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Leola keeps the faith at her North Side music shop

September 2, 2011 10 comments

 

 

Here is the promised cover profile I did on Leola McDonald, whose Leola’s Records and Tapes shop in North Omaha was an African American cultural bastion for years before she decided to close the operation. This piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared as business was appreciably slowing for her, and as the short follow up piece I posted earlier here reported, she eventually called it quits. It was no great surprise. The times were changing, and she wasn’t changing with them. She said so herself. The writing was on the wall and so it was just a matter of time.

 

 

 

 

Leola keeps the faith at her North Side music shop

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (wwwthereader.com)

 

The iridescent, rainbow-palette mural splayed across the brick west wall spells LEOLA’S in big block letters. The name on the side of the Omaha music store formally known as Leola’s Records and Tapes belongs to founder/owner Leola McDonald. Both the handle and the woman are synonymous with music on the north side.

Her small shop at 56th and Ames Avenue is where today’s beat generation heads for the latest hip hop and rap tracks, including hard to find mixes and chopped and screwed versions of hit cuts.

Bright as the colors decorating that wall is Leola’s own passion for music.

“I love music. I always have. I used to play it all. At one point in my life I even sang. I sang in the church choir,” said the former Leola Ann Francis.

A 68-year-old church lady who prefers gospel may not be what you expect behind the counter of an urban music store carrying CDs and tapes with R-rated lyrics, but that’s exactly what you get. Her operation is pretty much a one-woman show. Oh, her grandkids come by to help some, but “mostly I do it by myself,” she said.

As its sole proprietor, she’s there seven days a week. Waiting on customers. Answering the phone. Registering sales. Bantering back and forth with whoever saunters on in, some just to “conversate” with her. Others to inquire after new releases. The door bell rings and it’s a young man, Eric Miller, who’s been shopping there since he was a boy.

“Hi, Miss Leola.” “What you want, babe?” “I’m lookin’ for that CD that got, uh, Slim Thug and, um, Young Zee-Zee on it…” She searches the shelves in back of her. Another young man comes in, hawking a box-full of high-end electronic gadgets. Leola tells him, “Honey, my money’s funny and my change is strange. I’m broke.”

Whatever brings them there, she greets all with — “Hey, sweetie” or “Hey, babe” or “How ya doin’?” or “What’s up, doc?” — in a musky voice that years of cigarette smoking ruined for singing. She used to love to sing. In the Sunday baptist church choir as a youth. In church-sponsored competitions. She once dreamed of performing professionally. That was a long time ago.

“I could sing once in my life…I won every contest I got into. But I messed up my own voice. I started smoking and drinking. I was grown. I could do what I wanted to do. But didn’t nobody suffer for it but me. Now, I can’t carry a tune across the street and bring it back in one piece,” she likes to say.

That doesn’t change her passion. That’s why she’s still at her store every day when most women her age are retired.

“I love music and I love people. So, it’s easy for me. And you really have to to deal with this because you can get some fools in here, and sometimes it’s more than one, and you have to deal with ‘em,” said the Omaha native, who divided her growing up between here and Cheyenne, Wyoming, where her mother moved after splitting up with her father.

Then there’s “that crap they call rap” she feels obliged to carry. It’s what sells these days. It doesn’t mean she has to like it, though. Still, she must be familiar with the artists and their work. Like it or not, it’s what customers want.

“Yeah, I pretty much have to be up on all of it now. I don’t particularly care for it, but hey, maybe if I was these kids’ age…But I don’t think I would go in for it. To me, it’s nothin’ but noise. But different strokes for different folks,” she said.

 

In the Juneteenth parade as Grand Marshall in 2015

 

Eric Miller said despite the generation and taste gap, McDonald stocks what’s in vogue. “You can find things here you can’t find at a lot of places,” he said. Carmelette Snoddy said she prefers Leola’s for its “quality. Like with these mixed CDs,” she said, holding up a few, “you can buy them off the streets, but they’re not quality. They don’t play as good.”

Leola tries to ensure customers know what they’re getting.

“If they don’t know what something sounds like, I’ll play the music for them, so they’re not just buying something blind. I’ve always done that,” she said.

Long before rap, back when jazz, blues, R & B and soul ruled the charts, she was a respected black music source. Music buff Billy Melton of Omaha said he often relied on her opinion in compiling some of his extensive collection.

“She’s very studious. She knows music. She always had what I was looking for,” Melton said. “And she loves what she’s doing now, too. She’s been faithful to that music line. I just wish she would have stayed with the older music, but there’s no money in that. She knows I love music and she’s given me pictures and things of older artists over the years. She’s quite a gal.”

Her savvy got her a job at the Hutsut, a now defunct music store. Then an advertising salesperson with the Omaha Star, she called on the store one day. When she saw the clerks couldn’t answer customers’ questions about black music, she offered to help. The owner agreed and she so impressed him he hired her on the spot.

She and a partner soon opened their own store, Mystical Sounds. She then went solo. Leola’s followed. For a time, she ran both. For the last 30 years, just Leola’s.

While most of her store’s inventory is given over to current CDs or tapes, she reserves a few bins and racks for old-school vinyl recordings.

Her own personal collection of CDs, LPs, 45s and 8-tracks, drawn from four decades in the business, is all R & B and gospel.

Gospel music to me is like no other. I love it. Nothing compares…There’s just something about it.”

There’s another reason she opens the doors of her business daily. As a small independent, she’s squeezed by national chains and bled by music pirates. With so many under selling her, she can’t afford not to light up the neon Open sign.

“I don’t have a choice. I have to work. If I didn’t have to work, God knows at my age I wouldn’t be. I’m sure doing this for the love of it. Besides, I’m too old to go get a job. I can’t even think about it. But if push comes to shove and that’s what I have to do to survive…”

 

 

 

 

Profits are down as a result of black marketeers. Her no-return policy is aimed at pirates who buy CDs, copy for resell and bring back for a refund. “Like I tell ‘em, I wasn’t born yesterday. I was born the day before yesterday. You have too much competition from the bootleggers,” she said. “They stand on the street and they make more than I do sittin’ up here. Why, it’s not fair…I have sat up in here all day long and gone from open to close and walked out the door with $20. Before, it might have been $500-$600 in the drawer. So, there’s no comparison.”

That’s why she takes umbrage when some suggest she pack it in and rest easy on her supposed riches. “If I had the money people tell me I have I probably wouldn’t be here,” she said. “But I love to work.” It’s not as if she has a pension or retirement fund to fall back on. “No, when you work for yourself, unless you save or invest your own money, you don’t have any. And I had four kids to raise, so I didn’t do any saving,” said the twice-married, twice-divorced McDonald.

Single is something she never counted on being at 68. But things never quite worked out with the men in her life. Like any young woman coming of age in the 1950s, she bought into the happily-ever-after ideal.

“I never wanted to be (single). It just happened. Back then, you were to get married, have some kids and be happy. Well, I got married, had the kids, but damn if I was happy,” she said, laughing at herself. She takes it all in stride. “If you don’t have any regrets, you haven’t had any life,” she said.

Faith has a way of healing wounds and easing doubts. Church is where she renews herself. Mount Nebo Baptist Church is where she gives praise and worship.

“I’ve always liked church. It’s been a very short time I wasn’t in the church. Now, I go every Sunday and, if I can, Wednesdays, too. It’s just that I enjoy it so much.”

