at the core of all these exchanges. Rarely have two men demonstrated the tolerance Monsky and Flanagan did. Their relationship grew out of fondness and, more fundamentally, respect.
As leader of B’nai B’rith Monsky emphasized the need for unity — both among Jews and the general American population, a theme that resonated strongly with Flanagan and his ideals for BT and the nation. In his speech at the 1945 B’nai B’rith banquet honoring Monsky, Flanagan said:
“I consider racial and religious prejudice one of the greatest and most insidious of all ills that attack our social life today…This grand and noble organization over which our honored guest is the international president is to be commended for its far-reaching influence toward bringing to public attention…the urgent need for greater unity and amity among the various nationalities and creeds…This is the mission that Mr. Monsky set out to do as a young man…How well he has done this, you and I know…God bless you, Mr. Henry Monsky.”
Wherever their mutual interests intersected each man embraced the other. The welfare of troubled youth was their common meeting ground. And so Monsky involved Flanagan in his work with the National Conference for the Prevention and Control of Juvenile Delinquency. A 1946 letter from Monsky to Flanagan outlined the conference’s latest resolutions and activities and requested his feedback.
“Will you please, at your earliest convenience, send me your comments upon the foregoing…It was gratifying to work with you in the formulation of a program which has unlimited potentialities for service to the nation.”
Even as the men’s interests broadened beyond Nebraska’s and America’s borders they remained tethered in a way that only best friends do.
Rose Blumkin Jewish Home resident Esther Schwartz Segel was Monsky’s secretary for his three terms as international B’nai B’rith president. She can attest to the hectic schedule he kept flitting across the U.S. by train and plane for meetings, speeches, et cetera. His travel itinerary and business correspondence were so great, she recalled in 2003, she sometimes worked 18-hour days to keep up with it all. Flanagan’s scheduled was no less hectic.
Monsky was away attending to one of his causes, a meeting of the American Jewish Conference (Congress) in New York City, when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 2, 1947. At the time he was speaking about Jewish unity.
“It was such a tragedy that he died so young and with so many plans for the future of Jewish people,” Segel told a reporter in 2003.
News of Monsky’s death reached Flanagan via telegram while abroad on a war orphan mission. In a letter to Daisy, Flanagan described the circumstances of his final meeting with his friend and what the loss meant to him:
“The news of his death coming to me while I was in Tokyo, Japan was a great shock. Before leaving on that trip he prepared my Last Will and Testament. Little did I know…that this was my last business with my friend and legal advisor. His death was one of the great sorrows of my life.”
Flanagan died in Berlin, Germany on May 15, 1948, almost a year to the day Monsky died. A wire from B’nai B’rith officials to Flanagan’s successor at BT, Father Nicholas Wegner, noted the special regard Jews held for Flanagan:
“His warm friendship with our late President Monsky exemplified (the) spirit of brotherhood which we fervently hope will someday encompass all people. Your loss is ours as well.”
Each was mourned by thousands in services that attracted dignitaries from all fields. Testimonials, dedications and commentaries praised them as great men and leaders. In recognition of the special place BT held in the life and work of Monsky and Flanagan, condolences and memorial contributions poured into the home, including many from B’nai B’rith lodges.
Monsky is remembered today by BT in various ways. A street bears his name (and that of his law partner William Grodinsky), as does a donor recognition level. Then there’s the “Men of Vision” exhibit. Similarly, the Omaha B’nai B’rith lodge is named for Monsky. Photographs, paintings and a bust of Monsky reside at the JCC, where Monsky’s legacy looms large.
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Omaha, Neb. is a still rather nebulous place to most Americans. Say the name of this Midwestern city and most folks draw a blank or else associate it with the Great Plains and agriculture, and therefore as some featureless, white bread, flyover zone with little to recommend it. Or, if they do know Omaha, it’s likely for its high rankings among the best places to live and raise a family, its strong schools, its thriving arts and cultural scene, its relatively booming economy. Some may know it as the home and base of billionaire Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway, a total of four Fortune 500 companies, the College World Series, and a popular zoo that attracts nearly two million visitors. Unless you live here or keep close tabs on the city, what you don’t think of with Omaha is a predominantly African American inner city with endemic problems of poverty, unemployment, and youth violence that, per capita, are among the worst in the nation.
The following story, which appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com), profiles one of many social service agencies addressing the problem of poverty through a pantry program and resource/referral center. It reflects the harsh realities and tender mercies that many urban communities experience every day.
Tender Mercies Minister to Omaha’s Poverty Stricken
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)
Tender mercies come in all forms. For those folks living on the margin, the difference between getting by and going hungry may be the kindness of strangers.
Sara Hohnstein and her small staff with the Heart Ministry Center at 22nd and Binney in north Omaha are part of a nameless, faceless army of professionals and volunteers in the human-social services arena working the frontlines of poverty. They represent the safety net that thousands in Omaha depend on to squeeze by.
The center is a nonprofit community outreach arm of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2218 Binney St., which has been a neighborhood presence since 1902.
Where the church is an old stone Gothic Revival monolith, complete with a 124-foot spire, the center is a low-slung, nondescript building of brick, glass and steel erected in 2005. No matter, each targets the neighborhood’s needs with the same compassionate mission, one that also guides the parish’s Sacred Heart Grade School. Just as the students the school serves are predominantly African American and non-Catholic, so are the bulk of the center’s clients.
The Heart Ministry is a calling for executive director Hohnstein.
“I think ultimately what inspires me to do this is I have a real strong belief that everyone deserves to have their basic needs met,” she said. “They deserve to have food on the table, a roof over their head. It’s really the concepts of mercy and justice. I really feel like I was almost born to help relieve suffering in this world. I have a strong faith in that. I have a passion for it. I really enjoy it.”
The chronically poor most rely on helping agencies like hers for subsistence. Caught in a cycle of public welfare dependence, they are the first to seek help and the first to feel cutbacks in service.
Hohnstein said some center clients fall into a “very low income” category that finds them earning as little as $200 to $300 a month. Some are homeless.
But in this economic tailspin of downsizings, slowdowns, shortages and vanishing 401Ks even individuals and families who seemingly have it made are feeling the pinch. Desperate straits can be as near as a lost job or a missed mortgage payment. Those living paycheck-to-paycheck can ill afford any bumps. A few weeks of lost income here or a major medical crisis there, and savings can be wiped out.
More and more clients don’t fit the classic down-and-out profile. Hohnstein said her center’s “seeing a lot of new faces,” including middle class folks struggling to make it. Count Tamara and Preston King among them. Despite their dual incomes – she’s a nursing assistant and he’s a phlebotomist — the Omaha couple just can’t provide everything their 10 children need without some outside aid.
“It’s very helpful for me and my family,” Tamara said one spring morning as she waited for center volunteers to bag her family’s allotment o groceries. Clients qualify for different amounts of food items based on income and family size. Food pantries are available by referral from school counselors, social workers, case managers. Walk-in pantries are available select days. Proper ID is required.
Hohnstein said the center is seeing the same sharp spike in demand for services reported by food banks, pantries and shelters across America. In October she said the center had 2,991 services go out — encompassing everything from food to household items to toiletries to clothing to financial assistance — compared to 1,421 service outputs the previous October.
“It has been a significant increase. The need is greater. We’re trying to do more.”
Another indicator of how tight things are for more people is the number of holiday food care packages the center’s providing. “We delivered 380 baskets this Thanksgiving. Last year we delivered 190,” she said. “The 380 baskets will feed 1,718 people.” The demand was so high this fall, she added, the center was unable to satisfy all the requests. She expects the adopt-a-family Christmas program will deliver baskets to about as many clients, 130 families, as last year. “However, this year we’re also a Toys-for-Tots distribution site, and that will add hundreds more children to the number we are serving.”
Thus far, she said, the economic downturn hasn’t slowed donations.
“At this point we haven’t seen our cash donations go down but they haven’t gone up either. As the need increases we need to increase our budget,” which she said is presently $250,000. “We have seen people being more generous with material donations of clothing and food as compared to last year.”
Service requests typically peak the end of any month, she said, as people get paid early and then scramble to make ends meet. “The end of the month they run out of food stamps and they just need something to kind of fill in the gap,” she said. Single moms comprise “our biggest users,” she said. “We also have a smaller but still significant elderly population. And then disabled folks that aren’t able to work for whatever reason.”
There’s a core of “regulars” who access the center’s services, which clients are restricted to using once every 90 days or four times a year.
The summer finds an uptick in pantry requests, she said, because kids don’t receive the free and reduced meals they get at school, putting more of a strain on poor households already stretched thin. The center won a grant from the Ronald McDonald House to hold a Back to School event in August that provided students free physicals and school supplies.
Food is the main service the center provides. In the last fiscal year she said 9,865 people were supplied with a week’s worth of groceries. Hohnstein said “a family of four usually walks out of here with between $70 and $90 worth of food” per visit.
With so many mouths to feed, the Kings went home with two bags full of assorted edibles. But not necessarily the groceries of their choice. Not that Tamara King’s complaining. She makes do with every last product.
“Everything we get, we eat,” she said. “You have to come up with creative meals sometimes, but it’s fun putting together the meals.”
Until recently the center, like most pantries, operated a bag system whereby clients received presorted groceries volunteers filled from the pantry’s shelves. Brand differences aside, every prepared bag contained the same mix of canned and packaged goods, including staples like macaroni, rice, cereal and peanut butter. The benefit to this approach was consistency and fairness. The drawback was some clients ended up with items they couldn’t or wouldn’t eat due to dietary restraints or personal preferences. The potential for unused food seemed a waste.
Hohnstein sought a self-select process to give people a voice in what they receive. She calls it “a more empowering way of getting food.” That’s why the center recently transitioned to a list system that allows clients to check off what groceries they want. USDA guidelines still put a cap on the amount but within limits pantry volunteers now fill customized orders. Tracking what people select may result in better inventory control. A next step may be a shelf system that enables clients to go back into the pantry with a volunteer to “shop” and fill their own bag.
As before, clients get a choice of frozen meats and as much frozen vegetables as they desire. Fresh dairy products are offered until supplies run out. Special items, like prepared tortilla and ravioli entrees, are available in limited quantities.
The list system wasn’t in use yet when the Kings got their groceries that late spring day. Told of the coming change, Tamara said, “That’ll be even nicer.”
Hohnstein said reception to the list system, which went in effect in June, has been “awesome. In addition to the tough economy I believe it is another reason that our pantry is being utilized more by clients. They love being able to pick their own food, and we have seen that they actually only take about 70 percent of what is offered to them because they don’t want to take food that their family is not going to eat. They prefer to let people who are going to eat it have it.”
As much as the help’s appreciated, King said, it’s disconcerting to her and her husband they must seek assistance at all. “Two grown parents working full-time jobs and it’s still not enough,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Our oldest daughter’s going to college, so you know that’s more money for things we have to spend on.” Without the free groceries, she’s not sure how they’d make it. “It really helps us out a lot. It’s a blessing.”
Where the Kings are working homeowners living the American Dream and yet barely scraping by, Udale L. Barnes has more of a typical skid row story. The unemployed resident of a local homeless shelter is trying to pick up the pieces from a run of hard luck that’s left him high and dry. The center is one way-stop in his recovery.
