A History of Red Lining in North Omaha

Omaha has a long history of ethnic and racial discrimination in the city. This article is about one aspect that affected North Omaha called red lining.

A Long History of Discrimination

Omaha has a long history of racism. From its earliest years, a group of vigilantes that called themselves the "Omaha Claim Club" made of the city's recognized founding fathers forced out "undesirable" settlers. While there's no record of their backgrounds, these unfortunate individuals were undoubtably from countries, languages, families and faiths Omaha's good ol' boys didn't like. Burning out homesteads, lynching, and other forms of terrorism were used by this club for the entire first decade of the city's history.

This is a historic drawing showing the Omaha Claim Club dunking "an obstinate Irishman" in the Missouri River.

This went on, focusing first on Italians, Irish, Czechs and Poles. The Greeks in South Omaha were burnt out of the neighborhood, while the Poles and Irish were set against each other in a fight for a church. Racism and discrimination were evident everywhere in Omaha.

Blacks in Omaha

After they were settled through the 1870s, the focus turned on a generation of Blacks moving to Omaha from the South. At first wrangled through the dangerous troughs of Omaha's wide open economic and cultural systems, they became acclimated to the city, starting their own businesses and gaining a foothold.

Early on, living in the Near North Side neighborhood meant living among Blacks, Czechs, Scandinavians, Germans and others. Jews had strong roots in the neighborhood, with two synagogues right there. Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists and others were all there as well. Long School and others had Americanization classes for all the European immigrants, and the community was a hodgepodge of ethnic and racial identities. Many groups self-segregated, while others were forced into isolation, while others still never had a chance to assimilate.

One of those was the Black and African American community.

The Robins Drug Store was at N. 24th and Grant Streets.

However, renting storefronts from Jewish owners along N. 24th, soon the Black community began to flourish around Lake Street. ,The Near North Omaha neighborhood became home to an "Old Colored Folks Home" in 1910, while their families shopped in Black-owned businesses, attended Black churches, sent students to Black schools, and sent the dead to Black caretakers. [Read Unity in the Community by OPS students.]

Hatred Becomes Obvious 

When it became obvious to the city's white establishment that new Black doctors, lawyers and other professionals were going to succeed, they took careful steps to ensure Blacks would stay in one place and not threaten the white business foundation.

At first it was mere economic neglect after the 1913 tornado tore through much of the Black neighborhood. Businesses, houses and other institutions were never rebuilt, while white peoples' churches and social halls took the opportunity to leave the neighborhood permanently.

Tom Dennison was Omaha's political boss, largely responsible for getting people elected onto city council for more than 30 years. He also controlled the mayor, who for much of his reign over Omaha was "Cowboy" Jim Dahlman. Dennison, called the Old Grey Wolf, controlled the so-called Sporting District, where the sports were gambling, drinking and prostitution. He was the master criminal and crime boss of the city, too.

As early as 1890, he might have caused Omaha's first recorded lynching of a Black man. He may have orchestrated the white riots that threatened the Near North Side in 1909. There's no end to what he might have done.

What we know for sure is that in 1918, Dennison's mayoral candidate, Dahlman, lost to a reformer named Edward Smith. A year later, Dennison orchestrated a race riot of 20,000 people which culminated in the lynching of an African American, the near lynching of Smith, and the almost total destruction of the new county court, finished only two years earlier. Two people were charged for this act of wanton violence, and neither of them was Dennison. However, two years later Dahlman was re-elected as mayor.

The US Army establishes martial law in North Omaha in 1919, and its been used ever since.

The mob had turned to the Near North Side neighborhood in order to bring their hatred of Blacks to bear on the commercial, social and cultural success there. However, they were met by heavy machine guns and troops from North Omaha's Fort Omaha, and failed to cause any significant physical damage. However, this was the beginning of official segregation in Omaha's housing: the Army commanding blacks to stay within a specific area where they could protect them, and that area become red lined. According to one researcher,
"This protective isolation was enacted only for temporary safety reasons; however, it quickly became a type of martial law where African Americans were restricted to the Near North Side neighborhood."

This hatred continue to strike at the Near North Side. For instance, in 1926 the home of Malcolm Little, a child growing up on Pinkney Street, was burnt to the ground by the KKK. Young Malcolm's father was a Black advocate, and upset the white power structure in the city. The child grew up to become a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States called Malcolm X.