With that, she turns up the boombox on a cut from the William Murphy Project’s All Day CD. The rousing choir anthem fills the store, rising, rising…the spirit moving her to answer the call…“Oh, yes…He got it together. He got them together…”. As the words “I am trusting you, to bring me through” reverberate, she hums and sings along, swaying to the beat. Hearing the lyric — “So, all you’ve got to do is…” — she finishes it with “Be strong…”

Be strong, Miss Leola, be strong.

 

hoto ©photo from DJ Smove

Lit Fest brings author Carleen Brice back home flush with success of first novel, “Orange Mint and Honey”

July 2, 2011 12 comments

Another Omaha native writer enjoying breakout success is Carleen Brice, whose first two novels have done very well. This is the first of a few articles I’ve written about Carleen and her work. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared shortly after her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, announced her as a major new voice to be reckoned with, and she soon proved that debut novel was no fluke with Children of the Waters. More recently, the superb Lifetime Movies adaptation of Orange Mint, which goes under the title Sins of the Mother, won NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding TV Movie and for Jill Scott in the lead role of Nona. Now. Brice’s sequel to Orange Mint, which she calls It Might As Well Be Spring, is due out this summer, and she’s at work on yet another novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home.  I feel a personal investment in Carleen because her late grandfather, Billy Melton, was a vital source and good friend.  He always spoke with great pride about her accomplishments.  Go to my Billy Melton category to check out some of the stories I wrote about him and his various passions and adventures.

You can find my other Carleen Brice articles, including one about that Lifetime adaptation, by clicking on her name in the category roll to the right.  I expect I’ll be adding more pieces about her as her career continues going gangbusters. Billy’s smiling somewhere.

 

 

 

 

Lit Fest brings author Carleen Brice back home slush with success of first novel, “Orange Mint and Honey”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Denver author Carleen Brice, an Omaha native who left here after graduating Central High School in the 1980s, is getting raves for her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey (One World Ballantine Books, 2008). It follows three nonfiction books and numerous newspaper-magazine essays-articles that earlier established her as a wry observer of the African American experience and the larger human condition.

Now Brice is returning as an invited author at this weekend’s (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. That makes it sound like she hasn’t been back in awhile, which isn’t so, but now she’s riding the momentum of her novel being an Essence Magazine Recommended Read and a Target Bookmarked Breakout pick.

She’ll appear on a Saturday noon panel at the Bemis about music as an influence on writing. That’s apt as music’s a family legacy Brice inherited “by osmosis” from her beloved late grandfather, Billy Melton, or “Papa,” whose best friend was the late jazz musician and her surrogate uncle, Preston Love Sr. Her jazz-blues bassist husband, Dirk, jammed with Preston at Papa and grandmama Martha’s 50th wedding anniversary. Papa’s vast music collection led Brice to jazz singer Nina Simone. In Orange Mint Simone’s presence appears to the embittered, traumatized daughter, Shay, as a guide to find healing with her recovering alcoholic mother, Nona.

Shay, portrayed as a fan of classic jazz-blues, gets involved with a younger man she works with at a Denver music store. He schools her on contemporary artists.

Then consider Brice often uses music when writing to evoke moods she wants to convey. There’s plenty of mood swings in Orange Mint. The strained mother-daughter story is infused with pain and humor. Forgiveness walks a rocky road. The messy reconciliation between two strong wills rings true. The relationship is fiction but draws on the dynamic Brice had with her own mom. Just as Nona bore Shay as a teen, Brice’s late mother bore her at 15. Like Nona, her mom was a pistol. Unlike Nona, she was no alcoholic. Brice’s folks divorced when she was young.

“We had kind of the typical mother-daughter, love-hate so-close-that-we-drove-each-other-insane kind of relationship,” Brice said by phone. “We were more like sisters. What it’s like to have a young mom that you sort of sometimes feel like you’re raising her instead of she’s raising you comes out in the book.”

Brice’s novel never devolves into melodrama or soap opera. It satisfies and surprises in ways only a gifted writer and old soul can deliver. The book’s being adapted by a producer for a Lifetime Television movie and one hopes it’s treated with the care and sophistication it deserves. On her blog, The Pajama Gardener, a compendium of Brice’s musings about working in the earth and writing, activities she sees parallels in, the author votes for Angela Bassett to play Nona.

Nona’s passion for gardening reflects the kinds of creative, expressive outlet many black women have sought in lieu of limited opportunities for careers in the arts.

 


 

 

Orange Mint confirms the promise Brice has long exhibited as a storyteller.

Her first book dealt with African Americans and the grieving process and her next offered affirmations for people of color. More recently, she edited Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (Souvenir Press, 2003), a collection of writings by black female authors, including icons Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Niki Givoanni and Maya Angelau, that Brice put together on the subject of black women navigating mid-life. Brice contributed two pieces of her own to that well-reviewed compilation. One comments on the unrealistic expectations black women like herself face when young and how, in middle age, she’s attempted to free herself and her expressive soul from the bondage of myth.

Just don’t mistake those projects for advice column fodder. They’re much more than that. Brice writes with an eloquence and depth that put her on the same plane as the literary lionesses she shares the pages with in Age Ain’t Nothing. It’s only fitting that Brice, who grew up reading many of the very authors she’s now immortalized with, should be recognized as a serious new African American voice.

Early on she evidenced a love for the written word. “My mom liked to read,” she said, “so when I was really little I learned the joy of reading and storytelling, and I think that’s what led me to want to be a writer. I used to tell stories to other kids. I’d just make things up. I wrote my grandmother Martha stories. When I was in high school I studied creative writing. In college I studied journalism. Most of my job jobs involved writing. So it’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”

Brice no longer works a day job. She writes every day, a discipline she credits Dirk with inspiring in her. “Kind of like building my chops as a writer,” she said. “When not laying down “the bones” or “the heart” of her stories, she interacts with a literary community via book clubs, readers’ circles, writers’ groups.

She’s in-progress on a new novel, Children of the Waters, due out next July. It explores issues of race, identity and what really makes a family, she said. The story explores what happens when a pair of biracial sisters raised in separate families — one white, the other black — find each other as adults.

The author is musing with the idea of continuing Nona’s story in a future project.

Brice is among that vast exodus of blacks who’ve left this place over the years to realize their dreams elsewhere. But like many of these expatriates she’s never really left. She has lots of family and friends here. A contingent even came to Orange Mint’s release party in Denver. They’re a tight bunch and they’ll be representing at Lit Fest. They’ll have a good time, too, she said, as her “larger-than-life” family knows how to party — another legacy of sweet, ebullient Papa.

His music, she said, speaks through her.

The Sept. 19-20 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest is its usual eclectic self, with a mish-mash of events that address diverse literary themes, some with more than a wink of the eye. The BIG theme this year is Plagiarism, Fraud & Other Literary Inspiration. Fest events take place at some of Omaha’s coolest venues, including the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the RNG Gallery, Slowdown, Aromas Coffee House and the Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark branch.

Some of Omaha’s and America’s hottest writers converge for readings, panel discussions and other litnik activities. Brice fits the bill to a tee. Think of the fest as a progressive mixer for readers, authors and artists engaging in a literary salon experience — Omaha-style. A scene where laidback meets high brow. For a complete schedule visitwww.omahalitfest.com.

Novel’s mother-daughter thing makes it to the screen

October 26, 2010 2 comments

Cover of "Orange Mint and Honey: A Novel&...

