Blacks of Distinction
This set of profiles is from my large collection of African-American subjects. Read on and you will meet a gallery of compelling individuals who each made a difference in his or her own way. These figures represent a variety of endeavors and expertise, but what they all share in common is a passion for what they do. Along the way, they learned some hard lessons, and their individual and collective wisdom should give us all food for thought. The oldest of these subjects, Marcus Mac McGee, passed away shortly after these profiles appeared about 9 or 10 years ago. The story, which is really five stories in one, originally appeared in the New Horizons.
Blacks of Distinction
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Frank Peak, Still An Activist After All These Years
Today, as administrator of community outreach service for the Creighton University Medical Center Partnership in Health and co-administrator of the Omaha Urban Area Health Education Center, he carries on the mission of the Panthers to help empower African-Americans.
The Omaha native returned home after a six-year (1962-1968) hitch in the U.S. Navy as a photographer’s mate 2nd class, duty that saw him hop from ship to ship in the South China Sea and from one hot zone to another in Vietnam, variously photographing or processing images of military life and wartime action.
The North High grad came back with marketable skills but couldn’t get a job in the media here. He went into the service in the first place, he said, to escape the limited horizons that blacks like himself and his peers faced at home.
“There weren’t a lot of opportunities for blacks in the city of Omaha.”
In the Navy he found what he believed to be a future career path when he was sent to photography school in Pensacola, Florida and excelled. It was a good fit, he said, as he’d always been a shutterbug. “I had always liked photography and I always took pictures with little Brownies and stuff.”
His duty entailed working as a military photojournalist and photo lab technician. Many of the pictures he took or processed were reproduced in civilian and military publications worldwide. In 1965 he prepared the production stills for an NBC television news documentary on the 25th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. He said the network even offered him a job, but he had to turn it down, as he’d already reenlisted. Despite that lost opportunity, he counts his Navy experience as one of the best periods of his life. Not only did he learn to become an expert photographer but he got to travel all over the Far East, much of the time with his younger brother, William, who followed him into the service.
The service is also where Peak became politicized as a strong, proud black man engaged in the struggle for equality.
“Back in the ‘60s there was such a lot of turmoil related to the war, related to the whole race struggle. You know, Malcolm, Martin…It all tied together. There were a lot of riots going on at a lot of the bases and on the ships. There was both bonding and animosity then between whites and blacks. It was a challenging time. ”
A buddy he was stationed with overseas helped Peak gain a deeper understanding of the black experience.
“I had a close friend, Bennie, who was a Navy photographer, too. He was from Savannah, Georgia and he really began to educate me. He was the one that really initiated me into the black experience. That’s when the term black was radical. Coming from Omaha, I was isolated from a lot of things he’d been involved in down South. Interestingly, I ended up a member of the Black Panther party and he ended up a member of the Black Muslims.”
After Peak got out of the Navy and came back to find doors still closed to him, despite the obvious skills he’d gained, he was disillusioned.
For example, he said the Omaha World-Herald wouldn’t even look at his portfolio when he applied there. For years, he said the local daily had only one black photographer on staff and made it clear they weren’t interested in hiring another.
Frustrated with the obstacles he and his fellow African-Americans faced, he was ripe for recruitment into the Black Panthers, a controversial organization that several of his activist friends joined. But he didn’t join right away. He was working as a photo technician when something happened that changed his mind. A black girl named Vivian Strong died from shots fired by a white Omaha police officer. The tragedy, which many in the black community saw as a racially motivated killing, touched off several nights of rioting on the north side.
“I got involved with the Black Panther party after that,” Peak said.
The Panther platform was an expression of the black power movement that sought, Peak said, “self-determination and liberation” for African-Americans. “It was about building capacity into the black community. It was working to end police violence in the black community. It was organizing breakfast programs for our children. Tutoring kids. Holding rallies, organizing protests and standing up for our rights.”
What made the Panthers dangerous in the minds of many authorities were the party’s incendiary language, paramilitary appearance — some members openly brandished firearms — and militant attitude.
