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A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith

May 2, 2012 11 comments

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.

 

 

3/21/04  Omaha, NE Omaha World-Herald photojournalist Rudy Smith. (photo by Chris Machian/for Prarie Pixel Group)

Rudy Smith, ©photo by Chris Machian

 

 

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.

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Art as Revolution: Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art Reimagines What’s Possible in North Omaha

October 25, 2011 12 comments

Change is coming to North Omaha and one of the change agents is Brigitte McQueen, one of those transplants to this place who brings a new energy and perspective that can help the community move in positive new directions. She’s just begun her work there with her fledgling Union for Contemporary Art but my bet is that she and her organization will wind up being long-term playera and change agents who make a difference.

 

Brigitte McQueen

Art as Revolution: Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art Reimagines What’s Possible in North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Brigitte McQueen is hell-bent on revolution.

The entrepreneurial arts maven first made a splash with Pulp in Benson. Then she revived the Bemis Underground in the Old Market. Now she’s about to shake up North Omaha via The Union for Contemporary Art, which she could have located anywhere.

She chose North Omaha.

“It’s one of the only communities in Omaha that does not have a dedicated, consistent art presence, and it shows in the neighborhood. There’s very little public art, the kids are not getting it in their after school programs, it’s not in the schools,” she says. “Kids there can go for weeks without seeing a piece of art or anything beautiful.”

The Union is leasing two eyesore buildings on a mostly empty plot between Patrick Ave. and Burdette St., and 24th and 25th Sts. One structure housed the landmark Fair Deal Cafe, where Charles Hall served soul food and welcomed community activists. The other is the former St. Martin de Porres food pantry.

 

 

A future capital campaign will attempt to raise the $400,000 to $500,000 she estimates renovations and repairs will cost. The cafe will be gutted, save for the tin ceiling, overhead fans, booths and lunch counter, and converted into a gallery. The bunker-like pantry will be opened up with more windows and reconfigured for artist studios, a classroom, a commons area and offices. Both buildings will be refaced. The design work is being donated by Leo A Daly, Alley Poyner Macchietto and BVH.

The Union will be home to artist residency and youth education programs. Visiting artists in the Studio Fellowship will receive a stipend for supplies and access to professional development and critique. At the end of their four to six-months stay participants will get an exhibition. During their immersion experience McQueen says artists “will have to be doing community service the entire time, whether teaching a class or curating a show or working with kids. They’ll be a part of the community and leave something tangible behind. It’s all about engaging the community in a constant dialogue about the arts.” McQueen says she has several artists lined up to teach upcoming youth art classes.

Board president Watie White, an Omaha artist, says, “The Union is working off the model of not-for-profit street-level arts activist organizations” that do community-based projects aimed at addressing real issues and transforming lives and neighborhoods. In return for the opportunities given, he says, the expectation is for “the creative generation we foster to pay it forward to the community they come from.”

 

 

The Stockyard Institute in Chicago will be sending Windy City artists here and The Union will reciprocate with Omaha artists there.

“Ideally I would like to have relationships like that built with organizations all across the country so that we’re constantly sending people out but having people come in,” says McQueen.

Her “arts campus” is to include finished green space. Perhaps a sculpture garden. In three to five years she’d like to erect a new building housing artist live-work spaces and retail art bays.

As a North O resident McQueen is making a statement that contemporary art shouldn’t bypass a community based on perceptions and is creating a reason for greater Omaha to visit the area.

“Omaha is my adopted city and ever since I’ve been here I’ve been really aware of the segregation that exists. You can see the lines. It’s horrible we’ve divided ourselves up that strongly. I want Omaha to be a truly open city.

“Why can’t we build something that would provide all of this support to Omaha’s arts community and put it in a neighborhood that so desperately needs to have that influx of people? It adds a level of vibrancy to this community.”

 

 

 

 

It’s about “building bridges and changing the way we think about Omaha and the lines we have made,” she says. “Nothing’s going to change until we start doing that and bringing people into the community. If I can open a small door and people from outside come to see stellar contemporary exhibitions, then maybe that’s how that migration north starts to happen.”

She says she’s doing something “dynamically different than what has been done before” to prove more than just social services or Afro-centric art-culture can flourish there.

After initial resistance she’s “overwhelmed” by the support The Union’s received from such stakeholders as the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Empowerment Network and the City of Omaha.

The Union is slated as the front door to a revitalized North 24’s mixed use arts- commercial-residential district.

“I think it makes perfect sense to have this place where creativity is celebrated as the entrance way and gateway,” she says.

The Union’s received grants from the Weitz Family Foundation and the Omaha Venture Group and will apply for funds to help underwrite programs and building makeovers.

Collaboration will be key. Last summer the Union partnered with Catholic Charities of Omaha on a kids art program at the Christ Child Center. It joined the Bellows Studio in bringing artist Lavie Raven here. Through Dec. 11 Birdhouse Interior Design and Birdhouse Collective is staging a Home exhibition at the Bancroft Street Market as a Union fundraiser. Early next year Union is collaborating with Peerless Gallery and Worksite on an art-in.

Until its own buildings are completely renovated some Union programming will occur off-site.

McQueen’s convinced the arts can make a difference in spurring North O’s renaissance.

“I want to make an impact. I want to change lives. It’s all about creating this cyclical process where The Union is supporting the arts and artists, the artists are encouraged to support the community and then hopefully the community feels a stronger connection and therefore wants to be more supportive of the arts.”

Up to six artists will begin using the former St. Martin de Porres space in January. A January community clean-up to get the building ready will be announced soon. Applications for the Studio Fellowship slots will be taken starting Dec. 16. Artists working in any contemporary art form are eligible to apply.

For application details and to follow Union developments visit http://www.u-ca.org.

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Soon Come: Neville Murray’s Passion for the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its Role in Rebirthing North Omaha

August 28, 2011 8 comments

The Loves Jazz & Arts Center in North Omaha is a symbol for the transition point that this largely African-American area is poised at – as decades of neglect are about to be impacted by a spate of major redevelopment. LJAC and some projects directly to the south of it along North 24th Street represented steps in the right direction but since then little else has happened in the way of renewal. Development efforts farther south, east, and west had little or no carryover effect. The subject of this story however is not so much the LJAC as it is its former director, Neville Murray, who was very much the director when I did this piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about three years ago. Murray expressed, just as his successor does today, the hope that the center would serve as anchor and catalyst for a boom in new activity in the area. The center never really realized that goal, but it still could. Murray is a passionate man, artist, and arts administrator with an interesting perspective on things since he’s not from Omaha originally. Indeed, he’s a native Jamaican. But as he explains right at the top of my story, he identifies closely with the African-American experience here and he’s committed to making a difference in the Omaha African-American community – one that’s been waiting a long time for change. If it’s up to him, it will soon come.

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Neville Murray with Linda Cunningham, center, coordinator for cultural competence, UNMC Community and Multicultural Affairs, and co-chair of Employee Diversity Network; and Susan Langdon, clinical coordinator, UNMC Medical Technology Education.

Soon Come: Neville Murray’s Passion for the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and its Role in Rebirthing North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Oriignally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

“I’m an artist, first and foremost. I think everything else is just kind of a reflection of the art,” said Neville Murray, director of the Loves Jazz & Arts Center (LJAC), 2510 North 24th Street in Omaha. He came to the States in 1975 from his native Jamaica on a track scholarship that saw him compete for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s made America and Nebraska his second home, but  it is the north Omaha African American community the center serves where his heart lies.

“I consider myself African-American,” he said. “North Omaha is such a tremendous culture. There’s so much talent and there’s so much need. If we can just inspire kids to become artists or to becomeinvolved in the arts or to realize the role the arts can play in their lives…

“We’re really trying to change the dynamic by bringing world class arts programming to north Omaha and to bring in art one would not ordinarily see. Art is a catalyst for change. We’ve seen it downtown. And we think this can be a catalyst for change in our community.”

During a recent interview in the center conference room, which doubles as a storage space with stacks of art works leaning against the walls, he alluded to the year-and-a-half-old LJAC as trying to separate itself from “other organizations in the community” that have failed. The center’s “state of the art facility” is a big start. Another is his long track record as an administrator with the Nebraska Arts Council (NAC), where he worked prior to opening the center in 2005. Well-versed in grant writing and well-connected to the art world, he’s determined to avoid the pitfalls.

“We have to be at a different level in terms of our 501C3 meeting certain criteria with accountability (for programs and grants) and ownership of collections,” he said. “We have to set high standards. For me it’s critical we operate at a high level because of the history of some things.” When asked if he meant the troubled Great Plains Black History Museum a block to the east, he confirmed he did. He said that other venue’s long-standing problems of unarchived materials, unrealized repairs, unpolitic moves and unanswered questions stem from ineffective governance.

“It can’t be a hand-picked board. It needs to be a real board,” he said. “We have a great, pro-active, eight-member board.” The LJAC also has ongoing Peter Kiewit Foundation support. Even with that the center operates on the margin, with revenues coming chiefly from rental fees and grants rather than its light walk-in traffic. Murray was a one-man band for months after his only staffer resigned, leaving him doing everything from curating exhibits to cleaning floors. A Kiewit grant’s made possible the hiring of a new assistant. Still, he acknowledges problems — from the phone not always being manned to the doors not always being open during normal visiting hours to inadequate marketing and membership campaigns.

 

Loves Jazz & Arts Center

 

 

 

“I wear many different hats. There’s only so much you can do. It’s frustrating,” he said. “That has been an issue, you bet. I think that’s just part of our growing pains. Hopefully, that will resolve itself at some point in time. I’m not going to be here forever, but I want to make sure I put in place processes that can ensure the success of this institution into the future.”