“I’m down at the (Siena) Francis House, so I’m just looking for some help right now,” he said waiting for his food allotment. “I’m trying to get me an apartment and get back on my feet. I lost my home. So I’m trying to do the right thing now instead of being out in these streets. I’m trying to get back on that right track.”
America’s social compact with the needy is an imperfect one. For the better part of a century the nation’s turned to a hodgepodge of local, state, federal governmental programs as well as churches and social service agencies to meet people’s emergency needs for food, clothing, housing, rent, utility payments, employment and other essentials.
Omaha’s landscape for helping the at-risk population mirrors that of any community its size. A network of pantries, shelters, thrift stores and other basic human service providers operate year-round as stop-gaps people can access during tough times.
Pockets of need exist across the metro but widespread poverty among African Americans in northeast Omaha presents special challenges. Sacred Heart’s charity has always extended to the poor in its midst. As the neighborhood’s demographics changed in the post-Civil Rights era from a racially mixed working class core to a poor black majority the church has responded with new social ministry efforts. For example, its Human Needs Door Ministry opened in ‘82 to provide food and other items to families facing shortfalls or just hard times. Sr. Mary Ann Murphy headed up what was the precursor to the Heart Ministry.
In 1997 Murphy and parishioner Pattie Fidone launched the original Heart Ministry Center, located two miles northwest of the church. The center increasingly focused on families in crisis and began the holiday food basket tradition.
Sacred Heart pastor Rev. Tom Fangman led the move to relocate the center to the parish campus. By the time the new, larger facility opened just west of the church in ‘05 its expanded and formalized services included a full pantry and a large surplus clothes operation that’s since been named Iva’s Closet for its manager, Iva Williams.
Since Hohnstein came to the center in ‘07, the Heart Ministry’s continued growing to address the ever more acute poverty problem and the health issues facing the poor. She serves on a North 24th Street Providers board that focuses on better serving the area’s impoverished. The center partners with Creighton University, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and area physicians to offer on-site blood pressure and diabetes screenings and health workshops focusing on nutrition and pregnancy. The center also offers occasional life skills and employability classes.
A Grand Rapids, Mich. native, the thirtysomething Hohnstein is a social worker with a wealth of experience serving the poor. She credits much of her passion for the field to another Sr. Murphy — Sr. Mary Alice Murphy — she worked with in Fort Collins, Colo., where Hohnstein earned her master’s at Colorado State.
Hohnstein described Murphy as “a phenomenon,” adding, “She’s done some amazing work. She started several homeless shelters in northern Colorado and she started Care Housing, a 700-unit complex of affordable housing. She’s fabulous. She was my mentor and I was her protege for two years, and that really got me interested in more broad-based community work.”
The two remain connected.
“We still e-mail and talk on the phone at least once a month,” Hohnstein said. “Whenever I’ve got kind of a complicated issue here I’ll call up Sister and see what she has to say. She’s been there, done that, through and through.”
Hohnstein said the example of Sr. Murphy doing social work through the church became the model for how she, as a lay woman, could apply her professional expertise in “a faith-based” framework. When Hohnstein and her husband moved to Omaha in 2007 so he could continue medical school studies at UNMC, she took a temporary job as a hospice social worker. She liked the work but when the Heart Ministry post came up she leapt at it.
“When this job opened it was really like a perfect fit for the experience I had had in Fort Collins, and the type of work I wanted to do.”
The Heart Ministry can’t do it all though. It has finite resources to meet select needs. It doesn’t pretend to be a one-stop service center. She said “the parish community really supports us with volunteers and finances. It’s a wonderful community and it’s a great fit.”
Sometimes people show up or call seeking aid the center doesn’t have to give. Referrals are made to other helping agencies, but being turned away or redirected can be interpreted as rebuff, rejection, run-around. Yes, there’s satisfaction that comes with being a good Samaritan, but not being able to help everyone hurts.
“I think the toughest days here are the days when the phone is ringing off the hook with people that need things,” she said, “like financial assistance. Or they got evicted, and so they don’t have a roof over their head right now. Or they have kids in their home and their water and heat got shut off in the dead of winter. That kind of stuff — and we don’t have any resources to help them.
“You get one or two phone calls like that a day and you can kind of push them aside and do your job, but when you get 15-20-25 calls, and that happens very regularly in the winter, especially at the end of the month, than those types of things get a little bit emotionally wearing.”
Then there’s the reality of doing a largely thankless job that pays less than a teacher makes and that involves long hours.
“There’s just some days where everybody’s grateful, everybody’s happy and it’s fun to be working out in the pantry, and there’s other days where everybody collectively just seems to be in a bad mood,” she said. “Those are hard days to be here, especially when you sacrifice a little bit to work in a job like this and you don’t feel appreciated.”
Fortunately, she said, most “of the days here are good days.”
She also likes the fact her work entails engaging the community in many ways. She does everything from tend the pantry produce garden she began last summer to help unload and stock truckloads of food or clothes. She makes presentations before CEOs and civic groups, she attends board meetings, she leads strategic planning sessions, she fields phone calls asking for help.
All these duties are expressions of those tender mercies she feels called to give.
“We think of addressing poverty as acts of mercy and acts of justice.”
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Winners Circle: Couple’s Journey of Self-Discovery Ends Up Helping Thousands of At-Risk Kids Through Early Intervention Educational Program
I read somewhere about a wealthy white couple devoting their lives to help inner city schools. These schools are predominantly made up of African American students, many of whom under achieve. The couple, Jerry and Cookie Hoberman, started an academic support program in one school, where students’ test scores dramatically increased, and its success has been replicated in several more schools. What most intrigued me, however, was the couple’s own transformation from racially, socially insensitive to enlightened, and how their philanthropy to improve education among some of America‘s poorest children is not some idle exercise about assuaging white guilt but a genuine community response to a chronic problem they were awakened to and that they have awakened others to.
Winners Circle: Couple’s Journey of Self-Discovery Ends Up Helping Thousands of At-Risk Kids Through Early Intervention Educational Program
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
The awakening of Jerry and Cookie Hoberman began in the early 1990s. Until then the hard-driving Omaha entrepreneurs went after what they wanted without much regard for people’s feelings. As Jews they knew about anti-Semitism from both personal experience and history, yet in a recent interview at their home they acknowledged they were intolerant when it came to other minorities.
Soul-searching led the Hobermans to take a long hard look at themselves. Their journey of self-discovery has propelled them to help thousands of impoverished, mostly African-American public school children and their families in north Omaha.
Winners Circle, an academic and citizenship program the couple began in one inner city school 12 years ago, has grown to 10 schools, with two more slated to join within a year. WC is viewed as a model for motivating students to achieve and getting parents more involved in their children’s education.
The Hobermans, once viewed with skepticism, even hostility, as white exploiters, are now seen as sincere community leaders making a difference. None of it would have happened without them being willing to face some unpleasant truths.
Jerry built his own Tires Inc. business from scratch, applying lessons learned from his days as a wagon peddler, selling goods from the back of a ‘54 Ford, and as a partner in his father’s small family tire center downtown. Cookie worked for Holland-Dreves-Reilly Advertising before starting her own agency. Amid their own careers each sought advice from the other. Cookie gave Tires Inc. its name.
Tires Inc. grew to several locations before business faltered. Drawn by lower overhead, Jerry opted to move the headquarters from the 72nd Street strip to 60th and Ames, a poor, predominantly African-American area of northeast Omaha the Hobermans didn’t really know, except by reputation. “I ended up in the inner city against the cautions of all my friends,” Jerry said. “And family,” Cookie interjected.
White employees resisted the move. “I had some employees who said they wouldn’t go to north Omaha — that they would rather leave than stay with us,” he said.
Cookie said preconceived notions spelled trouble. “Well, we came to north Omaha with as much stereotypic bias and ignorance as most people that never go to the inner city,” she said. “I think we were naive.”
No sooner did Tires Inc. open its North O digs than tensions surfaced.
“We had a lot of racial issues, a lot of problems,” Jerry said. “We had arguments. Sometimes a small fight would break out between my associates and the African-American population. It was not a very smooth transition.”
Threats were made. Hoberman didn’t give an inch. Rather than reaching out to mend fences, he closed ranks, making his business a fortress.
“I bought special insurance — kidnap and ransom. I had special alarm systems put in that when you push a button it goes right to the police. We did a lot of these things and all we did was separate ourselves,” he said. “It’s amazing what fear does,” Cookie added.
Things came to a head when a member of a prominent local black family took issue with the unequal way her credit was handled compared to white customers.
“One of my employees referred to her in a very disparaging manner,” Jerry said. “He called her ‘Aunt Jemima.’ She was really irate. A lovely lady, she came in and visited with me and told me what had taken place and I told her I’d had all sorts of problems. I asked what I should do. She said, ‘I suggest you get some sensitivity training for yourself and your associates.’ I didn’t even know what that was.”
On her advice Hoberman contacted Frank Hayes, the black owner of his own accounting firm, Hayes and Associates.
“My immediate response was, ‘Man, I’m a CPA, I’m not a social worker.’” Hayes recalled saying when Hoberman called.
But after the two met Hayes saw Hoberman wanted to do the right thing. Hoberman assembled all his workers for diversity training at which Hayes spoke about “some of the experiences I had had and how they affected or impacted me,” including, Hayes said, “the sense of frustration and anger I had as a black man trying to establish a business.” He related incidents that any black person could identify with, like the time a food service worker ignored him even though it was his turn in line. He had to demand service before he got waited on. It’s the same as when blacks are unfairly profiled by clerks in stores or by police in traffic. He let Hoberman and Co. know such treatment was insensitive at best and racist at worst.
“I just wanted to impress upon them the idea that when you serve someone you have to respect them as individuals, because these are the people who are going to buy your product. If you’re in a service business you have to serve the customer regardless of where you’re coming from.”
What Hayes also impressed upon his audience is that a black person enters any transaction with whites carrying a history of insults and slights, making it imperative whites check their words and actions.
“You may not even realize what you’re saying may be interpreted differently by a minority,” Jerry said. “Because of their past experiences,” Cookie explained.
The sobering talk had its intended effect. “It was just really eye-opening,” Jerry said. “I mean, we didn’t have clues about this,” Cookie said.
The talk was the first in a series Hoberman required his employees attend. Others addressed issues on the elderly, women, the disabled and HIV/AIDS patients.
“I’ll tell you, sometimes we had tears in our eyes when you just realized what people go through,” Hoberman said.
Each talk was followed by discussion.
“We’d have meetings and just talk about relationships with people,” Hoberman said, “and it really built some sensitivity in us as we came face to face with some of our own biases. Prior to that, when we were having all these problems, I built a wall between our company and the community. After we awakened ourselves it was the other way around. We embraced, we understood the individuals that came through our door. We saw we could become a part of the community.”
“Awareness,” Cookie said, made all the difference.
Race relations dramatically improved.
“In the community itself we went from being interlopers and separate to becoming part of the fabric of the community. We never had any more problems,” he said.
Hayes became a close friend of the Hobermans. They’ve had him over for seder. They’ve vacationed together.
In line with this new awareness Hoberman realized the way he treated his own employees left much to be desired. Problems arose as the business grew and Hoberman grew more distant from his rank-and-file associates That’s when, Cookie said, her husband vowed, “‘I want to get to know my people again.’”
