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Women still calling the shots at the Omaha Star after 81 years


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Women still calling the shots at the Omaha Star after 81 years

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August 2019 edition of The Reader (thereader.com)

Native Omaha Days is a biennial, first-week-in-August nostalgia trip for current and former residents reliving the black-is-beautiful experience of their youth. Among the many touchstones of African-American life here is the newspaper serving that community, the Omaha Star.

From its 1938 founding by Mildred Brown, the paper’s continued a legacy of black women publishers and editors. When Brown died in 1989. niece Marguertia Washington took the helm. Upon her 2016 passing, Phyllis Hicks took the reins. With Hicks retiring in early 2019, Frankie Williams has assumed interim publisher-editor roles as the paper’s come under the ownership of the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center.

Brown’s matriarchal presence still looms large. The apartment-office she kept at the Star is a shrine in this National Register of Historic Places building. The loud. proud Brown was often the only woman present in the circle of power she convened there.

“She was performing in a man’s role,” Frankie Williams said,” and did it very well.”

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Brown’s trademark white carnation corsage was her calling card at myriad social-community events she made it her business to attend.

Scores of youth worked for her as carriers and sales staff. She paid for many young people’s education and mentored many others.

Paul Bryant credits “Aunt Millie” with supporting him through his “starving student” days. He came to admire her social entrepreneurship.

“Mildred Brown was a fighter who used intellect, tenacity and moral authority to win. She was a visionary trailblazer decades ahead of her time.”

In 1968 Frankie Williams sold ads and edited a teen page for the Star while a Central High School. She recalls Brown holding court.

“This was a gathering place for community leaders.” Williams said of the paper’s offices. When news broke of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, she witnessed a procession of leaders seek Brown out there. “It was such a solemn, somber experience, It was silence and then talking and then – where do we go from here. Mildred led the conversation. Hers was definitely a voice of reason. She was a thinker and strategist. I wouldn’t say calm, though, She was a very forceful person.”

Williams and others were on the receiving end of “tough conversations” with Brown.

“I remember the day she told me to order her carnation corsage. I decided she should have a pink one instead of the white. Well, that was something I got called back here for,” Williams said from that same back room. “She told me it wasn’t my decision to make.”

Terri Sanders, a board member of the Mildred Brown Center, grew up in awe of the regal Brown, whom she remembers as “someone to be admired that you could pattern yourself after working in the community.”

The paper’s heyday is long past as it struggles finding sustainability in this tenuous time for print media.

Williams aims to increase visibility. The paper held a July 27 gala screening of The Wiz at Bryant Park and will have a conspicuous display in the Native Omaha Days stroll and parade.

For Williams, heading up the Star is a “full-circle” event. Brown wanted Williams to one day succeed her. It was too far off and daunting a prospect for an 18-year-old to process then. After decades working in youth services in Atlanta and Omaha, Williams returned to the fold 11 years ago to assist Washington and Hicks.

“The paper started going through some really tough times. One of the staff resigned because Marguerita (Washington) just wasn’t able to make payroll,” Williams recalled. When Washington died, Hicks managed her estate. Thus, Williams assumed “more and more Star responsibilities.” Now that she’s in the post Brown groomed her for, she’s fully aware of being a steward.

“I am grateful to be here. I can’t be Mildred. nor would I try to be. The thing I can do is carry her torch and make sure the legacy lives on. I want to take care of it.”

She agrees with Terri Sanders “the paper’s in good hands” with the Study Center.

“There were a lot of people interested in purchasing it, and still are. But I’m happy it happened like this.” Williams said. “I would not have wanted it to go to someone who didn’t understand the legacy and would have no value in Mildred other than the name.”

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Sanders feels the Study Center board and Star staff share a mission. “Part of our job is to reacquaint or introduce people to the Omaha Star and why it is important.”

The Study Center awards scholarships, operates the Junior Journalist Program and feeds the Star interns.

“We’ve had several interns and scholarship recipients go on to do well,” said Sanders, including, most prominently, her own daughter Symone Sanders, a national Democratic Party consultant and news panelist.

Two generations earlier, Urban One founder Cathy Hughes got her media start with Brown, whose example inspired her own entrepreneurial drive.

Despite female-centric leadership. the paper’s been a vehicle for such strong male voices as Ernie Chambers, Matthew Stelly, Walter Brook and Leo Louis and the late Charles B. Washington.

“Mildred Brown’s desire was for the paper to thrive after her departure. I know she would be pleased the Star is still in print,” said Paul Bryant.

Reshon Dixon, who resides in Atlanta, is among the legion of native Omahans living elsewhere who still take the Star to stay connected with Black Omaha goings-on.

It’s how she keeps up with events and deaths.

Sustaining the paper on ad revenues and subscriptions alone is “never enough,” Williams said. “We’re just making enough to keep the doors open.”

Another revenue stream is the fee-based online archive

accessed by students, academics, historians and journalists across the nation, Sanders said.

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Williams aims to increase subscriptions by moving from a column-heavy, soft news pub to a harder news biweekly. “It’s a work in progress,” she said. “Everyone is feeling their way, but I feel assured everyone is working to enhance what we’ve done in the past.”

“Our advantage is we are a trusted source,” she said. “Being relevant is even more important to maintain credibility. One of the tag-lines Marguerita and Phyllis used is: we report positive news. But we’re doing a disservice if we’re not trying to educate and inform our readers. We need to report pertinent news. With the political climate the way it is, we would do a disservice to our community not to talk about the hard topics.

