June 24, 2016

A Short History of North Omaha's Minne Lusa Historic District



"Proud, powerful and transforming." Asked to think of words to describe the Minne Lusa neighborhood, these came to my mind immediately. I was sitting with a friend in Omaha recently, talking about the changes in North O, and they asked me what I thought of it. I easily remembered summers riding bikes up and down Minne Lusa Boulevard, going to the Viking Ship regularly, eating ice cream and buying cassette tapes at Four Aces Pawn Shop. Even as a kid, I thought the neighborhood was special, with its giant houses on the boulevard and polite houses up and down the blocks, all with an overall feeling of respectful suburbanity.

The following is a short history of the neighborhood that I write out of admiration for Minne Lusa's beauty, my memories, and the people who fill the homes today.

Growing Out Of A Cornfield


A composite view of the Minne Lusa neighborhood circa 1921. This view is looking west to east with Mary Street in the middle and Miller Park to the right. Newport Avenue is the dirt road to the left near us.

"When we bought the land that is now Minne Lusa it was a big cornfield of 128 acres. Endowed by nature with beautiful rolling contour, it needed but the magic wand of man to turn it in a few days into a district of contented home owners." - Charles Martin

The roots of the Minne Lusa neighborhood go all the way back to 1893, when nationally renowned landscape architect H.W.W. Cleveland designed a citywide boulevard and park system for the City of Omaha. The cherry on his vision was called "Omaha's Most Beautiful Mile," which was a tree-lined boulevard packed with fancy homes; a smooth, winding roadway; and gorgeous flowerbeds along its mile-plus length. Its subdivision, called Norwood, was packed with riverview lots for large and medium sized houses. Today, this is part of the section of Florence Boulevard between Storz Expressway and Reed Street.

Fancy Name, Better Land


This 1916 map shows the Minne Lusa neighborhood in relationship to the rest of North Omaha taken from the Omaha Bee


In 1880, the Florence Water Works were completed immediately west of the town of Florence. Nine years later, the American Water Company built the Minne Lusa Pumping Station at the Water Works, and sold the City of Omaha private water that was purified there. The station's owners said the words they made up, "minne lusa," supposedly meant clear water in the Sioux language. In reality, the name was a hyperforeignism. A hyperforeignism is a type of qualitative hypercorrection that makes speakers mis-say loanword, and then use it for purposes it was never intended. In this case, the name of the neighborhood was probably taken from the neighboring pumping station or from the creek running through the neighborhood. The creek, which was known colloquially as Manuel Lisa Creek, was named after the Spaniard fur trapper who had a small fort to the north a century before the neighborhood was built.

The Miller Park was established on the northern edge of the city limits in 1891. More than 30 years after the Florence Water Works were established; 25 years after the Miller Park was created; and more than 20 years after Florence Boulevard was finished, a successful farmer sold his land to a real estate developer. The farmer, named James M. Parker, was a founding father of the town of Florence, Nebraska. An early manager of the Bank of Florence, he eventually bought the land that became Minne Lusa.

Parker's son, Frederick Parker, kept a studio west of present-day North 30th and Redick Streets. After Frederick and the other heirs got a hold of the Parker Estate, for a long time they kept sowing his acres with tight rows of corn. In 1891, they sold a large chunk of the estate to George Miller. Part of that became the Miller Park and the Miller Park neighborhood. Later another chunk was sold to a man who helped develop the Norwood subdivision mentioned earlier, as well as the Belle Isle subdivision in the Miller Park neighborhood. His name was Charles Martin.


The Biggest Subdivision in Omaha


This is a street in the Minne Lusa neighborhood in 1926.


When it was built, Minne Lusa was the biggest subdivision in Omaha to date.

Located in the northern end of present-day North Omaha, present-day Minne Lusa is bounded by North 24th Street to North 30th Street; Craig Street to Redick Avenue. When he built it, Martin bragged about the subdivision having "six miles of water mains, 47 fire hydrants, 12 miles of sidewalks, an ornamental lighting system, 1700 shade trees, and last but not least, a clubhouse."

As World War I was starting, a local developer named Charles Martin made plans to develop that cornfield. It was one of the last great uncompleted spaces between the Miller Park neighborhood and Florence, and between 1915 and 1926, Martin finished his vision. Different from all of his peers, Martin did not plan a small town like Benson, Dundee or Florence. Instead, he built the largest subdivision in Omaha's history to that point. Centered on the lulling Minne Lusa Boulevard, the Minne Lusa neighborhood supported a dozen east / west streets, too, along with three north / south roadways.

However, Martin didn't want to focus everything on a business district, but instead, just homes. Adding just a few property amenities to the neighborhood, Minne Lusa became a unique contribution to the City of Omaha's growth. Some of those amenities included the park-like Minne Lusa Boulevard and the exclusive Prettiest Mile Club.