Cover of Orange Mint and Honey: A Novel

Add Carleen Brice to the very long list of native Nebraskans who have found success as authors.  She plied her craft for years as an editor and journalist before taking the plunge as a novelist a few years ago, and her first two book-length works of fiction, Orange Mint and Honey and Children of the Waters, did very well with critics and audiences.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared on the eve of the Lifetime Movie Network‘s premiere of Sins of the Daughter, the made-for-television adaptation of her first novel Orange Mint and Honey.  Carleen was quite pleased with how her work was transferred to the screen.  The better-than-average Lifetime movie stars Jill Scott and Nicole Beharie as the mother-daughter figures who reconnect after years of estrangement. The pic is steeped in 12-step philosophies and principals because the mother character is a recovering addict, but the movie never steeps to cheap sentimentality or simplistic cures. It is also quite mature and real, just like Carleen’s book.  She got to spend some time on the movie’s set in Vancouver, British Columbia.  In addition to her books, Carleen is an active blogger and contributor to various online sites.  Check out her The Pajama Gardener and White Readers Meet Black Authors. You can also find her work at Girlfriends Book Club, SheWrites, and The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog.  And, of course, she’s on Facebook and Twitter.   It seems that a girl (or boy) author just can’t get by these days without putting themselves and their work out there in the social media world.

A NOTE:  Carleen’s later grandfather, Billy Melton, was a friend of mine.  On this same blog I have several stories in which I quote Billy.  One piece profiles his love of music, another recounts the experiences of Billy and his comrades in an all-black Quartermaster battalion during World War II, another has Billy and friends waxing nostalgic on the Ritz Cab Co. they drove for, and still another has Billy and others weighing in on what makes soul food, well, soul food.  I will also be adding another story I did about Carleen and her writing life.

Novel’s mother-daughter thing makes it to the screen

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha native Carleen Brice often doubted she’d complete, much less get published, her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey (One World/Ballantine). She did. It broke big in 2008 and now a Lifetime Movie Network version of it is premiering.

The movie, Sins of the Mother, stars Jill Scott and Nicole Beharie as a mother and daughter struggling to heal their broken relationship. Scott is a powerhouse as Nona, the mother in recovery from alcoholism. Beharie is intense as Shay, the resentful daughter whose childhood was stolen by Nona’s drinking and carousing.

Long estranged, the two end up living together when Shay’s unresolved turmoil sends her back home from grad school. She finds a changed woman in Nona, who works a steady job, keeps a tidy home, stays sober and cares for a new daughter, Sunny. Her 12-step recovery infuses her life — from affirmations taped everywhere to meetings to sponsorship.

It’s all too much for Shay, who’s come for an apology, not a crash course in serenity. She doesn’t buy Nona’s sobriety as real. After some false-starts she accepts Nona’s healthy transformation. The wounded Shay’s finally able to confront her own hurt and learns to trust and love again.

There are big emotional moments, especially a church scene in which Scott and Beharie tear it up. There are some small, closely observed moments, too, like in the prayer garden where Nona and Shay surrender their fears. It all rings true and cathartic, not sappy or coy. Director Paul Kaufman makes Nona’s house and garden charged characters. Sunny represents the happy child Shay never was but also the hope of her and Nona’s new lives.

Brice, who resides in Denver, is pleased how her work was translated. “I was really happy they stuck so closely to the book. I definitely feel my book is the source of the movie,” she said.

Fans of the novel would have to agree it’s a faithful adaptation, although they may quibble about some deletions. Count screenwriter Elizabeth Hunter (Beauty Shop) a fan. She tried staying true to the novel as possible.

“The book was great. If it’s rolling I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel and this one was rolling. Carleen just created all these very rich characters I hadn’t seen before,” Hunter said.

She hated losing some of the novel’s leitmotifs, such as Nina Simone appearing to Shay in moments of crisis. Hunter, like Brice, is a huge Simone devotee.

“The Nina Simone of it all hooked me into the book,” said Hunter. “Unfortunately, it was very expensive to get the rights to her music.”

Other story elements didn’t make it in the script due to time constraints, but Hunter’s satisfied “the characters and the emotions track really well.” Brice is, too, saying, “I feel very good about how the screenwriter and everyone involved approached this adaptation.”

Brice visited the movie’s Vancouver, British Columbia set, where as an extra she anxiously watched the crucial church scene filmed.

“It was THE big scene in the story, so, yes, I was worried about it,” said Brice. “But I also had always thought of it as the scene that would attract movie people. It’s meaty, you know? It was the last scene they filmed with Jill so it was really special for many reasons to be a part of it.”

In an essay Brice’s written for thedefendersonline.com she describes a coming-full-circle experience of listening on her iPod Scott sing “Try” prior to meeting the Grammy-winning singer and star of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The same song and message carried Brice through the angst of writing the novel. Seeing Scott and Beharie bring it to life moved her to tears.

The author writes she once steeled herself at the thought of others interpreting her work by repeating, mantra-like, “The book is mine, the movie is theirs.” By the end of the shoot she’d changed her mind to the point where “the movie feels like it’s mine, too.”

Brice’s acclaimed 2009 novel, Children of the Waters (One World/Ballantine) is being considered for a movie adaptation. Might she adapt it herself? “I would consider it, but I understand that adapting is more difficult than it seems. We’ll see.”

Her in-progress novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home, is about a woman long estranged from her father who becomes close with his widow.

As for “her” movie, Brice will be watching with a Denver book club that won a contest she sponsored. She’s bringing champagne.

Cool Cat Billy Melton and the Sportin’ Life

July 1, 2010 2 comments

Cropped screenshot of Count Basie and his band...

Image via Wikipedia

The late Billy Melton began as a source for my writing-reporting on aspects of African-American culture in Omaha and he ended up being a friend.   Like my late father, Billy was a World War II veteran.  Some 35 years my senior.  As a black man from an earlier generation Billy lived a very different life than I had as a white Baby Boomer, yet he never made those differences a barrier in our relationship.  Rather, he used his life experience as an instructional point of departure for sharing lessons he’d learned. There were many.

I quoted Billy in several stories I wrote over the years.  One of these stories, Omaha’s Sweet Sixteen, focused on the Quartermaster battalion he served in during the war.  You can find that article on this blog site under the Military and African American categories or by doing a search with the key words, “Sweet Sixteen” or “Billy Melton.”  The site also contains a piece, Puttin’ on the Ritz, that tells the story of the black owned and operated cab company Billy drove for, Ritz Cab. Search for the article by its title or in the African-American and Entrepreneurial categories.

The article presented here, Sportin’ Life, explores Billy’s passion and one might say magnificent obsession with music, and more specifically, with collecting it.  Through his friendship with the late jazz musician Preston Love, Billy got to meet several jazz legends, which resulted in signed photos of these icons.  He was in his early 80s when I did tise piece and he was much concerned about what would happen to his massive collection of records, tapes, and memorabilia when he was gone.  He tried finding an institution that would accept the many thousands of items meticulously shelved and displayed in his basement.  Though there was much interest, he could never secure a deal because he wanted compensation in return for the collection, and the museum officials he talked with didn’t have an acquisitions budget that could accommodate his demands.  He also wanted assurance his collection would be kept on view and made accessible for the the general public, which was another condition officials found hard to make any promises about given the size of Billy’s collection.

Billy passed before anything was done with his collection.  It still occupies the basement of the home he and his widow shared.  Martha would like nothing more than to carry out Billy’s wishes and find a permanent repository for the collection. I’ve also has the distinct pleasure of getting to know his granddaughter, Carleen Brice, a fine novelist you’ll find my blog posts about on this site.

photo

Dreamland Ballroom

 

Cool Cat Billy Melton and the Sportin’ Life

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The sportin’ life is what Billy Melton’s lived the better part of his 82 years. This party animal has haunted the best night clubs and after hours spots from here to Philadelphia. He’s seen the great entertainers perform. Wherever he’s gone, he’s hobnobbed with friends and stars. And, always, music — the subject of a lifetime collecting hobby — has been part of the action.

