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Hope Hero: Vanessa Ward

January 27, 2019 1 comment

Hope Hero: Vanessa Ward

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the February 2019 New Horizons (hitting mailboxes and newsstands starting Jan. 31)

 

They call her the Hope Hero.

Vanessa Loftin Ward, 65, is a positive, energetic spirit by nature. Anyone who’s ever heard her speak – whether stumping for the Nebraska Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2018 or leading prayer chains for peace – can attest to her dynamic presence.

“I’ve always been an encouraged heart,” she said. “My grandmother worked for rich white people and she taught me to hold your head up and to be proud.”

The historical example of abolitionist-activist Harriet Tubman leading escaped slaves to freedom via the underground railroad made a big impression on Ward.

“I could clearly see the power that Harriet demonstrated by one person caring enough to do something over and over and over again.”

But in the late 1980s Ward despaired at the sorry quandary she and her late husband Keith Ward found themselves in. Like their fellow working-class neighbors, the couple struggled getting by. Their poor but once peaceful northeast Omaha neighborhood had become plagued by unsavory, illegal, dangerous activities that sprung up there like weeds. A few drug dealers, gang members, pimps and prostitutes took hold and stubbornly, brazenly held on.

Bereft of trust, respect and consideration, neighbors became strangers to each other.

A pall fell over the neighborhood. Its upstanding citizens were afraid of being victims in what became known as Death Valley for all the violent fatalities there. Calling the police was discouraged. People didn’t seem to care anymore. They let their properties go and litter fill the street. The sense of safety and community Vanessa and Keith grew up with only a few blocks away was broken. It became a rough place to raise their four children but limited means left them with few options. Besides, they lived in their own home and the couple were not about to be run out by some thugs. So they stayed.

“When my neighborhood was so disconnected because  nobody knew each other, that bothered me,” Ward said.

“Living in an impoverished area where nobody really connected or cared because it’s The Hood, the slum, the ghetto – that bothered me. Then the fact my children had to play in the backyard. There was no break for them. Why couldn’t they play in the front? But we were worried about a drive-by. That’s the way we survived – by hiding. I just couldn’t take it.”

The last straw came after a young man got shot and killed right across the street from where the gang members hung out. He died in front of the Wards’ home.

“Nobody did anything. Nobody called the law. Because if you called you were a snitch. You didn’t do anything but survive. It was always eating at me because I had a free childhood without all this mess.”

Somebody do something

Rather than hide and remain silent anymore, Vanessa, an ordained minister who pastored Afresh Anointing Church, proceeded to step out on faith to lift up her neighbors and confront the troublemakers.

The healing ministry she did right there on her own block eventually restored a sense of community and hope among residents. It all began with Ward picking up trash and greeting her neighbors. Then, drawing on an event her mother organized back in the day, she planned the first of what became an annual block party there. She reached out to gang members to get their assurance there would be no trouble. The party went on without incident and proved a rallying point for the neighborhood, drawing hundreds for fellowship and fun. Over time, the area underwent a profound change. Gardens were planted and homes renovated. She led outdoor church services. The bad element moved out and criminal behaviors ceased. Death Valley became Hope Valley.

The block party celebrated 20 years in 2017. It grew so big that last year it moved off the block to nearby Fontenelle Park, where some 1,500 people gathered.

The transformation that occurred in the neighborhood has earned Ward much recognition. It became the inspiration for her book, Somebody Do Something. None of it would have happened though, she insists, if she hadn’t changed her own heart first.

“I hated the gang members, I hated my neighborhood, I hated my quality of life. If I had stepped out out of hate I would never have endured. It took love, forgiveness, empathy to be able to step out and make significant change. To go over to the gang members and ask that there not to be any trouble during this event took love –and they knew it.

“You can’t accomplish anything without truth,” she said. “Truth builds trust, and you’re nowhere without it.”

Placing fault or pointing fingers wasn’t the answer. “You can’t choose sides,” she said. “You have to find a better way.” It wasn’t about expecting someone else to come to the rescue either. “No one can come into your community and produce effective change. You have to accomplish that from within.”