Martin choose the area carefully. When he started, streetcars roamed from Dodge Street to Florence along North 30th Street, and from downtown Omaha almost to Reed Street along North 24th Street. He was designing for Omaha's growing middle class population. When he began in 1916, a lot of people started buying his homes: accountants, bookkeepers, buyers, clerks, comptrollers, contractors, dentists, department Managers, engineers, foremen, lawyers, managers, mechanics, small business owners, physicians, postal clerks, salesmen, secretaries, stenographers, teachers, travel agents and company vice presidents. They generally didn't own cars, rode the streetcars, and shopped very locally. However, within a decade, although the same types of people were still buying the homes, they were driving their own cars and needed garages. Almost every home in the neighborhood ended up with a garage.

Following are some of the features of today's Minne Lusa neighborhood.

Homes


A typical home in the Minne Lusa neighborhood, circa 1926.


The homes in Minne Lusa were supposed to be affordable and varied. Charles Martin wanted his neighborhood to focus on the latest and most popular architectural style though, which was the Craftsman style that was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement. This approach to designing homes had several features, including:
  • Well-designed homes
  • Wide front porches 
  • Low-pitched, gabled roofs
  • Pointed window arches
  • Tapered columns
  • Partially paned doors
  • Multi-paned windows
  • Earthtone paint jobs
  • Single dormers
  • Exposed rafter tails and beams under deep roof eaves
  • Knee braces
  • Brick fireplaces and wooden fittings
  • Stone and tiles
  • Asymmetrical composition

Seeking a house designer who reflected his intent, Martin hired Omaha architect Everett Dodd. Dodd designs for Minne Lusa were particularly important because of their simplicity and adaptability. Dodd created a home design catalogue that could be used for the entire development with several home styles repeating through a number of variations that made each one look unique. Unlike other subdivisions built in the same time period, Martin didn't require brick exteriors. Instead, he wanted a variety of surfaces covering his neighborhood, including stucco and wood. Keeping with the Craftsman tradition, a lot of wood was used to build Minne Lusa.

Other housing styles throughout the Minne Lusa neighborhood include the Colonial Revival, Neo-Classical, Tudor Revival, and Ranch styles, with two Prairie style homes, too.

800 lots were sold on 30 blocks throughout Minne Lusa. Martin was so successful with this subdivision that he took on the development of 211 acres north and west of North 30th Street that formerly belonged to the Army at Fort Omaha. It was called Florence Field. The Florence Field subdivision designed by Martin had 1,100 lots and was intended for a more exclusive homeowner.

Minne Lusa School


The Minne Lusa School as it appeared in 1924.


Around 1916, the first Minne Lusa School opened inside the old Fort Street Special School for Incorrigible Boys, which was moved from North 30th and Browne Streets to the intersection of Minne Lusa Boulevard and Ida Street. It was replaced in 1924, when the current core building was constructed. Since then, the school has had several major additions to accommodate the continuously growing student population.

Prettiest Mile Club


The Prettiest Mile Club at Minne Lusa Boulevard and Redick Avenue in 1926.


The Prettiest Mile Club was a private clubhouse Dodd designed for the northeast corner of the intersection of Minne Lusa Boulevard and Redick Street. It was obviously named for the nearby boulevard, which originally fed into Miller Park and rolled along a driveway in front of the club. Featuring a restaurant, ballroom, bowling alley, dances and card rooms, club memberships originally cost $150 to $300 annually. The building was designed in a lavish Second Spanish Colonial style that featured rolling edges and rich woodwork throughout. It also had a beautiful view of the neighboring Miller Park lake.

In the 1930s, the Odd Fellows took ownership of the building and renamed it the Birchwood Club for the trees that lined the park's driveways. The Hayden House restaurant moved in during the 1940s, adding an air of exclusivity to the club. A state-of-the-art swimming pool was also installed to the east of the building. During this period, the Birchwood Club's rule excluding African Americans was strictly enforced, demonstrating Omaha's strict commitment to both de facto and de jure segregation. A lot of former Minne Lusa residents have lovely memories about the Birchwood Club, many centered on the swimming pool and the restaurant.

Minne Lusa Boulevard


An early image of the Minne Lusa Boulevard, possibly near Bauman Avenue.


The City of Omaha's beautiful boulevard system, designed in 1892, was designed to supplement the city's parks by acting as a ribbon that ties them all together. Upon seeing the city complete the Belvedere Boulevard at the southwest corner of Miller Park, Charles Martin had a vision for his new neighborhood.

He saw two meandering avenues lining either side of the Minne Lusa Creek that weaved its way in a gentle valley between the hills Martin bought for his neighborhood. He laid concrete curbs and streets immediately, channeling the creek through a sewer and covering it with trees on a grass-covered median, and planting soft glowing streetlights the entire length of the strip. The lots lining the Minne Lusa Boulevard were designated for larger houses and cost more to buy.

