Omaha has a corps of performing artists who command a level of admiration and respect that rises above the norm. These special entertainers have earned this status by the high craft and integrity they exhibit. When it comes to musical theater and singing, Camille Metoyer Moten is pretty much at the head of this class. She’s been captivating audiences for some four decades. She’s won all kinds of accolades and awards for her artistry. Not one to rest on her laurels, she’s as busy today as ever and she may just be in her prime now in her 60s. She’s as smooth and unruffled on stage as one can be, but don’t mistake her carefree manner for being untouched by trouble or pain. She’s seen plenty of both. Her from-the-gut performances draw on a lifetime of experiences, some of them tragic and traumatic, others joyous and blessed, and always informed by her deep faith, unflagging spirit and unflappable demeanor.
My New Horizons cover story on Camille appears in the January 2017 issue hitting stands and arriving in mailboxes the last week of 2016. My blog leoadambiga.com also features earlier stories I’ve done on Camille and other Omaha songstresses. Link to some of these stories at –
And here are links to yet more stories I’ve done on popular Omaha singers:
Mary Carrick –
Anne-Marie Kenny –
Karrin Allyson –
Quiana Smith –
Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the January 2017 issue of the New Horizons
Lady sings the blues
Classy, sassy Camille Metoyer Moten has entertained with her cabaret singing and musical theater performances since the late 1970s. Besides being much beloved, she’s considered a real pro. Her much sought-after stagecraft has earned critical acclaim as well as Omaha Community Playhouse and Theatre Arts Guild awards.
The free, easy way she handles a song and wins over an audience belies the family tragedies and personal struggles she’s endured. Listen and look close enough and you’ll detect the wistful blue notes of the jazz vocalists she grew up listening to. Like them. she knows about pain. Her late parents were at the forefront of Omaha civil rights work before their lives were cruelly cut short. Her mother Lois died of brain cancer at age 43. Seven years later her father Ray was shot to death at the family barbecue joint at age 52.
Bigotry and bias have confronted her. Illness has attacked her.
A strong faith, a sure sense of self and a rock solid marriage to husband Michael Moten have helped Camille cope with loss and setbacks and thus avoid the pitfalls many of her idols suffered.
Music was all around her as a girl. She and her sister Lanette, also an award-winning musical theater artist, inherited their singing chops from their mom. Lois would harmonize, scat and sway to records she played in the family’s northeast Omaha home.
“She was a wonderful singer,” Camille recalled. “We grew up listening to lots of jazz albums. Dinah Washington. Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan. Nancy Wilson. That was her thing. She was so into it.”
Her mom oft-told the story how she auditioned for and was asked to tour either with the great Count Basie or Duke Ellington but turned the opportunity down. Though flattered by the offer, Lois was engaged to her future husband, Ray Metoyer, a serious Creighton University student not about to let his fiancee go on the road.
Camille began showing off her own pipes as a toddler.
“I wanted to sing but I didn’t know a song, so I would sing about the furniture and anything that came into my view.”
Encouraged by her mother, Camille learned lyrics to standards but was timid to have an audience around.
“She loved that I would sing but I was really shy to sing, so I would be like in the basement singing and if I’d hear somebody coming. I’d stop. I would always pretend there was a microphone.”
Her first time on stage came in the first grade at Sacred Heart School when she, Lanette and their brother Raymond sang “Do Re Mi.”
“I just remember being so scared but I wanted to do it so bad.
Everybody was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this little girl with this big voice.’ I think my desire to perform really got reinforced then because people made a big deal of the fact my voice was fuller. The more I sang for school programs the more compliments and confidence I got.”
A wide music repertoire
Even early on she drew on diverse musical influences.
“There were so many things I liked. I loved the jazz. I also loved the musical theater. And I also loved classical music.”
The same holds true today.
“It’s a mishmash of several things. A lot of it’s Barbra Streisand. I always liked the way Nancy Wilson presented herself. Lena Horne, too.
Just very classy. So I always want to at least appear classy on stage because I’m really kind of an awkward person. But when I’m on stage I feel like I have a little more finesse.”
She holds Barbra in special regard.
“I think her voice is amazing. I just got to see her in concert for the first time in August in Chicago. My children bought me a $500 ticket. It was so awesome to listen to her. She’s 74-years old but she can still soar up to those high notes.”
No wonder then Camillle’s stoked about a March 31 tribute concert she’s doing in honor of her idol. The “Bubbly with Barbra” show at the Playhouse is a fundraiser for the theater’s operations.
“I’m so excited about it because I’ve been worshiping her since I was 11-years-old,” Camille said.
Kathy Tyree, Dave Wingert and Jim Boggess will join her on select numbers.
The role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl that Streisand made famous on stage and in film resonated strongly with Camille, who made playing the part a life-time ambition she realized in 1994.