Another barrier the center faces is one of identity and image. Some assume its solely focused on the legacy of Preston Love or a venture of the late musicians’s family. Neither is true. Others think it’s primarily a performance space when in fact it’s an exhibition/education space. Still others confuse it as a social service site. None of it deters him. “Ultimately, the goal for this institution is to be one of just a handful of accredited African American arts institutions” in America, he said.

The center grew out of many discussions Murray engaged in with members of the African American community. “We’d been meeting for years with a variety of folks about the need for an institution such as this in north Omaha,” he said.

Murray got to know greater Nebraska and north Omaha in particular as the NAC’s first multicultural coordinator in the 1990s. His work today at the LJAC is a natural extension of how his personal journey as an artist and arts administrator evolved to embrace his own Jamaican identity, the wider African American experience and the need to create more recognition and opportunities for fellow artists of color.

“It enriched me so much being able to travel all over Nebraska and work with indigenous folks to promote the arts,” he said. “To be able to work with different cultures, Latino and American Indian cultures, really inspired me, not just as an artist but in terms of my awareness. I began to realize the arts play a critical role in cultural development. A culture without art is dead. Art is what makes us human.”

Besides, he fell in love with the state’s wide open spaces, variable topography, classic seasons and Northern Hemispheric light. “Nebraska’s such a beautiful state. If you drive straight from here to Colorado you don’t see it. But if you go just a few miles north of I-80 you’re in the Sand Hills and the vistas are just magnificent,” said Murray, whose paintings reflect his “love of nature” in iconic earth-tone images of the Great Plains or pastel seascapes of his tropical homeland.

 

 

Alligator Pond Fish Market, ©Neville Murray

 

 

He came to the NAC at a crucible time. His newly formed post was a response to protests over inequitable funding for artists of color. Inequity extended to museums/galleries, where works about and by black artists were absent, and to academia, where, he said, art textbooks at UNL failed to mention one of its own, grad Aaron Douglas, famed “illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance.”

Murray’s experience working with Nebraska’s Ponca population in their effort to be reinstated within the greater Ponca Tribe reflected his own sense of dislocation from his roots and the severing African Americans feel from their heritage.

“The Ponca had to relearn their traditions, so the NAC helped them get the grant funding to network back with the Southern Ponca down in Oklahoma to rediscover their dances and cultural traditions,” he said. “If as a tribe you’re cut off you lose a sense of your identity. I can relate to that because there was a period in my life  when I can say I was kind of embarrassed at some of my rural upbringing. My grandmother used to walk five miles to market. People come from all over up in the mountains and bring their wares. Colors everywhere. Fruits of every ilk. Wonderful old stories. It took me a while to really appreciate all that. Now I look at it as a treasure and something we’re losing rapidly in the islands, I might add.”

“As black folks we’ve lost a sense of our identity. We’re confused. We don’t understand a lot of our traditions, even what tribes we come from. All of that was lost with slavery. Slavery’s had such a critical roles in our lives. It’s almost like we’re brand new,” he said. “Our whole life is a search, a journey for identity.”

Today, there’s more emphasis on black heritage and black art. “I think there’s much greater appreciation for art and artistic expression,” he said. “It’s not unusual to see artists of color in Art News now or other major art publications.”

Despite inroads, the place black artists hold in their own community and in the wider sphere of life is a work in progress. “It seems as black artists we’re always trying to validate ourselves. A few will come through. The flavor of the day, so to speak,” he said. “But as artists of color we we’re so often stigmatized. We have to get beyond that and recognize our art as an expression of our culture. We have a tendency in our community to look at arts as only recreation or extracurricular.”

His own ground breaking path reflects the possibilities for artists of color today. “I’ve kind of been doing a lot of things that hadn’t been done before,” he said. He was one of the first state multicultural coordinators in the nation. He pioneered the use of digital technology for Nebraska-curated shows. He organized the first comprehensive touring exhibit of contemporary Jamaican art with the 2000 Soon Come: The Art of Contemporary Jamaica. The project took him to parts of the island he’d never visited and introduced him to its diverse spectrum of artists.

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Neville Murray discusses his artwork with Angela Knowles, a clinical study assistant in the department of internal medicine-pulmonary.

He continues to celebrate art and to explore “what does it mean to be an artist of color?” at the LJAC, where he’s brought exhibits by renowned artists Frederick Brown, Faith Ringgold and Ibiyinka. In late November paintings from the Revival Series of noted artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes opens. The LJAC will publish its first catalogue for the show.

On display from time to time is work by local artists like Wanda Ewing, whose images deal with being a woman of color. It hosts regular art classes for adults/kids and occasional lectures/workshops. In keeping with its historic, symbol-laden location, the LJAC presents socially relevant programs, such as a History of Omaha Jazz panel held this year and the current Freedom Journey civil rights exhibit. All around the center, businesses flourished, streets teemed, marches proceeded, riots burned and hot jazz sessions played out. In a nod to political awareness, activist Angela Davis will appear there November 11.

Murray’s penchant for technology is evident in interactive stations/kiosks. An oral history project he’s doing with the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he also studied, documents, in high def video, the lives/stories of older African American residents. The materials will inform a documentary about the history of black Omaha and its music heritage. The archived interviews will be available to scholars. He looks forward to curating a new exhibit around a group of photos from a local collector that record some of the earliest images of local African American life. A selection from the LJAC permanent collection displays photos of early African American scenes and moments from the career of namesake Preston Love.

Murray’s also in discussions for the LJAC to be an outreach center for New York’s Lincoln Center. “I’m really excited about that,” he said. “That gives us an opportunity to bring in some coeducational programming and performances.” It’s all about his trying to engage people with art in news ways. He said, “I would hope I bring a certain creativity to this position as an artist.”

He knows he and the center will be judged by their longevity. “You have to have a period of time when people can see if you’re going to be here for a while,” he said.” “I think folks feel good about we’re doing. I think people realize my heart is in the right place. I have a love of this community and the culture. It’s a huge challenge. It’s a big responsibility. But it’s been a wonderful experience.”

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By

July 4, 2011 45 comments

As the July 27-August 1 Native Omaha Days festival draws near I am posting articles I’ve written about this African-Ameican heritage and homecoming event and about closely related topics. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared some years ago, at at time when predominantly African American North Omaha was experiencing a large increase in gun violence and media reports laid out the widespread poverty and achievement gaps affecting that community. In response to dire needs, the African American Empowerment Network was formed and a concerted process begun to to bring about a revitalized North Omaha. Native Omaha leaders and others expressed hope that events like Native Omaha Days and the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame might serve to unify, heal, and instill pride to help stem the tide of hopelessness and disrespect behind the violence. Things have improved recently and North O really does seen the verge of coming back, thanks in large part to efforts by the Empowerment Network, but the stabilizing role of events like Native Omaha Days shouldn’t be forgotten or dimissed.

 

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Native Omaha Club photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now and All the Days Gone By

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

Organizers of the 16th biennial Native Omaha Days call it the largest gathering of African-Americans in Nebraska. That in itself makes it a significant event. Thousands fill Salem Baptist Church for the gospel fest, spill into North 24th Street for the social mixer/registration and the homecoming parade, boogie at the Qwest Center dance and chow down on soul food at a Levi Carter Lake Park picnic.

This heritage celebration held every other summer is a great big reunion with many family-class reunions around it. Parties abound. Hotels, casinos, eateries, bars fill. Jam sessions unwind. Bus tours roll. North 24th cruising commences. Stories and lies get told. It’s people of a shared roots experience coming together as one.

Unity is on the minds of natives as their community is poised at a historic juncture. Will North 24th’s heyday be recaptured through new economic-education-empowerment plans? Or will generational patterns of poverty, underemployment, single parent homes, crime and lack of opportunity continue to hold back many? What happens if the cycle of despair that grips some young lives is not broken?

“The Native Omaha homecoming is very important, but a lot of young people don’t know what it’s all about, and that really bothers me,” said Hazel Kellogg, 74, president of the sponsoring nonprofit Native Omahans Club, Inc.. “They’re the future and what we’re trying to do is make them realize how important it is to hang in with your community and to keep your community pulling together for the betterment of our people. OUR people, you know?

“We have a big problem on the north side with violence and crime and all that, and I want to reach out to young people to let them know this homecoming is all about family and friends coming home to be together and enjoy a weekend of good clean fun. Eventually the young people are going to be heading up Native Omaha Days and they need to know what it’s all about.”

She said she hopes the event is a catalyst for ongoing efforts to build up the community again. After much neglect she’s encouraged by signs of revitalization. “I’ve been through it all. I’ve been through the riots. For a long time it moved in a negative direction. Now, I’m very hopeful. We need the whole community to come together with this. Together we stand.”

Vaughn Chatman, 58, shares the same concerns. He left Omaha years ago and the problems he saw on visits from Fair Oaks, Calif., where he now lives, motivated him to found the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. The Hall seeks to restore the sense of community pride he knew. An induction ceremony held during the Days honors area black artists, athletes, activists, entrepreneurs and leaders. He feels young blacks can only feel invested in the future if exposed to successful folks who look like they do. He works with the Omaha Public Schools to have local black achievers discussed in classroom curricula as a way to give kids positive models to aspire to.