 

ward2.jpg

 

Be the change

Empowering others to be change agents became her life’s work.

“I feel like in every negative situation, be it relational, community, citywide, worldwide, people need to understand they have the potential of making a difference beyond the bolt. I think you need people to inspire you to step out or step up in whatever your situation is to make positive change.

“Now your situation may not be as dire as mine with a young man dying right in front of your home and you’re already totally dissatisfied with the condition of your condition. It may not have to be that much to push you, but it does require asking what can I do. It may be as small as greeting, smiling, waving, engaging. Always more is required. But if you’re keeping your head down, not making eye contact, avoiding your neighbor – that’s how this negative element around us grows.”

Just don’t be looking for scapegoats.

“Everybody wants to blame the government. The government can’t see what’s going on on your block or in your family. That’s not the government’s responsibility. You can’t be blaming other people.

“For me the block party was basically an example of what YOU can do where you are.”

Ever since then her mission’s been to raise up others by encouraging them to be the change they want.

“What I’m doing is giving wisdom keys to people to inspire them to keep hope alive.”

She feels elders like herself have much to offer. She likes repeating what her fellow residents at Salem Village have to say about being seniors: “Retired but not expired.”

She feels she and other seniors can show the way for how things are done.

“Without direction, people go astray. If somebody’s not there like grandpa and grandma and we don’t keep the direction and say, this is the way you do it, we go astray. We need to pull on that wisdom because we need direction. This young generation is screaming for it. It’s a silent scream of ‘somebody tell me what to do, how to do it – encourage me to do it.'”

A once cohesive community torn asunder

This woman that stepped boldly forth to reclaim her community went through her own transformation only a few years before. Without this “conversion,” she said, she wouldn’t have been able to take the actions she did. To understand that transition one has to return to her childhood and young adulthood and the doldrums she found herself in at age 38 before being born again.

One constant in her life is community. She’s always been about community.

“I love community. Community for me was the Near Northside.”

She grew up at 25th and Evans when segregation was still the de facto force of law.

“This was North Omaha in the late ’50s, early ’60s when the civil rights movement was at its peak. We were living in the cluster of moving no farther south than Cuming Street, no farther north than Ames Avenue, no farther east than 16th Street and no farther west than 30th Street. No matter what your educational status was, your profession, your financial stability – as long as you looked like me, that’s where you lived.”

Segregation had its benefits, including a tight-knit, self-sustaining black community.

“My fondest memories came from community,” Ward said. “We looked out for each other. It was like there was no divisiveness, no competition. There was Miss (Bertha) Calloway right next door. Johnny Rodgers right up the street. Officer Mahoney down the alley. Brenda Council and Thomas Warren and all the rest of them around the corner – Luigi Waites, Camille Steed.

A cohesive village raised her and her peers.

“My community had guidelines. You didn’t ever talk back to your elders. That was a no-no. You had to be in the house-yard by the time the street lights came on. Men in my community took an active role model presence. Mr. Winburn would take all the neighborhood youth on ‘The Hay Ride’ a ride in the back of his truck to Hummel Park or out in the country – just to get us out of The Hood. Mr. Waites led the Contemporary Drill Team.

“If any adult had to scold you, then by the time mom and dad got word you were sure to get a ‘whupping’ back home. My community understood living and working together. We watched out for one another. Everyone knew one another. Most adults were homeowners.”

Her family was active at Hope Lutheran Church. She and her siblings attended its Christian school. Two-parent households were the norm, not the exception. Ward grew up in one until age 10, when her folks divorced. She adored her father, who operated the first black barber shop in South Omaha.

“My fondest memories were with my biological father.”

Her mother was an entrepreneur, too, making and selling home-made candied apples and popcorn balls from the family’s home. Ward recalls she and her siblings going to a North Omaha orchard with their mother to pick apples.

Suddenly living in a broken home “was hard on me.” she said, Her mother remarried but things just weren’t the same with the stepfather and that second marriage didn’t last anyway.