“I related to that character so much. She’s this odd little duck that has talent that nobody could appreciate because of her package,” said Camille, whose light-complexion, blonde-hair and green-eyes made her conscious of her nontraditional African-American appearance.
“I got a lot of comments about my look.”
The many shades of black were inescapable, she said, because “my family’s all different colors and it’s something that really sticks out.” She added, “My father was very fair, my mother was pretty brown, so all of us came out different. I came out with all the recessive traits.”
Descendants on her father’s side are of mixed race Creole heritage. Both her paternal and maternal family trees owned property in the South. There’s quite a story behind her father’s family line in Louisiana. The first Metoyer there built a plantation and his son Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer befriended a family that owned a slave, Marie Coincoin, with whom he became infatuated. He built a plantation for her and she lived in the house with him and they had children together. Threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, he built her a separate house in back. When he decided to have white heirs, he gave her her freedom and let her keep their children. She became a leading entrepreneur in the state, even building her own plantation. The black branch of the Metoyers lived as aristocrats.
Lanette and Camille dream of making a musical out of the story.
Their mother grew up in Mississippi and though their father was born in Omaha, thier grandfather Victor came from Louisiana. Victor worked as a railroad dining car waiter for Union Pacific. He and a fellow waiter opened a BBQ eatery. They alternated operating it based on their UP runs. When Victor was on his Omaha to California run, his partner manned the joint, and when his partner was on his Omaha to New York run, Victor handled things. Grandpa Victor also co-founded the adjacent Key Club. Eventually the Metoyer family owned the restaurant outright. Three generations ultimately ran it.
Camille’s father dropped out of Creighton just short of earning a degree in order to support his family. He worked many years as a Boys Town counselor. Camille and her siblings got to know some of the boys. One escorted Lanette to a homecoming dance. Raymond vacationed at Lake Okoboji with students his father brought to camp.
At night Ray Metoyer helped his father Victor run the family barbecue place. Ray’s eldest son Raymond, who became a television news reporter, partnered with his father and grandfather in the business.
Camille knew her dad caught flak the way she did. “We looked alike, so he was very sensitive to making us understand that it doesn’t having anything to do with anything.”
Both parents made sure their kids knew that light or dark needn’t define them.
“They always impressed upon us that that didn’t make a difference,” Camille said. “That was their main thing with us – it doesn’t matter what you look like. Your blackness has nothing to do with your physical appearance.”
Camille’s parents were both active in local civil rights efforts. Her father was part of the social action group the De Porres Club whose boycotts in the late 1940s and early 1950s forced businesses to hire and serve blacks. He also headed the Urban League of Nebraska when it hosted Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson in separate events. Camille met both leaders and recalls Malcolm X as a very tall and tender man who mentioned that she reminded him of his daughter.
Her folks also participated in demonstrations by the 4CL or Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties in the ’60s. The Metoyer kids got dragged along to organizing meetings at Zion Baptist Church.
“It seems like it was always in the summer. It was so hot and packed in, everybody sweatin’ on each other,” recalled Camille.
She and her siblings were young when the civil rights marches and speeches filled the airwaves.
“I don’t think we understood the whole significance nationally. I understood there needed to be change and it was going to make the world the way it should be. Our parents sort of instilled in us this is what it’s going to be, this is what we’re working for, this is where we’re going to get to. They were dedicated to lifting black people to the place that we deserve to be. That was their focus. That, and impressing upon us that you’re just as good as anybody, so there’s no reason feeling like you’re falling short.
“It was very important to them. Sadly, we’re not there all these years later. As I reflect back on it, I appreciate more or understand better the sacrifices they made to do the things they did.”
Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.
“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together and all the conversation was about what was going on.”
Once, Camille was with her folks and others at a protest when they were all arrested.
“We were protesting for open housing down at the City Council chambers. I was in the fourth grade and my parents decided it was important I participate. The police came and we all sat down. I sat on my dad’s lap and when the police picked us up they had to pick us up together. He was going to make this as difficult as he could for them.”
A press photographer snapped a pic that went national of cute little Camille in braids, tortoise shell frame eyeglasses and dress carried by her indignant but dignified father like a precious bundle.
“This picture of my dad carrying me out went out on the Associated Press all around the country.”
“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”
The poignant photo got new life five decades later when Camille and Lanette appeared in Having Our Say, a play about the real-life Delany sisters living through generations of racism. The themes echoed things the Metoyers experienced themselves.
Doing the play brought Camille and Lanette, who’ve always been close, even closer together. The project also gave them a chance to honor figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.
“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” Camille said.
Hardly a day goes by Camille doesn’t think of her parents.