The personnel problems were articulated by a mechanic who “came up to me one day and said, ‘You know, all you treat me like is a tool…You don’t care about myself, my family. What I do is I turn a wrench for you and make you a living.’ Hoberman recalled. “I thought about that and he was right. He was just someone to make money for me and that’s not the way to think about individuals. When I recognized that I had a real desire to change and I did. I really did.”
Hoberman devised an incentive program at the struggling Tires Inc. to boost employee performance-morale. He called it the Winners Circle. At its core was goal-setting and recognition. When a division would meet its goals a celebration dinner or picnic would be held at which every team member was recognized “for a job well done.” The program turned things around at the business.
“I was looking to do something to bring us together because we were in disarray and the Winners Circle created a great deal of camaraderie and excitement within the company,” Hoberman said. “It was a team-building kind of thing where everybody worked for their goals. We formed personal relationships.”
“People felt valued,” said Cookie, who added the model for the program was as much the Jewish Passover seder as anything. The company came together as a family and everyone felt a part of the whole. “It broke a barrier,” she said. “They got to meet the president of the company and his wife. They called us by our first names. We knew their children’s names and what was going on in their families. It elevated the sense of value and respect they felt.”
Hoberman also made it company policy to hire more qualified blacks.
The next step in the couple’s evolution came when the late Cornelius Jackson, then-principal at the former Belvedere Elementary School, paid Hoberman a call and “said something that started us down this road” of helping public school children. “He said, ‘You know Mr. Hoberman, you take money from this community — what are you giving back to it? I have a lot of problems with my school. Will you help me?’ So I talked to Cookie about it and it was so true. We were making our living in the black community and we were giving absolutely nothing back to it.”
The couple visited the school at 3775 Curtis Avenue, where they were “appalled” by the conditions. A total of three Apple computers to serve hundreds of students. No usable playground equipment. A racial divide between teachers. Undisciplined students. Classroom disruptions. Little parental involvement. Academically, Belvedere ranked next to last among OPS elementary schools.
“They had all kinds of problems,” Hoberman said. “It was just a real challenge.”
Despite the daunting needs, Cookie said she and Jerry found “inspiring the dedication and commitment” of teachers and staff who “must fill a lot more roles” than their counterparts in suburbia. The rampant north Omaha poverty now making news is a reality the Hobermans began learning about years ago. How, for example, most inner city students qualify for free-and-reduced lunches, how many are from single-parent homes and how many lead highly mobile, unstable lives.
The couple agreed to make Tires Inc. an Adopt-A-School Partner of Belvedere.
A basic need was filling the resource gap. The Hobermans found donors to underwrite the cost of dozens of new computers. The couple organized, with help from Tires Inc. employees, a carnival held on the grounds of the company. Proceeds from the event raised money for more equipment and improvements.
“Everybody got on board,” Hoberman said.
The Hobermans also found in Carol Ellis, who replaced the retiring Jackson as principal, an administrator open to new approaches, such as Hoberman’s idea to adapt the successful Winners Circle program at Tires Inc. to Belvedere.
“Based on what I had in my business I felt the same idea would work within the schools,” he said.
Hoberman and Ellis worked out the details, setting goals in reading, math and citizenship. Other changes were made, with input from staff and parents, including changing the school’s name to Belvedere Academy and introducing uniforms with the school name on them.
“We wanted the children to feel they were special,” he said. “It was all part of building…” “Self-esteem,” said Cookie. That’s why then, and now, the program is based on affirmation. Public ceremonies award gold medals to children who meet goals. Goal busters are eligible for prizes, from bikes to boom boxes. Classrooms that make goals receive $50 checks that the class can use how they want.
“Really, all it is, is having a child have an individual goal and rewarding that child for meeting that goal,” he said. “That’s the essence — just giving recognition the same as we did in my business.”
“Celebrating their success,” Cookie said. “The prerequisite for that is to reinforce with the child that they are smart and they can achieve. The first time I walked into the classroom I asked the children, ‘If you think you’re smart, raise your hand,’ and maybe two or three kids did. Today, all the kids raise their hand.”
To add accountability and encouragement Cookie visited every classroom four times a year. She had each student proclaim his/her quarterly goals in front of the whole class. She was the original Goal Buddy. More than 200 Goal Buddies serve today.
Hoberman admires what his wife did and the connections she made.
“Cookie’s great with kids,” he said. “She’d visit with every one of those 550 kids, asking, ‘What is your goal? Are you going to make your goal?’ and saying, ‘I’m going to be back to check on you.’ She would encourage each child and build great rapport. The kids just loved her.”
She and Jerry discussed their Jewishness with children. Their three daughters got involved, too. Cookie even introduced her passion for bridge to kids.
“The Goal Buddy component became a much more important aspect then I ever thought it was going to be,” she said, “because of the personal contact with a real person outside the educational system taking interest in them. It had a lot influence. Kids perceived it as really important support.”
Tierre Tucker, 19, is a Creighton University student, but 12 years ago he was at Belvedere when Winners Circle began. He can attest to what “a great impact it makes just to know that somebody cares. With Winners Circle we actually had to work toward achieving goals. It gave us something to look forward to. It gave you a sense of accomplishment. That’s what I felt when I met my goals. It let me know I can do anything as long as I put forth great effort.” The Hobermans have mentored Tierre all these years. “They’re like another set of parents,” he said. He’s come far and aimed high under their guidance. “I owe that to the Hobermans,” he said. “I don’t think I would have known exactly how to get there. That’s what makes them such lovable people — their optimism for the future.”
Social skills are also part of the Winners Circle and thus kids are taught to make eye contact, shake hands firmly and speak up when meeting people.
“It’s teaching them about life,” Cookie said.
Goal Buddies, recruited from local corporations, now visit classrooms eight times a year. Captains, also recruited from the community, host quarterly celebrations recognizing individual and classroom achievements. Students and their families attend along with teachers, staff and special guests — from Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey.
OPS fully endorses Winners Circle. Mackiel recommends what schools make a good fit for the program. The district provides office space for WC staff. District researchers also provide data that helps WC staff track school performance/trends.
The program uses mantras, repeated by teachers, aides, Goal Buddies and Captains, to motivate and inspire. “Do you know that you’re winners?” “Yes,” children respond. “We know that you are winners, too.” “Are you smart?” “Yes.” “I know you are.” In unison, kids and adults say, “Going for my goal, going for the gold.”
The concept, Cookie said, is that “if you think you’re smart, you’ll be smart.”
Mottoes or platitudes aside, Hoberman said,“I am a businessman and I measure things. I’m not going to put all this work and effort into something that doesn’t show results.” “This isn’t just a feel-good program,” Cookie said.
They’ve got the numbers to show Winners Circle works. Three years after its inception Belvedere’s academic ranking went from 56th to 15th out of 57 schools. That improvement has been maintained and replicated in other schools. In the process of changing a school’s culture students feel better about themselves and when that occurs greater cooperation, motivation and achievement follow.
“Can you imagine the kind of joy and excitement Cookie and I receive to know we’re making a difference in people’s lives?” Hoberman said. The couple see it and hear it all the time — from parents who “put their arms around us and say, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing.’” to Winners Circle grads “who tell us, ‘I want you to know I’m still making my goals.’ That’s the greatest reward. What’s that worth?”
Besides improved test scores at Winners Circle schools, staff spend less time disciplining students, school spirit and pride soar and parents turn out in force for school activities. Ten schools serving 5,000 students have been transformed in this way. Two south Omaha schools will soon join the program. Ellis said the Hobermans made it all possible.
“I couldn’t imagine doing it without the support we’ve been given, the gift we’ve been given by their involvement,” Ellis said. “It allowed us to go to heights we had hoped for but didn’t have the means to accomplish. It wasn’t just the money, it was the caring. It gave us hope we could make things different.”
Success at Belvedere both mirrored and fed the turnaround at Tires Inc.. As the business began treating people right, customers and employees felt valued and profits rose. As students and teachers felt empowered, attitudes changed and test scores shot up. The good neighbor policy reaped dividends all around.
“The 60th and Ames store started making more money than the other stores when it had been at the bottom,” Cookie said. “Not only was Jerry feeling good about himself, his people were feeling good about themselves. There’s no substitute for giving and that’s what was happening at Tires Inc.. Similarly at Belvedere problems started to dissolve because people were getting on board with something positive.”
That first school year the program was in effect, attendance at the quarterly Winners Circle celebrations surged from 100 the first quarter to more than 1,000 the last quarter. The celebrations still attract big crowds today. It’s not uncommon for a child’s immediate and extended family to be there. Ellis said it may be the first time someone in the family has been honored at school.
Hoberman said that surge of support gives lie to the perception that parents in the inner city don’t take an active interest in their children’s education.
“These parents do care about their kids,” he said.
During a celebration each child is called on stage to receive a gold medal as the crowd applauds. There are hand shakes. Parents form a victory tunnel to greet and take pictures as their honored sons or daughters come off stage, beaming.
Holding a mike, Hoberman, his booming bass voice in fine form and his trademark pony tail flying, emceed the event himself in dynamic fashion those early years, “yelling and screaming” as he exhorted the crowd to give it up for the kids.
“He was a rock star leading this parade,” said the now retired Carol Ellis.
“He was powerful, he was wonderful,” said Winners Circle director Beth Smith. She heads a staff of five that do what Jerry and Cookie once did all by themselves.
Now captains do the emceeing, following Hoberman’s cheerleading example.
Ellis said the Hobermans personally saw to every detail at the start. Now that there’s a professional staff in place, the couple take a less hands-on role, but still keep a close tab on things. The fact they took Winners Circle on together, first at Tires Inc. and then in the schools, is typical of the way they tackle things.
“Cookie and I have been married 41 years and we’ve always been a team,” Jerry said, “so when I had problems in my business I would go home and we would talk about it. Cookie was always an integral part of what I did.” “And vice versa,” Cookie said, adding, “We work well together separately. Jerry does his thing, I do my thing, then we have meetings and we report back.”
It’s how they ran the United Jewish Appeal campaign one year. They’ve assumed many local leadership positions in the Jewish community over the years.
The Hobermans long ago earned what a Captain, Paul Bryant, calls “street cred” by proving they were genuine about making good on their promises and staying in it for the long haul. But they had to earn that trust.
“When we first went to Belvedere there were a lot of families that wanted to know what were these white Jewish people doing in our school. What do they want with our kids? And rightfully so,” Cookie said. “A few years later we received a wonderful letter from one of the parents that said, ‘I really didn’t believe you. I didn’t trust you. I was wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done in our school.’ And we’ve heard that more and more now.”
“When we started this program,” Jerry said, “we were told by educators and by members of the African American community ‘Don’t start this if you’re not going to keep doing it, because we’ve seen too many people make promises they don’t keep.’” As Cookie said, “You don’t go into the inner city and give them a taste of honey and then take it away from them.”
Bryant said the Hobermans live their values: “That’s what makes them so special. It’s easy to throw some money at it. But they invested themselves into it. Their commitment — that’s what makes them different.”
