Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown
With the 2011 Native Omaha Days, July 27-August 1, just around the corner I am posting stories I’ve written about this every two years African American heritage and homecoming event and how it serves a kind of litmus test for the black community here to take stock of itself in terms of where it’s been, where it is today, and where it’s heading. The following story appeared just as the 2009 Native Omaha Days concluded. I spoke to a number of individuals for their take on the state of Black Omaha at a time when there is both much despair and much promise for the predominantly African American northeast Omaha community. I interviewed folks who grew up here and stayed here and those who left here but who retain deep ties here and come back for events like the Days in order to get a cross-section of perspectives on what the past, present, and future holds for North Omaha. This much discussed community, where generational problems of poverty and underachievement are rampant but where many success stories have also been launched, is finally getting the kind of attention it’s long required. Initiatives like the African American Empowerment Network are helping drive a planned revitalization that seems much closer to reality today than it did even two years ago. The role of Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be overlooked because it does bring together thousands of current and former Omaha residents whose individual and collective vision and energy are helping fuel what is about to be a major North Omaha revival. That doesn’t mean all the challenges that face that community will be eradicated overnight. It took decades for those problems and wounds to become embedded and it will take decades to heal them, and events like Native Omaha Days help give a purpose and focus to affecting change.
Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The 2009 African-American heritage celebration Native Omaha Days concluded Monday. Natives came from across America to indulge memories of this touchstone place. The biennial, week-long Days lends itself to gauging the African-American experience here — past, present, future.
Taking stock has added import with North Omaha at a tipping point. Ambitious new housing and commercial developments, job training programs, educational reform efforts and gang intervention initiatives are in the works. All in response to endemic problems of poverty and unemployment, low job readiness, poor academic performance, high dropout rates, epidemic-level STDs and ongoing drug traficking-gang violence. North O has a strong sense of identity and purpose yet struggles with scarce opportunities. The persistent challenges of segregation and inequality have led many natives over time to leave for better prospects elsewhere, but a sense of home and family keeps their ties to Omaha strong.
The Days brings thousands of natives back to meet up with friends and relatives for homecomings, large and small. Last week’s public events included: a mixer at the Native Omahans Club; a parade along North 30th Street; a dance at the Mid-America Center; appearances by NBA star Dwayne Wade and actress Gabrielle Union at North High School; and a picnic at Levi Carter Park.
Visitors helped swell the numbers at Jazz on the Green, at clubs and bars on the north side and at black church services. Celebrants were out in force too at school reunions. Then there were untold family reunions and block parties that unfolded in people’s homes and yards, in the streets, and in parks all over the city.
Northeast Omaha was jumping as visitors mixed with residents to sight-see or just kick it. Kountze Park, the Native Omahans Club, the Love’s Jazz & Arts Center, the Bryant Center, Skeets Barbecue and other haunts were popular gathering spots. Joe Tess on the south side was a popular stop. Streams of cars toured the black community’s historical corridors. Many made the rounds at post-card amenities like the riverfront, the Old Market, Lauritzen Gardend and Henry Doorly Zoo.
Nobody seems to know how many expatriates arrive for The Days. That’s a shame, as these visitors represent resources for a strapped city and state hurting from a brain drain and a small tax base. Many natives who come back are the same upwardly mobile blacks Omaha has trouble retaining, a costly decades-long trend. The city’s black population is small to begin with, so every talented native lost is felt acutely by a community with a paucity of black entrepreneurs and professionals for a city this size.
Hometown girl Felicia Webster has twice left for the East Coast but has since returned to live here with her young son. She wonders what would happen if residents collaborated with visitors on visioning new initiatives, ventures, projects, even start-up businesses aimed at reviving North Omaha.
“I feel Native Omaha Days right now is a good opportunity and a wonderful manifestation of African-American people coming together of one accord and building and talking and socializing. It would be nice to just have a really huge collective on what could actually happen with development here,” said Webster, a spoken word artist, “because, you know, people come from everywhere that are doing all kinds of things. They can bring their knowledge and tools with them to share something fresh, new and vital here. I personally would like to see that.”
What about The Days serving as a catalyst for brainstorming-networking forums that capitalize on the skill sets and entrepreneurial ideas and investment dollars of natives near and far? All geared toward building the kind of self-sufficiency that black leaders point to as the most sustainable path for black prosperity.
Nate Goldston III left Omaha as a young man and went on to found Gourmet Services in Atlanta, Ga., one of the nation’s largest food service companies. He’s doing just what Webster advocates by working with locals on stimulating new development. The self-made millionaire has been advising the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the North Omaha Development Project on the landscape for new North O investment. He’s bullish on the prospects for that long depressed district.
“I think it’s going to grow, but you’ve got to plant the seeds first and that’s what were interested in helping do with some business development there in the food service area,” Goldston said by phone from Atlanta.
He’s close to finalizing plans for a brick-and-mortar Gourmet Services backed project here to provide entrepreneurial opportunities for local African Americans.