“My dad was the epitome of a professional, educated man, although he could be very crazy as well. But I never heard him swear. But my mother on the other hand would come out with a few things if she got irritated enough. His thing was always about professional appearance and how you present yourself. My mom was concerned about that, too, but she was more of a gregarious, outgoing, earthy person. She was maybe a combination of what Lanette and I are now,”
Her parents’ fight for equal rights got personal when her family integrated all-white Maple Village in 1966.
Camille said, “My father wanted to have a closer commute to Boys Town and he felt the education we were getting in North Omaha schools was not equivalent to what west Omaha schools offered.”
Even aspirational couples with the desire and means to live outside segregated areas had to take special measures to get around red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants. The Metoyers had black realtor George Thomas secretly negotiate with NP Dodge to arrange for the family to purchase their new house.
“We had to go through the backdoor to get that house,” Camille said.
‘We surprised the neighborhood because they didn’t know a black family was coming.”
Lanette recalled, “It eventually was known blacks had purchased the house and therefore our dad, grandfather and several white male employees that worked for my dad would spend nights at the house until we moved in.”
Camille said, “We had a lot of backlash. It was crazy.”
A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in.
The family moved in late at night to avoid a scene but some neighbors gathered outside to glare.
For several nights. Camille’s father and grandfather stood armed guard inside. It reminded her mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Mississippi.
“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the front-line,” said Lanette.
The siblings remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. Once, the house got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.
At their various schools the kids encountered racism.
“If things happened at school we’d come home and talk about it. We always just knew how to handle it. Before we moved there, our parents anticipated there would be issues. They warned us. But they added we have every right to be where we want to be and don’t let anybody tell you anything different.”
Camille said her parents admonished she and her siblings to “always address discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.'”
Whatever the sitaution, like the family being refused service at King Fong’s downtown, it became a teachable moment.
“My mom explained how it was their loss and we would encounter people that would not like us without ever knowing us. I guess they always gave the impression there was something wrong with those people – there was nothing wrong with us. They told us when you come across people who are ignorant you educate them, you don’t argue or get angry, because they need help. To this day, if I have the opportunity to enlighten somebody, I will, as opposed to getting angry. That works with my whole Christian faith.”
Finding a foundation for her music and faith
The Metoyers found acceptance if not fairness. Auditioning for a role in Guys and Dolls at Burke High School, Camille said the music director opposed her being cast on account of her race. Camille had an ally in her drama teacher, who swore “she’d never let that happen again.”
Despite resistance, her passion for performing wouldn’st be denied. She planned going to California to pursue a singing-acting career but then her mother became ill. Losing her mother, she said, “really took me off my path.” She wasn’t sure what to do next when a friend of her father’s who ran the music department at Xavier University in New Orleans convinced her to give it a try.
“It sounded just great to get away. I went and auditioned and got a scholarship. That’s how I ended up there. The great thing about Xavier is that I got classical training but I also sang with the jazz band,
so now I’m able to do all of that – which makes me marketable.”
Still bereft by her mother’s death and far away from home, she searched for answers and came of age as a young woman.
“I was really angry and I became kind of agnostic. I thought how could God take such an amazing person. I lived like that for awhile. I hooked up with Michael and we were into the fast scene.”
Getting high became her lifestyle. Then one day Michael had a born again experience.
“He was completely changed after that day. I was still getting high and just out there and suddenly we were incompatible because he didn’t want to do the things I wanted to do anymore. My own born again experience took a while. I refused to go to church with him and continued to party while in my heart and mind knowing I wanted what he had. I just didn’t want to give up me.
“Finally one evening he was going to church and he begged me to come with him and I said no. He was literally in tears. I found out later he was thinking that if I didn’t come this was to be the end of our relationship. After he left for church I felt bad, so I drove to the church. When they had the altar call he took me down but I didn’t want to go – I was not ready.”
Her willfulness wilted in the following days.
“God made Himself more and more real to me until finally one day I agreed to pray with Michael and some of his new friends from church. That night as I prayed God took over my tongue and I spoke in a heavenly language which the Bible explains is God’s spirit dwelling in us. And by that spirit being in us we can now be saved.
“From that moment my life changed – no more getting high, no profanity. My view of mankind changed and my purpose changed. It was no longer about me but about Him.”
A new beginning from a terrible end
Her faith was soon put to a severe test when her father was murdered at the family restaurant on a late summer evening in 1979.
“A year before there was a woman that got hired at the restaurant. He caught her taking money and also soliciting the male clients and so he fired her and she didn’t like that. She would call the house and tell people she was her man. She harassed him for a year and it was getting more and more severe: a window broken out in the house; showing up at his job and security escorting her off campus.”
On September 17 the woman went to the restaurant and confronted Metoyer with a small caliber gun. She fired it once and the bullet struck him in the neck and he bled out on the scene.