Martin originally wanted to join his boulevard with North 28th Street in Florence, which was supposed to be made into a boulevard, too. However, when that didn't happen, Charles Martin designed Martin Avenue to connect to the Fontenelle Boulevard in the far western end of his Florence Field subdivision. This completed a wonderful loop that tied together his neighborhoods into the lifeblood of citywide traffic via the boulevard system.

Challenges


A street in Minne Lusa as it appears today. The earthtones and stunning foliage are a payoff of longterm planning by Dodd.


Since its heydays, the Minne Lusa neighborhood has weathered many assaults from many angles.

In the 1970s, the City of Omaha seriously considered running the North Freeway straight through the neighborhood in order to have a connector directly from downtown Omaha to I-680. However, concerned neighbors and community organizations successfully fended off this attack, and the highway ended south of the Miller Park neighborhood.

During that decade, the Birchwood Club transferred ownership to private hands. Renamed the Viking Ship, it endured a poorly executed remodel that stripped it of its historical beauty. The warm, earthy stucco on the outside of the building was replaced with a tacky industrial-type siding and cheap-looking brick, while almost every element in the interior was demolished and rebuilt. The ballroom was repurposed as a gymnastics facility and the bowling alley was ripped out and replaced with a workout gym.

The insidious phenomenon of white flight has reared its head throughout North Omaha's history. Apparently, many middle class white people do not want to live by African Americans. Once thought to be a problem of the last century, student bodies in local schools and homeownership trends show that it is still a relevant factor in home buying in Omaha. Coupled with a generation of aging homeowners looking to move away or simply dying, white flight took a swipe at Minne Lusa.

In the 1990s, home ownership within the neighborhood took a hit as landlords began buying up the beautiful houses in the area that were undervalued by banks, the City of Omaha and Douglas County. The outcome of this behavior led to the degradation of the neighborhood as absentee landlords and under-capable renters lowered the morale of the neighborhood. Despite the value of being well-connected to the rest of the city through the surrounding highways, homebuyers saw Minne Lusa as undesirable and refused to buy homes there. At the same time, the ratio of African Americans to white people living in Minne Lusa raised higher, too.

Fortunately, determination and community building are showing us that mixed race, mixed income neighborhoods in Omaha can survive and thrive. Today, the Minne Lusa neighborhood is a prime demonstration of that reality.

Today


A typically elaborate Arts and Crafts doorway in the Minne Lusa neighborhood.


In the early part of the 2010s, a movement within the neighborhood led to a resurgence in community building and positive growth. Between the emergence of new leadership in the Minne Lusa / Miller Park Neighborhood Association and the establishment of the Minne Lusa House, a lot of momentum has been borne of this neighborhood.

Soon afterwards, a group of community members worked together and rallied local resources in support of placing the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. They were successful, and in 2014 they successfully secured a federal designation as the Minne Lusa Residential Historic District. Additionally, the Minne Lusa Boulevard is included separately on the National Register of Historic Places in a listing for the Omaha Parks and Boulevard System. One of the homes in Minne Lusa, the Harry B. Neef House, is also listed separately on the National Register, too, because of its unique construction in the city.

The neighborhood continues its rebound today. According to their blog, home values are rebounding right now and property ownership is reflecting a larger vision. Neighbors are taking care of their neighborhood again, and Minne Lusa is growing. Here's to a bright, bold future for my friends in North Omaha's Minne Lusa neighborhood!


Here's a 1919 map of the Minne Lusa neighborhood taken from the Omaha Bee.


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BONUS PICS!

New signage for the Minne Lusa Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.

A Little League baseball uniform sponsored by the old Minne Lusa Tavern. Photo courtesy of the Minne Lusa House.

A typical street corner in the Minne Lusa neighborhood.

A streetscape in the Minne Lusa neighborhood.
 
This house is near North 30th Street in Minne Lusa Boulevard.


An original Arts and Crafts style home from the Dodds catalogue.

The current appearance of a Dodds home with little changed since it was completed.


Wide eaves, exposed footings, and circular stairs are indicative of Minne Lusa's beautiful architecture.

Apparently exceptional, this home is one of many larger homes throughout the neighborhood along the Minne Lusa Boulevard.

James Monroe Parker homesteaded the land where the Minne Lusa neighborhood stands. His estate sold the land to Charles Martin's company for development.

An ad for types of homes in Minne Lusa, paid by Charles Martin.

A featured home along Minne Lusa Boulevard.

The Minne Lusa Restaurant, formerly located on North 30th Street.

June 23, 2016

A Short History of North Omaha's Douglas Motors Corporation Factory

The sign above the door at the Douglas Truck Factory in North Omaha.