“Back in the day” is an oft-heard phrase of the week-long fest. Good and bad times comprise those memories. Just as World War II-era Omaha saw an influx of blacks from the South seeking packinghouse-railroad jobs, the last 40 years has seen an exodus due to meager economic-job prospects.
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photo by Cyclops-Optic (Jack David Hubbell)

 

Centered in northeast Omaha, the black community hub became North 24th, where  Jewish and black-owned businesses catered to every good and service and a vital live music scene thrived. Hence, many Days activities revolve around 24th, which declined after the late ‘60s riots. A few blocks have seen improvements, but much of this former “Street of Dreams” is run down or empty. Gang violence in the district is a problem. It’s concerns like these now spurring coalitions of residents and expatriate natives like Chatman to craft sustainable solutions.

For a change, Karen Davis sees “substance” in the new initiatives targeting rebirth. Enough to make the Native Omahans Club officer feel the area “can be back to where it was or even more. Businesses have come down or moved back, and I think it’s a good thing for us,” she said.

The Native Omahans Club is quartered in a former lounge at 3819 North 24th. During the Days the building and street outside overflow with people reminiscing. Visitors mix with residents, exchanging handshakes, hugs, laughter, tears. Scenes like this unfold all over — anywhere neighborhood-school chums or relatives catch up with each other to relive old times.

“We haven’t seen each other in years, so it’s just a fellowship — what we used to do, what we used to look like…It’s just big fun,” said Davis.

Like countless Omahans, Davis and Kellogg each have friends and family arriving for the Days. No one’s sure just how many out-of-state natives return or the economic impact of their stays, but organizers guess 5,000 to 8,000 make it in and spend millions here. Those hefty numbers lead some to say the event doesn’t get its just due from the city. No matter, it’s a family thing anyway.

“People come in from all over for Native Omaha Days. My family comes from Colorado, Minnesota. It’s a time I can get together with them. I have a friend from Arizona coming I haven’t seen in 20 years. I’ll be so glad to see her. Those are the things that really just keep my heart pumping,” Kellogg said. “It’s just a gala affair.”

For details on the Days visit www.nativeomahans.com or call 457-5974.

Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe

June 22, 2011 5 comments

Mike Whitner is one of several small business owners fighting the good fight by trying to inject some new commerce into the economically depressed northeast Omaha community. His Chef’s Mike Community Cafe is the type of going concern the district desperately needs but is woefully lacking. As with anybody, he has a story. Specifically, there’s a story behind how and why he became a chef and located his business in the heart of an area with great, though as yet unrealized promise, a situation that’s defined the area since its decline in the 1960s and ’70s. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared shortly after Chef Mike opened his place. The good news is he’s still in business and the area is targeted for massive redevelopment. The bad news is that much of that development is still some years away. But every little anchor and magnet business like his can make a difference, especially if there becomes a critical mass of them.

 

 

 

Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.threader.com)

“I’m doing a rebirth,” said Mike Whitner, a.k.a. Chef Mike, as he pointed to the colorful sidewalk/window signs outside his Community Cafe in the Family Housing Advisory Services building at 24th and Lake in north Omaha. “I’m taking what I learned from my roots and putting it in like a nouvelle style kind of soul food. I keep it traditional, but I add the new wave in it, like using a lot of smoked turkey in my greens (instead of ham hocks), where it’s going to be healthy for you.”

A solid block of a man who brightens his white chef’s smock with Pollock splattered pants and jaunty berets, Whitner grew up in a rough section of far northeast Omaha’s “Flatlands.” He ran with a gang. He learned to defend himself. As the youngest of seven siblings he spent a lot of time watching his mother cook. He paid close attention. He’ll tell you the secret to soul food is made-from-scratch cooking whose deeply imbued flavors build in stages, over time.

“It’s a process,” he said. One that can’t be rushed. No shortcuts please.

Another “mentor” is Charles Hall, owner/head cook of the now defunct Fair Deal Cafe on North 24th Street. Whitner’s smothered pork steak is a homage to Hall’s classic smothered pork chop.

“I slow cook it like he used to,” Whitner said. “I cook it in its juices with peppers and onions. When you do it right, it just melts in your mouth, baby.”

As a kid Whitner earned extra money making sandwiches/dinners and hawking them to working men on the north side. Before becoming a chef though, he had some living to do. He played college and semi-pro football, bounced at clubs, provided personal security to clients and collected for others. Once, a guy pulled a gun and shot him. A bullet grazed his head. He still managed to break the shooter’s wrist down, wrest the gun away and beat him with it.

Incidents like these convinced him “it was time to grow up and get away from all that and stop taking care of other people’s business. My mother slept better.”

He got a taste of the restaurant game working at Boston Sea Party and L and N Seafood Grill. A move to Denver in the early 1990s launched him on his career. He learned the trade at the famed Wynkoop Brewing Company, which sponsored his training in the Chefs de Cuisine Association. Working chef’s license in hand, he helped Wynkoop become an anchor of the Mile High City’s trendy LoDo district.

Back home by the mid ‘90s, he entered the Omaha catering scene. He was on the team that opened Rick’s Boatyard Cafe. A parting of the ways found him catering again, this time out of trucks doing a tidy trade on the streets. When the spot he’s in now came open, he went after it.

“One of the promises I made when I became a chef,” he said, “was to bring everything I learned back to the Flatlands. I wanted to be here.”

His fusion of soul with gourmet adds new twists to old favs: sauteed baby bay shrimp with collard greens; roast beef with a demi-glace or mirepoix-based sauce; and jalapeno cheddar corn bread. Every day he does theme dishes — from blackened beef or fish to pasta to tacos to soul food staples to whole catfish filets. He has his signature Black Angus dogs, reubens, gyros and Philly steak and cheese. Some items, like his sweet potatoes, are from his own garden. He buys from local growers.

 

 

 

 

Open weekdays for breakfast, when you can get grits and biscuits, and lunch, most meals there run well under $6. The one day he’s open late, Fridays, he offers a prime rib or salmon dinner for $13, with live jazz by Hopie Bronson. The cafe’s “transformed” then into an intimate club with low lights, linen table cloths, votive candles. There’s free parking in an adjacent lighted lot.

For Whitner, who still has his own catering biz, his place is a symbol of what he sees as North 24th’s rebirth.

“This area was rich in jazz and blues. In those days businesses were booming. Everybody was coming down here enjoying 24th Street. That’s what I want again,” he said.

It’s why his menu is a melange of old and new.

“I want to represent where I come from,” he said of his soul food roots. But, he added, “you gotta mix it up. It’s an area that’s been heavy with soul food places. You can’t eat soul food every day. It’s not good for you. You gotta give this area food it’s never had before…that’s different. Folks love being able to have that kind of cuisine down here.”

Business isn’t as brisk as he’d like, but he’s set on staying to help spark a renaissance.

“Eventually this area is going to be the educational, arts, music district” of north Omaha, he said. “That’s where’s it’s going. You can feel it. When you get the jazz and blues down here you can feel it coming. It’s coming for sure.”

The Community Cafe, 2401 Lake St., is open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Breakfast from 7:30 to 11 a.m. and lunch then on. Friday dinners with live jazz from 7 to 11 p.m. For details and take out orders, call 964-2037.

Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One

June 11, 2011 71 comments

Even though I grew up in North Omaha and lived there until age 43 or so,  I didn’t experience my first Native Omaha Days until I had moved out of the area, and by then I was 45, and the only reason I did intersect with The Days then, and subsequently have since, is because I was reporting on it.  The fact that I didn’t connect with it before is not unusual because it is essentially though by no means exclusively an African American celebration, and as you can see by my picture I am a white guy. Then there’s the fact it is a highly social affair and I am anything but social, that is unless prevailed upon to be by circumstance or assignment. But I was aware of the event, admittedly vaguely so most of my life, and I eventually did press my editors at The Reader (www.thereader.com) to let me cover it. And so over the past eight years I have filed several stories related to Native Omaha Days, most of which you can now find on this blog in the run up to this year’s festival, which is July 27-August 1. The story below is my most extensive in terms of trying to capture the spirit and the tradition of The Days, which encompasses many activities and brings back thousands of native Omahans – nobody’s really sure how many – for a week or more of catching up family, friends, old haunts.

NOTE: The parade that is a highlight of The Days was traditionally held on North 24th Street but has more recently been moved to North 30th Street, where the parade pictures below were taken by Cyclops-OpticJack David Hubbell.

My blog also features many other stories related to Omaha’s African American community, past and present. Check out the stories, as I’m sure you’ll find several things that interest you, just as I have in pursuing these stories the last 12 years or so.

 

Vera Johnson,a Native Omahans Club founder, (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

 

 

 

Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A homecoming. That’s what Native Omaha Days, a warm, rousing, week-long black heritage reunion, means to the thousands of native sons and daughters coming back in town for this biennial summer celebration. Although the spree, which unfolded July 30 through August 4 this year, features an official itinerary of activities, including a gospel night, a drill team competition, a parade, a dance and a picnic, a far larger slate of underground doings goes on between the many family and class reunions, live concerts and parties that fill out the Days. Some revelers arrive before the merriment begins, others join the fun in progress and a few stay over well after it’s done. A revival and carnival in one, the Days is a refreshing, relaxing antidote to mainstream Omaha’s uptight ways.

North Omaha bars, clubs and restaurants bustle with the influx of out-of-towners mixing with family and old friends. North 24th Street is a river of traffic as people drive the drag to see old sites and relive old times. Neighborhoods jump to the beat of hip-hop, R&B and soul resounding from house parties and family gatherings under way. Even staid Joslyn Art Museum and its stodgy Jazz on the Green take on a new earthy, urban vibe from the added black presence. As one member of the sponsoring Native Omahans Club said of the festival, “this is our Mardi Gras.”