Not long before, Camille and Michael, who were by then married and raising their first child, interviewed to be family teachers at Boys Town and they were hired. They moved to Omaha to start their new life and career in the shadow of Ray Metoyer’s senseless death.
“The thing that was so difficult about it at the start was that it was two weeks after my father was murdered, so I was coming to the place where he worked. i heard over and over again how much they admired and respected him and what a loss it was, so I was constantly reminded of him.”
It was the most challenging period of her life until a bout with cancer 30-plus years later.
“I moved across country, I lost a loved one and I had a 2-year-old. I had all of those stressors. Today, Michael looks back and says, ‘How did you get through that?’ Through a lot of prayer and believing this is where God wanted us to be.”
The decision to be a family teacher continued her parents’ legacy.
“That’s how we were raised. It’s always about giving back, contributing, making a difference, helping however you can. Besides, once Michael and I gave our lives over to Christ it seemed like a natural thing to do..
“We had the very first girls program. Boys Town had just started the family teaching model. We had an off-campus home at 35th and Davenport. Our girls were all local, so we were able to work with and counsel parents. Then we moved to campus, where we had a transitional living home for boys to learn to live independently.”
It took some adjusting for Camille and Michael, too.
“Initially, the greatest challenge if you have children is being able to divide your time in a way that everybody has a significant amount of you without sacrificing one for the other. A lot of family teacher couples are not successful with that. My kids became very close with a lot of those Boys Town kids.”
She said an important lesson she learned is “don’t take things personally and understand what’s happening.” She added, “There were some kids that can really get under your skin but you can’t let them get under your skin. I would always think, If only I could have had you as a baby. I would have loved to have given them what they should have had early in life. That always made me soften my anger.”
Feeling burned out after 16 years, Camille left Boys Town for a job at the YWCA coordinating programs that introduced girls to nontraditional careers. Then she applied her behavioral management skills to the former Western Electric plant then recently renamed Lucent Technologies, where her sister worked.
A performing life
Meanwhile. Michael, an ordained minister, felt the call to form a church, One Way Ministry, in 1994, that he still pastors today. For years, Camille served as music director and only recently stepped down so that she can sing in the choir.
All the time she worked regular day jobs she rehearsed and performed musicals and concerts evenings and weekends. Her music career took off when she joined a cabaret troupe formed by old friend Becky Noble. They’ve long paired as Nebraska Arts Council touring artists. Camille’s performed with the Omaha Symphonic and Opera Omaha chorus and she’s toured with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. She sang with Soli Dep Gloria Cantorum on a concert tour to Barcelona, Spain.
She’s enjoyed a long collaboration with Chuck Penington and his band. She also headlines her own band. Her keyboardist, David Murphy, offered his take on what makes Camille such an enduring favorite.
“The reason the community loves her is she’s authentic. She’s the real deal. She walks the walk and sings her heart out. It all comes from her soul. She intuitively manages to find the heart of any song,” including ones he’s penned. “It’s about the music and not about her. She consistently respects and enhances the material she tackles and still makes it her own. I absolutely believe she could’ve gone to either coast and had a brilliant career as a performer. Omaha is lucky to have her.”
When Camille’s two kids were small she dragged them to rehearsals. Even today, with her kids grown and out of the home, she’s busy booking, preparing and doing shows. Though her schedule can be draining, she said performing “fills you back up.”
Even though art should be color-blind, race can be an issue, as when she broke color barriers as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Eva Peron in Evita, and when her voice and repertoire aren’t what people expect.
“I don’t have a gospel voice. People expect that because I’m black. I was raised Catholic, so I didn’t have that whole gospel thing. Jazz and musical theater are my influences.”
She’s also a rather subdued performer.
“It’s the purity that I’m into and not all that other stuff and I think people eventually appreciate it.”
At the invitation of friend and sometime collaborator Kathy Tyree she sang at Salem Baptist Church last summer for a gospel program.
“I don’t have gospel arrangements, so I sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ because I find that song very spiritual and they loved it. It was the most talked about song of the evening amidst all these amazing gospel songs. It was the purity of that that people related to.”
Her muted voice blended with Tyree’s big sound for a Divas By Design show they did at the Blue Barn Theatre last fall. The two go way back.
“Camille and I did our first show together 26 years ago: Sophisticated Ladies at the Playhouse,” said Tyree, “What I admired most about Camille back then is what I admire most about her now and that is her peaceful spirit and how beautifully and easily she shares her gifts. She’s not only an amazing artist but a beautiful person as well. Her unshakable faith in God keeps me in awe and her love for people is one of the many reasons I love her so much.”
Not long after Camille’s spiritual awakening in New Orleans and her resettling in Omaha, she landed the role of Mary Magdalene in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Orpheum Theater. She went in to audition for a spot in the chorus but got the plum female part. Her performance won raves and established her as a bright new talent. But she was wary before the opening night curtain rose.