“I loved the social life. I had so many great friends out there. I was out roaming around the country, drinking, gambling, enjoying the single man’s life. All the time, adding to my collection and getting enjoyment out of music,” he said.

Even after settling down as a family man, music remained his overriding interest. But it’s more than that for this gregarious man. “Music’s a passion of mine. I love it. I love it all. And I’ve collected it all,” said Billy. No where is his ardor expressed more than in the distinctive musical notes detailing on his silver Chevy Caprice and in the showplace and archive he’s made his home. His modest Omaha residence houses a music collection of staggering size and breadth. He hopes it goes to a museum.

The music room in his basement is a glittering, overstuffed assemblage of music collectibles, novelties, instruments, records, tapes, eight-tracks, photos, posters, album covers and books. One of his two prized juke boxes sits there. Every inch of the floor, wall and ceiling is adorned with a musical motif, whether tiles decorated by music symbols or CDs hanging like Christmas ornaments. Another juke box shares space in an adjoining room with the washer and dryer. The bulk of the collection rests in a specially-built room just off the attached garage. Here, a maze of stacks, bins, trees and shelves hold tens of thousands of LPs, 45s, discs and tapes that encompass a world of musical styles, periods and performers, but with a special emphasis on jazz, blues, soul and Motown.

There are collections within the larger collection, including extensive, if not complete, sets of recorded works by such artists as Count Basie, his No. 1 idol.

Where It All Began
The Omaha Technical High School graduate traces the spark of his passion to the Kansas Vocational School he attended two years in Topeka, Kansas. There, in the late 1930s, he first listened to the seductive sounds of great musical artists, black and white alike. In fact, his original collection began with a Bing Crosby platter. Back in Omaha, where Billy was born and raised, his family was too poor to afford a radio. In Topeka, he scrounged up enough scratch to buy himself, first, a crystal set and, then, a Philco radio, which he listened to late at night in his dorm room. Picking up broadcasts from as far away as Chicago and New York that featured the great swing, jazz and blues bands of the day, he was hooked. “We listened to that music every night,” he said. “It just sounded so good.”

The Metropolitan Hall in Topeka is where he first saw Basie. The experience made him a fan for life. “I loved his music and his dynamic personality. He just lit up the house. He took it to another level. If you don’t like his music…” Well, then, let’s just say you’re not copacetic in Billy’s eyes.

As a young hep cat, Billy immersed himself in the music of the day. He fell for Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Lunceford, Gene Ammons, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Jackie Wilson, Billy Eckstein, The Inkspots and others. “So many great talents. After I set to collecting these artists, I made it a point to go see them,” he said.” That early taste of Basie whet his appetite for more. He caught Basie, Ellington, Calloway, Hampton, Cole, Charles, et all, performing live on Omaha’s then-jumping live music strip on North 24th Street and at its many downtown theaters.

“As far as the big bands,” he said, “we didn’t have to go to Kansas City. They were right here in Omaha. Twenty fourth and Lake was nothing but music. Did you hear what I said? This was a fun-loving, musical town. We knew how to party.”

In Omaha, Jimmy Jewell’s Dreamland Ballroom was the mecca. “Oh, you had to go to the Dreamland.” Ask who he saw there, and he retorts, “Who didn’t I see there?” In a scrapbook, he has ticket stubs from some of the countless nights he let his hair down there in the ‘50s. The names read: Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Johnny Otis, Wynonie Harris, the Orioles and the Nat Towles territory band. “Sometimes, I’d stand there with my mouth wide open watching those guys perform.”

Jewell, Billy said, “knew music,” and had connections to book whistlestop gigs by touring performers traveling between K.C. and Chicago. As often noted by the late jazz musician and author Preston Love, who was a close friend of Billy’s, Omaha was ideally situated to attract top entertainers due to its central location, the presence of five major booking agencies and a happening live music scene.

The music wasn’t just confined to the Dreamland, either. “Musicians got together and jammed…every night. Local musicians and out of town musicians. Even the big names — Lionel Hampton and all those guys. After they’d get done playing, they’d come out north to the bars and after hours places and jam,” Billy said. Those informal improv sessions unfolded at juke joints named the Apex, the Blue Room, the M & M, Bob and Mary’s Chicken Hut, the Showcase and the Backstreet. “The whites used to come out here and enjoy that,” he said.

Big Fat Swingin’ Fun
When not hitting night spots, Billy hosted them. He and the late Nate Mills ran a gambling emporium out of different North O sites. His partner had the bar and Billy the dice and card games. The illicit thing finally grew old. Too many raids. Too many knives and guns pulled on him. “I ran into some ticklish situations where it was life and death. Finally, it got to the point where I said, ‘I’m going to have to roll away. It’s not worth it.’ And I pulled out.” Besides, he’d married “a church lady,” the former Martha Hall, who only tolerated his hijinks so much. Together now 52 years, the couple entertained like nobody’s business. It was always open house at their place for the steady stream friends and relatives passing through town.

Native Omaha Days found the couple throwing an epic bash. Jukeboxes played outside, where partygoers danced, liquor flowed and laughter resounded. Stories grew embellished with each round. Martha’s home made soul food fed the throng.

“It was a music thing,” he said. “Everybody just wanted to hear music.”

His memories of these high times always include “the people we shared them with” and the music they digged together. Music is associated with virtually all the fun in Billy’s life. By the time he and Martha were hitched, they began traveling the country, by car, for vacations that lasted three to six weeks at a time. Their itinerary might include such hot spots as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Wherever they went, they had friends, and whenever they could, they caught music acts at swank clubs or partied the nights away at after hours joints.

Sports, another spectator’s-collector’s passion of Billy’s, was usually part of the mix, as the couple took in a pro baseball or football game here. Billy saw play, in their prime, such major league baseball greats as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie McCovey. He saw National Football League legend Johnny Unitas quarterback the Baltimore Colts versus the Detroit Lions. In his own expansive backyard, where a hoop was set up, athletic prodigies — from Gale Sayers to Marlin Briscoe to Johnny Rodgers — strutted their stuff in pick up games. Bob Boozer and Oscar Robertson visited.

But Billy wasn’t home long. When not working two jobs, as a Union Station janitor by day and Ritz cabbie by night, he prowled the night — indulging in games of chance. He was also a shoe shiner, messenger, mail handler, waiter and bell hop. The extra dough supported his wife and three kids and underwrote his fun. “You can’t smoke cigars, drink, gamble, travel, raise three kids and help grandkids through college on an ordinary salary. Working two jobs still wasn’t enough for the life I wanted to live,” said Billy, whose gambling earnings made up the difference. “I could always hustle some money. God gave me that energy to fulfill my dreams.”

He was also fortunate to have a friend, John Goodwin, and brother-in-law, Charles Hall, whose Fair Deal Cafe was a fixture on North 24th, he could go to for loans.

Doin’ the Town
Traveling’s no luxury, but a lifestyle component for Billy, who “just can’t sit at home.” He and Martha drove old Highway 6, en route to Chicago, via Des Moines, where they got down with friends. In ChiTown, they hooked up for a ball game at Wrigley Field before a night on the town. “They knew when we got there we were ready to have fun. That’s what it was all about,” he said. One north side spot they hit was the Archway Lounge, owned by “Killer” Johnson. “We’d almost spend all our money in Chicago before we got to Detroit.”

