Archive for April, 2010

University of Nebraska at Omaha Wrestling dynasty built on tide of social change

April 30, 2010 6 comments


Don Benning, center front row, with his magnificent wrestling team



THE LATEST: Requiem for a Dynasty will be the headline, if I get an assignment to write the story that is, for what transpired as expected with the UNO wrestling program.  As anticipated and despite the most heartfelt efforts of the program’s coaches, student-athletes, alums, and supporters the NU Board of Regents approved UNO’s proposed move to the Summit League and NCAA Division I competition and with it the elimination of the wrestling and football programs.  It’s a sad day for UNO when its administrators can discard history and tradition so easily for the sake of convenience. In this disposable culture two programs were thrown out as if they were useless refuse. Losing football hurts, but the rationale for excising it ultimately makes sense because it was never going to come close to making money. Dumping wrestling though to purportedly be in better alignment with the Summit League is pure hogwash. It’s really UNO and NU leaders saying that they don’t give a rat’s ass about wrestling, that they don’t really care about all the championships, the scores of All-Americans, the prestige, the community service, the lessons learned, the incredibly strong and tight family bond built up across generations. They don’t care that UNO hosted multiple national championships and the largest single day annual wrestling tournament in the country.  Why not give a damn about those things universities are there to provide its student-athletes and constituents?  My take is that no matter how much UNO wrestling achieved, and it achieved so very much, it was never accorded the respect or due it deserved.  Not by the regents, not by administrators, not by major university donors, not by the media, not by the general public.  It was always considered marginal and therefore expendable. When things got tight, UNO wrestling was an easy target despite being a dynasty.  That sends a disturbing, dysfunctional message to anyone really paying attention.

Getting rid of wrestling was painless for the regents because it was done in the abstract.  By the time the UNO wrestling community appeared before them to plead their case that the program be retained, by the time all the appeals and messages had been made via email and phone, the regents had already made up their minds. The March 25 hearing was perfunctory.  It was a show to merely let wrestling vent and have its say in an open forum. If the regents had bothered to actually visit the UNO wrestling room and to see first-hand the sweat and blood and tears and love and joy that went into making the dynasty, then the program might have had a fair day in court, so to speak. If the regents had seen for themselves the championship banners and the roll calls of All-Americans and soaked up the atmosphere of excellence imbued in that room, it might have been a different story. Or not. This was a business decision made by UNO and given the thumbs up by the regents. Cold, calculated business. The administrators and the regents simply didn’t get it or didn’t want to get it. They would not be moved by emotion or history. To the end, the UNO wrestling family fought gallantly, never breaking ranks, always showing class, the bonds that hold them together more powerful than any bureaucratic decree, extending beyond the now ended program. UNO wrestling may be gone, but its spirit lives on. The relationships between the men forged in that room and in those duals and tournaments and in all the time spent on the road and cutting weight and hanging out will endure.

NEW UPDATE: With each passing day any window of opportunity for UNO wrestling to be saved grows smaller. Unless something dramatic should happen between now and March 25th, it appears likely then that the NU Board of Regents will approve the plan advanced by University of Nebraska at Omaha Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts for UNO to move to Division I and to drop football and wrestling in the process.  As a graduate of UNO, as a former Athletic Department staffer, as a UNO sports fan, and as a writer I have a perspective to offer many don’t.  Football certainly has a longer tradition than wrestling at the school, but when it comes to sustained success there’s no comparison.  Don’t get me wrong, I will miss UNO football.  I variously kept stats at and cheered at probably a hundred home games over the years.  Caniglia Field is a great venue to watch a game at and UNO consistently plays at a high standard .  UNO football’s been one of the best entertainment bargains in the city.  But the sad truth is the program rarely drew well and even if IUNO football came along for the ride to D-I there’s little reason to expect it would draw any better at that level.  UNO football has had its share of winning but it’s never won a national title and generally failed in the post-season, on the biggest of stages.  UNO wrestling is a whole different story.  It has been an elite program for more than 40 years.  It’s won multiple national titles, produced scores of All-Americans, and basically been the best D-II program over the past 20 years.  No, it’snot  a big draw, although by wrestling standards it does quite well, but in terms of national prestige UNO is one of the best things the university has going for it, period.  The crazy thing is that the UNO administration makes clear it’s not finances driving the proposed elimination of wrestling and football, which gets at the heart of it:  UNO administrators don’t care about the excellence that UNO football and particularly UNO wrestling represents.  It’s inconceivable it is prepared to walk away from something so successful, but that is what is about to happen.

Therefore, it seems like a good idea to look back at the wrestling program’s early years in order to gain an appreciation for where it came from and the significance it had at a tempestuous time in the university’s and  in the city’s and in the nation’s history.  The story of what Don Benning and his wrestlers did to put UNO on the map and to make UNO wrestling a champion is one of the great legacies of the university, and one it has never really embraced or celebrated to the extent it deserves.  Sadly, wrestling at the school has always been viewed as marginal and expendable, and the words and actions of the UNO administration today bear that out.  So check out the story below — it’s my take on the tide of social change that UNO’s glorious wrestling program is built on. I wrote it early last year for The Reader, as UNO prepared to defend its national title, which it did, and did again this year.   It’s sad to think the story may now be the Requiem for a Dynasty.

UPDATE:  Trev Alberts has been putting his stamp on the University of Nebraska at Omaha Athletic Department since his from left-field arrival in the job of athletic director two years ago. Chancellor John Christensen hand-picked Alberts to lead a revitalization of UNO athletics and Alberts has surprised many by just how bold his moves have been — from hiring Dean Blais as head hockey coach to getting major donors whose support had waned to ante up big again for capital improvements.  And now as the Omaha World-Herald is reporting Alberts and Christensen are about to shake the foundation of the school and the athletic department by moving UNO into Division I competition across the board — pending University of Nebraska Board of Regents approval — by joining the Summit League. The news of going D-I isn’t that big a surprise in and of itself, as UNO has made clear for more than a decade that is where it wanted to go, but what is is UNO doing it so soon and its decision that in order to make it work long-term it must sacrifice the school’s two winningest sports — football and wrestling.  Alberts and Christensen say they and others have worked the numbers and the only way UNO can justify the leap into the big-time is by dropping the heavy financial burden of football, whose weight would only increase with the increased scholarships and improved facilities D-I necessitates.  Besides, where football is a revenue generator at many schools it is not at UNO and even the prospect of D-I would likely do little for the program’s mass appeal given the shadow of Big Red.  But the real shocker is that UNO is prepared to jettison its shining star, wrestling, whose program just captured its eighth national title over the March 11-12 weekend. UNO could choose to go independent in wrestling but the school is opting not to do that, which is odd because it’s perhaps the least financially onerous men’s program in terms of scholarships, equipment, travel, facilities.  But more to the point — how do you just dismiss the incredible success that UNO wrestling has achieved?   I would hope that UNO finds a way to preserve the wrestling program.  For a look at some of its remarkable history, see my story below about how the UNO wrestling dynasty is built on a tide of social change. You can also find on this blog my stories about Don Benning, the coach who began UNO’s wrestling dynasty, and about Trev Alberts, who may go down as the man who took down that same dynasty.

It may be a moot point in the end, but the UNO wrestling program is not going down without a fight. Coaches, student athletes, alums, fans, and boosters gathered at UNO Sunday, March 13 in the wake of the startling announcement that the wrestling program will be disbanded.  Coach Mike Denney was seen calmly addressing the gathering and coalescing support. In an interview he gave a local TV sports reporter he pointed out that some schools in the Summit League that UNO has been invited to join do have wrestling programs.  Denney asked the question a lot of people are asking: If they can be in that league and keep wrestling, then why can’t we do it?  UNO Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts apparently came to this decision without consulting Denney or the UNO wrestling community or UNO student leaders.  The two men are undoubtedly acting out of good intentions and in the long term interests of the school but to spring this decision without warning and without giving Denney and his assistant coaches and student-athletes the opportunity to weigh in and argue against it is cruel and ill-advised. I would not be surprised if Don Benning adds his voice to the chorus of disapproval over  Christensen’s and Albert’s decision to throw away the history and tradition that UNO wrestling represents.


In my view, one of the most underreported stories coming out of Omaha the last 50 years was what Don Benning achieved as a young black man at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  At a time and in a place when blacks were denied opportunity, he was given a chance as an educator and a coach and he made the most of the situation.  The following story, a version of which appeared in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (, charted his accomplishments on the 40th anniversary of making some history that has not gotten the attention it deserves.

One of the pleasures in doing this story was getting to know Don Benning, a man of high character who took me into his confidence.  I shall always be grateful.


University of Nebraska at Omaha Wrestling dynasty built on tide of social change

©by Leo Adam Biga

Version of story published in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (


As the March 12-13 Division II national wrestling championships get underway at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, it’s good to remember wrestling, not hockey, is the school’s true marquee sport

Host UNO has been a dominant fixture on the D-II wrestling scene for decades. Its No. 1-ranked team is the defending national champs and is expected to finish on top again under Mike Denney, the coach for five of UNO’s six national wrestling titles. The first came 40 years ago amid currents of change.

Every dynasty has a beginning and a narrative. UNO’s is rooted in historic firsts that intersect racial-social-political happenings. The events helped give a school with little going for it much-needed cachet and established a tradition of excellence unbroken now since the mid-1960s.

It all began with then-Omaha University president Milo Bail hiring the school’s first African-American associate professor, Don Benning. The UNO grad had competed in football and wrestling for the OU Indians and was an assistant football coach there when Bail selected him to lead the fledgling wrestling program in 1963. The hire made Benning the first black head coach of a varsity sport (in the modern era) at a predominantly white college or university in America. It was a bold move for a nondescript, white-bread, then-municipal university in a racially divided city not known for progressive stances. It was especially audacious given that Benning was but 26 and had never held a head coaching position before.

Ebony Magazine celebrated the achievement in a March 1964 spread headlined, “Coach Cracks Color Barrier.” Benning had been on the job only a year. By 1970 he led UNO to its first wrestling national title. He developed a powerful program in part by recruiting top black wrestlers. None ever had a black coach before.

Omaha photographer Rudy Smith was a black activist at UNO then. He said what Benning and his wrestlers did “was an extension of the civil rights activity of the ’60s. Don’s team addressed inequality, racism, injustice on the college campus. He recruited people accustomed to challenges and obstacles. They were fearless. Their success was a source of pride because it proved blacks could achieve. It opened the door for other advancements at UNO by blacks. It was a monumental step and milestone in the history of UNO.”

Indeed, a few years after Benning’s arrival, UNO became the site of more black inroads. The first of these saw Marlin Briscoe star at quarterback there, which overturned the myth blacks could not master the cerebral position. Briscoe went on to be the first black starting QB in the NFL. Benning said he played a hand in persuading UNO football coach Al Caniglia to start Briscoe. Benning publicly supported efforts to create a black studies program at UNO at a time when black history and culture were marginalized. The campaign succeeded. UNO established one of the nation’s first departments of Black Studies. It continues today.

Once given his opportunity, Benning capitalized on it. From 1966 to 1971 his racially and ethnically diverse teams went 65-6-4 in duals, developing a reputation for taking on all comers and holding their own. Five of his wrestlers won a combined eight individual national championships. A dozen earned All-America status.

That championship season one of Benning’s two graduate assistant coaches was fellow African-American Curlee Alexander. The Omaha native was a four-time All-American and one-time national champ under Benning. He went on to be one of the winningest wrestling coaches in Nebraska prep history at Tech and North.

Benning’s best wrestlers were working-class kids like he and Alexander had been:

Wendell Hakanson, Omaha Home for Boys graduateRoy and

Mel Washington, black brothers from New York by way of cracker GeorgiaBruce “Mouse” Strauss, a “character” and mensch from back East

Paul and Tony Martinez, Latino south Omaha brothers who saw combat in Vietnam

Louie Rotella Jr., son of a prep wrestling legend and popular Italian bakery family

Gary Kipfmiller, a gentle giant who died young

Bernie Hospokda, Dennis Cozad, Rich Emsick, products of south Omaha’s Eastern European enclaves.

Jordan Smith and Landy Waller, prized black recruits from Iowa

Half the starters were recent high school grads and half nontraditional students in their 20s; some, married with kids. Everyone worked a job.

The team’s multicultural makeup was “pretty unique” then, said Benning. In most cases he said his wrestlers had “never had any meaningful relationships” with people of other races before and yet “they bonded tight as family.” He feels the way his diverse team came together in a time of racial tension deserves analysis. “It’s tough enough to develop to such a high skill level that you win a national championship with no other factors in the equation. But if you have in the equation prejudice and discrimination that you and the team have to face then that makes it even more difficult. But those things turned into a rallying point for the team. The kids came to understand they had more commonalities than differences. It was a social laboratory for life.”

“We were a mixed bag, and from the outside you would think we would have a lot of issues because of cultural differences, but we really didn’t,” said Hospodka, a Czech- American who never knew a black until UNO.  “We were a real, real tight group. We had a lot of fun, we played hard, we teased each other. Probably some of it today would be considered inappropriate. But we were so close that we treated each other like brothers. We pushed buttons nobody else better push.”

“We didn’t have no problems. It was a big family,” said Mel Washington, who with his late brother Roy, a black Muslim who changed his name to Dhafir Muhammad, became the most decorated wrestlers in UNO history up to then. “You looked around the wrestling room and you had your Italian, your whites, your blacks, Chicanos, Jew, we all got together. If everybody would have looked at our wrestling team and seen this one big family the world would have been a better place.”

If there was one thing beyond wrestling they shared in common, said Hospodka, it was coming from hardscrabble backgrounds.

“Some of the kids came from situations where you had to be pretty tough to survive,” said Benning, who came up that way himself in a North O neighborhood where his was the only black family.

The Washington brothers were among 11 siblings in a sharecropping tribe that moved to Rochester, N.Y. The pair toughened themselves working the fields, doing odd-jobs and “street wrestling.”

Dhafir was the team’s acknowledged leader. Mel also a standout football lineman, wasn’t far behind. Benning said Dhafir’s teammates would “follow him to the end of the Earth.” “If he said we’re all running a mile, we all ran a mile,” said Hospodka.





Having a strong black man as coach meant the world to Mel and Dhafir. “Something I always wanted to do was wrestle for a black coach. It was about time for me to wrestle for my own race,” said Mel. The brothers had seen the Ebony profile on Benning, whom they regarded as “a living legend” before they ever got to UNO. Hospodka said Benning’s race was never an issue with him or other whites on the team.

Mel and Dhafir set the unrelenting pace in the tiny, cramped wrestling room that Benning sealed to create sauna-like conditions. Practicing in rubber suits disallowed today Hospodka said a thermostat once recorded the temperature inside at 110 degrees and climbing. Guys struggled for air. The intense workouts tested physical and mental toughness. Endurance. Nobody gave an inch. Tempers flared.

Gary Kipfmiller staked out a corner no one dared invade. Except for Benning, then a rock solid 205 pounds, who made the passive Kipfmiller, tipping the scales at 350-plus, a special project.  “I rode him unmercifully,” said Benning. “He’d whine like a baby and I’d go, ‘Then do something about i!.” Benning said he sometimes feared that in a fit of anger Kipfmiller would drop all his weight on him and crush him.

Washington and Hospodka went at it with ferocity. Any bad blood was left in the room.

“As we were a team on the mat, off the mat we watched out for each other. Even though we were at each other’s throats on the wrestling mat, whatever happened on the outside, we were there. If somebody needed something, we were there,” said Paul Martinez, who grew up with his brother Tony, the team’s student trainer-manager, in the South O projects. The competition and camaraderie helped heal psychological wounds Paul carried from Vietnam, where he was an Army infantry platoon leader.

An emotional Martinez told Benning at a mini-reunion in January, “You were like a platoon leader for us — you guided us and protected us. Coming from a broken family, I not only looked at you as a coach but as a father.” Benning’s eyes moistened.

Joining them there were other integral members of UNO’s 1970 NAIA championship team, including Washington and Hospodka. The squad capped a perfect 14-0 dual season by winning the tough Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament in Gunnison, Colo. and the nationals in Superior, Wis. It was the first national championship won by a scholarship team at the school and the first in any major sport by a Nebraska college or university.

Another milestone was that Benning became the first black coach to win an integrated national championship in wrestling and one of the first to do so in any sport at any level. He earned NAIA national coach of the year honors in 1969.

University of Washington scholar John C. Walter devotes a chapter to Benning’s historymaker legacy in a soon-to-be-published book, Better Than the Best. Walter said Benning’s “career and situation was a unique one” The mere fact Benning got the opportunity he did, said Walter, “was extraordinary,” not to mention that the mostly white student-athletes he taught and coached accepted him without incident. Somewhere else, he said, things might have been different.

“He was working in a state not known for civil rights, that’s for sure,” said Walter. “But Don was fortunate he was at a place that had a president who acted as a catalyst. It was a most unusual confluence. I think the reason why it happened is the president realized here’s a man with great abilities regardless of the color of his skin, and for me that is profound. UNO was willing to recognize and assist a young black man trying hard to distinguish himself and make a name for his university. That’s very important.”

Walter said it was the coach’s discipline and determination to achieve against all odds that prepared him to succeed.

Benning’s legacy can only be fully appreciated in the context of the time and place in which he and his student-athletes competed. For example, he was set to leave his hometown after being denied a teaching post with the Omaha Public Schools, part of endemic exclusionary practices here that restricted blacks from obtaining certain jobs and living in many neighborhoods. He only stayed when Bail chose him to break the color line, though they never talked about it in those terms.

“It always puzzled me why he did that knowing the climate at the university and in K-12 education and in the community pointed in a different direction. Segregation was a way of life here in Omaha. It took a tremendous amount of intestinal fortitude of doing what’s right, of being ready to step out on that limb when no other schools or institutions would touch African-Americans,” said Benning. He can only surmise Bail “thought that was the right thing to do and that I was the right person to do it.”

In assuming the burden of being the first, Benning took the flak that came with it.

“I flat out couldn’t fail because I would be failing my people. African-American history would show that had I failed it would have set things back. I was very aware of Jackie Robinson and what he endured. That was in my mind a lot. He had to take a lot and not say anything about it. It was no different for me.  I had tremendous pressure on me because of being African-American. A lot of things I held to myself.”

Washington said though Benning hid what he had to contend with, some of it was blatant, such as snubs or slights on and off the mat. His white wrestlers recall many instances on the road when they or the team’s white trainer or equipment manager would be addressed as “coach” or be given the bill at a restaurant when it should have been obvious the well-dressed, no-nonsense Benning was in charge.

Hospodka said at restaurants “they just assumed the black guy couldn’t pay. They hesitated to serve us or they ignored us or they hoped we would go away.”

Washington could relate, saying, “I had a feeling what he was going through — the prejudice. They looked down on him. That’s why I put out even more for him because I wanted to see him on top. A lot of people would have said the heck with this, but he’s a man who stood there and took the heat and took it in stride.”

“He did it in a quiet way. He always thought his character and actions would speak for him. He went about his business in a dignified way,” said Hospodka.

UNO wrestlers didn’t escape ugliness. At the 1971 nationals in Boone, N.C., Washington was the object of a hate crime — an effigy hung in the stands. Its intended effect backfired. Said Washington, “That didn’t bother me. You know why? I was used to it. That just made me want to go out there more and really show ’em up.” He did, too.

“We were booed a lot when we were on the road,” Hospodka said. “Don always said that was the highest form of flattery. We thrived on it, it didn’t bother us, we never took it personal, we just went out and did our thing. You might say it (the booing) was because we were beating the snot out of them. I couldn’t help think having a black coach and four or five black wrestlers had something to do with it.”

Hospodka said wherever UNO went the team was a walking social statement.  “When you went into a lot of small towns in the ’60s with four or five black wrestlers and a black coach you stuck out. It’s like, Why are these people together?” “There were some places that were awfully uncomfortable, like in the Carolinas,” said Benning. “You know there were places where they’d never seen an African-American.”

At least not a black authority figure with a group of white men answering to him.

The worst scene came at the Naval Academy, where the cold reception UNO got while holed up three days there was nothing compared to the boos, hisses, catcalls and pennies hurled at them during the dual. In a wild display of unsportsmanlike conduct Benning said thousands of Midshipmen left the stands to surround the mat for the crucial final match, which Kipfmiller won by decision to give UNO a tie.

The white wrestling infrastructure also went out of its way to make Benning and his team unwelcome.

“I think there were times when they seeded other wrestlers ahead of our wrestlers, one, because we were good and, two, because they didn’t look at it strictly from a wrestling standpoint, I think there was a little of the good old boy network there to try and make our road as tough as possible,” said Hospodka. “I think race played into that. It was a lot of subtle things. Maybe it wasn’t so subtle. Don probably saw it more because of the bureaucracy he had to deal with.”

“Some individuals weren’t too happy with me being an African-American,” said Benning. “I served on a selection committee that looked at different places to host the national tournament,. UNO hosted it in ’69, which was really very unusual, it broke a barrier, they’d never had a national championship where the host school had an African-American coach. That was pretty strange for them.”

He said the committee chairman exhibited outright disdain for him. Benning believes the ’71 championship site was awarded to Boone rather than Omaha, where the nationals were a big success, as a way to put him in his place. “The committee came up with Appalachian State, which just started wrestling. I swear to this day the only reason that happened was because of me and my team,” he said.

He and his wrestlers believe officials had it in for them. “There was one national tournament where there’s no question we just flat out got cheated,” said Benning. “It was criminal. I’m talking about the difference between winning the whole thing and second.” Refs’ judgements at the ’69 tourney in Omaha cost UNO vital points. “It was really hard to take,” said Benning. UNO had three individual champs to zero for Adams State, but came up short, 98-84. One or two disputed calls swung the balance.

Despite all the obstacles, Benning and his “kids” succeeded in putting UNO on the map. The small, white institution best known for its Bootstrapper program went from obscurity to prominence by making athletics the vehicle for social action. In a decade defined by what Benning termed “a social revolution,” the placid campus was the last place to expect a historic color line being broken.

The UNO program came of age with its dynamic black coach and mixed team when African-American unrest flared into riots across the country, including Omaha. A north side riot occurred that championship season. UNO’s black wrestlers, who could not find accommodations near the UNO campus, lived in the epicenter of the storm. Black Panthers were neighbors. Mel Washington, his brother Dhafir and other teammates watched North 24th St. burn. Though sympathetic to the outrage, they navigated a delicate line to steer clear of trouble but still prove their blackness.

