A Family of Creatives: Rudy Smith, Llana Smith, Q (Quiana) Smith
©by Leo Adam Biga
Creativity can certainly run in families and one of the most blessed and beloved Omaha families I know of in this regard is the Rudy and Llana Smith family. He’s a photographer. She’s a playwright. One of their adult children, Q (Quiana) Smith, is an actress. Here is a collection of stories I’ve done about them individually over the years.
Rudy Smith’s own life is as compelling as any story he ever covered as a photojournalist. Both as a photographer and as a citizen, he was caught up in momentous societal events in the 1960s. This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) examines some of the things he trained his eye and applied his intellect and gave his heart to — incidents and movements whose profound effects are still felt today. Rudy’s now retired, which only means he now has more time to work on a multitude of personal projects, including a book collaboration with his daughter Quiana, and to spend with his wife, Llana. This blog contains stories I did on Quiana and Llana. I have a feeling I will be writing about Rudy again before too long.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It was another August night in the newsroom when word came of a riot breaking out on Omaha’s near northside. If the report were true, it meant for the second time that summer of 1966 minority discontent was turning violent. Rudy Smith was the young Omaha World-Herald photojournalist who caught the story. His job at the newspaper was paying his way through then-Omaha University, where the Central High grad was an NAACP Youth Council and UNO student senate activist. Only three years before, he became the first black to join the Herald’s editorial staff. As a native north Omahan dedicated to his people’s struggle, Smith brought instant credibility to his assignments in the black community. In line with the paper’s unsympathetic civil rights stance at the time, he was often the only photographer sent to the near northside.
“And in many cases my colleagues didn’t want to go. They were fearful of the minority community, and so as a result I covered it. They would just send me,” said Smith, a mellow man whose soft voice disguises a fierce conviction. “As a result, the minority community that never had access to the World-Herald before began to gain access. More stories began to be written and more of the issues concerning north Omaha began to be reported, and from a more accurate perspective.”
It was all part of his efforts “to break down the barriers and the stereotypes.”
Archie Godfrey led the local NAACP Youth Council then. He said Smith’s media savvy made him “our underground railroad” and “bridge” to the system and the general public. “Without his leadership and guidance, we wouldn’t of had a ghost of an understanding of the ins and outs of how the media responds to struggles like ours,” said Godfrey, adding that Smith helped the group craft messages and organize protests for maximum coverage.
More than that, he said, Smith was sought out by fellow journalists for briefings on the state of black Omaha. “A lot of times, they didn’t understand the issues. And when splinter groups started appearing that had their own agendas and axes to grind, it became confusing. Reporters came to Rudy to sound him out and to get clarification. Rudy was familiar with the players. He informed people as to what was real and what was not. He didn’t play favorites. But he also never hid behind that journalistic neutrality. He was right out front. He had the pictures, too. This city will probably never know the balancing act he played in that.”
As a journalist and community catalyst, Smith has straddled two worlds. In one, he’s the objective observer from the mainstream press. In the other, he’s a black man committed to seeing his community’s needs are served. Somehow, he makes both roles work without being a sell out to either cause.
“My integrity has never been an issue,” he said. “As much as I’d like to be involved in the community, I can’t be, because sometimes there are things I have to report on and I don’t want to compromise my professionalism. My life is kind of hidden in plain view. I monitor what’s going on and I let my camera capture the significant things that go on — for a purpose. Those images are stored so that in the next year or two I can put them in book form. Because there are generations coming after me that will never know what really happened, how things changed and who was involved in changing the landscape of Omaha. I want them to have some kind of document that still lives and that they can point to with pride.”
For the deeply religious Smith, nothing’s more important than using “my God-given talents in service of humanity. I look at my life as one of an artist. An artist with a purpose and a mission. I’m driven. I’m working as a journalist on an unfinished masterpiece. My life is my canvas. And the people and the events I experience are the things that go onto my canvas. There is a lot of unfinished business still to be pursued in terms of diversity and opportunity. To me, my greatest contributions have yet to be made. It’s an ongoing process.”
The night of the riot, Smith didn’t know what awaited him, only that his own community was in trouble. He drove to The Hood, leaving behind the burnt orange hard hat a colleague gave him back at the office.
“I knew the area real well. I parked near 20th and Grace Streets and I walked through the alleys and back yards to 24th Street, and then back to 23rd.”
Most of the fires were concentrated on 24th. A restaurant, shoe shine parlor and clothing store were among the casualties. Then he came upon a church on fire. It was Paradise Baptist, where he attended as a kid.
“I cussed, repeating over and over, ‘My church, my church, my church,’ and I started taking pictures. Then I heard — ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ — and there were these two national guardsmen pointing their guns at me. ‘I’m with the World-Herald,’ I said. I kept snapping away. Then, totally disregarding what I said, they told me, ‘Come over here.’ This one said to the other, ‘Let’s shoot this nigger,’ and went to me, ‘C’mon,’ and put the nuzzle of his rifle to the back of my head and pushed me around to the back of the building. As we went around there, I heard that same one say, ‘There ain’t nobody back here. Let’s off him, he’s got no business being here anyway.’ I was scared and looking around for help.
That’s when I saw a National Guard officer, the mayor and some others about a half-block away. I called out, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’ ‘Who is it?’ ‘Rudy Smith, World-Herald.’ ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ‘I’m taking pictures and these two guys are going to shoot me.’ The officer said, ‘C’mon over here.’ ‘Well, they aren’t going to let me.’ ‘Come here.’ So, I went…those two guys still behind me. I told the man again who I was and what I was doing, and he goes, ‘Well, you have no damn business being here. You know you could have been killed? You gotta get out of here.’ And I did. But I got a picture of the guardsmen standing in front of that burning church, silhouetted by the fire, their guns on their shoulders. The Herald printed it the next day.”
Seeing his community go up in flames, Smith said, “was devastating.” The riots precipitated the near northside’s decline. Over the years, he’s chronicled the fall of his community. In the riots’ aftermath, many merchants and residents left, with only a shell of the community remaining. Just as damaging was the later North Freeway construction that razed hundreds of homes and uprooted as many families. In on-camera comments for the UNO Television documentary Omaha Since World War II, Smith said, “How do you prepare for an Interstate system to come through and divide a community that for 60-70 years was cohesive? It was kind of like a big rupture or eruption that just destroyed the landscape.” He said in the aftermath of so much destruction, people “didn’t see hope alive in Omaha.”
Today, Smith is a veteran, much-honored photojournalist who does see a bright future for his community. “I’m beginning to see a revival and resurgence in north Omaha, and that’s encouraging. It may not come to fruition in my lifetime, but I’m beginning to see seeds being planted in the form of ideas, directions and new leaders that will eventually lead to the revitalization of north Omaha,” he said.
Rudy Smith, ©photo by Chris Machian, Omaha World-Herald
His optimism is based, in part, on redevelopment along North 24th. There are streetscape improvements underway, the soon-to-open Loves Jazz and Cultural Arts Center, a newly completed jazz park, a family life center under construction and a commercial strip mall going up. Then there’s the evolving riverfront and Creighton University expansion just to the south. Now that there’s momentum building, he said it’s vital north Omaha directly benefit from the progress. Too often, he feels that historically disenfranchised north Omaha is treated as an isolated district whose problems and needs are its own. The reality is that many cross-currents of commerce and interest flow between the near northside and wider (read: whiter) Omaha. Inner city residents work and shop outside the community just as residents from other parts of the city work in North O or own land and businesses there.
“What happens in north Omaha affects the entire city,” Smith said. “When you come down to it, it’s about economics. The north side is a vital player in the vitality and the health of the city, particularly downtown. If downtown is going to be healthy, you’ve got to have a healthy surrounding community. So, everybody has a vested interest in the well-being of north Omaha.”
It’s a community he has deep ties to. His involvement is multi-layered, ranging from the images he makes to the good works he does to the assorted projects he takes on. All of it, he said, is “an extension of my faith.” He and his wife of 37 years, Llana, have three grown children who, like their parents, have been immersed in activities at their place of worship, Salem Baptist Church. Church is just one avenue Smith uses to strengthen and celebrate his community and his people.
With friend Edgar Hicks he co-founded the minority investment club, Mite Multipliers. With Great Plains Black Museum founder Bertha Calloway and Smithsonian Institute historian Alonzo Smith he collaborated on the 1999 book, Visions of Freedom on the Great Plains: An Illustrated History of African Americans in Nebraska. Last summer, he helped bring a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibit to the Western Heritage Museum. Then there’s the book of his own photos and commentary he’s preparing. He’s also planning a book with his New York theater actress daughter, Quiana, that will essay in words and images the stories of the American theater’s black divas. And then there’s the petition drive he’s heading to get Marlin Briscoe inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame.
Putting others first is a Smith trait. The second oldest of eight siblings, he helped provide for and raise his younger brothers and sisters. His father abandoned the family after he was conceived. Smith was born in Philadelphia and his mother moved the family west to Omaha, where her sister lived. His mother remarried. She was a domestic for well-to-do whites and a teenaged Rudy a servant for black Omaha physician W.W. Solomon. Times were hard. The Smiths lived in such squalor that Rudy called their early residence “a Southern-style shotgun house” whose holes they “stuffed with rags, papers, and socks. That’s what we call caulking today,” he joked. When, at 16, his step-father died in a construction accident, Rudy’s mother came to him and said, “‘You’re going to take over as head of the family.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ To me, it was just something that had to be done.”
Smith’s old friend from the The Movement, Archie Godfrey, recalled Rudy as “mature beyond his years. He had more responsibilities than the rest of us had and still took time to be involved. He’s like a rock. He’s just been consistent like that.”
“I think my hardships growing up prepared me for what I had to endure and for decisions I had to make,” Smith said. “I was always thrust into situations where somebody had to step up to the front…and I’ve never been afraid to do that.”
When issues arise, Smith’s approach is considered, not rash, and reflect an ideology influenced by the passive resistance philosophies and strategies of such diverse figures as Machiavelli, Gandhi and King as well as the more righteous fervor of Malcolm X. Smith said a publication that sprang from the black power movement, The Black Scholar, inspired he and fellow UNO student activists to agitate for change. Smith introduced legislation to create UNO’s black studies department, whose current chair, Robert Chrisman, is the Scholar’s founder and editor. Smith also campaigned for UNO’s merger with the University of Nebraska system. More recently, he advocated for change as a member of the Nebraska Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, which oversees state departmental compliance with federal mandates for enhanced hiring, promotion and retention of minorities and women.
The camera, though, remains his most expressive tool. Whether it’s a downtown demonstration brimming with indignation or the haunted face of an indigent man or an old woman working a field or Robert Kennedy stumping in North O, his images capture poignant truth. “For some reason, I always knew whatever I shot was for historical purposes,” he said. “When it’s history, that moment will never be revisited again. Words can describe it, but images live on forever. Just like freedom marches on.”
Rudy Smith was a lot of places where breaking news happened. That was his job as an Omaha World-Herald photojournalist. Early in his career he was there when riots broke out on the Near Northside, the largely African-American community he came from and lived in. He was there too when any number of civil rights events and figures came through town. Smith himself was active in social justice causes as a young man and sometimes the very events he covered he had an intimate connection with in his private life. The following story keys off an exhibition of his work from a few years ago that featured his civil rights-social protest photography from the 1960s. You’ll find more stories about Rudy, his wife Llana, and their daughter Quiana on this blog.
A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Coursing down North 24th Street in his car one recent afternoon, Rudy Smith retraced the path of the 1969 summer riots that erupted on Omaha’s near northside. Smith was a young Omaha World-Herald photographer then.
The disturbance he was sent to cover was a reaction to pent up discontent among black residents. Earlier riots, in 1966 and 1968, set the stage. The flash point for the 1969 unrest was the fatal shooting of teenager Vivian Strong by Omaha police officer James Loder in the Logan Fontenelle Housing projects. As word of the incident spread, a crowd gathered and mob violence broke out.