Drawing Lines

After the riots of 1919, the Near North Side were made completely segregated.

Red lining prohibited Blacks from living south of Cuming Street or north of Locust, so they made the most of their neighborhood. [I am searching for Omaha's HOLC maps.] However, the tactics for getting whites out of those neighborhoods and keeping African Americans from other neighborhoods weren't so clear.

Marchers in a 1965 Civil Rights protest in Omaha.

Using racism to scare white Omahans, real estate agents and politicians agreed on an informal system of segregation called red lining. Deciding where Blacks could live and where they could not live, they went office to office among the city's real estate industry and drew red lines on maps of the city. Within those boundaries, houses and businesses could be owned and rented to Blacks. Outside, they could not.

Other city services followed suit. The schools within the red lined area became exclusively Black schools, while the streetcars that went through picked up fewer passengers than other neighborhoods. All of this began around 1890, with the full brunt of red lining evident by the 1920s.

One approach was called blockbusting. Trying to scare people to sell quickly and for cheap, real estate agents would run newspaper ads selling houses and businesses that warned white "The blacks are coming!" This forced housing and commercial property land prices to drop, which were kept low with media hyper-reporting and exaggerating neighborhood crime, which still happens in Omaha.

In 1950, residents of Kountze Place received a mailer saying it was their duty to keep the neighborhood from "a black invasion." Believing this hate mail, they created a race restrictive covenant prohibiting homeowners from renting or selling to African Americans.

Other industries colluded with red lining tactics. Using the same maps as real estate agents, insurance agents prohibited Blacks from getting homeowners insurance, and kept Black businesses from receiving fair pricing for their policies. Banks did the same by steering Black families to the Near North Omaha neighborhood.

These forces worked together to prevent African Americans from seeing houses outside of Near North Omaha. They used tactics such as fictitious waiting lists, unequal renting and purchasing terms, and charged ridiculously high down payments when purchasing should have cost less. Obvious tactics were used, including advertising "white only" neighborhoods and enforcing race-restrictive covenants. [City of Omaha Human Rights and Relations Commission]

As the trickle of European immigrants to America ceased during the Great Depression, whites started moving out of the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects in Near North Omaha, too. Originally moving to the more westerly Hilltop Projects, HUD eventually bought units in Northwest Omaha, and then moving to mixed income housing. For more than three decades though, public housing in Omaha became synonymous with segregated housing, as whites wouldn't live there and they weren't expected to.

This system became more and more entrenched. In 1935, the Federal Housing Administration forced home builders to comply with race-restrictive guidelines, further endorsing the city’s racist policies.

Specific Neighborhoods with Race Restrictions

  • Gifford Park
  • Kountze Place
  • Prospect Hill
  • Saratoga
  • Minne Lusa

Success In Spite of It All

During this period of initial red lining, N. 24th Street became a fantastic business district and cultural heart for Near North Omaha. Dozens of businesses owned by Blacks or run by Blacks lined the street, while churches, clubs, saloons, groceries, caretakers, and others went up and down the block. Vibrant foot traffic, cars and buggies, and other signs of life filled the area all of the time. Filled with affordable single family homes, deluxe multifamily apartments and reasonable duplexes, the area did well.

Immediately after World War II, African Americans in Near North Omaha began demanding integration. Struggling hard to challenge the city's deep-seated racist attitudes and structures, Black protesters began challenging racist red lining policies, while well-meaning white ministers tried integrating their church congregations. Mildred Brown worked with youth activists in the DePorres Club, and Whitney Young led the city's Urban League to court against Omaha's discriminatory practices. Change came.

Red lining, blockbusting and other practices were called out, and the system of race-restrictive covenants surrounding Near North Omaha began falling. Bus and street car service began serving the neighborhood more fairly, and the city's schools committed to ending segregation. In 1963, Peony Park ended their segregation practices, and African Americans were allowed to shop at Westroads Mall.

Omaha's Black Panther's Headquarters, circa 1970.

However, with the struggle came challenges. In 1966, youth protesting the city's lack of services to them at N. 24th and Lake began throwing bricks in store windows. BANTU was accused of rallying violence, while Ernie Chambers became involved in stopping other riots. Two of Omaha's Black Panther leaders were set up and indicted on murder charges against an Omaha police officer, while another police officer shot an unarmed African American teenage woman in the back. Between 1966 and 1971, many of the Black-owned businesses and seemingly all of the white-owned ones were burnt down along N. 24th. Dilapidated and vacant houses were quickly bulldozed by the City of Omaha, which seemingly adopted a policy of benign neglect focused on predominately African American neighborhoods in North Omaha.