Shirley Stapleton-Odems is typical of those making the pilgrimage. Born and raised in Omaha — a graduate of Howard Kennedy Elementary School and Technical High School — Stapleton-Odems is a small business owner in Milwaukee who wouldn’t miss the Days for anything. “Every two years I come back…and it’s hard sometimes for me to do, but no matter what I make it happen,” she said. “I have friends who come from all over the country to this, and I see some people I haven’t seen in years. We all meet here. We’re so happy to see each other. It’s a reunion thing. It’s like no matter how long you’re gone, this is still home to us.”

As Omaha jazz-blues guru Preston Love, a former Basie sideman and Motown band leader and the author of the acclaimed book A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, observed, “Omahans are clannish” by nature. “There’s a certain kindredness. Once you’re Omaha, you’re Omaha.” Or, as David Deal, whose Skeets Ribs & Chicken has been a fixture on 24th Street since 1952, puts it, “People that moved away, they’re not out-of-towners, they’re still Omahans — they just live someplace else.” Deal sees many benefits from the summer migration. “It’s an opportunity for people to come back to see who’s still here and who’s passed on. It’s an economic boost to businesses in North Omaha.”

Homecoming returnees like Stapleton-Odems feel as if they are taking part in something unique. She said, “I don’t know of any place in the country where they have something like this where so many people over so many generations come together.” Ironically, the fest’ was inspired by long-standing Los Angeles and Chicago galas where transplanted black Nebraskans celebrate their roots. Locals who’ve attended the L.A. gig say it doesn’t compare with Omaha’s, which goes to the hilt in welcoming back natives.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the most symbolic event of the week is the mammoth Saturday parade that courses down historic North 24th Street. It is an impressionistic scene of commerce and culture straight out of a Spike Lee film. On a hot August day, thousands of spectators line either side of the street, everyone insinuating their bodies into whatever patch of shade they can find. Hand-held fans provide the only breeze.

Vendors, selling everything from paintings to CDs to jewelry to hot foods and cold beverages to fresh fruits and vegetables, pitch their products under tents staked out in parking lots and grassy knolls. Grills and smokers work overtime, wafting the hickory-scented aroma of barbecue through the air. Interspersed at regular intervals between the caravan of decorated floats festooned with signs hawking various local car dealerships, beauty shops, fraternal associations and family trees are the funky drill teams, whose dancers shake their booties and grind their hips to the precise, rhythmic snaring of whirling dervish drummers. Paraders variously hand-out or toss everything from beads to suckers to grab-bags full of goodies.

A miked DJ “narrates” the action from an abandoned gas station, at one point mimicking the staccato sound of the drilling. A man bedecked in Civil War-era Union garb marches with a giant placard held overhead emblazoned with freedom slogans, barking into a bullhorn his diatribe against war mongers. A woman hands out spiritual messages.

 

 

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Long the crux of the black community, 24th Street or “Deuce Four” as denizens know it, is where spectators not only take in the parade as it passes familiar landmarks but where they greet familiar figures with How ya’ all doin’? embraces and engage in free-flowing reminiscences about days gone by. Everywhere, a reunion of some sort unfolds around you. Love is in the air.

The parade had a celebrity this time — Omaha native actress Gabrielle Union (Deliver Us From Eva). Looking fabulous in a cap, blouse and shorts, she sat atop the back seat of a convertible sedan sponsored by her father’s family, the Abrams, whose reunion concided with the fest’. “This is just all about the people of north Omaha showing pride for the community and reaching out to each other and committing to a sense of togetherness,” said Union, also a member of the Bryant-Fisher family, which has a large stake in and presence at the Days. “It’s basically like a renewal. Each generation comes down and everyone sits around and talks. It’s like a passing of oral history, which is…a staple of our community and our culture. It’s kind of cool being part of it.”

She said being back in the hood evokes many memories. “It’s funny because I see the same faces I used to hang out with here, so a lot of mischievous memories are coming back. It’s like, Do you remember the time? So, a lot of good times. A lot of times we probably shouldn’t of been having as young kids. But basically it’s just a lot of good memories and a lot of lessons learned right here on 24th.”

The three-mile parade is aptly launched at 24th and Burdette. There, Charles Hall’s now closed Fair Deal Cafe, once called “the black city hall,” provided a forum for community leaders to debate pressing issues and to map-out social action plans. Back in the day, Hall was known to give away food during the parade, which ends at Kountze Park, long a popular gathering spot in north Omaha. Across the street is Skeets, one of many soul food eateries in the area. Just down the road a piece is the Omaha Star, where legendary publisher Mildred Brown held court from the offices of her crusading black newspaper. Across the street is the Jewell Building, where James Jewell’s Dreamland Ballroom hosted black music greats from Armstrong to Basie to Ellington to Holiday, and a little further north, at 24th and Lake, is where hep cat juke joints like the M & M Lounge and McGill’s Blue Room made hay, hosting red hot jam sessions.

 
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Recalling when, as one brother put it, “it was real,” is part and parcel of the Days. It’s all about “remembering how 24th and Lake was…the hot spot for the black community,” said Native Omahans Club member Ann Ventry. “We had everything out here,” added NOC member Vera Johnson, who along with Bettie McDonald is credited with forming the club and originating the festival. “We had cleaners, barber shops, beauty parlors, bakeries, grocery stores, ice cream stores, restaurants, theaters, clothing stores, taxi companies, doctors’ offices. You name it, we had it. We really didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood for anything,” Johnson said. Many businesses were black-owned, too. North O was, as lifelong resident Charles Carter describes it, “it’s own entity. That was the lifestyle.”

For James Wightman, a 1973 North High and 1978 UNL grad, the homecoming is more than a chance to rejoin old friends, it’s a matter of paying homage to a legacy. “Another reason we come back and go down 24th Street is to honor where we grew up. I grew up at the Omaha Boys Club and I played ball at the Bryant Center. There was so much to do down on the north side and your parents let you walk there. Kids can’t do that anymore.” Noting its rich history of jazz and athletics, Wightman alluded to some of the notables produced by north Omaha, including major league baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers, jazzman Preston Love, social activist Malcolm X, actor John Beasley and Radio One founder and CEO Catherine Liggins Hughes.

For Helen McMillan Caraway, an Omaha native living in Los Angeles, sauntering down 24th Street brings back memories of the music lessons she took from Florentine Kingston, whose apartment was above a bakery on the strip. “After my music lesson I’d go downstairs and get a brownie or something,” she said. “I had to steer clear of the other side of the street, where there was a bar called McGill’s that my father, Dr. Aaron McMillan, told me, ‘Don’t go near.’” Being in Omaha again makes the Central High graduate think of “the good times we used to have at Carter Lake and all the football games. I loved that. I had a good time growing up here.”

For native Omahan Terry Goodwin Miller, now residing in Dallas, being back on 24th Street or “out on the stem,” as natives refer to it, means remembering where she and her best girlfriend from Omaha, Jonice Houston Isom, also of Dallas, got their first hair cut. It was at the old Tuxedo Barbershop, whose nattily attired proprietors, Marcus “Mac” McGee and James Bailey, ran a tight ship in the street level shop they ran in the Jewell Building, right next to a pool hall and directly below the Dreamland. Being in Omaha means stopping at favorite haunts, like Time Out Foods, Joe Tess Place and Bronco’s or having a last drink at the now closed Backstreet Lounge. It means, Goodwin Miller said, “renewing friendships…and talking about our lives and seeing family.” It means dressing to the nines and flashing bling-bling at the big dance and, when it’s over, feeling like “we don’t want to go home and grabbing something to eat and coming back to 24th Street to sit around and wait for people to come by that we know.”

 

 

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Goodwin Miller said the allure of renewing Omaha relationships is so strong that despite the fact she and Houston Isom live in Dallas now, “we don’t see each other there, but when we come here we’re together the whole time.”

Skeets’ David Deal knows the territory well. From his restaurant, which serves till 2 a.m., he sees native Omahans drawn, at all hours, to their old stomping grounds. He’s no different. “We’re just coming down here to have a good time and seeing people we haven’t seen in years.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as “sitting around and watching the cars go by, just like we used to back in the good old days.”

North Omaha. More than a geographic sector, it is the traditional, cultural heart of the local black community encompassing the social-historical reality of the African-American experience. Despite four decades of federally-mandated civil rights, equal opportunity, fair housing and affirmative action measures the black community here is still a largely separate, unequal minority in both economic and political terms and suffers a lingering perception problem — born out of racism — that unfairly paints the entire near northside as a crime and poverty-ridden ghetto. Pockets of despair do exist, but in fact north Omaha is a mostly stable area undergoing regentrification. There is the 24-square block Miami Heights housing-commercial development going up between 30th and 36th Streets and Miami and Lake Streets, near the new Salem Baptist Church. There is the now under construction North Omaha Love’s Jazz, Cultural Arts and Humanities Complex, named for Preston Love, on the northwest corner of 24th and Lake. The same sense of community infusing Native Omaha Days seems to be driving this latest surge of progress, which finds black professionals like attorney Brenda Council moving back to their roots.

Former NU football player James Wightman (1975-1978) has been coming back for the Days the past eight years, first from Seattle and now L.A., and he said, “I’m pretty pleased with what’s going on now in terms of the development. When I lived here there was a stampede of everybody getting out of Omaha because there weren’t as many opportunities. I look at Omaha’s growth and I see we’re a rich, thriving community now.” During the Days he stays, as many do, with family and hooks up with ex-jocks like Dennis Forrest (Central High) and Bobby Bass (Omaha Benson) to just kick it around. “We’re spread out in different locations now but we all come back and it’s like we never missed a beat.” The idea of a black pride week generating goodwill and dollars in the black community appeals to Wightman, who said, “I came to spend my money on the north side. And I’ll be back in two years.”