“If we can bring this business opportunity there and put some young people in place and let them have a little piece of the action and begin to develop a franchise type operation, and then allow them to go on and grow it themselves, manage and own at the same time, that’ll bring that missing link and fill that gap in the economic development portion. At least a small portion of it,” he said.
He said it’s the kind of grassroots development that’s required. “It’s not the Chamber’s job to develop North Omaha. North Omaha needs to be developed by people from or attached to North Omaha, and the kinds of things that need to go in need to be done from within as opposed to from without.” Goldston’s impressed with the “pro-business, pro-development, pro-North Omaha” focus of the Chamber and city. “They just need the right teammates, they need the right partners to help them do it, and that’s the first time I’ve ever noticed that collaborative attitude in Omaha. I think there’s a real chance there.”
New Omaha City Planning Director Rick Cunningham, who most recently lived on the East Coast, is a native who hopes to implement Mayor Jim Suttle’s vision for a revitalized north side. “His agenda includes a strong commitment to North Omaha,” Cunningham said of Suttle. “He has a goal for 24th and Lake Street to become a new Dundee for Omaha.”
Cunningham knows first-hand Northeast Omaha’s prolonged decline. He also knows “there have been pockets of success,” including the Blue Lion Center at 24th and Lake he served as project manager for under Omaha architect and mentor Ambrose Jackson. He said most North O redevelopment has come from “investments in new rooftops, in new housing,” and while that needs to continue he said there must be a focus on creating more employable residents and attracting businesses and services that generate new jobs and commerce. “To bring Omaha into a very livable community with an environment that all residents and visitors can enjoy we’ve got to make sure we’ve got a diverse economy.”
He looks forward to being part of solutions that “return North 24 to the vibrancy it had, when 24th and Lake was the heart and soul. We will be engaged in that effort.” He looks forward to meeting with community partners from the public and private sectors to “build synergy in accomplishing those goals.” He said the city cannot afford to let North Omaha wallow. “If there is an area that suffers in Omaha than the entire city suffers,” he said. “It’s important we revitalize the core area. Those communities that are alive and thriving have inner cities that are alive.”
Goldston vividly recalls when North O had a greater concentration of black-owned businesses than it does today, but he said even in its heyday Omaha’s black community had few major black entrepreneurs.
“Omaha’s African-American community has always been job-oriented as opposed to entrepreneurial-oriented,” he said. “I see great opportunity and I see opportunity that’s been missed only because I don’t know that we’ve been blessed with a lot of entrepreneurs that have had the path or the ability to develop businesses in the area. We had the model of the bars, the nightclubs, the pool halls.”
He could have added restaurants, barbershops, beauty salons, clothing stores and filling stations. There were also black professionals in private practice — doctors, dentists, attorneys, accountants, pharmacists, architects.
Their example “gave me inspiration and hope,” said attorney Vaughn Chatman, a native Omahan who made it back for The Days from Calif. North 24th Street was once a thriving hub of black and white-owned businesses. Few, however, survived the ‘60s riots and their aftermath. Urban renewal did in more. Once the packing house and railroad jobs that employed many blacks vanished, few good-paying employment options surfaced. “My friends and I had no desire to leave Omaha until opportunities for us began to disappear,” said Chatman . “Most, if not all my friends, faced with lack of opportunity have left Omaha. My friends and relatives (still) there tell me the quality of life for them and their generation has not gotten any better despite the best efforts of a number of individuals and organizations.”
Several new businesses have popped up but many have come and gone over time. Despite some redevelopment North 24th is largely barren today.
“That positive feeling of inspiration and hope is what I miss the most about the North Omaha I grew up in,” said Chatman.
An old-line exception is the Omaha Star, a black weekly now 70-plus years strong. Founder Mildred Brown was one of America’s few black women publishers. She earned a national reputation for her crusading work during the civil rights movement. Goldston learned valuable lessons working for the Star as a kid.
“The Omaha Star was my entree to entrepreneurship,” he said. “That’s what taught me to create a marketing sense, the ability to be able to develop a customer base and customer service and the whole nine yards.”
Cathy Hughes is another Star veteran who credits her experience there and at Omaha black-owned radio station KOWH with helping give her the impetus to be a broadcast owner and eventually build her Radio One empire.
“It encouraged me to go ahead and to try to own my own radio station because I saw some folks in Omaha do it,” she said by phone from her Maryland home. “You lead by example. When you do something, you never know who you’re touching. you never know who you’re having an impact on. I saw Bob Gibson and Rodney Wead and Bob Boozer and Gale Sayers come together and buy a radio station, so I knew it was possible, and now I’m the largest black-owned broadcast corporation in America and the only African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation. None of that would have been possible if I hadn’t seen the examples I saw in Omaha, if I hadn’t seen Mildred Brown keeping her newspaper not only afloat but providing her with a very comfortable existence for that day and time.”
Hughes, like Goldston, is pleased by gains that have been made via new housing developments, streetscape improvements and the Love’s Center, but is dismayed there aren’t more Mildred Brown figures in Omaha by now. In Hughes’ estimation Omaha should be much further along than it is in black entrepreneurship.
