Social movements are part of the American fabric. Black Lives Matter (BLM) began in response to violent deaths of African-Americans. It now addresses all systemic inequities and disparities affecting blacks. Some Omaha BLM activists believe the disfrachisement that holds back many blacks in the U.S. is a root cause of blue on black, black on blue and black on black violence. BLM is a platform for activists to engage such issues. But these activists don’t want all the energy behind BLM to be expended only on protests and dialogue sessions. They want BLM efforts to spur change that improves social conditions, police-community relations, law enforcement practices and policies. so that as concerned citizens they won’t have to still be holding rallies a decade or two from now but can count on elected officials and lawmakers to do the right thing.
Black Lives Matter: Omaha activists view social movement as platform for advocating-making change
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the September 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Borne from outrage over violent African-American deaths, the grassroots Black Lives Matter movement espouses a social action platform to end systemic violence against and mass incarceration of a people. BLM’s loose-knit activists advocate diverting funds from militarized to community policing and to supporting quality of life indicators.
All this resonates across the nation, In Omaha, tensions exist between the African-American community and police and gaps persist in black health, education, housing and employment. BLM activists here and elsewhere have inserted themselves into the political process through protests aimed at disrupting the status quo and campaigns raising awareness about social injustice. This movement without a leader or structure is a catalyst for citizens getting involved to address issues.
The Reader spoke with local BLM activists whose voices are engaged in various public forums.
Michelle Troxclair, ©photo by Bill Sitzmann
Nebraska Writers Collective deputy director Michelle Troxclair has long railed against perceived wrongs, including wrongful killings. She’s seen initiatives come and go..”In all this protesting we have to have a unified message of what we want – that we are not disposable people. Throughout our history we have been considered everything from chattel to cattle, and based on studies I’ve seen not much has changed. So Black Lives Matter represents our voice that we deserve respect and basic human rights guaranteed in the constitution – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“The movement’s about self-love and self-empowerment as well as making systemic changes. I’ve seen it in the way black men and women wear their hair, dress and walk. I look at our young people and they are not apologetic for their blackness.”
She likes BLM’s strong language.
“There’s a war on terror, a war on drugs and to that extent, yes, there’s a war on black people. To maintain power and notions of superiority you have to eliminate the competition through education, dehumanization, emasculation and economic means. This is how you completely decimate a community.”
Poet Allen Stevenson said, “I definitely support the movement expressing frustration over the brutality.” He and others have their say on heavy topics at open mic nights.
Musician Dominique Morgan, co-administrator of the Omaha BLM page, said despite differences “our blackness is what unites us. We cant allow division. That’s what will hinder us in the long run – folks trying to appropriate a whole movement.”
Troxclair’s organized and attended rallies, held signs, spoken her mind. She’s drafted and circulated a petition of demands. Now she wants others to assume the mantle.
“When I look back at how long i’ve been doing this and nothing’s changed, I’m ready to pass the baton to others on the front-lines. I feel like my calling is as a poet with a microphone – that’s where I think I can make the most difference.”
Dominique Morgan, ©photo by Bill Sitzmann
Until BLM, Morgan’s activism was confined to LGBT rights but he said, “This the first time I’ve seen a movement where my sectionalities as a gay black man meet. These identities that so strongly represent who I am made it doubly important for me to be aware and also to have a voice in what’s happening, especially in a place I call home. I realized I have a stake in this. It made me go harder in advocating for black folks.
“This movement is waking people up.”
Art educator Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru awakened years ago and uses BLM to reach disaffected youth.
“When I work with kids I try to teach them to question things and not to accept everything they’re told – to keep searching for the whole truth and story and needing to move with purpose.”
Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru
She said BLM provides a vehicle to discuss “absent narratives about black life and history,” adding, “There are certain systemic racist powers that prefer it to look like our contributions don’t matter and that hyper showcase negative aspects and issues to deconstruct or denigrate black lives.”
BLM’s emboldened her to speak out. At a recent public hearing she advocated the city budget fund mandatory anti-bias, diversity and mental health training for police.
Gaines Liwaru said BLM must not be just media fodder or a stage for a few. “The movement continues whether televised or not because we have solidarity for a cause. But I see it fizzling out if people don’t do behind-the-scenes rallying to demand the reform within policies. We can’t assume someone else will carry the torch for justice … at hearings or in elections. Rallies won’t mean change or justice – unless we show up to have a say.”
Stevenson said, “I applaud what the movement is doing because people are standing up and making life uncomfortable. The racism discussion is being had. When you have a group feeling suppressed for an extremely long time, something has to give. That frustration and rage needs to go somewhere and that’s where it’s happening.”
Minister Tony Sanders said, “If this emotion is not channeled in the right direction, you will have continued civil unrest or rogue individuals taking the opportunity to further divide us instead of unite us.”
Stevenson said it’s hard remaining calm after a new blue on black incident claims another victim. “Even if there’s an investigation, the determination is there’s no crime and we’re left with nothing except to stew on that frustration,” he said. “Then the next thing happens and the cycle continues. How much of that can you really stand?”
He gets that BLM is a platform for people to vent or debate, but, he said, “once you create this discussion, what do you next? I would like to see something different. It can’t be just like the same old.”
“My hope is our collective voices speaking about the injustices of our people will migrate into calls for action and overdue change,” said Voice Advocacy founder-director Clarice Jackson. “I believe we are seeing that happen now and will see more of this in the future.”
Dominique Morgan said, “There are fires going. We have to fan it to make it grow stronger.”
Some are not waiting for change. Thirty-something social entrepreneur Ean Mikale is running for mayor with the slogan, “Be the change.”
Maurice Jones with Hillary Clinton
Seventeen-year-old Maurice Jones, vice chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party Black Caucus, is running for the Omaha City Council.
“I hope my candidacy will inspire others my age to enter public life,” said Jones, adding that he wants to amplify the voices of people who go unheard by the political system.
On the streets, Stevenson said blacks face real fears of being profiled. “If you get pulled over by the police, you tell yourself, ‘Survive through this – cooperate.’ But there are people who cooperated and still faced horrible fates. For us to have to teach this extra element is stressful because you have to confront some of your worst fears over something that shouldn’t even be. I think of my sons and I’m like, I need you to live.”
Rev. Sanders confronts fear head-on in town halls he hosts called S.O.S. (Saving Our Sons).
“The first installment, ‘The Talk,” taught African-American males how to interact with law enforcement should they encounter them,” he said. “No one ever had that conversation with me. I had to learn it the hard way. That’s more common than not.”
Michelle Troxclair bemoans the lengths she must go to to instruct her son on what to say and do should he be detained.
“I’m resentful white mothers don’t have to have these conversations. It’s not a question of cops doing their jobs or good cops versus bad cops, – it is the innate belief some officers have when they enter into an encounter with African-Americans.”
She asserts some officers are prone to overreact because they assume blacks are threats. She acknowledges that’s not the whole story. “All officers are not bad people. I learned that when I coordinated the Michael Brown protest. I had bail money in the glove compartment of my car. Instead, I was met with kindness and great cooperation.”
Sanders calls for unity from the pulpit and the street. He’s part of coalitions working with police to remedy alleged discrimination.
“We’re standing, working and moving forward together for there to be a change in policing,” Sanders said. “There has to be more transparency and accountability. We’re working on specific things to make that action and change a measurable, tangible reality. We’re sitting down saying, OK, what can we do to resolve this issue? How do we learn to coexist?
“There will never be equality if there’s a segment of the population not viewed as equal. How do I change that in you? I can’t legislate that. No policy can make you see me as equal. We have a tendency to be afraid of and treat differently about which we don’t understand. It requires we get together so we learn about each other. Then our fears dissipate and we look at each other from a humane perspective.”
He’s planning table talks to discuss elephants in the room like black on black crime.
Clarice Jackson said, “For some, BLM is solely about the wrongful deaths of blacks at the hands of law enforcement but as a mother who lost her daughter, Latecia Fox, to gun violence this applies to black on black violence as well. Black on black crime is a huge issue of concern and I feel just as passionately about the injustice of it and the families it hurts as I do when some police officers feel they have the right to be judge, jury and executioners of black people.”
Until action-based change results, expect BLM’s social critique that freedom still hasn’t been fully won to continue.
It’s funny how things once considered taboo, unthinkable, and unlawful become accepted practices. if not by everyone (Where is there one hundred percent consensus on anything?) then by the vast majority of us. Gay marriage is certainly one of those societal shifts. As the gay rights movement took hold and most of us came to terms with the fact that we have gay individuals in our lives whom we like or love or respect, ideas about same sex unions moved the public and private needle about this basic human and civil right little by little until what was thought impossible became practical, fair, lawful, and right. This is a piece I did about the women who became the first legally sanctioned same sex married couple in Douglas County, Nebraska.