Ward went through a period of rebellion in her late teens before checking herself and finding a positive outlet in cheerleading at Omaha Technical High School. When her mother and stepfather moved to New York state, she went there her senior year to complete school and to see the Big Apple, but she found it too big, fast and unfriendly and gladly returned to her hometown.

When desegregation came, the sense of community and stability she knew eroded. Where before, professionals and laborers were all mixed together, blacks began dispersing by income or class. Busing to integrated schools found black students sometimes separated from friends.

“When we started dispersing, you definitely could not live in neighborhoods you couldn’t afford. That became a big divider. You started to lose that sense of oneness. When you’re separated you’re no longer quite sure what someone else’s plight is or where they’re struggle comes in. You don’t know. That’s what happens when we start getting more divided.”

Further disrupting things and causing insecurity were the loss of good paying packinghouse and railroad jobs that many blacks worked. Many natives left to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.

The riots of the late 1960s destroyed several businesses in the North 24th Street hub. The mostly white owners chose not to rebuild. Owners of unaffected businesses chose to close shop in that tense time. Many vacant lots and abandoned storefronts remained empty for decades. Some still remain so

“Twenty-fourth Street was burning right outside my neighborhood,” Ward recalled. “There was burning and pillaging of stores of friends you met in the community. Everything was being destroyed. My whole life was up in flames during that time.”

Construction of the North Freeway forced many residents to move and imposed a barrier that severed neighbors and neighborhoods from each other.

The community that was once so “alive and vibrant” became a shell of its former self.

“It was rough,” Ward said. “But I think if we didn’t have  each other, it could have been a whole bunch worse. I really believe that.”

 

A block party unites

Through thick and thin

As if the deteriorating community were not challenge enough, her husband Keith was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes and eventually lost his legs. This jack of all trades who drove a bus and was employed as a custodian, groundskeeper and security guard, could no longer work and the family lost their home.

An angel came to their rescue.

“A landlord who had a vacant home let us come stay there free for six months because he admired what I was doing in the neighborhood. Then we were able to get into another home. We never had to leave the neighborhood. You can’t do the block work if you’re not on the block. You have to actually live there.”

For two years the couple did live off-site for his health. Even though she went back on weekends to pray for the neighborhood, it wasn’t the same. She found that without her nurturing, things had become stagnant. When she told Keith she was dissatisfied being apart from her roots, they moved back.

“My husband was my number one supporter.”

Even when he disagreed with how she went about things and feared for her safety, Keith had her back. And even with their world coming down around them, she persevered. They were strong for each other that way.

She told a biographer, “I had to keep my work going – it was too important. I had to keep Keith going. He was literally dying in my arms and he was afraid for my life. Can you imagine – he was worried about me?”

These high school sweethearts married three times.

“The first time we got married in front of the justice of the peace. The second time we had an official church wedding where all our children were in it. That was awesome. And then the third time we got married in the community garden so that the neighbors and everybody could come share.”

His remains are buried in the Hope Garden.

The soulmates made a life for themselves and their family. Things were tough but good. But it never set right with her that as blacks they often had to settle for things.

“I was never satisfied living where we had to live because this was all we could afford. It took you back to slavery where you have the house slaves and the field slaves. Light skin, dark skin. Silky hair, wooly hair. All of that division.”

 

Crucible

Just when things got really tough, she underwent a crisis of faith that spurred a catharsis that changed her life’s course.

“We were going through the roughest part of our marriage. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to continue it. I felt like a zombie. I was dead inside. I was going through the motions taking care of my husband and children. I didn’t even know you could get that removed and still function. Keith knew there was a problem. He said, ‘I want you to go take care of my mother.’ She was dying of cervical cancer. I said, ‘Okay. sweetheart.;”

Ward didn’t know it then, but this caregiving experience with her mother-in-law, whom she called Mom, would prove more impactful for her than the patient.