“Our premise was we wanted our rights by any means necessary,” said Peak, a philosophy he feels was misconstrued by law enforcement as a subversive plot to undermine and overthrow the government. “What we meant by that was we wanted our education, we wanted to be a part of the political process, we wanted to be a part of determining our own destiny. We even asked, as part of our platform, to have a plebiscite, where blacks would vote to directly determine, for themselves, their own fate.”
Instead, the leadership of the Panthers and other radical black power groups were “crushed” and “dismantled” in a systematic crackdown led by the FBI. In Omaha, Peak was among those arrested and questioned when two local Panthers, Ed Poindexter and David Rice, were implicated and later convicted in the 1970 killing of Omaha police officer Larry Minard. The pair’s guilt or innocence has long been disputed. Appeals for new trials or new evidentiary hearings continue to this today. Peak was friends with both men and he believes they’re wrongfully imprisoned. “I don’t believe they got a fair trial,” he said. Ironically, it was his cousin, Duane Peak, who allegedly acted at the men’s behest in making the 911 call that lured Minard to the house where a suitcase bomb detonated. Doubt’s been cast on whether Duane Peak made the call or not and on the veracity of his court testimony.
Frank Peak traces “the roots” of his advocacy career to his time with the Panthers, when he helped set up “a liberation” school and breakfast program for kids. He said the Panther mission has been “very much diversified” in the work being done today by former party members in the political, social, health, education and human service fields. “The struggle goes on.”
He and other young blacks here were inspired to affect change from within by mentors. “Theodore Johnson put together community health programs. Dr. Earl Persons got us involved in the black political caucus. Jessie Allen got us involved as delegates to the Democratic party. He really brought us around and politicized us to mainstream politics. Dan Goodwin and Ernie Chambers had a great influence on us, too. They made sure we were accountable. They had high standards for us.” There was also Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, reporter/activist Charlie Washington and others. Peak’s education continued at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he earned a bachelor’s in journalism and psychology and a master’s in public administration. Lively discussions about black aspirations unfolded at UNO, the Urban League, Panther headquarters, Charlie Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe and Dan Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop.
The spirit of those ideals lives on in his post-Panthers work, ranging from substance abuse counseling to community health advocacy to he and his wife, Lyris Crowdy Peak, an Omaha Head Start administrator, serving as adoptive and foster parents. He sees today’s drug and gang culture as a major threat. He rues that standards once seen as sacrosanct have “gone out the window” in this age of relativism.
“The only way change is going to occur is if people make it happen,” he said. “If you wait around for somebody else to make it happen, it might not…So, we all have a responsibility to make a contribution and I’m trying to make one.”
He enjoys being a liaison between Creighton and the community in support of health initiatives, screenings and services aimed at minorities. “We just finished glaucoma screenings in south Omaha and we put together the first African-American prostate cancer campaign in north Omaha. We sponsor programs like My Sister’s Keeper, a breast cancer survivors program focused on African-American women.” He said in addition to assessment and treatment, Creighton also provides follow-up services and referrals for those lacking the access, the means, the insurance or the primary care provider to have their health care needs met.
“I’m somebody who believes in what he does. People ask me, Do you like your job? I say, Well, if you get paid for doing something you’d do for free, how could you not like it? That’s my philosophy. To think maybe in some small way you’ve been a part of growing a greater society, then that’s all the reward I need.”
Charles Hall’s Fair Deal
As landmarks go, the Fair Deal Cafe doesn’t look like much. The drab exterior is distressed by age and weather. Inside, it is a plain throwback to classic diners with its formica-topped tables, tile floor, glass-encased dessert counter and tin-stamped ceiling. Like the decor, the prices seem left over from another era, with most meals costing well under $6. What it lacks in ambience, it makes up for in the quality of its food, which has been praised in newspapers from Denver to Chicago.