In 1975, the City of Omaha worked with the US Department of Transportation to demolish an entire swath of homes, businesses and other institutions in North Omaha. In building Highway 75, they created a visible "red line" that segregated the community further.

Some things changed.

The Present

The City of Omaha adopted a formal "open housing ordinance" in 1969 that effectively ended red lining and race restrictive covenants.

However, the impacts of the history of red lining in North Omaha are still evident. White people didn't just slowly trickle out of the community; they fled, following a trend called white flight. Working class and middle class whites went to a new band of houses constructed in northwest Omaha and west Omaha between the 1940s and 1970s. White flight led to North Omaha institutions such as Omaha University, Immanuel Hospital and the Poor Clares moving west, while businesses including car dealers and grocery stores simply closed or also moved west.

Red lining didn't leave quickly. In 1971, Omaha's school district was brought to court for colluding with real estate companies concerning the location of schools and proposed subdivisions. This showed the district helped create segregated subdivisions, and was judged as evidence of the School district's general segregationist practices.

Omaha Public Schools desegregation plan, circa 1978.

Inadequate transportation, insufficient utilities, inappropriately heavy tax burdens, poor maintenance of homes, dysfunctional commercial enterprises, and many other factors ensure that North Omaha remains segregated today. With failing schools, miserable social and cultural conditions and unchecked crime plaguing many neighborhoods, the entire North Omaha community is continually trodden upon by the City's civic leaders.


  • There are still empty lots along N. 24th Street from four riots between 1966 and 1971. 
  • The City of Omaha incentivizes corporate investment throughout all of the rest of the city without an eye towards North Omaha.
  • Metro Transit still undersupplies buses throughout North Omaha, where vast numbers of workers have to commute to West Omaha for work, to shop, and for recreation.
  • Focused on building new streets in West Omaha, old streets in North Omaha are literally crumbling from the lack of maintenance. 
  • White flight is still happening right now in far North Omaha, and neighborhoods where African Americans are moving into for the first time today are feeling threatened by their presence. 
  • Token sewage updating projects along N. 24th and N. 30th are expected to placate community concerns, while parks, street lights, and law enforcement dwindles throughout the area.
  • And African Americans are routinely, systematically and intentionally targeted by segregationist policies, racist practices, and discriminatory beliefs by whites throughout the entire city. Not every white and not all the time - but every African American in the vast majority of circumstances.


Since I was a teen in North Omaha in the 1980s, there have been several plans to revitalize the community. Many focused on business and employment as the answer, while some included churches and schools. Today, the most popular plans connect all those dots, along with strong families, healthy environments and safe neighborhoods. However, just in the last five years little has happened, and North Omaha is unsure whether the cycle of broken promises will ever stop.

In the meantime, gang violence, drug use and a lot of other crime is ravishing goodwill and high sentiment among optimistic Omaha. It looks like the career of Senator Chambers is wrapping up without a lot of other significant leaders stepping forward. Those that do seem entrenched in moneymaking schemes and exploiting the hope of people who need better.

The Future

There's no clear path to the future. However, since no red lining is better than any red lining, maybe we should simply celebrate the progress that's been made since it did exist.

The Omaha metro area is in the top 50 most segregated cities in the United States. It should also be noted that lending companies, mortgage agents, banks and real estate agents still practice a form of red lining through the delineation of entire neighborhoods' values.

Reflecting the rest of the city's reality, schools in Omaha are highly segregated today. With a hiring disparity noted started in the 1950s, Omaha Public Schools still predominately hire white teachers. School busing to promote integration was forced on the city by the federal government beginning in 1976. The city's school district won a court decision in 1999 to end it. Many Omahans feel good about the racial makeup of Omaha schools. However, as a recent article states, "School segregation is much bigger than a few schools in the South."

Today, a popular tool for real estate agents that is used in Omaha describes the lowest favorability for a neighborhood:
"Red areas represent those neighborhoods in which the things that are now taking place in the Yellow neighborhoods, have already happened. They are characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or infiltration of it. Low percentage of home ownership, very poor maintenance and often vandalism prevail. Unstable incomes of the people and difficult collections are usually prevalent. The areas are broader than the so-called slum districts. Some mortgage lenders may refuse to make loans in these neighborhoods and other will lend only on a conservative basis."