“We have the census and election coming up. It’s our responsibility to educate our community on how the candidates and census impact our lives. We have to be relevant. In the fall we’ll start featuring photos of murder victims whose killings have not been solved and of missing people of color. This stuff is going on around us and we cannot act like it’s not happening.”

Williams is ever conscious of legacy.

“When I make decisions I do think about how Mildred Brown would have handled this.”

Williams said the National Newspaper Publishers Association Brown helped form “takes pride that this is a paper founded by a female and led by females for 81 years.” She added, “It just has to continue like that. It would tarnish the legacy for it not to. It’s our responsibility to groom whoever is next.”

“Black women started it, black women have led it, and it is my hope that will continue throughout the life of the paper.” Sanders said. “To lose that would be to lose the flavor of what the Omaha Star is and was.”

“I think it is wonderful women still run the Star.” Bryant said. “My prayer is that they have as much impact on the community as Mildred Brown did. “

Reshon Dixon seconds the sentiment by saying the legacy is “a testimony to the community.”

Native Omahan Amber Ruffin, writer-performer on Late Night with Seith Meyers, said, “I love the fact the Star has been led by black women for its whole existence. It makes me feel proud to be a black Omahan.”

Williams feels the future is “bright.” She’s impressed by young North O leaders. Perhaps one of them will be the torchbearer taking the paper to its centennial.

“We have a pool of young people to mentor and to help along their journey, and hopefully when the time comes one of them will be able to step up.”

Visit https://theomahastar.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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An Omaha Star: Phyllis Hicks – The Publisher & the Newspaper She Never Meant to Run

March 10, 2019 Leave a comment

An Omaha Star: Phyllis Hicks

The Publisher & the Newspaper She Never Meant to Run

by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the March-April 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/articles/an-omaha-star-phyllis-hicks/)

 

 

 

 

When the story of the city’s longest-running African-American-owned newspaper, The Omaha Star, is written, three women will dominate its 80-year narrative.

Founding publisher Mildred Brown ran the ship from 1938 until her death in 1989. Her niece Marguerita Washington (a career educator), who spent time working for her aunt growing up, succeeded her. Phyllis Hicks joined the paper in 2005 and took over more and more of its operations after Washington fell ill. Upon Washington’s 2016 death, Hicks officially became publisher and managing editor; in truth, she had been running things for some time.

Hicks—the last survivor of this troika of black women journalists—never intended getting so deeply involved with the paper. Brown was only an acquaintance and Hicks’ association with the Star was limited to reading and submitting news items to it. She only joined the staff as a favor to her mother, who was close to Washington. Hicks studied journalism in school, but besides writing occasional press releases for her work in the public and private sectors (including her coaching of the Stepping Saints drill team), she had nothing to do with the Fourth Estate.

Fate had other plans, and thus Hicks, like Brown and Washington before her, became the matriarchal face of the paper. She did it her way, too. Lacking the entrepreneurial and sartorial flair of Brown, Hicks nevertheless managed attracting enough advertisers to keep the Star afloat through troubled economic times and declining ad revenues and subscriptions. Without the publishing and academic background of Washington, Hicks still found ways to keep the paper relevant for today’s readers.

After more than a decade with the paper, Hicks—who turns 76 on March 7—is looking to step away from the paper due to her own declining health. She broke her ankle in 2017, and then, last year went to the hospital to be treated for pneumonia; she was discharged with a dysfunctional kidney requiring dialysis.

She is eager for someone to carry the Star torch forward. As this issue of Omaha Magazine went to press, a management transition involving the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center was in progress.

Whatever the paper’s future, Hicks is glad to have been part of its legacy of strong black women. That legacy extends to her late mother, aunts, and grandmother (Emma Lee Agee-Sullivan)—all independent achievers from whom she drew much inspiration.

When Agee-Sullivan was young, she was a member of the church pastored by the Rev. Earl Little (Malcolm X’s father). Agee-Sullivan was with the Little family when a lynch mob came looking for Earl Little. The family hid him and covered for him, and the Littles fled Nebraska the next day. As an adult, Hicks says, Agee-Sullivan was active in the Baptist church and started the state’s first licensed, black-owned home daycare.

Hicks had aunts who worked in finance and another who was a championship golfer (who would have gone professional “if she had come at another time”), she says, adding that her paternal grandfather, the Rev. J. P. Mosley Sr., led a demonstration to integrate swimming pools in Chillicothe, Missouri, in 1954, and “built Mount Nebo Baptist Church from the ground up” in Omaha.

When the challenge of the Star or anything else presented itself, she was ready. “I just did it because it had to be done,” Hicks says.

She followed the path laid out by other “black women taking the leadership role.”

At a time when few black women owned businesses, Brown launched the Star only a year after moving to town. She originally worked for the city’s other African-American paper, The Guide. She left its employment for her startup, which competed against The Guide for advertisers and readers. The Star soon won out thanks to her entrepreneurial savvy and not-taking-no-for-an-answer grit. The publisher made her paper a bastion for civil rights and community pride.

Following Brown’s death in 1989, Washington took command. By the early 2000s, the
paper struggled.

Meanwhile, Hicks’ mother, Juanita, befriended Washington. When Juanita fell ill, Washington helped care for her to allow Hicks to manage the Stepping Saints. Then, when Juanita’s house got flooded, she stayed with Washington for six weeks.

“They kind of adopted each other and threw me in the mix,” Hicks says.

Hicks was retired but, at the urging of her mother, she offered to assist Washington at the Star. Hicks soon took on editorial and business duties.