Doin’ it up right, he, Martha and Co. dressed to the nines for pricey outings. “Once, we went to the most exclusive place in Chicago — the Blue Note. Lionel Hampton was playing. By the time we paid the cover, ordered a round of drinks and had our pictures taken, we’d spent $80. It takes money to live.” At his irrepressible best, Billy sauntered over to Hampton to request a favorite tune, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” During a break in his set, Hampton joined the Meltons’ table, which Billy has a picture of, before returning to the band stand. After recognizing the Omaha party, he proceeded to play a jumpin’ rendition of the song.

Ebullient Billy has never been shy approaching celebrities. After shows, Basie  (“regular”), Calloway (“jovial”) and Hampton (“nice”) joined Billy and his bunch into the wee hours. Comedian turned-activist Dick Gregory “stayed up all night” with Billy’s crew. Billy cozied up to boxing legends Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Frazier. He’s got autographs of countless stars from the worlds of entertainment and athletics, with most of the signatures scrawled on $1 bills.

Native Omaha Club, photo by Lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

Once, at a surprise birthday bash for his wife, he got comedian Red Foxx, then appearing in Omaha, to stop by. “He was the life of the party,” Billy said. “Down and dirty.” Billy’s penchant for music gained him entree into some privileged ranks. Preston Love arranged for Billy and Martha to attend private parties headlined by Count Basie and Fats Domino on the same night. “That was the most exhilirating night.” On one occasion, Love, a sideman with Basie in the ‘40s, brought Basie over Billy’s house. A photograph recording the visit hangs in Billy’s music room. Another time, Love had Billy join he and the Count on stage at the Orpheum Theater.

“Everybody knew I loved music,” Billy said, “and it led to lots of connections.” He even carried some of his music along with him on road trips in response to friends asking that he bring certain recordings they liked.

A Collector’s Dream
His collecting began in 1939. By the time he went off to serve in the all-black 530th Quartermaster Battalion in World War II, his holdings were significant. After tours of duty in North Africa, Italy — where he and his GI buddies enjoyed operas — and the Pacific, he returned home, only to find his albums warped from lying flat. Undaunted, he began collecting anew. “I really got serious after the war. I started buying records 90 miles a minute. Forty or fifty at a time,” said Billy, who spent a third of his $7 a week salary on music.

He purchased so many records at one music store, Lyon and Healey, that shop owner Bill McKenzie advised him to invest in a reel-to-reel recorder and tape player. It set him back $600 and took him five years to pay off. Then, from one music lover to another, McKenzie told Billy he could have his pick of any records in the store to transfer over to tape — for free. Over six or seven years, Billy estimates he brought home thousands of records that he put on tape. He “knows what’s on every tape” and cartridge, too, thanks to a catalog he’s prepared.

Hard-pressed to choose any aspect of his collection over another, he’s proudest of “the magnitude of it” and the fact it’s “not just one kind of music.” Despite not playing an instrument,he professes “an ear for music.” He even calls the best of rap “genius,” though it’s not his idea of music. Wife Martha Melton can attest to Billy’s wide-ranging tastes. “There is no form of music he does not love. He just loves music, period.” Indeed, his collection encompasses big band, jazz, blues, soul, gospel, spiritual, pop, rock, funk, classical, opera, international. She says he’s well-deserving of his self-proclaimed Doctor of Music degree. Eclecticism aside, it’s still “the black music” he “turns to” for personal pleasure. He favors “the old timers,” by which he means the big bands and vocalists of his youth. “They could do it all. Their charisma made them stand out above the rest.” And, for Billy, Basie’s in a league of his own. “If you feel down, his music will lift you up. Just that rhythm and beat in unison.” Play Basie’s “One O’clock Jump,” and he’s in heaven.

Like many music devotees, he prefers old wax records to CDs. “It’s the real thing. It takes you back. I like the scratches and the noise. You can almost see the guys.”

Billy wishes he could properly display his wares. “The only disappointment I have is I don’t have enough space to have everything in the same room, where I could appreciate it.” He’s looking for the right venue to preserve his treasures and use them as educational resources for the public. Dealers have tendered offers. He hopes a local museum, preferrably one with a black emphasis, makes him a deal. So far, he’s had preliminary talks with officials from one center about it being the home for his stuff. A potential hangup is the matter of compensation. “My life is in here,” he said. “I just can’t give away my life.”

Like the music of his life, Billy’s a swingin’ cat with few regrets. “My wife and I have done everything. There’s nothing we haven’t enjoyed from the fruits of our labor. The only sad part is we’ve lost so many of our friends that enjoyed life, too.”

Billy, who fashions himself a homespun philosopher, has one more thing to say about music. “If people could get along and blend together in harmony like these musicians do, oh, man, would this be a great world to live in.”

Puttin’ On the Ritz, Billy Melton and the crew Rrcall the Ritz Cab Co.

June 18, 2010 3 comments

This is another of the many stories I’ve filed on aspects of Omaha‘s African-American culture, in this case a retrospective piece on a long defunct black owned and operated taxi company, Ritz Cab.  An old of age but young in spirit gentleman by the name of Billy Melton, who’s now gone, drove for Ritz, and one evening I interviewed Billy and some of his old Ritz cronies for the story.  I enjoyed the way they swapped tales in a mood of sweet nostalgia.  The story originally appeared in the New Horizons. Look for a related post in which I write about an Omaha theater company‘s production of August Wilson‘s play Jitney, which refers to the gypsy or illegal cabs that were and still are a presence in many inner cities.

Puttin’ On the Ritz, Billy Melton and the crew recall the Ritz Cab Co.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

With his snappy uniform cap, neatly pressed shirt, swank leather jacket and polished silver badge, Ritz Cab Company driver Billy O. Melton cut a jaunty figure behind the steering wheel of his gleaming new Chevrolet Bel Air sedan in the 1950s. Gliding down North 24th Street, he either raced to his next call or else coasted along knowing he could have his pick of fares from the throng of people shopping, strolling or spilling out of the district’s many night spots in search of a good time.

In an area teeming with activity, Ritz cabs always seemed to be where the action was and customers could always hail one with a wave, a whistle, a shout or a knock on the cab’s side window. Or, you could always call to order one. In what were heady times then, the North 24th strip jumped from dusk to dawn and Ritz Cab did a hopping business as the largest black owned and operated taxi line in Omaha.

Dedicated to providing speedy, polite service, Ritz cabbies carried themselves with a certain swagger. It had to do with their pride in being part of a brotherhood of black men (although some women and non-blacks were included among their ranks) banding together to forge a successful business on their own terms.

When Ritz Cab shut down in 1969 after 30 years of running hacks, it marked the end of an important but little known African-American enterprise in Nebraska. At the company’s peak in the 1950s, it was reputedly the largest black employer in north Omaha, boasting a crew of several dozen full and part-time drivers for a fleet of 30-plus taxis. Additionally, it employed a full-time mechanic and several operators and dispatchers. At a time when segregation still ruled, the company covered not only the north side but all parts of Omaha and the surrounding metro area as well.

Recently, some Ritz veterans, led by the irrepressible Melton, reunited to recall their days tearing up the streets around town as taxi men. Each spoke of a fierce devotion to his fellow drivers, to the job, to the company and to the brothers who started it all, the late Reuben and Chesley Pierce.

The Pierces, including a third brother named Claude, hailed from Jonesville, Texas. Facing hard times, they followed the great black migration up north around the time the Great Depression began. Reuben and Claude came first, followed by Chesley. It was Chesley who founded the family cab company in 1940 and, after serving in the U.S. Navy during the war, he continued as owner-operator of the business, which was located at 24th and Patrick, with his brothers. In Ritz’s final years, ownership passed to Chesley’s son, the late Chesley Pierce, Jr., under whose aegis it finally closed.