“Mom would sing songs like ‘Amazing Grace.’ She had Christian TV on and she was always talking the Lord. It started doing something inside of me. I could feel my spirit trying to come awake. I revisited that place of love I knew as a child.”

The spirit moved in her and took her to another place.

“One day I broke down crying at the dining room table talking to my mother-in-law about her son like a dog. She got out of her seat, put her hands on my shoulders and she began to pray in a tongue. All of a sudden I had an out-of-body experience. I traveled back, and I knew it was the Lord with me, to the second grade on my knees praying in chapel that I would never have premarital sex. Why was it so important to have made that promise at age seven? When I saw myself it resonated in me and I heard the Lord say clearly, ‘I forgave you, how come you haven’t forgiven yourself?’

“Suddenly I was back at that dining room table. I thought, Was it that easy – am I really mad at me? What’s wrong? I looked into my mother-in-law’s eyes and she said, ‘Baby, you’ve got to forgive yourself.'”

Right there Ward declared, “I need to know this Jesus.” She began studying the Bible under Mom’s tutelage. The New Testament’s theology of love, compassion and peace set the framework for a reborn life that saw her become Apostle Vanessa Ward.

“My conversion activated what was already in me, but it also caused me to have the courage and the love to take the steps. I tell people be prepared to examine your motives in whatever you step out to do. You don’t want to find out if it gets difficult along the journey that you didn’t have enough steam because you’re out here for your own reasons.

“You have to be out here for a greater reason than yourself in order to make significant change.”

She undertook a personal housecleaning.

“Once i was able to look at myself I decided the premise has to be love. God is love. Anything I’m doing I’m moving in love. If I’m standing against injustice or saying there’s a better way, it’s all based in that. As I project out, that’s the voice you’ll always here, even in correcting. I’ll correct you, too, in love.”

Carrying her message across the state

To thine own self be true, she preaches.

“Until you as an individual find your identity, your purpose, your destiny, you’re just aimless. I don’t care what color you are, where you live, how much money you have, you’re just aimless. Your identity is not how much money you have or don’t have.”

That lesson got reinforced during her campaign for governor.

“When I first started my campaign the frustrating part was people telling me I had no business running because I didn’t have the money. My response was, ‘How can you tell me that when I’ve never had the money?’ When do you ever aspire for your dreams or set course for your goals based on having money?Where I come from not having the money is merely a hurdle or an obstacle you have to clear in order to finish the race. So that should never be a geiger counter as to where you’re at. I’m called to discourage that.”

Ward’s commitment to serving others is clearly engrained. Most of that work’s done without any renumeration, though it has brought her notoriety.

She received the key to the City of Omaha from Mayor Jean Stothert and the “Gold Volunteer Of The Year” award from President Barack Obama. A four-block stretch of North 38th Street now bears her name.

So by the time she announced her surprise candidacy for governor, she was already a public figure in some quarters. But few gave this black woman without an established base a chance in such a red-white state.

She had in fact been approached by party operatives to put her name in the ring.

“I had been doing a lot of soul-searching prior to the delegation approaching me and asking me to run. I felt called to share my life experiences as well as the wisdom I’ve gained over the years. It was just about stepping out – and that’s the same thing I’ve represented all my life. Step out and do something you believe. No matter how hard the obstacles may seem, just go ahead and do what you know to do.

“I’d like to encourage more people to do that right where they are.”

It’s a message she shares with audiences large and small and with cadets in her Hope Hero Academy. The Academy promotes “identity, destiny and victory” in its youth cadets. “Our young people need that.” she said.

She will share that message again during the Hope Hero Conference on March 23 at Tri Community Church at 6001 Fontenelle Boulevard. She will deliver the keynote address and other presenters will lead breakout sessions. The free, family-friendly event is from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and includes breakfast and lunch.

“I’m getting heroes together that will inspire our community to make positive change where they are. The focus is building up future leaders,” she said. “A hero is just an ordinary person that overcomes  outstanding obstacles.”

The charismatic Ward can get a crowd fired up. “I’ve always had a knack for speaking,” she said. “That’s a gift.”

