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The Most Segregated City

To many, Omaha Nebraska is where you could buy insurance from the company that sponsored the Wild Kingdom TV show.  Henry Fonda and Johny Carson were from Omaha.  The liberal billionaire, “Oracle” Warren Buffet, lives in Omaha.

Yet for 50 years, Omaha also became the most segregated city in the US, or anywhere. The civic racists drew the line on a map between white and black neighborhoods with a straight edge ruler, as shown above. Black folks could literally live on the north side of Cuming Street, but not the south side (bottom of illustration).

When the Federal Department of Justice eventually won court orders to enforce bussing to desegregate schools, Omaha complied.  But the sanctions were lifted, and now Omaha is re-segregating again.

I grew up and lived in Omaha for over twenty years mainly in the 1960s.  I was a teenager during the segregated housing era.   As teenagers, we heard bits and pieces of this and other seemingly outlandish stories about segregation. But even the most horrible stories turned out to be true.

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We could not ignore that North Omaha was heavily Black.  It developed into a lively place where locals shopped, rather than go to segregated downtown. And if you lived in West Omaha where I did, you might go years without seeing a Black person, although they were about 10% of the City’s population.

I’ve often looked back and wondered why Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska with 400,000, seemed cursed with Steven-King-novel levels of evil, along with Nebraska. 

Racist and ethnic violence burned hot during the white settlement of Nebraska in the late 1800s, with unexpected meanness.   The Army and its allies slaughtered Native American women and children on several occasions in and near Nebraska, notably at Wounded Knee.

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In rural Nebraska in the 1800s, crazed locals would actually break into jails, grab prisoners who were already sentenced to death, and lynch them.  The locals were apparently too impatient to wait a week or two for the official hanging.  There were few blacks in rural Nebraska, so they lynched ethnics instead, mostly Slavs.

Omaha Nebraska had a KKK and its residents sank to Mississippi-level cruelty during some of its lynchings of Black men.  White criminals ran Omaha and often raped white women, while wearing  blackface.  Then they would accuse an innocent black man of the crime, and lynch him. 

The famed actor Henry Fonda vividly remembers watching a mob of hoodlums lynch and burn an black man, who’d been framed for a rape in 1919.  Omaha’s white mayor intervened against the lynching, calling out that if the mob wanted to lynch anyone, they should lynch him.

The mob promptly grabbed the mayor and strung him up; he was cut down before strangling. 

What can I say about my home town, after that?  I can only say his name; Will Brown was the innocent man lynched that awful evening.

In Omaha, however, the Federal Troops on occasion actually protected the Black area from the racist pogroms.  In 1910, when Black heavyweight Jack Johnson won the championship, Omaha whites again marched to North Omaha to commit mayhem, but the troops stopped them. Black folks stuck together in North Omaha, near the troops, during the White riots of Red 1919.

And the racist Real Estate companies took advantage of the Blacks huddling together.  They drew their map that would crowd 20,000 black people into just those few square miles of North Omaha. One hundred percent of Omaha’s Blacks lived within that tight ghetto for the next 50 years.

Since the late 1800s, huge metal foundries lined the Missouri River for miles.  Their brick smokestacks stretched into the sky like Satan’s arms, spewing lead and other toxic air pollutants onto the Black Ghetto of North Omaha.

The reason these massive metalworking industries were built in Omaha, was the mining unions were too aggresive in Colorado, 500 miles to the west. The Colorado mining unions had waged several militant strikes at the mines, mills, and smelters.

So the Mine Barons partnered with the Road (Union Pacific Railroad), shipped the Colorado ore by rail to Omaha, and refined it there in non-union smelters. But first they had to humble the Omaha unions, and tried to divide workers by race.

In 1880, the bosses attempted to import non-union Black workers to work during a strike in Omaha.  The smelter workers explained the situation, and offered to pay the Black workers their fare back home.  The Black workers agreed, and joined the picket line until it was time for them to leave.

 But the Capitalist Bosses in Omaha finally beat the Railroad workers in 1891 and the Smelter workers’ unions in 1902, in pitched bloody battles between strikebreakers and workers.   Even though the Smelter and packinghouse workers were relatively integrated,  the Omaha bosses’ ruthlessness triumphed for decades. 

And at times, the Bosses recruited desperate black workers as strikebreakers to undermine the weakened Omaha unions, often for work in the odious Omaha cattle and pork stockyards, that grew to become the largest in the world.

The first time I proudly rode with my dad to his job at the South Omaha newspaper, I rolled down the car window. The rank smell from the nearby stockyards made me puke onto the floor of his ‘48 Ford.

I’ve been to the stinkiest industrial facilities in the US, including pulp and paper mills, sulfuric acid refineries, and creosote plants.  But South Omaha’s Stockyards’ smothering stench in the 50s and 60s was by far the worst smell I’ve ever endured.  Yet thousands of folks chose to live amidst the Stockyards’ fumes and offal rather than live in the tidy, odor-free North Omaha among the Blacks. 

  In the Stockyards, thousands of farting shitting cattle and hogs were crowded together in several square miles of fenced in pins, gutted on site in mammoth packinghouses, and their fetid guts washed into the nearby Missouri (sometimes called Misery) River.   

But for most White people, living in the reek of South Omaha was still preferred to living with the Black folks of North Omaha.  The Slavs beat up the Greeks to keep them out of South Omaha.

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No Blacks or Packing House Odor?  Words fail me.