During Ritz’s heyday, Reuben and Chesley managed the business on a day to day basis and, like true entrepeneurs, “they put everything they had into it,” said Elgie Woods, one of Chesley’s daughters. “They were very dedicated to it. When they put their mind to something, they did it,” added Kathleen Pierce Greer, whose father was Reuben.

Those who knew them say the brothers were country folks with a penchant for wearing overalls and for abiding by down home principles. They possessed strong but opposite demeanors, with Reuben the loud, formidable enforcer and Chesley the quiet, mild-mannered appeaser. “Daddy had a rumbling, deep voice. It was a commanding voice,” said Pierce Greer. Freddie Judson, who began driving for Ritz in 1954, said, “Reuben would slap you down with a harsh word and Chesley would pick you up with a soft word.” Or, as longtime Ritz cabby John Butler put it, “Reuben would set you straight and then Chesley would make peace. There was a certain atmosphere set by those two that kept us all in line. Those two personalities made the system.”

Men being men, Ritz drivers needed some disciplining too. Judson tells of the time the cabbies disobeyed orders by breakfasting en mass at a local eatery where the coffee was hot, the food filling and the jukebox played all day long. While the men unwound inside, their cabs were parked around the joint — out of service, costing the Pierce brothers money. When Reuben found out where the men were holed-up, he taught the guys a lesson by going to the diner and driving, one-by-one, each cab back to the Ritz garage, forcing the embarrassed drivers to walk back to the garage to fetch their vehicles. The ringleaders behind the breakfast brigade were suspended for three days. Then, Judson said, there were those occasions when a cabby had celebrated too much the night before and was in no condition to drive, leaving Reuben to lay down the law with a simple but effective edict — “park it” — meaning you were off the streets until you sobered up.

The brothers were also known for being fair.

“They’d give anybody a job,” said Billy Melton, who drove for Ritz from 1948 until its demise. Melton said where Chesley was willing to tolerate the men dipping into the day’s take or collecting fares off the meter– as long as they eventually made good — Reuben was not so inclined. The way it was supposed to work was drivers got 40 cents out of every dollar, with the rest going to the brothers, but cabbies often helped themselves to more. “It was his (Chesley’s) money, but it was yours too because you had first count. Invariably, we’d check in short, but we tried to make it up before payday,” Melton said. But, when it came to Reuben, he added, “You didn’t mess with his money. He was looking for his money every morning. None of the guys would drive for him because they knew they had to turn in all their cash. But those brothers never fired anybody. They just took it out of your salary. A lot of times payday would come and a lot of drivers didn’t have anything coming.”

That’s because “they’d already got theirs,” said Stanley Pierce, whose father was Claude.

 

 

The lure of fast and easy bucks is why many of the men kept coming back year after year. “Fresh money every night. That was the bottom line. You came to work broke and you knew you’re going to make some money. On the first drive you’re going to make some money,” Melton said. Because most runs were short, fares usually ranged from as little as 35 to 55 cents. Therefore, men depended on tips to get by. Getting a dollar bill for a 35 cent fare and hearing the words “Keep the change” was music to their ears. “It all added up,” Melton said. “If you ran $20 (in tips) you had a spectacular day.” He and his cabby cohorts said the best tippers included packinghouse workers and railroaders. But there was a downside to handling all that loose change. As fast as it came in, it went out just as fast too. “It’s hard to save money when you’re making money every night,” Melton said.

For many years Ritz enjoyed a steady cash flow by nearly cornering the north Omaha taxi market. The big cab concerns — Yellow, Checker, Safeway — catered primarily to a white clientele. Ritz’s main competition on its home turf was United Cab Co., another black owned and operated firm, and the large number of unlicensed jitney or gypsy cab services then operating. According to Pierce family members and former Ritz drivers, it was the illegal jitneys, which operated off the books and outside state insurance, transportation and tax regulations, that eroded Ritz’s market share and eventually forced it out of business.

When it was still a thriving district, just the North 24th Street corridor alone provided Ritz with all the traffic it needed. “On Friday-Saturday nights we couldn’t handle the business right here in north Omaha. We had to run and hide from people. We were that busy,” Melton said. “Ninety-nine percent of our business was black.” Even Sundays brought a steady flow of customers. “On Sunday mornings, when we took people to church, we were booming,” said Butler, whose wife Juanita is one of Chesley Pierce’s daughters. “We were zip, zap, zip…I mean, we never stopped until church was over. You might carry 50 people.”

But it was Friday-Saturday nights when things really exploded. The district’s sidewalks and streets overflowed with patrons of its many theaters, clubs, bars, restaurants, pool halls, gambling dens, rooming houses and more unmentionable hangouts. The traffic continued all through the night and, unlike today, pedestrians and drivers felt safe. “We’d sit and park with the window down  — with a pocketful of money — and go to sleep, and nobody would bother us,” Melton said.

Half the battle for any cabby, he said, is being well-acquainted with the city and its various virtues and vices. “To be a cab driver, you have to know the city. When a guy got in your cab and said, ‘I’m new in town, where can I get a good meal? or Where can I get a drink? or Where can I have some fun?’ — you had to know. As cab drivers you got around. You saw the whole town.” As Butler said, “We knew every place. There was nothing we didn’t know about. If you were a cab driver and they wanted to know where something was going on, we could tell you.”

Evenings brought out a special breed of merrymakers. “Some people just don’t want to go to bed. Those are night people. All they want to do is drink, eat, hang out and have fun. There were a lot of temptations out there,” Melton said. Whether it was wine or women or barbecue these night owls sought, Ritz cabs transported people back and forth to venues that stayed open all night long.

Then there were those occasional lusty passengers who could not resist giving into passion while the meter was still running. “A lot of cab drivers didn’t want that, but those people paid well. Sometimes you were in a position where you didn’t know it was happening. And then, when you did, what were you going to do? You couldn’t put ‘em out. They hadn’t paid yet. So, you pulled into an alley or somewhere to be discreet,” Melton said.

Sometimes, cabbies were put in the indelicate position of ferrying mates who, unbeknownst to the other, were stepping out for a night on the town with someone else.

“You’d be surprised how many times I took a man to a spot and his wife to the same spot, but with someone different. I’d have to rig it so I took one back and picked the other one up without them running into each other,” Freddie Judson recalled. Melton recalled that “the worst scenario you got into was when a good friend of yours would ask, ‘Hey Billy, I notice my wife called a cab — where did you take her?’ Right away I would say, ‘Look, you’re a friend of mine. Now, suppose your wife called me and said, ‘Where did you take my husband?’ You know, what’s good for the gander, is good for the goose.”

Like bartenders and barbers, cabbies are privy to people’s private intrigues. The Ritz drivers heard a litany of heartache tales from folks fighting the blues.

“They told you all their problems,” Judson said. “Sometimes, you’d pick up a man and he wouldn’t be goin’ no particular place. He just wanted to ride and somebody to talk to about his woman troubles. Nine times out of ten he had a bottle back there. ‘C’mon, take a drink with me,” he’d say. And I might take a little sip, just to satisfy him. He just wanted somebody to listen to him.” Melton said he sometimes had no choice but to imbibe if he wanted his money. “I had guys who wouldn’t pay me unless I drank with them. Hey, that was all right.”

 

 

 

 

 

Because a cabby is a kind of amateur counselor whom people let their hair down around and pour their souls out to, they are entrusted with secrets they are wise not to reveal.