“It has a long ways to go,” she said.
Hughes is also concerned that strong community leaders like North O developer Al Goodwin, educator Katherine Fletcher and job training director Bernice Dodd are no longer on the scene. She’s warily watching the new generation of local black leadership to assess their commitment to redevelopment.
Goldston said black businesses in Omaha are not as visible as they once were.
“Those things have all gone away,” he said, adding that Omaha “is miles apart” from the dynamic black business culture found in Atlanta. “I think other opportunities were just not there (in Omaha) at that time to start and build a business.”
All these years later, he said, few if any Omaha businesses have made the Black Enterprise 100 list of the largest African-American owned businesses.
Most black-owned Omaha businesses of any size are not located on the north side today. Out of sight, out of mind. Hard to emulate what you don’t see. “I think we flourish when we see reflections of ourselves in the community where we live,” said Webster. “And when you don’t see that, what do you have to strive for?”
Introducing students to Omaha black achievers via school curricula is something Vaughn Chatman, founder of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, advocates.
Webster presents programs in schools that attempt to expand kids’ vision. “I want them to see a bigger picture, a bigger view of the world than what they normally see, and I hope that by my being African-American young boys and girls are seeing reflections of themselves in me of what they possibly could attain,” she said.
Hughes and Goldston are concerned about the education gap that finds black students on average lagging behind whites. The truancy and drop-out rates for blacks are higher. The two are alarmed by how far Omaha’s inner city schools trail their suburban counterparts. “We’re going to have to really cure that before anybody can make any progress,” said Goldston, who’s challenged a national organization he once led, 100 Black Men, with making a difference in schools.
Webster said she was fortunate to have parents who stressed education and showed her “the world was bigger than Omaha.” Omaha’s segregation meant she would often frequent places and be the only black person there. Cathy Hughes had the same experience coming of age here. “That’s challenging,” said Webster. The first time Webster left, for Philadelphia, in the early ‘90s, Omaha was viewed as a dull place by many young people — black and white.
“A lot of my close friends did end up leaving and going to more heavily populated cities, and I think a lot of that had to do with not only wanting to explore the world but what opportunities they saw. For some, it was a larger African-American presence. For others, it was bigger metropolitan areas where you felt like you were getting paid what you were worth and could fulfill what you desired.
“Coming back this time I can see Omaha is really growing but I think Omaha is still a work in progress. I have friends with degrees who are still making $12 an hour, and I think that’s a challenge. They can’t find jobs with livable wages. And I find I’m still the only person that looks like me when I go certain places.”
Webster likes that Omaha has far more going on now than even five years ago, but she said she misses Philly’s constant slate of cultural activities and larger base of African-Americans to share them with. The big city scene “reignites” her.
Author Carleen Brice (Orange Mint and Honey, Children of the Waters) is a native living in Denver, Colo. with mixed feelings about Omaha.
“It’s always complex being from a small city and having big dreams,” said Brice. “I can’t speak for others, but I felt I needed to leave Omaha to achieve what I wanted to achieve. Part of that had to do with my specific family background. When my parents divorced, we went through some bad times and so I associate Omaha with those negative memories as well as with the positive ones.
“What I sense the most in Omaha is a kind of small thinking, small dreaming. Strange since Omaha does have a lot going for it. But I also think every city is what you make of it. I live in Denver and think it’s great, but I have friends who grew up here and feel very much like it’s a tiny, backwards city. I’ve begun to think that if I moved back to Omaha I could experience it differently, without feeling so blinded by my past.”
Still, Brice said she senses North Omaha’s quality of life is worse today. “I know my grandmother is saddened by the decline of that part of the city. My friends don’t see much improvement in how people actually interact or how they are treated, which makes them feel depressed. Back to that word depressed again. It’s sad, but true, I think Omaha is depressed.”
Beaufield Berry is a playwright and actress who’s come and gone from her hometown several times. She’s here again. She feels a big part of what holds Omaha back is its “small town ideas” that don’t readily embrace diversity. She believes North Omaha will not reach its potential until the cycle of inequity and despair is broken.
“For Omaha’s black population to really thrive I think you’ve got to start at the poverty line. You have to start at where the people may not have the role models that other kids do. You have to make it so they can see a father figure or an older brother making the right decisions.”
But Berry sees much to be hopeful about, too. “On the flip side of that I see so many amazingly talented young people of all different races who are really working towards something, who can really make a difference, not only with their work but with their words, with their presence, and I want to see more of that. I think that’s how Omaha, black or white, will start to thrive citywide.”
Webster sees Omaha progressing but like many blacks she’d like to see more done.
“I think with a collective idea and voice from all kinds people that it could kind of put a faster spark into it happening. It could manifest into something where everybody that lives here really enjoys it. I think it would be amazing.”
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Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden," "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" (a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker) "Open Wide" a biography of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, Leo Adam Biga's My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, is an online gallery of his work. The blog feeds into his Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as his Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Tumblr, About.Me and other social media platform pages.
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