“I had never done anything other than high school-college shows. It was a big leap. I remember standing backstage looking out at that full house and my heart going ker-thump, ker-thump, ker-thump. I started saying a prayer and I heard God say, ‘What is wrong with you, this is your dream, I’m giving you one of the desires of your heart – would you please enjoy it.’ He made me think how trivial this really is compared to homelessness and sickness and that I should just go out and do what I do and entertain the audience.
“I don’t think I’ve gotten nervous-nervous like that again. It just calmed me right down.”
Whether doing a play or a concert, her approach is “very consistent.”
“Doing musical theater, whatever that character is, that’s who I am. Doing cabaret, each song is like its own little vignette, so every song is its own character. When I perform my purpose is to take whatever the composer and lyricist wrote and try to interpret it with whatever he or she had in mind and bring the audience into it. I want to be true to that.
“Somebody told me a long time ago it’s not only about a pretty voice. and it really isn’t it. If you think about all the successful entertainers it really in’t about their singing … but it’s what they do with a song, it’s the passion they bring out of a song. Once you know the song and once you understand what’s behind the song then that’s what happens.”
Her sister Lanette’s seen her on stage perhaps more than anyone and she marvels at Camille’s “persistence to step outside her comfort zone and create any character she tackles and make it believable.”
Everything was coming up roses for Camille personally and professionally when she got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. As a woman of faith, she sought healing through prayer. Heeding her Higher Power, she canceled a surgery and found a new doctor.
“She confirmed I still had the cancer. I told her my story and she revealed she is a woman of faith, too, Most doctors don’t talk about it.
She said, ‘First of all, I understand where you’re coming from spiritually and secondly you’ve had this cancer for a really long time – it is a slow growing cancer and if you’re not ready to have surgery then we don’t do the surgery because then you won’t heal.’ She had total respect for my belief. I knew God provided me her. He got me to the right team.”
Camille underwent radiation chemo treatments, hormone blocker regimens but in the end she required a mastectomy. She continued performing during most of the journey, even proudly displaying her bald head. She had reconstructive surgery in 2014 and 2015.
Not one to dwell on anything, she’s moved forward from the experience.
“The mindset I had at the time is my mindset and it goes along with my philosophy – that’s over, it was a little side step.”
She chose to share her cancer odyssey with the public via Facebook posts. She and her “prayer warriors” exchanged messages of hope about the challenges, indignities and joys of the journey. Her observations ranged from silly to sweet to sublime. Thousands followed her progress, including the inevitable ups and downs, and she later compiled her affirmations into a book.
“I just want to be able to make people understand that Jesus is our healer. We use medicine also but it doesn’t always work. He’s the plan and medicine is the backup plan. I think the more people understand that the better the outcome is.”
Camille’s as busy as ever these days. “I just think of it as this continuum that keeps going.” It’s not like she’s slowed down since realizing her dream of playing Fanny Brice. “That was a high, high point for me but then as things developed there’s been so many other high points.”
It always comes back to keeping it real and finding the root.
“Somebody told me not too long ago, ‘When you sing, you sing from here,’ putting her hand on her midsection. I said, ‘Oh, thank you very much,’ and she said, ‘I mean that, not everybody sings from there.’ And I think she meant from my core, from my heart. That’s what I strive for, that’s my intent.”
From her gut, springs all the glory.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
On Being Human: Choosing Interracial
©by Leo Adam Biga
As one half of an interracial couple living in the racialized America of the Black Lives Matter movement and the presidential election, more than a few thoughts find expression here.
What does it mean to be in an interracial relationship in 2016 America?
What extra responsibilities or burdens, if any. does this reality carry?
Is our being together a political statement in and of itself?
How are we perceived by whites and blacks? Does it really matter to people?
As a couple, do we-should we care what people think about us in this way?
Is there a natural kinship or fraternity between black-white couples?
Have there been real-life awkward Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? or Something New or Guess Who? moments to our yoking? If so, how did we handle them?
If you find yourself in an interracial relationship, how have you handled these things?
Call us what you will:
She’s black. I’m white.
But what do our skin colors actually say about us as a pair, as a union – about our couple-hood?
Why might some view us as traitors to our own kind for having “gone to the other side”?
Did she and I purposely, intentionally go looking for this combo?
Are we fetishizing being with someone from another race?
Or, at the end of the day, are we simply two people who found each other and fell in love and one just happened to be black and the other white?
Is it ever that simple when it comes to race in this country?
What are your experiences and thoughts regarding this?
How might we have invited trouble by getting together?
What price have we paid, if any, for our choice in partners?
Have we lost friends, have we alienated family?