Windows were broken and fires set in dozens of commercial buildings on and off Omaha’s 24th Street strip. The riot leapfrogged east to west, from 23rd to 24th Streets, and south to north, from Clark to Lake. Looting followed. Officials declared a state of martial law. Nebraska National Guardsmen were called in to help restore order. Some structures suffered minor damage but others went up entirely in flames, leaving only gutted shells whose charred remains smoldered for days.
Smith arrived at the scene of the breaking story with more than the usual journalistic curiosity. The politically aware African-American grew up in the black area ablaze around him. As an NAACP Youth and College Chapter leader, he’d toured the devastation of Watts, trained in nonviolent resistance and advocated for the formation of a black studies program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he was a student activist. But this was different. This was home.
On the night of July 1 he found his community under siege by some of its own. The places torched belonged to people he knew. At the corner of 23rd and Clark he came upon a fire consuming the wood frame St. Paul Baptist Church, once the site of Paradise Baptist, where he’d worshiped. As he snapped pics with his Nikon 35 millimeter camera, a pair of white National Guard troops spotted him, rifles drawn. In the unfolding chaos, he said, the troopers discussed offing him and began to escort him at gun point to around the back before others intervened.
Just as he was “transformed” by the wreckage of Watts, his eyes were “opened” by the crucible of witnessing his beloved neighborhood going up in flames and then coming close to his own demise. Aspects of his maturation, disillusionment and spirituality are evident in his work. A photo depicts the illuminated church inferno in the background as firemen and guardsmen stand silhouetted in the foreground.
The stark black and white ultrachrome prints Smith made of this and other burning moments from Omaha’s civil rights struggle are displayed in the exhibition Freedom Journeynow through December 23 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2512 North 24th Street. His photos of the incendiary riots and their bleak aftermath, of large marches and rallies, of vigilant Black Panthers, a fiery Ernie Chambers and a vibrant Robert F. Kennedy depict the city’s bumpy, still unfinished road to equality.
The Smith image promoting the exhibit is of a 1968 march down the center of North 24th. Omaha Star publisher and civil rights champion Mildred Brown is in the well-dressed contingent whose demeanor bears funereal solemnity and proud defiance. A man at the head of the procession holds aloft an American flag. For Smith, an image such as this one “portrays possibilities” in the “great solidarity among young, old, white, black, clergy, lay people, radicals and moderates” who marched as one,” he said. “They all represented Omaha or what potentially could be really good about Omaha. When I look at that I think, Why couldn’t the city of Omaha be like a march? All races, creeds, socioeconomic backgrounds together going in one direction for a common cause. I see all that in the picture.”
Images from the OWH archives and other sources reveal snatches of Omaha’s early civil rights experience, including actions by the Ministerial Alliance, Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, De Porres Club, NAACP and Urban League. Polaroids by Pat Brown capture Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his only visit to Omaha, in 1958, for a conference. He’s seen relaxing at the Omaha home of Ed and Bertha Moore. Already a national figure as organizer of the Birmingham (Ala.) bus boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he’s the image of an ambitious young man with much ahead of him. Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr. joined him. Ten years later Smith photographed Robert F. Kennedy stumping for the 1968 Democratic presidential bid amid an adoring crowd at 24th and Erskine. Two weeks later RFK was shot and killed, joining MLK as a martyr for The Cause.
Omaha’s civil rights history is explored side by side with the nation’s in words and images that recreate the panels adorning the MLK Bridge on Omaha’s downtown riverfront. The exhibit is a powerful account of how Omaha was connected to and shaped by this Freedom Journey. How the demonstrations and sit-ins down south had their parallel here. So, too, the riots in places like Watts and Detroit.
Acts of arson and vandalism raged over four nights in Omaha the summer of ‘69. The monetary damage was high. The loss of hope higher. Glimpses of the fall out are seen in Smith’s images of damaged buildings like Ideal Hardware and Carter’s Cafe. On his recent drive-thru the riot’s path, he recited a long list of casualties — cleaners, grocery stores, gas stations, et cetera — on either side of 24th. Among the few unscathed spots was the Omaha Star, where Brown had a trio of Panthers, including David Poindexter, stand guard outside. Smith made a portrait of them in their berets, one, Eddie Bolden, cradling a rifle, a band of ammunition slung across his chest. “They served a valuable community service that night,” he said.
Most owners, black and white, never reopened there. Their handsome brick buildings had been home to businesses for decades. Their destruction left a physical and spiritual void. “It just kind of took the heart out of the community,” Smith said. “Nobody was going to come back here. I heard young people say so many times, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here.’ Many went away to college and never came back. That brain drain hurt. It took a toll on me watching that.”
Boarded-up ruins became a common site for blocks. For years, they stood as sad reminders of what had been lost. Only in the last decade did the city raze the last of these, often leaving only vacant lots and harsh memories in their place. “Some buildings stood like sentinels for years showing the devastation,” Smith said.
His portrait of Ernie Chambers shows an engaged leader who, in the post-riot wake, addresses a crowd begging to know, as Smith said, “Where do we go from here?’
Smith’s photos chart a community still searching for answers four decades later and provide a narrative for its scarred landscape. For him, documenting this history is all about answering questions about “the history of north Omaha and what really happened here. What was on these empty lots? Why are there no buildings there today? Who occupied them?” Minus this context, he said, “it’d be almost as if your history was whitewashed. If we’re left without our history, we perish and we’re doomed to repeat” past ills. “Those images challenge us. That was my whole purpose for shooting them…to challenge people, educate people so their history won’t be forgotten. I want these images to live beyond me to tell their own story, so that some day young people can be proud of what they see good out here because they know from whence it came.”
An in-progress oral history component of the exhibit will include Smith’s personal accounts of the civil rights struggle.
About a decade ago I became reacquainted with a former University of Nebraska at Omaha adjunct professor of photography, Rudy Smith, who was an award-winning photojournalist with the Omaha World-Herald. I was an abject failure as a photography student, but I have managed to fare somewhat better as a freelance writer-reporter. When I began covering aspects of Omaha‘s African-American community with some consistency, Rudy was someone I reached out to as a source and guide. We became friends along the way. I still call on him from time to time to offer me perspective and leads. I’ve gotten to know a bit of Rudy’s personal story, which includes coming out of poverty and making a life and career for himself as the first African-American employed in the Omaha World-Herald newsroom and agitating for social change on the UNO campus and in greater Omaha.
I have also come to know some members of his immediate family, including his wife Llana and their musical theater daughter Quiana or Q as she goes by professionally. Llana is a sweet woman who has her own story of survival and strength. She and and Rudy are devout Christians active in their church, Salem Baptist, where Llana continues a family legacy of writing-directing gospel dramas. She’s lately taken her craft outside Omaha as well. I have tried getting this story published in print publications to no avail. With no further adieu then, this is Llana’s story:
Gospel Playwright Llana Smith Enjoys Her Big Mama’s Time
©by Leo Adam Biga
When the spirit moves Llana Smith to write one of her gospel plays, she’s convinced she’s an instrument of the Lord in the burst of creative expression that follows. It’s her hand holding the pen and writing the words on a yellow note pad alright, but she believes a Higher Power guides her.
“I look at it as a gift. It’s not something I can just do. I’ve got to pray about it and kind of see where the Lord is leading me and then I can write,” said the former Llana Jones. “I’ll start writing and things just come. Without really praying about it I can write the messiest play you ever want to see.”
She said she can only be a vessel if she opens herself up “to be used.” It’s why she makes a distinction between an inspired gift and an innate talent. Her work, increasingly performed around the nation, is part of a legacy of faith and art that began with her late mother Pauline Beverly Jones Smith and that now extends to her daughter Quiana Smith.
The family’s long been a fixture at Salem Baptist Church in north Omaha. Pauline led the drama ministry program — writing-directing dramatic interpretations — before Llana succeeded her in the 1980s. For a time, their roles overlapped, with mom handling the adult drama programs and Llana the youth programs.
“My mother really was the one who started all this out,” Smith said. “She was gifted to do what she did and some of what she did she passed on to me.”
Married to photojournalist Rudy Smith, Llana and her mate’s three children grew up at Salem and she enlisted each to perform orations, sketches and songs. The youngest, Quiana, blossomed into a star vocalist/actress. She appeared on Broadway in a revival of Les Miserables. In 2004 Llana recruited Quiana, already a New York stage veteran by then, to take a featured role in an Easter production of her The Crucifixion: Through the Eyes of a Cross Maker at Salem.
Three generations of women expressing their faith. From one to the next to the other each has passed this gift on to her successor and grown it a bit more.
Pauline recognized it in Llana, who recalled her mother once remarked, “How do you come up with all this stuff? I could never have done that.” To which Llana replied, ‘Well, Mom, it just comes, it’s just a gift. You got it.” Pauline corrected her with, “No, I don’t have it like that. You really have the gift.”
“Them were some of the most important words she ever said to me,” Smith said.
Miss Pauline saw the calling in her granddaughter, too. “My mother would always say, ‘Quiana’s going to be the one to take this further — to take this higher.’ Well, sure enough, she has,” Smith said. “Quiana can write, she can direct, she can act and she can SING. She’s taken it all the way to New York. From my mother’s foundation all the way to what Quiana’s doing, it has just expanded to where we never could have imagined. It just went right on down the line.”
Whether writing a drama extracted from the gospels or lifted right from the streets, Smith is well-versed in the material and the territory. The conflict and redemption of gospel plays resonate with her own experience — from her chaotic childhood to the recent home invasion her family suffered.
Born in a Milford, Neb. home for young unwed mothers, Smith knew all about instability and poverty growing up in North O with her largely absentee, unemployed, single mom. Smith said years later Pauline admitted she wasn’t ready to be a mother then. For a long time Smith carried “a real resentment” about her childhood being stolen away. For example, she cared for her younger siblings while Pauline was off “running the streets.” “I did most of the cooking and cleaning and stuff,” Smith said. With so much on her shoulders she fared poorly in school.
She witnessed and endured physical abuse at the hands of her alcoholic step-father and discovered the man she thought was her daddy wasn’t at all. When her biological father entered her life she found out a school bully was actually her half-sister and a best friend was really her cousin.
It was only when the teenaged Llana married Rudy her mother did a “turnabout” and settled down, marrying a man with children she raised as her own. “She did a good job raising those kids. She became the church clerk. She was very well respected,” said Smith, who forgave her mother despite the abandonment she felt. “She ended up being my best friend. Nobody could have told me that.”
Until then, however, the only security Smith could count on was when her Aunt Annie and Uncle Bill gave her refuge or when she was at church. She’s sure what kept her from dropping out of school or getting hooked on drugs or turning tricks — some of the very things that befell classmates of hers — was her faith.
“Oh, definitely, no question about it, I could have went either way if it hadn’t really been for church.” she said. “It was the one basic foundation we had.”
In Rudy, she found a fellow believer. A few years older, he came from similar straits.
“I was poor and he was poor-poor,” she said. “We both knew we wanted more than what we had. We wanted out of this. We didn’t want it for our kids. To me, it was survival. I had to survive because I was looking at my sister and my brother and if they don’t have me well, then, sometimes they wouldn’t have nobody. I had to make it through. I never had any thought of giving up. I did wonder, Why me? But running away and leaving them, it never crossed my mind. We had to survive.”
Her personal journey gives her a real connection to the hard times and plaintive hopes that permeate black music and drama. She’s lived it. It’s why she feels a deep kinship with the black church and its tradition of using music and drama ministry to guide troubled souls from despair to joy.
Hilltop is a play she wrote about the driveby shootings and illicit drug activities plaguing the Hilltop-Pleasantview public housing project in Omaha. The drama looks at the real-life transformation some gangbangers made to leave it all behind.