Kathy “Scout” Pettersen and Beverly Reicks
Equality and love win
The kiss sealing their I-do’s graced the Omaha World-Herald’s front page and many other media platforms.
The couple, who share a home in Benson, waited years for legislation to catch up with public opinion They kept close tabs on the same-sex marriage debate. The morning their lives changed Pettersen was at The Bookworm, where she manages the children’s department, and Reicks, National Safety Council, Nebraska president and CEO, was getting blood work done at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
After hearing initial reports of the court reaching a decision, Reicks joined Pettersen at the bookstore. Once the 5-4 ruling in favor of marriage equality was confirmed, the pair drove to the courthouse for a license. Surrounded by hungry media, supportive staff and friends, they opted for an impromptu civil ceremony.
“We were greeted just with an abundance of joy and happiness,” Reicks says. “It was just really cool.”
“The reception was really warm. Everyone smiling and congratulatory. Lots of hugs from people I’d never met. It kind of made up for the disappointment I experienced in Neb. in 2000,” Pettersen says, referring to voters passing Initiative 416 prohibiting same-sex unions.
“It was troubling people thought certain people should be without civil rights,” Reicks says of the status quo that prevailed here.
Nebraska District Court Judge Joseph Battalion twice ruled the ban unconstitutional. A state appeal resulted in a stay that left gay couples in limbo until this summer’s milestone federal decision.
The couple’s friend, County Clerk Tom Cavanaugh, paid for their license. More friends witnessed the proceedings.
“We were just really honored so many people came through for us,” Pettersen says. “It was just really wonderful.”
“It was beyond what I ever imagined,” Reicks adds.
With the paperwork signed, Chief Deputy Clerk Kathleen Hall nudged the pair to give the media a marriage to cover. Pettersen and Reicks obliged. The lights, cameras and mics made for a surreal scene.
“I felt like I was in a whirlwind,” Pettersen recalls. “I felt like a celebrity,” Reicks says.
After basking in applause and cheers, the newlyweds answered reporters’ questions. Congrats continued outside. The couple celebrated with friends and family at La Buvette and Le Bouillon.
“It was an all-day, into-the-night celebration,” Pettersen says. “Lots of toasting.”
Reasons to celebrate extended to finally being accorded rights long enjoyed by opposite sex couples. Pettersen has an adopted daughter, Mia, and Reicks says, “Now she’s truly my step-daughter.” Recently filling out joint documents, Pettersen says, “I checked the married box for the first time without any hesitation or doubt. That was a very big deal to me. I couldn’t stop smiling it felt so good.”
Reicks reminds, “We owe a debt of gratitude to the plaintiffs who took these cases where they needed to go. They were brave enough to come forward and take up the challenge. We took advantage of the moment they created.”
“We reaped the benefits of their hard work,” Pettersen says. “I never thought I would see this in my lifetime. I do feel like we’re a part of history.”
Contrary to opponents’ fears, Reicks says, “The world did not come to an end because some gay and lesbian couples got married.”
Pettersen says It just all proves “love wins.”
Got a call out of the blue yesterday afternoon from an 86-year-old man in Omaha. He’s a retired Jewish American retailer. He’d just finished reading my November Reader cover story about The Education of a WASP and the segregation issues that plagued Omaha. He just wanted to share how much he enjoyed it and how he felt it needed to be seen by more people. Within a few minutes it was clear the story also summoned up in him strong memories and feelings having to do with his own experiences of bigotry as a Jewish kid getting picked on and bullied and as a businessman taking a stand against discrimination by hiring black clerks in his stores. One of his stores was at 24th and Erskine in the heart of North Omaha and the African-American district there and that store employed all black staff. But he also hired blacks at other storees, including downtown and South Omaha, and some customers were not so accepting of it and he told them flat out they could take their business elsewhere. He also told a tale that I need to get more details about that had to do with a group of outsiders who warned-threatened him to close his North O business or else. His personal accounts jumped from there to serving in the military overseas to his two marriages, the second of which is 60 years strong now. He wanted to know why I don’t write for the Omaha World-Herald and I explained that and he was eager to hook me up with the Jewish Press, whereupon I informed him I contributed to it for about 15 years. I also shared that I have done work for the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society. It turns out the man who brought me and my work to the attention of the Press and the Historical Society, the late Ben Nachman, was this gentleman’s dentist. Small world. I also shared with him why I write so much about African-American subjects (it has to do in part with where and how I grew up). Anyway, it was a delightful interlude in my day talking to this man and I will be sure to talk with him again and hopefully meet him. He’s already assured me he will be calling back. I am eager for him to do so. It’s rare that people call me about my work and this unexpected reaching out and expression of appreciation by a reader who was a total stranger was most appreciated. That stranger is now a friend.
Here is the story that motivated that new friend to call me about:
White people don’t know shit about black people.
That’s an oversimplification and generalization to be sure but it largely holds true today that many whites don’t know a whole lot about blacks outside of surface cultural things that fail to really get to the heart of the black experience or what it means to be black in America. That was certainly even more true 50 years ago or so when the events described in the 1970 book The Education of a WASP went down. The book’s author, the late Lois Mark Stalvey, was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and thus WASP Omaha homemaker in the late 1950s-early 1960s when she felt compelled to do something about the inequality confronting blacks that she increasingly became aware of during the civil rights movement. Her path to a dawning social consciousness was aided by African-Americans in Omaha and Philadelphia, where she moved, including some prominent players on the local social justice scene. Ernie Chambers was one of her educators. The late Dr. Claude Organ was another. Stalvey talked to and learned from socially active blacks. She got involved in The Cause through various organizations and initiatives. She even put herself and her family on the line by advocating for open housing, education, and hiring practices.
Her book made waves for baring the depths of her white prejudice and privilege and giving intimate view and voice to the struggles and challenges of blacks who helped her evolve as a human being and citizen. Those experiences forever changed her and her outlook on the world. She wrote followup books, she remained socially aware and active. She taught multicultural and diversity college courses. She kept learning and teaching others about our racialized society up until her death in 2004. Her Education of a WASP has been and continues being used in ethnic stiudies courses around the country.
A WASP’s racial tightrope resulted in enduring book partially set in 1960s Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
When a liberal, white middle-class couple with young kids moved to Omaha from Chicago in the late 1950s they entered this city’s weirdly segregated reality, not uncommon in almost every American city. It was not as public or overtly violent as the segregation in the former Confederate states of the South, but it was no less impactful on the African-American communities in Northern states. Homemaker Lois Mark Stalvey was a former advertising copywriter who once owned her own agency. Her husband Bennett Stalvey was a Fairmont Foods Mad Man.
The Omaha they settled into abided by a de facto segregation that saw blacks confined to two delineated areas. The largest sector, the Near North Side, was bounded by Cuming on the south and Ames on the north and 16th on the east and 40th on the west. Large public housing projects were home to thousands of families. In South Omaha blacks were concentrated in and around projects near the packing plants. Blacks here could generally enter any public place – a glaring exception being the outdoor pool at Peony Park until protestors forced ownership’s hand – but were sometimes required to sit in separate sections or limited to drive-thru service and they most definitely faced closed housing opportunities and discriminatory hiring practices.
This now deceased couple encountered a country club racist culture that upheld a system designed to keep whites and blacks apart. Neither was good at taking things lying down or letting injustices pass unnoticed. But she was the more assertive and opinionated of the two. Indeed, son Ben Stalvey recalls her as “a force of nature” who “rarely takes no for an answer.”
“She was stubborn to accept the accepted norm in those days and that piqued her curiosity and she took it from there,” he says. “She had grown up in her own little bubble (in Milwaukee) and I think when she discovered racial prejudice and injustice her attitude was more like, What do you mean I can’t do that or what do you mean I have to think that way? It was more just a matter of, “Hell, no.”
Though only in Omaha a few years, Stalvey made her mark on the struggle for equality then raging in the civil rights movement.
The well-intentioned wife and mother entered the fray naive about her own white privilege and prejudice and the lengths to which the establishment would go to oppose desegregation and parity. Her headstrong efforts to do the right thing led to rude awakenings and harsh consequences. Intolerance, she learned here and in Philadelphia, where the Stalveys moved after her husband lost his job due to her activism, is insidious. All of which she wrote about in her much discussed 1970 book, The Education of a WASP.
The title refers to the self-discovery journey she made going from ignorance to enlightenment. Blacks who befriended her in Omaha and in Philadelphia schooled her on the discrimination they faced and on what was realistic for changing the status quo.