Longevity for the program is what the Hobermans want. It’s why, Cookie said, “we had to make provisions for it to go on past us.” When Jerry sold Tires Inc. in ‘98, finding more support became paramount as Winners Circle operates entirely on private donations. He directs the fund raising apparatus himself, sending out thousands of appeal letters. It costs some $45,000 to maintain Winners Circle in a school on an annual basis. With there about to be 12 participating schools, it takes half-a-million dollars to cover expenses.
With the help of major funders such as Dick and Mary Holland and Wally Weitz, the program has thrived and expanded.
When the Hobermans recruit new donors they let the children sell Winners Circle.
“When you’re with the kids they capture your heart,” he said. “We picked Dick (Holland) up one night and took him down to the Winners Circle celebration and that was it. The kids touched his and Mary’s heart and the Hollands just embraced the program. Dick said, ‘What do you need to expand it?’”
Holland is struck by what the Hobermans have accomplished.
“They’re highly compassionate people and also what they’ve done is an exercise in wisdom,” Holland said. “A lot of times disadvantaged children don’t have any belief in the future and Winners Circle overcomes a lot of that despair.”
Holland’s late wife put in motion the latest chapter in Winners Circle, a merger with the All Our Kids mentoring program. For all its success, Winners Circle stopped at the 6th grade, leaving students without the support of the program from middle school on. To address that interruption, a pilot program called Bright Futures Partnership continues the Winners Circle from 7th grade through high school, with mentoring offered in a seamless stream.
“We’ve accomplished our dream,” Hoberman said.
Those who know the Hobermans, like Frank Hayes, say they “are genuinely good people.” Beth Smith left corporate America five years ago looking to make a difference and she said, “I feel blessed to have come upon them (the Hobermans). Their heart and their passion is for the children.”
Hayes said the couple “are an extremely good example of the good that can come when people take a risk and step out of their comfort zone. They made a significant shift in the way they saw things and as a result of that they’ve lived a better, richer life. The return on their investment has been significant. Teachers, students, parents have benefited by it from interacting with them and Jerry and Cookie have benefited from interacting with them.”
Jerry Hoberman said his motivation for Winners Circle is in part “payback for all those years I made judgments of other people and I was insensitive toward individuals and their needs.” His awakening revealed “the inequality and struggles these kids have. I’ve gotten to know them and their families. I understand the challenges they have. Education is the road for them to move up and anything we can do to try and even the playing field makes us feel really good.”
“It’s changed our lives,” he said. “We’ve built friends and relationships that are just…” “Invaluable,” added Cookie, who said moving “beyond our own circles” has promoted personal growth. “It’s enhanced our lives,” Jerry said. “I like myself a lot better now…there were times when I really didn’t.”
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My work as a reporter intersected with history when I embedded myself with a group of Omahans traveling by motorcoach to witness the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. The University of Nebraska at Omaha‘s Department of Black Studies organized the trip and kindly invited me along and The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper generously picked up my tab. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I am glad I had. My diary or journal like story appeared in truncated form in The Reader.
All a journalist like me can hope to do in a situation like the frenzy around the inauguration is to try and get the facts straight and to make sense of a bigger-than-life event. I believe I succeeded.
NOTE: You can see photos from my trip and even spot me (I’m in a light blue-grey ski jacket with a blue stocking cap and I have eyeglasses on) at the following site: http://www.unomaha.edu/blst/
SPECIAL SCREENING: UNO Department of Black Studies chair Omowale Akintunde led the trip. Akintunde, who is also a filmmaker (see my story “Deconstructing What Race Means in a Faux Post-Racial World” about his feature debut, Wigger) directed an Emmy Award-winning documentary about the trip, An Inaugural Ride to Freedom. The doc is being shown at festivals and may end up on television one day. If you’re in Omaha, a special screening of the film is scheduled for October 26 at 7 p.m. at Film Streams, 1340 Mike Fahey Street. A post show Q & A with Akintunde will follow.
Get On the Bus, An Inauguration Diary
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of the story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Fifty of us from the metro area signed up to intersect with history. The chance to be at Barack Obama’s inauguration came via a special bus trip organized by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Department of Black Studies and sponsored by UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Dubbed An Inaugural Ride to Freedom: The Legacy of a People, a Movement and a Mission, the trip’s mode of transportation, a Navigator charter bus, was both practical and symbolic. Buses figured heavily in marshaling foot soldiers for the civil rights movement and addressing segregation in public schools.
The UNO trip’s “freedom riders” included folks with direct ties to the movement, including older African Americans for whom this journey held deep meaning. Some are retired now and others still engaged in the struggle. Edwardene Armstrong is a UNO Black Studies adjunct faculty member. Her husband Bob Armstrong, former Omaha Housing Authority director, consults with public housing officials across America and the globe. James Freeman directs UNO’s multicultural affairs office.
Leading the university figures along for the ride was charismatic UNO Black Studies Chair Omowale Akintunde. Several UNO students joined us. One high school student was on board as well: Omaha North senior Seth Quartey. Most students were sponsored by UNO.
Community members, such as activist Katrina Adams, Youngblood’s Barber Shop owner Clyde Deshazer and gospel playwright Janette Jones, had no direct ties to UNO but strong convictions about our mission. Friends, couples and families made the trip. The youngest rider, 10-year-old Carter Culvert, traveled with his mother, Jackie Culvert. A few folks went on their own, including this journalist. All but a few made our first D.C. visit on this ride. What a time to go.
Precursor – Get to Know Each Other
A Jan. 7 briefing at UNO’s Milo Bail Student Center ballroom brings participants together for the first time. The group’s diversity is soon evident. Blacks, whites, Hispanics. Young, middle-aged, seniors. Students, working stiffs, professionals.
From the start it’s obvious Akintunde, a tall, lithe man with a brass band voice and a bigger-than-life presence, is in charge. Also a filmmaker, he’s chronicling the trip in a documentary. We all sign releases for our comments and images to be used. The film premieres at UNO’s Malcolm X Festival in April.
As things develop the shooting threatens turning the trip into a tail-wags-the-dog scenario with all its set-ups and interviews. Some students serve as crew, holding the boom, operating lights/sound, carrying supplies. DP Andrew Koch flew in from the west coast for the gig. PA Stephanie Hearn did much of the prep work.
I leave the briefing with these thoughts: this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that sweeps us along on the tide of history; and we “tourists” constitute a microcosm of the broad-based support that made Obama’s election possible.
What follows are snapshots of our group’s four-day, 100-hour, 3,000-plus mile odyssey to embrace change and to participate in history.
Sunday, Jan. 18
Rolling Out – Get on the Bus
Lot C in UNO’s South Campus is our departure point. I arrive about 7:30 in the cold dim daylight. The bus is there, its engine idling, the lower baggage compartment opened. Some early arrivals have already loaded gear and settled in seats. I choose a mid-section spot befitting my middle-of-the-road nature. Over the next 75 minutes the bus fills out and the rituals of finding a place to sit, stowing away carry-ons in overhead bins and meeting-greeting fellow passengers ensues.
Obamamania appears low key for now. Only a few folks wear anything with Obama images or slogans. One woman climbing aboard is overheard telling another, “He’s not the chosen one.” The mood is a mix of sober expectancy and fan-filled ardor.
There are the usual stragglers and late arrivals. Some of us catch Zs, others chit chat. We’re finally all together and push off on time at 9. A 28-hour grind awaits us before we reach our hotel in Chestertown, MD, about 90 minutes from D.C.
All but a few seats are filled in what are cramped accommodations. For the biggest bodies the bus will mean contortions squeezing into narrow seats and relieving pressure on sore, stiff joints. Leg room is almost nonexistent. Everyone carves out a few inches of sanctuary in the tight quarters.
By the time we cruise I-80 in western Iowa, passing brown-white splotched fields sprouting hundreds of sculptural wind turbines, Akintunde’s filming is in full swing. He captures folks slumbering, reading, cell phoning, text messaging, you name it.
Reminders of this being a Soul Bus trip are the black themed movies that light up the tiny screens suspended overhead. By trip’s end we’ll have seen blockbusters like Ray to little gems like The Secret Life of Bees to old favs like Claudine to a Tyler Perry flick to a fresh bootlegged copy of Seven Pounds.
Akintunde, with Koch manning the digital video camera, grabs establishing shots and spot interviews where he can — on the bus, in parking lots, at rest stops, restaurants, the hotel. The two seemed joined at the hip in our close confines. The director, resplendent in jumpsuits, follows “emerging stories” in our ranks.
Some of us begin our own chronicles, snapping pics and journaling. One woman strides down the aisle, clicking away on her camera as she declares, “I’m going to get me some pictures right here.” In the case of this old-school reporter, notes are jotted on a pad and interviews committed to a micro cassette recorder.
We certainly all have our own story for being here. For retirees James and Jackie Hart it’s about bearing witness to the fulfillment of MLK’s vision.
“I can’t even describe how excited I am that we’re going to have a new black president,” Jim says. “I hope I’m around to see his eight years.”
“I Wanted to See It for Myself”
For Denise Howard, a wife, mother and student, it’s about being “part of change. I wanted to see it for myself, I wanted to feel the atmosphere. It was a must.”
For UNO public administration masters student Joe Schaaf it’s about being present at “a wound healing event, not only racially but politically. This is a huge breath of fresh air. There’s a momentum to change Washington. I view it as one of the top five moments in our country’s history.”
For Keisha Holloway the trip’s a homage to her late sister, Deanna Rochelle, who died only a week before. The two shared a passion for Obama. They voted together. “To kind of keep her legacy going I’m going for me and her,” says Keisha.
Bob Armstrong’s reasons are complex.
“My family’s life has been lived trying to fight for civil rights, especially for black people. Many of the civil rights leaders had been to my house to meet during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, including Dr. King,” says Armstrong, who was in D.C. for King’s ‘63 address. At the time, he said, “we didn’t know it was history. It became historic. It’s a different setting though (with Obama). This time we’re going knowing that history is being made and so here we are 45 years later for the culmination of all those activities with the election of a black president.”
The way Edwardene Armstrong sees it, Obama’s achievement is only possible because of the work done by many others before him. Freeman agrees. He was on the front lines of the civil rights movement at Tuskegee University, and he said Obama stands on the shoulders of countless freedom fighters.
“It means so much to me because we’ve gone through so much getting to this point,” Freeman says. “We’re not where we ought to be but we’ve come a long, long way. It wasn’t only black folks. During that time there was a sense of commitment and frankly I haven’t seen that until this campaign. Back when we used to march there were so many people of all colors, of all nationalities, and then you saw that this (past) year. Just an affirmation that now I see that vision come to pass. It makes you want to cry. I wish my dad and mom could have been here.”
Edwardene can’t help be struck by the fact the new president has a similar biracial background as her great-grandfather, the son of a black slave mother and white slave master. A black president seemed inconceivable to her.
Bob Armstrong never thought it would happen, period. “It’s such a historic moment I felt we had to be there,” he says. “It doesn’t mean all our problems are solved but it means it certainly gives black people the aspirations that they can do pretty much what they want to do if they’re willing to sacrifice and get themselves educated and do those things necessary to become successful.
“It’s an emotional time. You’re going to see a lot of tears shed when he takes the oath. Tears of happiness, tears of joy, tears of pride, tears of wonderment of thinking could this really be happening…”
The stories go on all day and into the night. We drive through light snow showers in Illinois and Indiana. We cross the gray-slated, ice-strewn Mississippi River. We skirt south of Chicago and Indianapolis. We pass through Columbus, Ohio. By the time we hit Maryland more snow showers appear.