Gospel plays use well-worn conventions, characters and situations to enact Biblical stories, to portray moments/figures in history or to examine modern social ills. Themes are interpreted through the prism of the black experience and the black church, lending the dramas an earthy yet moralistic tone. Even the more secular, contemporary allegories carry a scripturally-drawn message.
Not unlike an August Wilson play, you’ll find the hustler, the pimp, the addict, the loan shark, the Gs, the barber, the beauty salon operator, the mortician, the minister, the do-gooder, the gossip, the busy-body, the player, the slut, the gay guy, et cetera. Iconic settings are also popular. Smith’s Big Momma’s Prayer opens at a church, her These Walls Must Come Down switches between a beauty shop and a detail shop and her Against All Odds We Made It jumps back and forth from a nail shop to a hoops court.
The drama, typically infused with healthy doses of comedy, music, singing and dancing, revolves around the poor choices people make out of sheer willfulness. A breakup, an extramarital affair, a bad business investment, a drug habit or a resentment sets events in motion. There’s almost always a prodigal son or daughter that’s drifted away and become alienated from the family.
The wayward characters led astray come back into the fold of family and church only after some crucible. The end is almost always a celebration of their return, their atonement, their rebirth. It is affirmation raised to high praise and worship.
At the center of it all is the ubiquitous Big Mama figure who exists in many black families. This matriarch is the rock holding the entire works together.
“She’s just so real to a lot of us,” Smith said.
Aunt Annie was the Big Mama in Smith’s early life before her mother was finally ready to assume that role. Smith’s inherited the crown now.
If it all sounds familiar then it’s probably due to Tyler Perry, the actor-writer-director responsible for introducing Big Mama or Madea to white America through his popular plays and movies. His big screen successes are really just more sophisticated, secularized versions of the gospel plays that first made him a star. Where his plays originally found huge, albeit mostly black, audiences, his movies have found broad mainstream acceptance.
Madea is Perry’s signature character.
“When Madea talks she be talking stuff everybody can relate to,” Smith said. “Stuff that’s going on. Every day stuff. We can relate to any and everything she be saying. That character’s a trip. It’s the truth. One of my mother’s best friends was just like Madea. She smoked that cigarette, she talked from the corner of her mouth, she could cuss you out at the drop of a hat and she packed her knife in her bosom.”
Smith appreciates Perry’s groundbreaking work. “That is my idol…my icon. At the top of my list is to meet this man and to thank him for what he’s done,” she said. She also likes the fact “he attributes a lot of what he does to the Lord.”
Her own work shows gospel plays’ ever widening reach — with dramas produced at churches and at the Rose and Orpheum Theatres. She first made her mark with Black History Month presentations at Salem with actors portraying such figures as Medgar Evers, Harriet Tubman and Marian Anderson. Her mom once played Jean Pittman. A son played Martin Luther King Jr. She enjoys “bringing history to life.”
Her Easter-Christmas dramas grew ever grander. Much of that time she collaborated with Salem’s then-Minister of Music, Jay Terrell, and dance director, Shirley Terrell-Jordan. Smith’s recently stepped back from Salem to create plays outside Nebraska. That’s something not even her mother did, although Pauline’s Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God did tour the Midwest and South.
At the urging of Terrell, a Gospel Workshop of America presenter and gospel music composer now at Beulahland Bible Church in Macon, Ga., Smith’s taking her gift “outside the walls of the church.” In 2005 her Big Momma’s Prayer was scored and directed by Terrell for a production at a Macon dinner theater. The drama played to packed houses. A couple years later he provided the music for her These Walls, which Smith directed to overflow audiences at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas. In 2008 her Against All Odds was a hit at Oakridge Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., where she, Terrell-Jordan and Jay Terrell worked with some 175 teens in dance-music-drama workshops.
Against All Odds took on new meaning for Smith when she wrote and staged the drama in the aftermath of a home invasion in which an intruder bound and gagged her, Rudy and a foster-daughter. Rudy suffered a concussion. A suspect in the incident was recently arrested and brought up on charges.
Smith’s work with Terrell is another way she continues the path her mother began. Doretha Wade was Salem’s music director when Pauline did her drama thing there. The two women collaborated on Your Arms Are Too Short, There’s a Stranger in Town and many other pieces. Wade brought the Salem Inspirational Choir its greatest triumph when she and gospel music legend Rev. James Cleveland directed the choir in recording the Grammy-nominated album My Arms Feel Noways Tired. Smith, an alto, sang in the choir, is on the album and went to the Grammys in L.A.
Terrell’s been a great encourager of Smith’s work and the two enjoy a collaboration similar to what Doretha and Pauline shared. “To see how Doretha and her worked to bring the music and the drama together was a big influence and, lo and behold, Jay and I have become the same,” she said.
Smith and Terrell have discussed holding gospel play workshops around the country. Meanwhile, she staged an elaborate production at Salem this past Easter. There’s talk of reviving a great big gospel show called Shout! that Llana wrote dramatic skits for and that packed The Rose Theatre. It’s all coming fast and furious for this Big Mama.
“This is like a whole new chapter in my life,” she said.
NOTE: I am reposting the following article because its subject, Quiana Smith, who goes by Q. Smith professionally, is back in our shared hometown of Omaha, Neb. with the national Broadway touring production of Mary Poppins. Quiana, recently promoted to the part of Miss Andrew, will perform as part of a 23-show run at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha, where loads of family and friends will be sure to cheer her on. This isn’t the first time she’s made a splash: she’s made waves off-Broadway (Fame) and on Broadway (Les Miserables) and in many regional theater productions. But this time she’s come home as part of a Broadway show. Sweet.
Quiana is a daughter of my good acquaintances Rudy and Llana Smith. She’s inherited their talent and drive and gone them one further by pursuing and realizing her dream of a musical theater career in New York. This profile of Quiana for The Reader (www.thereader.com) expresses this dynamic young woman’s heart and passion. It’s been a few years since I’ve spoken with her, and I’m eager to find out what she’s been up to lately, and how she and her father are coming along on a book project about African-American stage divas. Quiana is to write it and Rudy, a professional photographer, is to shoot it. Her mother, Llana, is a theater person, too — writing and directing gospel plays. My story on Llana Smith is posted on this site and I will soon be adding a story I did on Rudy Smith. They are a remarkable family.
Quiana Smith, aka Q. Smith in Mary Poppins
Quiana Smith’s Dream Time Takes Her to Regional, Off-Broadway and Great White Way Theater Success
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Once the dream took hold, Quiana Smith never let go. Coming up on Omaha’s north side she discovered a flair for dramatics and a talent for singing she hoped would lead to a musical theater career. On Broadway. After a steady climb up the ladder her dream comes true tomorrow when a revival of Les Miserables open at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Q. Smith, as her stage name reads, is listed right there in the program, as a swing covering five parts, a testament to her versatility.
Before Les Miz is over Smith will no doubt get a chance to display her big, bold, brassy, bodacious self, complete with her shaved head, soaring voice, infectious laugh and broad smile. Her Broadway debut follows featured roles in the off-Broadway Fame On 42nd Street at NY‘s Little Shubert Theater in 2004 and Abyssinia at the North Shore Theater (Connecticut) in 2005. Those shows followed years on the road touring with musical theater companies or doing regional theater.
Fame’s story about young performers’ big dreams resonated for Smith and her own Broadway-bound aspirations. As Mabel, an oversized dancer seeking name-in-lights glory, she inhabited a part close to her ample self, projecting a passion akin to her own bright spirit and radiating a faith not unlike her deep spirituality. In an Act II scene she belted out a gospel-inspired tune, Mabel’s Prayer, that highlighted her multi-octave voice, impassioned vibrato and sweet, sassy, soulful personality. In the throes of a sacred song like this, Smith retreats to a place inside herself she calls “my secret little box,” where she sings only “to God and to myself. It’s very, very personal.” Whether or not she gets on stage this weekend in Les Miz you can be sure the 28-year-old will be offering praise and thanksgiving to her higher power.
It all began for her at Salem Baptist Church, where her grandmother and mother, have written and directed gospel plays for the dramatic ministry program. At her mother Llana’s urging, Smith and her brothers sang and acted as children. “My brothers got really tired of it, but I loved the attention, so I stuck with it,” said Smith, who began making a name for herself singing gospel hymns, performing skits and reciting poetry at Salem and other venues. She got attention at home, too, where she’d crack open the bathroom window and wail away so loud and finethat neighborhood kids would gather outside and proclaim, “You sure can sing, Quiana” “We were just a real creative house,” said Quiana’s mother.
Quiana further honed her craft in classes at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theatre and, later, at North High School, where music/drama teacher Patrick Ribar recalls the impression Smith made on her. “The first thing I noticed about Quiana was her spark and flair for the stage. She was so creative…so diverse. She would do little things to make a part her own. I was amazed. She could hold an audience right away. She has such a warmth and she’s so fun that it’s hard not to like her.”
Still, performing was more a recreational activity than anything else. “Back then, I never knew I wanted to do this as a career,” Smith said. “I just liked doing it and I liked the great response I seemed to get from the audience. But as far as a career, I thought I was going to be an archaeologist.”
She was 15, and a junior at North, when her first brush with stardom came at the old Center Stage Theatre. She saw an audition notice and showed up, only to find no part for a black girl. She auditioned anyway, impressing executive directorLinda Runice enough to be invited back to tryout for a production of Dreamgirls. The pony-tailed hopeful arrived, in jeans and sweatshirt, sans any prepared music, yet director Michael Runice (Linda’s husband) cast her as an ensemble member.
Then, in classic a-star-is-born fashion, the leading lady phoned-in just before rehearsal the night before opening night to say she was bowing out due to a death-in-the-family. That’s when Mike Runice followed his instinct and plucked Smith from the obscurity of the chorus into a lead role she had less than 24 hours to master.
“It was like in a movie,” Smith said. “The director turned around and said to me, ‘It’s up to you, kid.’ I don’t know why he gave it to me to this day. You should have seen the cast. It was full of talented women. I was the youngest.” And greenest. Linda Runice said Smith got it because “she was so talented. She had been strongly considered for the role anyway, but she was so young and it’s such a demanding role. But she was one of those rare packages who could do it all. You saw the potential when she hit the stage, and she just blew them out of the theater.”
What began as a lark and segued into a misadventure, turned into a pressure-packed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only did an already excited and scared Smith have precious little time to steel herself for the rigorous part and for the burden of carrying a show on her young shoulders, there was still school to think about, including finals, not to mention her turning sweet 16.
“The director wrote me a note to let me out of school early and he came to pick me up and take me to the theater. From 12 to 8, I was getting fitted for all the costumes, I was learning all the choreography, I was going over all the line readings, I was singing all the songs, and it was just crazy. A crash course.”
Smith pushed so hard, so fast to nail the demanding music in time for the show that she, just as the Runices feared, strained her untrained voice, forcing her to speak many of the songs on stage. That opening night is one she both savors and abhors. “That was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “It was the best thing because if it wasn’t for that experience I’d probably be digging up fossils somewhere, which isn’t bad, but I wouldn’t be fulfilled. And it was the worst because I was so embarrassed.”
In true trouper tradition, Smith and the show went on. “What a responsiblity she carried for someone so young, and she carried it off with all the dignity and aplomb anyone could ever want,” Linda Runice said. Smith even kept the role the entire run. The confidence she gained via this baptism-by-fire fueled her ambition. “I told myself, If I can do this, I can do anything,” Smith said. Runice remembers her “as this bubbly, fresh teenager who was going to set the world on fire, and she has.”
To make her Broadway debut in Les Miz is poetic justice, as that show first inspired Smith’s stage aspirations. She heard songs from it in a North High music class and was really bit after seeing a Broadway touring production of it at the Orpheum.