Whenever Ward has an audience, whether it’s one person or a crowd, she aims to teach.

Her daughter Va’Chona Graves benefits from many lessons.

“I’ve learned that one person can make a difference,” said Graves. “If you are that difference, if you are that change, it can spread. It really starts with one person and she’s living proof of that. I’ve seen that change and I really want to apply that more in my life.”

Va’Chona credits her mother for making her a better mother to her sons. More than anything, this proud daughter wants people to know her mother is genuine.

“I get to see her behind closed doors and I can honestly say she is really real about what she does. It’s not a show, it’s not just for the pulpit or the camera. She lives it on and off the screen. She’s a real living, walking testimony.”

But politics operates by its own rules and Ward found that the team organized around her had little faith in her ability to raise money, much less win votes. Some of the very people charged with trying to get her elected, sabotaged or abandoned her when the going got tough. A campaign manager quit when she questioned how certain things were being done without her consent.

“I said, what did you plan for me? Did you think I was going to be a puppet? Why would you approach me to run for the most important position in the state if you didn’t think I would need to know?”

Another campaign manager publicly dismissed her viability as a candidate. She felt betrayed.

“If you don’t support me, then do it silently or get out of the way. Even if you don’t think I have a chance, don’t publicly say it. If we’re going down, we’re not going to hang each other on the way down. By the end, the only person left on my team was Va’Shona. We had no money and we still pulled in close to 30,000 (25,692)votes.”

The impressive second place showing in last May’s primary to the well-monied campaign of Nebraska legislator Bob Krist, who received 50,000-plus votes, was not expected by anyone inside or outside the state Democratic Party.

Her simple message seemed to resonate with folks.

“We need to have integrity, come together, stand united and be willing to listen. That commonality I really believe is what brought my votes in,” she said. “The rural areas were the strongest.”

She got a warm welcome everywhere she stopped on her caravan.

“On the governor trail I went from here all the way to Scottsbluff. I took my kids and the grand-babies with me. I was not just tying to get votes, I was trying to create memories, so I took the whole family by van. People were excited to see I brought my family. What I learned along the journey is how hungry people are that don’t look like me for relationship. We were received with love all across Nebraska.”

If there was an over-riding takeaway from the trip, she said, “I saw how important it is that you speak the truth.”

She chalks up the campaign as a positive experience.

“No regrets at all. I feel it was both rewarding and refreshing for myself and for Nebraska.”

 

 

(left to right) Pastor Vanessa Ward; Mayor Stothert, and Mr. Stothert

 

All we need is love and with a little hope we’ll get by

The attempt only confirmed her belief that the way past the animosity permeating the nation is by meeting people where they’re at without judgment.

“I believe the way we get there is to be intentional about becoming safe. When people feel safe they can be         themselves regardless of their differences. When people feel safe, they talk, and when we start communicating then we start building relationships – without the masks and the personas.

“We have to create that place to feel safe. It’s all an approach to being an approach – and we’ve got to make some approaches or I think we’re going to self-consume. Without hope, there’s chaos, and with chaos then there’s doom.”

If people from different backgrounds are to be in communion with one another, she said, it must be modeled.

“If you do not teach or train people how to stay engaged, they won’t, they’ll disconnect really quick.”

Meanwhile, she’s expecting to be fully healed from a broken leg she suffered last fall by the time the next block party rolls around for its traditional second Saturday in August (the 10th) slot. Like last year, this year’s event will be held at Fontenelle Park from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in and around the pavilion.

“in another four months it should be like the broken leg never happened and by the block party I should be skipping.”

Whatever she does, you can bet she’ll be moving forward in hope and love.

“Let’s keep hope alive.”

Follow Vanessa Ward on Facebook and YouTube.