North Omaha has hosted large and small industry throughout its history, starting in the 1860s and extending to this day. One of the major manufacturers that has called North Omaha home was the Douglas Motors Corporation.

A logo that would've been worn by factory workers in North Omaha.


In 1918, the Douglas Motors plant opened at 4024 North 30th Street, near the Druid Hill School. Originally known as the Drummond Motor Car Company, the company was founded in Omaha in 1918. Drummond built cars for touring and roadsters, as well as a town car. 

The Douglas Trucks crew outside their factory at 4025 North 30th Street in North Omaha.


In 1918, the company name was changed to the Douglas Motors Corporation. They built a new plant in North Omaha where the Douglas V-8 was made, along with some commercial trucks, and continued manufacturing trucks there until the mid 1930s. 

The Douglas V-8 was manufactured in North Omaha for a year before it was discontinued.


The Exide Corporation, which manufactures batteries, operated here in the 1990s. After their building was designated a part of the Omaha Superfund cleanup site, Exide moved to southwest Omaha. After the plant was demolished and remediation on the site was completed, the Omaha Police Department built a new substation at the location.

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June 10, 2016

A History of African American Newspapers in Omaha



North Omaha's African American culture has grown and changed dramatically since its founding in 1854. One of the main drivers of the culture for more than a century has been the Black media. From the time Omaha's first Black newspaper was published in 1889 through Shanelle Williams' continued use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media today to build the African American community in Omaha, Black media has continued to transform the North Omaha community and the city at large.

The first Black newspaper ever was published by John B. Russworm in 1827, and was called Freedom's Journal. The first Black newspaper was published in Omaha in 1892. In the nearly 125 years since, the primary champions of Omaha's African American community were the newspapers, working closely in hand with the city's Black churches. Through black ink on white paper, they reported the details, promoted the positivity and built the base for more than six generations. The legacy of these papers even lives on today.

1. The Progress


The Progress, a Black newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska
The Progress was published in Omaha from 1899 to 1926.


In 1889, The Progress became the first African American newspaper in Omaha. It was established by Ferdinand Barnett, born in 1854, who was journalist, civil rights activist, politician, and government employee. He published The Progress from 1889 to 1906 before being appointed by the Douglas County Court deputy clerk.

A staunch Democrat, in 1926, Barnett was elected to the Nebraska State House of Representatives. His support for the Democratic Party frequently put him at odds against competing newspapers, despite his brother, Alfred Barnett, writing for the paper until 1906. Born in 1854, Barnett died in 1932.

2. The Sentinel


The Afro-American Sentinel, a Black newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska
The Afro-American Sentinel was published from 1892 to 1925.


In 1892, Cyrus Bell started a newspaper called The Afro-American Sentinel. Born in Mississippi as a slave on a cotton plantation, Bell arrived in Omaha in 1868. The Sentinel was pro-Democrat and pulled for Grover Cleveland at a time when almost all Blacks supported the anti-racist Republican party, which was the party of Abraham Lincoln.

In the Sentinel, Bell responded to Booker T. Washington's 1895 "Atlanta Compromise Speech" in an unexpected way. He openly wrote that higher education for Blacks should be limited, saying that "the race is in too big a hurry," and that there were not yet jobs for college-educated Black people. Ultimately, he suggested that education was disruptive to society. His position as a radical conservative pitted him against competing papers that supported the Republicans.

Bell died in 1925, with his newspaper dying with him.

3. The Enterprise


The Enterprise was published in Omaha from 1893 to 1914. 


The leading Black newspaper in Omaha during the 1890s and 1900s was easily The Enterprise. In 1893, George F. Franklin started publishing The Enterprise, later relinquishing leadership to Thomas P. Mahammitt and the editorship of his wife, Ella Mahammitt. It was the longest lived of any of the early African-American newspapers published in Omaha. 

Rev. John Williams wrote frequently for the paper before founding his own paper. The Enterprise's other reporters and writers included Ella L. Mahammitt, who was his wife; Josephine Sloan YatesComfort BakerVictoria Earle Matthews, and Margaret James Murray, who was the wife of Booker T. Washington. 

During its early years, the fame of the paper allowed Mahammitt to sit on the executive committee of the Western Negro Press Association and later, the National Afro-American Press Association in 1905.

Mahammitt and The Enterprise frequently advocated civil rights and black empowerment. In 1906, Mahammitt was involved in a struggle with a city council candidate who wanted to promote redlining in the city. In 1907, The Enterprise advocated for a boycott against businesses refusing to serve Blacks. The paper closed by 1920. Mahammitt died in 1950.

4. The New Era


Newsboys for The Omaha Star loaded with papers ready to deliver in the 1940s.