A uniformed police cadet then, Washington said he was threatened once by the Panthers, who called him “a pig” and set off a cherry bomb outside the apartment he shared with his wife and daughter.

“I found those guys and said, ‘Anybody ever do that to my family again, and you or I won’t be living,’ and from then on I didn’t have no more problems. See, not only was I getting it from whites, but from blacks, too.”

Benning, too, found himself walking a tightrope of “too black or not black enough.”   After black U.S. Olympians raised gloved fists in protest of the national anthem, UNO’s black wrestlers wanted to follow suit. Benning considered it, but balked. In ’69 Roy Washington converted to Islam. He told Benning his allegiance to Black Muslim leader Honorable Elijah Muhammad superseded any team allegiance. Benning released him from the squad. Roy’s brother Mel earlier rejected the separatist dogma the Black Muslims preached. Their differences caused no riff.

Dhafir (Roy) rejoined the team in December after agreeing to abide by the rules. He won the 150-pound title en route to UNO capturing the team title over Adams, 86-58. Hospodka said Dharfir still expressed his beliefs, but with “no animosity, just pride that black-is-beautiful. Dharfir’s finals opponent, James Tannehill, was a black man married to a white woman. Hospodka said it was all the reason Dharfir needed to tell Tannehill, “God told me to punish you.” He delivered good on his vow.

It was also an era when UNO carried the “West Dodge High” label. Its academic and athletic facilities left much to be desired. “The university didn’t have that many things to feel proud of,” said Benning. Wrestling’s success lifted a campus suffering an inferiority complex to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Wrestling was one area where UNO could best NU, whose NCAA wrestling program paled by comparison.

“Coach Benning and his wrestling teams elevated UNO right to the top, shoulder-to-shoulder with its big brother’s football team down the road,” said UNO grad Mary Jochim, part of a wrestling spirit club in 69-’70. “They gave everyone at the school a big boost of pride. The rafters would shake at those matches.”

“You’d have to say it was the coming-together of several factors that brought about a genuine excitement about wrestling at UNO in the late 1960s,” said former UNO Sports Information Director Gary Anderson. He was sports editor of the school paper, The Gateway, that championship season. “There were some outstanding athletes who were enthusiastic and colorful to watch, a very good coach, and UNO won a lot of matches. UNO had the market cornered. Creighton had no team and Nebraska’s team wasn’t as dominant as UNO. It created a perfect storm.”

Benning said, “It was more important we had the best wrestling team in the state than winning the national championship. Everybody took pride in being No. 1.” Anderson said small schools like UNO “could compete more evenly” then with big schools in non-revenue producing sports like wrestling, which weren’t fully funded. He said as UNO “wrestled and defeated ‘name’ schools it added luster to the team’s mystique.

NU was among the NCAA schools UNO beat during Benning’s tenure, along with Wyoming, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas and Cornell. UNO tied a strong Navy team at the Naval Academy in what Hospodka called “the most hostile environment I ever wrestled in.” UNO crowned the most champions at the Iowa Invitational, where if team points had been kept UNO would have outdistanced the big school field.

“We didn’t care who you were — if you were Division I or NAIA or NCAA, it just didn’t matter to us,” said Hospodka, who pinned his way to the 190-pound title in 1970. The confidence to go head-to-head with anybody was something Benning looked for in his wrestlers and constantly reinforced.

Said Hospodka,”Don always felt like we could compete against anybody. He knew he had talent in the room. He didn’t think we had to take a back seat to anybody when it came to our abilities. He had a confidence about him that was contagious.”

The sport’s bible, Amateur Wrestling News, proclaimed UNO one of the best teams in the nation, regardless of division. UNO’s five-years of dominance, resulting in one national championship, two runner-up finishes, a third-place finish and an eighth place showing, regularly made the front page of the Omaha World-Herald sports section.

The grapplers also wrestled with an aggression and a flair that made for crowd-pleasing action. Benning said his guys were “exceptional on their feet and exceptional pinners.” It wasn’t unusual for UNO to record four or five falls per dual. Washington said it was UNO’s version of “showtime.” He and his teammates competed against each other for the most stylish or quickest pin.

Hospodka said “the bitter disappointment” of the team title being snatched away in ’69 fueled UNO’s championship run the next season, when UNO won its 14 duals by an average score of 32-6. It works out to taking 8 of every 10 matches. UNO posted three shut outs and allowed single digits in seven other duals. No one scored more than 14 points on them all year. The team won every tournament it competed in.

Everything fell into place. “Nobody at our level came even close to competing with us,” said Hospodka. “The only close match we had was Athletes in Action, and those were all ex-Big 8 wrestlers training for the World Games or the Olympics. They were loaded and we still managed to pull out a victory (19-14).” At nationals, he said, “we never had a doubt. We had a very solid lineup the whole way, everybody was at the top of their game. We wrapped up the title before the finals even started.” Afterwards, Benning told the Gateway, “It was the greatest team effort I have ever been acquainted with and certainly the greatest I’ve ever seen.”

Muhammad won his third individual national title and Hospodka his only one. Five Mavs earned All-America status.

The foundation for it all, Hospodka said, was laid in a wrestling room a fraction the size of today’s UNO practice facility. “I’ve been in bigger living rooms,” he said. But it was the work the team put in there that made the difference. “It was a tough room, and if you could handle the room then matches were a breeze. The easy part of your week was when you got to wrestle somebody else. There were very few people I wrestled that I felt would survive our wrestling room.”

“It was great competition,” said Jordan Smith. “One thing I learned after my first practice was that I was no longer the toughest guy in the room. There were some recruits who came into that room and practiced with us for a few days and we never saw them again. I was part of something that really was special. It was a phenomenal feeling.”

This band of brothers is well represented in the Maverick Wrestling and UNO Halls of Fame. The championship team was inducted by UNO and by the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Benning, Mel Washington, Dhafir Muhammad and Curlee Alexander are in the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame. But when UNO went from NAIA to NCAA Division II in ’73 it seemed the athletic department didn’t value the past. Tony Martinez said he rescued the team’s numerous plaques and trophies from a campus dumpster. Years later he reluctantly returned them to the school, where some can be viewed in the Sapp Fieldhouse lobby.

UNO’s current Hall of Fame coach, Mike Denney, knows the program owes much to what Benning and his wrestlers did. The two go way back.

Benning left coaching in ’71 for an educational administration career with OPS. Mike Palmisano inherited the program for eight years, but it regressed.

When Denney took over in ’79 he said “my thing was to try to find a way to get back to the level Don had them at and carry on the tradition he built.” Denney plans having Benning back as grand marshall for the March of All-Americans at this weekend’s finals. “I have great respect for him.” Benning admires what Denney’s done with the program, which has risen to even greater heights. “He’s done an outstanding job”

As for the old coach, he feels the real testament to what he achieved is how close his diverse team remains. They don’t get together like they once did. When they do, the bonds forged in sweat and blood reduce them to tears. Their ranks are thinned due to death and relocation. They’re fathers and grandfathers now, yet they still have each other’s backs. Benning’s boys still follow his lead. Hospokda said he often asks himself, “What would Don want me to do?”

At a recent reunion Washington told Benning, “I’m telling you now in front of everyone — thank you for bringing the family together.”

My Brother’s Keeper, The competitive drive MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s older brother, Josh, instilled in him (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

April 30, 2010 2 comments

The first time I met Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson he threw me  for a loop, pun fully intended, when instead of the hour or so interview he agreed to he accorded me nearly five hours of his time. I had been steeled to expect the worst, having read and heard how difficult he could be to media types like me, but he was thoroughly charming, patiently answering question after question.  Only once or twice I was on the receiving end of his icy stare, the same glowering, suffer-no-fools-gladly stare that had intimidated hundreds of batters.  That marathon interview ended up feeding two profiles I did of him on the occasion of his second autobiography’s release.

The following story resulted from a second interview he gave me, this time by phone, that concentrated on his relationship with his late older brother Josh.   He confirmed for me what an important figure Josh was in his life and in the lives of many young blacks in north Omaha.  As the story reveals, it was Josh who really drove Bob to be the supreme competitor we came to marvel at. It was Josh, himself a fine athlete and coach in his day, who like so many blacks of an earlier era never got his own chance to shine.

A version of this story first appeared in The Reader ( as part of an Omaha black sports legends series I wrote called Out to Win:  The Roots of Greatness.  I later updated it for Nebraska Life Magazine.





My Brother’s Keeper, the competitive drive MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s older brother, Josh, instilled in him (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Nebraska Life Magazine (2005); an earlier version published in The Reader (2004) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness


When Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson dreams, he dreams baseball. “Oh, I dream all the time about it. It drives me crazy. I guess I’m going to do that the rest of my life,” he said. He may even relive some of the boyhood nights spent throwing from the crude mound his oldest brother Josh fashioned for him. He may see himself pitching and Josh catching, critiquing his every move. Together again, two brothers linked in a legacy of competitive excellence.

Gibson perfected the art of intimidation in a 17-year playing career with the St. Louis Cardinals. From atop the mound, he threw glaring daggers into batters, who felt the fury of his inscrutable game-face. Those foolish or brazen enough to lean-out over the plate got his trademark calling-card — a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, riding-in high-and-tight, perhaps grazing their shirt or helmet, sending the cowed interlopers cartwheeling backwards or even sprawling face down in the dirt.

The brushback or knockdown pitch sent a clear message: Back off, sucker, or I’ll put you down if you crowd the plate. It was all a mind game meant to gain Gibson an edge. He was a master at it. If anyone molded him to be this ultimate competitor it was his late brother, Leroy Josh Gibson, a guru, mentor, coach, teacher and worst nightmare all rolled into one. Growing up in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects of north Omaha, Bob learned from Josh how to be a winner.

‘Big Guy’

Born into a poor family, Bob was the asthmatic youngest of five brothers whose father, Pack, died before he was born, leaving much of his rearing up to Josh, 15 years his senior. From the time Josh wrapped a sickly 3-year-old Bob in a quilt and carried him to the hospital, his big brother was his “protector.” The formidable Josh was a hard-boiled World War II Army vet disenchanted by racism in the service and at home. A standout athlete, he briefly attended Alabama State, where he played some football. He was also adept at basketball and baseball. Bob wasn’t around to see Josh in his athletic prime, but he said even in his 30s his older brother “could run. He could move for a big guy.

Intent on being a public school teacher and coach, Josh found opportunities denied him and settled, temporarily, for a Swift packinghouse job. He began working at the local north Omaha YMCA and Boys Club, organizing and coaching teams in basketball, baseball and softball (with the late Marty Thomas), all the while pursuing a bachelor’s degree from then Omaha University and, later, a master’s from Creighton University. Before they were called select teams, Josh recruited top athletic talent from north O to form the High Y Travelers, an elite adult basketball team, and the High Y Monarchs, a crack youth baseball team. “He got the best of the best,” said former Traveler John Nared. The teams, comprised wholly of blacks, took on all-comers across Nebraska, western Iowa and northern Kansas.

Josh left a big impression on Bob and hundreds more he taught athletic and life lessons to. “More than anything else, he was a father-figure to most of the kids down in the housing projects, me included,” Bob said. “There were a lot of kids there like me that didn’t have fathers at home and he was respected even more for the role he played in that capacity than for being a coach. What impressed us more than anything else was him coming down to the ballpark carrying his college text books, which he’d put aside to train us. We figured, Hell, here’s an ‘old man’ still going to school — it’s gotta be important. You’d be surprised how many of those kids out of the housing project were influenced by that.”

Jim Morrison, a teammate of Bob’s, said Josh had “the ability to elicit the best out of young potential stars. He started with the head down, not the body up. He taught you how to compete by teaching the fundamentals.”

Indeed, Bob called Josh “a fundamentals freak.” Bob explained, “We would have a basketball practice and everybody, you know, wanted to shoot and score points and, instead, he’d make us play defense for I-don’t-know-how-long while he and some of his friends played offense. He made sure we knew how to play the game and that every one of us knew exactly what to do and when to do it. He taught us to think on our feet more than anything else.”

Josh was not content with players knowing the basics and going hard. They had to win, too. “You know how you’re growing up and people are always telling you, It’s not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game? Well,” Bob said, “he didn’t have that thought. Winning is everything — that’s the attitude he had, and I grew up with that. It was like, Hey, I’m not out here just to play and have fun — I’m out here to win. I want to be better than the next guy.”

Josh’s fire burned so deep he sometimes lit off during games when he felt his team was getting jobbed or dis’sed. “Oh, no, he wouldn’t stand for it at all,” Bob said. “He was a fierce competitor.” He recalled how during  Monarchs road game, typically played in some backwoods town, an irate Josh would get so worked-up he’d walk “out to the middle of the field… challenging to fight everybody there. Nobody wanted to take him on. You know, he was a pretty big guy. I mean, he was an imposing figure…about 5’11 and 240 pounds.”

That defiance came to define Bob’s own disposition. “You see that stuff and that gets in the back of your mind,” he said, “and you ask yourself, Is this the way it’s supposed to be? Maybe you’re supposed to fight like that. Well, I had no problem fighting.” Bob also felt Josh’s fury during pick-up basketball games, something the Gibson brothers often engaged in. Even with his little brother, Josh gave no quarter, “Oh, yeah, Josh was a bully,” Bob said, laughing. “He wouldn’t hesitate to run right over you…It was really kind of funny because as a real young kid I was small and skinny. I was 5’0 tall and weighed 99 pounds when I got to high school. But as I got older and I got bigger he used to try and run over me and couldn’t do it because I was just as much a competitor as he was.”

‘Professional Man’

As hard as Josh drove his charges, he drove baby brother hardest. In his 1994 book Stranger to the Game Gibson writes, “There were…times when I wondered if Josh was going kill me himself. He was much harder on me than he was on the rednecks…no doubt because I had committed myself to becoming a pro ballplayer and Josh wasn’t going to let me default on the commitment. The other guys on the team would watch silently after practice when Josh would order me back on the field and hit me vicious ground balls until the sun set.”

It was the summer of 1947 when Josh first sat him down for a tough lecture about the then-11-year-old’s future as a “professional man,” by which Josh meant a pro athlete, a once distant dream made more real that summer by Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in major league baseball. Bob recalls Josh talking to him about making “the commitment” to become a ballplayer and for the next few years the big brother pushed his young sibling to the edge and back. Bob, who says his best sport from early youth on through college was basketball, naturally figured playing hoops would be his best shot at the pros. “I was actually a better basketball player and he realized that, too.” But he suspects Josh saw baseball as his ultimate ticket out of the ghetto. Indeed, it was Josh who first taught the future Hall of Famer how to pitch, even catching the wild but hard throwing youngster on a makeshift diamond outside Kellom School. Josh built-up a mound and marked-off a spot for home plate for what became a daily ritual.

“He used to have me pitch a lot,” Bob said.” He’d correct me on various things and teach me things. After I got a little bit older and I started doing a little thinking on my own, I disagreed with him a lot…the way kids do.” Under Josh’s tutelage, Bob’s natural gifts became apparent. “From March until the snow flew I had him out there throwing at me — starting at 10-minute stretches and moving up to a half hour,” Josh said in a 1964 Omaha World-Herald interview. “It wasn’t long before Robert could really hum that ball. There were times when he wanted to be off with the other boys, but I kept him at it.”

In games, Josh rarely pitched Bob. “I played outfield or shortstop most of the time, but I also played first base and I caught, too,” Bob said. The molding of Gibson did not go unnoticed and led to Bob and his friend, the late Jerry Parks, playing for different legion and sandlot teams. The pair were even recruited to play for a frequent road competitor — the Woodbine (Iowa) Whiz Kids, coached by Red Brummer. “We were kind of like ringers.”

But baseball was neither Gibson’s first love, nor his best sport. Former college basketball great and NBA All-Pro Bob Boozer, a teammate of Gibson’s for a short time at Omaha Technical High School and with the High Y Travelers, said, “He was a finer basketball player than baseball player. He could play. He could get up and hang.” When Gibson was coming up, word traveled fast that Josh’s kid brother had game. The buzz was, “This kid can really jump, man,” Tech teammate Lonnie McIntosh recalled. “He had to duck his head to dunk.”

As a prep hoops star, Gibson had few peers. His Tech High basketball coach, Neal Mosser, said, “He could have played today — that’s how good he was.”

Despite the time he spent developing his skills on the mound, Bob said Josh did not try swaying him to pursue baseball in favor of basketball. “He never tried to influence me one way or the other which I should do. Not at all.”

While his baseball prowess was more raw potential than reailty, Jim Morrison said, “He threw so hard, we called it a radio ball. You couldn’t see it coming. You just heard it.” He said Gibson exhibited his famous ferocity early on. “On the sideline, Bob could be sweet as honey, but when he got on the mound you were in big trouble. I don’t care who you were, you were in big trouble.”

During the summer American Legion baseball season before his junior year at Tech, Gibson earned all-city honors as a utility player. His talent was such that before graduating he got an offer from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues and long looks from scouts of several major league clubs. Even those credentials could not overcome racism back home in an era when public school coaches were uniformly white and either openly opposed playing blacks or did so sparingly. He even found himself turned-away by then-Tech baseball coach Ken Kennedy. It wasn’t until his senior year, under new coach Tom Murphy, he even got a chance to play baseball for Tech, making the team at shortstop.

Where the hard-driving Josh left off grooming Bob, Tech’s Mosser took over. “Neal Mosser was so much like my brother,” Bob said. “He taught fundamentals, too. He did a lot as far as me going from a young boy to a young man. It was more the way he carried himself than anything else and the respect he had for us as players.” By all accounts, Mosser was color-blind. “Race just never seemed to be a part of his thinking,” Gibson said. “As a matter of fact, we went to the state tournament in Lincoln my senior year and he started five black players. I give him a lot of credit for that. That night, you could hear a pin drop. And he didn’t give a shit. He just wanted to win.”

With the fast-breaking Tech team frustrated by Fremont High’s slow-down tactics, the referees seemingly conspired to give the edge in the nip-and-tuck stalemate to the Tigers. It was neither the first time nor the last time that a predominantly black team from Omaha got the shaft. As if he still can’t accept it, Gibson said, “By the end of the first-half four out of our five starters fouled-out, and within a couple minutes of the second half I fouled out, and I never fouled out. They were cheating us. It was that blatant. And Mosser did the same thing Josh did — he was out in the middle of the floor screaming, and I thought he was going to have a heart attack.”

There was nothing Mosser or anyone could do. Tech lost 40-39. Losing a game is one thing. Having it taken away is quite another. The pain of it made Gibson cry. He said it was the last time he ever shed a tear over a loss.

‘Desire to Win’

Gibson had his sights set on a major college hoops scholarship. He played summer AAU ball in an effort to capture the interest of powerhouse Indiana University. When Mosser contacted the Hoosiers’ head coach, he was told the program already had its “quota of blacks.” At Josh’s urging, hometown Creighton courted Bob and he accepted their scholarship offer, thus breaking the sports color line in the modern era there. He became CU’s career scoring leader. He also showed promise on the mound, further cementing his status as a pro prospect with his play in summer semi-pro ball.



Bob Gibson at Creighton University



Upon graduation, the only NBA feelers came from the Minneapolis Lakers, but when his play for a college all-star team sparked a rare win over the famed Harlem Globetrotters, he was promptly offered a contract to join the traveling hoops circus. Around the same time, he also signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. For a year, he pulled a Bo Jackson — playing two pro sports, pitching for the Cardinals Class A club in Omaha and, in the off-season, hooping it up with the Trotters on cross-country tours.

He moved quickly up the Cardinals’ farm system, joining the big league club in 1959. He became an everyday starter in ’61 and, by the mid-’60s, established himself as one of baseball’s premiere pitchers. In a 10-year stretch from 1963 to 1972 he was arguably the game’s best hurler, posting a 191-105 record, winning two Cy Young Awards, annually ranking near the top in strikeouts and ERA and leading the Cardinals to two World Series titles, capturing the series MVP award each time. His dominant 1968 MVP season was, as he put it in his book, “the year I mastered my craft.” In compiling a 1.12 ERA, 13 shut outs and 28 complete games, he enjoyed perhaps the best single year performance by a pitcher in the modern era.

Gibson, who’s observed his share of fine athletes during his days as a pitcher, coach (with the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves) and broadcaster, believes all the greats share some qualities. It’s no coincidence they include some of the same characteristics Josh helped instill in him years before. “Desire to win. Desire to be better than average,” he said. Then there are the unteachable things. “The will to stick with it. The focus to block out everything else going on around you. Ability doesn’t hurt, either.”

Along the way, Josh reveled in Bob’s ride to stardom and 1981 first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame, although the two rarely talked about it. Not long before his enshrinement, Bob paid Josh the ultimate compliment, saying, “He’s the one who taught me to be an athlete.”

‘Mutual Respect’

During and after his career Gibson earned a reputation as a blunt, uncompromising man in speaking out against unfair housing practices and employment opportunities in St. Louis and Omaha, where he had various business ventures. For the past two decades, he’s lived with his second wife and family in Bellevue. Today, he maintains ties with the sports world by serving as a Cardinals special instructor in spring training and participating in fantasy baseball camps. From 1997 to 2004, he hosted an annual charity golf tournament that brought in dozens of sports legends.

He enjoys getting together with other athletes from the past and reminiscing about their shared youth. “I think one of the things that makes athletes different than the rest of society,” he said, “is that regardless of what game you play it allows you to remain as a youth…a child. You don’t get any older. You have that same type of feeling. As an athlete you want to cry when you have to quit. It’s something you’ll never be tired of.”

Hanging with Sandy Koufax or Bill Russell, Gibson feels young again. Then, too, there’s the unspoken warrior fraternity he and the others embody.

“There’s a mutual respect you have without even talking about it. It’s just simply understood.”

It’s the same way he and Josh felt about each other.

Billy Melton served with Omaha’s “Sweet Sixteen” in the all black 530th Quartermaster Battalion

April 30, 2010 5 comments


Image via Wikipedia

The late Billy Melton was a source and friend to me on many story projects.  This dear man really knew how to live and he was a fountain of information about the African-American community in Omaha, where he seemed to know every one of a certain age. Billy led me to many great stories but a half dozen times or so he was either the sole subject of articles I wrote or a principal character in them.  The following story, orginally published in the New Horizons newspaper about a decade ago, is an example of the latter.  It chronicles the all black Quartermaster battalion he and several other Omahans served in during World War II.

