Bertha’s Battle, Bertha Calloway, the Grand Lady of Lake Street, Struggles to Keep the Great Plains Black History Museum Afloat
I have written and continue to write many stories about the African-American community in Omaha. One of the first articles I did in that regard was in 1996 about Bertha Calloway and her Great Plains Black History Museum for The Reader (www.thereader.com).. Since then, I’ve since written about her and her museum, which subsequently fell on hard times and closed, a few more times. She’s one of those force of nature characters you just cannot ignore, embodying a formidable spirit that demands your respect and attention.
Her vision for her museum has yet to be realized but there are promising new developments that a future blog post, in the form of a recent story I did, will detail.
Bertha Calloway, the Grand Lady of Lake Street, Struggles to Keep the Great Plains Black History Museum Afloat
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
These are hard times indeed for the Great Plains Black History Museum and its 71-year-old founder, director, curator and guardian, Bertha Calloway.
The future of the museum, at 2213 Lake Street, is in doubt unless significant funding can be secured. For months now, it’s survived on meager admission income, a few small donations and grants, and the limited personal savings of Calloway’s family.
Added to these difficulties, Calloway’s recently experienced personal setbacks and tragedies. In 1993, she underwent brain surgery to remove a benign tumor and then lost her husband of 47 years, James, when he died of a ruptured artery. A grandson was murdered in New Orleans in 1994.
She continues under medical care today and sometimes walks with the aid of a cane. One of the cruelest setbacks, though, has been the partial memory loss plaguing her since the operation. As one whose work depends on a steel-trap mind, she’s keenly frustrated when once indelibly etched names, dates, places and events elude her — just beyond her recall.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.Not now. Not in what should be golden years for her and halcyon days for the museum.
Still, she hasn’t lost hope of realizing her “perfect dream” — a fully funded, staffed and restored institution free of the financial difficulties that have nagged it over its 20-year history.
Calloway saved the turn-of-the-century building housing the museum from the rubble heap in 1974, when she and her husband bought it. The 1906 red-brick building — headquarters for the original Nebraska Telephone Co. — was designed by famed Omaha architect Thomas Kimball. With the help of volunteers and a $101,000 grant from the federal Bicentennial Commission, the couple converted the structure into the museum, opening it in 1976, and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Now, however, Calloway sees the building she put so much of her life into deteriorating around her. Major repairs and renovations are needed, including replacement of the leaky roof and installation of new climate control and lighting systems. IN some exhibition spaces, ceiling pane;s are water-stained and others are missing, exposing warped wood. Bare light bulbs hang overhead in many rooms.
There is no paid staff except for William Reaves, a jack-of-all-trades on loan from the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Without anyone to catalog the museum’s extensive archives, heaps of newspapers, magazines and photographs sit in open boxes and on shelves. Calloway, whose ill health has forced her to slow down, relies on her son Jim to help run things. Money’s so tight that paying the utilities often is a leap of faith.
At least she can joke about it. When Reaves answers the phone one recent morning, she instantly quips, with her sweet, sing-song voice an enchanting smile: “Tell ‘em the money’s on the way.”
The call was from a Smithsonian Institution researcher, among many scholars who frequently use the museum as a resource.
Despite a glowing national reputation, the museum’s always only barely scraped by. Calloway’s kept it intact through guile, gut, sweat, spit, polish and prayer. Lots of prayer.
“People just don’t understand how difficult it’s been to keep it going,” she says, “until they come through it and see how much is in here and how much work it takes. It’s even more of a struggle now than ever before. We’re always on the verge of closing. But I don’t want to sound too negative. I think our main focus should be on keeping the building open and providing jobs for people to give tours, file, catalog. Those are things that could be going on right now, but it takes money, and I hope we get the same amount of money from the city that other museums get.”
Calloway feels her museum has long been neglected by local funding sources in comparison with mainstream museum such as the Joslyn and Western Heritage. She’s had little cause for hope lately, especially when a major funder — United Arts Omaha — withdrew its support. She poured out her discontent over UAO’s action in a passionate editorial published in the Omaha World-Herald.
