A Contrary Path to Social Justice, The De Porres Club and the Fight for Equality in Omaha
This article is an example of my social justice writing. The publisher of The Reader (www.thereader.com) asked me to do the piece because of his own social justice bent. I am glad I did the story, which was originally published in The Reader. This is an expanded version of that story. It profiles two men, John Markoe and Denny Holland, some followers, and their fight for equal rights in a discriminatory, intolerant time.
©by Leo Adam Biga
For a band of troublemakers, they were an unimposing lot. Yet, in an era when defacto segregation ruled, a small, racially mixed group of well-scrubbed, mostly college-age reformers — many with little experience beyond the classroom — rose up in the late 1940s to challenge the embedded discrimination and division that defined Omaha then. Along the way, they forced Omaha to confront some unpleasant truths and to make some long overdue changes.
Using fairly bold strategies and tactics in the fight against racism, ones duplicated later by more famous civil rights campaigns down south, the activists were viewed as militants. Staging non-violent sit-ins, marches and boycotts, they helped overturn unfair employment practices and opened public places to all. In the process, they took on powerbrokers and exposed inequality. They made enemies. They fell short of goals. They won small victories. More importantly, they broke down barriers and initiated changes whose reverberations are still being felt today.
These unlikely radicals formed the De Porres Club. Its patron namesake was Blessed Martin de Porres, a 16th century black friar who devoted his life to serving the disadvantaged. Led by a stubborn old priest, Fr. John Markoe, and his loyal young acolyte, Denny Holland, the Club worked in large and small ways to assist minorities. It helped some find jobs. It distributed food and clothes. It acted on individual complaints about discrimination. It studied “the race problem” by organizing forums and gathering data. It rallied support for wrongfully accused persons. It kept vigils when blacks moved into hostile white areas. It launched public pressure campaigns against companies that did business in north Omaha and yet refused hiring blacks.
“The problem was to get the damn wall knocked down that was holding and locking people, both physically and mentally, in this terrible system racism had built on Omaha’s near north side,” said the late Denny Holland in Camille Steed’s 1992 Nebraska Educational Television documentary A Street of Dreams. “And so we turned our efforts to what some, I suppose, would term more militant” means.
In one of his most famous denouncements of racism, the late John Markoe said, “Racism is a God Damned thing. And that’s two words — God Damned.” In an article he penned for the Interracial Review, he said, “…the race problem is a moral one.”
The first De Porres boycott targeted a dry cleaners. When that action prompted the firm to integrate its employee rolls, the Club moved on to other employers. Faced with pickets, leaflets, petitions and boycotts, the Coca Cola Bottling plant, Reed’s Ice Cream Co. and the Omaha Street Railway Co. gave-in to De Porres demands and hired blacks. The Club took on its biggest target in the local board of education, which didn’t hire blacks to teach at the secondary level and excluded them from teaching in white schools altogether. The years-long fight finally got the desired remedy. The Club also got such businesses as Dixon’s Restaurant, Crosstown Skating Rink and Peony Park to open their facilities to everyone.
Walking the Talk and Lighting the Torch
In an era when the Catholic Church discouraged blacks from its own congregations, Catholics Markoe and Holland lived their faith. “They walked and talked what they believed in. They were very brazen and unusual” for the time, said Omaha Star publisher and editor Marguerita Washington, a De Porres member in the late ‘50s.
During the Club’s 14-year life, volunteers came and went. When Holland stepped aside, Wilbur Phillips took up the mantle. Most regard the work as a defining moment in their lives. For white De Porres veterans Agnes (Wichita) Stark, Millie (Heifner) Barnet and Virginia (Frederick) Walsh it was an eye-opening experience that sparked a lifelong commitment to social causes. “It was kind of a social awakening,” said Stark, a Creighton student at the time. “I didn’t realize all the problems that existed for blacks. I felt the injustice of it all. That’s how I got interested.” Barnet recalled going to her first De Porres meeting “and just in that one evening, I felt my whole world turned around. It was like suddenly I saw how appalling things were. I was immediately put in touch. It made quite an impact on my life.” For Walsh, “It made college so much more meaningful. I learned we had to change what could be changed. I was just glad to be part of it.” All three women credit the De Porres experience with, as Walsh said, “lighting a torch” for their later involvement in the women’s and peace movements.
Then there’s the effect blacks felt. “We not only formed a family, we got along very wonderfully. We tried our best to bring people together,” said Irv Poindexter, one of the Club’s youngest members. “You know what? It was the best thing that ever happened to Omaha’s black community,” said Helen Jones Woods, a member along with her late husband, Alfred. She said De Porres contributed “to better jobs and better advantages for blacks” — she and her husband included. “Today, I would say because of the De Porres Club a lot of places that didn’t want us, do now, or at least they tolerate us,” Washington said. “A lot of things I am doing today I couldn’t do then. It started changing things. It helped in ending Jim Crow.”