Billy Melton served with Omaha’s “Sweet Sixteen” in the all black 530th Quartermaster Battalion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons


In February the nation remembers the often overlooked achievements of black Americans. When the 50th anniversary of World War II was commemorated a few years ago, the general public learned of the Tuskegee Airmen and other black fighting units who distinguished themselves in the conflict. Blacks serving in the armed forces then fought two wars. One against the enemy. Another against racism. And aloong the way, they proved themselves the equal of anyone.

The role blacks played in WWII didn’t end there, however.  Another chapter in their little known wartime saga is revealed in the story of the 530th Quartermaster Battalion, an all black Army service unit whose ranks included several Omahans.  The 530th was deployed overseas in August 1943 and participated in the African, European and Pacific Theaters of operation. The Quartermasters (called Logistics in today’s Army) handled the supply side of the war — loading, unloading, stockpiling and guarding the essential equipment and material (everything from bullets to bread to bedding) that armed, fed and clothed the frontline troops.

The job the Quartermasters did in WWII has been obscured by the exploits of combat units. Some of the men of the 530th want to change that. They want their story told, not for glory, but for posterity. Their experience, which has largely gone untold until now, is another piece of African-American heritage that should not be lost. It is the story of how an all black battalion, commanded by white officers, formed a cohesive unit in the still  segregated Army and, in the face of enemy fire and American intolerance, performed its job well, doing its part to win the war. In the end, the men simply want their efforts acknowledged alongside those of others.

“In the Quartermasters we handled ammunition, gasoline, food, clothing. We moved millions of pounds of supplies. We gave it our all. But we never got respect, we never got credit. The Air Force got all the credit. The Marines got all the credit.  The Navy got all the credit. Even the Red Ball Express finally got its notice. Why not us? The bottomline is, they all had to eat in the morning. They couldn’t shoot those guns unless they got ammunition. And they had to come to us for their supplies. That’s what we were all about, supply,” said William “Billy” O. Melton of Omaha, a 530th veteran who is the battalion’s most vociferous supporter.

Melton, 76, is also the outfit’s unofficial historian. A serious collector, he’s preserved in scrapbooks memorabilia documenting what life was like in the 530th, including photos (many which he snapped himself) of comrades at work and play, Stars & Stripes clippings and official Army documents. At his urging battalion veterans began holding reunions nine years ago. He, along with fellow Omaha 530th vets Richard “Fritz” Headley, Cornelius “Kingfish” Henderson and Rever McCloud, organized and hosted the first reunion in Omaha in 1990. The men and their wives have attended every reunion since, traveling to Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, California and Missouri. The ‘98 event is set for September in Kansas City, Mo.

For Melton and the others, reliving the distant afterglow of war is an occasion for both joyous reminiscence and solemn reflection. Each year the group’s numbers dwindle some more, and the survivors remember their fallen comrades with moving tributes. Gone but not forgotten.

The men who remain renew deep bonds forged more than half a century ago and recount indelible events seared in their collective memory. The ties that bind are even greater for the native Omahans, many of whom were friends before the war. Sixteen Omahans served more than two years together in the outfit. The men dubbed themselves “The Sweet Sixteen.” Along the way they shared things that would forever link them. From weathering basic training in the Deep South to crossing oceans and seas to storming fortified beaches to surviving air raid attacks to moving an endless stream of supplies to visiting historic landmarks.

The stark contrasts of war linger for each veteran as well. How they were met with warmth by liberated Italian and French citizens and with bigotry by some Americans. How they ate three meals a day in the middle of war, yet were surrounded by starving refugees. Each member left home a young, green draftee and returned a tough mature man. “It made us grow up in a hurry,” Melton said.  “It taught us a lot about life, about discipline.”

To appreciate just how far a journey they made, one must go back to the beginning. While no one man’s experience can fully encompass that of an entire battalion, Melton’s story comes near. Like most of the others, he was drafted at the end of 1942. He was a single 21-year-old jobless Tech High School graduate with “no sense of direction.” He and his two brothers lived with an aunt, Mattie McDowell Lett, who’d raised them after the death of their widowed mother several years before. Their father had died (as a result of grave wounds suffered in World War I) when they were small children.

In January 1943 Melton and 29 other Omaha black draftees were assembled at the Elks Hall on Lake Street and processed at Fort Crook in Omaha. They left home by train that February, arriving in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for their Army induction.  From there they railed to Camp Butner, N.C., where they underwent basic training.  This raw black battalion had just months to gel before going overseas, and they did.

Few of the Omaha contingent had been south of the Mason-Dixon Line and most were unprepared for what they found. “I used to read about how prejudiced things were, but I didn’t believe it. Not in a country like this. But then I went to get a drink of water in the train station and a sign said, ‘Colored drink here’ and “White drink here.’ When I saw that, it was an education. This was the bitter South. That’s the way it was,” Melton said.

Rever McCloud, 86, said, “It was just like being in another world down there. In our barracks in North Carolina was a map that showed where you could go and where was off-limits if you were black. That’s why I didn’t go to town.” Richard Headley, 76, and a local girl attended a movie in a nearby town, but he never went again after being forced to use an alley entrance and to sit in the balcony. “I couldn’t take that,” he said.




For men who would be risking life and limb for their country, still being regarded as second-class citizens was a bitter pill. It was a potentially explosive situation, but the men largely kept their cool. “We just didn’t force that issue,” Melton said, “so we stuck to the black part of town. That’s where we wanted to be anyway, and we were shown real Southern hospitality.”


There was one incident where Melton lost his temper. He and Headley needed a ride back to camp, so they boarded a bus. The back portion, where blacks were required to sit, was full. Tired of bowing to Jim Crow laws, they tried sitting up front, where there were ample empty seats, but a white passenger barred their way with his foot. “I told him to move,” Melton recalls, “but he said no, and so we had a little altercation.”

The “altercation” involved Melton belting the bigot in the mouth with his fist, breaking the man’s jaw. The driver pulled the bus to a halt and read the soldiers the riot act, but instead they staged their own mini-Civil Rights demonstration.  Melton said, “We understood we were in the South and all, but we told him we weren’t going to move. This old black fellow in back said, ‘I don’t know who you young fellas are, but I’m sure glad this happened.’” Adds Headley, “The black people threw the driver off the bus and somebody — I don’t know who — drove the bus on to camp.”

The miffed driver called the MPs, who escorted Melton and Headley to camp.  “From then on, we never had much problem,” Melton said. He adds that racial disputes within the Army were rare while stateside. “That racial thing — we never had that until we sent overseas, and then we had it with our own American soldiers. But the white officers were very nice to us. Discipline wasn’t hard for us because we accepted authority.”

He fondly recalls his company commander, Capt. Robert Coleman, a born and bred white Southerner. “We called him ‘Old Hickory’ because he went by the book. But he was a fair man. An amiable man. He had our respect. And he respected us.”  Coleman, who lives in Bassett, Va., said leading an all-black company didn’t faze him.  “No, I had no misgiving. I had worked with black people all my life. And I’ve always been thankful and proud of my Quartermaster comrades. They were well-organized, efficient, thoroughly prepared soldiers.”

Although a service outfit, the battalion was infantry-trained. The men drilled relentlessly, made forced marches, snaked through obstacle courses and sharpened their marksmanship on the rife range. “I’ve never been through anything as rigorous as that in my life,” Melton said.

The daily routine revolved around the barracks, mess hall and PX, with reveille every dawn. Black music wafted through camp, ranging from Count Basie and Duke Ellington recordings to men singing spirituals.

Melton, who’d had ROTC training at a vocational school he attended in Kansas, was quickly made a drill sergeant. “I wasn’t liked by all the guys in the outfit, but they had a lot of respect for me, and I had a lot of respect for them,” he said. They continued calling him ‘Sarge’ even after being busted to private (three times) for insubordination. “I liked those guys for that,” he said. “Even today, when we go to reunions, they call me ‘Sarge.’”

From Camp Butner, Sgt. Melton and company traveled to an embarkment center in New Jersey, where they boarded a troop ship bound for Oran, Algeria in North Africa. The ship, carrying more than two thousand men, cruised the Atlantic in a convoy that zig-zagged through U-boat infested waters. Due to a shortage of crew members, the men of the 530th were trained to man their ship’s 20 millimeter guns.

Upon reaching Oran, a port city situated on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the men found a different Africa than the one they’d envisioned. “All we knew about Africa was lions and tigers,” Melton said, “but when we finally docked there we saw a beautiful country.” After learning they would participate in the invasion of southern Italy, the men drilled intensively for their mission over the next month.  The 530th, attached to Gen. Mark Clark’s 5th Army, hit the beaches near Salerno, Italy on the invasion’s third wave and made its way north up the coastline.

When Naples fell, the 530th moved in and opened a supply depot. For weeks, the battalion worked around the clock unloading supplies off ships and loading them onto trucks for delivery to the front. They also supervised Italian civilian workers.

Naples was home to the 530th for the next 10 months. The Germans, who controlled the area just miles to the north, bombed the harbor virtually every night. The attacks were so regular, always coming just after darkness fell, that the men nicknamed their adversary “Bed Check Charlie.” It would start with the intermittent drone of German aircraft engines in the distance, followed by an uneasy silence as the planes cut their motors to swoop in and drop flares that made the night sky bright as day. Next, wailing air raid sirens sounded and banks of searchlights scanned the sky.  Then, as Melton describes it, “All hell would break loose.”

Amid thunderous explosions, hundreds of Allied anti-aircraft batteries opened up on the bombers, their phosphorescent tracers streaking the night like Fourth of July fireworks. Joining the cacophony was the steady buzz of Allied fighter planes intercepting German aircraft. “The firepower was awesome. And through it all we had to work unloading ships, handling live ammunition. It was frightening.  here were many close calls” Melton said. In the heaviest attacks, McCloud adds, “shrapnel was falling like rain.”

Since the pup tents the battalion was billeted in offered no protection, the men sought cover wherever they could find it. If they were on ships, they climbed inside the belly. If they were on land, they scrambled for the nearest foxhole or trench. Some even dived into open wells.

As the Italian campaign wore on, the 530th was rewarded for its work by being given guard duty. The men guarded the various supply dumps as well as a growing number of German prisoners of war, who were put to work loading and unloading supplies. They got on well with the POWs.



  • Selectees being called for permanent station
  • Selectees boarding train
  • Radio men
  • A convoy of Army trucks



Just when it seemed the battalion was fully accepted by the Army’s higher command, it got a slap in the face. As Melton explains, “We came to work one night and there were Italians on guard duty and we were back to hauling supplies.  We wondered why. We were told, ‘The Italians are defeated, they’re with us now.’  This we resented. We went to our first lieutenant and complained. Later on that night an Italian (sentry) shot one of our fellas as he was going to get some food or something. That did it. We told the officers, ‘Unless you end it now and we get our rifles back, we’re going to start World War III right here.’”

The men essentially staged a strike. Ordered back to their tents, they complied, but the gauntlet had been laid down. They had support for their grievance too.  “Our company commanders backed us up. They didn’t like it either,” Melton said.  The incident caused such a stink, he said, that top brass flew in from the states.  They took a hard line at first, calling out the entire battalion to read the Articles of War and the grave consequences of disobeying orders in wartime. Melton credits the 530th’s officers with mediating the dispute. “Our C.O. told ‘em our side — pro and con — and in two or three days we had our rifles and guard duty back.  The Army knew that what it had done was wrong. It was just prejudice.”

War brings no shortage of hardship for combatants and civilians alike. But perhaps the toughest part for the men of the 530th was the sight of starving Italian refugees. “The worst thing I ever encountered over there was seeing the hungry Italian people,” Melton said. “I saw them eat live snails. I saw them walk up to dead horses in the street and cut off a piece of meat. Every time we got through eating in camp, we’d scrape our leftovers into the garbage and 150 to 200 Italian civilians would be milling around with buckets in hand and take our garbage and eat it right away. They’d even offer money for food, but we didn’t want their money.”

With its enormous surplus, Melton said, the Army quickly took on the role of aid workers in addition to liberators: “We fed ‘em. We gave away everything. Well, we had everything to give.”

He can never forget the scene in the Naples harbor as the Allies departed for southern France. “When the ships pulled out…Italian men, women and children followed us all the way out into the water, crying, throwing flowers. It was something to see. They almost drowned. That’s how much they hated seeing us Americans leave.”

The Americans hated leaving too.  Melton and his comrades had grown attached to Italy’s people, culture, food and language. In what would have been taboo back home, interracial romances bloomed.  “Everybody lived like there was no tomorrow,” Melton said.

Elelments of the 530th stormed German-occupied French soil on D-Day Plus Two — June 7, 1944. Landing with the second wave, Melton, McCloud, Headley and the rest of Company C came under fire as they waded in chest-high water off a beach near St. Tropez. Even though men were dropping all around them, the 530th suffered few casualties. After the beachhead was secured the 530th moved, en masse, inland.  They were stationed for most of the remainder of the war in Marseilles, serving the 5th and 7th Armies, and for a brief time, Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army.

They found the French just as inviting as the Italians, and just as sorry to see them go. “One family I got close to had me over their house many times,” McCloud said.  “I ate there, I bathed there, I slept there. When we were ready to ship out, they treated me like I was leaving home. The mother went to the market and fixed the biggest dinner that night. The whole family was there. They were crying. That really got to me.”

In contrast with the warm welcome accorded by the Italians and French, the men endured racial epithets from some of their fellow GIs. “We’d go into town to unwind and we’d get into it with the white soldiers because they didn’t want us to drink with them in the bars. That happened often. We had to be careful with our own soldiers,” Melton said. Sometimes it went beyond harsh words. On those occasions, Headley said, there was nothing to do but “just fight, and that was it.”

The irony of the situation — of feeling more at home with foreigners than their own countrymen — was not lost on the men of the 530th. “Believe me, no one hated going overseas more than me,” said McCloud, “but after I arrived there, I found out I would rather soldier over there, than here in the states because the people were so nice to me.”

As the war dragged on and the men’s overseas duty stretched to a year, then two, spirits sagged. The Omahans in the outfit counted themselves lucky to be with hometown buddies. “It was a tremendous help to talk with someone every day from home. A morale booster,” Melton said. “We were friends before we went in the service, and we remained friends.” They staged a Native Omaha Day near the end of their stay in France. Together, they mourned FDR’s death and celebrated Germany’s surrender.

The Omahans were dispersed into separate units of the 4135th battalion. Some went to the Philippines (McCloud), others to Okinawa (Melton and Headley), where they guarded Japanese POWs. A few transfered to infantry units. Most were in the Pacific when news of the Japanese surrender came. “We were elated,” Melton said. “We were coming home.”

The 530th received some decorations and citations, including he Bronze Service Arrowhead and Service Medals for their duty in the Africa, Europe and the Pacific, but otherwise their contributions went ignored.

But the men and their memories tell the whole story. One of duty and bravery.   “I’m proud. We did an important job,” said Ben Austin of Omaha, the 530th’s oldest vet at age 89. And the fact they were all black made it even sweeter. “I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” Melton said.

When Omaha’s North 24th Street brought together Jews and Blacks in a melting pot marketplace

April 30, 2010 9 comments

801 North 24th Street

Image by john.murden via Flickr

I never experienced it, but I was long intrigued by a period of North 24th Street history in Omaha that saw African-Americans and Jews co-exist in a mutually dependent way. For the most part, Jews owned businesses of all kinds up and down and around that strip and blacks were their primary customers.   North 24th Street cuts through the heart of Black Omaha going north and south and in the years when blacks were restricted to living in that area by red lining practices, Jewish merchants naturally catered to the resident population.  Jews and other European ethnic groups had settled the area and some continued to reside there as blacks moved in, although most Jews and Italians, et cetera, moved elsewhere.  But enough Jewish merchants remained to create this intriguing multicultural stew.

Some blacks were also employed in Jewish stores and homes.  Some black businesses and professionals also operated in this hub.  The symbiotic relationship between Omaha Jews and blacks lasted through much of the 1960s, effectively ending when civil disturbances destroyed many of the business properties and much of the goodwill that had long thrived there.

The following story I wrote about it all appeared in a 2007 issue of The Jewish Press.


When Omaha’s North 24th Street brought together Jews and Blacks in a melting pot marketplace 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press


North 24th Street. Today, this distressed stretch running through largely African-American northeast Omaha is a hodgepodge of mercantiles, community service organizations and social agencies interspersed with empty structures and vacant lots. The sidewalks are mostly empty. Save for some new construction and streetscape improvements in the 24th and Lake environs, block after block is blighted. Signs of renewal peek through here and there in refurbished buildings, new commercial centers and handsome housing developments.

Visions of new grandeur lie in initiatives targeting the area, known as the Flatlands, for redevelopment. Still, current reality is a long way from those dreams and a far cry from North 24th’s heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s. Then, rows of buildings lining each side of the street — from Cuming south to well past Lake north — housed dozens of small businesses, many Jewish-owned, some black-owned.

It was a lively social-cultural enterprise zone/marketplace where a promenade of ethnicities filled the sidewalks and streets from dawn to well past dusk.

“Almost like Maxwell Street in Chicago,” said former North 24th resident Joe Kirshenbaum, referring to Chi-Town’s multicultural hub. “It was a city in itself. It was busy all the time. The only time there wasn’t any business was sun down Friday night, when everything was closed. Everybody knew everybody, blacks, whites, they were all alike. We used to leave our doors open at home at night or we’d sleep on the porch because we never had to worry…”

“On a Saturday night it was busy. It was a real hustling place,” said Mort Glass, who worked in his father’s Omaha Kosher Meat Market on 24th.

Jews and other European immigrant groups, including Italians, settled in north Omaha in the first decades of the last century. There was always an African American presence but the real wave of blacks came as part of the great migration from the South in the 1920s through the post-World War II era.

There was a time when North 24th, a major artery connecting north Omaha with downtown, was the nexus of commerce for two historically oppressed peoples, Jews and blacks. Not only did they comprise most of the area’s merchants, service providers and professionals from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, they were its primary residents and, therefore, customers, too. So it was that synagogues stood next to Baptist churches, kosher and soul food could be had on the same block and blacks and Jews were educated together, played together and did business together.

For Jews, North 24th was the Miracle Mile. For blacks, the “Deuce Four.” For many northeast Omaha residents, it represented a Street of Dreams where virtually any good or service could be found. The district enjoyed a self-sufficiency it’s not seen again, one in which residents could and did do for themselves.

Black-Jewish interaction was an every day thing. Reverends and rabbis kvetched over pickle barrels or meat counters. Each group learned things about the other, especially about their respective religious traditions.

For the Sabbath Jews called upon black neighbors to turn off the gas and lights in their Orthodox homes. Some blacks practiced their faith in tent revival meetings whose rousing spirituals and shouts of hallelujah and amen drew curious Jews.






Outside these transactions, there were occasions, like live radio broadcasts of Joe Louis fights, when everyone came together to cheer. When Louis won, people flowed into the streets to party. Blacks led the parade.

“It was wonderful,” said Helen (Handler) Rifkin-Chorney, who grew up near North 24th and spent many an afternoon and evening there. “After a Joe Louis fight, when he was the champ, everybody was dressed in their Sunday finest and they were celebrating, too, because one of their own was the world champion. I used to think that was one of the greatest things in the whole world. It was wonderful.”

Then there was the pageantry of Easter Sunday, when Christian folks got decked out in all their fancy new finery.

“You never saw nothing until you saw Easter Sunday on 24th Street. Dressed to kill,” former North 24 denizen Nate Shukert said. “We used to go down just to watch,” ex-24er Gloria Friedman said. “It was beautiful. The parade of colors was amazing,” Rifkin-Chorney added.

“It was Omaha’s version of the Easter parade on Fifth Avenue in New York,” said Martha (Hall) Melton, who grew up just off the famous thoroughfare.

Community leaders hoping to revitalize the area look to recapture some of its rich, robust past. A past that saw an abundance of mom-and-pop grocery stores, butcher shops, fish markets, bakeries, cafes, delis. Hardware, appliance, clothing, shoe and department stores. Tailor shops, repair shops, pawn shops, barber shops, beauty shops. Ice houses, a junk yard, a lumber yard. Drug stores. Doctors offices. Laundries, cleaners. Dance halls, night clubs, bars, billiard parlors, movie theaters. Social halls, fraternal clubs, gyms. After-hours joints. Whore houses.

“We had everything out here,” said north Omaha native Vera (Mitchell) Johnson. “You name it, we had it. We really didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood for anything.” North 24th was, as fellow lifer Charles Carter said, “it’s own entity.”

Glass-fronted brick buildings spread the length of 24th, gleaming in the sun.

“When I was in the wholesale liquor business I made calls on 24th, and when I got there at 7 in the morning and the sun was shining, you’d think it was a sea out there…a sea of glass,” Irv Forbes recalled.

A whole social stratum of attire was on display. Grocers, butchers and bakers in aprons. Businessmen in fedoras and three-piece suits. Construction, packinghouse, railroad laborers in overalls. Domestic workers and porters in uniforms. Ladies in fine dresses and feathered hats. Religious in yarmulkes, prayer shawls and Sunday whites. Children in school clothes. Hep cats in zoot suits. Cops in blue.

Peddlers pushing carts and delivery men, driving horse-and-wagon outfits in the early days and trucks later on, sold everything from rags to milk to ice to produce.

Melton recalls a peddler who came by to sharpen knives. Shukert remembers one vendor, who wore a conductor’s cap and hung a lamp on his cart, hawking tamales with, “‘Get your hot tamales today, they’ll be gone tomorrow.’”

Street vendors shined shoes and sold newspapers. The blare of radio broadcasts, the melody of Yiddish, Hebrew, Italian and English voices, some Southern-tinged, others European-accented, the shrill of live chickens and crying babies and the clatter and roar of autos and streetcars created a kind of music. The yeasty, oven-fired aroma of fresh baked bread, rolls and bagels, the sweetness of pickled herring and watermelon rinds, the sour of pickles and the spice of corned beef blended with the smoky fragrance of barbecue and savory goodness of greens.

“When you hit this area, you smelled it,” Shukert said. “Whew, it would give you a smack, boy.”

This feast for the senses only added to the North 24th experience.





In an era when Jews and blacks were excluded from much of mainstream white society, the walls of segregation largely disappeared on this strip, where interracial commerce flourished. That’s not to say all was rosy, especially for blacks. Prior to the ‘60s entire sections of northeast Omaha, even portions of North 24, were closed off to blacks. Some establishments refused to serve or hire them. A few public schools were integrated, but most were divided along strict racial lines.

Forbes, whose father and uncles ran the commercial Forbes Bakery on 24th, recalls that as late as the ‘20s, even the ‘30s, Jews and blacks were still wary of the Klan, which was active in the state for decades.