Among her primary instructors was the late black civic leader and noted physician Dr. Claude Organ and his wife Elizabeth “Betty” Organ and a young Ernie Chambers before his state senator career. In WASP Stalvey only sparingly used actual names. The Organs became the Bensons and Chambers became Marcus Garvey Moses.
A Marshall, Texas native and graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans, Claude Organ was accepted by the University of Texas Medical School but refused admittance when officials discovered he was black. The state of Texas paid the tuition difference between UT and any school a denied black attended. Organ ended up at Creighton University and the state of Texas paid the extra $2,000 to $3,000 a year the private Jesuit school cost, recalls Betty Organ.
His civil rights work here began with the interracial social action group the De Porres Club led by Father John Markoe. Organ became Urban League of Nebraska president and later advised the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). He was on the Catholic Interracial Council board and Mayor’s Biracial Committee.
“He built a lot of bridges,” son Paul Organ says.
Betty Organ got involved, too, supporting “any group that had something to do with making Omaha a better place to live,” she says.
So when Stalvey was introduced to the Organs by a black friend and determined to made them her guides in navigating the troubled racial waters, she couldn’t have found a better pair.
Stalvey met Chambers through Claude Organ.
Chambers says “This woman detected I was somebody who might have some things to offer that would help give her what she called her education. And when I became convinced she was genuine I was very open with her in terms of what I would talk to her about.”
Though it may not seem so now, Chambers says the book’s title was provocative for the time. WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which defined Stalvey’s background, but racism was rampant across ethnic and religious lines in White America.
“WASP was a term that not everybody to whom it applied embraced. So by using that title she caught people’s attention.”
Ernie Chambers educating Pastor William Youngdahl in “A Time for Burning”
But he admired the “substance” behind the sensation. He admired, too, that the vitally curious Stalvey asked lots of questions.
“I never got the impression as used to happen when I was interviewed by white people that she was ‘studying’ me like a scientist in a lab would study insects. She genuinely was trying to make herself a better person and I think she succeeded.”
This ever apt pupil threw herself into The Cause. Her son Noah Stalvey says, “I can remember meetings at the house. She had a lot of the movers and shakers of the day meeting there. Her goal was to raise us in an environment of tolerance.”
“At times it was lively,” says Ben Stalvey. “There wasn’t much disagreement. We knew what was going on, we heard about things. We met a lot of people and we’d play with their kids.”
All par for the course at the family home in Omaha’s Rockbrook neighborhood. “It wasn’t until well into my teen years I realized my parents were fighting the battle,” Noah says. “I just thought that’s what all parents do.”
His mother headed the progressive Omaha Panel for American Women that advocated racial-religious understanding. The diverse panelists were all moms and the Organ and Stalvey kids sometimes accompanied their mothers to these community forums. Paul Organ believes the panelists wielded their greatest influence at home.
“On the surface all the men in the business community were against it.
Behind the scenes women were having these luncheons and meetings and I think in many homes around Omaha attitudes were changed over dinner after women came back from these events and shared the issues with their husbands. To me it was very interesting the women and the moms kind of bonded together because they all realized how it was affecting their children.”
Betty Organ agrees. “I don’t think the men were really impressed with what we were doing until they found out its repercussions concerning their children and the attitudes their children developed as they grew.”
Stalvey’s efforts were not only public but private. She personally tried opening doors for the aspirational Organs and their seven children to integrate her white bread suburban neighborhood. She felt the northeast Omaha bungalow the Organs occupied inadequate for a family of nine and certainly not befitting the family of a surgeon.
Racial segregation denied the successful professional and Creighton University instructor the opportunity for living anywhere outside what was widely accepted as Black Omaha – the area in North Omaha defined by realtors and other interests as the Near North Side ghetto.
“She had seen us when we lived in that small house on Paxton Boulevard,” Betty Organ says. “She had thought that was appalling that we should be living that many people in a small house like that.”
Cover of the book “Ahead of Their Time: The Story of the Omaha DePorres Club”
Despite the initial reluctance of the Organs, Stalvey’s efforts to find them a home in her neighborhood put her self-educating journey on a collision course with Omaha’s segregation and is central to the books’s storyline. Organ appreciated Stalvey going out on a limb.
Stalvey and others were also behind efforts to open doors for black educators at white schools, for employers to practice fair hiring and for realtors to abide by open housing laws. Stalvey found like-minded advocates in social worker-early childhood development champion Evie Zysman and the late social cause maven Susie Buffett. They were intent on getting the Organs accepted into mainstream circles.
“We were entertained by Lois’ friends and the Zysmans and these others that were around. We went to a lot of places that we would not have ordinarily gone because these people were determined they were going to get us into something,” Betty Organ says. “It was very revealing and heartwarming that she wanted to do something. She wanted to change things and it did happen.”
Only the change happened either more gradually than Stalvey wanted or in ways she didn’t expect.
Despite her liberal leanings Claude Organ remained wary of Stalvey.
“He felt she was as committed as she could be,” his widow says, “but he just didn’t think she knew what the implications of her involvement would be. He wasn’t exactly sure about how sincere Lois was. He thought she was trying to find her way and I think she more or less did find her way. It was a very difficult time for all of us, that’s all I can say.”
Ernie Chambers says Stalvey’s willingness to examine and question things most white Americans accepted or avoided was rare.
“At the time she wrote this book it was not a popular thing. There were not a lot of white people willing to step forward, identify themselves and not come with the traditional either very paternalistic my-best-friend-is-a-Negro type of thing or out-and-out racist attitude.”
The two forged a deep connection borne of mutual respect.
“She was surprised I knew what I knew, had read as widely as I had, and as we talked she realized it was not just a book kind of knowledge. In Omaha for a black man to stand up was considered remarkable.
“We exchanged a large number of letters about all kinds of issues.”
Chambers still fights the good fight here. Though he and Claude Organ had different approaches, they became close allies.
Betty Organ says “nobody else was like” Chambers back then. “He was really a moving power to get people to do things they didn’t want to do. My husband used to go to him as a barber and then they got to be very good friends. Ernie really worked with my husband and anything he wanted to accomplish he was ready to be there at bat for him. He was wonderful to us.”
Stalvey’s attempts to infiltrate the Organs into Rockbrook were rebuffed by realtors and residents – exactly what Claude Organ warned would happen. He also warned her family might face reprisals.
Betty Organ says, “My husband told her, ‘You know this can have great repercussions because they don’t want us and you can be sure that because they don’t want us they’re going to red line us wherever we go in Omaha trying to get a place that they know of.'”
Bennett Stalvey was demoted by Fairmont, who disliked his wife’s activities, and sent to a dead-end job in Philadelphia. The Organs regretted it came to that.
“It was not exactly the thing we wanted to happen with Ben,” Betty Organ says. “That was just the most ugly, un-Godly, un-Christian thing anybody could have done.”
Photos of the late Dr. Claude Organ
While that drama played out, Claude Organ secretly bought property and secured a loan through white doctor friends so he could build a home where he wanted without interference. The family broke ground on their home on Good Friday in 1964. The kids started school that fall at St. Philip Neri and the brick house was completed that same fall.
“We had the house built before they (opponents) knew it,” Betty Organ says.
Their spacious new home was in Florence, where blacks were scarce. Sure enough, they encountered push-back. A hate crime occurred one evening when Betty was home alone with the kids.
“Somebody came knocking on my door. This man was frantically saying, ‘Lady, lady, you know your house is one fire?’ and I opened the door and I said, ‘What?’ and he went, ‘Look,’ and pointed to something burning near the house. I looked out there, and it was a cross burning right in front of the house next to the garage. When the man saw what it was, too, he said, ‘Oh, lady, I’m so sorry.’ It later turned out somebody had too much to drink at a bar called the Alpine Inn about a mile down the road from us and did this thing.
“I just couldn’t believe it. It left a scorch there on the front of the house.”
Paul Organ was 9 or 10 then.
“I have memories of a fire and the fire truck coming up,” he says. “I remember something burning on the yard and my mom being upset. I remember when my dad got home from the hospital he was very upset but it wasn’t until years later I came to appreciate how serious it was. That was probably the most dramatic, powerful incident.”
The former Organ home in Florence where a cross was burned.
But not the last.
As the only black family in St. Philip Neri Catholic parish the Organs seriously tested boundaries.
“Some of the kids there were very ugly at first,” Betty Organ recalls. “They bullied our kids. It was a real tough time for all of us because they just didn’t want to accept the fact we were doing this Catholic thing.”
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Daughter Sandra Organ says, “There were some tensions there. Dad would talk about how to handle these kind of things and to take the high road. But if they used the ‘n’ word we had an opportunity to retaliate because you defend your honor as a black person.
“An older neighbor man didn’t particularly like black people. But his grandson was thrilled to have these five boys to play with, so he became like an extra person in the family. The boy’s family was very kind to us and they kind of brought the grandfather around.”