Wightman feels the Days can serve as a beacon of hope to today’s disenfranchised inner city youth. “I think it sends a message to the youth that there are good things happening. That people still come back because they feel a sense of family, friendship and connection that a lot of young people don’t have today. All my friends are in town for their school-family reunions and we all love each other. There’s none of this rival Bloods-Crips stuff. We talk about making a difference. It’s not just about a party, it’s a statement that we can all get along with each other.”

 

 

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“It just shows there’s a lot of good around here,” said Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown, who represents largely black District 2, “but unfortunately it’s not told by the news media.” Scanning the jam-packed parade route, a beaming Brown said, “This is a four-hour event and there’s thousands of people of all ages here and they’re smiling and enjoying themselves and there’s no problems. When you walk around you see people hugging each other. There’s tears in some of their eyes because they haven’t seen their friends, who’ve become their family.”

Family is a recurring theme of the Days. “My family all lives here.” said John Welchen, a 1973 Tech High grad now living in Inglewood, Calif. For him, the event also “means family” in the larger sense. “To me, all of the friends I grew up with and everyone I’ve become acquainted with over the years is my extended family. It’s getting a chance to just see some great friends from the past and hear a lot of old stories and enjoy a lot of laughter.”

Native Omahans living in the rush-rush-rush of impersonal big cities look forward to getting back to the slower pace and gentler ways of the Midwest. “From the time I get off the plane here I notice a difference,” said Houston Odems, who flies into Omaha from Dallas. “People are polite…kind. To me, you just can’t beat it. I tell people all the time it’s a wonderful place to have grown-up. I mean, I still know the people who sold me my first car and the people who dry-cleaned my clothes.”

Although the Days traces its start back to 1977, when the Native Omahans Club threw the first event, celebrations commemorating the ties that bind black Omahans go back well before then. As a young girl in the ‘50s, Stapleton-Odems was a majorette in an Elks drill team that strutted their stuff during 24th Street parades. “It’s a gathering that’s been gong on since I can remember,” she said.

Old-timers say the first few Native Omaha Days featured more of a 24/7, open-air, street-party atmosphere. “We were out in the middle of the street all night long just enjoying each other,” said Billy Melton, a lifelong Omahan and self-styled authority on the north side. “There was live entertainment — bands playing — every six blocks. Guys set up tents in the parks to just get with liquor. After the dances let out people would go up and down the streets till six in the morning. Everybody dressed. Everybody looking like a star. It was a party town and we knew how to party. It was something to see. No crime…nothing. Oh, yeah…there was a time when we were like that, and I’m glad to have lived in that era.”

According to Melton, an original member of the Native Omahans Club, “some people would come a week early to start bar hopping. They didn’t wait for Native Omaha Days. If certain people didn’t come here, there was no party.”

Charles Carter is no old-timer, but he recalls the stroll down memory lane that was part of past fests. “They used to have a walk with a continuous stream of people on either side of the street. What they were doing was reenacting the old days when at nighttime 24th Street was alive. There were so many people you couldn’t find a place to walk, much less park. It was unbelievable. A lot of people are like me and hold onto the thought this is the way north Omaha was at one time and it’s unfortunate our children can’t see it because there’s so much rich history there.”

Then there was the huge bash Billy Melton and his wife Martha threw at their house. “It started early in the morning and lasted all night. It was quite a thing. Music, liquor, all kinds of food. It was a big affair,” Melton said. “I had my jukebox in the backyard and we’d have dancing on the basketball court. Endless conversations. That’s what it’s all about.”

Since the emergence of gang street violence in the mid-80s, observers like Melton and Carter say the fest is more subdued, with nighttime doings confined to formal, scheduled events like the gospel night at Salem and the dance at Mancuso Hall and the 24th Street rag relegated to the North Omahans Club or other indoor venues.

A reunion ultimately means saying goodbye, hence the close of the Days is dubbed Blue Monday. Most out-of-towners have left by then, but the few stalwarts that remain mix with die-hard residents for a final round or two at various drinking holes, toasting fat times together and getting high to make the parting less painful. After a week of carousing, out-of-town revelers wear their exhaustion like a badge of honor. “You’re supposed to be tired from all this,” Houston Isom said. “There’s no such thing as sleeping during this week. I can’t even take a nap because I’ll be worried I might be missing something.” Goodwin Miller builds in recovery time, saying, “When I go home I take a day off before I go back to work.” She and the others can’t wait to do it all over again two years from now.

Burden of Dreams: The Trials of Omaha’s Black Museum

December 14, 2010 2 comments

The Great Plains Black Museum at the Webster T...

Image via Wikipedia

For more than a decade now I have been writing about the travails of the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in an abridged version in 2006. You will find two other major stories I’ve mine about the museum on this blog. One is from 1996 and it profiles the museum’s founder, Bertha Calloway.  I called the piece, Bertha’s Battle. The other piece appeared in early 2010 and documented some of the past problems the organization has endured and broke news about some new, promising developments concerning the organization.  I will soon be writing new stories about the museum based on even more recent developments and so look for new posts related to this subject in the coming weeks.

Burden of Dreams: The Trials of Omaha’s Black Museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

This is the story about the rise and fall of a once proud institution.

It began in 1975 with great promise. The Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha set itself apart as an African-American cultural institution devoted to revealing the rich past of black settlers and soldiers and sojourners in the Midwest. Through displays and lectures it taught a history long withheld from blacks and whites alike. One largely suppressed or omitted or ignored in schools. By making black history a cause for affirmation and revision, the museum staged its own semi-militant Black Power movement. With its insistent black heritage focus, the museum gave anyone who passed through its doors or saw its touring exhibitions and presentations, a history lesson unlike any other. It was a revelation.

There was always the hope the museum could serve as an anchor and destination stop in the historic North 24th Street district.

But over time the museum’s devolved into a troubled place beset by all manner of problems. Many revolve around embattled interim director Jim Calloway, whose strident ways make him persona non grata with potential funders. Ultimately, though, the museum’s suffered from the lack of a consistent revenue stream, a well-connected, well-heeled board and inadequate record keeping.

A solution to some problems may be in the works via a proposed new partnership between the museum and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Grand visions for the museum have surfaced before only never to be realized. It’s a familiar story to Calloway’s ailing mother, Omaha civil rights activist and black history buff Bertha Calloway, who forged the museum from her own imagination and and determination. She’s seen and heard it all. Plans. Promises. Proposals. Proclamations. Architectural renderings for a refurbished museum never got past the conceptual stage. What should have been a shining moment — a book co-authored by her and historian Alonzo Smith about Nebraska’s black history, featuring images and data drawn from the museum’s collection — turned debacle. There was a dispute with the publisher and with a pair of corporate sponsors. The museum did not accept the publication, which is full of errors. Most of the books went unsold and sit in the office of an Omaha attorney. Questions linger over how the museum spent the corporate dollars dedicated to the project.

She harbored a dream for an an archives and interpretive center on the city’s north side that chronicled the seldom told story of black pioneers. With help from her late husband James T. Calloway and fellow members of the Negro Historical Society she founded, the GPBHM was born in 1975 as an incorporated non-profit. The museum opened in 1976 at its present site, the three-story Webster Telephone Exchange building, at 2213 Lake Street. The once slated-for-condemnation structure was saved from the rubble heap when the couple purchased it for a song. The 1906 brick structure designed by famed architect Thomas Kimball was home to the Nebraska Telephone Company and, later, an Urban League community center, before being converted into apartments. After some revamping, it became, under Bertha Calloway’s watch, a storehouse and source of black pride.

 

Bertha Calloway

 

The Calloways got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Behind the building’s impressive facade, however, lies a dilapidated structure, its distressed condition a mirror of the turmoil that’s characterized the museum’s governance the past decade. Poor health long ago forced Bertha Calloway to give up the reins to her son. She now resides in a north Omaha nursing home, her mind in and out of the mental fog that 1993 brain surgery left her in. Chronic seizures grip her.

For a long time now the museum itself has existed in limbo, not formally dissolved but floundering, its business conducted in shadows, its affairs in disarray, its displays rarely seen and its board comprised of a few old family friends, but no one with real money or influence. Over the past decade the GPBHM’s been closed more than it’s been open. From about 1998 to 2005, access to the museum and its collection was “by appointment only.” In 2003 the holdings — artifacts, photos, books and documents — were mostly emptied out of the century-old building and put in storage to protect them from water damage and other environmental hazards.

Occasional selections from the collection could be viewed in temporary/touring displays at off-site locations. For a long time, the Blue Lion Center at 24th and Lake reserved space for museum exhibits. When Nebraska Workforce Development located its headquarters there a few years ago, the museum was left homeless. For the past two years the collection’s largely been invisible, even to students and scholars. Since June, when the GPBHM hosted its last exhibit in the Webster building, the museum’s doors have been shut to all visitors, the gas and water turned off and the phone disconnected. This in lieu of badly needed repairs and the result of a then-pending lawsuit over who should retain possession of the building.

 

From GPBHM collection

 

For a time last summer a banner hung outside the front entrance read, Temporarily Closed for Renovation, although anyone with knowledge of the situation, then and now, understands the museum’s broke and no renovations are on the horizon.

To keep the museum viable and to care for his mother, Jim Calloway’s sacrificed his career as a business manager and exhausted his savings. He’s a nomad these days, working odd jobs to supplement his social security, staying in rental units, traveling by bus or bumming rides, scrounging for favors and loans.

“There were a couple years I paid myself a salary, but for the last couple years I haven’t got anything. On occasion, if we get a donation, I get a small portion of it to help me pay my bills. I’ve been evicted from two places. I just run around with my backpack and spend a lot of time down here,” he said sitting at a reference desk in the W. Dale Clark public library, where he’s a familiar figure. “I’ve basically gone broke trying to make sure everything’s stable. It’s just part of the deal.”