“It was my introduction to musical theater. I fell in love with it,” she said. “I already had a double cassette of the cast album and I would listen to this song called ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ over and over. It was sung by Patti Lapone. I tried to teach myself to sing like that. When I finally met her last year I told her the story. That song is still in my audition book.”
Smith dreamed of doing Lez Miz in New York. Ribar recalls her telling him soon after they met, “‘One day I’m going to be on Broadway…’ She was bound and determined. Nothing was going to stop her. So, she goes there, and the next thing you know…she’s on Broadway. With her determination and talent, you just knew she was right on the edge of really brilliant things in her life. I brag about her to the kids as someone who’s pursued her dream,” he said. Stardom, he’s sure, isn’t far off. “Once the right role shows up, it’s a done deal.”
A scholarship led her to UNO, where she studied drama two years. All the while, she applied to prestigious theater arts programs back east to be closer to New York. Her plans nearly took a major detour when, after an audition in Chicago, she was accepted, on the spot, by the Mountview Conservatory in London to study opera. Possessing a fine mezzo soprano voice, her rendition of an Italian aria knocked school officials out. She visited the staid old institution, fell in love with London, but ultimately decided against it. “The opera world, to me, isn’t as exciting and as free as the musical theater world is,” she said. “Besides, it was a two or three-year conservatory program, and I really wanted the whole college experience to make me a whole person.”
©photo by David Wells
Her musical theater track resumed with a scholarship to Ithaca (NY) College, where she and a classmate became the first black female grads of the school’s small theater arts program. She also took private voice and speech training. At Ithaca, she ran into racial stereotyping. “When I first got there everybody expected you to sing gospel or things from black musicals,” she said. “Everything was black or white. And I was like, It doesn’t have to be like that. I can do more than gospel. I can do more than R&B. I can do legit. I really had to work hard to prove myself.”
Her experience inspired an idea for a book she and her father, Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith, are collaborating on. She interviews black female musical theater actresses to reveal how these women overturn biases, break down barriers and open doors. “We’re rare,” she said of this sisterhood. “These women are an inspiration to me. They don’t take anything from anybody. They’re divas, honey. Back in the day, you would take any part that came to you because it was a job, but this is a new age and we are allowed to say, No. In college, I would have loved to have been able to read about what contemporary black females are doing in musical theater.” Her father photographs the profile subjects.
She’s had few doubts about performing being her destiny. One time her certainty did falter was when she kept applying for and getting rejected by college theater arts programs. She sought her dad’s counsel. “I said, ‘Dad…how do I know this is for me?’ He was like, ‘Sweetheart, it’s what you breath, right?’ It’s what you go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah…’ ‘OK, then, that’s what you should be doing.’ And, so, I never gave up. I kept on auditioning and I finally got accepted to Ithaca.”
Smith has worked steadily since moving to the Big Apple. Her credits include speaking-singing parts in productions of Hair at the Zachary Scott Theatre and The Who’s Tommy at the Greenwich St. Theatre and performing gigs in five touring road shows. Those road trips taught her a lot about her profession and about herself. On a months-long winter tour through Germany with the Black Gospel Singers, which often found her and her robed choir mates performing in magnificent but unheated cathedrals, she got in touch with her musical-cultural heritage. “Gospel is my roots and being part of the gospel singers just brought my roots back,” she said.
New York is clearly where Smith belongs. “I just feel like I’ve always known New York. I always dreamed about it. It was so easy and comfortable when I first came here,” she said. “Walking the streets alone at 1 a.m., I felt at home, like it was meant to be. It’s in my blood or something.”
Until Fame and now Les Miz, New York was where she lived between tours. Her first of two cross-country stints in Smokey Joe’s Cafe proved personally and professionally rewarding. She understudied roles that called for her to play up in age, not a stretch for “an old soul” like Smith. She also learned lessons from the show’s star, Gladys Knight. “She was definitely someone who gave it 100 percent every night, no matter if she was hoarse or sick, and she demanded that from us as well,” Smith said, “and I appreciated that. The nights I didn’t go on, I would go out into the audience and watch her numbers and she just blew the house down every single night. And I was like, I want to be just like that. I learned…about perseverance and about dedication to the gift God has given you.”
For a second Smokey stint, starring Rita Coolidge, Q. was a regular cast member. Then, she twice ventured to Central America with the revues Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber andBlues in the Night. “That’s an experience I’ll never forget,” she said. “We went to a lot of poor areas in Guatemala and El Salvador. People walk around barefoot. Cows are in the road. Guns are all around. We performed in ruins from the civil wars. And there we were, singing our hearts out for people who are hungry, and they just loved it. It was a life-changing experience.”
She loves travel but loves performing more in New York, where she thinks she’s on the cusp of something big. “It’s a dream come true and I truly believe this is just the beginning,” said Smith, who believes a higher power is at work. “I know it’s not me that’s doing all this stuff and opening all these doors so quickly, because it’s taken some people years and years to get to this point. It’s nothing but the Lord. I have so much faith. That’s what keeps me in New York pursuing this dream.”
Connecting with long time friend Jia Taylor
While not a headliner with her name emblazoned on marquees just yet, she’s sure she has what it takes to be a leading lady, something she feels is intrinsic in her, just waiting for the chance to bust on out. “I’m a leading lady now. I’m a leading lady every day. Yes, I say that with confidence, and not because I’m so talented,” she said. “It’s not about having a great voice. It’s not about being a star. It’s about how you carry yourself and connect with people. It’s about having a great aura and spirit and outlook on life… and I think I’ve got that”
Her busy career gives Smith few chances to get back home, where she said she enjoys “chilling with my family and eating all the good food,” but she makes a point of it when she can. She was back in September, doing a workshop for aspiring young performers at the Hope Center, an inner city non-profit close to her heart. She also sang for a cousin’s wedding at Salem. On some breaks, she finds time to perform here, as when featured in her mother’s Easter passion play at Salem in 2004. She’d like one day to start a school for performing arts on the north side, giving children of color a chance to follow their own dreams.
Occasionally, a regional theater commitment will bring her close to home, as when she appeared in a summer 2005 production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coatin Wichita. Despite lean times between acting-singing gigs, when she works with aspiring youth performers for the Camp Broadway company, Smith keeps auditioning and hoping for the break that lands her a lead or featured part on Broadway, in film or on television. She’s not shy about putting herself out there, either. She went up for a role opposite Beyonce in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls, the other show she dreams of doing on Broadway. She can see it now. “Q. Smith starring in…” She wants it all, a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy. A career acting, singing, writing, directing, teaching and yes, even performing opera.
Smith’s contracted for the six-month run of Les Miz. Should it be extended, she may face a choice: stay with it or join the national touring company of The Color Purple, which she may be in line for after nearly being cast in the Broadway show.
That said, Smith is pursuing film/TV work in L.A. after the positive experience of her first screen work, a co-starring role in the Black Entertainment Network’s BETJ mini-series, A Royal Birthday. The Kim Fields-directed project, also being packaged as a film, has aired recently on BET and its Jazz off-shoot. A kind of romantic comedy infomercial for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the project also features Gary Dourdan from CSI and gospel artist David Hollister.
The Royal Birthday shoot, unfolding on two separate Caribbean cruises, whet her appetite for more screen work and revealed she has much to learn. “It was absolutely beautiful. We went horseback riding, para-sailing, jet-skiing. I had never done any of those things,” she said. “I learned a lot about acting for the camera, too. I’m very theatrical, very animated in it. It doesn’t need to be that big.”
Should fame allude her on screen or on stage, she’s fine with that, too, she said, because “I’m doing something I truly love.” Besides, she can always find solace in that “little secret box” inside her, where it’s just her and God listening to the power of her voice lifted on high. Sing in exaltation.
This set of profiles is from my large collection of Omaha African-American subjects. Read on and you will meet a gallery of compelling individuals who each made a difference in his or her own way. These figures represent a variety of endeavors and expertise, but what they all share in common is a passion for what they do. Along the way, they learned some hard lessons, and their individual and collective wisdom should give us all food for thought. These stories originally appeared in the New Horizons.
Blacks of Distinction
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Frank Peak, Still An Activist After All These Years
Today, as administrator of community outreach service for the Creighton University Medical Center Partnership in Health and co-administrator of the Omaha Urban Area Health Education Center, he carries on the mission of the Panthers to help empower African-Americans.
The Omaha native returned home after a six-year (1962-1968) hitch in the U.S. Navy as a photographer’s mate 2nd class, duty that saw him hop from ship to ship in the South China Sea and from one hot zone to another in Vietnam, variously photographing or processing images of military life and wartime action.
The North High grad came back with marketable skills but couldn’t get a job in the media here. He went into the service in the first place, he said, to escape the limited horizons that blacks like himself and his peers faced at home.
“There weren’t a lot of opportunities for blacks in the city of Omaha.”
In the Navy he found what he believed to be a future career path when he was sent to photography school in Pensacola, Florida and excelled. It was a good fit, he said, as he’d always been a shutterbug. “I had always liked photography and I always took pictures with little Brownies and stuff.”
His duty entailed working as a military photojournalist and photo lab technician. Many of the pictures he took or processed were reproduced in civilian and military publications worldwide. In 1965 he prepared the production stills for an NBC television news documentary on the 25th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. He said the network even offered him a job, but he had to turn it down, as he’d already reenlisted. Despite that lost opportunity, he counts his Navy experience as one of the best periods of his life. Not only did he learn to become an expert photographer but he got to travel all over the Far East, much of the time with his younger brother, William, who followed him into the service.
The service is also where Peak became politicized as a strong, proud black man engaged in the struggle for equality.
“Back in the ‘60s there was such a lot of turmoil related to the war, related to the whole race struggle. You know, Malcolm, Martin…It all tied together. There were a lot of riots going on at a lot of the bases and on the ships. There was both bonding and animosity then between whites and blacks. It was a challenging time. ”
A buddy he was stationed with overseas helped Peak gain a deeper understanding of the black experience.
“I had a close friend, Bennie, who was a Navy photographer, too. He was from Savannah, Georgia and he really began to educate me. He was the one that really initiated me into the black experience. That’s when the term black was radical. Coming from Omaha, I was isolated from a lot of things he’d been involved in down South. Interestingly, I ended up a member of the Black Panther party and he ended up a member of the Black Muslims.”
After Peak got out of the Navy and came back to find doors still closed to him, despite the obvious skills he’d gained, he was disillusioned.
For example, he said the Omaha World-Herald wouldn’t even look at his portfolio when he applied there. For years, he said the local daily had only one black photographer on staff and made it clear they weren’t interested in hiring another.
Frustrated with the obstacles he and his fellow African-Americans faced, he was ripe for recruitment into the Black Panthers, a controversial organization that several of his activist friends joined. But he didn’t join right away. He was working as a photo technician when something happened that changed his mind. A black girl named Vivian Strong died from shots fired by a white Omaha police officer. The tragedy, which many in the black community saw as a racially motivated killing, touched off several nights of rioting on the north side.
“I got involved with the Black Panther party after that,” Peak said.
The Panther platform was an expression of the black power movement that sought, Peak said, “self-determination and liberation” for African-Americans. “It was about building capacity into the black community. It was working to end police violence in the black community. It was organizing breakfast programs for our children. Tutoring kids. Holding rallies, organizing protests and standing up for our rights.”
What made the Panthers dangerous in the minds of many authorities were the party’s incendiary language, paramilitary appearance — some members openly brandished firearms — and militant attitude.
“Our premise was we wanted our rights by any means necessary,” said Peak, a philosophy he feels was misconstrued by law enforcement as a subversive plot to undermine and overthrow the government. “What we meant by that was we wanted our education, we wanted to be a part of the political process, we wanted to be a part of determining our own destiny. We even asked, as part of our platform, to have a plebiscite, where blacks would vote to directly determine, for themselves, their own fate.”