Sleep is fitful for most. A blessed few sleep through anything: the racket/motion of the bus; the sound from the DVDs; the din from up front, where Akintunde and his self-described “big mouth” holds court, and in the back, where there’s often a conversation or card game going on. Laughter sporadically breaks out.
Call it a lesson in multiculturalism but the “soft music” we’re promised late at night turns out to be hardcore Hot Country, courtesy Rebel 105.9. The driver’s choice. Quite a contrast from Marvin Gaye. Rumblings of a mutiny go up. Most take it in good-humored stride. Thankfully, that driver’s relieved, as previously scheduled, in New Paris, Ohio. The drivers repeat the process on the return trip. The music goes off and order’s restored with an Earth, Wind and Fire concert DVD.
Monday, Jan. 19
The Day Before – Get Off the Bus
We roll across Maryland on I-70, traversing forested ridges. Fog hangs in the depressions. Mills line the riverways. Colonial-style brick homes predominate.
At a Shoney’s I’m treated to a spirited discussion by three UNO students. They embody the youth Obama ignited. Brandon Henderson says Obama’s message of unlimited possibilities “resonated for us. It brought that a lot closer. He’s not just a black candidate. All kind of people are going to be at this thing. It took everybody to get him to where he is right now — to elect him as president. I just want to be part of the atmosphere of Everything Obama.”
Joshua Tolliver-Humpal says Obama “did a great job tapping into that youthful idealism. The youth vote really came out strong. I just have to be there to see the most captivating figure in American politics get inaugurated.”
“Really this is the first significant, world-changing event in my lifetime,” Joseph Lamar says. “Everybody’s going to remember where they were at this particular time and I can say, ‘Hey, I was there.’”
Upon reboarding the bus after bathroom/food breaks Akintunde takes to saying, “Is anybody here that wasn’t here before?,’ or, ‘Is anybody not here that you saw before?’ It’s the ghetto roll check,” he explains.
We never lose anyone, but we do gain two members our second night. They’re Nigel Neary and Tom Manion, whose public housing corporation in Manchester, England Bob Armstrong consults. They “crash” our trip at his invitation. Their addition lends our trip an international perspective.
A sign of the times finds many wired to their cells, Ipods, Blackberries. A few break out lap tops, too. The result is a running commentary or living blog about this trip.
We cross the massive Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the fog shrouded ocean spread out before us and make it into Chestertown by mid-afternoon, where we’ll encamp overnight at a Comfort Suites. There’s a snafu with some room assignments but we manage checking in and freshening up for an evening sightseeing tour of D.C. Signs leading in and out of the capital warn of major delays tomorrow.
“I’m Going to Take My Foot”
In response to a Fox News report that space on the Mall will be constricted to one square foot per person, Clyde Deshazer says, “I’m going to take my foot.” Given the congestion no one’s sure what we’ll actually see tomorrow. “Whatever there is to see,” Deshazer says, “I want to see it. I haven’t seen any part of history.”
Like many elders on the trip Deshazer grew up in the South. He’s struck by how a fractious nation moves toward solidarity at Obama’s lead. “I am so glad all races are coming together and focusing in one direction. The people coming together for one common purpose — that’s what gets me. That’s a soft spot in my life.”
“It’s a beautiful thing,” adds Henderson.
For tonight’s jaunt into D.C. we’re joined by Willistine Harris, a former student of Akintunde’s who lives and works in the area. She’s the trip’s consultant.
We spot our first vendors. Once in the thick of the government district we get an on-the-scene sense for the immensity of it all. Streets are choked with vehicles, including buses like ours. Tourists overrun the sidewalks. We sneak peaks of monolithic buildings and famous monuments. But we don’t leave the bus until on the waterfront, where we take in the harbor and an open-air seafood market. Dinner’s an everything-you-can-eat buffet at Phillips, which Akintunde selected “so you will see some flavor” of D.C., where he once taught.
On the bus back to the hotel Sharif and Gabriel Liwaru say what they most look forward to is being amid masses who crave the positive social change Obama advocates. They see his inauguration as a catalyst for themselves and thousands like them to go back home and inaugurate change in their communities. Sharif is president of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.
At the hotel it’s soon lights out as we have an ungodly early-to-rise call. We’re slated to leave by 4:30 to beat the rush to the Mall.
Tuesday, Jan. 20
Inauguration Day – Get on the Mall
We’re psyched for the siege ahead. Braced for swarms of people. Schooled on the Metro rail system’s dos and donts. We’re to stay as one group. Harris has secured us Smart Cards to expedite our way through the stations. We pack all the necessities — sandwiches, snacks, drinks, maps. Layered clothing means double pants or thermal underwear for what will be hours in the frigid cold
As we gear up Akintunde tells me our diversity reflects the Obama phenomenon.
“What Barack Obama says is true. That despite our differences what really bonds us as a people is our commonality as Americans. And when we can get beyond the pettiness of racial divisiveness, difference of religious opinion, and start to think of ourselves as a collective unit, we can become a more powerful, more resolute people who can achieve anything we set our minds to.”
He’s pleased how smoothly the trip’s went thus far. “I mean, this could have gone so many different ways,” he says.
On the bus we’re sleep-deprived adventurers eager to grab some rest before the main leg of the journey unfolds. Janette Jones says our tiredness will soon seem trivial once “we see the fruit of our labor,” meaning the inauguration. “We’ve gone through the wilderness and we’re stepping over into the promised land now.”
“It’s worth it,” adds Andrew Gaines.
Nearing D.C. we get stuck in a traffic snarl on the Capital Beltway. Many others headed out early, too. Some folks abandon their vehicles and walk to the New Carrollton station. We inch along and after an hour or so finally make the station exit. Akintunde emphasizes, “Don’t panic…be vigilant…stay together… We’ll be cool.” We’re let out a couple blocks from the station. Parking’s at a premium. We break into small groups, huddling near for warmth. Prayers are offered. My group’s leader, Sharif, looking sharp in his dreds, says:
“Lord, we ask you this day to bless us on our journey, to keep us safe and to keep us warm, that we may enjoy this opportunity and that we may utilize this in our lives and in our communities when we get home, and to take the energy we’ve gathered here and use it to do good. Amen.” Amen.
Moving in formation, we come upon an ever-growing line outside the station that eventually stretches for blocks. Akintunde’s plea, “No gaps,” becomes our tongue-in-cheek clarion call. It’s easier said than done in what Deshazer calls “belly press” tight conditions. Our difficulty closing the gaps prompts Miletsky to crack, “Our civil rights marching is a little rusty — we haven’t had a movement in awhile.”
“Gracious and Great”
Everyone’s in a good mood. The positive energy visceral. You can’t help observe and feel it. A woman behind me sums up the vibe with, “This is how I feel — I’m feeling gracious and great today.” Perfect gratitude.
Zebulon Miletsky, UNO Black Studies’ resident historian, puts the situation in context. “It’s just a beautiful moment to be here, to document it, and that’s what we’re all doing — we’re all documenting this history for ourselves, and to me that’s the highest form of history. That’s our history as African Americans — oral tradition. To pass that oral history along to each generation And this story will be passed down and it will be written about. It’s already being written about. And so many times our history has been written by other people. Here we are as a people witnessing and documenting our own history and serving as the primary source.”
Gaines says he feels “so blessed” to be here with family — daughters Frelima Gaines and Gabriel Liwaru and son-in-law Sharif Liwaru — “and to experience this with so many diverse people. We’ve all come together for this historic moment I think in hope and great expectation for that better part of us that’s being expressed today,” he says. “It’s an excellent feeling. Indescribably great.”
Katrina Adams rode the Obama Express to this place as a grassroots supporter. She prays this is not the end. “This is one of those moments when I stepped up and felt like I could do something — to open the lines of communication, to let people know that regardless of what stance you’re taking you can always do more. You can speak your voice and let that be heard,” she says. “I just hope that feeling we started off with when Obama announced his candidacy replenishes itself and that people are not only touched and inspired but they’re called into action.”
Her fondest wish is that as her son “grows up as a biracial child he’ll understand there’s no limit to himself.”
Speaking of mothers and sons, Jackie Culvert brought 10-year-old Carter “so he will be able to see the change for America and be able to remember this moment.”
Every few minutes cheers go up as trains arrive and depart, moving us nearer the station. Security helicopters hover above. At 8:45 we finally make it inside. There, the crowd packs in even tighter. No shoving though. We’re connected to some living, breathing organism that moves in fits and starts. We’re one.
Akintunde says, “I don’t know why I’m not getting angry, I’m just getting more excited.” “More energized,” a woman says.
Terri Jackson-Miller marvels how “everybody’s in the same spirit…very cooperative. No one’s pushing or throwing attitudes, and I just think that’s all part of what’s out there right now, what’s happening today. Truly a blessed day. This breaks ground. The unknown is now known. It’s going to be a life changing experience.”
Between the magnanimity of the people and the cool-headed actions of cops and Metro workers, who closely monitor traffic flow, thousands safely snake through the station. Only a certain number are allowed on the platform. Once out of the crowd’s grip it’s a release and relief. Amazingly, the entire UNO contingent makes it through intact, amid hoops and hollers, all boarding the same Orange Line train. The empty cars fill in no time. It’s 10:30.
Our prearranged stop: Foggy Bottom. A half-hour ride. From there, a 20-minute walk to the Lincoln Memorial, our target area for watching the big event.
Jackson-Miller says the teeming crowds who’ve come from everywhere “really show the magnitude of this whole thing.” Confirmation is as near as the woman sitting beside me. She’s with the Red Rose Sisters from Miami, Fla. She “just had to be part of history.” Later, a man from Ireland joins me. He says Obama’s election night victory speech inspired him to cross the pond for this moment.
Akintunde announces our Foggy Bottom stop and we’re off, charging into daylight on the George Washington University campus. Vendors galore greet us, hawking Obama caps, buttons, key chains, T-shirts — “My President is Black” reads one. Food trucks do a brisk business. As Akintunde promised, “Everybody and their mamas’ selling things.” The cordoned-off district funnels a constant stream of people into the street, onto the sidewalks. A few on bikes. One atop a skateboard. We move in unison. So much activity, yet so quiet, so still. We’re like a great flock of believers bound for church. Serene. Sharing a sense of purpose and faith in a new era. A placards reads, “We Have Overcome — A New Age of Freedom.”
National Guard troops patrol select intersections.
We reach the base of the Lincoln Memorial at 11:15 and soon find the monument overrun with spectators. We make our way down to a grass field lining the reflecting pool, where thousands gather to watch a jumbo screen. We’re a mile from the Capitol, the whole of the National Mall spread out before us. It’s a grand sight with all the people, the flags, the monuments, the pageantry. Magisterial.
So many families are here. Indeed, it’s like a giant family reunion picnic. You don’t know most of the faces but you’re all linked. It’s our Woodstock.