“I went to do a little marketing for Marguerita, and I’ve been there ever since,” she says. “I discovered there was a lot of help she needed. The paper was in dire straits. And I just started doing some of everything.”

Along the way, Hicks and Washington grew close. “It was a growing relationship that became more of a personal one than a business one,” she says.

Together, they formed the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center as a fundraising and scholarship vehicle.

As Washington’s health failed, Hicks became her caregiver and eventually power of attorney. By the time Washington died of multiple malignant brain tumors in 2016, Hicks transitioned the paper from a weekly to a biweekly as a cost-savings move. She also got the paper’s archives digitized online.

Hicks continued running the paper, she says, because “I just felt an obligation. When I take on something, I try to see it through.”

Woodcut of Phyllis Hicks by Watie White

The Star is believed to be the nation’s oldest African-American paper owned and operated by women. Through the Great Depression, the late ’60s riots, the 2008 economic collapse, the death of publishers, and declining print ad revenue, it has never ceased publication.

Hicks admires how Washington took up the mantle after Mildred Brown died.

“She wanted the paper to go on as a legacy to Mildred because Mildred put her all into the paper. Plus, Marguerita felt the paper needed to be in the community to allow the black community a voice. She felt the newspaper was another way to educate people.

“She made the ultimate sacrifice and put her life on hold to keep somebody else’s dream alive,” Hicks says.

With Washington and Brown as her models, she ensured the Star’s survival.

“I take satisfaction in knowing I kept it from going under because it was close to going under,” she says. “With some personal sacrifices, I’ve been able to keep the doors open and pay people’s salaries. I paid off allThe Omaha Star bills. There were several years of back taxes. All that’s been caught up to date.”

Hicks came to believe, as Brown and Washington did, the Star serves an important role in its “ability to tell it like it is in the community, without it having to be politically correct.”

Just don’t expect crime reporting.

“I’ve tried to keep the paper in the light that Marguerita and Mildred did in positive news,” she says. “We don’t report who got killed, we don’t report crime, we don’t report any of that, because there’s a mess of that being reported already. What we try to do is paint a bright picture of what’s going on in the community—people’s accomplishments. We try to put information out there that builds the community up as well as inspires the community.”

The Star’s long been home to strong voices—from Charlie Washington and Preston Love Sr. to Ernie Chambers and Walter Brooks—calling for change. For many black Omahans, including those living elsewhere, it remains a main conduit to their shared community.

Hicks wishes more young people used the paper as a resource and recognized its role in fighting injustice and championing black self-determination.

“It’s a legacy for them,” she says. “It’s a part of this community’s history, and it’s a vehicle for them to tell their stories. We invite young people to submit stories.”

The Star intersects with young people through internships it offers students and scholarships granted by the Study Center. Engaging with community youth has been a priority for Hicks for years.

Long before joining the Star, Hicks made her community mark as co-founder and director of the Salem Baptist Church Stepping Saints drill team. The team was originally organized in 1966 to perform at a single event. But Saints dancers and drummers wanted something permanent, so the group became a fixture in area parades and at Disneyland, Disney World, Knott’s Berry Farm, and many other attractions across the nation.

Hicks says, the last time she counted, the Saints had performed in 38 states and some 2,000 youths had cycled through the team’s ranks over time. Some veteran Saints have seen their children and grandkids participate, making it a multigenerational tradition.

The Saints celebrated 50 years in 2017. The team is still going strong. Even though Hicks no longer takes an active hand in things, she’s still the matriarch.

Just as she never meant for the Saints to be a long-term commitment, her Omaha Star gig turned into one. Her promise-keeping may be her enduring legacy.

“If I say I’m going to do something, then I’m going to try to see it to the end,” she says.

Hicks wants the paper to remain black-owned and managed and based in North Omaha, where its red brick building (at 2216 N. 24th St.) has landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places.


Visit theomahastar.com for more information.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

A series commemorating Black History Month: North Omaha stories

January 31, 2018 Leave a comment

Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, family, community, faith, education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
 
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part I
Redevelopment, vision, advocacy. protest and empowerment
 
https://leoadambiga.com/…/when-omahas-north-24th-street-brought-together -jews-and-blacks-in-a-melting-pot-marketplace-that-is-no-more/‎
https://leoadambiga.com/…/art-as-revolution-brigitte-mcqueens-union-for- contemporary-art-reimagines-whats-possible-in-north-omaha/
https://leoadambiga.com/…/brigitte-mcqueen-shews-union-of-art-and- community-uses-new-blue-lion-digs-to-expand-community-engage…
https://leoadambiga.com/…/carver-building-rebirthed-as-arts-culture-haven- theaster-gates-rebuild-and-bemis-reimagine-north-omaha/‎
https://leoadambiga.com/…/artists-running-with-opportunity-to-go-to-the- next-level-carver-bank-resident-artists-bring-new-life-to-area/‎
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/the-rhythmboys-of-omaha-central/

 

North Omaha: Where for art thou?


North Omaha: Where for art thou?

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Our fair city has a curious case of tunnel vision when it comes to North Omaha.