Owner and chef Charles Hall has made The Fair Deal the main course in Omaha for authentic soul food since the early 1950s, dishing-up delicious down home fare with a liberal dose of Southern seasoning and Midwest hospitality. Known near and far, the Fair Deal has seen some high old times in its day.
Located at 2118 No. 24th Street, the cafe is where Hall met his second wife, Audentria (Dennie), his partner at home and in business for 40 years. She died in 1997. The couple shared kitchen duties (“She bringing up breakfast and me bringing up dinner,” is how Hall puts it.) until she fell ill in 1996. These days, without his beloved wife around “looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do,” the place seems awfully empty to Hall. “It’s nothing like it used to be,” he said. In its prime, it was open dawn to midnight six days a week, and celebrities (from Bill Cosby to Ella Fitzgerald to Jesse Jackson) often passed through. When still open Sundays, it was THE meeting place for the after-church crowd. Today, it is only open for lunch and breakfast.
The place, virtually unchanged since it opened sometime in the 1940s (nobody is exactly sure when), is one of those hole-in-the-wall joints steeped in history and character. During the Civil Rights struggle it was commonly referred to as “the black city hall” for the melting pot of activists, politicos and dignitaries gathered there to hash-out issues over steaming plates of food. While not quite the bustling crossroads or nerve center it once was, a faithful crowd of blue and white collar diners still enjoy good eats and robust conversation there.
Fair Deal Cafe
Running the place is more of “a chore” now for Hall, whose step-grandson Troy helps out. After years of talking about selling the place, Hall is finally preparing to turn it over to new blood, although he expects to stay on awhile to break-in the new, as of now unannounced, owners. “I’m so happy,” he said. “I’ve been trying so hard and so long to sell it. I’m going to help the new owners ease into it as much as I can and teach them what I have been doing, because I want them to make it.” What will Hall do with all his new spare time? “I don’t know, but I look forward to sitting on my butt for a few months.” After years of rising at 4:30 a.m. to get a head-start on preparing grits, rice and potatoes for the cafe’s popular breakfast offerings, he can finally sleep past dawn.
The 80-year-old Hall is justifiably proud of the legacy he will leave behind. The secret to his and the cafe’s success, he said, is really no secret at all — just “hard work.” No short-cuts are taken in preparing its genuine comfort food, whose made-from-scratch favorites include greens, beans, black-eyed peas, corn bread, chops, chitlins, sirloin tips, ham-hocks, pig’s feet, ox tails and candied sweet potatoes.
In the cafe’s halcyon days, Charles and Dennie did it all together, with nary a cross word uttered between them. What was their magic? “I can’t put my finger on it except to say it was very evident we were in love,” he said. “We worked together over 40 years and we never argued. We were partners and friends and mates and lovers.” There was a time when the cafe was one of countless black-owned businesses in the district. “North 24th Street had every type of business anybody would need. Every block was jammed,” Hall recalls. After the civil unrest of the late ‘60s, many entrepreneurs pulled up stakes. But the Halls remained. “I had a going business, and just to close the doors and watch it crumble to dust didn’t seem like a reasonable idea. My wife and I managed to eke out a living. We never did get rich, but we stayed and fought the battle.” They also gave back to the community, hiring many young people as wait staff and lending money for their college studies.
Besides his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, when he was an officer in the Medical Administrative Corps assigned to China, India, Burma, Japan and the Philippines, Hall has remained a home body. Born in Horatio, Arkansas in 1920, he moved with his family to Omaha at age 4 and grew up just blocks from the cafe. “Almost all my life I have lived within a four or mile radius of this area. I didn’t plan it that way. But, in retrospect, it just felt right. It’s home,” he said. After working as a butcher, he got a job at the cafe, little knowing the owners would move away six months later to leave him with the place to run. He fell in love with both Dennie and the joint, and the rest is history. “I guess it was meant to be.”