“This is It, This is It”
Though removed from the pomp, circumstance and fanfare we’re still participants in this ritual and reverie. We angle within 25 yards of the screen, our eyes fixed on the ceremony. The mood, upbeat and solemn. Respectful. Swells of cheers and muffled applause rise as Michelle Obama and Joe Biden are intro’d. Aretha Franklin’s soulfulMy Country, Tis of Thee sets it off again. Biden’s oath of office elicits a big response. Rick Warren’s invocation is well-received. The buzz for Obama’s oath grows. When a classical musical interlude ends the crowd senses what’s next. “This is it, this is it,” a mother tells her girl, holding her tightly. The swearing-in rates a huge response, chants of “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma” lifted up. Many folks hold cameras aloft to steal away what they can for posterity. Others share the moment with friends and loved ones on their cells. Tears well up in Katrina Adams’ eyes. Mine, too. Hugs and kisses.
The love-in’s repeated again upon Obama introduced as the 44th President of the United States. People’s faces betray awe, joy, pride. His address merits rapt attention. He hits all the right notes with his call for resolve, common purpose and a new era of responsibility, moving the crowd to shout out approval.
At “Thank you and God bless you” another crescendo, more words invoked, the Star Spangled Banner, and then it’s over. In the afterglow people don’t quite know what to do. Many, including our troupe, tour the Lincoln Memorial, lingering to soak in the panorama. One more tangible link to this moment. Much picture-taking. We do the same at the Vietnam War Memorial. The procession out of the Mall an orderly exodus. Even two hours after the inauguration the people file by.
Some of us get separated in the human stream. After the long walk back getting inside the Foggy Bottom stop takes an hour due to the logjam of people. We’re exhausted, chilled, overladen with souvenirs but still of good cheer.
Impressions from our members:
“It was exhilarating. It was not so much the fact of him being black, it’s just the point America has come together for the first time in unity, and that’s what his message was all about — unity. It was very inclusive.”
“I feel like I’ve made it to the top of the mountain. It’s an awesome feeling.”
“It gives everybody hope because the door has been opened and so now we can come in.”
“It’s confirmed, it’s done, he’s safe, his family’s safe, and we’re going to be OK. I can’t feel my fingers but I’m happy.”
“I’m ecstatic. I feel very hopeful we’re going to experience a new resolve as a country — to reenergize, refurbish, redevelop, reexplore…to make this American Dream we have more of a reality. I’m excited for the future. I’m engaged now.”
“Wasn’t it beautiful? We actually have a black president. It means we’ve evolved as a nation. You can literally feel the weight lifted. I’m amazed.”
“I feel real proud. I know with this change everything’s going to be alright.”
We all make it back to the Carrollton station and bus. Akintunde leads us in singing the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and the Star Spangled Banner. Linda Briggs offers a prayer thanking God for seeing us through. At dinner that night the event-filled day’s relived over and over. It’s a blur. Sleep comes easy.
The Day After – Get on Home
The enthusiasm’s waned some. We’re still recovering, still digesting. The trip home is long but we have the satisfaction of achieving our mission. James Hart gives thanks for our being delivered back where we started. The bus empties, the cameras record. Goodbyes said.
Joining the enormous throng for this slice of Americana gave each of us a personal stake in history, in something far greater than ourselves. Whether riding the human waves on the Mall, milling about the masses on monument row or navigating the gridlock in the Metro, we found ourselves literally and figuratively carried away. No matter how small, we played our parts in this celebration, culmination, commemoration. We made this more perfect union and fervent prayer sing. Hallelujah!
- Obama: ‘Much work to be done’ (politico.com)
- How the Stimulus Is Changing America (time.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Rich Music History Long Untold is Revealed and Celebrated at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Coming to America: The Immigrant-Refugee Mosaic Unfolds in New Ways and in Old Ways In Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Bertha’s Battle, Berth Calloway, the Grand Lady of Lake Street, Struggles to Keep the Great Plains Black History Museum Afloat
I have written and continue to write many stories about the African-American community in Omaha. One of the first articles I did in that regard was in 1996 about Bertha Calloway and her Great Plains Black History Museum for The Reader (www.thereader.com).. Since then, I’ve since written about her and her museum, which subsequently fell on hard times and closed, a few more times. She’s one of those force of nature characters you just cannot ignore, embodying a formidable spirit that demands your respect and attention.
Her vision for her museum has yet to be realized but there are promising new developments that a future blog post, in the form of a recent story I did, will detail.
Berth Calloway, the Grand Lady of Lake Street, Struggles to Keep the Great Plains Black History Museum Afloat
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.coom)
These are hard times indeed for the Great Plains Black History Museum and its 71-year-old founder, director, curator and guardian, Bertha Calloway.
The future of the museum, at 2213 Lake Street, is in doubt unless significant funding can be secured. For months now, it’s survived on meager admission income, a few small donations and grants, and the limited personal savings of Calloway’s family.
Added to these difficulties, Calloway’s recently experienced personal setbacks and tragedies. In 1993, she underwent brain surgery to remove a benign tumor and then lost her husband of 47 years, James, when he died of a ruptured artery. A grandson was murdered in New Orleans in 1994.
She continues under medical care today and sometimes walks with the aid of a cane. One of the cruelest setbacks, though, has been the partial memory loss plaguing her since the operation. As one whose work depends on a steel-trap mind, she’s keenly frustrated when once indelibly etched names, dates, places and events elude her — just beyond her recall.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.Not now. Not in what should be golden years for her and halcyon days for the museum.
Still, she hasn’t lost hope of realizing her “perfect dream” — a fully funded, staffed and restored institution free of the financial difficulties that have nagged it over its 20-year history.
Calloway saved the turn-of-the-century building housing the museum from the rubble heap in 1974, when she and her husband bought it. The 1906 red-brick building — headquarters for the original Nebraska Telephone Co. — was designed by famed Omaha architect Thomas Kimball. With the help of volunteers and a $101,000 grant from the federal Bicentennial Commission, the couple converted the structure into the museum, opening it in 1976, and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Now, however, Calloway sees the building she put so much of her life into deteriorating around her. Major repairs and renovations are needed, including replacement of the leaky roof and installation of new climate control and lighting systems. IN some exhibition spaces, ceiling pane;s are water-stained and others are missing, exposing warped wood. Bare light bulbs hang overhead in many rooms.
There is no paid staff except for William Reaves, a jack-of-all-trades on loan from the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Without anyone to catalog the museum’s extensive archives, heaps of newspapers, magazines and photographs sit in open boxes and on shelves. Calloway, whose ill health has forced her to slow down, relies on her son Jim to help run things. Money’s so tight that paying the utilities often is a leap of faith.
At least she can joke about it. When Reaves answers the phone one recent morning, she instantly quips, with her sweet, sing-song voice an enchanting smile: “Tell ‘em the money’s on the way.”
The call was from a Smithsonian Institution researcher, among many scholars who frequently use the museum as a resource.
Despite a glowing national reputation, the museum’s always only barely scraped by. Calloway’s kept it intact through guile, gut, sweat, spit, polish and prayer. Lots of prayer.
“People just don’t understand how difficult it’s been to keep it going,” she says, “until they come through it and see how much is in here and how much work it takes. It’s even more of a struggle now than ever before. We’re always on the verge of closing. But I don’t want to sound too negative. I think our main focus should be on keeping the building open and providing jobs for people to give tours, file, catalog. Those are things that could be going on right now, but it takes money, and I hope we get the same amount of money from the city that other museums get.”
Calloway feels her museum has long been neglected by local funding sources in comparison with mainstream museum such as the Joslyn and Western Heritage. She’s had little cause for hope lately, especially when a major funder — United Arts Omaha — withdrew its support. She poured out her discontent over UAO’s action in a passionate editorial published in the Omaha World-Herald.
Other than occasional benefit events, the museum’s fundraising efforts have been dormant recently. But they are being revived, along with a planned membership drive, following a board of directors reorganization. Although Calloway tries to remain diplomatic about the museum’s second-class status, her supporters do not.
“It’s an embarrassment to her that the museum is treated the way it is by the larger community,” says Larry Menyweather-Woods, an associate professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It’s representative of the fact that many people don’t consider our (black) history to be that important.”
According to Vicky Parks, a librarian at Omaha’s W. Dale Clark Main Library, “She does not get the respect and support she deserves. I’m truly saddened that we have not as a community chosen to provide the financial resources to institutionalize that museum.”
Aside from a trace of bitterness she can’t disguise and a rare memory lapse that upsets her, Calloway still has a sharp, often biting wit and and feisty — even stubborn –determination to see this latest crisis through. The museum truly is her mission, and she vows “to keep it going…so that my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren know that African-Americans were involved in the settlement of this country and the settlement of the West in particular.
“That’s important because it makes you feel like you belong.”
Calloway’s own displaced sense of belonging began as a young girl in Denver, where her family settled after too many years of Jim Crow discrimination in the South.
She resisted the one-sided history taught in school that conspicuously ignored blacks. Instead, she embraced the anecdotes told by her grandfather, George “Dotey Pa” Pigford, who regaled her with tales of his cowboy exploits in Texas and the accomplishments of black pioneers and settlers she never heard about in class. Those stories inspired her to learn more about the rich heritage of blacks on the Great Plains and eventually led her to become a serious collector, preserver and interpreter of black history.
“The history I was forced to learn and hated just consisted of white history,” she says. “I never felt like I belonged to that kind of history. I knew there had to be some other kind where black people fit in other than slavery. One reason I started the museum is that I realized when my children were growing up there wasn’t anything in the public schools about African-Americans.
“People must see black history in order for the images they have of black people to change. That’s what our museum is all about. It’s about revealing a history that’s been withheld.”
Calloway has displayed that history in exhibitions and discussed it in countless lectures given at the museum, public schools, universities, historical societies. She’s also lent her expertise to documentaries and books and currently is collaborating with Alonzo Smith, a research historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on an illustrated history of blacks in Nebraska. Dozens of awards honoring her achievements hang on the wall of the Great Plains Black Museum.
On this particular day, someone asks if she’d ever thought if becoming a teacher. “I am a teacher,” she bristles. “You’re learning right now, aren’t you?”
Properly chastened, the questioner asks more precisely if she’d considered a formal teaching career. “The approach is too disciplined for me,” she answers. “I think it’s more fun to jump up and do what I want instead of staying inside a classroom all day.”
As confirmation of her free-spirited ways, her son says, “My mother’s always been an adventurous type of person. As a young boy I can remember plenty of times when she’d go out ‘scavengin’, as she called it, into condemned houses and at work sites” to retrieve artifacts.
Her scavenging netted many museum finds. Other item were donated by individuals and families who — encouraged by her appeals — scoured attics, basements, cellars and garages for precious remnants of the past that might otherwise have been trashed.
Before opening the museum, her own collection threatened over-running the family home at 25th and Evans, where she raised her son and two daughters — Beverly and Bonnie. She has five grandchildren and four great-granchildren. “Our house was so full of magazines, books and things,” she says, “that my beloved husband was glad to see them leave, please believe me.
“I still have lots of things in my own personal collection that I’m sure my son would love me to lose,” she adds with a chuckle.
Calloway’s private stash practically bursts from a small museum office that includes a holster and branding iron used by her grandfather on cattle drives.
Indeed, poking around the museum is like rummaging through Grandma Calloway’s attic. Unlike the foreboding marble palaces that traditionally house history and tend to embalm it, the museum’s a homey, unpretentious, slightly disheveled place whose small rooms are overstuffed with a hodgepodge of memorabilia lovingly scaled down to human size.