What constitutes North Omaha is different depending on who you talk to. Officially or technically speaking, it is one of four geographic quadrants. North O itself is made up of a diverse number of neighborhoods, many of which are not generally considered part of it. For example. most of us don’t include the Dundee business district and surrounding neighborhood around Underwood Avenue as North O when in fact it is. The same for Happy Hollow, Country Club, Benson, Cathedral, Gold Coast, Florence and many others well north of Dodge that have their own stand-alone names, designations, associations and identities. When North O is referenced by many individuals and organizations, what they’re really referring to is Northeast Omaha. For many, North O has come to mean one narrow set of characteristics and conditions when in reality it is much more diverse geographically, socio-economically, racially and every other way than any tunnel vision prism does justice to. Why does this happen so persistently to North O? Well, there are many agendas at work when defining or designating North O as one thing or another. When viewed in a racialized way, North O is suddenly a black-centric district. When viewed as prime development territory. North O’s either a distressed area or a great investment opportunit. When viewed in historical terms, North O’s variously a military outpost, a Mormon encampment, a bustling Street of Dreams or the site of riots and urban renewal disruption and the downward spiral that followed. When measured statistically and comparatively, North O often comes out as the epicenter of poverty, underemployment, educational disparity, STDs, gang violence and other disproportionately occuring ills when in fact in totality, taking into account all its neighborhoods, North O is doing well. When viewed in redevelopment terms, North O is s collection of revitalized commercial and residential areas and of pockets still in need of redos. How you see it doing and where you see it going, what you count as part it or not, the amount of monies that flow in or out and the types of projects, initatives and developments that happen and dont have to do with what people are predisposed to think about it and expect from it. When it comes to North O, your perception of it and engagement with it conforms to your own ideas, attitudes, beliefs, visions, plans, experiences. For some, it represents an avenue of opportunity and for others a plaee of stagnation. Some see it and treat it as a social services mission district, while others see it as a wellspring of commerce, entrepreneurship and possibility. People living there surely have very different takes on it as a community, even on what makes North O, North O. Certainly, people living outside the area have very different takes on it than the people residing there. If there is an essential North O identity it is one of diversity and aspiration, hard work, no frills and pride. North O never has been and never will be just one thing or another. You can reduce to it a tag or a headline and to a segment or a section if you want but that will never reflect the large, complex mosaic of cultures and influences, assets and resources that comprise it. North O ha for too long been stereotyped and compartmentalized, stigmatized and marginalized. It has too long been misunderstood. Instead of only seeing it in its parts, what if we began looking at it as a whole? Maybe if we started thinking in terms of how everything that happens in one neighborhood affects everything else, then perhaps future quality of life development can be more organic and inclusive.

 

St. Cecilia Cathedral - breath taking - 701 N. 40th St. - wonderful concerts held here including the annual Omaha Symphonic Chorus' Christmas in the Cathedral early to mid December.:

 

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"A Beauty Spot, Miller Park, Omaha, Neb."

 

North Omaha contains some of the metro’s oldest, most compelling history. Long established neighborhoods, parks, boulevards, buildings and other public spaces have roots in diverse peoples and events that helped shape the city. Despite this rich heritage, mass media depictions tend to emphasize a narrow, negative view of North O as a problematic place of despair and neglect.

Problems exist, but North O has been a place of great aspirations and successes. One of its historic main drags, North 24th Street, has inspired many names. Jews called it the Miracle Mile. African-Americans dubbed it the Street of Dreams. More informally, it went by the Deuce or the Deuce Four. Other districts within North O, such as Florence, Benson and Dundee, each have their own vibrant histories. These neighborhoods, along with the North 24th and North 30th Street corridors, are undergoing major revivals.

North O’s history extends way back:

A  Great Plains army installation, Fort Omaha, was the site of an historic ruling about the nature of man was rendered in the Trial of Chief Standing Bear. The fort’s grounds are now the main campus for Omaha’s fastest growing higher education institution, Metropolitan Community College, and for the Great Plains Theatre Conference. An annual pow wow is held there.

 

 

The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition brought the nation and world to this once frontier outpost turned fledgling city. The Trans-Miss site is where Kountze Park and many stately homes stand.

Pioneering Mormon families trekked to and encamped in what is now North O. They later disembarked there for far western travels to the Great Salt Lake. Area Mormon artifacts and historic sites abound.

Diversity may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to North O, but it is a blend of many different peoples and places. A wide range of immigrants and migrants have settled there over time. Jews, Italians, Germans, Irish, Africa-Americans, Africans, Asians, Hispanics.

 

 

Its strong faith community includes a wide variety of Christian churches, Some of the churches have rich histories dating back to the early 20th century. Many older worship places have undergone restoration. Several buildings in North O own national historic preservation status, including the Webster Telephone Exchange that later saw use as a community center and the home of Greater Omaha Community Action until James and Bertha Calloway used grant money to convert it into the Great Plains Black History Museum.

Among the historic spots to visit in North O are Prospect Hill Cemetery where many city founders are buried, and the Malcolm X Memorial Birthsite where slain social activist Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little.

African-Americans built a strong community through their toil as railroad porters and packinghouse workers and through their education in all black schools. North O encompassed a leading vocational school, Technical High. The district continues to support quality public and private elementary schools and public secondary schools. It is home to one of the Midwest’s top post-secondary institutions in Creighton University and to a thriving community college in Metro.

 

 

 

North O is also home to some of the city’s oldest, most distinguished neighborhoods, including Dundee, Benson, Bemis, Gold Coast, Cathedral, Walnut Hill, Kountze Place, Minne Lusa and Florence. Blacks were denied the opportunity to live in many of those neighborhoods until discriminatory housing practices ended.

Bounded by the Missouri River on the east. 72nd Street on the west, Cuming-Dodge Streets on the south and Interstate 680 on the north, North O is a varied landscape of attractive flatlands, hills, woods, parks and tree-lined boulevards. There are promontories and overlooks with stunning views of the bluffs across the river and of downtown.