Still, North 24th was an oasis, much as South 24th was, compared to wider Omaha.

Jews and blacks lived and worked in close proximity to each other and, by all accounts, coexisted in relative harmony. Despite obvious differences, people made this relationship work for the most practical of reasons — they had to. After all, each group relied on the other for survival. In a symbiotic relationship of mutual co-dependence, Jewish businesses provided essential goods and services to blacks, not to mention jobs, while blacks provided a major customer base for many Jewish merchants. Practicality made tolerance the order of the day.

“You have to understand this getting along wasn’t because there was this great big love affair, but it was a toleration. You tolerate me, I’ll tolerate you, and that’s the way we lived,” said Shukert, whose family’s meat market was a North 24th fixture. “We’re both here. You’re not going to leave, we’re not going to leave, so we might as well understand the situation and make the best out of it. We knew how to live with people. I don’t think color meant that much.”

“Well, we grew up with them — that’s the way it was,” said Friedman, whose father had a shoe store on 24th. “Right, if they were your next door neighbor, they were your next door neighbor,” Rifkin-Chorney said.

“You learned to tolerate” each other’s differences, Melton said. The way Shukert sees it, “We could have taught the world a lesson in how to be tolerant.”

Mort Glass said it was “a joining of two widely diverse people that really cohabited pretty much there for a long time.” Shukert said “the real miracle was that we all got along.” Charles Hall, whose soul food eatery the Fair Deal Cafe was a landmark there from 1953 to 2001, said the North 24th experience proves hatred is taught.

In purely economic terms, Shukert believes Jewish-owned grocery stores and suppliers of other perishable staples were most dependent on the black trade.

“Basically we got along with the Jews because they owned the grocery stores and all of the markets,” said John Butler, a North 24th veteran. Hall goes so far as to say, “It was a known fact that if you had a business and the blacks didn’t support you, you couldn’t make it.”

Shukert said blacks were not only vital customers but key laborers. “We hired them,” he said. “We didn’t care what their color was as long as they could work, and they liked to work.” “Most of the time the Jews would hire some blacks to do stocking, deliveries…They had a lot of blacks work for them,” Butler said.

Butler’s first jobs as a kid were shining shoes inside Pomidoro’s Shoe Repair shop and making deliveries, with a wagon he pulled behind him, for Hornstein’s Grocery. He said the Hornsteins “used to help me with my schoolwork.” Butler had a brother that worked at Tuchman’s Market. Hall worked several years at Frank Marks and Irv Rubinow’s Parker Street Market before opening his own business.

Dorothy (Stansberry) Freels-Smith earned the sobriquet “The Black Jew of 24th Street” after decades behind the counter at Reid’s Drug Store and as the first black butcherette at the Jewish-owned Sell-Rite supermart, where her boss was Sol Lincoln. “I knew all those Jews on 24th Street and I got to be very close to all of them,” she said. “Most all of them were very nice.”

Well-off Jews employing black domestic workers in their homes, Shukert said, understood their housekeepers struggled to get by and therefore often provided their “help” extra food and clothes. Butler, who grew up on 24th, said his mother, like many black women at the time, cleaned house for Jews in Dundee and confirmed it was common for domestics to get care packages from their employers.

Relationships formed between Jewish and black families.

“When I was a girl we had a black lady by the name of Lucille White who cleaned house for my family,” said Rifkin-Chorney, “and when a family member died she’d be the first one there. This woman would come if it was the middle of the night to be helpful and we felt the same way about her family. I mean, it was not a matter of color. It really and truly wasn’t.”

Rifkin-Chorney said family and community were at the core of Jewish and black life. In an era when extended families lived together or within walking distance, there were few strangers. Not just relatives, but neighbors, beat cops and merchants kept watch over kids. Butler said a trip to the market or to school was nothing like it is now. He’d encounter any number of figures, black and white, who knew him and inquired after him and his folks. “…the Jewish store owners knew all the kids in the neighborhood and they knew what family you belonged to,” he said. “Everybody knew everybody. It was almost like a family thing,”

It was a time when adults checked kids’ behavior, irregardless of race. Freels-Smith said she could tell any child, “You know better than to do that. I’ll tell your mom.”

Credit was extended to poor families, again irrespective of race.

“You’d run a tab and you didn’t have to pay until the end of the week when dad got paid. They would let us get all the groceries we’d want. Of course, they knew how much we could afford,” Butler said. Shukert said, “My dad never turned anybody down. He said, ‘Hey, look, people have got to eat.’”

Generosity between neighbors was common. Martha Melton, her brother Charles Hall and their family lived next door to the Shukerts, who kept a strict Orthodox home. Melton recalls her and her sister turning off the gas and lights at the Shukert home to keep them in compliance with the Sabbath.

The Halls’ other neighbors, the Levines, kept, sold and slaughtered live chickens and shared their bounty. “They would give us chickens and things,” Melton said. When some Jewish households served hallas, non-Jews would be invited to partake. Shukert said his mother would schmeer slices with butter and jelly as a treat for neighborhood kids — black and white — who came by.

More than once, Melton said, white friends aided her poor family. She said two Central High schoolmates, Nate Shukert and Nuncio Pomidoro, “knew our circumstances. Many a day I had no lunch money and they would pay for my lunch, which was a generous thing to do. They helped that way.”

“Poor blacks knew that without us a lot of them would have gone hungry. They had nothing to eat and they weren’t ashamed to take it,” Shukert said.





Gloria Friedman said her father supplied free shoes — as part of a city shoe fund — to Kellom School students, many of whose families were too poor to afford them.

Freels-Smith gave away food and other stores to poor kids, black or white, that stopped by Reid’s. “Color didn’t matter to me,” she said. She’d let them snatch penny candy. She’d make a batch of soup and dish it out to anyone who “wanted something warm” and she kept cold beers on ice for the beat cops.

Rifkin-Chorney surmises that good relations between Jews and blacks “had something to do with the fact we’re talking mostly about Depression times, when we were all poor.” “That’s why we all got along,” Shukert agreed, “because they had nothing and we had just a little bit more. So economically we were pretty much on the same plane, except we had a little bit more, so we could share it with you.” “Yeah…that’s the truth. Jewish folks had maybe a small store or something and they were just making a living,” Hall said. North 24th Jewish merchants were, Butler said, “working class people in business.”

Any angle or sideline was exploited to help make ends meet. “Everybody was doing what they could to make a living,” Melton said.

As a boy Butler helped his father sell fresh vegetables grown on three family gardens. His dad, a Cudahy packinghouse worker by day, also sold “real silk hosiery door to door.”

Not everything was legal. A black man who worked at Shukerts, Andrew “Babe” Bender, was also a pimp who ran brothels behind the store, Shukert said. “He was like the Duke of 24th Street. He made a lot of money.” From the back of the market Shukert could identify the johns frequenting these dens of inequity. “I was amazed by some of the people I would see going in there. People that I knew. Yeah, God’s chosen,” he said.

A few Jewish grocers were known to not play square by rigging the scales or ringing up bogus purchases. Some had open contempt for blacks. But in the main blacks were “treated well” by most Jewish merchants, Hall said.

Butler feels an important reason why Jews and blacks were simpatico is their shared legacy of struggle. “Well, you must remember they were segregated too at the time,” he said. “They knew how we felt and we knew how they felt.”

Rifkin-Chorney said there was an unspoken understanding that blacks and Jews shared a similar struggle as “minorities that are persecuted. It’s a common denominator.” By and large, she added, Jews recognized blacks have a much harder time. They can’t hide their color and so they are discriminated against.”

“That’s why they have to fight for themselves,” Shukert observed.

“And they have to go to more extremes,” Rifkin-Chorney said. “They’ve had to do their marches. We fought, too. We didn’t do it in the same way, because we didn’t have the numbers…”

“We did it by going to school…getting educated. We got smart enough to know how it was to change your life,” Shukert said. “The Jews bartered this, bought that, got a little property, saved their money and bought themselves into a better life.” “The black people have to take it on themselves to do the job,” Forbes said. “They’re never going to get it done unless they do it themselves.”

That sentiment is the theme of new black empowerment-covenant efforts underway in Omaha.

If there was ever a time when Jews and blacks were in sync, it was the height of the civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s. “There were probably as many Jews as there were blacks at some of those marches because we were marching really for a common cause. We had the same reason,” Rifkin-Chorney said. As Shukert said, “We were white, but we had the same reason.”

Joe Kirshenbaum, whose father delivered bread for Himmelbloom Bakery, said the north side had geographic boundaries for affluent and less affluent Jews.

“It seemed like the majority of Jews who were middle income and lower income lived in this particular area,” he said, referring to the North 24th corridor. “If you lived west of 30th Street you were pretty well off and if you lived in Dundee you were really pretty well off.”

As a boy Shukert dreamed of making it to the other side.

“I always wanted to make it across 30th Street,” he said, “because that’s when you had it made. You got to go around with all the big shot kids. I was home from the service and my folks told me we’d moved west.” Where did you move? he asked excitedly. The family’s new address — 2935 Nicholas — put him “right to the brink,” but still outside the promised land. “I never made it across to 30th.”

There was also the feeling that a high tide raises all boats.

Hall recalls something the wife of the grocer he worked for said. “She told me what the black man doesn’t realize is, every boost the black man gets in life is a boost for the Jews. It made sense because they were ostracized and picked on, too.”

A live-and-let-live attitude prevailed.





“I think things were extremely amicable…everyone got along,” Hall said. “It was a black-Jewish neighborhood and everyone went to their jobs and came back home and they went to 24th Street and different areas there to enjoy themselves.”

People in similar straits made the best of tough times.

“At that time it wasn’t a thing of black, white, Jew, Catholic, Protestant, it was just people,” Melton said. “See, if you give respect, you’ll get respect. They respected us and we respected them.”

When Rifkin-Chorney was newly married to her first husband, the late Ben Rifkin, the couple went to North 24th every weekend. Ben grew up there. His father and uncle were peddlers and then property owners. When she and Ben would walk down the Deuce Four she learned how thick Jewish-black relations ran.

“We passed at least half-a-dozen young black men and they all knew my husband. They all called him ‘Binny.’ I asked him, ‘How do you know everybody and how do they all know you?’ And he said, ‘They’re all my neighbors.’ Again, it was with great fondness and affection and he felt the same way towards them.”

Shukert said multi-racial fraternizing extended to recreation. Whether it was kick-the-can, pickup softball, baseball or football, Jews and blacks “played together” in the streets and the parks around 24th. Then-North Omaha YMCA director Marty Thomas, a giant black man who commanded awe, oversaw organized youth sports.

“We respected him so much. If he told you to do something, you did it,” Shukert said. “You talk about race, he was a man ahead of his time. He saw to it all the rules were the same, no matter who you were, black or white. He was the best.”

Mixed crowds danced at the Dreamland Ballroom to the swinging sounds of stellar black performers like Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.

A shared sense of community was lost when the Jewish exodus began in the late ‘40s. By the ’50s, most Jewish residents were gone, including Shukert, Friedman, Kirshenbaum and Rifkin-Chorney. Some Jewish businesses remained into the ‘60s, but Mort Glass said “it was dwindling…a pretty sharp decline.” While Jews were free to most anywhere, blacks were not, restricted by red lining-covenant practices that prohibited or discouraged the sell of property to “non-whites.”

“We were held back,” Hall said.

The final Jewish hurrah on North 24th came in the wake of late ‘60s public disturbances in which businesses were burned, damaged or looted. The disorder was an expression of black anger over inequality and injustice. The worst riot, in ‘69, was sparked by the fatal shooting of a black girl by a white police officer. Charles Hall, who still lives near 24th, recalls a white man asking him at the time, “‘What’s wrong — what do they want? “I said, ‘They want the same thing you want, and that’s an even chance to make money and to make a decent living.’”

Jewish businesses were largely spared, said John Butler, who patrolled North 24 during the ‘69 riot as part of a brigade of community-minded citizens. “Some of us stayed there and tried to protect them,” he said. “Some blacks stood in front of Jewish grocery stores and wouldn’t let the mob burn them down,” Kirshenbaum said. “One like that was Abe Schloff’s,” said Shukert. “They stood right in front of his store, with guns and said, ‘Don’t touch this man’s store.’ Because he always treated them straight.”

While most Jewish concerns survived unscathed, the psychological trauma of the riots spurred the last of North 24th’s Jewish merchants to leave.

“They all got afraid,” Smith said. “They moved out after that because things started getting different,” Butler said. “It wasn’t just them moving out. We began moving out then, too. It started a migration of both races.”






Butler moved north, to an area once off-limits to blacks. Melton and her late husband Billy moved a couple miles west. Smith also moved west.

Relatively few new businesses sprang up in the ensuing years to replace the Jewish-owned ones that left. With mom-and-pop operations a thing of the past, the area lost grocery stores, drug stores and many suppliers of basic items it was once rich in. Where other parts of town saw large chains come in to fill the gaps, North O does not. High crime stats don’t help. Existing businesses get squeezed by a dwindling economic base as middle income whites and blacks exit the inner city.

“It’s a matter of confidence. If you’re going to invest a couple hundred thousand dollars in something there you want to be reasonably assured it’s a safe investment,” Shukert said.

Hall said blacks did not fill the void because the kind of money needed to start businesses was denied them. “Back in those days the small business associations and the banks that helped Jews and whites wouldn’t give blacks 50 cents. We were discriminated against just generally in every way down through the years,” he said.

Two groups once close, grew apart. An innocence was lost. Perceptions put a new spin on things. For example, the Yiddish term for a black person, Shvartzer, was acceptable once, but as Rifkin-Chorney noted, this vernacular was deemed demeaning in the context of the civil rights-black power era.

“It wasn’t meant that way, but it could be determined as a derogatory way to speak about someone,” she said.

Shukert thinks it’s tragic that blacks became the object of fear. He said a white person walking down a street thinks nothing of an approaching  group of whites, but gets alarmed at the sight of a group of blacks. “For some reason whites have always been afraid of blacks,” he said. “Why have we put that stigma on them?”



North 24th Street, photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)




He and others are dismayed by the shootings that plague the north side these days. He knows it’s just a few “bad apples” causing the trouble, but it’s made him and old friends fearful of visiting North 24th for a nostalgic tour.

“It’s too bad you can’t, in 2007, feel free to go any place you want to, but that’s just the way it is,” he said.

Shukert and his contemporaries don’t understand why so many people resort to violence now as a means to resolve disputes or to gain respect. That’s not the way things were done in their day, when words or fist fights sufficed.

“We would never do anything to disgrace our neighborhood, our church, our family,” Martha Melton said. “It’s a shame young people don’t know the unity that there was. It does break my heart to see 24th the way it is now. It will never be the same. I have fond, fond memories of the way it was.”

All the changes and the population shifts have dislocated people from their roots. “It looks like we’re divided more now than ever,” Dorothy Freels-Smith said.

John Butler, who lives around 26th and Evans, sees hope in the new diversity emerging in northeast Omaha. “In my two-block area I’ve got whites, blacks, Hispanics living next door to each other or across from each other. Integration sometimes is good — if people get along, and I see they’re getting along.” What’s different, he said, is that people don’t know each other the way they used to.

Back in the day on 24th, diverse people mixed and mingled in close-knit quarters. “It made a better person out of me,” Butler said. Said Hall, “I got an education working down in the neighborhood.” “We knew people better then,” said Shukert.

Speculation about the future of North 24th centers on proposed mixed use developments for transforming the area into a model of urban gentrification. These discussions bring up new issues, such as the displacement of longtime residents and what stake blacks will have there. Old-timers like Shukert believe no matter how much the strip is built back up it will not be the melting pot marketplace he knew.

“It’s never going to be,” he said. “The memories are great. I never will forget the way it was. So many people don’t have memories like that of North 24th Street, because they didn’t live it. I can tell you story after story after story, but unless you lived it it’s just a story.”

Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too

April 29, 2010 14 comments

Growing up, I knew of a certain barbershop in northeast Omaha for one reason and one reason alone, it is where former Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers held court as a barber and firebrand activist.  I never drove past Goodwin’s Spencer Streeet Barber Shop nor walked into it until a few years ago, when I went there to file a story on the special place it holds in the local African-American community beyond the usual gathering and gossip stops that barber and beauty shops serve.

Chambers is one part of the story, but another is the shop’s namesake, Dan Goodwin, who in his own way is an activist every inch that Chambers is. When they worked the shop together at the height of the civil rights movement and racial tensions in Omaha, they made a formidable duo of strong, socially conscious black men cutting their way to freedom.





Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story appeared in The Reader ( in 2006

The splintered front window of Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop, 3116 North 24th Street, might as well read: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too. Amid all the jive, the shop’s a forum for street-wise straight talk, scholarly debate, potent ideology and down home lessons from its owner and master barber, Dan Goodwin, and the gallery of young fellas and Old Gs (old guys) that hang there.

That was never more true than during the Black Power movement and Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and ‘70s. That’s when the Spencer was a must-stop for anyone partaking in the vital brew of philosophy, polemic, dialectic and rhetoric coursing through black America. The “star” attraction was a then-young Ernie Chambers, the barber-provocateur-activist turned-politician. Between razor cuts, relaxers and jeri curls, he and Goodwin made like Malcolm and Langston, interpreting the times in an eloquent spoken word style that was part call-and-response sermon and part lecture. They were variously protagonists or antagonists. The customers and curious onlookers, their disciples or students or foils.

“It was like open line every day of the week down there,” said Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith. “All the conversation topics were about relevant things that were not talked about on radio/TV or written about in newspapers or discussed in school. Whenever you went there you were always intellectually challenged and stimulated.

“People would always bring in books and articles and things, and they would read them there and discuss them. Sometimes, people would come there and not even get their hair cut. They’d just come to listen. Others would come just to vent.”

“You’d go at ten in the morning and you may not leave until two or three in the afternoon. You’d sit around and listen to a lot of positive things,” Omahan Richard Nared said. “You’d go and get a lot of ‘mother wit’ (knowledge).”

Things could get intense. Smith said Goodwin, Chambers and company “could be confrontational. Sometimes they’d take the opposite position just to stimulate your thinking and to broaden your perspective. But it wasn’t meant to destroy you — it was meant to strengthen you. Now, I didn’t always agree with ‘em, but I didn’t always oppose ‘em either. I enjoyed it and other people did, too.”



Ernie Chambers, Bill Youngdahl in A Time for Burning

Ernie Chambers and Bill Youngdahl
Ernie Chambers and Rev. Bill Youngdahl at the shop in scene from A Time for Burning

Smith said “the salient” subjects batted around included “Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Hughie Newton, racism, economic development, the lack of black teachers in the public school system, housing discrimination, police violence” and any “issues relating to our people.”

Memories of Vivian Strong and other victims of police gunfire still elicit strong responses. Goodwin refers to the 1969 fatal shooting of the 14-year-old Strong as “murder.” The incident ignited disturbances that he said were branded a riot.

Unlike some leaders who’ve done more reading about The Struggle than living it, Goodwin speaks from the harsh experience of a man who’s encountered his share of police harassment and brutality, including the cold hard steel of a double barrel shot gun pressed to his temple and the butt of that same gun jammed into his gut. He’s been rousted and arrested for “driving while black.”

His social consciousness was stirred in the U.S. Navy. He left Tech High at age 17 to enlist. “It was a good experience. But I went through a lot in the military. I went through boot camp with only one other black in my company. In the tent I was in in the Philippines, I was the only black. I’d hear things. I didn’t start nothin’, but I wouldn’t take nothin’. Every time I had a fight, they thought they could just say anything — the ‘n’ word, you name it — and I didn’t take it. But, you know what, it wasn’t that I was tough. I was dealing with cowards and they weren’t looking for much of a reaction. I must admit sometimes after I finished off one of those people, the other Caucasians would say, ‘Man, he had it coming.’”

Back home, he hit the streets protesting injustice as a member of the 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties). Unlike other organizations here reluctant “to confront” the system, the 4CL “believed in going out and demonstrating. It was an action group,” he said. “We integrated different places and we petitioned for jobs and open housing. We marched on city hall. We did things like this that brought about some changes. We were considered troublemakers and that’s what it takes to get the changes.”

He marched on Washington in 1963, a witness to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He helped sponsor a 1964 Omaha speaking appearance by Malcolm X, a personal favorite whom he met. In 1996, Goodwin got on the bus and went to Washington again for the Million Man March.

Over the years, he’s filed complaints about police misconduct and other improper behavior directed at him and his people, making enemies along the way. All that’s bound up in him and in his shop is symbolized in the cracked glass out front he’s never fixed. Bullets hit it one night years ago. It’s a reminder of past incidents. Once, he got an anonymous call saying cops shot out the window at his old place. A warning to tone it down and to play like Uncle Tom. For many, the broken glass at the present site symbolizes hostility toward blacks. It’s also a defiant proclamation that Goodwin will not be intimidated or silenced or run off.

“I can handle anything that comes down,” Goodwin said.

As a visceral reminder of that resolve, he’s made the shop a fertile ground for developing not just the mind, but the body, too. The muscular Chambers introduced weight training there. Goodwin started lifting at age 40. With a ripped body that testifies to his dedication, Goodwin has in recent years become a world-class power lifter in the masters division. He’ll wear you out in the makeshift gym he has in a corner of the shop or wear you down with his treatise-like arguments. Some of the trophies, plaques and ribbons he’s won take up one side of the shop, whose walls are filled with clippings/photos of some of the sports greats to get their hair cut there (Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Sayers, Ron Boone, Johnny Rodgers, etc.).

Along with the Fair Deal Cafe, the shop was the place to be for any politically aware person interested in serious dialogue about the black experience.



If you were a Black Muslim or Panther or garden variety activist, then you went there to hear the latest thinking. Whether you supported Malcolm or Martin, read Cleaver or Chrisman and marched in step with the NAACP or the Urban League, you were ripe for the Spencer Street indoctrination.

“Dan Goodwin and Ernie Chambers had a great influence on us. They made sure we were accountable. They had high standards for us,” said Frank Peak, a former Black Panther member in Omaha. “They were mentors.”

If you were a minister, you’d better go prepared to recite the Bible chapter and verse or defend your theology. If an elected official or a candidate seeking the black vote, you tested the waters there.

If you were an idealistic white student or adult civil rights sympathizer, you came as an acolyte to learn at the feet of the black men who, by virtue of the oppression they endured and resisted, earned the right to hold court there.

If you were a reporter looking to measure the pulse of the community, you no sooner flipped open a note pad or switched on a tape recorder then you got more than you bargained for in the way of unvarnished views.