Deadeye Marcus Mac McGee
When Marcus “Mac” McGee of Omaha thinks about what it means to have lived 100 years, he ponders a good long while. After all, considering a lifespan covering the entire 20th century means contemplating a whole lot of history, and that takes some doing. It is an especially daunting task for McGee, who, in his prime, buried three wives, raised five daughters, prospered as the owner of his own barbershop, served as the state’s first black barbershop inspector, earned people’s trust as a pillar of the north Omaha community and commanded respect as an expert marksman. Yes, it has been quite a journey so far for this descendant of African-American slaves and white slave owners.
A recent visitor to McGee’s room at the Maple Crest Care Center in Benson remarked how 100 years is a long time. “It sure is,” McGee said in his sweet-as-molasses voice, his small bright face beaming at the thought of all the high times he has seen. In a life full of rich happenings, McGee’s memories return again and again to the first and last of his loves — shooting and barbering. For decades, he avidly hunted small game and shot trap. In his late 80s he could still hit 100 out of 100 targets on the range. Yes, there was a time when McGee could shoot with anyone. He won more than his share of prizes at area trapshooting meets — from hams and turkeys to trophies to cold hard cash. As his reputation began to spread, he found fewer and fewer challengers willing to take him on. “I would break that target so easy. I’d tear it up every time. I’d whip them fellas down to the bricks. They wouldn’t tackle me. Oh, man, I was tough,” he said.
As owner and operator of the now defunct Tuxedo Barbershop on North 24th Street, he ran an Old School establishment where no fancy hair styles were welcome. Just a neat, clean cut from sparkling clippers and a smooth, close shave from well-honed straight-edge razors. “The best times for me was when I got that shop there. I got the business going really good. It was quite a shop. We had three chairs in there. New linoleum on the floor. There were two other barbers with me. We had a lot of customers. Sometimes we’d have 10-15 people outside the door waiting for us to come in. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed working on them — and I worked on them too. I’d give them good haircuts. I was quite a barber. Yes, sir, we used to lay some hair on the floor.”
McGee’s Tuxedo Barbershop was located in the Jewell Building
A fussy sort who has always taken great pains with his appearance, he made his own hunting vests, fashioned his own shells and watched what he ate. “I was particular about a lot of things,” he said. Unlike many Maple-Crest residents, who are disabled and disheveled, McGee walks on his own two feet and remains well-groomed and nattily-attired at all times. He entrusts his own smartly-trimmed hair to a barbering protege. Last September, McGee cut a dashing figure for a 100th birthday party held in his honor at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church. A crowd of family and friends, including dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, gathered to pay tribute to this man of small stature but big deeds. Too bad he could not share it all with his wife of 53 years, LaVerne, who died in 1996.
Born and raised along the Mississippi-Louisiana border, McGee’s family of ten escaped the worst of Jim Crow intolerance as landowners under the auspices of his white grandmother Kizzie McGee, the daughter of the former plantation’s owner. McGee’s people hacked out a largely self-sufficient life down on the delta. It was there he learned to shoot and to cut hair. He left school early to help provide for the family’s needs, variously bagging wild game for the dinner table and cutting people’s hair for spare change. Just out of his teens, he followed the path of many Southern blacks and ventured north, where conditions were more hospitable and jobs more plentiful. During his wanderings he picked up money cutting heads of railroad gang crewmen and field laborers he encountered out on the open road.
He made his way to Omaha in the early 1920s, finding work in an Omaha packing plant before opening his Tuxedo shop in the historic Jewel Building. People often came to him for advice and loans. He ran the shop some 50 years before closing it in the late 1970s. He wasn’t done cutting heads though. He barbered another decade at the shop of a man he once employed before injuries suffered in an auto accident finally forced him to put down his clippers at age 88. “I loved to work. I don’t know why people retire.” As much as he regrets not working anymore, he pines even more for the chance to shoot again. “I miss everything about shooting.” He said he even dreams about being back on the hunt or on the range. Naturally, he never misses. “I always take the target. Yeah, man, I was one tough shooter.”