Other than occasional benefit events, the museum’s fundraising efforts have been dormant recently. But they are being revived, along with a planned membership drive, following a board of directors reorganization. Although Calloway tries to remain diplomatic about the museum’s second-class status, her supporters do not.
“It’s an embarrassment to her that the museum is treated the way it is by the larger community,” says Larry Menyweather-Woods, an associate professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It’s representative of the fact that many people don’t consider our (black) history to be that important.”
According to Vicky Parks, a librarian at Omaha’s W. Dale Clark Main Library, “She does not get the respect and support she deserves. I’m truly saddened that we have not as a community chosen to provide the financial resources to institutionalize that museum.”
Aside from a trace of bitterness she can’t disguise and a rare memory lapse that upsets her, Calloway still has a sharp, often biting wit and and feisty — even stubborn –determination to see this latest crisis through. The museum truly is her mission, and she vows “to keep it going…so that my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren know that African-Americans were involved in the settlement of this country and the settlement of the West in particular.
“That’s important because it makes you feel like you belong.”
Calloway’s own displaced sense of belonging began as a young girl in Denver, where her family settled after too many years of Jim Crow discrimination in the South.
She resisted the one-sided history taught in school that conspicuously ignored blacks. Instead, she embraced the anecdotes told by her grandfather, George “Dotey Pa” Pigford, who regaled her with tales of his cowboy exploits in Texas and the accomplishments of black pioneers and settlers she never heard about in class. Those stories inspired her to learn more about the rich heritage of blacks on the Great Plains and eventually led her to become a serious collector, preserver and interpreter of black history.
“The history I was forced to learn and hated just consisted of white history,” she says. “I never felt like I belonged to that kind of history. I knew there had to be some other kind where black people fit in other than slavery. One reason I started the museum is that I realized when my children were growing up there wasn’t anything in the public schools about African-Americans.
“People must see black history in order for the images they have of black people to change. That’s what our museum is all about. It’s about revealing a history that’s been withheld.”
Calloway has displayed that history in exhibitions and discussed it in countless lectures given at the museum, public schools, universities, historical societies. She’s also lent her expertise to documentaries and books and currently is collaborating with Alonzo Smith, a research historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on an illustrated history of blacks in Nebraska. Dozens of awards honoring her achievements hang on the wall of the Great Plains Black Museum.
On this particular day, someone asks if she’d ever thought if becoming a teacher. “I am a teacher,” she bristles. “You’re learning right now, aren’t you?”
Properly chastened, the questioner asks more precisely if she’d considered a formal teaching career. “The approach is too disciplined for me,” she answers. “I think it’s more fun to jump up and do what I want instead of staying inside a classroom all day.”
As confirmation of her free-spirited ways, her son says, “My mother’s always been an adventurous type of person. As a young boy I can remember plenty of times when she’d go out ‘scavengin’, as she called it, into condemned houses and at work sites” to retrieve artifacts.
Her scavenging netted many museum finds. Other item were donated by individuals and families who — encouraged by her appeals — scoured attics, basements, cellars and garages for precious remnants of the past that might otherwise have been trashed.
Before opening the museum, her own collection threatened over-running the family home at 25th and Evans, where she raised her son and two daughters — Beverly and Bonnie. She has five grandchildren and four great-granchildren. “Our house was so full of magazines, books and things,” she says, “that my beloved husband was glad to see them leave, please believe me.
“I still have lots of things in my own personal collection that I’m sure my son would love me to lose,” she adds with a chuckle.
Calloway’s private stash practically bursts from a small museum office that includes a holster and branding iron used by her grandfather on cattle drives.
Indeed, poking around the museum is like rummaging through Grandma Calloway’s attic. Unlike the foreboding marble palaces that traditionally house history and tend to embalm it, the museum’s a homey, unpretentious, slightly disheveled place whose small rooms are overstuffed with a hodgepodge of memorabilia lovingly scaled down to human size.