The exhibits range from African art to artifacts of black settlers, soldiers, musicians and athletes and to interpretive histories of civil rights leaders. A strong local flavor is preserved in exhibits devoted to Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, social activist Malcolm X, major league baseball pitcher Bob Gibson, and so forth. The inviting displays beckon visitors to linger and soak up the living history they commemorate.
Calloway’s charming presence is felt throughout, whether chatting with visitors or bearing witness to some of the history-making events documented there, including early civil rights demonstrations in Omaha led by the late Father John Markoe.
Despite her health problems, she’s still at the museum most every day and pores over materials at home until the wee hours of the morning.
“Even though the last few years have been very traumatic for her, she’s still driven,” her son says. “She’s up until midnight, one o’clock every night doing research. It’s just embedded in her. I think it’s her love for the history and a very legitimate concern for the direction the community is going.”
Calloway explains it this way: “I love what I’m doing. I really do. The kids want me to stop, but I’d just as soon be there as sitting at home watching television. I figure I might as well get up, come on down to the museum and do a few little things that make a difference.”
During a recent lunch at the nearby Fair Deal Cafe, whose bustling atmosphere and authentic soul food put Calloway in a reflective mood about the neighborhood she first came to in 1946:
“Things were jumpin’, as they used to say. You didn’t have to leave 24th Street to get anything you wanted. That’s a fact.”
The Dreamland Ballroom, among other now defunct night spots, featured jazz legends. And the area thrived with activity.
Driving around the neighborhood she’s been such an integral part of, Calloway expressed sadness at the empty storefronts and vacant lots and indignation at the closed Kellom Pool, since reopened.
“I love North Omaha,” she says. “But I hate to see the old buildings torn down. A lot of history is destroyed, and that includes North 24th Street.”
She believes that, with enough help, the museum “could be an anchor” of stability in these unstable times. “Other states don’t have such a resource. People come from all over to research here. Twenty-Fourth Street could be beautiful again,” she adds, wistfully.
Her dream, like her life, has been all about defying convention:
• It’s why, when traveling by bus en route to Texas years ago, she refused to budge when the driver commanded she and her sister move to the back upon crossing the mythical Mason-Dixon Line.
• Why she participated in peaceful demonstrations that helped integrate Omaha’s Peony Park and downtown lunch counters.
• Why she organized such black-pride events as the Stone Soul Picnic and Miss Black Nebraska Beauty Pageant.
• Why she can say “I know I’m a pioneer” without sounding boastful.
• Why she’s invested so much of her life in an old building on the depressed near north side and still searched for artifacts from Pullman Porters and others.
Ask her what’s so special about saving Pullman Porter history anyway, and she replies: “We want to help people in this neighborhood understand their father and grandfathers worked on the railroad in a dignified way. It isn’t something just for black people. A good education is very important and must include African-American history.”
Calloway’s ignored doubters along the way. Her late mother, Lucy Carter, who operated Carter’s Cafe on North 24th Street, wanted Calloway to follow in her footsteps there. But Bertha had different ideas.
Long before there was one, she says, “my dream was to be another Oprah Winfrey, and also start something like this (museum). My mother always thought I was kind of crazy.”
Calloway did her Oprah thing, working as a public affairs professional at WOW-TV in the ‘60 and ‘70s and becoming one of the first black women in the Nebraska broadcast industry.
Through good times and bad, she says, “a dream and a loyal, faithful man kept me going. I had a husband who was very supportive of everything I did. He always made me feel like I could do whatever I wanted to do.” She despairs her “main support” is gone now, as are the “militant friends” she waged the fight for equality with.
She sees the museum’s fight as emblematic of the plight of Omaha’s black community and challenges others to carry on the struggle — with or without her.
“I’m 71 now and my health is failing,” she says. “The torch has to be passed. It’s just a matter of keeping things going.”
And keeping the dream alive.
Like a mighty flame still burning brightly — old soul Bertha Calloway illuminates the past and casts a light on the future.
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- El Museo Latino in Omaha Opened as the First Latino Art and History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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This article is an example of my social justice writing. The publisher of The Reader (www.thereader.com) asked me to do the piece because of his own social justice bent. I am glad I did the story, which was originally published in The Reader. This is an expanded version of that story. It profiles two men, John Markoe and Denny Holland, some followers, and their fight for equal rights in a discriminatory, intolerant time.
©by Leo Adam Biga
For a band of troublemakers, they were an unimposing lot. Yet, in an era when defacto segregation ruled, a small, racially mixed group of well-scrubbed, mostly college-age reformers — many with little experience beyond the classroom — rose up in the late 1940s to challenge the embedded discrimination and division that defined Omaha then. Along the way, they forced Omaha to confront some unpleasant truths and to make some long overdue changes.
Using fairly bold strategies and tactics in the fight against racism, ones duplicated later by more famous civil rights campaigns down south, the activists were viewed as militants. Staging non-violent sit-ins, marches and boycotts, they helped overturn unfair employment practices and opened public places to all. In the process, they took on powerbrokers and exposed inequality. They made enemies. They fell short of goals. They won small victories. More importantly, they broke down barriers and initiated changes whose reverberations are still being felt today.
These unlikely radicals formed the De Porres Club. Its patron namesake was Blessed Martin de Porres, a 16th century black friar who devoted his life to serving the disadvantaged. Led by a stubborn old priest, Fr. John Markoe, and his loyal young acolyte, Denny Holland, the Club worked in large and small ways to assist minorities. It helped some find jobs. It distributed food and clothes. It acted on individual complaints about discrimination. It studied “the race problem” by organizing forums and gathering data. It rallied support for wrongfully accused persons. It kept vigils when blacks moved into hostile white areas. It launched public pressure campaigns against companies that did business in north Omaha and yet refused hiring blacks.
“The problem was to get the damn wall knocked down that was holding and locking people, both physically and mentally, in this terrible system racism had built on Omaha’s near north side,” said the late Denny Holland in Camille Steed’s 1992 Nebraska Educational Television documentary A Street of Dreams. “And so we turned our efforts to what some, I suppose, would term more militant” means.
In one of his most famous denouncements of racism, the late John Markoe said, “Racism is a God Damned thing. And that’s two words — God Damned.” In an article he penned for the Interracial Review, he said, “…the race problem is a moral one.”
The first De Porres boycott targeted a dry cleaners. When that action prompted the firm to integrate its employee rolls, the Club moved on to other employers. Faced with pickets, leaflets, petitions and boycotts, the Coca Cola Bottling plant, Reed’s Ice Cream Co. and the Omaha Street Railway Co. gave-in to De Porres demands and hired blacks. The Club took on its biggest target in the local board of education, which didn’t hire blacks to teach at the secondary level and excluded them from teaching in white schools altogether. The years-long fight finally got the desired remedy. The Club also got such businesses as Dixon’s Restaurant, Crosstown Skating Rink and Peony Park to open their facilities to everyone.
Walking the Talk and Lighting the Torch
In an era when the Catholic Church discouraged blacks from its own congregations, Catholics Markoe and Holland lived their faith. “They walked and talked what they believed in. They were very brazen and unusual” for the time, said Omaha Star publisher and editor Marguerita Washington, a De Porres member in the late ‘50s.
During the Club’s 14-year life, volunteers came and went. When Holland stepped aside, Wilbur Phillips took up the mantle. Most regard the work as a defining moment in their lives. For white De Porres veterans Agnes (Wichita) Stark, Millie (Heifner) Barnet and Virginia (Frederick) Walsh it was an eye-opening experience that sparked a lifelong commitment to social causes. “It was kind of a social awakening,” said Stark, a Creighton student at the time. “I didn’t realize all the problems that existed for blacks. I felt the injustice of it all. That’s how I got interested.” Barnet recalled going to her first De Porres meeting “and just in that one evening, I felt my whole world turned around. It was like suddenly I saw how appalling things were. I was immediately put in touch. It made quite an impact on my life.” For Walsh, “It made college so much more meaningful. I learned we had to change what could be changed. I was just glad to be part of it.” All three women credit the De Porres experience with, as Walsh said, “lighting a torch” for their later involvement in the women’s and peace movements.
Then there’s the effect blacks felt. “We not only formed a family, we got along very wonderfully. We tried our best to bring people together,” said Irv Poindexter, one of the Club’s youngest members. “You know what? It was the best thing that ever happened to Omaha’s black community,” said Helen Jones Woods, a member along with her late husband, Alfred. She said De Porres contributed “to better jobs and better advantages for blacks” — she and her husband included. “Today, I would say because of the De Porres Club a lot of places that didn’t want us, do now, or at least they tolerate us,” Washington said. “A lot of things I am doing today I couldn’t do then. It started changing things. It helped in ending Jim Crow.”
Helen Jones Woods
Unless one lived then, it’s hard to understand just how separate and unequal Omaha was for racial minorities. “Omaha had a bad reputation among African Americans,” said Washington, who was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., but often visited Omaha, where she attended UNO. “The segregation here was very bad,” said Woods, who grew up in segregationist Mississippi.
Choose any quality of life index and blacks lagged far behind whites. On average, they made less money, lived in subpar housing and had less formal education. Blacks were frozen out of a wide spectrum of jobs, restricted to living in certain areas and refused service or admittance at many establishments. They were denied basic rights as part of an insidious, institutional Jim Crow culture that made segregation the rule, if not the law. An unspoken state of apartheid existed in all but name.
It was amidst this pervasive oppression the De Porres Club was born. It took an outsider to do it. De Porres founder John Markoe was a strapping, charismatic Jesuit priest regarded as a renegade by peers and superiors at Creighton University. A few years before, he’d been booted out of St. Louis, where he’d agitated for similar changes to the status quo. He’d also made waves in Detroit and Denver. In his life, his ministry and his writings, he attacked “the heresy of racism.”
Running against the current was a way of life with Markoe, who left behind the comforts of privilege for a hardscrabble life. Before ever joining the priesthood, he was a railroad foreman, an athlete, a cavalry officer, a lumberjack and a derelict. Alcoholism plagued him for years. During a checkered military career he rode in campaigns against rebel Yaqui Indians and Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Between his drunken brawls — that saw him break up more than one bar and spend more than one night in jail — and his penchant for standing up for minorities, he was always in hot water. He was nearly expelled from West Point and was leading a 10th cavalry regiment of black troops when court martialled and relieved of both his command and commission.
His rebel ways followed him into the Jesuit order, where he became an unpopular champion of civil rights before the cause had a name. In 1917, he, his priest brother William Markoe and a third priest made a covenant “to give and dedicate our whole lives…for the salvation of the Negroes in the United States.” As he later did here, Markoe heeded this calling by immersing himself in the black districts in and around St. Louis, where he set up community centers, chapels and programs. After helping integrate St. Louis University, he was sent packing to Omaha.
Soon after forming the De Porres Club at Creighton in 1947, the group was kicked off campus. The Club next operated from a storefront on North 24th Street. The Omaha De Porres Center began as a grassroots social service mission before finding a niche as a social action group. Early on, center staff maintained a library, held youth programs and rallies and gathered clothes and food for the needy. As part of its education/advocacy calling, the Club: held public forums on racism; organized a lecture series featuring such nationally renown speakers as NAACP general secretary Walter White and baroness Catherine de Hueck, the founder of havens for the poor known as Friendship House; presented such anti-discrimination plays as Trial By Fire; and pressed city, civic and business leaders, to little avail, for more progressive policies. These efforts did spur the creation of a city human relations committee.