How does race come up in our relationship as an issue or topic?
How might our opposite identifications sometimes create tension or misunderstanding? How has it worked out for you?
How can we possibly be defined by our skin color when we are the collection of a lifetime of experiences, even though those experiences come through the prism of our race?
How can we ever get beyond the words, the symbols, the cultural taboos and the historical-psychic weights that attach to being black and white in America?
If you’re not down with the whole interracial thing, why does it bother you? What does it threaten that you hold dear?
How do these questions and concerns take on added steam with Trump in office?
Are she and I modern day pioneers pushing the shaded boundaries of love? Or is this so routine now that it’s no big deal?
Unless maybe it happens to you or to a loved one, huh?
Where do black-white couples fit within the context of Black Lives Matter? What is our role in the growing multicultural scheme of things? Is this about to be a cold season for interracial couples, biracial children and multicultural families or will we help lead the way to this nation’s racial healing?
As you can see, this post isn’t about answers, it’s about questions – questions that only she and I can answer for ourselves and questions that only you as readers and observers can answer for yourselves.
Besides, the knowing is in the asking.
Diversity finally comes to the NU volleyball program
©by Leo Adam Biga
Kudos to the Nebraska volleyball program for finally joining the 21st century by building a diverse roster of student-athletes that includes African-Americans. Better late than never. For decades the Husker volleyball program has been elite but its rosters have been lily-white, with an occasional Asian-American player, but you would have to look long and hard to find a black girl on any of those teams going back to the early 2000s and even mid-to-late 1990s. That omission always seemed strange and awkward to me but became particulalry glaring the last decade or so as more and more of NU’s peer conference programs, going back to the Big 12 and now in the Big 10, as well as peer national programs featured rosters with one or two or three or more African-American players. I could never understand how a perennial NCAA title contending program that recruits nationally could find itself year after year devoid of even one black player. I mean, what are the odds of that? What if that happened in basketball or softball? Wouldn’t that be cause for concern or called out as something in need of redress or examination? But to my surprise I never heard or saw the situation broached by NU coaches, staff, players or by media covering the program or by fans supporting it. I am quite sure the situation would not have been tolerated or overlooked or pooh-poohed in a sport like basketball. So why was it different with the volleyball program? I expect because the program was so successful in continuing to vie for and win championships and to produce All-Americans and Olympians. Of course, there was a period of time where NU slipped competitively, not by much mind you, but fell behind its elite sister programs and experienced a title drought, clearly falling behind some programs that coincidentially or not did feature black players here and there. Then, out of the blue, LSU All American Briana Holman transferred to Nebraska, though she had to sit out a season, the very year NU returned to championship form. She was the first black player to my knowledge to play for the Huskers in at least 15 years. That same year a second African-American, Tiani Reeves, from Gothenburg, Neb. of all places, joined the team and sat out as a redshirt. As the Huskers look to defend their national title this year Holman has become, as expected, a key cog as a middle blocker and attacker. Reeves has seen only limited action but she possesses great promise for the future. Both players will take leadership spots next season as NU loses the dynamic and dominating Rolfzen twins. And now comes word that of NU’s 5 new signees for the 2017 recruitment class 2 are student-athletes of color and are in fact African-American: Jazz Sweet from Kansas and Chesney McClellan from Tennessee. (See the link below for info on these girls and the other signees).
This is a great if long overdue development for the program and for black girls playing volleyball in Nebraska and the greater Midwest. More and more African-Americans are playing the sport at a high level in club and high school programs and volleyball affords a great avenue and opportuity for college scholarships. The Omaha Starlings volleyball program has been a platform for several area girls, several black girls among them, to earn scholarships at mid-major colleges. Creighton has been ahead of this trend locally and has featured a number of black players the past few years, including a girl from Nebraska and another from Iowa. I can’t speak to why it took so long for black girls to find their way into the Husker program but I am glad it’s finally happened and has seemingly become a thing. I’m sure there wasn’t any intentional bias happening to not recruit black players but the perception from the outside looking in sort of made it seem that way when season after season the complexion of the team never changed to include a black face. That was a bad look for Nebraska. I’m just glad that the Huskers are now among the many teams embodying diversity and not just giving it lip service. You go, Briana and Tiani. You go girls. And can’t wait for Jazz and Cheesney to make a quartet where there used to be none.
Here’s the link to the story about the NU recruiting class that includes Jazz and Cheesney:
UPDATE: I was fortunate enough to attend the Thursday, Sept. 22 An Evening with the Magician event honoring Marlin Briscoe. It was a splendid affair. Omaha’s Black Sports Legends are out in force this week in a way that hasn’t been seen in years, if ever. A Who’s-Who was present for the Magician event at Baxter Arena. They’re back out at Baxter on Sept. 23 for the unveiling of a life-size statue of Marlin. And they’re together again before the kickoff of Omaha South High football game at Collin Field. Marlin is a proud UNO and South High alum. This rare gathering of luminaries is newsworthy and historic enough that it made the front page of the Omaha World-Herald.