Betty Organ says things improved with parishioners, too. “It got to the point where they got to know the family and they got to know us and they kind of came around after a few years.”
Sandra says when her brother David suffered severe burns in an accident and sat-out school “the neighborhood really rallied around my mom and provided help for her and tutoring for David.”
Stalvey came from Philadelphia to visit the Organs at their new home.
“When she saw the house we built she was just thrilled to death to see it,” Betty Organ says.
In Philadelphia the Stalveys lived in the racially mixed West Mount Airy neighborhood and enrolled their kids in predominantly African-American inner city public schools.
Ben Stalvey says, “I think it was a conscious effort on my parents part to expose us to multiple ways of living.”
His mother began writing pieces for the Philadelphia Bulletin that she expanded into WASP.
“Mom always had her writing time,” Ben Stalvey notes. “She had her library and that was her writing room and when she in the writing room we were not to disturb her and so yes I remember her spending hours and hours in there. She’d always come out at the end of the school day to greet us and often times she’d go back in there until dinner.”
In the wake of WASP she became a prominent face and voice of white guilt – interviewed by national news outlets, appearing on national talk shows and doing signings and readings. Meanwhile, her husband played a key role developing and implementing affirmative action plans.
Noah Stalvey says any negative feedback he felt from his parents’ activism was confined to name-calling.
“I can remember vaguely being called an ‘n’ lover and that was mostly in grade school. My mother would be on TV or something and one of the kids who didn’t feel the way we did – their parents probably used the word – used it on us at school.”
He says the work his parents did came into focus after reading WASP.
“I first read it when I was in early high school. It kind of put together pieces for me. I began to understand what they were doing and why they were doing it and it made total sense to me. You know, why wouldn’t you fight for people who were being mistreated. Why wouldn’t you go out of your way to try and rectify a wrong? It just made sense they were doing what they could to fix problems prevalent in society.”
Betty Organ thought WASP did a “pretty good” job laying out “what it was all about” and was relieved their real identities were not used.
“That was probably a good thing at the time because my husband didn’t want our names involved as the persons who educated the WASP.”
After all, she says, he had a career and family to think about. Dr. Claude Organ went on to chair Creighton’s surgery department by 1971, becoming the first African-American to do so at a predominately white medical school. He developed the school’s surgical residency program and later took positions at the University of Oklahoma and University of California–Davis, where he also served as the first African-American editor of Archives of Surgery, the largest surgical journal in the English-speaking world.
Claude and Betty Organ
Sandra Organ says there was some queasiness about how Stalvey “tried to stand in our shoes because you can never really know what that’s like.” However, she adds, “At least she was pricking people’s awareness and that was a wise thing.”
Paul Organ appreciates how “brutally honest” Stalvey was about her own naivety and how embarrassed she was in numerous situations.” He says, “I think at the time that’s probably why the book had such an effect because Lois was very self-revealing.”
Stalvey followed WASP with the book Getting Ready, which chronicled her family’s experiences with urban black education inequities.
At the end of WASP she expresses both hope that progress is possible – she saw landmark civil rights legislation enacted – and despair over the slow pace of change. She implied the only real change happens in people’s hearts and minds, one person at a time. She equated the racial divide in America to walls whose millions of stones must be removed one by one. And she stated unequivocally that America would never realize its potential or promise until there was racial harmony.
Forty-five years since WASP came out Omaha no longer has an apparatus to restrict minorities in housing, education, employment and recreation – just hardened hearts and minds. Today, blacks live, work, attend school and play where they desire. Yet geographic-economic segregation persists and there are disproportionate numbers living in poverty. lacking upwardly mobile job skills, not finishing school, heading single-parent homes and having criminal histories in a justice system that effectively mass incarcerates black males. Many blacks have been denied the real estate boom that’s come to define wealth for most of white America. Thus, some of the same conditions Stalvey described still exist and similar efforts to promote equality continue.
Stalvey went on to teach writing and diversity before passing away in 2004. She remained a staunch advocate of multiculturalism. When WASP was reissued in 1989 her new foreword expressed regret that racism was still prevalent. And just as she concluded her book the first time, she repeated the need for our individual and collective education to continue and her indebtedness to those who educated her.
Noah Stalvey says her enduring legacy may not be so much what she wrote but what she taught her children and how its been passed down.
“It does have a ripple effect and we now carry this message to our kids and our kids are raised to believe there is no difference regardless of sexual preference or heritage or skin color.”
Ben Stalvey says his mother firmly believed children are not born with prejudice and intolerance but learn these things.
“There’s a song my mother used to quote which I still like that’s about intolerance – ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’ – from the musical South Pacific.
“The way we were raised we were purposely not taught,” Ben Stalvey says. “I wish my mother was still around to see my own grandchildren. My daughter has two kids and her partner is half African-American and half Filipino. I think back to the very end of WASP where she talks about her hopes and dreams for America of everyone being a blended heritage and that has actually come to pass in my grandchildren.”
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
Stalvey’s personal chronicle of social awareness a primer for racial studies
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
With America in the throes of the 1960s civil rights movement, few whites publicly conceded their own prejudice, much less tried seeing things from a black point of view. Lois Mark Stalvey was that exception as she shared her journey from naivety to social consciousness in her 1970 book The Education of a WASP.
Her intensely personal chronicle of becoming a socially aware being and engaged citizen has lived on as a resource in ethnic studies programs.
Stalvey’s odyssey was fueled by curiosity that turned to indignation and then activism as she discovered the extent to which blacks faced discrimination. Her education and evolution occurred in Omaha and Philadelphia. She got herself up to speed on the issues and conditions impacting blacks by joining organizations focused on equal rights and enlisting the insights of local black leaders. Her Omaha educators included Dr. Claude Organ and his wife Elizabeth “Betty” Organ (Paul and Joan Benson in the book) and Ernie Chambers (Marcus Garvey Moses).
She joined the local Urban League and led the Omaha chapter of the Panel of American Women. She didn’t stop at rhetoric either. She took unpopular stands in support of open housing and hiring practices. She attempted and failed to get the Organs integrated into her Rockbrook neighborhood. Pushing for diversity and inclusion got her blackballed and cost her husband Bennett Stalvey his job.
After leaving Omaha for Philly she and her husband could have sat out the fight for diversity and equality on the sidelines but they elected to be active participants. Instead of living in suburbia as they did here they moved into a mixed race neighborhood and sent their kids to predominantly black urban inner city schools. Stalvey surrounded herself with more black guides who opened her eyes to inequities in the public schools and to real estate maneuvers like block busting designed to keep certain neighborhoods white.
Behind the scenes, her husband helped implement some of the nation’s first affirmative action plans.
Trained as a writer, Stalvey used her gifts to chart her awakening amid the civil rights movement. Since WASP’s publication the book’s been a standard selection among works that about whites grappling with their own racism and with the challenges black Americans confront. It’s been used as reading material in multicultural, ethnic studies and history courses at many colleges and universities.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of History and Ethnic Studies Patrick Jones has utilized it in two courses.
“In both courses students had a very positive response to the book,” he says. “The book’s local connections to Omaha literally bring the topic of racial identity formation and race relations ‘home’ to students. This local dynamic often means a more forceful impact on Neb. students, regardless of their own identity or background.
“In addition, the book effectively underscores the ways that white racial identity is socially constructed. Students come away with a much stronger understanding of what many call ‘whiteness’ and ‘white privilege” This is particularly important for white students, who often view race as something outside of themselves and only relating to black and brown people. Instead, this book challenges them to reckon with the various ways their own history, experience, socialization, acculturation and identity are racially constructed.”
Jones says the book’s account of “white racial identity formation” offers a useful perspective.
“As Dr. King, James Baldwin and others have long asserted, the real problem of race in America is not a problem with black people or other people of color, but rather a problem rooted in the reality of white supremacy, which is primarily a fiction of the white mind. If we are to combat and overcome the legacy and ongoing reality of white supremacy, then we need to better understand the creation and perpetuation of white supremacy, white racial identity and white privilege, and this book helps do that.
“What makes whiteness and white racial identity such an elusive subject for many to grasp is its invisibility – the way it is rendered normative in American society. Critical to a deeper understanding of how race works in the U.S. is rendering whiteness and white supremacy visible.”
Stalvey laid it all right out in the open through the prism of her experience. She continued delineating her ongoing education in subsequent books and articles she wrote and in courses she taught.
Interestingly, WASP was among several popular media examinations of Omaha’s race problem then. A 1963 Look magazine piece discussed racial divisions and remedies here. A 1964 Ebony profile focused on Don Benning breaking the faculty-coaching color barrier at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The 1966 film A Time for Burning featured Ernie Chambers serving a similar role as he did with Stalvey, only this time educating a white pastor and members of Augustana Lutheran Church struggling to do interracial fellowship. The documentary prompted a CBS News special.