Instead, the leadership of the Panthers and other radical black power groups were “crushed” and “dismantled” in a systematic crackdown led by the FBI. In Omaha, Peak was among those arrested and questioned when two local Panthers, Ed Poindexter and David Rice, were implicated and later convicted in the 1970 killing of Omaha police officer Larry Minard. The pair’s guilt or innocence has long been disputed. Appeals for new trials or new evidentiary hearings continue to this today. Peak was friends with both men and he believes they’re wrongfully imprisoned. “I don’t believe they got a fair trial,” he said. Ironically, it was his cousin, Duane Peak, who allegedly acted at the men’s behest in making the 911 call that lured Minard to the house where a suitcase bomb detonated. Doubt’s been cast on whether Duane Peak made the call or not and on the veracity of his court testimony.
Frank Peak traces “the roots” of his advocacy career to his time with the Panthers, when he helped set up “a liberation” school and breakfast program for kids. He said the Panther mission has been “very much diversified” in the work being done today by former party members in the political, social, health, education and human service fields. “The struggle goes on.”
He and other young blacks here were inspired to affect change from within by mentors. “Theodore Johnson put together community health programs. Dr. Earl Persons got us involved in the black political caucus. Jessie Allen got us involved as delegates to the Democratic party. He really brought us around and politicized us to mainstream politics. Dan Goodwin and Ernie Chambers had a great influence on us, too. They made sure we were accountable. They had high standards for us.” There was also Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, reporter/activist Charlie Washington and others. Peak’s education continued at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he earned a bachelor’s in journalism and psychology and a master’s in public administration. Lively discussions about black aspirations unfolded at UNO, the Urban League, Panther headquarters, Charlie Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe and Dan Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop.
The spirit of those ideals lives on in his post-Panthers work, ranging from substance abuse counseling to community health advocacy to he and his wife, Lyris Crowdy Peak, an Omaha Head Start administrator, serving as adoptive and foster parents. He sees today’s drug and gang culture as a major threat. He rues that standards once seen as sacrosanct have “gone out the window” in this age of relativism.
“The only way change is going to occur is if people make it happen,” he said. “If you wait around for somebody else to make it happen, it might not…So, we all have a responsibility to make a contribution and I’m trying to make one.”
He enjoys being a liaison between Creighton and the community in support of health initiatives, screenings and services aimed at minorities. “We just finished glaucoma screenings in south Omaha and we put together the first African-American prostate cancer campaign in north Omaha. We sponsor programs like My Sister’s Keeper, a breast cancer survivors program focused on African-American women.” He said in addition to assessment and treatment, Creighton also provides follow-up services and referrals for those lacking the access, the means, the insurance or the primary care provider to have their health care needs met.
“I’m somebody who believes in what he does. People ask me, Do you like your job? I say, Well, if you get paid for doing something you’d do for free, how could you not like it? That’s my philosophy. To think maybe in some small way you’ve been a part of growing a greater society, then that’s all the reward I need.”
Charles Hall’s Fair Deal
As landmarks go, the Fair Deal Cafe doesn’t look like much. The drab exterior is distressed by age and weather. Inside, it is a plain throwback to classic diners with its formica-topped tables, tile floor, glass-encased dessert counter and tin-stamped ceiling. Like the decor, the prices seem left over from another era, with most meals costing well under $6. What it lacks in ambience, it makes up for in the quality of its food, which has been praised in newspapers from Denver to Chicago.
Owner and chef Charles Hall has made The Fair Deal the main course in Omaha for authentic soul food since the early 1950s, dishing-up delicious down home fare with a liberal dose of Southern seasoning and Midwest hospitality. Known near and far, the Fair Deal has seen some high old times in its day.
Located at 2118 No. 24th Street, the cafe is where Hall met his second wife, Audentria (Dennie), his partner at home and in business for 40 years. She died in 1997. The couple shared kitchen duties (“She bringing up breakfast and me bringing up dinner,” is how Hall puts it.) until she fell ill in 1996. These days, without his beloved wife around “looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do,” the place seems awfully empty to Hall. “It’s nothing like it used to be,” he said. In its prime, it was open dawn to midnight six days a week, and celebrities (from Bill Cosby to Ella Fitzgerald to Jesse Jackson) often passed through. When still open Sundays, it was THE meeting place for the after-church crowd. Today, it is only open for lunch and breakfast.
The place, virtually unchanged since it opened sometime in the 1940s (nobody is exactly sure when), is one of those hole-in-the-wall joints steeped in history and character. During the Civil Rights struggle it was commonly referred to as “the black city hall” for the melting pot of activists, politicos and dignitaries gathered there to hash-out issues over steaming plates of food. While not quite the bustling crossroads or nerve center it once was, a faithful crowd of blue and white collar diners still enjoy good eats and robust conversation there.
Fair Deal Cafe
Running the place is more of “a chore” now for Hall, whose step-grandson Troy helps out. After years of talking about selling the place, Hall is finally preparing to turn it over to new blood, although he expects to stay on awhile to break-in the new, as of now unannounced, owners. “I’m so happy,” he said. “I’ve been trying so hard and so long to sell it. I’m going to help the new owners ease into it as much as I can and teach them what I have been doing, because I want them to make it.” What will Hall do with all his new spare time? “I don’t know, but I look forward to sitting on my butt for a few months.” After years of rising at 4:30 a.m. to get a head-start on preparing grits, rice and potatoes for the cafe’s popular breakfast offerings, he can finally sleep past dawn.
The 80-year-old Hall is justifiably proud of the legacy he will leave behind. The secret to his and the cafe’s success, he said, is really no secret at all — just “hard work.” No short-cuts are taken in preparing its genuine comfort food, whose made-from-scratch favorites include greens, beans, black-eyed peas, corn bread, chops, chitlins, sirloin tips, ham-hocks, pig’s feet, ox tails and candied sweet potatoes.
In the cafe’s halcyon days, Charles and Dennie did it all together, with nary a cross word uttered between them. What was their magic? “I can’t put my finger on it except to say it was very evident we were in love,” he said. “We worked together over 40 years and we never argued. We were partners and friends and mates and lovers.” There was a time when the cafe was one of countless black-owned businesses in the district. “North 24th Street had every type of business anybody would need. Every block was jammed,” Hall recalls. After the civil unrest of the late ‘60s, many entrepreneurs pulled up stakes. But the Halls remained. “I had a going business, and just to close the doors and watch it crumble to dust didn’t seem like a reasonable idea. My wife and I managed to eke out a living. We never did get rich, but we stayed and fought the battle.” They also gave back to the community, hiring many young people as wait staff and lending money for their college studies.
Besides his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, when he was an officer in the Medical Administrative Corps assigned to China, India, Burma, Japan and the Philippines, Hall has remained a home body. Born in Horatio, Arkansas in 1920, he moved with his family to Omaha at age 4 and grew up just blocks from the cafe. “Almost all my life I have lived within a four or mile radius of this area. I didn’t plan it that way. But, in retrospect, it just felt right. It’s home,” he said. After working as a butcher, he got a job at the cafe, little knowing the owners would move away six months later to leave him with the place to run. He fell in love with both Dennie and the joint, and the rest is history. “I guess it was meant to be.”
Deadeye Marcus Mac McGee
When Marcus “Mac” McGee of Omaha thinks about what it means to have lived 100 years, he ponders a good long while. After all, considering a lifespan covering the entire 20th century means contemplating a whole lot of history, and that takes some doing. It is an especially daunting task for McGee, who, in his prime, buried three wives, raised five daughters, prospered as the owner of his own barbershop, served as the state’s first black barbershop inspector, earned people’s trust as a pillar of the north Omaha community and commanded respect as an expert marksman. Yes, it has been quite a journey so far for this descendant of African-American slaves and white slave owners.
A recent visitor to McGee’s room at the Maple Crest Care Center in Benson remarked how 100 years is a long time. “It sure is,” McGee said in his sweet-as-molasses voice, his small bright face beaming at the thought of all the high times he has seen. In a life full of rich happenings, McGee’s memories return again and again to the first and last of his loves — shooting and barbering. For decades, he avidly hunted small game and shot trap. In his late 80s he could still hit 100 out of 100 targets on the range. Yes, there was a time when McGee could shoot with anyone. He won more than his share of prizes at area trapshooting meets — from hams and turkeys to trophies to cold hard cash. As his reputation began to spread, he found fewer and fewer challengers willing to take him on. “I would break that target so easy. I’d tear it up every time. I’d whip them fellas down to the bricks. They wouldn’t tackle me. Oh, man, I was tough,” he said.
As owner and operator of the now defunct Tuxedo Barbershop on North 24th Street, he ran an Old School establishment where no fancy hair styles were welcome. Just a neat, clean cut from sparkling clippers and a smooth, close shave from well-honed straight-edge razors. “The best times for me was when I got that shop there. I got the business going really good. It was quite a shop. We had three chairs in there. New linoleum on the floor. There were two other barbers with me. We had a lot of customers. Sometimes we’d have 10-15 people outside the door waiting for us to come in. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed working on them — and I worked on them too. I’d give them good haircuts. I was quite a barber. Yes, sir, we used to lay some hair on the floor.”
McGee’s Tuxedo Barbershop was located in the Jewell Building
A fussy sort who has always taken great pains with his appearance, he made his own hunting vests, fashioned his own shells and watched what he ate. “I was particular about a lot of things,” he said. Unlike many Maple-Crest residents, who are disabled and disheveled, McGee walks on his own two feet and remains well-groomed and nattily-attired at all times. He entrusts his own smartly-trimmed hair to a barbering protege. Last September, McGee cut a dashing figure for a 100th birthday party held in his honor at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church. A crowd of family and friends, including dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, gathered to pay tribute to this man of small stature but big deeds. Too bad he could not share it all with his wife of 53 years, LaVerne, who died in 1996.
Born and raised along the Mississippi-Louisiana border, McGee’s family of ten escaped the worst of Jim Crow intolerance as landowners under the auspices of his white grandmother Kizzie McGee, the daughter of the former plantation’s owner. McGee’s people hacked out a largely self-sufficient life down on the delta. It was there he learned to shoot and to cut hair. He left school early to help provide for the family’s needs, variously bagging wild game for the dinner table and cutting people’s hair for spare change. Just out of his teens, he followed the path of many Southern blacks and ventured north, where conditions were more hospitable and jobs more plentiful. During his wanderings he picked up money cutting heads of railroad gang crewmen and field laborers he encountered out on the open road.
He made his way to Omaha in the early 1920s, finding work in an Omaha packing plant before opening his Tuxedo shop in the historic Jewel Building. People often came to him for advice and loans. He ran the shop some 50 years before closing it in the late 1970s. He wasn’t done cutting heads though. He barbered another decade at the shop of a man he once employed before injuries suffered in an auto accident finally forced him to put down his clippers at age 88. “I loved to work. I don’t know why people retire.” As much as he regrets not working anymore, he pines even more for the chance to shoot again. “I miss everything about shooting.” He said he even dreams about being back on the hunt or on the range. Naturally, he never misses. “I always take the target. Yeah, man, I was one tough shooter.”
Proud, Poised Mary Dean Pearson
A life of distinction does not happen overnight. In the case of Omaha executive, educator, child advocate, community leader, wife and mother Mary Dean Pearson, the road to success began just outside Marion, La., where she grew up as one of nine brothers and sisters in a fiercely independent black family during the post World War II era — a period when the South was still segregated. From as far back as she can remember, Pearson (then Hunt) knew exactly what was expected of her and her siblings– great things. “I grew up in the South during the Crow era and my father instilled in all of his children a very profound sense of obligation to improve on what we were born into. To make it better. Whether that was our immediate economic circumstances or social status or whatever,” she said.