It’s too bad that the late Bob Boozer, Fred Hare and Dwaine Dillard couldn’t be a part of the festivities. The same for Don Benning, who now resides in a Memory Care Center. But they were all there in spirit and in the case of Benning, who was a mentor of Marlin Briscoe’s, his son Damon Benning represented as the emcee for the Evening with The Magician event.
So much is happening this fall for Marlin Briscoe, who is finally getting his due. There is his induction in the high school and college football halls of fame. John Beasley, who was a teammate of Marlin’s, is producing a major motion picture, “The Magician,” about his life. This week’s love fest for Briscoe has seen so many of his contemporaries come out to honor him, including Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Roger Sayers, Ron Boone and Johnny Rodgers. Many athletes who came after Marlin and his generation are also showing their love and respect. Having all these sports greats in the same room together on Thursday night was a powerful reminder of what an extraordinary collection of athletic greats came out of this city in a short time span. Many of these living legends came out of the same neighborhood, even the same public housing project. They came up together, competed with and against each other, and influenced each other. They were part of a tight-knit community whose parents, grandparents, neighbors, entrepreneurs, teachers, rec center staffers and coaches all took a hand in nurturing, mentoring and molding these men into successful student-athletes and citizens. It’s a great story and it’s one I’ve told in a series called Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, I plan to turn the series into a book.
Check out the stories at–
Marlin Briscoe finally getting his due
©by Leo Adam Biga
In the afterglow of the recent Rio Summer Olympics, I got to thinking about the athletic lineage of my home state, Nebraska. The Cornhusker state has produced its share of Olympic athletes. But my focus here is not on Olympians from Nebraska, rather on history making athletic figures from the state whose actions transcended their sport. One figure in particular being honored this week in his hometown of Omaha – Marlin Briscoe – shines above all of the rest of his Nebraska contemporaries.
Briscoe not only made history with the Denver Broncos as the first black starting quarterback in the NFL, he made one of the most dramatic transitions in league history when he converted from QB to wide receiver to become all-Pro with the Buffalo Bills. He later became a contributing wideout on back to back Super Bowl-winning teams in Miami. He also made history in the courtroom as a complainant in a suit he and other players brought against then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. The suit accused the league of illegal trust activities that infringed on players’ pursuit of fair market opportunities. When a judge ruled against the NFL, Briscoe and his fellow players in the suit won a settlement and the decision opened up the NFL free-agency market and the subsequent escalation in player salaries.
The legacy of Briscoe as a pioneer who broke the color barrier at quarterback has only recently been celebrated. His story took on even more dramatic import upon the publication of his autobiography, which detailed the serious drug addiction he developed after his NFL career ended and his long road back to recovery. Briscoe has devoted his latter years to serving youth and inspirational speaking. Many honors have come his way, including selection for induction in the high school and college football halls of fame. He has also been the subject of several major feature stories and national documentaries. His life story is being told in a new feature-length film starting production in the spring of 2017.
You can read my collection of stories about Briscoe and other Omaha’s Black Sports Legends at–
Briscoe’s tale is one of many great stories about Nebraska-born athletes. Considering what a small population state it is, Nebraska has given the world an overabundance of great athletes and some great coaches. too, The most high-achieving of these individuals are inducted in national sports halls of fame. Some made history for their competitive exploits on the field or court.
Golfer Johnny Goodman defeated living legend Bobby Jones in match play competition and became the last amateur to win the U.S. Open. Gridiron greats Nile Kinnick, Johnny Rodgers and Eric Crouch won college football’s most prestigious award – the Heisman Trophy. Pitcher Bob Gibson posted the lowest ERA for a season in the modern era of Major League Baseball. Bob Boozer won both an Olympic gold medal and an NBA championship ring. Ron Boone earned the distinction of “Iron Man” by setting the consecutive games played record in professional basketball. Gale Sayers became the youngest player ever inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Rulon Gardner defeated three-time Olympic gold medalist Alexander Karelin in the 2000 Sydney Games to record one of the greatest upsets in Games history.
Terence Crawford has won two world prizefighting titles and in the process single-handedly resurrected the sport of boxing in his hometown of Omaha, where he’s made three title defenses before overflow crowds. He also has a gym in the heart of the inner city he grew up in that serves as a sanctuary for youth and young adults from the mean streets.