Proud, Poised Mary Dean Pearson
A life of distinction does not happen overnight. In the case of Omaha executive, educator, child advocate, community leader, wife and mother Mary Dean Pearson, the road to success began just outside Marion, La., where she grew up as one of nine brothers and sisters in a fiercely independent black family during the post World War II era — a period when the South was still segregated. From as far back as she can remember, Pearson (then Hunt) knew exactly what was expected of her and her siblings– great things. “I grew up in the South during the Crow era and my father instilled in all of his children a very profound sense of obligation to improve on what we were born into. To make it better. Whether that was our immediate economic circumstances or social status or whatever,” she said.
Despite the fact her parents, Ed and Rosa Hunt, never got very far in school they were high achievers. He was a respected landowner and entrepreneur and, together with Rosa, set rigorously high standards for their children. Even the daughters were expected to do chores, to complete high school and, unusual for the time, to attend college. “My father was a very driven, very aggressive man who believed it was our right and our duty to do well everyday. And to do only well. The consequences were quite severe if you didn’t do well. He also instilled a work ethic, which is probably unparalleled, in all of us,” said Pearson, a former Omaha Public Schools teacher and past director of the Nebraska Department of Social Services who, since 1995, has been president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Omaha, Inc.
“I was his workhorse from time to time. I call him the father of women’s lib because he never hesitated to say, ‘Baby, do this,’ even if it was a heavy job traditionally reserved for men. I really credit him with helping me understand that anything that needed to be done, I perhaps had the capability of doing it, and so I just approached everything with that can-do sensibility. I got that from him, no doubt.”
Where her father cracked the whip, her mother applied the salve. “My mother was a gentle soul who was the one always to seek peace and to seek a solution. I think my attempt to become a peacemaker and facilitator was my desire to be more like her. She created an absolutely wonderful balance for our family. They were a dynamite team.” For Pearson, the lessons her parents taught her are bedrock values that never go out of style: “Honesty, integrity, loyalty, perseverance.”
Pearson and her siblings did not let their parents down, either. They became professionals and small business owners. She graduated with a liberal arts degree from Grambling State University, hoping for a career in law. Her plans were put on hold, however, after marrying her old beau Tom Harvey, who got a teaching contract in Omaha, where the young couple moved in the late 1960s. She tried finding work here to earn enough money for law school but found doors closed to her because of her color. Then, she joined the National Teacher Corps, a federal teaching training program pairing liberal arts majors with students in inner city schools. She soon found she could make a difference in young lives and abandoned law for education. “I discovered there were some young folks in this world who were absolutely starving for intellectual challenge, and I enjoyed providing that to them.”
As part of the program she earned a master’s degree in education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where former College of Education dean Paul Kennedy became the strong new mentor figure in her life. “If I ever thought I was going to slack off once I had left my father, I was wrong. Paul Kennedy saw my soul and demanded the very best from me.” After earning her teaching degree at UNO, she embarked on a 20-year education career that included serving as an OPS classroom teacher, assistant principal and principal. She treasures her experiences as an educator and holds the role of educator in the highest esteem.
“As a classroom teacher you can actually see you have touched someone. The satisfaction is immediate. As an administrator, the obligation is to give every child, every learner, the maximum opportunity for success. It is to say, ‘All children can learn.’” She is “proudest” of how successful some of her former students are. “They are carrying on the lessons they were taught to make our society a better one as teachers, lawyers, doctors, ministers.”
By 1986 Pearson was ready for some new challenges. Starting with her term as executive director of Girls Incorporated through her stewardship of the state’s social services agency (at then Gov. Ben Nelson’s request) and up to her current post as head of the Boys and Girls Clubs, she has focused on programs for disadvantaged youths that “improve their life chances.” While Pearson can one day see herself exploring new challenges outside the social service arena, she would miss impacting children. “Of all the groups present in our society, children are the one one group who need an advocate more than any other.”