Sometimes the Klan rode openly. They burned down Earl Little’s house in the 1920s (father of Malcolm X) to warn him to shut up about race.   Earl Little was later found dead on the  streetcar tracks.

By 1963, I was a naive teenager.  We were civilized Protestants in West Omaha, not those gnarly peckerwoods in the South, faces contorted with hate, that we saw in Life Magazine.

But the demographics of white flight made their mark.  My 40-student middle school class had one Catholic Italian.

My high school of almost 2000 students and hundreds of staff had not a single black person as either student or teacher or employee.  Yet Omaha was 10% Black. All black students were shunted into just 3 of Omaha’s dozen high schools.

The rigid housing segregation also produced school segregation.  Before I was 18, I had less exposure to Black people than any of the Jan Smits in South Africa.

But Omaha also had a cadre of Jews and Catholics who believed in social justice, along with a few brave Blacks.  Many white Jews and Catholics lived in the Black sections of North Omaha, and pitched in.  Whitney Young assisted the nascent Omaha social justice movement for a few years.

The integrated Packinghouse union won bargaining rights at the stockyards in 1948, bringing union wage jobs to thousands of black workers.  A Black union officer won election to the State Assembly. Over one-third of Black men in Omaha worked in the Stockyards.

 The NAACP and its allies fought to integrate the Peony Park swimming pool, and various eateries and the large shopping mall, the Crossroads, in 1963, all in All-white West Omaha.

But by 1966, police violence triggered insurrection in North Omaha.  That neighborhood was never quite rebuilt, as other police violence, and a violent community response, followed.

The cops let North Omaha burn, while patrolling West Omaha.  They stopped me and my friends on the street the evening Martin Luther King was murdered, and joked about shooting “coons.”

At the time, the Omaha Vice Squad periodically planted drugs on “known” Black pot smokers.  

I was the first white person in Omaha whom the Vice Squad planted pot on, in 1967.  I got kicked out of the all white high school. 

I finished my senior year at an integrated high school in downtown Omaha that drew from historic Black and Jewish neighborhoods.    I met Black and Jewish people for the first time.  Just making friends seemed revolutionary.  Yet segregation’s injustice was all around me rather than just hinted at, in glossy pictures in Life Magazine.

We were no longer afraid to go to North Omaha, especially for food and music.   Buddy Miles was a drummer from North Omaha who started a band called Electric Flag.  I knew several skilled white musicians, and we all met through pot smoking circles. 

But while I got 2 years probation and a $500 fine for possession of two ounces of pot,  one of his black session musicians got 2 years in prison for possession. 

Then a North Omaha barber named Ernie Chambers  emerged.  He managed to sooth the angry residents of North Omaha during the riots. His calm but active demeanor made him a admired public figure to both whites and blacks, and he was elected to the State Legislature,

When marijuana arrests skyrocketed in the late 1960’s the Nebraska Legislature convened to enact the most onerous punishments they could dream up, for smoking pot. 

Somehow, Ernie Chambers got the legislation amended.  While large quantities of pot became serious felonies, less than 8 ounces of pot was only an infraction, 7 days in jail was the maximum punishment.   This was a severe problem for the Omaha Vice Squad, since they typically only planted an ounce or two of pot on the folks they arrested.

Now all of those phony arrests were mere infractions, not felonies.  I had new pending pot charges at the time, but the courts weren’t going to bother with with any mere so-called “ounce” cases, and dropped charges.

I’ll say his name again, Ernie Chambers, the longest serving member of the Nebraska legislature.  He kept me and many others out of prison for pot.  He’s still the sanest voice in Nebraska.

In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in the Tinker case that students could wear a black armband to high school protest the Vietnam War. Our group of white liberal kids decided to wear black armbands to high school ourselves.

I’d met folks through the Unitarian Church who’d actually duked it out with racists and done time while participating in voter registration drives in the South. 

After meeting these warriors, I was ashamed at how little I’d done to fight racism.

So I published a leaflet about the Vietnam War, and pointed out that Blacks were drafted, and were dying in Vietnam, in proportions  far larger than their share of the population. 

Then a couple of dozen of us wore black armbands to school, in protest of the Vietnam War.

Perhaps because of the leaflet’s claims, black kids, some who we knew, but many whom we did not know, ended up helping defend the armband wearers against opponents who were ripping off their armbands. And when we held a weekend rally for perhaps 100 folks, a dozen blacks attended.  This group included a few leftists who formed the Omaha Black Panthers and related groups. 

We were wary of each other.  They feared these white kids were infiltrated by the police and we were, and took too many drugs, which we did. To us, these tough talking black guys with rifles were darned scary. 

The FBI instituted its Cointelpro program in Omaha against the Black activists, and police soon framed two Black folk for murder of a cop.  The snitch in that case was probably the murderer himself, lying about two innocent militants. Former Governor Frank Morrison defended the activists in court, but lost.  Morrison and others always maintained they were set up. 

I’ll say their names;  Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Wanga (David Rice).  Wanga died in prison, but Ed Poindexter is still doing time, almost 50 years later.

In 1970, an Omaha law enforcement officials warned me that some police were plotting my murder.

I moved out of Omaha as fast as I could, to Oakland California, where I was in the white minority in most workshops and public places .   I joined unions and helped organize black and white workers in the warehouse and trucking industry.  Unlike Omaha, Black folks were my friends, acquaintances, fellow workers, and friends in Oakland.  But Omaha’s once hidden history still haunts me.

I am in debt to Adam Sasse who made his 375 articles on North Omaha available on-line. northomahahistory.com

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