In 1921, Harrison Pinkett hired George Wells Parker to be editor of a new Omaha newspaper called The New Era. Paying out of pocket for its publication, Pinkett and Parker had a falling out soon after the paper launched. However, the paper continued under the editorship of Count Wilkinson. It closed in 1926.

5. The Omaha Whip


In 1922, George Wells Parker created a new Black newspaper in Omaha called The Omaha Whip. It ran for only two editions before folding. In it, Parker accused Pinkett, Ole Jackson and Johnny Moore of promising the black vote to police superintendent Dean Ringer. Parker also accused Pinkett supporting the Ku-Klux-Klan. 

6. The Monitor 

A compelling collection of headlines from The Monitor compiled by the Nebraska State Historical Society. The paper ran from 1915 to 1929.


The best known and most widely read of all African-American newspapers in the city was the Omaha Monitor, established in 1915, edited and published by Reverend John Albert Williams. It stopped publishing in 1929.

Before starting his paper, Rev. Williams regularly penned letters to the editor of Omaha's main newspapers, including the Omaha World-Herald and the Omaha Bee. After writing for The Enterprise, Williams knew he wanted to start his own paper. In 1915, he did just that by launching The Monitor

Starting as a church paper, Williams branched out to cover the general public. From the beginning, Williams began taking strong positions on the important issues of the day. It was Williams who originally claimed The Bee and another Omaha paper, The Daily News, fanned the flames of racism that led to the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and the Courthouse Riots through their "biased treatment of [B]lacks." 

George Wells Parker and Lucille Skaggs Edwards both worked for the paper. Edwards began her writing career in 1906 as the first black woman to publish a magazine in Nebraska, which was called The Women's Aurora. Parker founded the Hamitic League of the World in 1917, eventually leaving The Monitor because of political differences.

The paper ceased publishing in 1929.

7. Omaha Guide


The New Era and the Monitor shut down in 1926. That year, Herman J. Ford, C. C. Galloway and B. V. Galloway launched the Omaha Guide. With a circulation of 25,000, the paper covered local and state politics along with North Omaha's cultural life. Their "Illustrated Feature Section" was innovative, and provided a number of important series for Omaha's Black community. 

The marketing and sales department succeeded in developing an advertisers' list with businesses from coast to coast. During the 1930s, The Guide was the largest African-American newspaper west of the Missouri River. After that department, which was comprised of S. Edward Gilbert and Mildred Gilbert-Brown, left the paper in 1938 to start the Omaha Star, the paper shut down in the 1940s. It ran from 1927 to 1958.

8. The Omaha Star


The Omaha Star, established in 1938 and still publishing today.


Today, African-American culture in Omaha is regarded as being anchored by The Omaha Star. Founded by the late Mildred D. Brown and her husband S. E. Gilbert in 1938, the original circulation was around 5,000. The salesperson for The Guide, Brown led her paper to success with advertisers too, all while writing and editing positive, powerful news about North Omaha and African Americans in Omaha. Brown is believed to be the first female to have founded a newspaper in Nebraska, and is almost definitely the first African-American woman to have founded a newspaper. She managed the paper for the rest of her life, and in 1945 The Star became the only one representing Omaha's Black community.

A bunch of notable reporters and salespeople worked for The Omaha Star. Jazz great Preston Love, modern day media mogul Cathy Hughes, and important Omaha journalist Charles B. Washington were among the greatest. In addition to being the first African American woman in the United States to launch a newspaper, she was also the first African American woman inducted in the Omaha Business Hall of Fame, and was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador to East Germany by President L.B. Johnson. Brown passed away in 1989.

In 2016, the newspaper has a circulation of more than 30,000 and is distributed to 48 states. After being run by her niece Marguerita Washington for more than two decades, today the paper continues to run under a new editor.


Struggles


These are Omaha Star carriers in the 1960s.


From my shallow but ongoing studies of Black newspapers in Omaha, I have learned that there's rarely been smooth sailing for these bastions of the community. An ex-slave, a determined minister and a powerful saleswoman built and rebuilt the backbone of the printed word in North Omaha, and it wasn't easy.

One of the greatest struggles happened almost at the beginning of the industry in the city.

The first Black newspaper in Omaha was called The Afro-American Sentinel, and was launched in 1892Its first competitor, The Progress, appeared in 1889. The second competitor at the time was The Enterprise, which was founded in 1893.

Two years after The Enterprise was founded, the dominant leader among African Americans, Booker T. Washington, gave a speech called the Atlanta Compromise. In the controversial speech, Washington proposed that Southern Blacks would work how white people wanted them to and give in to all white political rule, while Southern whites guaranteed that blacks would receive basic education and due process of law. This shown the light brightly on the difference between the papers, and because of that, the truth was seen by Omaha's African American community:

  • The Afro-American Sentinel was pro-Democrat and strongly endorsed Booker T. Washington's position
  • The Enterprise supported Washington making a compromise
  • The Progress was pro-Republican and entirely against Washington's proposition and any compromise of any kind

The African American community in Omaha was reportedly split in its support, too.

