Omaha Grapples With Its Ugly Past

(Photo by Brandon McDermott)
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December 26, 2019 - 8:45am

It's been 100 years since the lynching of Will Brown in Omaha. It was the last lynching in Nebraska. We report on the history behind the lynching, how some feel Omaha has forgotten its ugly past and possible reconciliation for the city.


CONTENT WARNING -- THIS STORY CONTAINS GRAPHIC DETAILS ABOUT RACISM AND LYNCHING.

In Potter’s Field on the outskirts of Forest Lawn Cemetery in Omaha is Will Brown’s final resting place.

The mob stands around Will Brown's mutilated body. This photo has been cropped - for the full photo, click on this link. (Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2281-69)

His headstone simply reads “Lynched in Omaha Riot, lest we forget." But has Nebraska forgotten its history?

Barbara Hewins-Maroney, associate professor in Urban Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, isn't sure.

"For both blacks and whites, to know something like this could happen – did happen – and we don’t want to happen again," Hewins-Maroney said.

She said in September of 1919, a white woman told police Will Brown raped her at gunpoint. Hundreds of armed men hunted for Brown in Omaha, finding him in his home. He was soon surrounded by 250 men and taken to the Douglas County Courthouse. Officers fought through the mob looking to lynch Brown on the spot. 

Forgotten Past

State Senator Ernie Chambers says he’s not surprised to hear many people aren’t aware of the Will Brown lynching.

“It's not unusual that the public schools in Omaha would not teach about the worst thing that ever happened in this city,” Chambers said. “Because of the way they killed, mutilated that man's body then set him afire.”

He says children and adults alike should know about the lynching and the historical aftershock that is felt to this day.

“I think it does a disservice to everybody when you hide the warts and don't tell the whole truth,” Chambers said. “History should deal with truth – unvarnished, full face showing, which is not being done."

He said racism is ingrained in the country.

"I am my father's father," Chambers said. "It's no different from me now than it was from my father's father and his father."

The Lynching

A day later, a mob of thousands formed outside the courthouse demanding Brown’s immediate death. The building was set on fire. The mob eventually dragged Brown out, beating him and cutting his body open. He was strung up by a light pole.

Hundreds of bullets were fired into his body. Brown’s mutilated corpse was cut down, tied to the back of a car and dragged around Downtown Omaha. His body was then tied to a railroad tie, had oil poured on it and set on fire. Reports say after the mob built up, police didn’t try to stop them.

The woman later recanted the rape accusation.

Hewins-Maroney said Nebraska doesn’t live in a bubble.

"We feel that because we're in the middle of the country that we're somewhat insulated to what happens outside of our borders,” Hewins-Maroney said. “It happens on the east coast. It happens on the west coast. It happens in big cities, but no, it also happens in Omaha.”

Bertha Moore lived in North Omaha in 1919. She told interviewers in the 1994 NET documentary “A Street Of Dreams,” that the black community was terrified during the time following the riot and lynching.

“I remember the humiliation,” Moore said. “I remember that I was ashamed. I can remember the fear among the people of the north. That kind of does something to you. It always did and it always has.”

This wasn’t the only racial lynching in Omaha’s history. In 1891, George Smith was accused of raping a child. After he was lynched, his name was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Hewins-Maroney said there were many contributing factors leading to the riot and lynching of Will Brown years later.

A partial listing of the people buried at Potter's Field. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

“You have unrest,” Hewins-Maroney said. “It's social change to a point where someone's got to be blamed for it.”

The Great Migration was underway.  Black people were traveling north to escape Jim Crow in the South. Omaha’s black population doubled in the decade before Will Brown's lynching. Soldiers returning from World War I came home to labor shortages in Omaha. Black people were working at meat-packing plants for less than whites.

After the lynching, much of the black community fled Omaha.

“Council Bluffs said there were so many African-Americans fleeing across the river, trying to either catch a train or catch the bus to get out of the community,” Hewins-Maroney said.

Mistrust of the police within the black community lingers today, Hewins-Maroney said. Many local activists think some parts of Omaha’s community have never been fully accepted.

Possible Reconciliation

“We have gone 100 years without anything happening – no talk, no education, no action,” Love said.

Preston Love Jr. is an instructor of Black Studies at UNO. He’s also on the steering committee for the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Racial Reconciliation. He thinks Nebraska could see another lynching.

“So many people had racial hatred right beneath the surface,” Love said. “So all you needed was an event like a black man assaulting a white woman to stoke. That's the bigger picture.”

A commemorative event was held at the Courthouse where Brown was lynched. Omaha mayor Jean Stothert and several other Omaha city politicians attended.

Love said healing from the city's past should mean formally acknowledgement the lynching, and an apology from the city.