Those reports were far from the only local race issues to make national news. Most recently, Omaha’s disproportionately high black poverty and gun violence rates have received wide attention.
This is an excerpt from one of two iBooks I authored for the Making Invisible History Visible project through the Omaha Public Schools. It was part of a larger Nebraska Department of Education digial publishing initiative. Working with teachers and illustrators we looked at sspects of African-American history with local storylines. My two 3rd grade books deal with the Great Migration and Civil Rights. The excerpt here is from the Civil Rights: Standing Up for What’s Right to Make a Difference book that looks at the movement through the prism of the peaceful demonstrations that integrated the popular Omaha amusement attraction, Peony Park.
Each book is used in the classroom as a teaching aid. To get the full experience of the book you need to experience it on a device because there are many interactive elements built in.You can access the iBook version at:
You can download a PDF version at:
You can access my post about the Great Migration book I did at:
NOTE: More Great Migration stories can be found on my blog.
Here is some background on the project I participated in:
During the summer of 2013, eight Omaha Public Schools teachers each developed an iBook on a topic of Omaha and Nebraska history as it relates to African American History. The four 3rd grade books are: Then and Now: A Look at People in Your Neighborhood; Our City, Our Culture; Civil Rights: Standing Up for What’s Right to Make a Difference; and The Great Migration: Wherever People Move, Home is Where the Heart is. The four 4th grade books are: Legends of the Name: Buffalo Soldiers in Nebraska; African American Pioneers; Notable Nebraskans; and WWII: Double Victory. Each book was written by a local Omaha author, and illustrations were created by a local artist. Photographs, documents, and other artifacts included in the book were provided by local community members and through partnership with the Great Plains Black History Museum. These books provide supplemental information on the role of African Americans in Omaha and Nebraska history topics. It is important to integrate this material in order to expand students’ cultural understanding, and highlight all the historical figures that have built this state. Each book allows students to go beyond the content through analysis activities using photos, documents, and other artifacts.Through these iBooks, students will experience history and its connections to their own cultures and backgrounds.
STANDING UP FOR WHAT’S RIGHT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
©AUTHOR: LEO ADAM BIGA
©ILLUSTRATOR: WESTON THOMSON
Imagine wanting to go swimming on a hot summer’s day at a big public pool. You arrive there with the simple expectation of laying out in the sun and cooling off in the refreshing water. But when you show up at the front gate ready to enter the pool and have fun you are turned away because you are black.
Naturally, your feelings are hurt. You’re probably angry and confused. How unfair that you cannot go swimming where everyone else can just because of your skin color. “What can be done about this?” you wonder.
It may surprise you to know this actually happened in Omaha, Nebraska, and the young people who were denied admission decided to do something about it. Some of them were Omaha Public Schools students. In 1963, they organized protests that forced the swimming pool owners to let everyone swim there.
How were people’s civil rights violated at Peony Park?
There was a time in America when black people and other racial minorities were denied basic human rights because of the color of their skin. Racism and discrimination made life difficult for African Americans. Often, they had to use separate facilities, such as black- only water fountains, or take their meals in the back of restaurants. Even something as ordinary as a swimming pool could be off-limits. Segregation in all aspects of daily life emphasized that African Americans were not equal and this system could be enforced with violence. If a black person tried to take a sip of water at a fountain, eat at a counter reserved for whites, or sit in the front of a bus, they could be arrested or attacked.
The system of segregation in America was called “Jim Crow.” In the South, Jim Crow segregation laws severely restricted blacks from using public facilities. But these laws were in place all over the nation. These harsh measures were put in place after the end of slavery. Though African Americans were now citizens, Jim Crow laws made black people second-class citizens, denied opportunities open to everyone else.
African Americans experienced racial discrimination in Omaha. A popular amusement park that used to be here, Peony Park, did not let blacks use its big outdoor pool. Unfair practices like that sparked the civil rights movement. People of all races and ethnicities joined together to march and demonstrate against inequality. They advocated blacks be given equal rights in voting, housing, jobs, education, and recreation.
DOING THE RIGHT THING
Following World War II protestors with the De Porres Club in Omaha peacefully demonstrated against local businesses that refused to serve or hire blacks. Members of the De Porres Club included the people of Omaha’s African American community, college students from Creighton University, and more. They were active from about 1947 to the early 1960s.
In 1963, members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Youth Council, some still high school teenagers, decided to challenge Peony Park and its racist policies. “Activism was in its heyday, activism was alive and well. Every community of black folks around the country was involved in some initiative and that was the Omaha initiative,” said Youth Council Vice President Cathy Hughes. Though only 16 at the time, Hughes was a veteran civil rights worker. As a little girl she carried picket signs with her parents when they participated in De Porres Club protests.
The Youth Council decided to protest at Peony Park after one of their members, a young black woman, was turned away along with her little sister. “She was told she couldn’t get into the pool,” recalled Archie Godfrey, the then-18-year-old Youth Council President. “It happened the same day we were having a meeting. She came to the meeting like she always did and said, ‘Guess what happened to me?’ And here was an issue that paralleled what was going on nationally.’ What do we do? All we knew is our member got rejected from Peony Park and we were going to make it right, and that’s how that thing got started.”
Godfrey and his peers closely monitored the civil rights movement and saw an opportunity to do here what was being done in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were waging nonviolent social actions. Omaha Youth Council members had trained in nonviolent protest methods at NAACP regional events. Godfrey said, “We decided, ‘Well, let’s do what they taught us. We’ll test it.'” And they did.
STAGING THE PROTEST
Media played an important role in documenting the protests
The Youth Council activists came up with a plan for their protest. First, members tried to gain admission to the pool. Each time they were told it was full, even though whites were let in. Members next removed the ignition keys from their cars to block the entrance and exit. “That was the beginning of the demonstration,” said Godfrey. “We were nonviolent, we didn’t go out and shout and scream at them, we didn’t throw bricks, we didn’t spit, we didn’t do anything but demonstrate for the next two weeks.” Protesters also made sure the media was present to document their activities.
The group sang freedom songs to relieve the tension from counter- protestors, who were opposed to the civil rights movement. The Youth Council was aware things could turn violent as they did down South. “One of the reasons why we sung is because of how stressful and explosive a situation like that could be,” said Godfrey. “The singing of the civil rights songs as a group was like a medicine that kept us bound and understanding we were not alone, that there was unity. By singing to the top of our voices ‘We Shall Overcome,’ we didn’t hear the words that came from across the street from people calling us nasty names.”
He said the human chain they formed with clasped arms outside the front gate was only as strong as its weakest link. They needed solidarity to keep their cool. “If one of us had lost self control and got mad and went across the street and hit one of the those kids all hell would have broke out and it would have killed everything,” Godfrey observed. Cathy Hughes said all their training paid off. “We were disciplined, we were strategic.” No violence ever erupted. No arrests were made.
WINNING THE FIGHT
For a time the Malec family that owned and operated the park resisted making any changes. But after losing business, being challenged with lawsuits, and getting negative publicity, they opened the pool to everyone. The youth protestors won.
The success of the demonstration raised interest in the Youth Council. “We went from a few dozen members to 300 members that summer,” Godfrey said, “because of the attention, the excitement and people pent up wanting to do something like people were doing all over the country. We jumped on everything that was wrong that summer.” He said the Council staged protests at restaurants and recreation sites. “Each one opened its doors after we started or even threatened to demonstrate, that’s how effective it was.”
The events of that summer 50 years ago helped shape Godfrey. The lesson that youth can change things for the better has stayed with him. “I’ve been an activist and politically involved all the rest of my life,” he said. Cathy Hughes said the experience “instilled in me a certain level of fearlessness and purpose and accomplishment that I carried with me for the rest of my life,” adding, “It taught me the lesson that there’s power in unity.” She has never hesitated to speak out against injustice since then.
Demonstrations like these helped push Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which put into place many safeguards to prevent discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity. Today, people of any color or background can go anywhere they choose. That freedom, however, was hard earned by people like Archie Godfrey and Cathy Hughes who stood up to speak out against wrong.
ACTIVITIES AND QUESTIONS
ACT IT OUT
1.Describe how the Youth Council activists staged their protest of Peony Park.
2.How would you feel if you were told you couldn’t do something like go to a park or go inside your favorite store? What would you do about it?
3.Peony Park is only one example of a place where segregation occurred. Find other examples of segregation. Where did it happen? Who was involved? When did it happen? What did people do to end this segregation?
DESIGN A MONUMENT
You will design a monument that will recognize the accomplishments of the individuals who helped to desegregate Peony Park. Included with your design should be some words telling people what your monument represents.