It was hard for the three papers to all survive in Omaha. The original publisher of The Enterprise left Omaha in 1898, and that paper outlived the other two. In 1896, it was called by The National Protest the "best colored paper published in Omaha." Its journalists went on to continue the editorial legacy of the paper, too.

Economics often bit at the heels of Omaha's Black newspapers. Trying to balance between truth-telling and appealing to white advertisers, it appears that the papers often reduced the role of their editorializing and journalism in the face of economic pressure.

If that weren't enough, there were a lot of political allegations from Omaha's white population, too. During the 1920s, both The Monitor and the New Era were labelled Communist because of their reporting. Starting in the 1940s, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI started keeping a file on Mildred Brown and her Omaha Star. When it was recovered by a FOIA request in the 2000s, it was found to have 1,400 pages of surveillance data, including many inaccurate descriptions of Brown's time and energy. The file included data collected by the FBI's illegal activities through the 1970s era COINTELPRO program.

Present


Today, in spite of encroaching social media and other sources available to African Americans in Omaha, the Omaha Star continues its run. I subscribe to stay in touch with ongoing developments in the community, and regularly find useful news, insightful commentary and other contents that are important to my understanding of modern day North Omaha, as well as the history of the community. I would suggest anyone interested in the same to subscribe immediately.

However, I'd also suggest that we all plug into the news and conversations that breath life into North Omaha in any way possible. Whether happening online, in person or otherwise, it is VITAL that Black news continues to reach Omaha's African American community, no matter where it is!

Timeline of Black Newspapers in Omaha

  • 1892—Cyrus Bell launches the first Black newspaper in Omaha called The Afro-American Sentinel
  • 1893George F. Franklin launches The Enterprise
  • 1895—Booker T. Washington gives his "Atlanta Compromise Speech," and different responses in Omaha's Black newspapers become stark and obvious
  • 1898Thomas P. Mahammitt takes control of The Enterprise 
  • 1898—Mahammitt sits on the executive committee of the Western Negro Press Association
  • 1905—Mahammit sits on the executive committee of the National Afro-American Press Association
  • 1906Lucille Skaggs Edwards is the first black woman to publish a magazine in Nebraska, called The Women's Aurora
  • 1915—Reverend John Albert Williams launches The Monitor
  • 1917—George Wells Parker launches a national magazine called The Crusader in Omaha
  • 1920The Enterprise ends
  • 1921—Harrison Pinkett launches The New Era
  • 1922—Count Wilkinson takes control of The New Era
  • 1922—George Wells Parker launches The Omaha Whip and it ends
  • 1925—The Afro-American Sentinel ends
  • 1926The New Era ends
  • 1926—Herman J. Ford, C. C. Galloway and B. V. Galloway launch The Omaha Guide
  • 1929The Monitor ends
  • 1938Mildred D. Brown and her husband S. E. Gilbert launch The Omaha Star
  • 1958The Omaha Guide ends
  • 1989—Dr. Margarite Washington takes control of The Omaha Star
  • 2016The Omaha Star continues

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Elsewhere Online


Sources

  • Amy Helene Forss (2014) Black Print with a White Carnation: Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star Newspaper, 1938-1989. U of Nebraska Press.
  • Richard M. Breaux "The New Negro Renaissance in Omaha and Lincoln, 1910-1940" in Cary D Wintz and Bruce A. Glasrud (2012) The Harlem Renaissance in the American West: The New Negro's Western Experience. Routledge.

Nebraska State Historical Society Collection:

  • Enterprise: 1895-1897; 1908-1911
  • New Era: 1922-1926
  • Omaha Guide: 1932-1947; 1954-1958
  • Omaha Monitor: 1915-1929
  • Omaha Star: 1938-present 
  • Progress: 1890-1891
  • Mildred Brown papers

Mildred Brown is nearly the patron saint of African American journalists in Omaha, Nebraska, today.


Dr. M. Washington speaking with students from the Invisible Histories Project with Omaha Public Schools about the history of the Black press in North Omaha.


May 31, 2016

A History of the 1913 Easter Sunday Tornado in North Omaha



On Easter Day 1913, an F4 tornado that was a quarter mile wide hit North Omaha, killing at least 94 people. As of May 2016, is the deadliest Nebraska tornado of all time, and the 13th deadliest-ever tornado in the United States. It is one of Omaha's most popular collective memories, and yet, few people seem to know about it. Here is a history of the 1913 Easter Sunday Tornado in North Omaha.


A drawing from the Omaha Bee the day of the tornado.