Despite the fact her parents, Ed and Rosa Hunt, never got very far in school they were high achievers. He was a respected landowner and entrepreneur and, together with Rosa, set rigorously high standards for their children. Even the daughters were expected to do chores, to complete high school and, unusual for the time, to attend college. “My father was a very driven, very aggressive man who believed it was our right and our duty to do well everyday. And to do only well. The consequences were quite severe if you didn’t do well. He also instilled a work ethic, which is probably unparalleled, in all of us,” said Pearson, a former Omaha Public Schools teacher and past director of the Nebraska Department of Social Services who, since 1995, has been president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Omaha, Inc.
“I was his workhorse from time to time. I call him the father of women’s lib because he never hesitated to say, ‘Baby, do this,’ even if it was a heavy job traditionally reserved for men. I really credit him with helping me understand that anything that needed to be done, I perhaps had the capability of doing it, and so I just approached everything with that can-do sensibility. I got that from him, no doubt.”
Where her father cracked the whip, her mother applied the salve. “My mother was a gentle soul who was the one always to seek peace and to seek a solution. I think my attempt to become a peacemaker and facilitator was my desire to be more like her. She created an absolutely wonderful balance for our family. They were a dynamite team.” For Pearson, the lessons her parents taught her are bedrock values that never go out of style: “Honesty, integrity, loyalty, perseverance.”
Pearson and her siblings did not let their parents down, either. They became professionals and small business owners. She graduated with a liberal arts degree from Grambling State University, hoping for a career in law. Her plans were put on hold, however, after marrying her old beau Tom Harvey, who got a teaching contract in Omaha, where the young couple moved in the late 1960s. She tried finding work here to earn enough money for law school but found doors closed to her because of her color. Then, she joined the National Teacher Corps, a federal teaching training program pairing liberal arts majors with students in inner city schools. She soon found she could make a difference in young lives and abandoned law for education. “I discovered there were some young folks in this world who were absolutely starving for intellectual challenge, and I enjoyed providing that to them.”
As part of the program she earned a master’s degree in education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where former College of Education dean Paul Kennedy became the strong new mentor figure in her life. “If I ever thought I was going to slack off once I had left my father, I was wrong. Paul Kennedy saw my soul and demanded the very best from me.” After earning her teaching degree at UNO, she embarked on a 20-year education career that included serving as an OPS classroom teacher, assistant principal and principal. She treasures her experiences as an educator and holds the role of educator in the highest esteem.
“As a classroom teacher you can actually see you have touched someone. The satisfaction is immediate. As an administrator, the obligation is to give every child, every learner, the maximum opportunity for success. It is to say, ‘All children can learn.’” She is “proudest” of how successful some of her former students are. “They are carrying on the lessons they were taught to make our society a better one as teachers, lawyers, doctors, ministers.”
By 1986 Pearson was ready for some new challenges. Starting with her term as executive director of Girls Incorporated through her stewardship of the state’s social services agency (at then Gov. Ben Nelson’s request) and up to her current post as head of the Boys and Girls Clubs, she has focused on programs for disadvantaged youths that “improve their life chances.” While Pearson can one day see herself exploring new challenges outside the social service arena, she would miss impacting children. “Of all the groups present in our society, children are the one one group who need an advocate more than any other.”
Mildred Lee , Standing Her Ground
When brazen drug dealers threatened over-running her north Omaha neighborhood in the early 1990s, Mildred Lee reacted like most residents — at first. With an open-air drug market operating 24-hours a day within yards of her well-maintained property, she saw children wading through discarded drug paraphernalia and strewn garbage. She saw neighbors growing fearful. She saw things heading toward a violent end. That’s when she made it her crusade to pick-up debris and to let the pushers and addicts know by her defiant demeanor she wanted them out. She hoped they would all just go away. They didn’t.
As the criminal activity increased, Lee considered moving, but the idea of being run out of her own house infuriated her. A dedicated walker, she refused letting some punks stop her hikes. “I thought, ‘If I live in the neighborhood, I’m going to walk in the neighborhood.’ They attempted to intimidate me, but I wasn’t afraid of them. I just didn’t back off.” As months passed and she realized others on her block were too afraid to do anything, this widow, mother and grandmother decided to act. “I was disgusted. I could see that nobody else was going to do it, so I thought, ‘I’ll just do it myself.’”
Fed up, she called a friend, Rev. J.D. Williams, who had worked with local law enforcement to rid his own district of bad apples. He set-up a meeting with Omaha Police Department officials, who informed Lee they were aware of the problem but were waiting for residents to come forward to ask what could be done to reclaim the area.
What happened next was a transforming experience for Lee, who went from bystander to activist in a matter of weeks. It just so happened her coming forward coincided with the city’s first Weed and Seed program, a federally-funded initiative to weed out undesirables and to seed areas with positive activities. Several things happened next. First, the Fairfax Neighborhood Association was formed and Lee was elected its president. The association acted as a watchdog and liaison with law enforcement.
Then the Mayor’s Office proposed a Take Our Neighborhood Back rally to showcase residents’ solidarity against crime. The Mad Dads lent their support to the event, which saw a parade of citizens chanting and holding anti-drug slogans outside known drug dens and a convoy of trucks displaying caskets as a dramatic reminder that drugs kill. Police on horseback added symbolic fanfare. A brigade of citizens armed with rakes, shovels and brooms swept up litter in the area and others hauled away old appliances and assorted other junk from residents’ homes and deposited the items in dumpsters. As a reminder to criminals that police were ever-vigilant, a mobile command unit was stationed on-site around the clock. No parking and no loitering signs were posted on streets. Finally, sting operations conducted by police and FBI resulted in dozens of arrests.
Under Lee’s leadership, the Fairfax Association launched a latchkey program for school-age children at New Life Presbyterian Church, painted houses for elderly residents, converted a vacant lot into a mini-park and hosted Neighborhood Night Out block parties among other good works. Recognized as the driving force behind it all, Lee was asked to serve on the city’s Weed and Seed steering committee and her ideas were sought by public and private leaders. Not bad for someone who had never been a community activist before. She never had time. She was always too busy working (as an employment interviewer with the Nebraska Job Service) and, after her husband died from a massive heart attack at age 36, raising their four children alone.
As Lee became a focal point for taking back her neighborhood, she began fielding inquiries from residents of other areas facing similar problems. She shared her experiences in talks before vcommunity groups and received a slew of honors for her community betterment efforts, including the 1999 Spirit of Women award. With her work here now finished, Lee is preparing to move down South to start a new life with her new husband. The legacy she leaves behind is a community now brimming with active neighborhood associations, many modeled after Fairfax.
“One of the reasons we’ve gotten attention is we’re the neighborhood that stood up first,” she said. The whole experience, she said, has been empowering for her. “It brought to light a lot of things I didn’t know I could do. I never thought of being a leader before. But when you’re put in a certain position, you do what you have to do.” The message she imparts with audiences today is that we can all make a difference, if we care enough to try. “Most people are afraid. They don’t want anything to do with it. But they don’t realize you’ve already got something to do with it if drug dealers are in your neighborhood. You’ve just got to take charge. You can’t just sit back and wait for somebody else to do it.” She said doing good works gets to be contagious. “When other people see all you’re doing, then they want to start doing more too.”
Omaha’s African-American community is replete with doers, past and present, and every once in a while a local newspaper has me write profiles of some of these leaders, who range from community activists and small business owners to educators to administrators and executives. The following four individuals all made a difference here and though at least one has now passed on and another has retired and still another has moved out of the area, their impact remains.
Blacks of Distinction II
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Edmae Swain: A Pioneering Educator
Edmae Swain helped change the face of public education locally when, in 1964, she became the first African-American female principal in the Omaha Public Schools. Upon arriving in Omaha from St. Louis at the end of World War II, she got a job with OPS as a substitute teacher, the only option then available to black educators in Omaha’s segregated public schools. She subbed at Howard Kennedy School, one of a few all-black schools serving the near northside. In 1947 she was among the first blacks hired as a regular teacher. She was assigned to Long School. She remained there until OPS Superintendent Paul Miller appointed her principal of Lake School. Years before, Eugene Skinner became the first black administrator here. Until her hiring, there hadn’t been another. Progress seemed to had passed over Omaha.
That’s why news of her appointment, coming as it did the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed, made headlines as far away as Kansas City and her native St. Louis and touched off a celebration at the home she and her husband, Howard Swain, Sr., shared with their son, Howard, Jr. In the context of the fight for equal rights, hers was a victory for Omaha’s black community and the wider freedom struggle.
“Yes it was,” Swain said. “It’s certainly one of the positive results of the struggle,” said retired Omaha educator Edwardene Armstrong, a teacher under Swain at Lake.
Recently, in the comfortable Immanuel Village suite that Edmae and Howard, Sr., now reside in, the 88-year-old Swain paged through a scrapbook containing the congratulatory telegrams and letters she received 41 years ago. For her, the most meaningful message came from the man that showed confidence in her — Paul Miller. A controversial figure, he had only a brief tenure as superintendent here, she said, because “he was too progressive for Omaha.” In his letter to her, he alluded to the pressure Swain felt in assuming the mantle for her race:
“I am glad to know you are nervous because this is your recognition of the fact that it is a big step from the classroom to the principal’s office…” I am confident “you will make this step cautiously yet firmly and with resolution to serve.”
Swain recalls having “butterflies” in her stomach a long time after getting that long overdue, high-profile post. She didn’t want to do anything that could reflect badly on her or her people. “More was expected of me. Therefore, there were things I just couldn’t do and places I couldn’t go after I became principal. I felt like I was in a bubble. All eyes were on me,” she said. Failure, she added, was not an option. “I knew I had to do it. I had to succeed for myself and all black Americans. I had to do well to make it possible for anyone that came after me.”
Despite the pressure, she made the transition with her characteristic grace and reserve. Friend and fellow educator Thelma Costen said that Swain, as always, carried herself “in a dignified manner. She was very firm and maintained excellent discipline. Everything was done in a positive manner.” Edwardene Armstrong said Swain handled the situation well. “Whatever pressures there were, it didn’t show. Edmae Swain is kind of a born leader. Her organizational skills are among her great assets. She was more than capable” when the opportunity came.
A few years later, Swain once again made history. When named principal at predominantly white Jackson School, she became the first black educator assigned to an Omaha public school outside the near northside. “I don’t know if she thinks of herself as a pioneer, but she really is,” said Costen. As before, Swain took on the job with professionalism. For Swain, it wasn’t so much about making history as breaking down another barrier. About time, too. It was another steep challenge, but faced with those circumstances, she said, “You do what you have to do.”
Any misgivings Swain had about how she’d be accepted at Jackson were soon eased by the support parents showed her. She was relieved. “They really embraced me. They had a wonderful PTA. A husband and wife were presidents and they saw to it parents participated in everything. They were all very cooperative. Anything I thought I needed, they would get it for me. I couldn’t ask for anything more.” The reception, she noted, “could have been far different,” particularly as her appointment coincided with the school district’s court-ordered desegregation plan — a hot-button issue that incited violence in other communities.
When she got to Jackson hers was the only black face with the exception of a lone female student. “I said to her, ‘Well, there’s two of us here now. We’ve integrated the building.’” Even with forced busing, few blacks ended up going to school there. It remained that way, she said, until she retired from education in 1977. It was another case of “talking about integration” but not doing much about it.
Inequality, discrimination and segregation are evils that Swain, who’s active in the NAACP, Urban League, Zion Baptist Church and National Baptist Convention, fought against. She participated in civil rights demonstrations. Once, while a teacher at Long School, she called her principal to say, “’I won’t be coming in. The activists are having a walk-in at city hall and I have to march with the group.’ When I got to school, my principal complimented me for doing what I felt was the thing to do.”