The Red Cross stands in front of a burned Douglas County Courthouse. (Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2281-70)

 

The Omaha City Council and Douglas County Board extended a joint apology for Omaha's past, saying they “express great remorse to extended and surviving family members of Mr. Brown, Omaha’s African-American community and the public at large.”

Love said choosing to remember Will Brown’s lynching could promote racial equity in the city — both in the short and long term.

“Another scenario would be that the elected officials and leaders in this community would have driven this effort,” Love said. “That has not been the case.”

Love said now is the time to do something that will make a difference. He added that healing takes time, but the investment is worth it.

“It's time for the city and the county and the community to reconcile itself,” Love said.  

Love said if steps are made towards atonement and to help the black community, a new day could be on the horizon for Omaha.

“(Brown) in that way may turn out to be a martyr,” Love said.

State Senator Ernie Chambers disagrees with Love. He said Brown wouldn’t be a martyr, because there was no cause he was a part of. He said Brown was a sacrifice.

“All of the sins of a group are put on this animal, then it is killed,” Chambers said. “And that sacrifice purges them of all the sins that were put on that animal.”

Chambers said not much has changed in Omaha's race relations since 1919. He points to the city's history of redlining black residents, discriminating against black teachers in public schools, and police brutality. He said judges still carry out wrongful convictions of innocent black people.

“A German proverb I once read, in my mind still rings: To change and to improve, it said, are two quite different things,” Chambers said.

A look at Will Brown's final resting place at Potter's Field, looking northwest. There are more than 3,000 unmarked graves at Potter's Field. Only a handful, including Will Brown's, has a grave-marker. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

He doesn’t feel like Omaha politicians are doing what is needed to heal the city's wounds from 1919.

“Do for black people what you do for your own white people,” Chambers said.

More people have been lynched in Nebraska than have been put to death through capital punishment. Chambers said racial hatred is still deep-seated in some white people.

“My belief is that people don't shed those barbaric ways,” Chambers said. “I think that kind of attitude is still in white people today.”

Chambers did attend a historical symposium in Omaha that focused on educating the public about the lynching. He said he fights for racial justice today just as he did when he first was elected  in 1971. Chambers said Will Brown lay in an unmarked grave for 90 years before a California man, not related to Brown, purchased a headstone.

There's More To The Story

Much is known about Will Brown’s demise, but not as much about the man.

“We don’t know if he was married, had children or even if his name was “Will,” or “William.” Was he from Humboldt, Tennessee, or Cairo, Illinois originally?”

Hewins-Maroney added there are also questions around whether there was a conspiracy to kill Brown.

“My question is, 'Why Will Brown? Was he just at the wrong place the wrong time? Or was it something that he had seen at some other period of time?”

Hewins-Maroney said Tom Dennison, an Omaha political boss at the time, had lost power in the recent mayoral and city council elections. His man, James C. Dahlman had lost re-election. Dennison was looking to regain power by showing that the current mayor, Edward Smith, a reformer, didn’t have control of the city. He also wanted to scare the black community.

“People in power wanted to maybe hide something, do something that was illegal, and they were sort of overriding their powers not following the rule of law that we have in this country," Hewins-Maroney said.

She said in her research within the Douglas County Historical Society, the state of Nebraska and the Library of Congress, many files are missing in folders labeled “Will Brown Lynching.”

Preston Love Jr. speaks at his North Omaha office. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

“That folder and the folder on the Tulsa riots are both missing," Hewins-Maroney said. "But it makes you wonder, yes, it probably could be a conspiracy." 

With a new City Council and Mayor, firefighters in the city didn’t receive a raise that year. They had every year before that. The firefighters weren’t alone: the police also felt underpaid. She said that may be part of the reason why the mob grew so rapidly and without much constraint.

“Why would the chief of police – even though the whole community has informed them that there was going to be a lynching – why would you send most of your police officers away? Firefighters and police stood by and allowed the mob to loot stores and raze the courthouse,” Hewins-Maroney said.

She also said that in the month before the lynching, black leaders in Omaha knew something was going on. They reached out to the mayor and the police chief to warn them. She said no precautions were taken and nothing came from those meetings. There is also a question as to why looters were told by Dennison what rooms to burn in the courthouse.

“The whole issue of the tax records and files that were burned that evening, because many of the people who were part of the lynch mob said they were told what files to look for,” Hewins-Maroney said.

“There's so many little stories in addition to this, which is hard to verify. There’s also a lot of hearsay, but also a lot of missing information.”

Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2019" Signature Story report.  The story originally aired and was published in September. 


The locations of all known lynchings in Nebraska. Courtesy Nebraska History Magazine.

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