Today, the museum’s regarded as more symbol than reality. Rumors abound about not only the condition of the collection, but its disposition and whereabouts. There’s even talk holdings were sold on E-Bay or at auction. Calloway said nothing’s been sold online but some artifacts were sold at a Dino’s Storage auction held to recoup unpaid storage fees. He said he bought back most of the museum items on sale. The few he didn’t purchase, he added, “weren’t really of any great historical significance. They’re things that can be replaced.” He said the museum’s most prized possessions — photos, plus research documents prepared or compiled by his mother and others — remain untouched. He said there’s little monetary value to the photos and data, but much historical value.

“We have the most information of any museum on early blacks in this part of the country, including the homesteaders,” he said. “Every effort has been made to protect these important historical documents and photos.”

With the museum in crisis mode for so long now, the questions arising about it have undercut people’s faith in Calloway and in the institution. While he acknowledges mistakes, he said much of the doubt is unfounded speculation. “There’s so many misconceptions about what’s going on,” he said. “Maybe because we’re not open on a regular basis, that’s where those perceptions come from.” UNO Black Studies professor Larry Menyweather-Woods, a closer observer of the museum, said the public has “taken this so much without facts they don’t know what to believe.” Former Douglas County Board member Carole Woods-Harris said, “Very few people know what’s going on.”

Calloway tried laying to rest some of those concerns when, in early March, he showed a pair of visitors the holdings at two storage sites. One, situated on a patch of ground directly west of the museum building, is a 48-foot long metal storage trailer jammed with stuff. He owes thousands of dollars for the trailer’s use but he said the owner’s been “patient with me” thus far. Ironically, amid all the talk about the holdings — they’ve sat, albeit unseen and locked away, next to the museum “this whole time” The other site, a warehouse owned by a family supermarket chain, is a vast space leased to the museum for storing shelves, lights, signage, et cetera. The lease officially ended some time ago and the location’s continued use by the museum is on “a month by month basis,” although Calloway’s been told he may need to clear out the holdings by the end of May. He’s looking for a new spot.

 

 

 

Along nearly the entire length of one side of the trailer, stacked from floor to ceiling, are columns of cardboard conservation boxes containing documents on various topics of black culture and history. To illustrate the contents, Calloway removed two boxes, one labeled Black Cowboys and the other, Bob Gibson, each filled with articles, essays and notes on their subjects. The little known role of black cowboys is a major emphasis of the museum. Bertha Calloway’s own grandfather, George “Dotey Pa” Pigford was a cattle hand. The feats of black icons with local ties, like major league baseball hall of famer Bob Gibson, publisher Mildred Brown, black nationalist Malcolm X and civil rights activist John Markoe, are also museum staples.

If a proposed agreement with UNO to provide professional support is finalized, then Calloway said the museum’s holdings can, for the first time, be completely indexed or inventoried. “It’s mainly identifying what’s in these 200-plus boxes. It’s going to take a big effort by a lot of people and it’s going to take a lot of time,” he said.

Despite a recent court decision that found the GPBHM operates as a functional museum, public perception says something else. There’s a widespread assumption it is, in fact, a closed, failed institution with no clear future in sight. Calloway sees it differently. “The case we made before the judge” is that we’re an organization that’s struggling but that’s still trying to keep afloat. No, we’re not open right now, but we’re in the process of making a partnership” to stabilize and reopen it.

Perception can beget reality, however, as when funding approved for the beleaguered museum was pulled by the Omaha City Council and the Douglas County Board, when elected officials expressed concerns about its shaky financial house and its slow response or non-compliance in producing mandatory reports for review. Douglas County Board Chairman Mike Boyle said the museum failed to show how it spent past appropriations from that elected body. “When you’re getting funds from a government agency, you have to account for them. You have to show you spent it for the purposes for which it was given. That’s basic-101 stuff.” Boyle said. “If you don’t account for the funds, we’re certainly not going to give you any additional money, that’s for sure. That was his (Calloway’s) problem.”

Calloway concedes the museum’s record-keeping is inadequate. He said finding documents is complicated by the volume of items he must sift through in storage.

He said officials have tacitly given him the impression his leaving the museum is a condition of funding allocations. Officials contacted for this story deny any such stipulations. Calloway, though, fears he’s burned too many bridges along the way. He hopes his past isn’t held against the museum.

Little else but hope has kept the museum alive. That, and Calloway’s devotion to his mother’s dream, a devotion he’s perhaps carried to a fault by refusing to relinquish control, even during the 10 years when he cared for his mother in her home.

“I’ve always been very dedicated to her and, you know, I made a commitment to her that I’d keep her at home as long as possible,” he said. “But it did put the purpose of the museum behind 10 years. There may have been some times when I dropped the ball on things I should have been doing as far as progressing the museum forward. I probably should have allocated some authority to other individuals. I may have tried to take on too much at one time. But I didn’t know any other way. And I had a certain responsibility as a full-time caregiver. I wish I could have had that time to really dedicate to the museum because I think, to be honest with you, things wouldn’t be as bad off as they are now. But there wasn’t anyone else I had total confidence in that I could just give the key to and say, ‘Here…’

 

From GPBHM collection

 

If anything, Omaha photojournalist and longtime family friend Rudy Smith said, Calloway’s carried his devotion too far.

“He is not the bad guy. Jim’s being true to his mother’s wishes and desires. Everything Jim’s done has been to maintain the legacy his mother established. He’s not in it for the money. He’s not in it for glory or fame. The problem’s been with him giving it up. He would do anything and everything to keep it, and he has, from borrowing money from people knowing he couldn’t pay it back to pay bills, to going without eating to working part-time jobs, whatever it took. All because of his love for his mother and her dream. He came into this thing when the museum had no money, no followers, no members, no board of directors and virtually none of the records that Bert kept. Who knows where they are? He inherited a lot of things he had no control over. He’s been in this by himself.”

In recent years, Smith and others agree that Calloway’s miscalculations have left his own and the museum’s reputation tarnished to the point that all public funding for the GPBHM has been denied. Calloway admits making “a big mistake” when he twice turned down city Community Development Block Grant funding, once, in 2001, for $50,000 he rejected as too little to address infrastructure needs and again, in 2002, when he balked at an amended offer of $100,000 as also insufficient.

Calloway accused Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown of having museum funds diverted to the Love’s Jazz and Arts Center, a pet project of Brown’s. Brown denies it. Upon withdrawing the funds, the city offered Calloway this official explanation in a March 24, 2004 letter signed by James Thele, housing and community development manager: “As there will be further delays in the project, the City of Omaha will reallocate the FY 2001 Community Block Grant funds to other projects that have an immediate need.” The letter references “past due real estate taxes and special assessments” and “unpaid debts owed by” the museum and requests “a release allowing the City of Omaha to obtain a credit check” on it. “I encourage you to continue to resolve all financial and other issues.”

An April 13, 2004 letter gave the museum an extra 30 days to satisfy the city’s requests, only by then the city was asking for more extensive documentation. When Calloway didn’t respond, the funds went elsewhere.

“I gambled and lost. I take responsibility because I could have acted on it sooner,” Calloway said. “A hundred thousand dollars is a hundred thousand dollars. If I had it all to do over again I would probably have taken the money and got part of the work done and then lobbied for the rest. But at the time I felt they were throwing us carrots. They’ve got millions of dollars they’re spending on a lot of other projects and here we need at least $230,000 and they’re only throwing out $100,000. Just enough to get us in trouble.”

In a recent interview Thele said, “We had asked for information from the Great Plains Black Museum. They never provided it. That’s the problem. No matter who we work with we have certain documentation required by the federal government as well as by the City Law department in some cases. We have guidelines regarding how long we can keep letting that money sit. We’d certainly be glad to work with them again if they’d like to submit again.” He added the door’s not been closed on the museum. “Oh, no, not at all, it’s a wonderful building. We’d like to see the building preserved. It’s part of the history of north Omaha.”

Calloway feels whatever animosity he’s generated at City Hall stems from his fierce opposition to city-led redevelopment along North 24th Street. At the very time he held out for more money he led the Committee for the Preservation of Historic North Omaha Sites, which criticized, via letters, opinion pieces, fliers and demonstrations, city plans for North 24th Street as disrespectful of black heritage.

“I truly believe city politics are connected to the demise of the museum. Because of my continued opposition…we got the shaft. I pointed fingers. There’s no secret there’s no good blood between Frank Brown and I. Those kinds of issues, I’ve learned in a very hard way, you can’t put out there when asking people for money. My lesson is, in order to really play the game, you’ve got to kiss The Man’s butt every once in awhile. That politics is a nasty game and I’m not suited for it. I’m not a diplomat in that regard at all. I get pretty hard-headed sometimes. I find a lot of times that stubbornness about me gets me in trouble. I just don’t tolerate a bunch of bull. Even my mother continues to be defiant…She frequently tells me not to be ‘a sell-out to the bourgeois martini set.’”

UNO Black Studies professor Larry Menyweather-Woods said Calloway’s “made bad decisions” along the way. He’s said he’s even told Calloway straight up what others have said — “they don’t trust you and they tell me I’m a dang fool to trust you.”

One thing everybody agrees on is that if the museum is to have a future, Calloway must divorce himself from it — even though he’s invested more than a decade in it.