A recipient of the NAACP’s Freedom Fighter Award, Swain led a sheltered life as a girl growing up in the black neighborhood of St. Louis known as The Ville. Her parents later explained to her they purposely kept her away from the prejudice blacks encountered outside the hood. It was only a matter of time, however, before Swain ran into racism. She got her first brush with Jim Crow on a train trip down south. At a railroad station, she saw a sign reading, For Whites Only. And on the train itself she found strictly segregated dining cars and waiting rooms.
“That was really when I first knew there was something different about us.”
With little formal schooling of their own, Swain’s hog carrier father and homemaker mother worked hard to ensure Edmae and her sister got an education that prepared them to move ahead. “They had no formal education but they knew the advantages of our getting an education, and they saw to it we went to museums and libraries and places they thought would be helpful.” Even as a girl, Edmae was enamored with the idea of being a teacher, making sure she always assumed the role when she and her friends played school. It wasn’t long before she graduated from Stowe Teachers College in St. Louis and began her 44-year education career.
Like any former educator, she enjoys the successes of her former students, many of whom have gone on to fine professional careers, including a judge and an attorney she stays in contact with. “It makes me feel good knowing what I did wasn’t in vain. Maybe I gave them something to strive for.”
She’s seen many changes in the education system and decries today’s loss of discipline at school and in the home. She feels things were better when a village really did raise a child. Even though she virulently opposes segregation, she said the black schools model of the past did have the advantage of students being taught by committed staff who looked and sounded like the kids. “There was a strength in that,” she said. Besides making sure her students left school every day “knowing something new,” she included black history lessons not in the standard curriculum.
It turns out Swain’s still a trailblazer all these years later. When she and her husband moved into Immanuel Village a few years ago, they became the community’s first black residents. One other black couple has followed them since. Another example of how the struggle for equality continues. Her deep faith tells her “all things are possible with God” and that “we shall overcome some day.”
Erline Patrick: A Professional Woman with a Social Conscience
For a newcomer, Erline Patrick has made her presence felt since coming to work at Creighton University in 2001 after years in public school administration and senior government management service. Community involvement is the hallmark of her accomplished, far-ranging life and career that’s featured challenging jobs in many locations. Her local activities reflect her interests in education, theater, music, women’s issues and multi-cultural diversity. In only a short time, this stunning African-American woman has touched many lives here. Soon, though, she’ll be leaving for an as-yet unknown new challenge. This time it’s Phoenix, where her husband, Omaha Housing Authority director Alphonso Patrick, has taken a new post. Public service runs in this couple’s blood, and where service calls, they go.
As interim associate dean of faculty affairs and development in the Creighton School of Medicine, Erline Patrick provides administrative support to the school’s faculty, oversees recruitment of minority medical professionals and prepares grants that funnel millions of dollars towards the institution’s research efforts. Yet, somehow she finds time to volunteer. Her many good works here include: serving on the boards of the Jesuit Middle School and the John Beasley Theater & Workshop and as a Governor-appointed member of the Women’s Health Initiative Advisory Council; performing as cantor at St. Cecilia’s Cathedral; and mentoring folks on campus and in the community. She offers advice. She puts people together. She contributes funds. She sends care packages. She frets. She prays.
All this comes naturally to Patrick, a big sister, mother, grandmother and wife whose heart has never really left the roles of teacher and principal she filled back east. She talks wistfully about “how much I’ve missed working with young people,” but still makes a point of “mentoring young people. It’s very dear to me.”
She began teaching in her native, then-segregated Charlotte, N.C. and, later, in Lancaster, Penn. and Hartford, Conn. She eventually headed schools in Charlotte and Hartford, turning around a troubled urban high school with her characteristic high expectations and down home ways. Like any good leader, she makes people want to please her. She exudes warm Southern charm and displays genuine hospitality. She holds fast to old school values. She shares wise counsel with a mix of managerial authority and motherly concern. She is at once a professional to admire and a friend to confide in. A real mensch.
“It’s very important to me to be able to empower people. To help people reach their potential. To feel that I’m making a difference,” she said. “Most of my adult life I’ve been in management and leadership positions. I guess I must be a kind of born leader. I’ll be quiet and not stand out in a crowd — until somebody needs to take over…then I’ll do whatever needs to be done.”
A stickler for getting things right, she demands much from those she leads. “Today, there isn’t nearly the strive for a superior product there once was. I will not accept a shoddy product. I still hold myself to that standard, and anywhere I work will be held to that standard. And I may not be liked for it, but that’s just the way I am. I try not to be a tyrant about it.” She feels enough isn’t expected of today’s youth. “It’s appalling to hear some of our young people talk and to read their writing. A lot of that ‘dumbing down’ has been driven by television and by less structured home environments. The standards just aren’t as high.”
Aiming high was embedded in her by her mother and teachers. Her parents had little formal education. They’d been farmers and sharecroppers. Once moved to the city (Charlotte, N.C.), her father worked factories and construction and cut hair on weekends. Her mother was a domestic for well-to-do whites. “Mama was the matriarch and really guided us. She encouraged us all to go to college.” Erline and three of her four siblings ended up with college degrees.
A star in and out of the classroom, Erline was into everything at school. Her precocious talents as a singer, orator and writer included penning a song for the Decca Records label. For a time, her fine, church-honed singing voice earned her “a little bit of money singing with big bands in Charlotte. I was quite a little shapely, attractive young thing. I had a lot of admirers. But Mama trusted me. Besides, I knew how to take care of myself and the guys knew not to bother me.” Her torch singer days ended with a scholarship to Talladega College in Alabama, where she acted in theater productions and sang in the choir. Her knack for science led her to major in biology. Instead of once hoped for careers in drama or medicine, she chose teaching. With her versatility, she could have done anything. As a professor told her — Take what you have, and make what you want. That credo, she said, “has helped me tremendously. It motivates me to feel that all things are possible.”
Always in search of new horizons, she no sooner began teaching then she started work on her master’s degree in urban education. Then came her 6th Year Degree in administration and supervision. She earned two National Science Foundation grants, including one from Columbia University. She was later a National Education Policy Fellow at George Washington University. It wasn’t long after she earned her Ph.D in educational administration that she left the field for the private sector. And then Washington politics called her, first as a U.S. Senate staff member and then as a senior manager with the Small Business Administration. She made the grade wherever she went. “One of my strengths is that I’m a quick study. Wherever I’ve gone, there’s been a steep learning curve that I’ve mastered,” she said. She credits coming so far so fast to her faith. “How else could I be where I am today? So many miracles have happened in my life. I just don’t know what I would do without the Lord and that strength,” she said.
What appealed to her about The Beltway? “I wanted to learn about the legislative system and how it worked. It was new. It was exciting. And one of my goals was to work for then-Vice President George Bush. Then, in that serendipitous way my life has about it, he was elected President and I got a Presidential Appointment. It’s purely political. Somebody recommends you to the President’s chief-of-staff. At the time, I was in the Senate with Lowell Weiker. He lost the election. So, I was looking for the next thing to do when, before I knew it, I had an interview for a position in the Small Business Administration.” She got the job.
Then she was hired to manage the Minority Small Business and Capital Ownership Development Program, which oversees billions in federal procurements. “It was a huge responsibility,” she said. She took an unusual route to this senior-most management level. “I won the position competitively over many other candidates. I never took a civil service test. It was the first time it had ever been done in the agency.” She paid a price for being viewed as an interloper, “I really thought that if you do a job well, you’ll be admired. But you’re not. It’s just the opposite. It’s almost as if they’re waiting for you to falter. I think a part of it has to do with race and gender. It’s the white male patriarchal thing. Even now, I can be sitting in a board room and I’ll say something everybody agrees with, but until it comes out of the mouth of a white male, no attention is paid to it. It’s also a function of being an outsider, and that’s been the story of my post-education career. It doesn’t matter what you bring to the table. If you’re from the outside and if you rise quickly through the ranks, you’re the target of viciousness.”
Later, she fought against such attitudes as head of the SBA’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Civil Rights Compliance. Creighton’s been a different story. “To their credit, Dr. Dan Wilson (former School of Medicine dean) and Father John Schlegel (CU president) saw the strength of my being an outside. I’ve gained so much here. I’ve made so many friends. And I think I’ve brought about needed change.” Now, as she readies to relocate again, she wants to indulge her artistic side. “I want to do a little more now that satisfies my soul. I don’t think I’ve used the talent enough God gave me.” In Omaha, she’s shown glimpses of that talent. Her contralto, mezzo soprano voice graces St. Cecilia’s masses, where she sings an occasional spiritual, and Creighton functions. She was Mama in The Beasley Theater’s staging of A Raisin in the Sun, a part she played in college.
“She’s an incredible talent,” said theater namesake, John Beasley. “She’s done an amazing job for us. She’s a woman full of knowledge. She’s even kept me in check at times. ‘Now, John…’ she’ll say. “That’s why I have respect for her. And she has a tremendous heart. She’s very thoughtful of others. I think she’s just a treasure. We’ll miss her, but she’s assured us she will come back to work at the theater.”
Until then, look out, Phoenix. A whirlwind named Erline is coming your way.
Al Goodwin: Community Development Catalyst
North Omaha economic development catalyst Al Goodwin grew up in a near northside teeming with commerce. This self-described “product of the area” is proud of his roots. In the 1950s, it was a tight, self-sufficient, well-maintained district where residents could get any good or service imaginable from the rows of businesses operating up and down North 24th Street. Day and night, the streets flowed with a tide of folks shopping, running errands, taking in movies, dining out, catching live music acts, feeding their soul, hailing a cab or jumping a streetcar.
Of course, this enclave was enforced by defacto segregation that told blacks to “stay in their place.” In this apartheid system, blacks did for themselves because they had to and, in the process, created a thriving, cohesive environment built on strong families and institutions,. By the time Goodwin graduated from Omaha University in the late-’60s, the community was hemorrhaging from riots that destroyed properties and scared off many merchants and residents. By the ’70s, the once bustling North 24th strip was a tattered eyesore of boarded-up, abandoned buildings and weed-choked vacant lots. Then, like a stake in the heart, the North Freeway’s construction severed the community — uprooting hundreds of families and razing many fine homes. Finally, in the face of attitudes and practices that denied blacks fair housing, good jobs and equal rights, young and middle-aged blacks left Omaha in droves to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.
Ever since the riots and the later youth gang epidemic that surfaced in the ‘80s, the area’s real and perceived crime problems have cast a shadow of fear and doubt over the community that’s kept both potential business investors and home owners away. Today, the near northside lacks many basic goods and services and its old housing stock and sewer system is in need of repair. Recently, however, signs of a turnaround have been cropping up in a series of housing, commercial and public developments. Al Goodwin is behind some of these and plans to be part of more.
He’s remained through it all, devoting his entire professional life to reviving the community he regards as home. As president of the Omaha Economic Development Corporation (OEDC), which he’s headed since founding the non-profit 401C3 in 1977, he leads Omaha’s oldest and perhaps largest entity dedicated to inner city revitalization. His work has won him respect as a key architect for change.
“I’ve always had a deep interest in and genuine love for my community,” he said. “You have to enjoy what you do for a living, and I thoroughly enjoy having a vision to make things better and pulling together the resources to do what needs to be done and which others are not willing to step up and do.”
Unlike organizations that mainly give lip service to affecting positive change, Goodwin can point to brick and mortar evidence of progress in the various multi-family housing, commercial and renovation projects his company’s engineered. OEDC’s renovation of the historic Jewell Building, home of the Dreamland Ballroom, preserved a piece of North 24th Street’s rich legacy. It’s where OEDC offices at. The largest of its projects, Kellom Heights, is a seven-phased, mixed-use residential and commercial development completed during the 1990s. Bounded by Cuming on the north, Hamilton on the south, 24th Street on the east and the North Freeway on the west, the 40-acre project features 378 living units and a retail/office strip center. Associated businesses, notably a State Farm service center, have been drawn to the area by the renewed economic activity there.