“It wasn’t always serious, now,” Smith said. “There was a lot of laughter. And sometimes people laughed to keep from crying.”

Nothing much has changed. The same issues persist, only the incendiary talk has been somewhat muted and the rallies that got their start there have been relegated to the history books except for an occasional revival.

At age 77 Goodwin commands respect from young and old alike for still being a relevant spokesman and soul brother.

“He’s like the father of this barbershop,” customer Charles Taylor said. “I’ve noticed a lot of the young men that come in here refer to him as Mr. Goodwin. That shows respect.”

Goodwin’s not lost the fervor to fight injustice or to do the right thing. But there is an edge of resignation in his words and in his voice today. Chalk it up to all the shit he’s seen go down from his perch on North 24th, where the promise of a better tomorrow hasn’t been realized the way he hoped.

“I feel a lot of frustration. I was naive enough to believe that by now it would be different for our youngsters,” he said. “Racism is everywhere. It’s just a little more sophisticated now, that’s all.”


For sixty years the "Goodwin


His vintage red brick building, only a stone’s throw from Lothrop Magnet Center, Littlefield’s Beautyrama and Church of Jesus Christ Whole Truth, is a symbol for the once teeming area gone to seed. The upper floor windows are boarded up. On the north wall, a faded advertisement for “Uneda Biscuits, 5¢,” faces a vacant lot upon which other buildings and businesses once stood. The south wall is awash in a celebratory mural portraying “the way things used to be,” said Goodwin. The mural depicts a parade in which young people hold a banner that exclaims, “Beating the Path to Freedom,” something he’s invested the better part of his life doing.

It hurts him to see his community a shadow of its once vibrant self and to be still embroiled in the quest for equal rights, yet unable, in this era of divided ranks, to marshal the support a systemic movement takes.

“I think this community like all communities in the inner city in America has big problems and the problems are even bigger now than they have been. Schools are in trouble. The job situation is bad. Drugs. There are so many things plaguing us now. It’s really interfered with what we called The Struggle. In my judgment, were a lot more fragmented today, to the point where we can’t come together to bring about real change. I miss the unity and the organization — when people were more focused on trying to bring about improvements. A lot of our young people are not even enlightened about the things we did struggle to try to change. I don’t feel real good about it sometimes, but you can’t put up your hands. You just do what you can and keep pushing.”





He rues the loss of moral constraints that allows, as he sees it: an unjust war to continue; elected leaders to lie; war profiteers to flourish; corporate execs to cheat; celebrities to set an indecent example; and drugs and gangs to proliferate.

“There used to be rules. Nobody was perfect, but at least we knew right from wrong. There were certain lines you wouldn’t cross. Now, there’s no line. The message now is, Whatever you want to do, it’s OK. It’s out there. It’s a whole different culture, the drug and gang culture. I don’t blame kids. I blame my generation. We allowed the rule book to get thrown out. And I’m not a fool or anything. I’m not even into religion. I’m into right. I’ll believe in right till I die.”

He sees a corrupt ruling class setting a precedent of greed and malice that only serves to widen the gap between the haves and have nots and to reaffirm the anything-goes mantra.

“Too many people can’t see past what’s happening to them right now. They don’t look at the consequences of what they’re doing today,” he said. “There was a time when you really felt like there were people that really wanted to see some things different. But there just wasn’t enough people that wanted to see the right kind of change. Now we’ve reached a time when liberal has been turned into a dirty word and decent people run from it. That says a lot about this country. I don’t feel good about that or the fact black people get done in just for telling the truth.”

Lively discourse has always been part of the scene at the Spencer Street, but was at its peak when Goodwin took on Ernie Chambers, a loquacious minister’s son and law graduate who used his barber chair as a lectern. Chambers proffered doctrine there from the mid-’60s through the early ’90s, a period that saw him build a constituency, first as a grassroots leader, and then as a state senator (District 11). He was the only black in the Nebraska Legislature during the entire four-decades he served as a member of that conservative, otherwise lilly-white body.



photoRudy Smith





Chambers came to the shop after being fired from the U.S. Postal Service. The then-Creighton law student was an outspoken activist.  It was a perfect match.

In Goodwin, Chambers found a kindred spirit. “I liked the kind of person he was. We got along very well. He’s true to his beliefs. He rented me a chair and I stayed there for years and years,” Chambers said. In Chambers, Goodwin found “a young man who could articulate like nobody I’ve ever known. He always had answers. He did his homework. He knew what he was doing and saying. People were really impressed with him. And we communicated real good. We were really seeing things so much alike.” Not that they didn’t disagree. “Oh, we used to argue nose to nose. We had some good ones,” Goodwin said.

“It just so happened Ernie fit in with the atmosphere and then he began to exert himself,” Rudy Smith said. “I think the shop gave Ernie a platform to grow, as it did a lot of other people.”

They made a formidable team. Their give and take, something to behold. They were arrested together. They traveled together when Chambers made lecture stops.

“As Ernie grew, so did Dan,” Smith said. “Dan wasn’t an intellectual, but he became that as he expanded his knowledge and his sphere of understanding issues socially, politically, psychologically. Ernie spearheaded that. He’d stimulate him.”

“Dan didn’t go to college, but whatever conversation came up he could talk about it. No matter where he goes, people stop and talk to him” Richard Nared said.

The pair’s persuasive powers are immortalized in the 1967 Oscar-nominated documentary A Time for Burning. The film filters the era’s militancy through the charismatic figure of Chambers, who’s captured, alongside Goodwin, eloquently making points in the manner that made the shop a hotbed of impassioned ideas. Amid sports memorabilia on the walls were images/articles/cartoons that graphically illustrated the opression blacks lived under. An in-your-face reminder to pale-faced do-gooders of what The Struggle was all about.

“A lot of people came down to this barbershop to hear him speak to the problems. To be honest, a lot of people feared him because he spoke out so strong. He’s tough. Even now, he asks no quarters and he gives no quarters. He says what he wants to say and he’ll say it the way he wants to say it,” Goodwin said.

“A lot of people came to talk to me to discuss issues and it was a place where others would meet when they wanted to talk and just speak freely about what was on their mind. It was like a gathering place,” Chambers said.






Roger Sayers of Omaha said the shop was “kind of the northside human relations department for folks who felt their rights were being trampled on by the police or the school board or the city. If Dan and Ernie thought you had a case, they would try to help you resolve the problem with a letter or a referral or a phone call.”

Richard Nared said the duo were among the cooler heads to prevail at a time when agitators interpreted “by any means necessary” as a call to violence. “A lot of things happened in north Omaha,” Nared said. “People would come in and talk to them about wanting to hurt somebody that’d messed them over. ‘Man, I ought to go kill him.’ Well, Dan and Ernie would say, ‘Hey, man, do what you’re supposed to do, and walk away. It’s not that serious. Life is too short to get hung up on some petty mess. It’s not worth it. You’ll end up two ways — in jail or dead.’ I feel to this day Ernie and Dan were a big factor in keeping the peace.”

Even though Chambers long ago left his barber chair, the two men remain close. “We talk all the time,” Goodwin said. “He’s a great influence. I’m just impressed with his brilliance. So, it’s friendship and mutual respect.”

He loathes the possibility of Chambers being forced out of office by term limits. “It’ll be a big void. Nobody’s more committed. His whole life is what he does in the legislature. I mean, everyday he’s working on something involving the people.”

As much as Goodwin’s been influenced by Chambers, he’s his own man.

Goodwin set the agenda for the shop and made it into what Smith calls an “institution of higher learning.” “That’s exactly what it was,” Smith said. “It fostered an arena of ideas. It’s still going on — without fail. The barbers there were all like teachers and professors and in many ways they were more articulate in espousing their points of views. I was stimulated more sometimes in the barbershop than I was in college. It’s the only barbershop of it’s kind. It should be on the national historic registry.”

Goodwin’s much admired for remaining in the community, where he and his shop provide stability and continuity. “And especially when he continues to grow personally and intellectually,” Chambers said. “It lets people know that not everybody who could go someplace else is going to do that. This is home and this is where we stay.  People do need to see that, especially the young ones. When they can see people (like Goodwin) who are in a position where they don’t have to hang around, but they choose to, that lets them know there’s something of value in our community and a benefit to staying here.”

For Goodwin, staying put is a matter of “this is where I feel comfortable. I don’t even consider retiring. I’m doing what I like. I’m doing what takes care of me. It’s mine.” There’s no chance he’ll mellow. “I don’t believe in turning the other cheek. I do believe in non-violence. But the truth is the truth. I have to tell it like it is.”

Radio One queen Cathy Hughes rules by keeping it real: Native Omahan created Urban Radio format

April 29, 2010 4 comments

Microphone (MXL 990)



UPDATE: On February 17 Cathy Hughes received the NAACP Chairman’s Award, joining some distinguished company in the process.  As the NAACP website reports, the award is chosen by chairman Roslyn M. Brock in recognition of special achievement and distinguished public service.  Past honorees include U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, Tyler Perry, Former Vice President Al Gore and Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, Aretha Franklin, Bono, then-Senator Barack Obama, The Dave Matthews Band, Danny Glover, and Aaron McGruder.

“I am thrilled to offer Cathy Hughes the NAACP Chairman’s Award,” says Brock. “ This recognition is long overdue for her accomplishments as a trailblazer in the media industry.  As the founder of Radio One and TV One, an advocate for small business entrepreneurship, and philanthropist, Cathy Hughes reminds us that collectively and as individuals, we can make a difference.  Her presence at the Image Awards continues the NAACP’s quest to celebrate and uplift individuals who model principles of hard work, perseverance and community empowerment.”

“This is the most humbling honor to ever be bestowed on me,” says Hughes. “Those who have received the Chairman’s Award in the past are counted among the very best that America has ever produced, and I am honored and very humbled to be included in their ranks.”

– – –

I remember reading something about Cathy Hughes somewhere years ago and after digesting the fact this African-American woman was a major media mogul born and raised in my hometown my next reaction was: Why didn’t I know about her before?  I mean, she’s a big deal, and her hometown didn’t seem to acknowledge or celebrate her success the way you would expect. One of the nice things about what I do as a freelance journalist is getting the opportunity here and there to rectify such perceived wrongs or at least to put my own spin on someone’s story and perhaps introduce a whole new segment of the population to the subject.  That is precisely what I did in the following profile I did on Cathy Hughes for The Reader ( newspaper in 2005.

I share the story here simply because hers is a story that cannot be told too often.


Radio One queen Cathy Hughes rules by keeping it real:

Native Omahan created Urban Radio format

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


The cool hip-hop culture is driving the urban — read: black — entertainment industry explosion. Radio’s no exception. Omaha’s Hot 107.7 FM loudly carries the banner here for urban radio’s mix of rap, hip hop, soul and R&B. Contemporary rock KQCH 94.1-FM tries a little ebony flavor. But no matter how much they try positioning themselves as urban players, these stations are part of white owned and operated networks — Waitt Radio and Journal Broadcast Corporation, respectively.

To be sure, a more authentic urban electronic media model exists. One with black ownership-management and a black sensibility. Just not in Omaha. That’s ironic, too, as the queen of the urban format is Omaha native Catherine Liggins Hughes, a 58-year-old African American whose Radio One network is described as “the voice of black America and the lightning rod for the black community.” Her stations feature music, news and talk from a black perspective. She and her son, Alfred Liggins Hughes, reign over the Baltimore-area-based Radio One empire comprising 69 radio stations, one television station and, since January 2004, the new cable/satellite channel, TV One, a lifestyle and entertainment option aimed at middle-age blacks. TV One is a joint venture with Comcast Corporation. Her parent company went public in 1999 and is valued at $3 billion, making it one of the largest radio broadcasting companies overall and the largest black-owned media firm. She estimates more than 2,100 of her 2,800 broadcasters are black. Many are women.





Hughes adventure in radio comes full circle on May 14, when she receives an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the 2005 commencement at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she got her first big break in the industry. But it was in Omaha her love of radio first bloomed.

It’s been years since Omaha sustained a truly black station. One of the last was KOWH. A group of Kansas City, Mo. doctors and a consortium of Omahans, including Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, NBA veteran Bob Boozer, social service director Rodney Wead and businessman Al Gilmore, bought it in 1969 and operated it through the mid-1970s. Warren Buffett was an advisor. It’s where Hughes got her start in radio as a do-everything volunteer.

Her rise to national prominence the last 25 years has made her, outside Oprah Winfrey, Eunice W. Johnson and Condoleezza Rice, perhaps the most powerful black woman in America. She’s been called so by Essence Magazine. She counts Ebony Magazine publisher John H. Johnson and award-winning journalist Tony Brown as friends and mentors. Yet, her story’s largely gone untold in her hometown. It’s not surprising given Omaha’s conservative daily newspaper and her penchant for ruffling feathers. But hers is the classic American success story. Despite hailing from an educated and accomplished family, she overcome major obstacles growing up. A shining example of black upward mobility, her climb serves both as an inspiration for how far passion can carry one and as a reminder of how too many blacks remain disenfranchised.

Love Affair

Growing up in the now old Franklin Plaza projects just off 24th and Franklin in north Omaha, Hughes fired her imagination to the museful sounds emanating from the oversized radio she listened to in her room at night.

“My love affair with radio started when I was 8-years-old when my mother gave me a 15-pound transistor radio. I used to get spankings, because at night — when I was supposed to be asleep — I had my radio on under my pillow,” Hughes said.

Unlike her mother, Helen Jones Woods, a former musician, Hughes had “no musical talent. So, rather than being drawn towards music and embracing it, I kind of shied away from it…I felt awkward that I couldn’t sing, dance or carry a tune. The interesting thing about my relationship with radio is that the part I loved most was the commercials, not the music. Today, Radio One is a case study for the Harvard Graduate School of Business, and when they were doing their case study they said, ‘Well, no wonder y’all did OK, because your love of radio was not the music, it was the commercials.’ Yeah, I loved the commercials. I used to take my toothbrush and pretend it was a microphone and be up in the mirror — in the projects — giving commercials,” said Hughes in the earthy tones of a late-night urban deejay.She was on track meeting her family’s high standards, attending a private school, when, at 16, she got pregnant. Her marriage to the father didn’t last. “I went into shock because I had my whole future ahead of me,” she said in a 1998 Essence Magazine interview. The birth of her son snapped her out of her “arrested development. I was a lost ball in high weeds.”

Being a mom, she said, “was the last thing I ever anticipated and it turned out to be the greatest blessing of my life. Absolutely, my son changed my life. He’s the reason I am who I am today. By that I mean spiritually. He necessitated a belief in a power much greater than myself.”

She managed supporting herself and her son, got an education and made a career out of her first love — radio, and Alfred was beside her every step of the way. “I took him everywhere with me. I stayed in constant trouble with my employers, particularly when I moved to the East Coast, because I knew no one there and I was not going to entrust him to strangers. And, so, I brought him to work with me.”

Her wild success has not made her forget her struggle or the huge gap that still separates many African Americans from the good life. A self-described “black nationalist,” she’s all about promoting and strengthening the black community and emboldening her people’s sense of pride. She learned social activism from her parents, members of the social justice action group, the De Porres Club, and from crusading Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, for whom she worked and whose offices hosted De Porres meetings. The faith-based Club led Omaha’s early Civil Rights fight under the late Jesuit priest, John Markoe, of Creighton University. Formed in 1947, the Club agitated for change via demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts that opened lunch counters, like that at Dixon’s Restaurant, and desegregated employment rolls at such work sites as Coca-Cola and the street-railway company.

Hughes was also a protege of Markoe’s. She recalls marching in demonstrations when she was only five. As a teen, she helped integrate Peony Park. Markoe, a close family friend, sponsored Hughes at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, where she became the first black graduate, and loaned her mother the money to attend nursing school. “He took special interest in a lot of young black people. He saw their potential. He was a pioneer,” said Hughes’ mother. The family visited Markoe when he was dying at the old St. Joseph Hospital, where a West Point classmate of his, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, also said goodbye.

Forging new ground and contributing to The Cause is a family trait Hughes inherited from her parents and maternal grandfather. “They were always very committed to trying to improve the plight of our people,” she said.

Her mother’s father, Laurence C. Jones, was one of the first African-Americans to receive an Ed.D from the University of Iowa. In 1909 he founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. Still a premier boarding school for disadvantaged African-American students, it places the vast majority of its graduates in college. Hughes is its largest contributor. Her mother, who was adopted by Jones and his wife, attended the school and played trombone in its touring all-girl swing band — the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. As the band gained popularity down south, the Sweethearts chafed at being a cash cow for the school and left, en masse, to perform separately from the institution. Woods was among the rebels. The popular band, which included bi-racial and white members, played all over the U.S., even headlining the Apollo Theater. “When you play at the Apollo Theater, you know you’ve arrived,” Woods said. During World War II, the band entertained overseas black American military personnel as part of the USO. The orchestra disbanded in the late 1940s.

Helen Jones Woods



Helen Woods met and married her husband, and Cathy’s father, William Alfred Woods, while with the band in his hometown of Chatanooga, Tenn. After the couple moved to Omaha, he became the first African American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University. When no one would hire him as an accountant, he worked an overnight line job at Skinner Macaroni. That is, until “the Jesuits just refused to accept the embarrassment any longer of their first black accountant bagging macaroni at night, and prevailed upon the Internal Revenue Service to give him an opportunity,” Hughes said. He later went into business for himself. Helen became an LPN and, later, a social worker at Douglas County Hospital. The couple’s first of four kids was Catherine Elizabeth, who helped raise her younger siblings.

Fascinated and Inspired

By the late ‘60s, Hughes was taking liberal arts courses at Creighton and then-Omaha University. “Fascinated with radio,” she leapt at the chance to get in on the ground floor at fledgling KOWH. “This was too good to be true, you know. Black folks owning their own radio station. This was a learning opportunity. That’s the reason I was motivated to volunteer and help out.” Even though her real radio education came later, she feels KOWH played a key role in her broacast odyssey.

“I think the reason we have a $3 billion corporation today is because Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Rodney Wead and the other individuals who invested in KOWH inspired me to do it for myself and become a broadcast owner. I saw them do it and so I figured I could. I think none of my success would have taken place if I had not seen the example set by that group. That’s very important to me, because often times when I tell in interviews what a profound effect people in Omaha had on my life, it gets left out of the story because some editor doesn’t consider Omaha exciting.”

Hughes’ big break came on the heels of love and tragedy. It was the early 1970s and she served on UNO’s Black Studies Committee, which sponsored appearances by noted journalist Tony Brown, who befriended her. The man Hughes was dating at the time was hired by Brown, then the dean of Howard University’s newly formed School of Communications, to chair a department in the School. Meanwhile, her father was given a contract by the Office of Minority Business in Washington, D.C. to organize the books of small minority businesses. Her father was set to leave for D.C. when he fell ill and died of a heart attack.

A grieving Hughes went to D.C. and was surprised when Brown offered her a job as a lecturer in Howard’s School of Communications. “I said to him, ‘But I didn’t finish college,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Neither did anyone else on the faculty other than myself.’ The faculty he allowed me to join included Quincy Jones, Melvin Van Peebles, Stan Lathan. It was a list of non-degreed practitioners of the media and this was quite revolutionary for a major institution of higher learning.”

Hughes began volunteering at Howard’s radio station, WHUR. “When I found out they had a radio station I was like, ‘Oh, let me learn, let me help out. What can I do?” Within a short time she was hired as sales manager and, later, general manager, engineering a turnaround that dramatically increased advertising revenue and put WHUR near the top of D.C.’s highly competitive black radio market.

The Quiet Storm

It was at WHUR she created The Quiet Storm, a sexy late night music-chatter format that’s come to dominate urban radio programming (once featured on 600 stations). She formulated the concept after Howard showed faith in her by sending her to a broadcast management course at Harvard University and a psychographic programming seminar at the University of Chicago. Psychographic studies help broadcasters design programming based on target audience lifestyles and trends.

So, what did Brown see in Hughes? “He saw my love of radio. My determination and commitment to the student body. He saw this was a passion for me. He knew it was like throwing a duck into water. That I was so happy for the opportunity and so fascinated with everything. I used to write back home saying, ‘My eyes are tired seeing the glory and the beauty of being an African living in America.’ Because I had never seen black men and women wrapping their heads and wearing African fabrics and having black plays and black radio. This was a new experience for me. Coming from Omaha, my daddy was the only black accountant, who knew the only black lawyer, who knew the only black dentist, who knew the only black doctor. These were the days when we had one of each in Omaha.”

When Howard University balked at licensing The Quiet Storm on the grounds it was commercially unviable, Hughes left for DC’s WYCB-AM and, in search of more creative control, began looking to acquire her own station. When DC’s WOL came up for sale, she sought to purchase it. Married at the time to Dewey Hughes, the couple made a bid with $100,000 of her own money, plus an additional $100,000 from 10 investors who put up $10,000 each. Another $600,000 came from a group of black venture capitalists. She still needed $1 million dollars from a senior lender. She was rejected by all-male lenders at 32 separate banks. Chemical Bank was her 33rd try and a new-on-the-job Puerto Rican female loan officer there approved the loan. The 1980 purchase made WOL the base of Radio One’s pioneering 24-hour talk from a black perspective format, with its theme: Information is Power.

“If that woman had not gambled on me then I would not be in business today. She was the one that made the difference,” Hughes said. “I never asked her why she did it. I assumed because she saw me a good investment. Those 32 men that told me no probably told some man yes the same week.”

Even today, after all her proven business acumen and personal wealth (in the mid nine figures), Hughes said women of color like herself still lack respect in the business arena. “It hasn’t changed. Not at all. Particularly when you’re one who’s outspoken. It’s not a role white women have enjoyed for too long and, so, it’s definitely still brand new for African American women. It’s the whole confidence factor. You find it with your lenders…your staff…your audience. The most perilous time in the history of my company was when I divorced my husband (Dewey Hughes). He was not making a contribution to the business. He was a drain. But that’s not how it was seen by advertisers, lenders, creditors…They saw it from the perspective that I wouldn’t be able to survive.”

Networking and Visioning

Today, her network of stations is in virtually every major black market: Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Washington, DC, Louisville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami. Radio One’s 1995 purchase of WKYS in Washington, D.C. for $40 million, reportedly the largest transaction between two black companies in broadcasting history, made Hughes the first woman owner of a #1 ranked major market radio station.