“A cab driver has got to keep his mouth shut. He knows too much,” Melton said.

Butler credits Melton with taking “me under his wing” and showing “me the ropes” when it came to maintaining confidentiality.

“One of the important things Billy said was, ‘Now, if you want to make money in this business you’ve got to learn how to take care of your customers, and whatever they tell you — don’t repeat it to anyone else.’ I got more customers that way, too, because I would never repeat what I heard. I got customers personally calling for me because I kept my mouth shut. I never forgot that.”

In a business where service was and still is the name of the game, virtually every Ritz driver cultivated their own stable of customers who, when needing a cab ride, specifically requested them. The better service you provided, the more personal calls you got. “I had so much business that when I came to work in the morning I would have 10 personal calls I had to make before I even took a call from the dispatcher,” Butler said. “We’d have customers call back for us every time,” Stanley Pierce added.

Melton said enough trust developed between cabbies and their frequent fares that payment was often deferred until they scraped up enough cash. “We had regular fares we took to work every morning, and sometimes they’d be short of cash until the weekend. They paid us when they got paid,” he said.

Ritz drivers prided themselves on going the extra mile. “We gave good service. We knew how to treat the public,” said Butler. “It was just known we were going to get out of the cab and carry your groceries or your luggage for you. People would tip you when you did that.” Stanley Pierce said, “We’d even carry your groceries in the house and put ‘em on the counter too.”

In what Melton said was an often “thankless job” devoid of health insurance benefits and looked down on as a kind of last resort for undesirables, the men of the Ritz Cab Company never forgot they were, in fact, “public servants.” The dignity they felt for themselves and the job they performed was reflected in the slick appearance they came to be known for.

“The image you projected helped a lot,” Melton said, “and we were always clean and well-dressed. We had uniforms, but not all of us could afford them. You could wear your own clothes, as long as they were neat and clean, but we all wore the cap and our badge. One of our drivers, Bill Smith, would come to work every day with a white shirt and black tie. And I don’t care how many orders were waiting, he would take a rag and wipe his cab off and sweep it out.”

Besides their spiffy appearance and super service, Ritz cabbies were known for one more thing — their fast driving. This was particularly true before two-way radios were installed when, after completing each run, a cabby had to return to Ritz headquarters to get his next order, meaning he was racing the clock and his mates. “We had to drive fast to get back and get another order. We drove fast to make some bucks,” Butler said. Between their careening through town, overturning an occasional cab and causing some accidents, Ritz cabs came to be jokingly called “death wagons,” Butler said. “People got out of the way when we were coming.”

 

 

 

 

Outside their lead feet and their various high jinks, drivers were expected to follow a rigid code of conduct, which the more experienced hands imparted to newcomers. It was all part of the esprit de corps the men say they felt and this tight bond saw them through many rough spots.

“The cab drivers were together with one another, they helped one another, they taught one another and they looked after one another,” Butler said. “That was the bottom line — the unity we had together.”

For Melton, “it was a family thing…a brotherhood.” Judson described it this way: “If something happened to one of us, it happened to all of us. If one Ritz cab got in a problem, you would have every other Ritz cab there in 10 minutes.”

Butler can attest to that: “I remember one time in about 1956 I ran into a car at 24th and Clark and the other driver…a big guy…jumped on me,” he said. “I’ll bet we weren’t there 10 minutes fighting and fussing before half the cab stand was there. I don’t know how they knew it, because we didn’t have radios then, but they stopped the fight.”

Melton recalls how once two-way radios were installed many altercations were averted by drivers radioing their comrades for aid. “A lot of times people had been drinking and they gave you a bad time. They didn’t want to pay or they wanted to fight. And we’d just get on the horn and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem,’ and they’d all come. We were protective of each other. It was a family affair.”

The predominately black Ritz drivers say they were subjected to name calling and other slights because of the color of their skin. Although by law Ritz was constrained to operate on the north side, the company routinely ignored those boundaries to taxi fares all around town. It was a common practice and usually the authorities looked the other way. But sometimes drivers found themselves unwelcome outside some of Omaha’s posher hotels or restaurants, and police might show up “to bother us,” Butler said.

The Ritz men were also persona non grata with the major cab lines, which for a long time were segregated outfits. Where the Yellow, Checker and Safeway lines had reserved spaces in cab stands outside the train and bus stations and airport terminal, Ritz did not, but the enterprising Ritz men still found a way to snare their share of fares, which upset the competition. Ritz veterans say that as time wore on and attitudes changed, they finally got their due.

“Finally, the other cab companies gained respect for us,” Melton said, “because so many people gave us their business. They didn’t bother us anymore.” For Butler, it meant “the barriers started breaking down.”

Perhaps the biggest drawback to driving for Ritz was the long hours, as the men generally worked 12 hour shifts. “I think the worst part about driving a cab is you’re away from your family a lot,” Melton said. According to Butler, many relationships suffered under the strain, adding that he and Melton and Judson were lucky enough to have understanding wives. “The only reason any of us stayed married is we had a good woman who tolerated us.”

If there is one thing the men miss about their days behind the wheel it is the interaction they had with all kinds of people. As Melton said, “You never knew who was going to get in your cab.” Once, Butler said he found himself carting around Fats Domino. Judson said he gave Dean Martin a tour of Omaha during a stopover the crooner-actor had here. Celebrities aside, Butler said, “I liked the chance it gave me to meet new people all the time.” He used the contacts he made driving hacks to forge a career as an insurance agent. “I enjoyed meeting different people,” echoed Stanley Pierce. “We had fun.” Amen, the others chimed in.

Finally, the men feel it is important their story and the story of the Ritz Cab Co. be remembered. Why?

“Because it’s history,” Billy Melton said. “We laid the groundwork for young people today. We did a good job too. It’s a shame, but a lot of young people don’t even know what came before them.”

To put it in perspective, John Butler recalled a Pierce family reunion three years ago at which family members dressed-up a car to look like a Ritz cab and drove it in the Native Omaha Days parade along the very North 24th Street strip the taxi line served. “You  should have seen the response that got. When people learned about there having been a black cab company here, they were amazed.”

A Soul Food Summit

May 31, 2010 4 comments

Black-eyed peas with ham hock and pepper vinegar

Image via Wikipedia

The following story reminds me I’m getting older because some of the people quoted in it are gone now and the soul food cafe it’s set in is no more.  I wrote the piece a few years into my coverage of Omaha‘s African American community.  I had been introduced to the Fair Deal Cafe a few years before and because I loved soul food I decided to convene an informal “Soul Food Summit” there with the joint’s owner and head cook, Charles Hall, and a few of his cronies. Two men who become valuable sources and favorite profile subjects of mine, Preston Love Sr. and Billy Melton, joined us, along with their mutual friend, Mae Williams.  All were well-established figures on Omaha’s north side.  The idea was to talk about what makes soul food soul food over lunch at the Fair Deal. Nothing earth-shaking came out of the experience, but I really like the piece for trying to get at an authentic slice of culture. Another reminder of  the decade that’s passed since this “Soul Food Summit” is that the newspaper the story originally appeared in, the Omaha Weekly, is no longer around.

A Soul Food Summit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly, a now defunct alternative newspaper

If you want to know the heart and soul of Black Omaha, then head to the Fair Deal Cafe at 2118 No. 24th Street. There, in a nondescript building that is a throwback to the past, the cultural traditions of a proud people are celebrated and the ties of a rich community renewed. And it all revolves around food.