“With all the controversy that surrounds the museum and me, I know it’s in the best interests of the museum for me to step aside as soon as possible,” Calloway said. “My character has been assassinated to the point where, right now, it doesn’t do me any good to even think about continuing to try” and remain. “There’s so many questions swirling around that I’d be a detriment. I know that. It used to bother me quite a bit. It doesn’t bother me anymore because I know I’ve done the right thing by my mother and by other individuals who started this thing, and that’s to protect the holdings at all cost, and that’s what I’ve done. And so, I’m comfortable with it.”

A February 22 Douglas County Court ruling may clear the way for a working relationship between the museum and the UNO Department of Black Studies, which could give the GPBHM a whole new image. Calloway and UNO officials have been conferring for months now. Brokering the deal is Larry Menyweather-Woods, who approached Calloway about the university working with the museum. Terms of a formal agreement are under review. The partnership is contingent on Calloway cutting official ties to the museum, although he would act as a consultant.

UNO would provide professional and student services to help: catalog the collection; identify funding sources and apply for grant monies; and advise on the formation of a new board of advisors and board of directors and on staff hires.

Menyweather-Woods said partnerships between black studies departments and black museums exist across the country. He and UNO College of Arts and Sciences Dean Sheldon Hendricks say such an arrangement only makes sense here given the scholarship the university can apply to the research trove the museum possesses. “Those are natural collaborations,” Hendricks said. In no way, Menyweather-Woods said, will UNO take over the museum. It’s more about guiding it. “It’s about the black studies department being intrinsically involved in helping reestablish the museum as a viable research center,” he said.

Calloway said any new leadership is likely to “fit more easily and comfortably into that atmosphere” of public-private politics and hoop-jumping he loathes so much.

Historian Alonzo Smith, a former consultant with the museum, embraces any help the museum can get. “They have all this material, but they really need a different institution…a different organization…” to maintain it. “A lot of the collection’s never really been cataloged. I remember going through all these photographs that were in boxes and they had no names or labels on them. Things were not done in a professional manner. It’s time to take it out of their (the Calloways’) hands, so somebody else can pick up with it. It would be great if that could happen.”

Rudy Smith said whatever happens, the museum needs “a new direction, new leadership, an infusion of money and a five or ten year plan. It does need to be turned over to an organization or a group that can help revive it, restore its integrity and do something with it. It needs someone with a big vision…a big vision beyond Omaha. It has to have some linkage to the national black museums association. It’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of money.”

Just how much money depends on who you talk to. Building repairs and retrofitting estimates vary from a few hundred thousand dollars to address the most pressing needs to a few million dollars to completely overhaul the building. There’s also been talk of a new structure adjacent or connected to the existing museum.

While a UNO association would give the GPBHM more credibility, many issues remain, the most basic being a need for sizable resources, and UNO is adamant about not committing money to the project. Besides repairs-renovations, funds must be secured for an operating budget and to cover salaries for a professional staff that curates and preserves the collection and manages the museum.

A lack of dollars has always plagued the institution. The Calloways didn’t have much of their own and they’ve resisted, as Jim Calloway put it, aligning themselves with “the fat cats” who can do the most good, but want the most say.

 

 

Whatever happened to the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha is a question on many people’s minds in the black community. This once celebrated institution at 2213 Lake Street carved a niche for itself as a center for illuminating a history otherwise unseen or untold. Opened in 1976, the museum’s archives and displays highlighted the role blacks played in shaping and settling Nebraska and chronicled the many triumphs and tribulations they experienced here.

The museum is often referred to in the past tense these days because of a complex set of circumstances and series of events that have, in effect, locked away all that history from public view for much of the past decade. Even though a recent court ruling denied a title claim that asserted the museum corporation no longer operates as a museum in the building at 2213 Lake, the reality is that the building has been closed since last June. The official reason given for the closure was pending renovations, but unofficially the museum shut everything down, just as it earlier pulled everything out, in the midst of the lawsuit and assorted financial problems, including debts and liens.

The interior of the split-level building, which sits mostly empty, is in disrepair. Both roofs leak and one’s in danger of collapsing. When the museum was still open on a semi-regular or by-appointment-only basis, the back of the structure was closed-off out of liability concerns. Building engineers have decreed much of the building unsafe for public tours. Three years ago, the museum holdings were hurriedly put in storage, where they remain, to protect them from water damage.

It’s not what founder and director emeritus Bertha Calloway had in mind. She devoted herself to the museum and its mission with the same fervor she gave to the civil rights cause. She explained why in a 1996 Reader interview: “People must see black history in order for the images they have of black people to change. That’s what our museum is all about,” she said, “It’s about revealing a history that’s been withheld.” She was driven in part to start the museum so that she could correct the one-sided history taught in schools. “The history I was forced to learn and hated just consisted of white history. I knew there had to some other kind where black people fit in other than slavery. Even when my children were growing up there wasn’t anything in the public schools about African-Americans.” She vowed then “that my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren know that African-Americans were involved in the settlement of this country and the settlement of the West in particular. That’s important because it makes you feel like you belong.”

Malcolm X Birthsite Foundation board member and former Omaha Public Library staffer Vicky Parks said the woman behind the museum did great things for her community.

“Mrs. Calloway gave me and people of my generation a sense of our history and a sense of our culture…Kwanza, Black History Month, Juneteenth, the black cowboys, the black homesteaders, the Tuskegee Airmen…She gave all that to me and more. Notice I say SHE gave all those gifts, not the Omaha Public Schools, not the university. I had a black studies minor in college, but that was just a refresher compared to what she gave me.”

 

 

The way Parks sees it, the museum could bridge “the disconnect between the younger and older people right now. When you see the dispersal and the fragmentation of the black community, I think African-American children need a sense of self more than ever, and the museum provided that. In our youth today there’s not the sense of black pride and black nationalism my generation had, and it shows in our voting patterns and in our living patterns and in what things we’re committed to. The community needs the museum more than ever now.”

What began with great fanfare as a cultural landmark in those early years has unraveled over time into a private and public battleground to secure support and fend off critics and creditors. No clear solution or resolution has emerged even though there’s great interest in seeing it return to glory.

“I just think it’s a valuable asset to the community and we need to do what we can to preserve it,” said attorney and former Omaha City Councilman Brenda Council.

From the very start, the GPBHM operated on a too-small budget for the scope of Bertha Calloway’s big dreams. She and others always felt the museum’s been slighted in the funding it receives compared to other area museums.

“She does not get the respect and the support she deserves. I’m truly saddened that we have not as a community chosen to provide the financial resources to institutionalize that museum,” said Parks. “I hope the museum does become an institution…in every sense of the word. Institutions are perpetual. They last from generation to generation. They don’t fold because of one person. Look at the results of the museum not being supported by the total community. I think it’s sad the whole community hasn’t seen the value in continuing her legacy. When black people come from other places they want to see what black people are accomplishing here. They want to see the contributions and the struggles and the sacrifices of our people. What is it that they get to see?”

For years the museum did at least enjoy the support of some major funding bodies, such as the now defunct United Arts Omaha, and received tourist revenue allocations from the city and county. Its 1976 start-up was facilitated by a $101,000 federal Bicentennial Commission grant. About the time the corporate giving climate tightened, leaving the museum without a steady source of monies for operating expenses, much less repairs, she suffered a setback when she underwent brain surgery for what turned out to be a benign tumor. Her memory impaired, she gave more and more responsibility to her son.

That’s when things began to get away from her and the small coterie of  confidantes she trusted, most notably her son, who moved from Lincoln back to Omaha to assist his mother. As her faculties diminished, Jim Calloway assumed the museum’s day to day operations. Eventually, she was declared mentally incompetent to handle her own affairs and in 1997 a court-appointed attorney, Karen Tibbs, was installed as her guardian-conservator.

Perpetually short of funds, the museum’s typically put off overdue repairs or gerrymandered fixes in place of serious rehab. A second-story false floor and the L-shaped, split-level building’s two roofs — a flat tar roof in back and a gabled tile roof in front — have deteriorated to such an extent that they must be replaced. Additionally, new windows, tuck-pointing and other weatherproofing/climate-control improvements are needed. There are also plumbing, heating/cooling and electrical upgrades needed.

Then, when the museum was in line for Community Development Block Grant funding to pay for some of the outstanding repair work, Jim Calloway refused a 2001 city allocation of $50,000 as inadequate and even after the allocation was increased to $100,000 in 2003 he stalled, and in a fit of pride, held out for more. When stipulations, in the way of financial accountings, were placed on the museum getting the funds, Calloway did not comply and the money offer was rescinded. When, around the same time, he similarly did not satisfy Douglas County Board requests for financial records, county appropriations were withheld.

 

From GPBHM collection

 

Calloway’s exchanged harsh words with public officials, one of whom refers to him as “a negative person.Those kinds of missteps by Calloway have cost he and the museum dearly. No public funds have been forthcoming since then. He is either unwilling or unable to provide the financial statements in question. There’s talk that some public officials and some private individual have made it known they will not fund/back the museum unless Calloway’s gone or until he satisfies demands for full, accurate accountings.

One financial crisis after another’s dogged the museum. There are some $10,000 in unpaid bills. There are outstanding tax liens. In recent years Calloway’s failed to file for the museum’s tax exempt status, which found him scrambling to scrape up the cash. He raised what was owed before, but he’s well behind on the most recent taxes due — $3,750 and counting in tax and interest.

“My fault. There’s no question about that,” he said, adding the building’s tax certificate is held by an investor who has no designs on the property itself except to collect interest on the taxes owed. Menyweather-Woods has negotiated a payment plan with the investor.

Squabbles, accusations and allegations, both inside and outside the family, have further eroded confidence in the museum. Calloway and his sister Bonita are at odds over who owns the museum holdings. She asserts they’re the property of the family. He maintains they belong to the museum corporation and the community.