Cathy Hughes accepting the NAACP’s Chairman’s Award



Radio One’s among the few black-owned media companies to stave off the Wall Street wolves and conglomorates that began buying up black stations and networks. Hughes’ corporate strategy of acquiring and turning around underperforming urban stations has proven profitable and grown the company exponentially. “We’re turnaround experts,” she said. Yet, only a few years ago, she tells how at “a big affair of financial types a gentleman who was not very well informed stood up and thanked my son for saving my company. Gave him full credit. And when my son tried to correct him, he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, but you made a difference.’ Alfred tried to say, ‘No, I wasn’t even old enough to be around to save her company,’ but they weren’t having it. Alfred has an MBA from Wharton. He’s the one that took us public and, so, he gets the credit for about 15 years of hard work that existed before he became part of the scenario.”

Hughes’ vision for the company was big from the start and then federal legislation compelled her to keep getting bigger. “I always wanted more than one station but our corporate strategy crystallized in 1996 with the passage of the TeleCom bill (Telecommunications Act),” which removed limits on the number of stations a company could own. “It basically says, Either you grow or you go. Either you become one of the big boys or you sell out. I wasn’t interested in selling out,” she said. According to Hughes, that same Act has made radio/TV ownership a rigged system that forces vulnerable stations into the hands of giants and prevents smaller companies from buying in. She’s bought out many stations herself. The spiraling cost of media properties makes it harder, especially for prospective black owners.

“Black folks own more stations, but there are fewer owners. Sixty-nine of them belong to me. It costs several million dollars before you can get a station. It’s very difficult, unless you’re independently wealthy, to put together the financing and go through the rigors and the process of securing the license. There’s some great (black) individuals who would do a great job of running a radio station, but they’re not able to get the start-up money and organizational revenue they need.”

No dilettante operating from afar, Hughes is a hands-on media owner. It makes sense considering she came up through the ranks of radio. She’s done everything at the station level except engineer. Her first days at WOL found her scrounging for everything and even sleeping some nights on the office floor. Up until the mid-’90s she was a popular on-air personality who set the frank tone and assertive agenda for Radio One’s fierce community activism and involvement. These days, she hosts her own show, TV One On One, on the new TV One network.





A Passionate Woman

She said critics’ decrying her pro-black stances “misinterpret” her. “I’m a very passionate woman. My voice raises. I get excited. I start to talk fast. When I was on the radio, nationalism was not quite as understood and accepted as it is now. So, a lot of white journalists mistook my passion, my excitement, my commitment to my people as me being a fire-breathing activist who didn’t like white folks. Well, my second in command to my son is a white woman, Mary Catherine Sneed. She’s like a daughter to me. Just because I love my people doesn’t mean I don’t like other people. I laugh about it, because I grew up in Omaha, and if you’re black and not an integrationist in Omaha, you perish. OK? There’s not enough black folks.”

Even with Radio One and TV One ever expanding, (at one point, TV One was gaining a million new subscribers per month), Hughes is not complacent. “I don’t see it as success yet. I still see it as a work in progress. The reason I have to keep driving forward is the reality that my community seems not to be making the progress for the masses we should be making considering how blessed more of us are each year.” She feels whatever success she’s had is rooted in her community focus. “Our commitment to our community is what has built brand loyalty. It’s a misnomer that you can’t do good and do well. You don’t have to forsake your peoplehood in order to get wealthy. In fact, I’ve had just the opposite experience.”

Of her many riches, she said she’s proudest of “rearing a son by myself that grew up to embrace my vision, my dream, my commitment to electronic media.” She still get backs to Omaha, where her mother resides. Aside from being honored at a Native Omaha Days, Hughes keeps a low profile here with family and friends, seeing old haunts and attending mass at St. Benedict the Moor. “I earn my living being in the spotlight. When I come home, the best past of it is that there is no spotlight.”

Helen Woods never imagined all this for her daughter, although she suspected something special was in store. “Some people are destined for greatness,” she said.

Howard University’s newest crop of grads have a model of greatness they can call their own.

Omaha’s Own American Gangster, Clyde Waller

April 29, 2010 4 comments

street bokeh

Image by Daniel*1977 via Flickr

UPDATE: The memorable subject of the following story passed away June 9, 2011. I didn’t know Clyde Waller well, but I spent enough time in his company that I am confident he will alway be one of the most unforgettable characters in my life.

Here’s a story that two Omaha news weeklies turned down because the subject’s rather epic criminal boasts could largely not be corroborated.

Omaha’s African-American newspaper, The Omaha Star, did run the story, in two parts, but I wasn’t satisfied with the way they were laid out and positioned — they just kind of got lost or swallowed up in a sea of type.

I wrote the piece in a way that takes it all in with a certain grain of salt and leaves it up to you, the reader, to decide for yourself what’s credible and what’s not. In the end, I didn’t really care if what Clyde told me was the truth or not, because he and his stories, and most importantly, the way he told them, were too compelling for me to dismiss or walk away from.

Clyde later hired me to conduct a series of interviews, executed at his motel room, so that he could get his life on tape to inform a biography and a screenplay that another writer had begun but that he wasn’t happy with. In all, I amassed something like 15 hours of interviews with Clyde. The way he paid me, with a stack of bills in a plain white envelope that he slid across the bed to me, made me fill a bit like I was part of some criminal intrigue. I got the same feeling when he had his brother deliver some documents to me for my story project. His brother told me to meet him in the parking lot of a supermarket. I got there a bit early and waited in my car, having told Clyde’s brother the make and model and color of my ride. Before I knew it a Cadillac pulled up alongside me with two men in it, and the fellow in the passenger seat indicated I should slide my window down. I did as I was told, and the man handed over a manilla envelope thick with content. Barely a word was exchanged, except for me commenting how much the driver, who I took to be Clyde’s brother, resembled Clyde. Then the messengers drove off just as mysteriously as they’d arrived.

If I can ever get the interview tapes from Clyde I plan to write a one-man play whose entire monologue would be extracted from those sessions I had with him in the motel. I could never duplicate his streetwise patios and embellishments and poetry. It’s a project I hope to get to sooner rather than later.

Well, anyway, here’s a version of his story:

Omaha’s Own American Gangster, Living Urban Legend Clyde Waller, Spills His Crime Stories

©by Leo Adam Biga  Originally published in the Omaha Star (2008)


NOTE: This two-part story about Omaha native Clyde Waller is based on interviews I conducted with him. Waller described to me a multi-faceted criminal life whose sheer scope makes much of what he said he did difficult to confirm. Given Waller’s underground world and urban legend character, I do not purport the story is entirely factual. Rather, it is an interpretive, as-told-to account that, whenever possible, uses Waller’s own words. Make up your own mind.

Part I: Clyde Waller’s Education in The Life

Long before you meet living urban legend Clyde Waller, you hear the stories. When you finally talk to the man, he confirms a criminal past of mythic dimensions.

He describes growing up fast on the mean streets of post-World War II Omaha, where next door to each other his father ran Count’s Pool Hall and his uncle the after-hours Count’s Joint in south O. His dad and uncle had legit businesses, but always had some extra action going on the side, from moving bootleg liquor to boosted merchandise. Young Clyde soaked it all in.

Dodges came naturally to him as a kid. He resold comic books and costume jewelry for a profit. He supplied his mom with handkerchiefs he’d cut into swatches for her to crochet. Then he peddled the doilies on the street, at school, wherever. On his first train ride he hustled the sandwiches he packed to hungry GIs, for whom he spent the rest of the trip running errands, earning cold hard cash in tips. “I kind of had a hustling quality about me as a child,” he says.

When not looking for an edge, he roamed many a haunt. His south O hangouts included the banks of the Missouri River, the stockyards, Ak-Sar-Ben race track, Riverview Park, Playland Park and the Chief and Roseland theaters. When his family moved to the north side, he was a regular at the Crosstown roller rink and Reed’s Ice Cream stand. Downtown, he took in show after show at the Tiverly, Brandeis, Omaha and Orpheum theaters. He swears the movies’ glamorous portrayals of crime only reinforced his own way of life.

In the early 1960s the high school drop out led more or less a straight life. He ran errands for patrons at a hotel and worked as a janitor at the old St. Joseph’s Hospital. He even joined the Naval reserves. All that conformity ate at him. Just as the Vietnam War was about to grow hot, active duty called. When he went AWOL before his Navy hitch began, he fled to Kansas.

When he felt the heat was off he came back to Omaha a few weeks later, got married and started a family in the Spencer Street housing projects. But the MPs caught up to him and he soon found himself on the USS Procyon, a supply ship, bound for Nam. To teach him a lesson, he says, “they shipped my ass out with no basic training or nothing.” He reported for duty in his fly duds. The Navy proved a rude awakening, but some things never changed, as he soon found the angles in this bad situation to do a handsome trade in black market Naval stores.

Back stateside in the mid-’60s, he settled in Oakland, Calif., where he fell in with a proverbial den of thieves. They used the Color Me Natural barbershop on 98th Avenue as a front for their illicit operations. With its juke box and its hip cutters, the place was a gathering spot for people in “the life.”

“Gamblers, hustlers, pimps, dope dealers, you name it, they come through there. And some of it rubbed off on me,” he says. He learned the “honorable” craft of barbering along with less reputable pursuits, like how to pull off various frauds. He helped design West Coast scams that bilked companies and individuals alike. His crew staged accidents they then collected disability insurance settlements on or they filed false discrimination lawsuits defendants gladly settled out of court. The gang found ways to embezzle or otherwise redirect monies from private financial accounts.

“I always had some game going…running one scheme after another. Then we got into drugs. We were selling weed, cocaine, heroin and every damn thing else. So we were living on easy street. We got a nice barber shop and we’re selling drugs and driving Cadillacs and blah, blah, blah, livin’ on top of the world. Living way beyond the means of cutting hair,” he tells you.

His first marriage failed. He married again, only to see it crumble as well. Besides the children from his two wives, he fathered more with other women.

He’s captivated you with his tales over the phone. This natural storyteller’s rich, profane language is just what you expect from an old-school gangsta. He sounds like the real deal, too — a man wise to the ways of the wicked. When he comes to Omaha for an August family reunion, the legend doesn’t disappoint. He looks the part of an outlaw with his world-weary slouch, muscular arms, graying pony-tail, stylish clothes, Ray-Ban shades and gold bling-bling that drapes his ears, neck and wrist. You imagine Samuel Jackson or Terrence Howard playing him if his story ever finds its way on screen, which it just might. It’s one of the reasons he’s in town.

You sit down for lunch with him in the Old Market and he spills out details from his story in loud, expletive-laced riffs that you’re sure will turn heads, but don’t. It’s easy to see how he could manipulate people to his advantage with the way he seduces you into feeling you’re the only one in his gaze at that moment. There are glimpses of a compulsive man whose hunger for more gives him a desperate edge.

No matter how much he made, it was never enough. Too many middle men cut into the profits. Especially with coke. “So we devised a way to bring it up out of Bogota,” he says matter of factly.

He purports to, in the ’70s, being perhaps the first African-American drug lord with his own direct connection to the Colombia cartel of Pablo Escobar. Of being made “a godfather” by a Colombian family. Of being a big-time supplier. “I never dealt drugs directly. I never sold $50 worth. I sold no less than $50k in drugs,” he says. “But I never got away from the haunt of it.” Of how, in the ’80s and ’90s, he made San Francisco and Hawaii his new bases of crime, running drugs, pulling scams, laundering and counterfeiting monies. How he breached monetary security walls. How his graft finally caught the attention of state and federal authorities. How federal judge Henry Fong called him “the most serious threat to the American monetary system.” How he cut a deal with then-U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese to tell the Secret Service’s Fraudulent Crimes Division “all” he knew in exchange for himself and two brothers not serving any part of a stiff sentence.

His ego was hurt when the government doubted that he, a lone black man, could mastermind such sophisticated criminal enterprises. In a warped way, he was both a victim and a beneficiary of racism.





The key to his rackets was having the smarts to see and slip through what he calls “the blind door.” He refers, for example, to a period when in-transit credit card transactions are exposed to spying crooks who, by using devices and/or inside information, tap the WATTS line and pilfer accounts when no one’s aware. Poof, it’s gone. He intimates that his Omaha connections gave him access to figures with knowledge of the systems that made Omaha then, as now, a telecommunications-telemarketing hub.

“The blind door is the door you open that no one ever thinks about,” he says. “Nobody’s even conscious it’s there and that’s the one I use, and it makes me invisible. Man, there’s a blind door to every damn thing. There’s a part where nobody sees nobody, and that’s where I come in. I figured out when it was. And unless I tell you I did it, you’ll never know how I did it.”

He says he kept right on stealing even while in the employ of the Secret Service. He says he only escaped the distasteful world of informant by making himself an addict and thus a degenerate nobody wanted anything from anymore. That his life only found meaning once he stopped looking for an edge. He talks with pride about making himself clean and sober and raising, alone, his two sons with ex-wife Lola.

Millions in ill gotten gains passed through his hands, he says, as he never intended on accumulating wealth. Others speak of his generosity in sharing what he made.

Trina Smolen, a Phoenix, Ariz. writer he worked with to turn his story into a book and a screenplay, was a jobless single mother in Hawaii when Waller adopted her and her little girl in the late 1980s. She speaks of his “big heart” and his “Robin Hood quality.” She says, “He paid for operations for people. If somebody needed to make a rent payment, a mortgage payment, bail kids out, he was generous that way.” She also says he and his second wife Lola shared a coke habit and that his “criminal enterprise” employed dozens of people and raked in loads of cash.

“I‘d just make it and spend it, give it away, just (expletive) it off,” he says. “Eighty-ninety thousand dollars in the trunk of my car. And after awhile it became a burden. The money was not only illegal, the s___ was heavy. Then I had to hire people to count it. Then they stole a little bit. I was going through misery.”

He’s seen it all, done it all, short of killing. That’s where he says he drew the line.

“I stayed away from guns…murder. I didn’t want to be involved in nothing like that. I did it my way by not allowing anyone in with these tendencies. And it worked. I’m walking here a free man,” he says on a walk in the Old Market. “I did something right. But I really should be either dead or in a penitentiary for the rest of my life.”

Violence was all around him growing up, first in south O, then in north O. On the south side, young Clyde navigated an Eastern European immigrant turf dominated by rough and tumble men who drank and fought hard. He saw gun play and knife fights. He once came upon a frozen corpse in the snow. He developed street smarts to fend off pervs and other predators. When his family moved to the near northside, things only got worse. The Wallers lived across from the Apex Bar, commonly known as “the bucket of blood” for all the stuff that went down there.

“I witnessed a lot of violence. I witnessed people getting shot, people getting cut. I was paranoid from the time I was 7 until I was 33 because I knew what people would do to one another and the extent to what they would do. That made me go the opposite direction. It kept me from it because to me it was ugly.”

From the time he was a little kid, he learned how to talk his way out of any jam, even practicing his lies in the mirror. He learned too that being on the make was a way of life. Hanging around his dad and uncle’s places he learned to hustle suckers with words, cards, dice or a pool cue. He could take you any way he chose.

He knows he comes off a braggart, but he insists baring the darker side of himself wears on his soul.

“It’s only because of the way I tell the story it sounds glorified, but it actually hurts to tell the story. The emotions are still there. When I leave you I will be literally worn out,” he insists. “I want people to understand I not only have remorse about what I’ve done, I wish I had done something else. I’m telling this story because it needs to be told. This story will answer a lot of questions to a lot of people somewhere, somehow.”

Ego played a big part in his getting caught up in the whole drug scene. Circumstances too put him in a position where he could be a player, a somebody. He said coming of age the way he did, amid shrewd black men who lived large from vice, he developed a distorted view of the world and a corrupt confidence in himself. Magnifying this was a loving father who told Clyde “you can do anything you want to do” and a police department, not far removed from the corrupt old Dennison political machine, that got a piece of the action.

“In the back, my father always had a card game going on. When the police would come in my older brother would take ‘em back to my father who would hand ‘em an envelope and they’d walk out. I’m not saying this to offend people, but I was taught something the average black child today don’t get instilled in them. When I went on my three-decade odyssey I was not inhibited by white people or their laws. I was free — up here,” he says, rapping his temple with a finger, “and that’s why it was so easy for me to do it.

“I could have been anything. It’s just very unfortunate that at the time I chose to express my talents…coke was a recreational drug and everyone was doing it…doctors, attorneys, politicians, sports greats,” he says. “I actually stuck the needle in some of these arms. It put me on the same level with them. They, and I’m not lying, envied me. Ain’t that a b_____? They envied me. I done something they would never be able to do. They made me think what I was doing was important and, of course, I believed ‘em. I felt important.”

End of Part I.




Omaha’s Own American Gangster, Living Urban Legend Clyde Waller, Spills His Crime Stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Part II: The Rise and Fall and Redemption of Clyde Waller

The way Clyde Waller tells his life story of dodges and deceptions, it’s a riveting saga. He has a way with words anyway. That, combined with his urban slang, and his Old School G appearance makes it easy to believe he’s seen his share of hell. You don’t doubt for an instance his street cred. But still…

Can his tale really be believed when so much of it must be taken on faith? Author Trina Smolen of Phoenix, Ariz. has known Waller for years. Up until a year ago or so she was writing a book and a screenplay about his life. But he parted company with her when he felt she wasn’t being authentic to his experience. What she did write about his various criminal scores and enterprises was largely based on extensive interviews with him. Her chapter summaries for the book Blind Door read like the narrative from some arresting crime fiction.

Family and friends either have direct knowledge of Waller’s larceny or anecdotally confirm he was into some kind of heavy stuff. Had to be. Why else would a barber from Oakland, Calif., by way of his hometown of Omaha, be hauling ass on repeated trips to South America just as the cocaine trade came of age?

An Omaha cousin who got caught up in Waller’s dealings on the coast describes going to the L.A. airport to meet Clyde on one of his return flights from Bogota. The cousin, who lived above the Color Me Natural shop in Oakland Clyde operated out of, asked him, “Where is it?”, meaning the drugs, whereupon Clyde told him, “You’re holding it,” referring to the large radio he’d handed his cousin. Clyde explains he gutted most of the radio’s insides to hold the stash of cocaine, leaving just enough wiring to let it still play. Good thing, Clyde says, as customs agents tried the radio. It played, just barely.

Then there was the “lavish lifestyle” that didn’t jive with cutting heads. “So they knew I had money,” Waller says. “I even paid doctor, hospital, pharmacy bills, down payments for homes and college tuitions for family and friends.”

Omaha actor-director John Beasley grew up with Waller and his brothers here and says it was common knowledge Clyde’s “always been into something. We used to hear these stories about him. We used to wonder about him.” Therefore, he believes what Waller says may be true. “The reason I don’t doubt it is I remember years ago when I’d ask his folks, — ‘How’s Clyde doing?’ — I’d hear, ‘He’s a barber out in Oakland, but he’s got some kind of scheme going on.’ Or, ‘Clyde’s been in Hawaii or South America again.’ I knew cocaine was involved. I’d hear tales back.”

Waller’s only sister, Larceeda Jefferson of Dolton, Il., said while never involved with Clyde’s misdeeds she learned of them from her brother or others as they played out. “You can trust it, it’s true. He did everything he said and then some probably…At the time I had mixed emotions. I didn’t feel like he failed anybody in what he was doing, I just felt like he wanted something and he wanted it so bad he didn’t care how he got it. He’s always been that way. He’s still that way now, except he don’t do that (crimes) anymore. He still has that pie-in-the-sky attitude that one day he wants to be somebody. I don’t know who he wants to be. It was all a matter of survival for him. He survived the best way he found.”


Ruby (May) White Waller



He involved select family and friends in some of his criminal pursuits. At the very least a cousin and two brothers. Indeed, his ex-wife Lola, the mother of his children, got sucked into “the life” of a drug runner and addict. But mostly he kept that world a secret, a pattern he began in childhood.

“It’s like I was living in two different worlds,” he says, “but I never let those worlds meet. That made my life not only paranoid, but hard.”

Some official documents allude to his life off the grid and just how far his assorted mischief went, but nothing concrete. Otherwise, all you’re left with is Waller’s own claims of criminal exploits. All you have is his word. The irony doesn’t escape him. That a man who owns up to making and losing a fortune through elaborate deceptions raised to high art should be trusted that what he says now is how it was then. The past tense is deliberate, for Waller says he’s gone straight for the past dozen years. He says he’s paying taxes and following both the letter and spirit of the law. He recently opened a barber school in Oakland, where he’s widely seen as a mentor in the community. A 2004 Oakland Tribune feature paints him so.

He’s telling his story, he says, as the final piece in his recovery. Then again, you must take some of it with a healthy dose of skepticism when he says things like, “See, I come off to a whole lot of people as slow-witted, dumb. But that’s my game. That I’m just an old country boy from Omaha. That I ain’t going to hurt you,” he says with a smile, adding, until you realize “I’m going to take your house.”

He’s a master at taking people into his confidence for his own devices. He says he “learned” a long time ago “the average person is constantly looking for something for nothing, and I used that against them.” Could his spill-the-guts confessional be another “blind door” to some pay-off? But why would he risk the sterling rep he enjoys today by spinning a false story?

If this is a con, it’s hard to say how he’ll benefit unless a book deal gets inked or until the movie rights are sold. At one point, Waller and Smolen said major publishers had expressed interest in the outline for the manuscript. John Beasley”s convinced enough by Clyde and his story that he’s bidding to acquire the screen rights for his company, West O Films. Beasley’s currently preparing to mount a feature film on football great Marlin Briscoe, an Omaha native Beasley and Waller grew up with.

Waller knows how improbable it all seems. He says it seemed that way to him too as he was living it. From the moment he made his first trip to Colombia in 1978, it all unfolded as in a dream.

“I used to sit there at night looking up at the stars, saying, ‘You this little (expletive) from Omaha, Neb. down here in the (expletive) jungle.’ And I did it willingly. It wasn’t like the army sent me down there. I did this s___ on my own. When I first got there, I was actually crying. I’m saying, ‘(expletive). man, I’m back in Vietnam. What person in their right mind would even put their ass in a situation like this?’”

Bogota was as scary and foreign to him as Vietnam had been. The surreal nature of it all sank in as soon as the plane landed in a militarized airport.

“Guns everywhere. Dogs. I couldn’t speak Spanish for s___. I took a cab to the Hilton and they put me up in the Presidential suite. I wouldn’t come out for three days. I was crashing on the floor, freezing from the high altitude climate.”

He called home, desperate he’d made a terrible mistake. He told his wife Lola, “’Baby, I’m coming home. I gotta get out of here.’” She calmed him down, reminding him he “hadn’t done anything” yet,” he says, laughing. “I can laugh about it now, man, but there was a time I couldn’t even think about it.”