1. WHY DID PEONY PARK WANT TO KEEP AFRICAN AMERICANS OUT?
2. WHY DID THE LIFEGUARD THINK THIS WOULD BACKFIRE?
3. THIS LIFEGUARD RISKED LOSING HIS JOB FOR SOMETHING HE BELIEVED. DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD DO THE SAME IN HIS POSITION? WHY OR WHY NOT?
4. THIS ARTICLE USES THE WORD “HYSTERICAL.” WHAT DOES IT MEAN? WHY IS FEAR OF AN INTEGRATED POOL CALLED “HYSTERICAL”? USE IT IN A SENTENCE.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha-based author- journalist-blogger best known for his cultural writing-reporting about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. His book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film is the first comprehensive treatment of the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Biga’s peers have recognized his work at the local, state and national levels. To sample more of his writing visit, leoadambiga.com or http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga
MEET THE ILLUSTRATOR
Weston Thomson is a multidisciplinary artist and non-profit arts organization director living in Omaha, Nebraska. His work ranges from graphite, ink, and acrylic illustrations to 3D printed sculptures.
A NOTE FROM THE TEACHER
My name is Russ Nelsen. I teach 3rd grade at Standing Bear Elementary. I enjoyed taking what the author and illustrator did and putting it into an iBook! Hopefully this book was educational and fun!
Omaha’s had its share of social justice champions. They’ve come in all shapes and sizes, colors and styles. Tommie Wilson may not be the best known or the loudest or the flashiest, but she’s been a consistent soldier in the felds of doing the right thing and speaking out against bias. Her work as an educator, as president of the local NAACP chapter and more recently as a community liaison finds her walking the walk. Read my profile about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Civil rights veteran Tommie Wilson still fighting the good fight
Retired public school educator lives by the creed separate is not equal
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the May 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Social justice champion Tommie Wilson experienced the civil rights movement as it happened. For her, the good fight has never stopped.
While president of the local NAACP she brought a lawsuit against then-Gov. Dave Heineman over redistricting legislation that would have re-segregated Omaha schools. As Community Liaison for Public Affairs at Metropolitan Community College she chairs a monthly Table Talk series discussing community issues close to her heart, especially reentry resources. A grandson did time in prison and his journey through the system motivates her to advocate for returning citizens.
“I’m interested in how we can help them to have sustainable, productive lives,” says Wilson, who often visits prisons. “You know what they call me in prison? Mommie Tommie.”
Giving people second chances is important to her. She headed up the in-school suspension program at Lewis and Clark Junior High and the Stay in School program at the Wesley House.
“It took the kids off the streets and gave them the support they needed to be able to go back into school to graduate with their classes.”
Though coming of age in segregated Nacogdoches, Texas, she got opportunities denied many blacks. As a musical prodigy with an operatic voice she performed for well-to-do audiences. She graduated high school at 15 and earned her music teaching degree from Texas Southern University at 20.
She knew well the contours of white privilege and the necessity for she and fellow blacks to overachieve in order to find anything ilke equal footing in a titled world.
Her education about racialized America began as a child. She heard great orators at NAACP meetings in the basements of black churches. She read the words of leading journalists and scholars in black newspapers. She listened to iconic jazz and blues singers whose styles she’d emulate vocalizing on the streets or during recess at school.
Through it all, she gained a dawning awareness of inequities and long overdue change in the works. She credits her black professors as “the most positive mentors in my life,” adding, “They actually made me who I am today. They told me to strive to do my best in all I do and to prove my worth. They challenged me to ‘be somebody.'”
She and her late husband Ozzie Wilson taught a dozen years in Texas, where they helped integrate the public school teaching ranks. When the Omaha Public Schools looked to integrate its own teaching corps in the 1960s, it recruited Southern black educators here. The Wilsons, who came in 1967 as “a package deal,” were among them.
The couple’s diversity efforts extended to the Keystone Neighborhood they integrated. Tommie didn’t like Omaha at first but warmed to it after getting involved in organizations, including Delta Sigma Theta sorority, charged with enhancing opportunities.
“I’ve never shied away from finding things that needed to be done. I’m a very outspoken and vocal person. I don’t have a problem expressing what I feel. If it’s right, it’s right. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong, I don’t care who it hurts. That’s my attitude.”
She was often asked to lend her singing voice to causes and programs, invariably performing sonatas and spirituals.
Much of her life’s work, she says, has tried to prove “separate is not equal.” “I’m a catalyst in the community. I try to motivate folks to do what they need to do.”
She feels the alarming rates of school drop-outs, violent incidents and STDs among inner city youth is best addressed through education.
“Education is the key. Children have to feel there’s love and care about them learning in the classroom. Teaching is more than the curriculum. It’s about getting a rapport with your kids, letting them feel we’re in this together and there’s a purpose. It has to be a personal thing.”
Schools can’t do it alone, she says, “It’s got to start with church and home.”
She applauds the Empowerment Network’s efforts to jumpstart North Omaha revitalization.
“I love everything they’re trying to do because together we stand, divided we fall. If we can bring everybody together to start working with these ideas that’s beautiful.”
She’d like to see more financial backing for proven projects and programs making a difference in the lives of young people.
Since retiring as an educator, Wilson’s community focus has hardly waned. There was her four-year stint with the NAACP. She then approached Metro-president Randy Schmailzl to be a liaison with the North O community, where she saw a great disconnect between black residents and the college.
“We had students all around the Fort Omaha Campus who had never even stepped foot on campus.”
She feels Metro is “a best kept secret” for first generation college students,” adding, “For affordable tuition you can get all the training and skills needed to be successful and have a sustainable life.”
The veteran volunteer counts her 15 years as a United Way Loaned Executive one of her most satisfying experiences in helping nurture a city that’s become dear to her.
A7 79, Tommie Wilson finds satisfaction “being able to share my innermost passions, talking to people about their issues, trials and tribulations and teaching and guiding people to change their lives.”
What’s a good day for her?
“A good day is when I make a difference in the lives of others. Hardly a day goes by somebody doesn’t ask for advice.”
North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with Omaha Public Schools and North High School
In the 1960s the Omaha Public Schools was in need of African-American educators and not finding enough suitable college-educated candidates here the district looked to historically black colleges in the South. The irony of this is that many candidates from Omaha were denied teaching, coaching and administrative positions by a district that practiced blatant racism for much of its history. For decades OPS only hired a small number of black educators and then restricted them to predominantly black schools in the inner city. For years black public educators in Omaha were also restricted to elementary schools. It took a long time for OPS to dismantle those barriers and open the gates of fair employment and placement. One of the many educators recruited here from the South under those conditions was Gene Haynes, a native Mississipian who had actually followed his older brothers to Omaha and lived and worked here for a time before going back to Miss. to attend Rust College, a private historically black college. After he graduated from Rust he applied with and accepted an offer from OPS to teach and in 1967 he began what is now a 47-year career in the district. His first 18 years were at Omaha Technical High School and the last 29 have been at Omaha North High School, where he’s been principal since 2001. He’s helped lead a major turnaround at North, whose academic and athletic programs are doing great things. My New Horizons cover profile of Haynes follows.
North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with Omaha Public Schools and North High School
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horixons (http://www.database.to/assoc_admin/assocviewfile2.asp?53V9875VT96=1969&AP3126=9&C885I0=536&pagecase=2)
It is a marvel Omaha North High Magnet School pxrincipal Gene Haynes relates so well to students given how far removed his life experience is from theirs.
The 70 year-old Mississippi native came of age in a time and place unlike anything his students know. Haynes grew up in the grip of poverty and segregation in the post-World War II South. Yet he’s current and cool enough to accept either a handshake or a fist bump from students. He either calls them by name or by “brother man” or “sister girl” as he makes his presence known in the hallways, cafeteria and other common areas every school day.
“When you say their name they know you’re paying attention to them,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in going to the activities and seeing what the young people are doing and encouraging them to do their best.”
He’s such a fixture at North and in the community that he knows most students’ extended families. Omaha Public Schools superintendent Mark Evans says, “It makes a huge difference when the person telling you which direction to go knows not only your mom and dad but your aunt and uncle, your grandma and grandpa. I think it makes kids so responsive to Gene – much more so than most administrators.”
A message Haynes conveys to students is, “Do your best when no one is around.” When he’s around and sees students applying themselves, he says he knows “they want to be highlighted” and thus he singles them out. North students increasingly shine academically and athletically in the transformation he’s leading there.