The area’s fertile soil has produced notables in film (Monty Ross), television (Gabrielle Union), theater (John Beasley), music (Buddy Miles), literature (Wallace Thurman, Tillie Olsen), media (Cathy Hughes), sports (Bob Gibson), finance (Warren Buffett), politics (George Wells Parker) and social activism (Malcolm X). It is where the interracial social action organization the De Porres Club made equality stands a decade before the civil rights movement. Black plaintiffs later forced school integration in the public schools.

North O hosts long-lived and proud chapters of the NAACP and the Urban League as well as dynamic local affiliates of the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, Campfire and Girl Inc.

The area does have high poverty pockets but it’s home to hard-working people, many with higher education and vocational training. It encompasses blue collar and white collar professionals, laborers, entrepreneurs and grassroots activists. It is a community of families, neighborhoods, small businesses and major manufacturers.

 

 

The ties that bind run deep there. For decades Native Omaha Days has brought together thousands from around the country for a week-long slate of events reuniting former and current residents who share North O as their birthplace and coming of age place.

The infrastructure of this inner city does have its challenges. There is still a disproportionate number of substandard houses, abandoned homes. vacant lots and food deserts. But an influx of projects is adding new residential units and commercial properties that are putting in place stable, sustainable improved quality of life features.

North O is the wellspring and nexus of strong community revitalization efforts such as those of the Empowerment Network, Omaha Economic Development Corporation, Family Housing Advisory Services and Omaha Small Business Network working to strengthen the community.

Redevelopment underway in northeast Omaha is in direct response to decades of economic inertia that set in after civil disturbances laid waste to the historic North 24th Street.hub. Urban renewal also severed the community, thus disrupting neighborhoods, creating isolated segments and diverting commercial development.

 

 

There was a time when North O possessed all the amenities it needed. Back in the day the dynamic entertainment scene acted as a launching pad for talented local musicians and a stopover for top touring artists. It was a destination place with its clubs, bars and restaurants featuring live music. Some of that same spirit and activity is being recaptured again. Harder to get back might be all the professional services that could be had within a few blocks but as more people move back to North O and set up shop, that could change, too.

Today’s revitalized North 24th mirrors similar community building endeavors on North 30th, North 16th, the Radial Highway, Ames Avenue, Hamilton Street, Lake Street, Maple Street and elsewhere. Business thoroughfares and residential blocks pockmarked by neglect are starting to sprout new roots and roofs.

An anchor through it all has been the Omaha Star. It continues a long legacy as a black woman owned and operated newspaper that gives African-Americans a platform for calling out wrongdoers in the face of injustice and celebrating positive events.

Decades before the Black Lives Matter movement, vital voices for self-determination were raised by North O leaders, including Mildred Brown, Whitney Young, Charlie Washington, Ray Metoyer, Dorothy Eure and Ernie Chambers. No one’s spoken out against injustice more than Chambers. He’s been a constant force in his role as a legislator and enduring watchdog for the underdog. His mantel is being taken up by dynamic new leaders such as Sharif Liwaru and Ean Mikale.

 

Fair Deal Village MarketPlace, N. 24th and Burdette Streets, North Omaha, Nebraska

Play considers Northside black history through eyes of Omaha Star publisher Mildred Bown

April 29, 2016 1 comment

Upcoming Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest productions at nontraditional sites examine North Omaha themes as part of this year’s Neighborhood Tapestries. On May 29 the one-woman play Northside Carnation, both written and performed by Denise Chapman, looks at a pivotal night through the eyes of Omaha Star icon Mildred Brown at the Elks Lidge. On May 31 Leftovers, by Josh Wilder and featuring a deep Omaha cast, explores the dynamics of inner city black family life outside the home of the late activist-journalist Charles B. Washington. Performances are free.

 

Play considers Northside black history through eyes of Omaha Star publisher Mildred Bown

Denise Chapman portrays the community advocate on pivotal night in 1969

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

 

 

As North Omaha Neighborhood Tapestries returns for the Great Plains Theatre Conference’s free PlayFest bill, two community icons take center stage as subject and setting.

En route to making her Omaha Star newspaper an institution in the African-American community, the late publisher Mildred Brown became one herself. Through the advocacy role she and her paper played, Brown intersected with every current affecting black life here from the 1930s on. That makes her an apt prism through which to view a slice of life in North Omaha in the new one-woman play Northside Carnation.

This work of historical fiction written by Omaha theater artist Denise Chapman will premiere Sunday, May 29 at the Elks Lodge, 2420 Lake Street. The private social club just north of the historic Star building was a familiar spot for Brown. It also has resonance for Chapman as two generations of her family have been members. Chapman will portray Brown in the piece.

Directing the 7:30 p.m. production will be Nebraska Theatre Caravan general manger Lara Marsh.

An exhibition of historic North Omaha images will be on display next door at the Carver Bank. A show featuring art by North Omaha youth will also be on view at the nearby Union for Contemporary Art.

Two nights later another play, Leftovers, by Josh Wilder of Philadelphia, explores the dynamics of an inner city black family in a outdoor production at the site of the home of the late Omaha activist journalist Charles B. Washington. The Tuesday, May 31 performance outside the vacant, soon-to-be-razed house, 2402 North 25th Street, will star locals D. Kevin Williams, Echelle Childers and others. Levy Lee Simon of Los Angeles will direct.

Just as Washington was a surrogate father and mentor to many in North O, Brown was that community’s symbolic matriarch.

 

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Denise Chapman

 

Chapman says she grew up with “an awareness” of Brown’s larger-than-life imprint and of the paper’s vital voice in the community but it was only until she researched the play she realized their full impact.