An African-American looking for a major drug connection in Bogota made him an object of suspicion, at least in his own mind. It was weeks before he met the young man, Foris, who would initiate him into the drug culture or “lifeline” of Colombia.

Before Foris and his people could trust Waller, they tested him. Having him hole up in the hotel for 30 days only disoriented him more for what came next.

“What they do is they take you out in the jungle and they leave your ass out there,” he says. “I didn’t know what the hell I was out there for and that’s what be getting you. Brother, you just go crazy. You just lose it. And that’s what they’re looking for — to see how fast you can get yourself back in control. At first I thought maybe they’d given me some kind of drug because I went out and pitched a b____. But I got under control in like 10 or 15 minutes and I passed the test.”




Another test he says he passed came in the presence of Pablo Escobar himself, only Waller asserts at the time he didn’t know who The Man was, only that he was an associate of Foris’s. Escobar came to the home of Foris, bodyguards stationed outside. Waller recalls Escobar as quiet and carefully “observing me.” The men whiled away the night drinking beer and smoking PalMals stoked with coke, each measuring their manhood by how much they could consume.

“They wanted to see how strong I was,” he says. “The next morning they were laying on the floor and I was stepping over their asses, still drinking, still smoking. The final result was, ‘I was a helluva black American.’”

Clay, as he was called there, lived with Foris, his wife and their extended family. His immersion in the coca culture brought him deep into an alternate reality. “It’s a world of it’s own down there,” he says. “See, everything down there is opposite here.” His acceptance in this underground gave him cachet but that didn’t mean he still wasn’t afraid. “I was always thinking they was trying to kill me,” he says. When told how the drugs were carried out — in small plastic bags to be ingested and then expelled — he was sure of it. “I thought they was crazy.”

Now he needed a sign of trust. It came on a road trip to Cali. “The police stopped us. Foris tried to bribe the cop and he took our asses straight to jail,” he recalls. Drug convictions bring stiff penalties in Colombia. “Down there if they caught you with a zig-zag in your pocket you’d do 30 years,” he says. “Any paraphernalia, you go to prison. If it’s coke, you never get out.” It’s why Waller made a decision while stewing in jail. “I sat there and thought, ‘If this man (Foris) get our asses out of this, then I know I can put my life in his hands.’ And he got us out of it. That’s when the trust came in. After that, I didn’t have to ask no more questions.”

Smuggling smack out of the country was a crucible of logistics and rituals and mind games. When Foris brought Clyde his first shipment, he avoided it for three days. “They said, ‘It belongs to you now.’ I did not touch it, I walked around it, I tried to ignore it, I even tried to act like it wasn’t there,” he says. “It was a helluva an experience.” As prep for each trip Foris’s wife communed with spirits to protect Waller on his mule run. “She’d come out from a closed room and say, ‘Clay, it’s time to go,’ and I knew it. I’d just get up and go. And it happened like that seven times. She always told me, ‘Everybody around you will help you.’ I didn’t know what she meant. But it happened just like she said. Everybody around me helped me…”

Once, when carrying into the U.S., he says he saw that drug-sniffing dogs were on duty. “I knew this day I might have a problem,” he says. Rather than panic he seized the moment when he sized-up a young girl aboard as someone special. He was right — she was a diplomat’s daughter. By insinuating himself into her entourage, neither his body nor luggage was searched.

He refers to the Zen-like “control” and presence of mind it takes to complete a drug run. “Pure control,” he says. “You have to be able to do it or go to prison. It got easier and easier. I was like an actor on the set getting ready to do his part…go into his character. You have to be able to live your cover.” He could have easily “lost it” on his first run if not for how he’d steeled himself. Going over “every scenario that is possible” in his head. “What it boils down to is thinking logically,” he says.“That first trip of mine, man, they made us sit on the plane for two hours before we could get off of it (in Miami). They turned off the air, we were sweating. All I could see outside was dogs and federal marshals.”

He nearly began tripping, until he reminded himself “they don’t know I’m coming through here with this unless I tell them.” In order to not betray any tells, he says, “you have to have the ability to take that fear away from you. I was always able to surmount it and get over it and get past it without being shaken. Nobody can teach you that. And when you get out you are so mentally exhausted.” He says making runs with someone else, as he did with Lola, is even harder and riskier. He had to “maintain” her and himself to avoid a slip. He says the two of them would assume fake identities, once even posing as missionaries. “We couldn’t do it the same way every time. We had to keep coming up with new ideas. I was very creative.”

Waller says he came to know the major drug routes and was courted by crime organizations, including a group he calls “the black mafia.” But he kept the drug business a sideline to his financial chicanery, eventually setting up base in Hawaii, where the feds finally closed in. Busted, he faced serious jail time. Rather than do time, he cooperated.

By the time he walked away from it all, he says he was spent from the pressure of being a user and being used. It’s why he “allowed” himself to get hooked.

“A way of paying penitence. The more hooked I became, the more my importance diminished — importance to the authorities and to the dealers. I never let anyone know that I was using. Only Lola knew and my brothers. But my concentration on ‘the game’ was waning, just like I wanted it to do. I made a conscious decision to do this. I couldn’t handle being in charge of so many other people’s lives and welfare — 15-20 people depending on me to feed their kids -– not including the users who were depending on my product.”

Sealed documents contain the threads of some of his criminal escapades. He and Smolen tried gaining access to those records without much success.

If things go the way he wants, his story will break big — as a book, a film, a play. He’ll be immortalized as an American Gangster. He’s fine with that, although he’s concerned his sons, the new women in his life, Ruby, and the young men and women he mentors at his barber school will learn disturbing things about him they don’t know.

The old life is not completely out of his system. Although he swears he’s mostly gone legit he acknowledges he’s still got some action going on in his capacity as a kind of liaison or procurer who can, for a price, get you anything you want. No questions asked.

Every one who reads or sees his story will have to make up their own mind about this living urban legend. Perhaps he says it best:

“Man, I’m telling you it’s so heavy and deep it’s almost like this s___ was a dream.”

Now Wasn’t That a Time? Helen Jones Woods and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm

April 29, 2010 9 comments

I believe it was one of two dear departed friends, either Billy Melton or Preston Love Sr., who first told me about the International Sweethearts Rhythm and Helen Jones Woods. It’s a story about race, culture, gender, music, and history coming full circle. I was taken with the story as soon as I heard it, and I’ve never lost my affection or fascination for it. This story was published in a monthly Omaha newspaper called the New Horizons that caters to the so-called senior population. I’ve long tried to get it published elsewhere in my hometown but to no avail. This is where the Web, courtesy this blog spot, allows me to share the story with a new audience.




Now Wasn’t That a Time? Helen Jones Woods and The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

©by Leo Adam Biga Originally published in the New Horizons (2005)Revised and updated for this blog

Back in the day, when big bands blew wild and made swing America’s most popular music and dance craze, touring orchestras tore it up at juke joints and dance halls across the land. At the height of swing, in the 1930s and ‘40s, the number and range of bands was astounding. There were the name bands of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Harry James, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and many others. There were novelty bands, like the one led by Spike Jones, that played for laughs. There were the Latin-flavored bands of Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz. And then there were female bands that ran the gamut from Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears to Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Band.

Female performers have generally played second fiddle to their male counterparts. The one time they got a fair shake was World War II. The stock of women musicians and bands rose then as military service depleted the ranks of male artists. Girl bands flourished, but none compared to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a popular period band with strong Omaha connections. Taking the “international” of their name from the blend of ethnicities among their members, this jiving outfit laid down their hot licks on stage, record, radio and film.

The Sweethearts played gigs at jumping live music spots from coast to coast, touring every big city and little town in between. They shined at the Apollo Theater in New York and shared the stage with everyone from Basie to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Earl “Father” Hines. On their Midwest tours, the band jammed at Omaha’s Dreamland Ballroom.

Omaha claims many ties to the Sweethearts, whose brief but event-filled run lasted from 1937 to 1947. It’s where their glamorous leader and vocalist, Anna Mae Winburn, once lived and fronted for the Lloyd Hunter band. It was the hometown of manager/chaperone Rae Lee Jones. And, it’s where Sweethearts lead trombonist Helen Jones Woods (no relation to Rae Lee) lived from the early 1950s until a couple years ago. Images of the Sweethearts are included in a photo exhibition at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center at 2510 North 24th Street in Omaha.

The Sweethearts achieved fame in their short life — small wonder, given their unusual composition and origins. For openers, there’s the story of how this interracial band got its humble start in the heart of Jim Crow before bolting for the bright lights and big cities. The man who formed the band, the late educator Laurence C. Jones, was founder and head master of the strict vocational institution Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. He dedicated his life to Piney Woods, a still active foster home for poor black children from broken homes.

Helen was given up as a baby by her mixed parents and brought to the school, the only home she ever knew. She was later adopted by Jones and his wife. Never feeling fully accepted, she found solace in the band, which became her surrogate family. Made up exclusively at first of young urchins and orphans from the school, band members had few prospects outside Piney Woods other than the domestic-service jobs they toiled in.

As Helen said, “We were just glad to get away from the school.” The band was formed as a social experiment by Laurence Jones, who felt the group gave the girls another outlet, showcased minorities in a positive light and proved that racial harmony was achievable. His idea for the band was inspired by seeing Ina Ray Hutton’s Melodears play in Chicago and by hearing Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Band on the radio. He also used the band as a public relations/fund raising tool for the school. The monies collected from their early paid performances supported the fledgling facility as much as they covered the girls’ tuition and room and board.

To create the group, Jones picked promising members of the school’s all-girl marching band and turned them over to a veteran musician to learn syncopation.

The band began by playing at school gymnasiums and small dance halls. “We traveled around just in Mississippi for quite a little while,” said Helen, an original member who was just 14 at the start. “As the band got better, we traveled more and more and we ventured out and played better places.” Soon, black newspapers like the Chicago Defender championed them.

The Sweethearts made a big impression wherever they went. And why not? They were an attractive troupe of nicely-coiffered, well-mannered young “colored” girls who not only looked great but could flat out play. The majority of original band members were untrained, but over the years their ranks grew to include well-schooled musicians from outside Piney Woods. In their heyday, they featured some top-flight players and some of the music industry’s finest arrangers.

Then there’s the fact the Sweethearts were integrated at a time when segregation ruled. Comprised mainly of African-Americans, their members also included Latinas, a Chinese, an Indian and Caucasians, all of which gave the Sweethearts an exotic charm that was played up in publicity stills and posters. Diversity also made traveling, especially in the South, difficult and dangerous in an era when few lodging-eating places were integrated. Down South, white members wore black face as a hedge against harassment. To avoid further hassles, the band usually stayed overnight aboard their sleeper bus, Big Bertha, or in black hotels.

As the band added older musicians, playing for peanuts at small venues became less palatable, particularly when the school raked in all the fruits of their labor. Exposed to new places and better lifestyles, members felt exploited. The band also attracted sponsors who saw the potential to cash in on their discontent. Convinced to strike out on their own and take a stab at the big time, the band’s 17 original members “ran away” en masse to Arlington, Va., to become a full-time professional orchestra independent of the school. It was 1941. Helen was 17.




Aided by their backers, the Sweethearts took up residence at a brick home in Arlington dubbed “Sweetheart House.” Meanwhile, school officials outraged by the rebellion, which made headlines, tried securing the return of their wards. Helen stood fast. “My father was very much upset, but he didn’t say anything about me coming back. He sent his sister Nellie to bring us to Piney Woods, and she just said, ‘It would be wise if you came home, Helen.’ And I said, ‘No, I want to stay with the band.’ I was glad to stay with the group because I felt more comfortable with them than I did being at Piney Woods. I didn’t know what future I would have there.”

Helen said a strong camaraderie existed among members. “We all got along. You must remember, most of us were out in the world and had nobody but each other in the band. We began to bond like a bunch of sisters. We all needed each other. So, therefore, we had to get along.” Going back home wasn’t an option anyway. Some had no home but for the school. Those that did had little to return to.

“In those days, going back to a home in Mississippi didn’t amount to much once you’d gotten out and seen better things,” she said. “And we were blessed to have seen better things. Where we all came from we didn’t have electricity and indoor plumbing and all those things.” Besides, she said, the band “was the way we made our living. It kept us from having to be a cook or a dish washer. It showed us an exciting time beyond the same old dull life. So, it was a pleasant change. Plus, we got a chance to see the world. That was our reward. It wasn’t money, because we certainly didn’t see any.”

Despite the Piney Woods rift, success came fast for the Sweethearts, who proved they were more than a curio act or shill for the school. “They were a heckuva band. Some of those cats could blow. Enough to make the guys take notice,” said the late Paul Allen, a longtime Omaha club owner. As word spread of their ability, the Sweethearts became a hot booking on the night club and after hours circuit.

Actually, the band enjoyed a national reputation before ever cutting strings with Piney Woods. These darlings of the black press set box office records at an impressive roster of venues. By 1940, they’d already appeared at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. and competed in a school band contest at the New York World’s Fair. Seeing the sights in the big cities was a thrill. “I think the thing that really excited us was the first time we went to Washington, D.C. and to New York,” Helen said, “because we were just a bunch of country girls and these things, you know, you only read about in history books.”

After severing ties with the school, they worked hard preparing for their major coming out party at the Apollo Theatre, the mecca for black artists. “When we first left Piney Woods we spent two or three months just rehearsing so that when we got ready to be presented, the band sounded really good,” said Helen.

Their engagement at the Apollo, where lousy acts got hooted off stage, was a hit. “The first time we played the Apollo Theatre there were lines all the way around the block. We were amazed to think we’d come that far,” she said. Their “show stopper” was a rendition of W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues. Handy himself came to hear them and met them back stage. For their debut, the Sweethearts worked with comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley and tap dancer Peg Leg Bates. From that auspicious start, the band played the Apollo twice a year.

The Piney Woods girls were used to hard work and close supervision and that discipline was used by arrangers like Eddie Durham to sharpen their precise arrangements. The Sweethearts also developed a sense of style and showmanship — from Winburn’s elegant manners and gowns to members’ high spirits and beguiling smiles. Always well-turned out, their smart ensembles epitomized class.



Unusual for a women’s band then, the Sweethearts cut recordings for RCA Victor and Guild Records. They also appeared in short films — called soundies — that were that pre-TV era’s music videos. Soundies were viewed on Panorams, a jukebox-with a screen popular at bars, diners and drug stores. The band also took part in gimmicks pitting them in staged “Battle of the Sexes” with male groups. “At that time, money was scarce and the more you offered people the more you got them to come,” Helen said.

Just as the band’s success made it easy to attract new blood into the group, it led other bands to steal away talent. There were bigger problems. When still a school band, the girls spent far more time playing and traveling than studying, which hurt their formal education. Even after breaking away from Piney Woods and adding non-students, players were expected to follow rigid rules. Some balked at the early curfews and the ban on fraternizing with the opposite sex. “The ones that did not adhere to following the orders would leave” — voluntarily or not, said Helen.





Then, as many Sweethearts have described, the band’s crooked sponsors made empty promises and pilfered their already meager earnings. “They promised us everything, but we never got anything. In fact, they stole everything from us. Most of us were left with nothing,” said Helen, whose $3,000 in savings were spent by manager Rae Lee Jones. Despite the betrayal, Helen later moved to Omaha to help care for the ailing Jones. After she died, Helen stayed on here.

During the war the band became a favorite with servicemen via broadcasts on Armed Forces Radio’s Jubilee Programs. The group was requested, by popular demand, to join an overseas USO tour. In their crisp dress WAC uniforms, the Sweethearts played for appreciative, mostly black troops in France and Germany. Everywhere they went in bombed-out Germany, Helen said, the band drew stares from natives fascinated by these women of color. For their camp shows, the girls played on makeshift stages before troops sprawled out on open fields. Helen recalls one show being interrupted by an officer. “He walked up and said, ‘Stop the music. I have an announcement to make. Japan has surrendered.’ That was the end of our concert, because everybody started hollering” and celebrating.

The Sweethearts “came apart” shortly after returning from their rousing USO tour. The girls had matured into women. They wanted to get on with their lives. Some left to marry and have kids. Others to reunite with families they’d been long separated from. And still others to continue making music, including a few — like Mary Lou Williams, Vi Burnside and Carline Ray — who went on to individual fame.

Helen met and married her late husband, William Alfred Woods, in his native Tennessee and made a life with him in Omaha, where they raised four children. She played a while with Cliff Dudley’s Band before becoming a nurse and social worker. Her husband became Creighton University’s first black accounting grad. The couple were active in the De Porres Club, an Omaha civil rights group, and in St. Benedict’s Church. Their daughter Catherine Liggins Hughes went on to found the Radio One network, which she heads today with her son Alfred Liggins Hughes.


Helen Jones Woods



Attempts to re-form the band fizzled and the Sweethearts faded away like their contemporaries. They were destined to be a lost chapter in jazz history until 1980, when the Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City, Mo. recognized them. The event, which Helen attended and called “wonderful,” brought many Sweethearts back for a reunion celebration that sparked interest from authors, journalists, musicians and filmmakers. Since then, their story’s been retold and their music revived.

Recently, the New York-based all-women Kit McClure Band has released a tribute CD, The Sweethearts Project, that faithfully performs the Sweethearts’ music. To ensure authenticity, the Sweethearts’ original charts were transcribed from recordings and band leader McClure recruited Sweetheart Carline Ray to sing and play guitar on a couple of the tracks. A new McClure Band CD, The Sweethearts Revisited, reharmonizes the earlier group’s musical themes.

It’s a homage of the highest order and an ironic one, too, since women musicians were seldom taken seriously. As Helen said, “Some thought we did very good — for being women. Others thought we were just cute. They wanted to date us.” Articles often discussed the band’s looks more than their music. Now, 60 years later, major jazz figures respect what the Sweethearts did. Their achievements are documented in books by D. Antoinette Handy, Marian McPartland and Sherrie Tucker. The McClure Band’s tributes acknowledge the debt that today’s women musicians owe the Sweethearts for paving the way.

McClure said of all the women bands, “it was the Sweethearts’ music that caught my imagination the most. It’s dazzling. And in trying to play it, we found it’s very, very challenging. Their tempos were really, really fast. Their precision is incredible. They must of had a lot of rehearsal time. And they had a lot of talent and so much energy. When we sat down to try and play it, we all said, ‘Oooh, these women really had it going on.’ We had to step up to the plate to try to fill their shoes.”

For McClure, the Sweethearts are both “pioneers and an inspiration. The band really gave women a chance to have a voice in the music. I feel it is so important we have some women role models that went before us who had great bands and who were great musicians,” she said. “That’s the difference I hope our CDs make. That maybe finally we can get into the school systems with this music and the kids can learn the Sweethearts’ music like they learn Ellington’s and Basie’s. And maybe young girls will come up believing they can go into jazz. Things haven’t changed much since the ‘40s. It’s very difficult for even wonderfully talented women to be accepted in the major bands. Unless these women are recognized in jazz history, it’s going to take longer to change the face and gender of jazz.”

This renaissance is sweet for Omaha’s own Sweetheart, Helen Jones Woods. She’s been interviewed by jazz pianist/author Marian McPartland and award-winning film documentarian Ken Burns, whose segment on the Sweethearts didn’t make the final cut of his jazz opus. She said it was “a proud thing” when a framed portrait of the group was displayed at the Loves Jazz & Cultural Arts Center in north Omaha — a stone’s throw away from the group’s old 24th Street haunt, the Dreamland.

While appreciating their rediscovery, her homespun humility downplays any notion they were “all that.” McClure insists it was the music that had crowds queuing up to see them. Helen isn’t so sure. “I didn’t know whether it was to see the girls or to hear the music,” she said. “I have a serious feeling the music was secondary. People wanted to see a bunch of good looking black girls together who were clean and neat. A lot of the women entertainers were shake dancers and partiers and all that, where we weren’t allowed to. That wholesome image was really our selling point, because I don’t think people said we were the greatest thing since snuff.”

McClure “respectfully disagrees,” saying Helen and her mates had some serious chops as musicians. “I know she does downplay her ability, but I’m sorry, that trombone section was slammin’,” she said. “My hat is totally off to Helen Jones, because she was just a wonderful, funky musician. The whole band was funky, but that trombone section stood out.”

For Helen, her time with the Sweethearts wasn’t so much about the music or the history they made, as it was the experience it afforded. “I am one of the most blessed people in the world to have come up out of those conditions in the South and to be with the band, which gave me a chance to see every state and different countries and the privilege to meet some of the great old musicians. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”

One of only a few surviving Sweethearts, Helen filled her days working with kids at Skinner Magnet Center in Omaha, until moving in with her daughter Cathy back East. Helen long thought about writing a book on her life, but never quite got started. If a book ever were to be written about her poignant Sweethearts journey, it would be a page-turner filled with sweet nostalgia for that chapter in her life.

Now wasn’t that a time?

John Sorensen and his Abbott Sisters Project: One man’s magnificent obsession shines light on extraordinary Nebraska women

April 26, 2010 2 comments

John Sorensen with bronze bust of Grace Abbott
This is a story that attracted me as soon as I learned about the lengths to which its subject, John Sorensen, was going to in order to promote the legacy of two long dead women he never knew.  I am drawn to stories of passion and obsession, and I dare say John is someone consumed by a mission he’s on with his Abbott Sisters Project to honor the work of early 20th century social workers and educators Grace and Edith Abbott of Nebraska.

The following story was published in the June 2009 New Horizons newspaper.  The layout and photographs and article all worked harmoniously together to create a great spread.  I post the story here because I think it makes a good read and it introduces you to an interesting personality in the figure of Sorensen and to the remarkable accomplishments of two women I certainly never heard of before working on this story. I think you’ll find, as I did, that Sorensen and the Abbotts make a fitting troika of unbridled passion.

NOTE: John has worked closely over the years with Ann Coyne from the University of Nebraska at Omaha‘s School of Social Work, which was recently renamed the Grace Abbott School of Social Work.   Coyne’s a great champion of the work of the Abbott sisters, particularly Grace Abbott, and drew on Sorensen’s work to make the case  to university officials to rededicate the school in honor of Grace Abbott.  John is also nearing completion on a documentary film that ties together the legacy of the Abbotts and their concern for immigrant women, children, and families and a story quilt project he organized that involved Sudanese girls living in Grand Island telling the stories of their families’ homeland and their new home in America through quilting.

My new story about John Sorensen and his magnificent obsession with the Abbotts is now posted, and in it you can learn more about his now completed documentary, which is being screened this fall.