Standing like a-tried-but-true testament to old times, the Fair Deal serves the most authentic soul food in town. Calorie counters beware venturing to this mecca of soul, as no short-cuts are taken in preparing its genuine high fat, comfort food. A typical meal includes a plate of tender greens, beans or black-eyed peas swimming-in savory meat juices. Moist corn bread muffins melt in your mouth. Chops, chitlins and sirloin tips are browned in their own fat and slow-cooked to succulent perfection. Braised ham-hocks, pig’s feet and ox tails fall apart in delectable morsels. Thick gravies ooze pan dripping goodness. Candied sweet potatoes have that light, yet gooey made-from-scratch texture. From stew and chili to eggs and grits, it features well-seasoned food with an accent on big, bold flavor.

Like the decor, the prices seem left over from another era, with most meals costing well under $6. Just don’t expect a menu at lunchtime. You see, the owner and chef the past 47 years, Charles Hall, only opens for lunch and breakfast these days and he caters to so many regulars that he offers a small rotating selection of entrees and sides that old customers know as well as the waitresses. The place, which is virtually unchanged since it opened sometime in the 1940s (nobody is exactly sure when), is one of those hole-in-the-wall eateries steeped in history and character. During the Civil Rights struggle it was commonly referred to as “the Black City Hall” for the melting pot of activists, politicos and dignitaries gathered there to hash-out issues over steaming plates of food. While not quite the bustling crossroads or nerve center it once was, a recent visit found a faithful crowd of blue and white collar diners whose table side and counter top discussions ran the gamut from blues legend Johnny Otis to Omaha police officer Jerad Kruse.

 

 

However much times or issues change, the main bill of fare at the Fair Deal remains the same. Indeed, for cafe veterans like Mae Williams, the vittles there remind her of the grub she grew up with on her family’s farm in Muskogee, Oklahoma. “This restaurant right here cooks soul food like I remember it. Identical,” she said. According to regulars like Williams, Preston Love and Billy Melton, all of whom have been eating there for decades, the Fair Deal is the last of the once numerous north Omaha restaurants featuring this food of love. For them, it provides a satisfying connection to a fondly remembered past. “Soul food to me is a warm feeling,” Williams said. “When I smell greens or beans or hocks cooking, it takes me back to my roots. It takes me back to a warm childhood feeling.” Yes, this just may be the original comfort food.

For soul food devotees, it all boils down to flavor. Lots and lots of flavor. It is a Southern-derived flavor that blacks migrating to the north brought with them in the early part of the last century. Hall, whose parents hailed from Arkansas, has strived hard replicating the exact taste he recalls sampling in his mother’s cooking. “My mother was an excellent cook. Down through the years I have tried to get the taste and the flavor that my mother had, and I have found it some,” he said. “I use the stock from smoked meat (ham hocks, etc.) for seasoning greens and beans. I add salt, pepper and garlic powder. I slow cook those greens and beans in that broth, simmering them for hours. That’s one of the primary methods to get that soul food flavor we remember from down south. That’s the essence of it.”

Scholars agree the south is the birthplace of soul food and that its originators were slaves who made discarded hog parts, including organs and entrails, the base of this indigenous style of cooking. Slaves found endlessly creative ways of infusing these fatty but tasty scraps with sharp seasonings and then combining the meat with more nutritious ingredients derived from African culture (rice, beans, yams).

For Mae Williams, soul food is “a survival food” devised by a people desperate to feed their large, hard-working families. She admires the ingenuity of ancestors who, from the refuse of others, concocted a hearty and versatile cuisine that has endured for centuries. She said making delicious meals out of cheap staples is how poor black families got by during hard times. Hall said the low cost food has allowed generations of homemakers to stretch slim budgets. “My mother could take a little and make a big meal out of it.” Ironically, he said, once scorned items like chitlins have acquired delicacy status and now command steep prices. Billy Melton added, “It’s not just for making do with. It’s good food. Why do you think we still eat it?”

Today, the food itself has become a repository for old values and traditions harkening back to when families ate together at the same table. Sitting down to a soul food feast means enjoying a slice of black heritage too quickly passing-by.

“It’s our culture. We are conscious of this,” said Preston Love Sr., an Omaha musician and author (A Thousand Honey Creeks Later). The 79-year-old Love decries the scant interest young blacks pay to birthrights like jazz and soul food. “So many young blacks have been Americanized and Anglicized that they don’t know anything about their roots. They’re missing everything. That’s our heritage.” That’s why, he said, “it’s essential” to have the Fair Deal around to keep these traditions alive.

He said a soul food repast there is like a reunion of “brothers and sisters under the skin.” For Love, soul food is a direct expression of the zestful black experience. “I think the term ‘soul’ was first applied to us as a people to describe the feeling of our expressions and attitudes and language. It means a lot of heart and a depth of feeling. It refers to the pathos in our expression, musically and colloquially. It was probably first applied to black musicians, denoting they had a lot of soul. Later, it became applied to food with lots of flavor and a particular type of flavor identified with blacks. One of the key things in it is pork.” Like so much of southern cuisine, he said, pork fat “rules” here, too.

In keeping with soul food’s peasant roots, the 80-year-old Hall eschews printed recipes and precise measurements in preparing his signature dishes. From day to day he may add a dash more of this and that or try some new variation depending on his whim or a sudden burst of inspiration. That way, his product is constant without ever being exactly the same.

 

 

 

 

According to Love, that genius for spontaneity is a hallmark of blacks in any number of creative endeavors — from music and dancing to cooking. In the case of soul food, he said, necessity became the mother of invention for blacks forced to make a banquet from the meager stores and resources allotted them. “The limitations we lived under gave birth to these embellishments and improvisations. That’s what we did. We were masters of embellishment. Our cooks improvised by adding a little something — maybe some red pepper here or some garlic there — to get that flavor we craved.”

“You want to know the secret of soul food?” Billy Melton, 78, asked a visitor. “It’s slow cooked,” said the retired railroad man and brother-in-law of Hall. “Don’t rush soul food. This is the most important thing about it.” Indeed, everyone at the Fair Deal concurs it is the combination of piquant ingredients and their slow cooking over low heat that gives the food its deep, distinctive tang. Williams said the deeply imbued flavors arise in part from liberally seasoning dishes with aromatics at the beginning of the cooking process rather than waiting till the end. Further enhancing the flavor is the omnipresent pork fat. Adds Williams, “Anytime there’s fat in food, it’s going to taste good.”

As nutrition advisor supervisor for the Douglas/Sarpy County Extension Cooperative Service’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education unit, Williams and her staff of nutritionists work with many low income black residents to devise healthier versions of classic soul food dishes. Because many blacks suffer from high cholesterol and hypertension, her focus has been on cutting fat, calories and sodium in staple foods like sweet potato pie and collard greens. In pie fillings, she substitutes skim for whole milk and margarine for butter and in pie crusts replaces lard with vegetable oil. With greens, she uses de-fatted meat broth and limits the number of ham hocks per serving. She said the program has won over many seniors.

“We’ve gotten a lot of people to change eating habits. We don’t try to take these foods away from them, because black Americans want that taste. Instead, we show new ways to cook that cut out the fat. It’s never going to taste as good though.”

Hall has made some health conscious concessions over the years by reducing the fat content in his dishes. Old customers like Preston Love wouldn’t want him to go too far, however. “You’re going to get fat anyway, so why not enjoy it? Get all the flavor you can. Flavor to the end.” Amen.

The Fair Deal Cafe is open for breakfast and lunch Tuesdays through Fridays and for breakfast only on Saturdays. Call 342-9368 for details.

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.

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