“She was definitely a very important figure. She had a very strong presence in North Omaha and on 24th Street. I was not aware of how strong that presence was and how deep that influence ran. She was really savvy and reserved all of her resources to hold space and to make space for people in her community – fighting for justice. insisting on basic human rights, providing jobs, putting people through school.

“She really was a force that could not be denied. The thing I most admire was her let’s-make-it-happen approach and her figuring out how to be a black woman in a very white, male-dominated world.”

Brown was one of only a few black female publishers in the nation.  Even after her 1989 death, the Star remained a black woman enterprise under her niece, Marguerita Washington, who succeeded her as publisher. Washington ran it until falling ill last year. She died in February. The paper continues printing with a mostly black female editorial and advertising staff.

Chapman’s play is set at a pivot point in North O history. The 1969 fatal police shooting of Vivian Strong sparked rioting that destroyed much of North’s 24th “Street of Dreams.” As civil unrest breaks out, Brown is torn over what to put on the front page of the next edition.

“She’s trying her best to find positive things to say even in times of toil,” Chapman says. “She speaks out reminders of what’s good to help reground and recenter when everything feels like it’s upside down. It’s this moment in time and it’s really about what happens when a community implodes but never fully heals.

“All the parallels between what was going on then and what we see happening now were so strong it felt like a compelling moment in time to tell this story. It’s scary and sad but also currently repeating itself. I feel like there are blocks of 24th Street with vacant lots and buildings irectly connected to that last implosion.”

 

Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star offices

 

The Omaha Star | by National Register

During the course of the evening, Chapman has Brown recall her support of the 1950s civil rights group the De Porres Club and a battle it waged for equal job opportunities. Chapman, as Brown, remembers touchstone figures and places from North O’s past, including Whitney Young, Preston Love Sr., Charles B. Washington, the Dreamland Ballroom and the once teeming North 24th Street corridor.

“There’s a thing she says in the play that questions all the work they did in the ’50s and yet in ’69 we’re still at this place of implosion,” Chapman says. “That’s the space that the play lives in.”

To facilitate this flood of memories Chapman hit upon the device of a fictional young woman with Brown that pivotal night.

“I have imagined a young lady with her this evening Mildred is finalizing the front page of the paper and their conversations take us to different points in time. The piece is really about using her life and her work as a lens and as a way to look at 24th Street and some of the cultural history and struggle the district has gone through.”

Chapman has been studying mannerisms of Brown. But she’s not as concerned with duplicating the way Brown spoke or walked, for instance, as she is capturing the essence of her impassioned nature.

“Her spirit, her drive, her energy and her tenacity are the things I’m tapping into as an actor to create this version of her. I think you will feel her force when I speak the actual words she said in support of the Omaha and Council Bluffs Railway and Bridge Company boycott. She did not pull punches.”

Chapman acknowledges taking on a character who represented so much to so many intimidated her until she found her way into Brown.

“When I first approached this piece I was a little hesitant because she was this strong figure whose work has a strong legacy in the community. I was almost a little afraid to dive in. But during the research and what-if process of sitting with her and in her I found this human being who had really big dreams and passions. But her efforts were never just about her. The work she did was always about uplifting her people and fighting for justice and making pathways for young people towards education and doing better and celebrating every beautiful accomplishment that happened along the way.”

Chapman found appealing Brown’s policy to not print crime news. “Because of that the Star has kept for us all of these beautiful every day moments of black life – from model families to young people getting their degrees and coming back home for jobs to social clubs. All of these every day kind of reminders that we’re just people.”

For the complete theater conference schedule, visit https://webapps.mccneb.edu/gptc/.

Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future

December 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

One of the things that makes North Omaha North Omaha is the Omaha Star, the historic black newspaper made famous by Mildred Brown. For the first time since Marguerita Washington took it over from her late aunt in 1989, the future of the 77-year-old newspaper is unclear as Washington battles cancer. But those close to the situation say under no circumstances will they let the paper fold because it means too much to the community it serves. Check out my Reader story about the legacy of the Star under Brown and Washington and how strongly people feel about it and what it’s meant to them. Read, too, about people’s admiration for what these black women did to give Black Omahans a voice.

News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future

December 4, 2015 4 comments

North Omaha is more than a geographic district.  It is a culture and a state of mind.  That is particularly true of African-American North Omaha.  For generations the voice of that community has been the Omaha Star, which started in 1938.  Flamboyant Mildred Brown made the Star an institution as its publisher, managing editor and gudiing spirit.  When she passed in 1989 her niece Marguerita Washington, who grew up around her bigger-than-life elder and the advocacy-minded paper, took it over.  Washington’s kept the paper’s vital voice alive and relevant all these years, even as print publications have become endangered in the digital age.  She’s reportedly put everything she has into keeping it afloat.  Now though Washington is facing an end of life scenario that for the first time in her tenure as publisher – Washington never married and has no children – leaves the future of the Star in question.  Phyllis Hicks has been acting publisher during Washington’s health crisis.  But those close to the situation say there is no way the Star is going to fold if they have anything to do wth it.  My story below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) assesses what the Star has meant and continues to mean to people and what may happen with it moving forward should certain events play out.  I called on several folks for their perspective on the Star, past, present and future, and on the legacy of the two black women who have made it such a resource all this time.  Some of the most interesting comments are from Cathy Hughes, the Radio One and TV One communications titan from Omaha who got her media start at the Star and at KOWH.  This is at least the third time I’ve written about Washington, Brown and the Star and you can find the earlier stories on Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com.

