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

April 30, 2010 6 comments

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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.

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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 (www.thereader.com), 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 (www.thereader.com)

 

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.

 

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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 (www.thereader.com) 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

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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.

 

 

 

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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?”

 

 

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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.”

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