Sounds like North O, doesn't it?



Learn More

A History of North Omaha's Omaha University Campus

An original sign for North Omaha's University of Omaha campus.

Along the tree-lined streets and fine middle and upper class homes of Kountze Place in North Omaha, the staff of Omaha's Presbyterian Theological Seminary decided in the early 20th century to start a new university. For 30 years, the neighborhood was home to the eventual University of Nebraska at Omaha. This is a short history of that time, starting from the beginning.

Omaha was just over 20 years old when its first higher education facility Omaha. Before 1900, the city's religiously affiliated universities and colleges were increasingly popular and successful. Creighton University, Omaha's most famous higher ed facility, was founded in 1878 by Catholics. Clarkson College began in 1888 and was started by the Episcopal church. The Nebraska Methodist College was started in 1891, and the Omaha Medical College was started as a private business in 1880. It was into that reality that the Presbyterians decided the city needed a non-religious higher education institution.

In the Beginning

In 1908, a group of faculty from the Seminary founded the University of Omaha. It was private, nonreligious and coed. Seeking to start a higher ed institution that was "free from ecclesiastical control," they also wanted to ensure "sound learning and practical education." They succeeded.

The site of the University was on North Omaha's 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition. The Redick Mansion, which was built as a farmhouse in the 1870s, predated the Expo. However, everything else on the site of the campus was built on the site.

Redick Mansion 

The Redick Mansion, University of Omaha's first building.

The first building was the Redick Mansion, located at North 24th and Pratt Streets. During the first year, 26 students came to the University of Omaha. In the Reddick Hall, students took basic courses, socialized, and otherwise partook of everything college students could. In 1917, Redick Hall was sold and moved to Minnesota, where it was used as a resort. It burnt down in the 1950s.

Jacobs Gymnasium

Jacobs Gymnasium was the first building erected for the University in 1910. Jacobs Hall was a gymnasium facing North 24th Street, built with $14,000 from the sale of land donated by Lillian Maul. The building featured a large room, there was a sitting area on a balcony above the floor.

The interior of the Jacobs Gym.

The exterior of the Jacobs Gymnasium, built in 1910.
The Omaha University girls basketball team in 1922. They played at Jacobs Gymnasium.


Joslyn Hall

Jacobs Hall with N. 24th Street's trolley tracks, circa 1917.
Omaha University's Joslyn Hall, opened in 1917 near North 24th and Pratt Streets.

George Joslyn, a wealthy printer in Omaha, contributed a lot of his money to charities around Omaha. You know him from the home built for his wife Sarah, which we call the Joslyn Castle. She contributed the money for the Joslyn Art Museum in memory of her husband after he died. However, when he was still young George donated $25,000 to Omaha University in 1915. The new building, called Joslyn Hall, was finished in January 1917 just south of Redick Hall. With three stories and a basement, the building had thirty classrooms, an auditorium and a small library. Science labs, the music department and several other areas were originally located there.

Saratoga Science Hall

Built in the first decade of the twentieth century, North Omaha's Saratoga School went unused during World War I. Desperate for space, Omaha University started using the building as its science hall from 1917 to 1925. 

Omaha University Science Hall, circa 1925.
A science club gatherings outside the Science Hall in the 1920s.

Saratoga Field

In 1927, businessmen formed the North Omaha Activities Association in order to redevelop Saratoga School's playing field into a football field for the University's football team. New bleachers were built for a thousand spectactors, and the Saratoga Field was home to OU's football team until 1951.

Omaha University's Saratoga Field, with the Saratoga Science Hall in the background, circa 1925.

Other Buildings

There were other buildings, too. However, I have been unable to find an accurate map of where they were and/or what purposes they served.

Staff offices, location unknown.

The "Magnificent Campus"

In the early 1920s a proposed "magnificent campus" was slated for development between Florence Boulevard and North 25th Avenue. With twenty three buildings, the campus had two clusters of buildings. However, this campus was never built.

The original general conceptual plan for the University of Omaha, est. 1908.

Closure

Instead of building the magnificent campus, by the Great Depression the city was talking about moving Omaha University. By 1938, the campus officially moved to 60th and Dodge Street. Some of the old campus buildings were supposedly redeveloped as apartments and offices, but I can't find any evidence of them. 