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News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The Omaha Star has given African-Americans a voice for 77 years. The newspaper is not only a vital mouthpiece for locals, but a valued hometown connection for natives living elsewhere.

It became an institution under the late Mildred D. Brown, a force of nature who became an icon with her ever-present smile, carnation and salesmanship. She charmed and challenged movers and shakers, near and far, with her insistent calls for equality. Through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, the late 1960s riots, it never missed an issue. Upon Brown’s 1989 death, niece Marguerita Washington, who worked at the paper as a young woman, took over the helm. She reportedly used her own money to pay off debt her aunt accumulated. Despite financial shortfalls, this grassroots, advocacy, activist, community-minded paper has never missed a beat. Not through the 2008 economic collapse or the decline of print and concurrent rise of online media. While circulation’s dropped and the Star’s now published bi-weekly instead of weekly, its social conscience, watchdog, give-voice-to-the-voiceless roles remain intact.

For the first time though since Brown’s death, the Star’s future is unclear because Washington, the woman who’s carried the torch lit by her aunt, is now terminally ill. The 80-year-old Washington was diagnosed earlier this year with lung cancer. The cancer spread to her brain. Meanwhile, there’s no direct heir to inherit the Star because she never married and has no children. When Brown passed she divvied up shares to Washington and other family members. Washington is the majority share holder and out-of-town relatives who’ve never taken an active hand in its operations own the other shares.

Star advertising and marketing director Phyllis Hicks has been acting managing editor and publisher during Washington’s health crisis. Hicks began at the Star in 2005 and grew to be Washington’s closest colleague.

“It was a growing relationship that became more of a personal one than a business one,” Hicks says.

 

Phyllis Hicks

 

The two formed the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center as a vehicle for preserving the paper’ legacy and the Junior Journalists program to encourage youth to enter the field. The pair obtained historic status for the Star building at 2216 North 24th Street.

Brown’s brash, bigger-than-life style lent the paper panache and edge. By contrast, the quiet, unassuming Washington, an academic with a Ph.D., exhibits a “walk softly and carry a big stick” tone,” said Hicks, adding, “Marguerita is not one to be vocal and take the lead and sound off, but she’s going to support from the background to do what she can to make it happen.” For each woman, the Star became a labor of love. Washington’s never drawn a salary as publisher and maintainer of a historic line of female leadership that made it the longest continuously published black newspaper owned and operated by women.

“The role of the Omaha Star in the history of this community cannot be overstated,” says Gail Baker, dean of the School of Communication, Fine Arts and Media at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “The Star, like other black papers, is key to developing and maintaining the community. Under both Mildred Brown and Marguerita Washington, the Star’s voice has been loud, clear and critical. Whether championing the rights of African Americans, calling the community to action, covering the stories others did not see fit to print or just shining a light on what is important to its readers, the Star is that beacon of light leading the way. Its place in Omaha is without parallel.”

Chicago Crusader editor-publisher Dorothy Leavell writes in an email about Washington, “I appreciate all of her support of things I hold dear. I love her loyalty, sense of humor and dedication to the Black Press as well as the fighting spirit of Mildred Brown that we shared memories of. I know she is putting up the good fight…”

Hicks, who shares power of attorney for Washington, has watched her friend endure radiation and chemotherapy to try and arrest the cancer. She and other friends of the paper are weighing what might happen to the Star in the absence of Washington. Discussions have grown more urgent as doctors recently discontinued treatment.

Washington, who suffers from dementia, is cared for at a northwest Omaha assisted living facility.

Hicks and others close to the situation have been selling off some of Washington’s possessions and are looking for a buyer for her home.

“We’re dealing with her business, we’re dealing with her and her doctors and we’re trying to sell her things and her home so we can have money for her care,” Hicks says. “I guess at one time she was quite wealthy but with all the money going into the Star and her never taking a salary her wealth has dwindled. My goal is trying to make sure she’s safe for the remainder of her life.”

A means to continue the paper, including finding a buyer-publisher, is also being discussed.

For folks of a certain age the Star is part of what makes North Omaha, North Omaha. It’s a touchstone for those who reside here and for natives who left here. More than any other institution it holds fast the community memory of a people and a district. Those who grew up with the publication are bound and determined to do whatever it takes to keep it alive even as its leader nears the end.

“It’s my goal and her goal as well the paper remain in North Omaha and remain black owned if we can sell it,” Hicks says. “Some mention female owned. That’d be nice but I don’t have any desire to own and run a paper. Lots of folks have approached me and asked what’s going to happen, and it’s not up to me to make that determination. I’m power of attorney with one of her nieces in Kansas City.”

Asked if she sees any scenario in which the paper would close, she says, “I’m hoping that with the amount of people expressing interest and working towards its survival that that won’t happen. It’s my hope that somebody or somebodies will come forth.

“The officers of the Study Center are working on coming up with a plan. We’re looking at avenues and ways. We’re even looking at if the nonprofit Study Center could own the paper as a for-profit arm.”

Omaha Economic Development Corporation executive director Michael Maroney says, “A lot of people want to see it survive, that’s for sure, There will be a solution found, we just don’t know what it is yet. I’m quite confident it will survive in some form or fashion.”

“Now is a pivotal moment for the Omaha Star and the Near North Side community,” says Amy Forss, author of the biography, Black Print with a White Carnation: Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star. “I am emphatically stressing the need for a successor because if the Omaha Star ceases to exist, then the longest-running record no longer exists and neither does the regularly published voice of the black community and that would be a piece of history you cannot replace.”

