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
Addressing the needs of underserved people became a lifetime vocation for Frank Peak only after he joined the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s.
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.”