In June 1964, Jacobs and Joslyn Halls were the last two original OU buildings left. They were demolished that year, and there is apparently no evidence of the campus left today.

If you like the photos you see here, go like at this awesome photoset by UNO's Criss Library on Flickr. Its a great collection and begins to hint at what life was like on the campus.

Finally, here's a snapshot of what the neighborhood is laid out like today for you to compare with the Magnificent Campus plan above:

The approximate location of North Omaha's historic Omaha University Magnificent Campus plan.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

The Oldest Houses in North Omaha

I'm on a quest to find the oldest building—whether its a house, commercial building, church or whatever—in North Omaha. Of course, the Florence Mill and the Bank of Florence are the reigning champs. However, I'm finding glimmers and glimpses of other old places that I want to shine a light on.

The oldest neighborhoods in the North Omaha community are Florence and the Near North Side, which is immediately north of North Downtown and south of Pratt Street. Other outlying houses and buildings may exist, but are largely hidden by the newer developments around them.

Here are ten of the oldest buildings in North Omaha, with the oldest one at the end. Note that there is no other order to what's listed here. I'm originally publishing this in July 2015—look for updates in the future.

Home #1: 1117 North 20th Street



This 1885 home is 800 square feet. At 130-years-old, it pre-dates paved streets, running water, indoor bathrooms, streetlights, and regular horse-drawn streetcar service.

Home #2: 3030 Evans Street



This 1886 brick house was built in a frontier vernacular style. It has almost 2,000 square feet in two stories, with an eight-foot-tall ceiling in a block basement. There are four bedrooms in the home, with a central chimney. It sits on a long, narrow lot.

Home #3: 1818 North 26th Street



This 132-year-old ‪home was built long before the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in North Omaha. Its a single story with three bedrooms in 688 square feet It was built in 1883.

Home #4: 1814 North 26th Street



Built in 1888, this three bedroom home is a younger sibling to its neighbor (above). It has three bedrooms on a full-size basement, all within 868 square feet. It is 127-years-old.

Home #5: 2617 Parker Street



Built in 1883, this 132-year-old home is a brick-two-story with three bedrooms. It has Victorian flourishes on a long and narrow lot. The house has more than 1,400 square feet.

Home #6: 2537 Patrick Avenue



This is a 131-year-old brick house. Built in 1885, it has three bedrooms in more than 1,500 square feet.

Home #7: 1120 North 20th Street



This house is among the very oldest houses in North Omaha at 140-years-old. This home was built in 1875, and straddles the edge of North Omaha and North Downtown.

Home #8: 1102 North 24th Street



Built in 1883, this is a four-bedroom house. It has more than 1,600 square feet with an unfinished basement, and sits on a large lot.

Home #9: 8314 North 31st Street


This house isn't standing anymore. Built in 1864, the James C. Mitchell house was a landmark in Florence. See the tree growing through the second floor porch? They built the porch to wrap around the tree instead of cutting it down. The house was demolished in the 1950s.

Home #10: 8621 North 31st Street



By far the oldest home in my survey comes from a neighborhood renowned for its age. The Florence area was settled long before Omaha, with the Mormons establishing a town here called Cutler's Park in 1846. While little is left from that time, in 1856 the town of Florence was platted. This house, located just off North 30th Street, was built in 1859. At just below 800 square feet, is has two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a combined kitchen/dining room/living room. That's it. Oh, and a cool little porch. An interesting fact is that the basement is bigger than the rest of the house. Hmm...

Conclusion

These are the oldest homes I've found in North Omaha on my initial scan. There are some important things to keep in mind while reading this list:
  • The Near North Omaha neighborhood, located between Locust and Cuming, 16th and 30th, was originally platted as country estates for politicians. They built a few large homes and small mansions along 16th and further north, but left the rest of the community for residential and commercial development.
  • Much of Near North Omaha was in-filled with apartments and duplexes starting in the 1890s and extending into the late 1920s. 
  • A massive tornado swept through Near North Omaha in 1913 that demolished many old homes.
  • Starting in the 1960s, there was a program by the City of Omaha to demolish dilapidated or ill-kept multi-family homes in North Omaha. This led to many older buildings being town down.
  • Much of the commercial area along North 24th was demolished by rioting in the 1960s and 70s. These buildings included old storefronts and apartments.
I will keep hunting, and as always I would love to hear from YOU about what you know! Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.