Omaha native Cathy Hughes, a national media czar through her Radio One and TV One companies, has credited Mildred Brown and the Star, for whom she worked, as a direct influence on her own entrepreneurial communications career. She says much as Ernie Chambers has been its militant voice in recent years through his column, the late Star reporter Charlie Washington once served that “rabble rouser” role.

“Charlie and the Omaha Star actually showed me the true power of the communications industry,” she recalls. “The Star took the mute button off of the voice of the black community in Omaha. It was more than just advocacy, it was a safety net. It has fostered and nurtured and promoted progress. It glorifies the success and accomplishments of Africa Americans in that community, which says to our young people, ‘You too can do it.’ It has been a vehicle for inspiration and motivation.

“I think that’s why it’s been able to successfully survive all these years and I pray that it will continue for many decades more.”

Hughes admires what Washington’s done.

“She could have done a lot of things with her life,” she says of the publisher, “but instead she came home because. It’s in her blood.”

“I believe it was commendable of Marguerita to take up the banner. I think she understood and saw the need of what it meant to the community and she also had the desire to continue her aunt’s legacy,” OEDC’s Maroney offers.

Retired photojournalist Rudy Smith says, “To her credit she continued the legacy, integrity and mission of the Omaha Star. Mildred Brown was a pioneer and a trailblazer and it’s hard to follow a pioneer but Marguerita was able to do that..”

 

 

Marguerita Washington  Marguerita Washington

Mildred Brown

 

 

According to community activist Preston Love Jr., who pens a column for the Star, “There was pretty much a transparent and no wrinkle transition from Mildred to Marguerita. It happened without much of a blip in terms of the paper being published. I think Marguerita’s played several roles. To some degree early she played a caretaker role. Then she emerged to take more of an editor-in-chief role and she has moved into the role of publisher. So while the paper’s made a transition she has, too. She’s made some tough editorial decisions as well. All of that is a testament to her stewardship.”

Like her aunt before her, Washington’s been much honored for her work, including last summer by the Urban League of Nebraska. More recently, the City of Omaha proclaimed Tuesday, December 1 Marguerita Washington Day for her “commitment to the community and issues that have impacted African-American people” and for “her great sense of social justice and social responsibility.”

Her empowering marginalized people continued a long, unbroken line.

“The paper has been a staple to me and the community for generations.,” Love says. “Other African American newspapers have come and gone here over the years but the Omaha Star endured. In my generation it’s something we all grew up with and hold in very strong endearment.”

Love sold the paper as a boy and was Mildred Brown’s driver summers during college. His late father, musician-educator-author Preston Love, sold advertising for the Star. The son says it’s been a link for blacks here and who’ve moved away “like no other link – you can’t overstate how important that link is.”

If the Star should close, he says, “what would be lost is part of the personality of North Omaha. Embedded in that is history and culture.”

Hicks says blacks would lose a valuable platform for “telling it like it is in the community without having to always be politically correct.”

The Star may not have the readership or pull it once did, but that’s a function of these times.

“When I was growing up in Omaha the Star was all that we had,” Hughes recalls. “Now everyone is in the black lane competing for that black consumer market. When my company went into the cable industry 10 years ago there were two choices for black folks watching cable – BET or TV One. Now every cable and broadcast television station has some type of black programming, which makes it that much more difficult for us to secure advertising dollars.

“Well, Marguerita has really had that problem with the Omaha Star. When her aunt was running it Mildred could candidly say to the head of the electric company, ‘The only way you’re going to reach these black folks is through me.’ Well, that no longer is true, they can reach ’em in social media, in a whole host of other ways.”

It may not be the presence it once was but Hughes leaves no doubt it’s meaning for her.

“When I was on the front page of the Omaha Star I called up and ordered two dozen copies – I was sending my Omaha Star out to everybody. And I laughed at myself and said, ‘Boy, that’s the little girl still in you.’ It was like hometown approval. It’s more than just the hometown newspaper to me, it’s the approval of the folks in Omaha, it’s the cheering, it’s the you-did-good, we’re-proud-of-you vehicle

“It inspired me then and it still does today.”

She says she hasn’t been formally approached about how she might assist the Star but would entertain ideas.

Preston Love says such deep sentiments about the Star are not just based on its rich past but its vibrant life today.

“The contribution the paper is making today should not be overlooked.
So it is not just historical but the present and the future. What it does to provide a platform for columnists, churches, businesses, community organizations and individual accomplishments is all right now.”

He says he and other concerned observers “will fight tooth and nail” any transition not deemed in the best interests of North Omaha.

Having arrived at this each-one-to-teach one and it-takes-a-village juncture, the Star’s fate is in the people’s hands as never before.

Rudy Smith says the fact the Star is both a historical treasure and a still relevant and resonant voice bodes well for it continuing.

“Marguerita put in building blocks that will allow the Star to continue even after she’s gone.Years ago Marguerita and I had talks about the future of the Star and she told me, ‘My goal is for the Star to live beyond me.’ I know for a fact there are things in place now that will allow the Star to continue. Marguerita started preparing the community to embrace the Star years ago.

“I think the community is rallying around the Star more than it ever has
because the Star is a community institution and if it dies part of the fabric of the community dies. The community will not let it die. I’m familiar with some of the things going on now (behind the scenes) to ensure its survival and I’m encouraged.”

Somewhere, Mildred Brown is smiling that people care so much about the fate of the paper she and her niece devoted their lives to.

 

 

Mildred Brown met many dignitaries

 

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