“When you treat people right, good things happen,” he says. “I make it a point every day I come to this building to be outside greeting kids as they come in. They see this crusty old man. I’m not an office person. I have to do my paperwork on Saturdays or after school. When the kids are moving to and from class I’m out there to see what the kids are doing. You can’t stay in one place, you have to be able to move, and I do, which prompts kids to ask, ‘Are there two of you?’ I show up when they least expect it, not looking to catch them in anything but to give them that extra encouragement they need.
“We have a staff at North High School that cares about every student. The kids know that. I think that’s the key. You have to go in with a positive attitude. Every student is worth something. The young people you’re working with on a daily basis are going to be your future.”
For Haynes, there’s no conflict about his mission.
“The bottom line has been and always will be what’s best for young people, not personally for me. It’s to make a difference in the lives of young people that you come across in your path.”
It’s all about setting expectations.
“If you don’t expect anything from them they’re not going to give you anything but if you have those high expectations and you communicate that there’s no wiggle room. You need to know how to do that. I’ve kind of mellowed in my latter years. I was very aggressive (before). It goes back to my father who said, ‘You’ll catch more bees with honey than you will with a stick.'”
When he sees students acting out he handles it differently today than in the past, though he still bellows “Hit the bricks” to stragglers.
“If you reprimand or put them down in front of their peers you’re not going to get anywhere. The best thing to do is to approach them and treat them with all due respect.”
A credo he likes imparting is, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to worry about repeating it – it’s always going to be there.”
Haynes realizes students confront a lot these days between the pressure to have sex at an early age, the lure of drugs, the threat of bullying and the high incidence of teen depression and suicide. He’s aware many inner city students come from broken families and live in active gang areas where instability and fear rule.
“I think the biggest challenge we face is we don’t have enough time for the magnitude of issues students bring to school. It’s not about books, it’s about time and effort to convince these young people there’s a better way of dealing with issues.”
Rather than an extended school day or extended school year, he advocates schools and communities “provide the best opportunities” for students to develop.
He says parents are vital cogs in their children’s education and he actively solicits their participation.
“I pick up the phone and call them. If I need to go make a home visit I do that. We make them a part of the equation.”
He says “the trust level has improved” among North’s parent base. He
suspects some had bad experiences in school, making it incumbent on himself and his staff “to ease any apprehensions they feel,” adding, “There’s a support system in place to eliminate some of those concerns. We have a very strong PTSO (Parent Teacher Student Organization).”
Coming out of Miss. in an era when blacks were denied basic human and civil rights, he knows about hard times and perseverance. You don’t forge a 47-year career without overcoming odds.
Haynes grew up the youngest of four sons to a sharecropping father and homemaking mother in a country hamlet between Gholson and Preston, Miss. During the off-season his father drove a truck. Like his brothers and cousins he was delivered by his midwife grandmother.
“We came in with the blessings of my grandmother,” is how he puts it.
In that tight-knit community he says, “We kind of looked out after for each other.”
In the fully segregated South he attended all black schools that got “hand-me-down” textbooks from the white schools. As a child he walked miles to a one-room schoolhouse. At 9 he started taking a bus to school. By high school the routine found one bus picking up a white neighbor girl and another bus picking him up, the vehicles taking the youths to “separate and unequal schools.”
Blacks were treated as second-class citizens in every way.
“That was the way of life back in that time. Growing up in the Jim Crow South toughened your skin up.”
His parents never got as far as high school but they stressed education’s importance. The black teachers who taught at the choolhouse boarded with the Haynes family during the week. That close proximity to educators made “a big impact on me,” he says.
An influential figure in his life was a landed white man, Vardaman Vendevender, who took an interest in young Gene.
“This gentleman was very dear to my family. On the weekends I worked for him. I did things around his house. I had access to his tractor, truck, jeep. If he needed things from the store I was able to go into town and get them. He called me Gene Robert after my grandfather. He once said to me, ‘If you ever want to be successful you have to leave the state of Miss.’ Here was a white guy sharing that with me. That was a relationship I treasured for years. Up until he passed every time I would go back to Miss. I would visit him.”
Vendevender’s son, Jake, visited him at North a few years ago. “He said, ‘When I pulled up I couldn’t believe a young skinny kid from Miss. is the principal of this big high school. My father must have made an impression on you.’ That’s something that sticks with me even right now.” Haynes returned the favor, visiting Jake below the Mason-Dixon Line. “We talked about the olden days.”
Haynes was in high school, where he excelled in sports, when the civil rights movement came to Miss. and all hell broke loose. Native son James Meredith integrated “Ole Miss” in 1962 but only with the full force of the nation’s highest court and National Guard troops behind him.
“The most frightening thing in my life was riding the bus to school and having federal marshals on every corner. Tension ran very high.”
James Meredith integrates the University of Mississippi under armed guard
Every time activists or lawmakers threatened dismantling segregation, racist stakeholders in that apartheid system reacted violently. In 1964, his freshman year in college. a trio of Freedom Riders were killed. The deaths of the Mississippi Three further heightened fear.
Haynes says despite the obstacles and dangers he never despaired things wouldn’t improve. He believed in the power of education and in letting the truth shine through ignorance.
“I could see that because of my training and my teachers, who were always discussing how important it was to get an education. They embedded that into us – that education is a key for success.”
Blacks were also resourceful to find some kind of way through barriers to pursue their goals and dreams.
“We managed in spite of the opportunities denied us.”
Haynes says that as a college-bound African-American then his higher ed choices in the South were severely limited. In much of the region at that time blacks could not attend anything but historically black colleges. “When I was coming out of high school if you were black and you didn’t go to Jackson State, Alcorn, Mississippi Valley State, Rust College or one of the other private black schools, you couldn’t go.”
During the ’60s some challenged this exclusion but not without the federal government enforcing it. Even then there were serious, often ugly consequences. It would be some time before blacks were able to attend schools of their choice without incident.
Haynes was fortunate to have as a mentor a male high school biology teacher who also coached him in football.
“He was very instrumental in working with me from grade 10 on, preparing me for college. He had gone to Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss, and he was very instrumental in my attending Rust. I felt that was the opportunity for me to do the things I need to do.”
Before attending Rust, however, Haynes followed his brothers to Omaha, where the extended family put down roots during the Great Migration blacks made from the South to the North in search of a better life. Omaha’s booming meat packing plants and railroad operations drew many unskilled blacks and other minorities here.
“We had relatives here and they hooked my oldest brother, who came here in ’59. with a job. iI was a kind of networking that went on. He came here on a weekend and he went to work at the packinghouse on Monday. That started a chain of events,” says Haynes, whose other brothers followed. In 1963, Gene did, too. His brothers went to Miss. for his high school graduation and no sooner did the ceremony end then they took him back to Omaha with them.
“I left to the chagrin of my mom and dad. I was the baby and now the nest was empty. In 1964 my mother and father pulled up stakes and moved to Omaha. Mom couldn’t stand not being around her boys.”
Unlike his brothers, Gene didn’t work in the packinghouses. Instead, a relative got him on at the fancy Blackstone Hotel, with its distinctive exterior, ornate interior and popular Golden Spur and Orleans Room.
He returned to Miss. to attend Rust, majoring in social studies and economics.
“They provided me with a great education,” he says of his alma mater. The school also served as his introduction to his life partner. “I met a great lady whom I ended up marrying – my wife Annie. We graduated from Rust in 1967 and we got married in 1968.”
Haynes and his wife are the parents of one son, Jerel, and the grandparents of Caleb and Jacob.
Work-study and a scholarship put Haynes through college. He toiled in the dorms and athletic offices to pay his way in becoming his family’s first college graduate. Given the sway educators had in his life, he naturally looked at teaching as a career. Places like Omaha had a dearth of black college grads then, so OPS looked to historically black colleges for candidates. He joined other newly minted educators from the South as OPS hires, including Sam Crawford, Jim Freeman and Tom Harvey, all of whom enjoyed long careers like him.
“A large group of us that went to predominantly black schools came to Omaha to teach,” he says. “We’ve been very blessed because we have carved out a legacy that’s been great. We stuck together.”
Haynes didn’t intend staying in Omaha. When he started at OPS in 1967, at Omaha Technical High School. he came alone while Annie pursued teaching opportunities in Alabama and then Cleveland, Ohio.
“My plan was to teach here one year and go to Miami, where I also applied. I lived with my parents to save money. Forty-seven years later I’m still here and I haven’t saved any money yet,” he says, laughing.
After that first year in Omaha he went to Cleveland to court Annie.
“I convinced her Omaha was the place she needed to be.”
She got a job teaching 3rd grade at Lothrop Elementary. Annie ended up teaching 37-plus years in the district.
Haynes, who earned a master’s degree in education, administration supervision from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1974, taught and coached at Tech until the school closed in 1984. The massive Tech building is now the OPS headquarters, He was an assistant football coach when future University of Nebraska All-American and Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers played for the school. During his tenure at Tech Haynes became the state’s first black head basketball coach. Breaking that new ground meant dealing with some racist coaches, officials and fans.