Today, Kellom Heights is a bright flower blooming in a once depressed area. Despite it and other hopeful signs like it, the near northside is still dismissed by many outsiders as a ghetto. Few investors — then or now — have the vision to see beyond the blight. Yet, Goodwin’s somehow succeeded in selling enough people on the dream that OEDC has pumped $40 million of reinvestment into the area, not to mention the many homes, businesses, services and jobs generated. He said this success stems from its strong board, strategic planning and rigorous standards.
Goodwin, a math and economics major in college, can crunch the numbers with the best in making the case for north Omaha investment. He can dangle tax credits in front of investors. He can appeal to people’s social conscience.
“When we first started, there were many professionals that advised us not to do redevelopment in the area,” he said. “‘How are you going to attract people into the area?’ they asked. But in spite of those comments we put together a public-private community-based partnership that raised and leveraged more than $19 million to complete the (Kellom) development over a 10-year period.”
“Above industry” occupancy rates in Kellom’s living-retail-office spaces have more than justified the investments made in the project. “That’s certainly an example of what can be done,” he said. Another example is the now under construction Long School Marketplace that’s building a new 63,500 square-foot commercial center at 24th and Hamilton. Future plans envision going “further north” with commercial-residential efforts designed to “bring the population back into the area” as well as provide “assistance to residents who want to improve their own property.”
He said the monies invested in such projects come back in the form of an increased tax and spending base. “We take unused properties that were off the tax rolls and make them into revenue generating properties. It makes economic sense.” Besides, he said “there are unique business opportunities in north Omaha’s underserved market. In a four or five square mile area, there’s only one grocery store and no dry cleaning establishment. Basic, fundamental kinds of services are absent,” he said. Few are willing to take the plunge, however, due to the area’s bad rap. Despite perceptions to the contrary, he said North O boasts a strong work force, plentiful disposable income, stable institutions and safe neighborhoods. “One of the things we want to do is change the perception by making investments here and by attracting national and regional retailers into the area,” he said.
He feels the only way to rebuild the inner city is with investment and the only way to achieve long-term growth is if the area gains economic parity with the rest of Omaha. More homes, businesses and amenities will create more commerce. In addition to the new market potential the area holds, he said it’s well-positioned by its close proximity to the airport, freeway, convention center-arena, riverfront and Creighton University. With Creighton and the riverfront booming, Goodwin wants north Omaha to share in the growth and not be isolated from it.
“Any development taking place near there should and must include north Omaha. We can’t have a thriving area adjacent to a declining one. It certainly is to the advantage of those entities that have made investments nearby to see north Omaha revitalized, not deteriorated. And we want to be part of the planning and implementation process — not left out or behind. All the development taking place ought to be seamless. There should be connectivity. That way you get a bigger multiplier effect for all. As they say, all ships rise together. Omaha is small enough and our problems manageable enough that we can do this very successfully and without it taking masses amounts of money to make any significant change. And while I’ve seen some progress, there’s much more that needs to be done.”
Goodwin, a player in the emerging riverfront scene and Creighton expansion, said, “I think we’ve got to be careful that, unintentionally or otherwise, artificial barriers are not put in place that would turn their back on north Omaha.” He feels people of color should no longer have to settle for leftovers when it comes to opportunity. He hopes one day the words of Martin Luther King are fully realized and all people can “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” His beliefs are a product of his formative years. Of the Civil Rights Movement and parents who stressed he and his siblings make a difference in the struggle for equal rights. “If ever you want to be remembered for anything, you should be remembered for making a difference. If I can look back at my life and career and say that I’ve made a positive difference, then I think I’ve accomplished a lot,” he said.
District 2 Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown said Goodwin already has. “He’s left his mark — no doubt. He’s improved areas the private sector would not touch. And hopefully that drive and energy will stick around. My only worry is that when Al Goodwin retires, who’s out there to replace him?” Goodwin is hopeful. “There are people with dreams and vision that are making things happen to capitalize on the area’s rich heritage of jazz and sports,” he said, referring to recent streetscape improvements along North 24th, the completed jazz park, the soon-to-open Love Cultural Arts and Jazz Center and reports of a new sports museum. “This can serve as a linchpin to attact people back into the neighborhood.”
Dan Goodwin: A Strong Man True to His Beliefs
©by Leo Adam Biga
Dan Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop, a classic six-chair operation at 3116 No. 24th Street, is where it all comes down. Old-school owner Dan Goodwin has been cutting heads there for half-a-century. He’s been listening to the pulse of his people all that time, using the airy environs as a lively forum for free expression.
Like any barbershop, his place is where customers come to relax, get a cut or shave and say what’s on their mind. Goodwin likes good conversation. He invites an open exchange of ideas. He isn’t afraid of folks voicing strong viewpoints.
In the 1960s he took on a brash young man by the name of Ernie Chambers as a barber. Soon, the Spencer Street became a forum for Chambers and his advocacy of black concerns and criticism of white racism. Anyone wanting to know the current black thought came to hear Ernie or others sound off. Along with the Fair Deal Cafe and a few other north side spots, it’s where young blacks met to air grievances, address problems, float ideas and formulate strategies and tactics in the civil rights struggle and black power movement.
“A lot of people came down to this barbershop to hear him speak to the problems. To be honest, a lot of people feared him because he spoke out so strong. He’s tough. Even now, he asks no quarters and he gives no quarters. He says what he wants to say and he’ll say it the way he wants to say it,” Goodwin said.
“A lot of people came to talk to me to discuss issues and it was a place where others would meet when they wanted to talk and just speak freely about what was on their mind. It was like a gathering place,” Chambers said.
The shop is immortalized thanks to Chambers being filmed there for segments of the 1967 Oscar-nominated documentary A Time for Burning, which focused on white Omaha’s staunch resistance to the kind of black independence he embodied.
He remained a part-time barber there even after becoming a state senator. His barber chair not only served as lectern and pulpit but as an extension of his public office and a conduit for his District 11 constituents. This was all made possible by Goodwin welcoming a vital ideological discourse and debate in his shop.
“Definitely,” Chambers said.
As outspoken as Goodwin is himself, he said he couldn’t very well deny the floor to someone else who believes in the credo — “I have to tell it like it is.”
Chambers found in Goodwin a kindred spirit. “I liked the kind of person he was. We got along very well. He’s true to his beliefs. He rented me a chair and I stayed there for years and years.” In him, Goodwin found “a young man who could articulate like nobody I’ve ever known. He always had answers. He did his homework. He knew what he was doing and saying. People were really impressed with him. And we communicated real good. We were really seeing things so much alike.” Not that they didn’t disagree. “Oh, we used to argue nose to nose.”
Even though Chambers long ago left his barber chair to focus full-time on his duties in the Nebraska Legislature, the two men remain close. “We talk all the time,” Goodwin said. “He’s a great influence. I’m just impressed with his brilliance. So, it’s friendship and mutual respect.”
He loathes the possibility of Chambers being forced out of office by term limits. “It’ll be a big void. Nobody’s more committed. His whole life is what he does in the legislature. I mean, everyday he’s working on something involving the people.”
Goodwin isn’t loud or rash when offering his own considered opinions. He listens intently to what others say. But, make no mistake, he’s The Man in the shop. He commands respect by virtue of the dues he’s paid as a small businessman, community activist, role model and mentor.
In the ‘60s he hit the streets protesting injustice as a member of the 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties). Unlike other organizations here that were reluctant “to confront” the system, the 4CL “believed in going out and demonstrating. It was an action group,” he said. “We integrated different places and we petitioned for jobs and open housing. We marched on city hall. We did things like this that brought about some changes. We were considered troublemakers and that’s what it takes to get the changes.”
Now in his sixth decade in business at essentially the same location (his shop was originally housed in a building directly north of his present site), Goodwin has seen it all along North 24th Street. He’s been there for the high times and the low times. For the promenade of people and cars that once made this strip the hub and spot to see and be seen. For the riots that torched or trashed much of the business district. For the inevitable decline that brought a great community down and emptied out most of the buildings (his is the only one on the west side of his block). And for the revival now underway in north Omaha.
He’s never left the area, he said, “because this is where I feel comfortable.”
Chambers admires Goodwin and applauds him for remaining in the heart of the community, where he and his shop provide stability and continuity. “And especially when he continues to grow personally and intellectually. It lets people know that not everybody who could go someplace else is going to do that. This is home and this is where we stay. People do need to see that, especially the young ones. When they can see people (like Goodwin) who are in a position where they don’t have to hang around, but they choose to, that lets them know there’s something of value in our community and a benefit to staying here.”
One of 14 children, Goodwin’s bedrock values come from his late parents, Joseph and Martha. As their bible-inspired names suggest, he said, “they were “strong believers. They were the best examples of living right I ever saw in my life. If we were seeing more of that today, we wouldn’t have the kind of problems we have.”
As he looks around at the way society’s changed with its relaxation of morals and standards in things like language, clothes, drugs, music, sex and violence, he said: “I feel a lot of frustration. There used to be rules. Nobody was perfect, but at least we knew right from wrong. There were certain lines you wouldn’t cross. Now, there’s no line. The message now is, Whatever you want to do, it’s OK. It’s out there. It’s a whole different culture, the drug culture. I don’t blame kids. I blame my generation. We allowed the rule book to get thrown out. And I’m not a fool or anything. I’m not even into religion. I’m into right. I’ll believe in right till I die.”
It hurts him to see his community still embroiled in the quest for equality.
“I think this community like all communities in the inner city in America has big problems and the problems are even bigger now than they have been. Schools are in trouble. The job situation is bad. Drugs. There are so many things plaguing us now. It’s really interfered with what we called The Struggle. A lot of our young people are not even enlightened about the things we did struggle to try to change. I don’t feel real good about it sometimes, but you can’t put up your hands. You just do what you can and keep pushing.”
His own social-political consciousness was formed, in part, by his experiences in the U.S. Navy. He left Tech High at age 17 to enlist. “I was like a kid on an adventure. I never considered making it a career,” he said. “It was a good experience. But I went through a lot in the military. I went through boot camp with only one other black in my company. In the tent I was in in the Philippines, I was the only black. I’d hear things. I didn’t start nothin’, but I wouldn’t take nothin’. Every time I had a fight, they thought they could just say anything — the ‘n’ word, you name it — and I didn’t take it. But, you know what, it wasn’t that I was tough. I was dealing with cowards and they weren’t looking for much of a reaction. I must admit sometimes after I finished off one of those people, the other Caucasians would say, ‘Man, he had it coming.’”
Once back home he confronted racism all over again. “Racism’s everywhere,” he said. But as a service veteran he was outraged when an Omaha Public Schools official discouraged him from completing his high school education. And he was angry at the way his people were denied opportunities, mistreated in public places and brutalized by police. His activism began as soon as he graduated barber school and opened his own shop. Being his own boss and his own man is everything to him.
“See, I could work for anybody, but I have to be treated like everybody else. If you’re going to make it a double standard, I couldn’t take it.”
Always one to improve himself, Goodwin began weight training at 40, jogging in his 50s and competitive power lifting at 68. A world-class competitor in the masters division, the ripped 73-year-old holds many state and national records. He’s traveled as far away as India and South Africa to compete. “I’m having a lot of fun. I’m really enjoying it.” The same with barbering. “I don’t even consider retiring. I’m doing what I like. I’m doing what takes care of me. It’s mine.”
Shining Light: News of Omaha Star publisher’s illness spurs admiration for her stewardship and interest in historic paper’s future
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
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.
Marguerita Washington on the left standing beside a bust of her aunt Mildred Brown pictured on the right
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.
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..”
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