Although too controversial to be sanctioned by any religious body, the Club did draw many members from St. Benedict’s the Moor Catholic Church, then a separate “mission” church reserved for blacks, who were unwelcome anywhere else. Markoe and St. Benedict’s pastor, John Killoren, both sought a change at St. Ben’s from its mission status — which condoned segregation — to standard territorial standing. Their different approaches to the issue left them at odds when solidarity, not friction, was needed. In the end, St. Ben’s was made a regular parish church.
Markoe’s staunchest ally was Mildred Brown, founder, publisher and editor of the Omaha Star, which she made the group’s crusading mouthpiece. The Star printed summaries of minutes from weekly Club meetings, featured stories charting the progress of De Porres actions and ran Club-penned editorials critical of racial bias. When the Club could no longer afford leasing space in its storefront site, Brown took in the orphaned group, who made the Star’s back rooms their offices.
As the Club became more entrenched, it allied itself with the local chapter of the NAACP, the Omaha Urban League and ministers of area black churches, who helped give the fledgling group credibility and spread word of its actions. A key De Porres supporter and advisor was Whitney Young, who left the directorship of the local Urban League to head the national organization. The Club also aligned itself with CORE, the national Congress for Racial Equality. De Porres chapters sprung up in Kansas City, Mo. and Denver, Co.
If Markoe was the De Porres Club’s conscience, then Denny Holland was its passion. Holland was a quiet Kansas World War II vet in whom Markoe saw a kindred contrariness. It was as a Creighton student Holland became a protege and confidante of Markoe’s and the Club’s original president. His social consciousness was peaked by a stint working at Chicago’s Friendship House. As he did there, he lived among the poor black residents he dedicated himself to, often boarding with families with whom he carried on the fight. Even after stepping away from the Club to work full-time as an insurance salesman and to raise a family of seven, he still kept watch and occasionally made waves.
Acting Against A Torrent of Disapproval
Markoe and Holland are gone now, but De Porres members well recall their guiding the struggle to get a resistant citizenry and leadership to do the right thing. Agnes Stark said Markoe was “a consummate leader” who “pushed us laggards along. Although a gentle man, he could get pretty angry.” Holland, meanwhile, was “very calm, always had the right words and was prepared. They worked very well together” in devising strategies, said Virginia Walsh.
The two men often began anti-discrimination campaigns by first appealing, either in person or by letter, to employers. De Porres delegations would meet with owners, managers or CEOs. If no corrective measure was taken, they organized more direct actions. They might hold a demonstration or distribute handbills. Or, in the case of the street-railway company, the public was urged to not ride streetcars and buses and, if they must, to wage a nuisance protest by paying the fare with 18 pennies.
They did all this in the face of criticism and opposition. Threats were made. Some suspected a snitch in the De Porres ranks. Holland’s suspicions that the phones were tapped, the mail monitored and certain members followed were more or less confirmed years later when his Freedom of Information/Privacy Act request netted a cache of FBI files that had been kept on he and the Club. Marguerita Washington said her aunt, Mildred Brown, was offered a top advertising post by a major Omaha employer on the condition she stop her civil rights advocacy in the Star.
“What we were doing was very much socially disapproved of,” said Walsh. She recalled soliciting signatures for a petition aimed at getting the transit system to hire black drivers. “People would say, emphatically, ‘No.’ They called us N…lovers. There was this confidence people had that God wanted it this way. I didn’t know religion could be used to justify a status quo so pernicious. Fr. Markoe was trying to reform the church at a time when it really didn’t want to be reformed.”
Early De Porres member Tessie Edwards said, “It was very scary, because the climate in Omaha was not ripe for” change. Markoe and Holland soldiered on despite having “doors slammed in their face. They had courage and commitment. And they convinced high-powered people this change was necessary,” she added.
In Street of Dreams, Holland described what it’s like pushing against stiff resistance. “It’s like you’re going up a mountain in a great big semi. All the tires are flat, and you’re the only one pushing and everybody that comes by says, Don’t go too fast. The problem isn’t going too fast, the problem is — can you move the damn thing? You soon see that what’s inferred by don’t go to fast is — don’t change anything.”
Markoe had seen it before elsewhere and anticipated Omaha’s opposition. He even welcomed it, writing it was evidence the Club had “at least done something.” to get people’s attention. He also wrote about his own precarious role: “The leader in the field of interracial relations is pretty much like an acrobat walking the tightrope of justice, supported by charity. His only safe course is a straight line. Let him lean too far towards either side, and he loses his balance and falls.”
The priest encouraged members to carry the fight with them wherever they went. For example, interracial groups would go to eateries and occupy a counter or table. “We would be told to go to the back…and we’d refuse to go,” Millie Barnet said. Sometimes, they were harassed. Once, Barnet said, a member flung a donut in disgust and was arrested on trumped-up assault charges. When his court hearing came up, a throng of De Porres supporters were in attendance. The case was thrown out. More often than not, Agnes Stark said, “we wouldn’t get waited on, but eventually they (eateries) came around” after a bit of discussion. If a proprietor didn’t comply, he was reminded of the law. If he still didn’t, a warrant was sworn out for his arrest. The Club rarely, if ever, lost a case.
Working on the front lines of racial justice often elicited raised eye brows and nasty remarks even among De Porres members’ friends and family. “I felt like an outcast,” Barnet said. “My parents looked askance at my involvement,” Stark said.
The Club’s interracial makeup was not for appearances sake. It was practical. Agitating for change was “fraught with hazards” for blacks, who were considered second class citizens, said Walsh. Besides, it was intimidating for anyone to go up against prevailing social mores and the entities that enforced them. “I was scared spitless when we were doing this work,” said Walsh, who was part of a De Porres delegation rebuffed by officials at old St. Catherine’s Hospital for questioning their segregation and hiring policies. “It was so frightening to buck social customs when the highest level of authority in organizations like the school board and the archdiocese approved of segregation.”
Filling the Void
A challenge made all the more daunting, Walsh said, as the city’s conservative daily newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, imposed a veritable news “black out” on “all the things that would have contributed to social justice. Reading the Herald, you would have thought the civil rights movement never happened.” When her husband Tom Walsh met with a top Herald editor to discuss inequality, she said he was met with indifference. The same “don’t rock the boat” response came from the archbishop, say De Porres members. Walsh said that when her mother, Mary Frederick, asked Omaha Public Schools superintendent Harry Burke to assign black teachers to white schools, “he told her, ‘Over my dead body.’”
Years later, a federal court found the Omaha Public Schools guilty of a decades-long pattern of segregation and ordered the desegregation of its schools. Much of the evidence in the lawsuit brought against OPS was supplied by the De Porres Club’s own Denny Holland and Wilbur Phillips, who remained ever vigilant watchdogs.
De Porres actions didn’t always didn’t always get the intended results, but at least they tried to affect change when no one else dared or cared to act.
“What they did right was having a mixed group of dedicated, responsible people that followed through on their ideas and were unafraid to tell the truth and speak out, with concrete examples, of injustice,” Tessie Edwards said. Prior to Markoe, Holland and company, she said, “There was no one here to say, Let’s lift these people higher. There was no one asking, Do they all have to work service jobs? Do they all have to live in one segregated area? They educated Omaha on a level Omaha had not been educated on before. They raised the awareness of Omaha to the problems. So many people in Omaha had their head in the sand. They did not think there was a problem here. The De Porres Club really opened the doors.”
Agnes Stark said the De Porres Club was the impetus Omaha needed then. “It was moving things forward that were just at a standstill.”
By the 1960s, Markoe was ill and the Club on its way out. New voices were speaking out for change, including the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, or 4CL, a religious-secular coalition led by black churches that staged large demonstrations for fair employment and housing policies.
Fr. John Markoe, seated, and Mildred Brown, with other members of the De Porres Club
The Men Behind the Mission
The driving force behind the Club was the enigmatic Markoe. He not only preferred working behind the scenes, but had to since he was persona non grata within official Catholic circles. Protest letters from the Club were signed by Holland but often written by Markoe. Even though Markoe kept a low profile, Tessie Edwards said his presence was always felt and his commitment never swayed.
“Father set the example,” Edwards said. “When he finished teaching for the day, he’d take off his Roman color and put on his nice Panama hat and walk North 24th Street. He’d be sitting on the steps of storefronts talking to people. He’d talk to bums and alcoholics. He visited the homes of poor people. He could see the need because he’d hit bottom himself. Part of the Jesuit philosophy is being a man for others. How can you be a man for others if you don’t know them and their hurt? He really did. He loved people. If you asked him a question, he gave you a straight answer. He didn’t just try to proselytize. He was tough. He said things to people at the bottom and at the top that the average person wouldn’t say.”
Virginia Walsh recalled the “very forceful” yet “gentle” and “completely persuasive” Markoe. Helen Jones Woods recalled Markoe as the man who arranged a loan for her to attend nursing school, encouraged her husband to pursue an accounting degree at Creighton and sponsored their daughter Cathy at Duschene Academy. “He did a lot for young people.” Marguerita Washington said Markoe stood tall: “As far as African Americans who were interested in the movement were concerned, he was a hero. As far as I was concerned, he was some type of saint.”
For much of his life, he was a contentious figure. Only later in life were he and his work recognized as righteous. The legacy of Markoe, like De Porres, lives on. Roger Bergman, director of Creighton’s Justice and Peace Studies Program, said that as Markoe’s been “rehabilitated” in Jesuit circles, he’s gained honored status within the order and the wider social justice-peace community. In ‘94, Bergman began the Markoe Lecture Series. “Ever since Fr. Markoe, Creighton has made it a major concern to reach out to the (black) community,” said Edwards. She and others also credit him with helping more widely integrate the campus. Markoe died in 1967.
Denny Holland also casts a long shadow. Before his death in 2003, he was honored with a humanitarian award by the organization formerly known as the National Conference for Christians and Jews. “He was a torch bearer. He was a remarkable gift to the city of Omaha,” Walsh said. In later life, Holland worked on human relations committees, aided a scholarship program for blacks, volunteered at Sacred Heart Parish and found a new crop of troublemakers with whom to stir things up in Omaha Together One Community. He also penned protest articles.
When the De Porres Club disbanded in the early ‘60s, civil rights laws were being shaped and the black power movement formed. De Porres veterans could see the fruit of their labors. Public places were integrated and blacks were employed in jobs and living in areas once off-limits to them. A foundation had been laid. A dialogue begun. The late ‘60s riots that torched black communities like Omaha’s were an expression of a people’s rage over continued oppression. “It kind of had to happen that way,” Holland said of the riots. “Change doesn’t come smoothly. Change only comes, it seems to me, with a threat or with a bit of violence.”
All these years later, the pro-active, interracial coalition that was the De Porres Club remains a model for achieving social justice and economic parity. As one black Omaha leader said, “It’s not so much what ‘they’re’ going to do for us, it’s more about a partnership of what we’re all going to do together — to affect change.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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- Two Omaha Press Club awards I picked up Sat. recognized my Omaha Magazine story on Iraq war veteran Jacob Hausman and his battle with PTSD. 1 week ago
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