Mildred Lee , Standing Her Ground
When brazen drug dealers threatened over-running her north Omaha neighborhood in the early 1990s, Mildred Lee reacted like most residents — at first. With an open-air drug market operating 24-hours a day within yards of her well-maintained property, she saw children wading through discarded drug paraphernalia and strewn garbage. She saw neighbors growing fearful. She saw things heading toward a violent end. That’s when she made it her crusade to pick-up debris and to let the pushers and addicts know by her defiant demeanor she wanted them out. She hoped they would all just go away. They didn’t.
As the criminal activity increased, Lee considered moving, but the idea of being run out of her own house infuriated her. A dedicated walker, she refused letting some punks stop her hikes. “I thought, ‘If I live in the neighborhood, I’m going to walk in the neighborhood.’ They attempted to intimidate me, but I wasn’t afraid of them. I just didn’t back off.” As months passed and she realized others on her block were too afraid to do anything, this widow, mother and grandmother decided to act. “I was disgusted. I could see that nobody else was going to do it, so I thought, ‘I’ll just do it myself.’”
Fed up, she called a friend, Rev. J.D. Williams, who had worked with local law enforcement to rid his own district of bad apples. He set-up a meeting with Omaha Police Department officials, who informed Lee they were aware of the problem but were waiting for residents to come forward to ask what could be done to reclaim the area.
What happened next was a transforming experience for Lee, who went from bystander to activist in a matter of weeks. It just so happened her coming forward coincided with the city’s first Weed and Seed program, a federally-funded initiative to weed out undesirables and to seed areas with positive activities. Several things happened next. First, the Fairfax Neighborhood Association was formed and Lee was elected its president. The association acted as a watchdog and liaison with law enforcement.
Then the Mayor’s Office proposed a Take Our Neighborhood Back rally to showcase residents’ solidarity against crime. The Mad Dads lent their support to the event, which saw a parade of citizens chanting and holding anti-drug slogans outside known drug dens and a convoy of trucks displaying caskets as a dramatic reminder that drugs kill. Police on horseback added symbolic fanfare. A brigade of citizens armed with rakes, shovels and brooms swept up litter in the area and others hauled away old appliances and assorted other junk from residents’ homes and deposited the items in dumpsters. As a reminder to criminals that police were ever-vigilant, a mobile command unit was stationed on-site around the clock. No parking and no loitering signs were posted on streets. Finally, sting operations conducted by police and FBI resulted in dozens of arrests.
Under Lee’s leadership, the Fairfax Association launched a latchkey program for school-age children at New Life Presbyterian Church, painted houses for elderly residents, converted a vacant lot into a mini-park and hosted Neighborhood Night Out block parties among other good works. Recognized as the driving force behind it all, Lee was asked to serve on the city’s Weed and Seed steering committee and her ideas were sought by public and private leaders. Not bad for someone who had never been a community activist before. She never had time. She was always too busy working (as an employment interviewer with the Nebraska Job Service) and, after her husband died from a massive heart attack at age 36, raising their four children alone.
As Lee became a focal point for taking back her neighborhood, she began fielding inquiries from residents of other areas facing similar problems. She shared her experiences in talks before vcommunity groups and received a slew of honors for her community betterment efforts, including the 1999 Spirit of Women award. With her work here now finished, Lee is preparing to move down South to start a new life with her new husband. The legacy she leaves behind is a community now brimming with active neighborhood associations, many modeled after Fairfax.
“One of the reasons we’ve gotten attention is we’re the neighborhood that stood up first,” she said. The whole experience, she said, has been empowering for her. “It brought to light a lot of things I didn’t know I could do. I never thought of being a leader before. But when you’re put in a certain position, you do what you have to do.” The message she imparts with audiences today is that we can all make a difference, if we care enough to try. “Most people are afraid. They don’t want anything to do with it. But they don’t realize you’ve already got something to do with it if drug dealers are in your neighborhood. You’ve just got to take charge. You can’t just sit back and wait for somebody else to do it.” She said doing good works gets to be contagious. “When other people see all you’re doing, then they want to start doing more too.”
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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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