File:Grace Abbott 1929.jpg

Grace Abbott



John Sorensen and his Abbott Sisters Project: One man’s magnificent obsession shines light on sxtraordinary Nebraska women

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons


Grace and Edith Abbott may be the most extraordinary Nebraskans you’ve never heard of. John Sorensen aims to change that.

Born and reared on Grand Island’s prairie outskirts in the last quarter of the 19th century, when Indians still roamed the land, the Abbott sisters graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. After teaching in Grand Island they felt called to a secular ministry — the then emerging field of social work in Chicago. They earned advanced degrees at the University of Chicago, where they later taught.

No ivory tower dwellers, the sisters worked with Hull House founder Jane Addams at her famous social settlement. There, amid miserable, overcrowded tenement slums, they set a progressive course for the fair treatment of immigrants, women and children that still has traction today. The sisters’ trailblazing paths followed the lead of their abolitionist father, an early Nebraska politico, and Quaker mother, whose family worked the Underground Railroad. The parents were avid suffragists.

The sisters exerted wide influence: Grace as a federal administrator charged with children and family affairs; Edith as a university educator. They were outspoken advocates-muckrakers-reformers-advisers who helped to set rigorous protocols for social work and to craft public policies and laws protecting marginalized groups. Each attained many firsts for women. Both valued their Nebraska roots.

They were feted in their lifetimes but never gained the fame of Nobel Prize-winner colleague Jane Addams. Working in a neglected arena so long ago resulted in the Abbotts receding to the fringes of history. Grace died in 1939. Edith in 1957. Neither married nor bore children, so no descendent was left to carry the torch.

Enter John Sorensen. While it’s true few outside social work circles know the Abbotts, more will if Sorensen, a Grand Island native, has his way. For 17 years the New York-based writer-director has spearheaded the Abbott Sisters Living Legacy Project. The multi-media effort is the vehicle for his magnificent obsession with shining a light on the women and their significant achievements. Why an expatriate Nebraskan living in Greenwich Village is drawn to a pair of largely forgotten Great Plains women can be answered by the affection and affinity he feels for them.

“I simply love the sisters and this love somehow leads to the work I do,” said Sorensen. “I also admire their work for children and women and immigrants, and I feel a family-like connection and perhaps responsibility to them from sharing a hometown. I could no more turn my back on them, their legacy and their story than I could my own family. That love, that sense of faith is unconquerable.”

Edith Abbott



Just as the Abbotts were mavericks Sorensen goes against the grain. In an era when women were denied the right to vote, excluded from most jobs and treated as chattel, the Abbotts defied convention as working women and social activists who protested injustice. Sorensen’s not an activist per se but a liberal humanist whose  youthful interests in film, music and art made him a misfit in rough-hewn Grand Island. His dogged commitment to perpetuate the Abbott story, often in the face of indifference, underscores a determination to do his own thing.

“I do have a high degree of identification with them,” he said. “I empathize with them. In the same way I choose a play to direct or a script to write I look for a character I identify with or something in their story, like in Grace’s story, that is me. There is some part of her that is me.

“The one term that maybe comes up most frequently in Edith Abbott’s memoir about her sister and her family is this word ‘different.’ She said people just looked at the Abbotts as being different — ‘We weren’t like the people in town.’”

Sorensen’s own family stands apart because his parents, who still live in town, are pillars of the community. He feels keenly the expectations that come with that.

Then there’s the whole sibling parallel. “In Grace’s relationship with Edith, two years her elder, I found many things in common with my relationship with my brother (Jeff), who’s four years older,” said Sorensen. “There’s things the younger sibling learned from the older one, felt challenged by, felt threatened by, but all of those things made them develop in very positive ways.”



File:Jane Addams in a car.jpg

Jane Addams



The parental factor strikes home, too. “The way Grace and Edith’s parents nurtured and encouraged and challenged them as kids I certainly felt growing up through my mother,” said Sorensen, whose mom worked for Northwestern Bell and served on the board of G.I.’s Edith Abbott Memorial Library.

“So there were a lot of things I could identify with,” he said, “but I would say the deeper I dug into the Abbott story, into their childhoods, I felt a particular attraction to Grace. I found Grace was a very clever, very kind, but very naughty little girl basically. Edith writes that Grace was constantly in trouble at school. She remembered a moment where the teacher stopped Grace and said, ‘I’m going to have to call your mother, I don’t know what to do with you,’ and Grace immediately responded, ‘But Mother doesn’t know what to do with me either. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself.’ It’s funny but also very moving.”

That disconnection resonates with Sorensen, who said he had trouble fitting in because he was “strange.” “Being interested in the arts only made my weirdness seem more weird in that town in that time. School didn’t make any sense to me. I just didn’t like it.” He dropped out of college, never earning a degree. “Me and school don’t get along too well,” he said.

Just as it took Grace awhile to figure out where she belonged, it took Sorensen a long time to find his way.

“Like Grace, I stayed in town well after my high school graduation,” he said. “She stayed until she was 29, and I stayed until I was 26. Those challenging, waiting, searching years are something else that I feel I share with her.”

Then there’s the mission work the Abbotts felt compelled to do and “a kind of destiny” that’s led Sorensen to the Abbott story. The more he invests himself in their tale the more duty-bound he feels to be true to it.

“Again, that is where the love and the faith comes into things,” he said.

With great love comes great responsibility to get it right.

“This becomes the obligation. If you don’t know what you’re talking about and if you’re not willing to pay the price in terms of the study, the research, the heavy lifting,” he said, “it’s not enough that you care about it deeply.”

Despite his lack of formal training Sorensen’s assembled an Abbott Sisters project that cuts across academic disciplines and partners with scholars and educators. An outgrowth is a recently published book he edited with historian Judith Selander, The Grace Abbott Reader (University of Nebraska Press). This anthology of writings by and about Grace is the first in a series of planned Abbott books.

He’s nearing completion of a video documentary, The Quilted Conscience, that explores how the sisters’ concern for immigrants resonates today in places like Grand Island. Sorensen and his cameras followed a group of Sudanese refugee girls there who worked with renowned quilt artist Peggie Hartwell in making a mural story-quilt with images representing the girls’ memories of their homeland and the dreams they hold for their future in America.

“For many of the girls it has been a life changing experience,” said Tracy Morrow, a Grand Island teacher who works with the newcomers. “They feel better about themselves. They have the ability to stand in front of a group and tell their stories. It was very emotional for the girls. They put so much work into it. I feel like John’s doing what the Abbott sisters did by educating the Grand Island community about the Sudanese and educating the Sudanese about Grand Island and America.”

University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Social Work professor Ann Coyne said the sisters “really are a living legacy because we’re now dealing with some of the same problems related to children, maternal health and immigrants they dealt with” in the early 20th century. She said most striking is the parallel between the 1910s through Great Depression period with today, two eras marked by war, economic crisis, immigration debates and childhood-maternal issues. Coyne said reading the sisters’ words today reveals how “very contemporary” their philosophies remain.

Coyne said the Abbotts’ focus on immigrants echoes the yearly trip UNO social work students make to Nicaragua to live in family homes, visit orphanages and clinics and the biyearly trip students make to China. Students also work with refugee families in Nebraska. She said UNO social work graduate student Amy Panning “is living the legacy of Nebraska’s most famous social worker, Grace Abbott,” as the new head of international adoptions for Adoption Links Worldwide.

The storyteller in Sorensen knows a good tale when he sees one. In the Abbotts he’s hit upon a saga of women with backbone, compassion and vision engaged in social action. These early independent feminists from pioneer stock were part of the progressive wave that sought to reform the Industrial Age’s myriad social ills. He tells facets of their story in film, video, radio, stage and print. He makes presentations. He organizes special programs that pay tribute to their rich legacy.

He’s not alone in seeing the Abbotts as historic do-gooders whose work deserves more attention and greater appreciation. Coyne holds Grace Abbott in the highest regard. “She is the outstanding social worker in American history, so the fact she came from Nebraska just makes it better,” said Coyne, who’s convinced Abbott would he a household name today if she’d been a man.. “What I admire her for is that she knew how to work the political system in Washington to make sure laws got passed to ensure children really were protected and weren’t just left to the whims of individuals. She was savvy. She got things done. Children were guaranteed a number of things for their care and concern that weren’t in place before.”



Edith and Grace Abbott



Though Sorensen shares the same hometown as the Abbotts it took years before he learned anything about them. His first inkling came not at home but back East. Growing up he was aware a G.I. park and library bore the Abbott name, but he didn’t know the stories of the women behind these monuments and inscriptions.

His work has helped the town and state rediscover two of their greatest gifts to the world. Working with Grand Island public officials, Sorensen promotes community-school events that celebrate the sisters. All part of a pilgrimage he makes to this place where the sisters were born and are buried. Call it fate or karma, but this less than stellar former student now gives Abbott talks before G.I. schoolchildren, making sure they know what he didn’t at their age.

Morrow said, “We really didn’t know the Abbott sisters before John.”

“What started as an idea to call attention to the Abbotts has really morphed into something much larger and much more powerful and that’s a tribute to John,” said Grand Island Public Schools superintendent Steve Joel. “He’s got people working on this thing that I think are stretched far and wide — not only in Nebraska but New York and other parts of the country.”

None of this was on Sorensen’s mind 23 years ago. Ironically, the young man who “never felt at home in Grand Island” often now returns to share his passion for the Abbotts. He left home in ‘86 to study cinema at the California Institute of the Arts, where he ended up a protege of British director Alexander MacKendrick (The Sweet Smell of Success). By the early ‘90s Sorensen did film and theater work in New York. He assisted producer Lewis Allen and his wife, playwright/screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, on Broadway (Tru) and TV (Hothouse) projects.

Sorensen founded a theater troupe in Manhattan and began making short films. The very first book he wrote, Our Show Houses, got published. It explores the unusual history of Grand Island’s Golden Age movie theaters and proprietors, including an “in” the town’s leading theater owner enjoyed with Hollywood royalty that brought unexpected aspects of Tinsel Town glamour there.

S.N. Wolbach, a prominent G. I. businessman in the Roaring Twenties, was a friend of Universal Pictures head Carl Laemmle from their days as New York merchants. The association led Laemmle to send Universal contract stars such as Barbara Stanwyck to appear in the small Midwest town at Wolbach’s Grand Theatre and a studio crew to shoot a silent newsreel of the town. Laemmle also convinced top movie palace architect John Eberson, who designed the Roxy in New York, to design Wolbach’s Capital Theatre, where Lillian Gish and Louis Calhern performed live on-stage in The Student Prince and Sig Romburg led his orchestra.

When in the course of research Sorensen discovered the Universal footage of G.I. he recut it with snippets from other vintage moving pictures of the town for a new film he entitled Hometown Movies. It’s shown on Nebraska Educational Television.

In doing these projects Sorensen was following an edict from his mentor. “MacKendrick was very big on writing things that you knew about or that were unique to your experience,” he said.

“Around ‘91 or ‘92 I started looking for other things connected to Grand Island. About that time I was working on a project for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights in New York,” said Sorensen. “I was editing an anthology of speeches that Bobby Kennedy had given. While doing that I came across a copy of the book A Nation of Immigrants that President (John F.) Kennedy had written and that Bobby Kennedy had written the preface to, and the first name in the bibliography was Edith Abbott. It just kind of threw me. I knew the name, my mother had been on the Edith Abbott library board when I was growing up here.But I had no idea who she was or what she’d done.

“I kind of thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, I’ll look up something about those women.’ I went to a library in New York, looked in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and there was no entry for Edith but a very interesting article about Grace, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a story here.’ It’s something I do — always keeping my eye out for something unique that hasn’t been covered before.”

His interest peaked, Sorensen continued his quest for Abbott information.

“So I guess the next trip out here to Nebraska I went to the Stuhr Museum (Grand Island) to go through their files on the family. They don’t have a lot but they have some interesting things and among them was a copy of a letter that President Franklin Roosevelt had written to Grace. It was so impressive.”

Sorensen used the letter as a preface to a chapter in The Grace Abbott Reader. Here’s an excerpt from FDR’s 1934 note to Grace Abbott:

“My dear Miss Abbott you have rendered service of inestimable value to the children and mothers and fathers of the country, as well as to the federal and state governments…I have long followed your work and been in hearty accord with  the policies and plans which you have developed.”

Coming upon JFK’s reference to one sister and FDR’s adulatory letter to the other proved an “Aha” moment for Sorensen, who also discovered Eleanor Roosevelt was an admirer of Grace Abbott. “At that moment I’m thinking, ‘There’s got to be some story here,’ and at that point I did just enough sniffing around to be certain in my heart there was something worth telling.”

Aptly, Sorensen’s search took him home — to the Abbott library. He later expanded his hunt to searching archives and conducting interviews in his roles as scholar, journalist, detective, documentarian, writer.

“So I was beginning to educate myself. At that point I raised just enough to have like a three-month research project. I went to the University of Chicago.”

He recorded interviews with Chicagoans who worked with or studied under the Abbotts. The more data he gathered the bigger the story grew.






What Sorensen’s discovered about Grace Abbott alone comprises a wealth of achievements that seem too vast for any one person to have completed, especially in such a short lifetime. She died at age 60.

A select list of Grace’s early feats:

•Directed Immigrants Protective League in Chicago

•Wrote “Within the City Gates” weekly articles for the Chicago Evening Post

•Worked with the Women’s Trade Union LeagueTraveled to Central Europe to study emigrant working-living conditions

•Testified before Congress

•Served on Mayor’s Commission on Unemployment in Chicago

•Chaired national Special Committee on Penal and Correctional Institutions

•Served as delegate to Women’s Peace Conference at the Hague

•Organized and chaired Conference of Oppressed Nationalities in nation’s capital

•Named director of Child Labor Division with the U.S. Children’s Bureau in D.C.

•Authored book, The Immigrant and the Community

•At President Woodrow Wilson’s behest served as secretary to the White House Conference on Child Welfare

•Served as consultant to War Labor Policies Board

•Represented Children’s Bureau at conferences in Europe

All this by 1919. Amazingly, she’d only begun her social work career in 1908. Others saw her potential early on and put her in key leadership positions she excelled in. Her phenomenal rise was partly being in the right place at the right time but clearly she was a highly capable doer who impressed those around her.

In 1921 President Warren G. Harding named her Children’s Bureau chief. In her 13- year reign she helped ensure the health, safety, education of the most vulnerable among us. Using every tool at her disposal Abbott spread the word about the pressing needs for child labor reform, improved maternal and childcare, et cetera.

Peggie Hartwell with Sudanese students



A sample of what Grace did the last 18 years of her life:

•Hosted NBC radio series, produced films, published literature on children’s issues

•Worked for U.S. Constitutional “Children’s Amendment” to regulate child labor

•Administered Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act, the first system of federal aid for social welfare in U.S. history.

•Named president of National Conference of Social Workers

•Helped pen League of Nations Committee “Declaration of the Rights of the Child”

•First woman in U.S. history nominated to Presidential cabinet post

•Awarded National Institute of Social Sciences Gold Medal

•Good Housekeeping named her one of America’s 12 “Most Distinguished Women”

•Appointed adviser to U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins

•Served as managing editor of the Social Service Review

•Contributed to drafting and passage of the Social Security Act

•Served on FDR’s Council on Economic Security

•Chaired U.S. delegation to International Labor Organization Conference in Geneva

•Chaired U.S. delegation to Pan American Conference in Mexico City

•Authored book, The Child and the State

Her noteworthy credits would be longer had ill health not forced her to decline opportunities, such as succeeding Jane Addams as Hull House director. A case of tuberculosis slowed Abbott in the 1920s. After rebounding, her health declined again in the 1930s, by which time she’d resigned from the Children’s Bureau and returned to teach at the University of Chicago, where she rejoined her sister.

Edith Abbott’s accomplishments were numerous, too. After Hull House she studied in London and upon returning to the U.S. helped establish the country’s first university-based school of social work at the University of Chicago in 1920. In 1924 she became dean, making her the first woman dean of a graduate school in an American university. The field work and training she mandated for social workers set professional standards. She launched the journal Social Service Review, serving as managing editor. She advised the U.S. government on federal aid relief during the Depression and the International Office of the League of Nations on problems of women in industry, child labor, immigration, legislation, et cetera.

The sisters remained close siblings and colleagues, often consulting each other.

“I think from an early age, the sisters recognized they were each somehow mysteriously ‘made whole’ by the other — that together they could learn things and experience things and do things impossible for either on her own,” said Sorensen.

An indication of how dear their roots remained was a habit of referring to themselves in interviews as “the Abbott sisters of Nebraska.” Grace was the star but instead of envy Edith expressed admiration for her younger sister. Their shared experience on the prairie, in academia, at Hull House and on the front lines of social work gave each a deep understanding of the other. If anyone could appreciate the mounting challenges Grace faced inside the Beltway it was Edith. No doubt Grace’s many run-ins with political foes, including President Wilson, and her tireless work around the world weakened her already compromised health.

Grace described public service as “the strenuous life” and dismissed critics with, “It is impossible for them to understand that to have had a part in the struggle, to have done what one could, is in itself the reward of effort and the comfort in defeat.” Her militant campaigning for human rights criticized America for neglecting its children and demanded the state care for its homeless, orphaned, sick, poor. Her strong stances elicited strong responses. She was called a socialist. She was an ardent humanitarian, a watchdog for the dispossessed, a voice for the voiceless.



Peggy Hartwell and the Sudanese studentd holding the quilt they created



Edith fought the same battles. Early social work was a perilous job not for the faint of heart. Sorensen said Edith writes about how “’sometimes you didn’t know if your next step was going to plunge you off the edge of a cliff or come down on a bridge to take you across the gap’. Many people literally or figuratively died in that process but what distinguished that generation is that they were like pioneers — they were willing to go and a lot of them were willing to die for it.”

Sorensen’s struck by how Grace used the wartime idiom of the day to describe the hard, uphill road of social work as “battle front service” fraught with “casualties.” She equated social workers with “shock troops.” Apt language for this warrior-protector of the underclass. She came by her fierce convictions via nature and nurture. As Sorensen put it in a recent Omaha address he gave about the Abbotts:

“The combative way was nothing new to Grace. It was the life into which she had been born…she had met and kept company with her family’s many unusual house guests, including suffragist heroines Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone. Before she had started school Grace had already given several years of childhood service to the new women’s suffrage movement of the Midwest, working alongside her remarkable mother and father, who were leading activists…”

Standing up for what’s right can take a heavy toll. By the end of her life, said Sorensen, “Grace was so physically debilitated by her work, it was so physically exhausting and she was so vilified, her body was falling apart.”

He’s mined insights about Grace from extensive notes Edith left behind for an intended but never finished biography of her sister. His first attempt at synthesizing Grace’s story was a three-hour radio series he wrote, My Sister and Comrade, that drew on Edith’s recollections. The series aired on Nebraska Public Radio in the mid-’90s. He then adapted the script for a short performance piece.

He always wanted to do a book and film about the Abbotts but found scant interest for projects whose subjects were obscure figures from the past. To build support he spoke about the Abbotts at schools, libraries and anywhere that would have him. His fledgling Abbott project became whatever he could cobble together.

“I just did whatever I could to keep transforming it and keeping it in people’s faces,” he said. “I could see I was having success in raising awareness — that people were slowly getting to know around the state who these women were. I shifted the focus of the project to what I call the living legacy work — to say, ‘Look, this is not just the study of people from a hundred years ago, this is the study about things that can help us to live better today, especially women, children, immigrants.’

“We started a series of projects, including restoration of the Grace Abbott Park. We raised the money to have properly cleaned up a bronze memorial plaque to Grace that was never completed. We also raised funds to have bronze busts of the sisters cast and placed in the Edith Abbott Library. Very beautiful.

“Around that time, too, through a series of lucky accidents I made a connection to the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation.”

Since 2003, the Lincoln-based Foundation has presented the annual Grace Abbott Award in recognition, said executive director Meg Johnson, of “those who have made a difference” in strengthening the lives of children and families “in the courageous spirit of Grace Abbott.” This year’s recipient is Doug Christensen, emeritus commissioner, Nebraska Department of Education.

The Foundation helped get then-Gov. Mike Johanns to proclaim an annual Abbott Sisters Day. Momentum for the Abbott Sisters Project gained steam. “I think it just legitimized things for people,” Sorensen said. “It got the word out more.”

Along the way Sorensen’s project has garnered funding from the Nebraska Humanities Council and other public and private supporters. Some Grand Islanders hope to capitalize on the Abbott name the way Red Cloud has with Willa Cather.

Quilt detail
Quilt detail



Like a Johnny Appleseed, Sorensen’s planted the kernels, tilled the ground, and now all things Abbott are sprouting. The Dreams and Memories story-quilt is touring the state until a permanent home is found. Sorensen hopes The Quilted Conscience documentary airs statewide, even nationally, on public television. The University of Nebraska Press is planning a sequel to the Abbott Reader with the 2010 publication of Edith Abbott’s memoir, A Sister’s Memories. Children of the Old Frontier, a book about the Abbott sisters with input from G.I. 4th graders, is part of the new Great Peoples of Nebraska children’s book series by the Press.

“One of the most thrilling aspects of this work for me is that over the years we’ve had children from all over the country, all girls by the way, develop Abbott projects for History Day competitions,” said Sorensen.

The Abbott sprouts don’t end there.

The Grand Island Independent has begun an Abbott scholarship for Hall county high school grads to study social work at UNO. Ann Coyne’s lobbying for the School of Social Work to be renamed for Grace Abbott. She said it’s “kind of like losing our heritage if we don’t keep her legacy alive and visible,” adding that if Nebraska doesn’t claim Abbott, Chicago will. An Omaha World-Herald editorial stated, “Society should remember and appreciate this remarkable, courageous Nebraskan.”

All of it is music to Sorensen’s ears. Affirmation that the odyssey of his magnificent obsession has been worth the wait now that the Abbotts’ story is getting out.

“There had been things written about the Abbotts before, very important things, but they were I think read by a very small scholarly audience,” he said.

That’s all changing thanks to Sorensen.

Steve Joel said anyone meeting Sorensen is struck by his “commitment and passion. He’s a hard person to say no to.” Tracy Morrow noted, “The Abbotts wanted a positive change in the world and I think that’s what John wants, too.”

Sorensen’s simply grateful his dream’s coming to fruition after 17 years.

“I started this as a project and it became a life choice. I mean, it’s become clear in the last three or four years that it has no end for me. It’s become so embedded in my existence that I can’t stop — also because now it’s actually starting to unfold.”


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