The exhibits range from African art to artifacts of black settlers, soldiers, musicians and athletes and to interpretive histories of civil rights leaders. A strong local flavor is preserved in exhibits devoted to Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, social activist Malcolm X, major league baseball pitcher Bob Gibson, and so forth. The inviting displays beckon visitors to linger and soak up the living history they commemorate.
Calloway’s charming presence is felt throughout, whether chatting with visitors or bearing witness to some of the history-making events documented there, including early civil rights demonstrations in Omaha led by the late Father John Markoe.
Despite her health problems, she’s still at the museum most every day and pores over materials at home until the wee hours of the morning.
“Even though the last few years have been very traumatic for her, she’s still driven,” her son says. “She’s up until midnight, one o’clock every night doing research. It’s just embedded in her. I think it’s her love for the history and a very legitimate concern for the direction the community is going.”
Calloway explains it this way: “I love what I’m doing. I really do. The kids want me to stop, but I’d just as soon be there as sitting at home watching television. I figure I might as well get up, come on down to the museum and do a few little things that make a difference.”
During a recent lunch at the nearby Fair Deal Cafe, whose bustling atmosphere and authentic soul food put Calloway in a reflective mood about the neighborhood she first came to in 1946:
“Things were jumpin’, as they used to say. You didn’t have to leave 24th Street to get anything you wanted. That’s a fact.”
The Dreamland Ballroom, among other now defunct night spots, featured jazz legends. And the area thrived with activity.
Driving around the neighborhood she’s been such an integral part of, Calloway expressed sadness at the empty storefronts and vacant lots and indignation at the closed Kellom Pool, since reopened.
“I love North Omaha,” she says. “But I hate to see the old buildings torn down. A lot of history is destroyed, and that includes North 24th Street.”
She believes that, with enough help, the museum “could be an anchor” of stability in these unstable times. “Other states don’t have such a resource. People come from all over to research here. Twenty-Fourth Street could be beautiful again,” she adds, wistfully.
Her dream, like her life, has been all about defying convention:
• It’s why, when traveling by bus en route to Texas years ago, she refused to budge when the driver commanded she and her sister move to the back upon crossing the mythical Mason-Dixon Line.
• Why she participated in peaceful demonstrations that helped integrate Omaha’s Peony Park and downtown lunch counters.
• Why she organized such black-pride events as the Stone Soul Picnic and Miss Black Nebraska Beauty Pageant.
• Why she can say “I know I’m a pioneer” without sounding boastful.
• Why she’s invested so much of her life in an old building on the depressed near north side and still searched for artifacts from Pullman Porters and others.
Ask her what’s so special about saving Pullman Porter history anyway, and she replies: “We want to help people in this neighborhood understand their father and grandfathers worked on the railroad in a dignified way. It isn’t something just for black people. A good education is very important and must include African-American history.”
Calloway’s ignored doubters along the way. Her late mother, Lucy Carter, who operated Carter’s Cafe on North 24th Street, wanted Calloway to follow in her footsteps there. But Bertha had different ideas.
Long before there was one, she says, “my dream was to be another Oprah Winfrey, and also start something like this (museum). My mother always thought I was kind of crazy.”
Calloway did her Oprah thing, working as a public affairs professional at WOW-TV in the ‘60 and ‘70s and becoming one of the first black women in the Nebraska broadcast industry.
Through good times and bad, she says, “a dream and a loyal, faithful man kept me going. I had a husband who was very supportive of everything I did. He always made me feel like I could do whatever I wanted to do.” She despairs her “main support” is gone now, as are the “militant friends” she waged the fight for equality with.
She sees the museum’s fight as emblematic of the plight of Omaha’s black community and challenges others to carry on the struggle — with or without her.
“I’m 71 now and my health is failing,” she says. “The torch has to be passed. It’s just a matter of keeping things going.”
And keeping the dream alive.
Like a mighty flame still burning brightly — old soul Bertha Calloway illuminates the past and casts a light on the future.
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- Today’s Exploration: Omaha’s History of Racial Tension (theprideofnebraska.blogspot.com)
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