“With a predominantly black team we had some skewed eyes looking at us. I had to tell the kids, ‘You have to play above that because let’s face it if it’s close, you can forget it,'” says Haynes, referring to blatantly bad calls that went against his team and other minority-laden teams then at Omaha Central and Omaha South.
“I told the kids, ‘You have to be twice as good as your competition.’ And so we tried to prepare them for that.”
He says he instilled in his players the philosophy – “You give it your best. Winning is not everything, but a sincere effort is.” He says he still believes that today. “It’s not about wins and losses it’s about the success of the young people at the end of their high school term.”
He has fond memories of his time at Tech.
“I can think about so many young people I was fortunate enough to work with.”
One of those is Thomas Warren Sr., who became Omaha Police chief and is now president-CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska. Warren played basketball for Haynes and remembers his old coach as “a strict disciplinarian who had the respect of his players” because he went the extra mile for them. He sees Haynes doing the same thing today.
“For many of his players he was responsible for facilitating scholarship opportunities. For me individually, he drove me to Sioux City, Iowa in his personal vehicle for my recruitment visit to Morningside College, where I eventually attended. I have watched him spend countless hours serving the students of Omaha North High School and our community. He has been an advocate for at-risk students and I have never seen him give up on a kid. I consider Gene Haynes a friend, mentor and role model and I will always refer to him as ‘Coach.'”
Other students Haynes molded became entrepreneurs, lawyers and professionals in one field or another. He finds it ironic many of them are now retired while he’s still working.
“Doesn’t seem right,” he says, smiling.
He says “the passion the staff developed caring about individual students made all the difference in the world” at Tech “and that’s what I’ve attempted to do and incorporate here at North.” He and his staff work to create an environment where students “feel they can come and talk to us about their concerns and we’ll address the situation.”
When Tech closed Haynes became assistant principal and athletic director at McMillan Magnet School for a year before joining the North High staff in 1987. At North he served as assistant principal and athletic director for 14 years until assuming the principal post in 2001.
Since taking over at North, whose 4410 North 36th Street campus borders some of Omaha’s highest crime areas, he’s credited with leading a turnaround there. But he says the transformation began under predecessor Tom Harvey, who changed the school’s image. Starting in the 1980s North’s once proud reputation suffered under the strain of urban pressures that saw school dropouts and disruptive behaviors rise, along with test scores decline. Haynes says Harvey began the process of turning this wasteland into an oasis of success.
“Tom Harvey was a driving force behind the resurrection of North.”
The impoverished neighborhoods around North had fallen into a mire of drugs, gangs, violence, vacant homes and hopelessness but have rebounded with help from community building organizations like Abide.
North’s leaders, Haynes says, made a conscious effort to make the school an anchor and resource in a community hungering for something it could be proud of and call its own.
“Tom Harvey invited the alums and the Vikings of Distinction to turn North High School around. They talked about what would it take to change the perception. There used to be a fence around the place.
When you saw that fence you thought about the prison mentality and we had to change that. The fence came down and there was a trust factor then within the community that North is the place to be.”
Haynes has continued to enhance North’s community engagement.
“North High School is a key component of this community. We have opened up North for community events and activities. We found that when people in the community feel they are part of something your vandalism goes down. They feel they have ownership in this. The second Saturday of the month the Empowerment Network uses our facility. Every Sunday Bridge Church holds services here.”
He says if northeast Omaha is to realize its hoped-for revival then North High and its companion schools must be actors in it.
“If it’s going to change North High School and the Omaha Public Schools are going to be key players in turning things around. Right now I see we’re moving in the right direction.”
Haynes welcomes community partners.
John Backus, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in North Omaha, says, “When we approached him about ways to be helpful in his school he was ready with ideas, answers and the sort of willing spirit that accomplishes things. Gene Haynes is a capable leader and intensely interested in the well-being of his students.”
Perhaps the biggest sea change for North came when it was made a magnet center for STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.
“Haynes says, “We wanted the best and the brightest people to be a part of North High School – students and staff. We went out and brought in the best and the brightest and we will continue to do so.”
The Haddix Center for STEM Education
North High is a blend of old and new but its STEM education is state of the art
To accommodate this influx of students and new curriculum Haynes invited the entire North community of staff, students, alums and neighbors to weigh-in on a vision for a new addition. A group of students took the initiative and drew up the initial design for what became the 34,000 square foot, multi-million dollar Haddix Center.
“When the students are active I think it’s important you allow them to have input,” says Haynes. “It took 11 years from the time we started to plan until we were able to build. That was huge. We cherish the fact the alumni association and one gentleman, George Haddix, gave up $5 million. The district bought the project and supported it. We dedicated it in 2010. This is our fifth year in that facility.”
As a magnet center North draws students from around the metro. Haynes says one third of its students come from outside its attendance area. The school’s test scores have soared and the number of academic college scholarship awarded graduates has exploded. OPS superintendent Mark Evans says, “It’s a great success story and his leadership has made a difference there not only in the classrooms but in the extracurriculars. The principal sets the tone and is the leader of that culture and Gene Haynes is one of the best examples of that. When you say North High, you think Gene Haynes – that’s how much identification there is with him there.”
Evans adds that North’s success has a ripple effect on its student body and the surrounding community. “I think it’s huge. I think it sends a message of hope that we can and will succeed. We’ve got some young people who haven’t always thought they were going to be successful but because of North High and Gene Haynes they all believe they can be successful now and they are being successful.”
Haynes feels the STEM experience students receive there is preparing them for working living wage 21st century jobs that demand tech savvy employees. He’s confident as technology becomes ever more important that North’s on the cutting edge of utilizing it in the classroom. For example, some algebra classes are entirely taught on iPads. A new Samsung Smart School Solutions pilot program invites students to use a 75-inch touch interactive display and tablets to make stock market purchases, deliver tech-driven business presentations and get hands-on learning experiences with real life business partners.
“We have the best technology persons in Rich Molettiere and Tracy Sage,” Haynes says of North’s technology coordinators. “We really appreciate what they’ve been able to do. If someone tried to take them out of North High School, it’s on.”
North’s academic progress is matched by the success of its athletic programs. Until recently the school was known for its wrestling dominance, including multiple team and individual champions and at least one Olympic hopeful, Vikings grad RaVaughn Perkins. But more recently North’s football team has been the dominant force, winning back to back Class A state titles behind superstar running back Calvin Strong, a South Dakota commit. and Husker lineman recruit Michael Decker. The 2014 Vikings finished 13-0 and are widely considered one of the top teams in Nebraska prep football history.
Rendering of the proposed North High football stadium
North has done all this without having a true home field to play on. Its football team plays at Northwest High’s Kinnick Stadium some four miles away. A proposal for North High to build a stadium of its own, right in the neighborhood, is being looked at. As with the earlier Haddix Center, North students did an initial design. Haynes and the school’s foundation are assessing if there’s enough support in the community for what would be a privately funded project costing millions of dollars.
“We want it be state of the art,” Haynes says.
He believes the stadium would be another “bright light for this community” and he says the facility would be available for use by nearby Skinner Magnet School and the Butler Gast YMCA.
Haynes keeps long hours at North, whose doors hardly ever seem to close for all the activity there. He says he goes home satisfied when “I see the kids leaving school with a smile on their face and a pat on the back from the principal and they acknowledge it.” He adds, “I have a post I go to at dismissal that borders the neighborhood. From my perch I can see kids coming and going and if anything’s going to happen from the outside that’s where it’s going to come from. The kids know that and I know that. That’s why I choose to go out there. As the kids walk by I acknowledge them and give them encouragement. That’s what I consider a most gratifying day.
“I try not take anything from school home, and vice versa.”
As for how much longer he’ll be doing this, he’s promised the class of 2017 he’ll walk with them at their graduation.
“That’s the plan – if my health stays good.”
That would make 50 years at OPS.
He won’t have any say in his successor but he and others will be keeping a close eye to make sure this sweet ride continues.
“I feel whoever comes in is going to do the right thing, and if not it’ll be a short tenure.”
Whoever follows him will have big shoes to fill. A measure of the high esteem he’s held in is the street named after him right outside the school. At the dedication for it last summer and on social media people offered tributes, calling him “humble, genuine, dedicated, a role model – commands true respect.” A grateful Haynes takes it all in stride, saying, “The Omaha community has been very gracious to me and my family and now I have to live up to it.”
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden," "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" (a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker) "Open Wide" a biography of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, Leo Adam Biga's My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, is an online gallery of his work. The blog feeds into his Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as his Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Tumblr, About.Me and other social media platform pages.
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