Some Nebraskans have made history both for what they did athletically and for what the did away from the field of competition. For example, Marion Hudson integrated Dana College in the early 1950s in addition to being a multi-sport star whose school records in track and field and football still stood on the books decades when the college closed in 2010. Tom Osborne became the first person to be named both the high school and college state athlete of the year in Nebraska. He played three seasons in the NFL before becoming the top assistant to Bob Devaney at the University of Nebraska, where he succeeded Devaney and went to a College Football Hall of Fame coaching career that saw his teams win 250 games and three national titles. After leaving coaching he served as an elected U.S. House of Representatives member. The Teammates mentoring program he established decades ago continues today.
There are many more stories of Nebraska athletes doing good works during and after their playing days. Yet no one from the state has made more of an impact both on and off the playing field than Marlin Briscoe. He is arguably the most important athletic figure to ever come out of Nebraska because his accomplishments have great agency not only in the athletic arena but in terms of history, society and race as well. Growing up in the public housing projects of South Omaha in the late 1950s-early 1960s, Briscoe emerged as a phenom in football and basketball. His rise to local athletic stardom occurred during a Golden Era that saw several sports legends make names for themselves in the span of a decade. He wasn’t the biggest or fastest but he might have been the best overall athlete of this bunch that included future collegiate all-Americans and professional stars.
Right from the jump, Briscoe was an outlier in the sport he’s best remembered for today – football. On whatever youth teams he tried out for, he always competed for and won the starting quarterback position. He did the same at Omaha South High and the University of Omaha. This was at a time when predominantly white schools in the North rarely gave blacks the opportunity to play quarterback. The prevailing belief then by many white coaches was that blacks didn’t possess the intellectual or leadership capacity for the position. Furthermore, there was doubt whether white players would allow themselves to be led by a black player. Fortunately there were coaches who didn’t buy into these fallacies. Nurtured by coaches who recognized both his physical talent and his signal-calling and leadership skills, Briscoe excelled at South and OU.
His uncanny ability to elude trouble with his athleticism and smarts saw him make things happen downfield with his arm and in the open field with his legs, often turning busted plays into long gainers and touchdowns. He also led several comebacks. His improvisational knack led local media to dub him “Marlin the Magician.” The nickname stuck.
Briscoe played nine years in the NFL and thrived as a wide receiver, quarterback, holder and defensive back. He may be the most versatile player to ever play in the league.
He also made history as one of the players who brought suit against the NFL and its Rozelle Rule that barred players from pursuing free market opportunities. A judge ruled for the players and that decision helped usher in modern free agency and the rise in salaries for pro athletes.
His life after football began promisingly enough. He was a successful broker and invested well. He was married with kids and living a very comfortable life. Then the fast life in L.A, caught up with him and he eventually developed a serious drug habit. For a decade his life fell apart and he lost everything – his family. his home, his fortune, his health. His recovery began in jail and through resilience and faith he beat the addiction and began rebuilding his life. He headed a boys and girls club in L.A.
His autobiography told his powerful story of overcoming obstacles.
Contemporary black quarterbacks began expressing gratitude to him for being a pioneer and breaking down barriers.
Much national media attention has come his way, too. That attention is growing as a major motion picture about his life nears production. That film, “The Magician,” is being produced by his old teammate and friend John Beasley of Omaha. Beasley never lost faith in Briscoe and has been in his corner the whole way. He looks forward to adapting his inspirational story to the big screen. Briscoe, who often speaks to youth, wants his story of never giving up to reach as many people as possible because that’s a message he feels many people need to hear and see in their own lives, facing their own obstacles.
Briscoe is being inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame this fall. A night in his honor, to raise money for youth scholarships, is happening September 22 at UNO’s Baxter Arena. Video tributes from past and present NFL greats will be featured. The University of Nebraska at Omaha is also unveiling a life size statue of him on campus on September 23. That event is free and open to the public.
There is an effort under way to get the Veterans Committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to select Briscoe as an inductee and it’s probably only a matter of time before they do.
The fact that he succeeded in the NFL at three offensive positions – quarterback, wide receiver and holder for placekicks – should be enough to get him in alone. The cincher should be the history he made as the first black starting QB and the transition he made from that spot to receiver. His career statistics in the league are proof enough:
97 completions of 233 attempts for 1697 yards with 14 TDs and 14 INTs.
49 attempts for 336 yards and 3 TDs
224 catches for 3537 yards and 30 TDs
Remember, he came into the league as a defensive back, only got a chance to play QB for part of one season and then made himself into a receiver. He had everything working against him and only belief in himself working for him. That, natural ability and hard work helped him prove doubters wrong. His story illusrates why you should never let someone tell you you can’t do something. Dare, risk, dream. He did all that and more. Yes, he stumbled and fell, but he got back up better and stronger than before. Now his story is a testament and a lesson to us all.
The Marlin Briscoe story has more drama, substance and inspiration in it than practically anything you could make up. But it all really happened. And he is finally getting his due.