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

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Free North Omaha Summer Arts Crawl features variety of art forms – Friday, August 10 at select North 30th Street Corridor venues

July 25, 2018 1 comment

Free North Omaha Summer Arts Crawl features variety of art forms 

Friday, August 10 at select North 30th Street Corridor venues

When Pamela Jo Berry decided her Miller Park neighborhood needed more art options, she created the presenting organization North Omaha Summer Arts in 2011. Nonprofit NOSA is still going strong in 2018 and its annual culminating event, An Arts Crawl, takes place Friday, August 10 from 6 to 9 p.m. at several venues in and around the North 30th Street Corridor.

Berry, a writer, photographer and mixed media artist herself, calls the free Arts Crawl “a community celebration of visual, performing and culinary arts.”

In addition to the Arts Crawl, NOSA annually features women’s writing workshops and retreats, a gospel concert in the park and pop-up events.

Free eats and refreshments prepared by Omaha foodies and chefs are part of every event.

For the Arts Crawl, NOSA invites patrons to take a stroll or drive from Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus to venues down North 30th Street to experience beautiful art and great food by visual, performing and culinary artists.

Al reception kicks things off at the Charles B. Washington Branch Library, 2888 Ames Avenue, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Area quilters will display their handiwork at the library.

All other locations are open from 6 to 9 p.m.

The Arts Crawl route:

Begins at MCC Fort Omaha’s Mule Barn (Building #21)

Proceeds north to Church of the Resurrection, at 3004 Belvedere Blvd.

Continues onto Nelson Mandela School at 6316 North 30th St.

Ends at Trinity Lutheran Church at 6340 North 30th St.

The venues will present a wide range of work.

A one-man show entitled Shapes and Shadows by the late printmaker Galen Brown is at the Mule Barn Arts Center, The U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Purple Heart recipient served two tours of duty as a sniper in Vietnam. After returning home from war, he began making art as a way of emotionally healing himself. His images reflect the shapes and shadows of what he observed: war and peace, justice and injustice, landscapes, other artists’ work and his own cancer.

At Church of the Resurrection Fort Calhoun-based artist Cheri Oelke will demonstrate her acrylic painting and talk about her creative process and artist’s life. The church’s sanctuary is also home to a signature triptych, “Crucifixion,” by the late artist Leonard Thiessen, which visitors can view.

Children and adults will display their art at Nelson Mandela School.

Art created by Omaha refugee communities and other area artists will be showcased at Trinity Lutheran Church.

Live music performances will occur at select sites.

“All of us at North Omaha Summer Arts want the public to come sample and savor the many forms and faces of art,” Berry said. “This celebration of the human spirit through art expression also supports local artists.”

NOSA is in its eighth year of presenting family-friendly, community-based art opportunities and events.

For more information, call NOSA at 402-502-4669.

Follow at http://www.facebook.com/NorthOmahaSummerArts.

 

North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) presents: An Arts Crawl 7


North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) presents:

An Arts Crawl 7

Friday, August 10

6 to 9 p.m.

Join us for the 7th Arts Crawl

Take a stroll or drive from Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus down North 30th Street, ending at Trinity Lutheran Church, to experience beautiful art and great food by North O visual, performing and culinary artists.

A free event.

 

 

An Arts Crawl reception kicks things off at the

Washington Branch Library, 2888 Ames Avenue, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

All other locations open 6 to 9 p.m.

Arts Crawl route Begins at–

MCC at Fort Omaha

Mule Barn (Building #21)

Church of the Resurrection

3004 Belvedere Blvd. (just northwest of 30th and Kansas)

Nelson Mandela School

6316 North 30th Street

Ends at–

Trinity Lutheran Church

6340 North 30th Street

For more info (artists and patrons), call Pamela Jo Berry at 402-445-4666

 

North Omaha Summer Arts presents: Art and Gardening – Saturday, July 7


North Omaha Summer Arts presents: 

Art and Gardening

Join facilitator Cheri Oelke for a day of planting flowers and painting clay pots.

Saturday, July 7 @ Florence Branch Library

10:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Free

No art experience necessary

 

Cathy Hughes proves you can come home again


Cathy Hughes proves you can come home again

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 2018 issue of New Horizons

 

Nebraskans take pride in high achieving native sons and daughters, Some doers don’t live to see their accomplishments burnished in halls of history or celebrated by admirers. This past spring, however, Cathy Hughes, 71, personally accepted recognition in the place where her twin passions for communication and activism began, North Omaha.