Helen Jones Woods
Unless one lived then, it’s hard to understand just how separate and unequal Omaha was for racial minorities. “Omaha had a bad reputation among African Americans,” said Washington, who was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., but often visited Omaha, where she attended UNO. “The segregation here was very bad,” said Woods, who grew up in segregationist Mississippi.
Choose any quality of life index and blacks lagged far behind whites. On average, they made less money, lived in subpar housing and had less formal education. Blacks were frozen out of a wide spectrum of jobs, restricted to living in certain areas and refused service or admittance at many establishments. They were denied basic rights as part of an insidious, institutional Jim Crow culture that made segregation the rule, if not the law. An unspoken state of apartheid existed in all but name.
It was amidst this pervasive oppression the De Porres Club was born. It took an outsider to do it. De Porres founder John Markoe was a strapping, charismatic Jesuit priest regarded as a renegade by peers and superiors at Creighton University. A few years before, he’d been booted out of St. Louis, where he’d agitated for similar changes to the status quo. He’d also made waves in Detroit and Denver. In his life, his ministry and his writings, he attacked “the heresy of racism.”
Running against the current was a way of life with Markoe, who left behind the comforts of privilege for a hardscrabble life. Before ever joining the priesthood, he was a railroad foreman, an athlete, a cavalry officer, a lumberjack and a derelict. Alcoholism plagued him for years. During a checkered military career he rode in campaigns against rebel Yaqui Indians and Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Between his drunken brawls — that saw him break up more than one bar and spend more than one night in jail — and his penchant for standing up for minorities, he was always in hot water. He was nearly expelled from West Point and was leading a 10th cavalry regiment of black troops when court martialled and relieved of both his command and commission.
His rebel ways followed him into the Jesuit order, where he became an unpopular champion of civil rights before the cause had a name. In 1917, he, his priest brother William Markoe and a third priest made a covenant “to give and dedicate our whole lives…for the salvation of the Negroes in the United States.” As he later did here, Markoe heeded this calling by immersing himself in the black districts in and around St. Louis, where he set up community centers, chapels and programs. After helping integrate St. Louis University, he was sent packing to Omaha.
Soon after forming the De Porres Club at Creighton in 1947, the group was kicked off campus. The Club next operated from a storefront on North 24th Street. The Omaha De Porres Center began as a grassroots social service mission before finding a niche as a social action group. Early on, center staff maintained a library, held youth programs and rallies and gathered clothes and food for the needy. As part of its education/advocacy calling, the Club: held public forums on racism; organized a lecture series featuring such nationally renown speakers as NAACP general secretary Walter White and baroness Catherine de Hueck, the founder of havens for the poor known as Friendship House; presented such anti-discrimination plays as Trial By Fire; and pressed city, civic and business leaders, to little avail, for more progressive policies. These efforts did spur the creation of a city human relations committee.
Although too controversial to be sanctioned by any religious body, the Club did draw many members from St. Benedict’s the Moor Catholic Church, then a separate “mission” church reserved for blacks, who were unwelcome anywhere else. Markoe and St. Benedict’s pastor, John Killoren, both sought a change at St. Ben’s from its mission status — which condoned segregation — to standard territorial standing. Their different approaches to the issue left them at odds when solidarity, not friction, was needed. In the end, St. Ben’s was made a regular parish church.
Markoe’s staunchest ally was Mildred Brown, founder, publisher and editor of the Omaha Star, which she made the group’s crusading mouthpiece. The Star printed summaries of minutes from weekly Club meetings, featured stories charting the progress of De Porres actions and ran Club-penned editorials critical of racial bias. When the Club could no longer afford leasing space in its storefront site, Brown took in the orphaned group, who made the Star’s back rooms their offices.
As the Club became more entrenched, it allied itself with the local chapter of the NAACP, the Omaha Urban League and ministers of area black churches, who helped give the fledgling group credibility and spread word of its actions. A key De Porres supporter and advisor was Whitney Young, who left the directorship of the local Urban League to head the national organization. The Club also aligned itself with CORE, the national Congress for Racial Equality. De Porres chapters sprung up in Kansas City, Mo. and Denver, Co.
If Markoe was the De Porres Club’s conscience, then Denny Holland was its passion. Holland was a quiet Kansas World War II vet in whom Markoe saw a kindred contrariness. It was as a Creighton student Holland became a protege and confidante of Markoe’s and the Club’s original president. His social consciousness was peaked by a stint working at Chicago’s Friendship House. As he did there, he lived among the poor black residents he dedicated himself to, often boarding with families with whom he carried on the fight. Even after stepping away from the Club to work full-time as an insurance salesman and to raise a family of seven, he still kept watch and occasionally made waves.