Museum advocate Larry Menyweather-Woods, an ordained minister and a professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, summed up the contentiousness and controversy by saying, “There’s enough mess to go around. This is a vicious game being played, OK? I’m so tired of this conniving, back-stabbing when it ain’t necessary.”

It doesn’t stop there, Calloway’s embroiled in legal disputes with Tibbs, who had him evicted from one of his mother’s properties. A March 25 Probate Court hearing before Judge Samuel Caniglia considered his motion to remove her as his mother’s guardian-conservator. “Her performance as guardian-conservator has been subpar all the way,” Calloway said. “This whole business with the museum was not necessary. One of the problems with her is she shoots from the hip a lot. She doesn’t do her research.”

Tibbs challenged the deed to the museum building, contending a clause in the title Bertha and James Calloway signed over to the non-profit Great Plains Black Museum Archives and Interpretive Center, Inc. requires the structure revert back to Bertha Calloway’s ownership should it stop being used as a museum. In her brief, Tibbs asserted the building no longer filled that function. Jim Calloway contested her arguments in a brief filed by his attorney William Gallup. In a January 17 trial in Douglas County District Court, Judge Robert Burkhard heard testimony from witnesses on both sides. His decision found that while the institution “may have been somewhat loosely operated as a corporation…the building and the property…had always been used as a museum…possibly somewhat sporadically at times…but that does not mean that it ceased to be used as a museum.”

According to Tibbs, who said she represents the best interests of her client, “The decision is that the museum is an operational museum, so maybe it is, but nobody else in the community knows that. The building’s not been open. I can’t get in. Nobody can. You cannot go to that place, open the door and go inside to see an exhibit, and you haven’t been able to do that for some time. Ask anybody.” Tibbs said she’s not sure what her next move, if any, will be. “I do know it is unfortunate that it all came down to this. I think Jim (Calloway) is trying to do the best he can with what he has, but he just won’t let it go. Maybe I just won’t let it go.”

Even if Tibbs’ challenge had been upheld, Calloway said his mother’s Medicaid nursing home credit, which limits personal assets, may have forced the sale of the building. Whoever retains title to it, he said, would be stuck with huge liabilities. Meanwhile, Tibbs said she had investors lined up to purchase the building and/or pay for repairs in the event she gained control of it.

Calloway sees the decision as opening the door for the museum to have a fresh start in the building he and his mother fought so hard to save. “I’m happy with the way things turned out,” he said, noting its loss “would break my mother’s heart. She’s got a lot of sentimental attachment to the building. It does have a lot of historical significance.”

That fresh start may come in the form of a partnership with the UNO Department of Black Studies, where professor Larry Menyweather-Woods is brokering an association between the university and the museum for UNO to provide professional and student services. He feels “the uniqueness” of the museum and its emphasis on blacks in the Midwest affords scholars like himself and his colleagues a research boon and their expertise, in turn, can benefit the museum.

“We have a great deal of interest in being able to work with that museum,” said UNO College of Arts and Sciences Dean Sheldon Hendricks. “Many of the materials in their archives have not been cataloged or otherwise gone over for historical value. Our historians are particularly interested in getting a look at it. And we also see it as a great opportunity for our students to have both a service learning experience and an experience working directly with historically significant artifacts.”

Calloway, too, sees it as a win-win proposition. He welcomes the chance to put the collection in “responsible hands” and he embraces UNO’s “passion for history.”

“I hope the museum can get back on its feet and become something we can be proud of,” Vicky Parks said.

Tibbs said where “nobody’s” been willing to work with Calloway in light of the museum’s problems, “maybe they will now. I don’t know. UNO’s name would lend more credibility. Clearly, that would lead the community to feel comfortable.”

None of this changes the fact there’s still no money for repairs to the museum’s century-old building. UNO is adamant about not committing any funds to the museum. Menyweather-Woods said UNO’s involvement is not tied to the museum continuing to be housed in the building, adding there are plenty of “campuses that would be excited to have it.” Even Calloway suggests the structure is not a must for the museum’s future, saying it could just as easily “continue on” elsewhere and that “other locations might be more suitable” and “make better business sense.”

While Calloway said engineers’ reports confirm the structure “is salvageable and worth saving,” he also fears the city may condemn it if something isn’t done soon.

Others view the recent court decision as validation that Calloway’s remained, as Omaha photojournalist and museum supporter Rudy Smith put it, “true to his mother” by keeping the museum alive, if even on little more than a wish and a prayer. “It should be seen as a redeeming part of his integrity,” Menyweather-Woods said. “He’s always argued the same position. He’s always insisted it was operating as a museum. So, I think that says a lot right there.”

The saga of the museum’s plight, from lawsuits to funding woes to mismanaged assets, sends the wrong message to funders, who see an irresponsible institution that’s “out of control,” said Rudy Smith.

The Calloways have in some ways been their own worst enemies by publicly calling out Omaha for its stingy support and by rashly announcing makeovers, expansions, capital campaigns and board reorganizations without firm plans and follow through. Nothing’s ever come of these pronouncements except mistrust and acrimony.

The museum’s 30-year life has always been one of struggle. Part of the struggle stems from the Calloways’ wary, insular, defensive posture that’s valued protecting their independence above all else. They simply will not cow-tow to or play ball with the big shots. Admirable as that maverick streak may be, it’s also alienated the museum and cost it valuable allies. Taken together with its lack of a professional staff and its incomplete accountings, questions and suspicions are bound arise.

It’s no wonder then, as Jim Calloway noted, “There’s always been some sort of conflict with the city on funding.” His mother managed all aspects of the museum’s business, including the books, and since her illness there’s been no one to pick up the slack. Few outsiders have been brought into this inner circle.

“She’s always been very leery of having certain types of individuals involved in the operation. She’s never been one who goes out to cocktail parties or fancy dinners. That’s not who she is and that’s not who I am, either. She’s always been more interested in getting grassroots individuals involved. Unfortunately, the powers that be like to see some substantial, high profile figures on your board. They want you to change to their ways, so she’s steered clear of them,” Calloway said.

 

Rudy Smith

 

According to Rudy Smith, “She did not want the museum to fall into the hands of the corporate community. She was concerned if other people took it over the black community would lose treasures and no longer have access to their own history. It could be rewritten, retold, sold and maligned. Bert’s always felt that way. She told me she always wanted it in the hands of black people.” He added that the resources required for restoring the museum may necessitate bringing on board “people outside the black community that can do that.”

Bertha Calloway turned inward when she felt “betrayed” by a series of dealings with the suit-and-tie set who reneged on promises, said Rudy Smith. A fiasco with a book she co-authored on African-American history in Nebraska, along with other imbroglios, embittered her. “That’s why she became somewhat of a recluse and hermit and would not let anybody close to her. A lot of opportunities were lost because of betrayal and lack of trust and stubbornness.” Menyweather-Woods said she rejected proposals that not only could have financed a new facility, unburdening the museum of its albatross of a building, but strengthened the board, supplementing or replacing the current roster of cronies.

Alonzo Smith, a former consultant to the museum, said both the strength and weakness of the GPBHM is the grassroots mentality Bertha Calloway instilled and that Jim Calloway perpetuated.

“She’s not a museum professional. She’s not a curator. She’s not an archivist. She’s not an arts administrator. She’s not a historian. But she has a love on a subject and she has a love for people in the community,” said Alonzo Smith, who collaborated with her on the 1998 book An Illustrated History of African-Americans in Nebraska. “She really took it and made it into a community institution. It was a wonderful community institution. But she’s a strong-minded lady who found it difficult to work with other people. She would listen and say, ‘Thank you very much, but I’m going to go ahead and do what I’m going to do.’” I even put her in touch with a group called the African-American Museums Association. They do a needs assessment, which she really could have used to really get some big time grant money, but she didn’t want to relinquish financial and administrative control to a board.”

 

Alonzo Smith

 

He said a reluctance to form alliances or share governance “is not just an African-American thing. It happens with community-family museums all over the country.” While Smith admires Jim Calloway’s loyalty to “his mom in trying to take care of her and the museum,” he says, “it’s beyond his capacity. He can’t handle it. It’s a sad story. That museum was her life’s work and to see it decline the way it has…”

Rudy Smith doesn’t blame Jim Calloway for spoiling his mother’s dream. He faults a larger culprit, saying, “The community failed her.”

Despite all the headaches and bad feelings, Jim Calloway doesn’t regret his museum odyssey. “The experience of being with my mother during that 10 years is something I would never trade. I just wouldn’t. Because we got to know each other so well during that period of time, it was worth it to me,” he said.

He looks forward to the day when the museum is back on course. With UNO as a potential steward, he expects to oversee a transition that will ensure: the collection is cataloged; the research materials are accessible; the displays refurbished and open year-round for viewing; and the museum’s good name restored. “After everything gets in place with the university, we’re going to lobby real hard and it’s going to be for a lot more than $100,000. We’ve got a lot of time to make up for. With different people steering it, I’m sure they’re going to have some progress. The city knows how important that museum is to the community.”

One thing there’s consensus on about the museum is that its founder, Bertha Calloway, is a community pillar whose dream should be fulfilled.

“We have no intention of forgetting Bertha Calloway and the members of the Negro Historical Society who put that place like it was,” said Menyweather-Woods.

As the antagonist in all this, attorney Karen Tibbs said, “At the end of the day my responsibility is that her dream and her money be realized. Bertha Calloway’s. Not Bonita Calloway’s. Not Jim Calloway’s. I’m not going away.”

No one knows more than Jim Calloway what the burden of that dream has cost. “More than a dream, really, it’s a mandate from my mother.”

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