On the Corner


North 24th and Lake Streets was the hub. On any given Sunday afternoon, people flooded out of the churches and synagogues in the neighborhood and poured into the movie theatres, pool halls, grocery shops and boutiques that filled the corner. There was busy-ness and relaxation, laughter and release, and as usual, the Near North Side was abuzz with activity.

In 1913, the Near North Side was a mix of immigrants and African Americans. There were still Swedes, Germans and English immigrants moving in, as well as Russian, German and other Jewish people who'd lived in the neighborhood for a generation. During this time period, the African American population stabilized. Everyone had businesses, places of worship and social halls to themselves throughout the neighborhood. There were clusters too, with a so-called "Negro District", Little Stockholm, Little Russia and other ethnic enclaves within the Near North Side taking up blocks around ethnic churches. Many of the neighborhood's public schools offered "Americanization" classes where immigrants would learn the customs, attitudes and language of their new nation. There were several Catholic parish schools in the neighborhood, too, and churches of every denomination, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and nondenominational churches. The Jewish community had several synagogues in the Near North Side at this point, also, as well as a Jewish Old Folks Home and a hospital.

On the late afternoon of an Easter Sunday in 1913, people would be sitting down for a big meal with family and friends. Others would be relaxing to an evening with a book, or knitting, or playing cards. Since it was just March 23rd, it would be cold outside and wintertime was on peoples' minds. Maybe they just stoked the woodstove. And then it happened.

The Tornado Strikes


An African American woman surveying the damage to her home after the tornado.


Five blocks wide. According to the US Weather Service, 800 homes were completely destroyed and another 2,000 homes were wrecked. In 1913, Omaha's loss was $8,700,000; in 2016, that is more than $250,000,000.

Apparently, the tornado began southwest of Omaha. In Ralston, several people died before it moved along the path of the Little Papio Creek. Then it started north and east along Center Road near South 60th Street. It got to South 40th and Farnam and did severe damage before heading northward.

The tornado struck North Omaha first at North 40th and Dodge, varying between two blocks and five blocks wide. Going straight through the new Gold Coast neighborhood, it went northeast to the Walnut Hill neighborhood and through Bemis Park at North 33rd and Cuming, and then through the Prospect Hill neighborhood. The intersection of North 33rd and Hamilton and northwards at the intersection of North 33rd and Parker were both almost obliterated.

Then it pounded the Near North Side, slamming the area around North 24th and Lake, and moving into the Kountze Place neighborhood. After that it headed towards North 16th and Locust Streets, then moved into the Carter Lake area.

The Joslyn Castle was pounded, and mansions in the new Gold Coast neighborhood were smashed. Within minutes of meeting the beastly tornado, houses were completed demolished and whole neighborhoods were wrecked. Bemis Park's fine homes were slaughtered, and regular houses in every neighborhood were damaged or obliterated. The Duchesne Academy was nearly obliterated, and most of the city's infrastructure there was completely eliminated, including streetcar lines, telephone lines and even water mains under the ground. Steel train cars from the Belt Line Railway were found pierced with pieces of shattered lumber from the demolished homes. Buildings were found chopped in half and pipes, clothes and furniture dangling in trees.

Telephones weren't in every home by 1913. Radio wasn't available to most people yet. Almost everyone was caught off-guard. More than 2,000 people were injured.

And that wasn't the worst of it.

The Worst Damage


The Intersection of North 24th and Lake Streets the day after the tornado.


The Diamond Moving Picture Theater. The Idlewild Pool Hall. These were two of the dozens of businesses and hundreds of homes demolished by the tornado. The worst damage in the whole city of Omaha happened between Bemis Park and North 16th Street. In the short term, the tornado didn't discriminate, either, killing more than 100 African Americans, European immigrants, and other white people.

When the tornado struck, the Diamond Theatre at the corner of North 24th and Lake Streets was packed with people watching a movie. However, people inside heard the tornado was coming and everyone there escaped before the building was demolished.

Across the street, people at the Idlewild Pool Hall weren't as fortunate. The owner, C. W. Dillard, rounded up 13 customers who were playing pool and took them to the basement. They all crouched down on the south end of the basement, but that wasn't enough to save them. Either dying from smoke inhalation or by getting crushed from the building's weight coming down on them, all 13 people died.

A large suburban commercial district, more people died here than in any other part of Omaha. The tornado didn't stop here though.

Continuing north and east, it pounded the Kountze Place neighborhood next. Dozens of homes and several churches experienced death and destruction. As far as North 14th and Lothrop, houses were damaged and people were wounded or killed.

After the Devastation


Reports of looting were met with US Army soldiers from Fort Omaha and other locations. For a week, they patrolled the wealthy neighborhoods in west Omaha (everything west of North 33rd Street), helped recover victims and cleaned for a week, and assisted with recovery in the Near North Side neighborhood.