Acting Against A Torrent of Disapproval
Markoe and Holland are gone now, but De Porres members well recall their guiding the struggle to get a resistant citizenry and leadership to do the right thing. Agnes Stark said Markoe was “a consummate leader” who “pushed us laggards along. Although a gentle man, he could get pretty angry.” Holland, meanwhile, was “very calm, always had the right words and was prepared. They worked very well together” in devising strategies, said Virginia Walsh.
The two men often began anti-discrimination campaigns by first appealing, either in person or by letter, to employers. De Porres delegations would meet with owners, managers or CEOs. If no corrective measure was taken, they organized more direct actions. They might hold a demonstration or distribute handbills. Or, in the case of the street-railway company, the public was urged to not ride streetcars and buses and, if they must, to wage a nuisance protest by paying the fare with 18 pennies.
They did all this in the face of criticism and opposition. Threats were made. Some suspected a snitch in the De Porres ranks. Holland’s suspicions that the phones were tapped, the mail monitored and certain members followed were more or less confirmed years later when his Freedom of Information/Privacy Act request netted a cache of FBI files that had been kept on he and the Club. Marguerita Washington said her aunt, Mildred Brown, was offered a top advertising post by a major Omaha employer on the condition she stop her civil rights advocacy in the Star.
“What we were doing was very much socially disapproved of,” said Walsh. She recalled soliciting signatures for a petition aimed at getting the transit system to hire black drivers. “People would say, emphatically, ‘No.’ They called us N…lovers. There was this confidence people had that God wanted it this way. I didn’t know religion could be used to justify a status quo so pernicious. Fr. Markoe was trying to reform the church at a time when it really didn’t want to be reformed.”
Early De Porres member Tessie Edwards said, “It was very scary, because the climate in Omaha was not ripe for” change. Markoe and Holland soldiered on despite having “doors slammed in their face. They had courage and commitment. And they convinced high-powered people this change was necessary,” she added.
In Street of Dreams, Holland described what it’s like pushing against stiff resistance. “It’s like you’re going up a mountain in a great big semi. All the tires are flat, and you’re the only one pushing and everybody that comes by says, Don’t go too fast. The problem isn’t going too fast, the problem is — can you move the damn thing? You soon see that what’s inferred by don’t go to fast is — don’t change anything.”
Markoe had seen it before elsewhere and anticipated Omaha’s opposition. He even welcomed it, writing it was evidence the Club had “at least done something.” to get people’s attention. He also wrote about his own precarious role: “The leader in the field of interracial relations is pretty much like an acrobat walking the tightrope of justice, supported by charity. His only safe course is a straight line. Let him lean too far towards either side, and he loses his balance and falls.”
The priest encouraged members to carry the fight with them wherever they went. For example, interracial groups would go to eateries and occupy a counter or table. “We would be told to go to the back…and we’d refuse to go,” Millie Barnet said. Sometimes, they were harassed. Once, Barnet said, a member flung a donut in disgust and was arrested on trumped-up assault charges. When his court hearing came up, a throng of De Porres supporters were in attendance. The case was thrown out. More often than not, Agnes Stark said, “we wouldn’t get waited on, but eventually they (eateries) came around” after a bit of discussion. If a proprietor didn’t comply, he was reminded of the law. If he still didn’t, a warrant was sworn out for his arrest. The Club rarely, if ever, lost a case.
Working on the front lines of racial justice often elicited raised eye brows and nasty remarks even among De Porres members’ friends and family. “I felt like an outcast,” Barnet said. “My parents looked askance at my involvement,” Stark said.
The Club’s interracial makeup was not for appearances sake. It was practical. Agitating for change was “fraught with hazards” for blacks, who were considered second class citizens, said Walsh. Besides, it was intimidating for anyone to go up against prevailing social mores and the entities that enforced them. “I was scared spitless when we were doing this work,” said Walsh, who was part of a De Porres delegation rebuffed by officials at old St. Catherine’s Hospital for questioning their segregation and hiring policies. “It was so frightening to buck social customs when the highest level of authority in organizations like the school board and the archdiocese approved of segregation.”
Filling the Void
A challenge made all the more daunting, Walsh said, as the city’s conservative daily newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, imposed a veritable news “black out” on “all the things that would have contributed to social justice. Reading the Herald, you would have thought the civil rights movement never happened.” When her husband Tom Walsh met with a top Herald editor to discuss inequality, she said he was met with indifference. The same “don’t rock the boat” response came from the archbishop, say De Porres members. Walsh said that when her mother, Mary Frederick, asked Omaha Public Schools superintendent Harry Burke to assign black teachers to white schools, “he told her, ‘Over my dead body.’”