The day after the tornado, a snowstorm blasted Omaha. Newly homeless residents struggled to get out of the snowy weather, and the Red Cross struggled to stay up to their needs. Funds to aid tornado survivors poured into the city, but were poorly distributed, further jamming up recovery.

Before the snow melted, cleanup began. There was wood, brick, shingles, blocks and steel scattered across the entire swath of the tornado. Personal things were in trees, on the streets, in the piles and on the people. Several children were missing after the tornado, including babies swept from cribs and mothers' arms, and there were many men and women who never came home. Cars were destroyed, streetcars were obliterated, and streets were tore up.

As with all natural disasters, hearts were broken, spirits were deflated and a city was badly hurt. Like many disasters, in the long-term, this one struck some neighborhoods worse than others.

Despite taking years afterwards, much of Omaha rebuilt. However, there are still lots in North Omaha that were demolished more than a century ago by this tornado that have never redeveloped since then. Between the economic cataclysm of the tornado and the first round of white flight that happened in 1919, many people developed a disdain for the Near North Side. By the 1950s and '60s, that disdain spread towards Kountze Place, and in the 50 years after that the area slid worse. Today, there are countless open lots throughout the Near North Side and Kountze Place, and there are lots that look like a tornado hit them.

In the neighborhoods that did rebuild, there were decades of struggle afterwards, too. However, today most of the scars of the tornado there are gone.

ALL IN ALL, its easy to see why the 1913 Easter Sunday Tornado is the worst natural disaster to ever strike Omaha, and especially North Omaha. Let's hope it never happens again.

1913 Easter Sunday Tornado Tour


1467 Emmet Street was a doctor's house that served as a makeshift hospital and morgue.

  • Start at North 40th and Dodge
  • Go straight through the new Gold Coast neighborhood
  • Visit the Joslyn Castle. It was damaged extensively by the tornado.
  • Head northeast to the Walnut Hill neighborhood 
  • Drive through Bemis Park.
  • Stop at 3402 Lincoln Boulevard to survey the difference between tornado damage and the current home.
  • Then go through the Prospect Hill neighborhood.
  • Drive to the North 24th and Lake Historic District.
  • Visit the site of the Idlewild Pool Hall, 2307 North 24th Street.
  • Visit the site of the Diamond Moving Pictures Theatre, 24th and Lake.
  • Visit the Webster Telephone Exchange Building, 2213 Lake Street, which served as a makeshift morgue.
  • Move into the Kountze Place neighborhood along North 24th. 
  • Go to 2031 Binney Street to see how they rebuilt Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church.
  • Head towards North 16th and Locust Streets.
  • Finish at North 14th and Emmet, where the tornado left to go to Iowa.


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ADDITIONAL PICS


The 1913 Easter Sunday tornado decapitated Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church at North 19th and Binney Streets, taking two stories from its town and destroying its sanctuary.


The Creary family stands outside their North Omaha home, showing the obliteration of the landscape around them.


This is North 24th and Lake Streets. Although Crissey's Pharmacy looked fine on the front, here its plain to see how it was damaged. 


This photo shows men digging for bodies at the Idlewild Pool Hall at North 24th and Lake Streets. 13 bodies were recovered from the basement of this building.


Where they patrolled other neighborhoods with rifles at the ready, at North 24th and Lake the US Army medics were on duty, as shown here. Note Crissey's pharmacy in the distance.


Several coffins are waiting at a house along Lake Street, including one for a child. The dark wagon to the left is a hearse for the O'Bee Mortuary, owned and operated by an African American.  


This man is sitting in a makeshift shelter with a newspaper wrapped around his leg in the snowstorm that happened the day after the tornado. Notice the stairs leading to nothing behind him; the neighborhood was demolished.


The destruction of the Joslyn Castle removed many of the peripheral elements of the estate, including a beirstube from the Trans-Mississippi Expo and the Joslyn's massive greenhouse.


This is the massive damage endured by Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church at 2031 Binney Street in Kountze Place.


This is the site of the Idlewild Pool Hall after it was excavated for the dead. Notice the decimation of the surrounding neighborhood.


Probably at the pinnacle of racial integration in Omaha, this mixed group of of African American and white gentlemen are wearing work clothes and formal attire. Men with ribbons on them are representing fraternal organizations, which led cleanup efforts in the Near North Side.


Cleanup is underway in this picture from Miami Street in the Near North Side.


This home along Miami Street was typical of the damage caused.


3402 Lincoln Boulevard sustained a great deal of damage from the tornado.

This puts the well-being of Bemis Park's 3402 Lincoln Boulevard into context.


This crowd of African Americans are gathered for a viewing of the deceased in a home along Lake Street. This home was the site of the coffins pictured earlier. 

This video is from NETNebraska.



This video is from a meteorologist.


Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913 Tornado in 1913.