Years later, a federal court found the Omaha Public Schools guilty of a decades-long pattern of segregation and ordered the desegregation of its schools. Much of the evidence in the lawsuit brought against OPS was supplied by the De Porres Club’s own Denny Holland and Wilbur Phillips, who remained ever vigilant watchdogs.
De Porres actions didn’t always didn’t always get the intended results, but at least they tried to affect change when no one else dared or cared to act.
“What they did right was having a mixed group of dedicated, responsible people that followed through on their ideas and were unafraid to tell the truth and speak out, with concrete examples, of injustice,” Tessie Edwards said. Prior to Markoe, Holland and company, she said, “There was no one here to say, Let’s lift these people higher. There was no one asking, Do they all have to work service jobs? Do they all have to live in one segregated area? They educated Omaha on a level Omaha had not been educated on before. They raised the awareness of Omaha to the problems. So many people in Omaha had their head in the sand. They did not think there was a problem here. The De Porres Club really opened the doors.”
Agnes Stark said the De Porres Club was the impetus Omaha needed then. “It was moving things forward that were just at a standstill.”
By the 1960s, Markoe was ill and the Club on its way out. New voices were speaking out for change, including the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, or 4CL, a religious-secular coalition led by black churches that staged large demonstrations for fair employment and housing policies.
Fr. John Markoe, seated, and Mildred Brown, with other members of the De Porres Club
The Men Behind the Mission
The driving force behind the Club was the enigmatic Markoe. He not only preferred working behind the scenes, but had to since he was persona non grata within official Catholic circles. Protest letters from the Club were signed by Holland but often written by Markoe. Even though Markoe kept a low profile, Tessie Edwards said his presence was always felt and his commitment never swayed.
“Father set the example,” Edwards said. “When he finished teaching for the day, he’d take off his Roman color and put on his nice Panama hat and walk North 24th Street. He’d be sitting on the steps of storefronts talking to people. He’d talk to bums and alcoholics. He visited the homes of poor people. He could see the need because he’d hit bottom himself. Part of the Jesuit philosophy is being a man for others. How can you be a man for others if you don’t know them and their hurt? He really did. He loved people. If you asked him a question, he gave you a straight answer. He didn’t just try to proselytize. He was tough. He said things to people at the bottom and at the top that the average person wouldn’t say.”
Virginia Walsh recalled the “very forceful” yet “gentle” and “completely persuasive” Markoe. Helen Jones Woods recalled Markoe as the man who arranged a loan for her to attend nursing school, encouraged her husband to pursue an accounting degree at Creighton and sponsored their daughter Cathy at Duschene Academy. “He did a lot for young people.” Marguerita Washington said Markoe stood tall: “As far as African Americans who were interested in the movement were concerned, he was a hero. As far as I was concerned, he was some type of saint.”
For much of his life, he was a contentious figure. Only later in life were he and his work recognized as righteous. The legacy of Markoe, like De Porres, lives on. Roger Bergman, director of Creighton’s Justice and Peace Studies Program, said that as Markoe’s been “rehabilitated” in Jesuit circles, he’s gained honored status within the order and the wider social justice-peace community. In ‘94, Bergman began the Markoe Lecture Series. “Ever since Fr. Markoe, Creighton has made it a major concern to reach out to the (black) community,” said Edwards. She and others also credit him with helping more widely integrate the campus. Markoe died in 1967.
Denny Holland also casts a long shadow. Before his death in 2003, he was honored with a humanitarian award by the organization formerly known as the National Conference for Christians and Jews. “He was a torch bearer. He was a remarkable gift to the city of Omaha,” Walsh said. In later life, Holland worked on human relations committees, aided a scholarship program for blacks, volunteered at Sacred Heart Parish and found a new crop of troublemakers with whom to stir things up in Omaha Together One Community. He also penned protest articles.
When the De Porres Club disbanded in the early ‘60s, civil rights laws were being shaped and the black power movement formed. De Porres veterans could see the fruit of their labors. Public places were integrated and blacks were employed in jobs and living in areas once off-limits to them. A foundation had been laid. A dialogue begun. The late ‘60s riots that torched black communities like Omaha’s were an expression of a people’s rage over continued oppression. “It kind of had to happen that way,” Holland said of the riots. “Change doesn’t come smoothly. Change only comes, it seems to me, with a threat or with a bit of violence.”
All these years later, the pro-active, interracial coalition that was the De Porres Club remains a model for achieving social justice and economic parity. As one black Omaha leader said, “It’s not so much what ‘they’re’ going to do for us, it’s more about a partnership of what we’re all going to do together — to affect change.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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