The mogul’s media holdings include the Radio One and TV One networks.

During a May 16-19 homecoming filled with warm appreciation and sweet nostalgia, Urban One chair Hughes reunited with life-shaping persons and haunts. An entourage of friends and family accompanied Hughes, who lives in the Washington D.C. area where her billion dollar business empire’s based. Her son and business partner Alfred Liggins Jr., who was born in Omaha, basked in the heartfelt welcome.

Being back always stirs deep feelings.

“Every time I come I feel renewed,” Hughes said. “I feel the love, the kindred spirit I shared with classmates, friends, neighbors. I always leave feeling recharged.”

With part of Paxton Boulevard renamed after her, a day in her honor officially proclaimed in her hometown and the Omaha Press Club making her a Face on the Barroom Floor, this visit was extra special.

“It was so emotionally charged for me. It’s like hometown approval.”

During the street dedication ceremony at Fontenelle Park, surrounded by a who’s-who of North O, Hughes said, “I cannot put into words how important this is to me. This is the memory I will take to my grave. This is the day that will stand out. When you come home to your own and they say to you job well done, there’s nothing better than that.”

 

Cathy Hughes Headshot 1B - 2017.jpg

Photo Courtesy of Cathy Hughes

 

Cathy Hughes’ mother, Helen Jones Woods with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, circa 1940

 

Welcoming home an icon

Good-natured ribbing flowed at the park and at the Press Club, where she was roasted.

The irony of the Press Club honor is that when Hughes was young blacks were unwelcome there except as waiters, bartenders and kitchen help. The idea of a street honoring a person of color then was unthinkable.

“This community has progressed,” Hughes told an overflow Empowerment Network audience at the downtown Hilton. “An empowerment conference with this many people never could have taken place in my childhood in Omaha. This is impressive.”

Empowerment Network founder-president Willie Barney introduced her by saying, “She is a pioneer. She is one of the best entrepreneurs in the world. She is a legend.”

Nebraska Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers helped organize the weekend tribute for the legend.

“I think Cathy Hughes is the baddest girl on the planet,” Rodgers said. “She’s historical coming from Omaha all the way up to be this giant radio and TV mega producer and second richest black lady in the country. It’s just fantastic she’s a product of this black community. I want to make sure all the kids in our community realize they can be what Cathy’s done. Anything’s possible.

“I want hers to be a household name.”

Some felt the hometown honors long overdue. Everyone agreed they were well-deserved.

A promising start

People who grew up with her weren’t surprised when she left Omaha in 1972 as a single mother and realized her childhood dream of finding success in radio.

She had it all growing up – sharp intellect, good looks,  gift for gab, disarming charm, burning ambition and aspirational parents. Her precocious ways made her popular and attracted suitors.

“She’s very personable,” lifelong friend Theresa Glass  said. “She’s been a gifted communicator all the time. My grandmother Ora Glass was her godmother and she always believed Cathy was destined for great things.”

Radio veteran Edward L. “Buddy” King said, “She had this thing about her. Everybody projected she would be doing something real good. She knew how to carry herself. Cathy’s a beautiful woman. She’s smart, too.”

Glass recalled, “Cathy was always an excellent student. She’s always used her intellect in various pursuits. She was always out in the working world. Cathy used all the education and skills she learned and then she built on those things. So when she went to D.C, she was prepared to work hard and to do something out of the ordinary for women and for African Americans to do.”

 

Members of the De Porres Club in 1948

 

Cathy’s parents were pioneers themselves.

Her mother Helen Jones Woods, 94, played trombone in the all-girl, mixed-race swing band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Helen’s adoptive father, Laurence C. Jones. founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which Helen attended. Cathy and her family lived in Jim Crow Mississippi for two years. She’s a major supporter of the school today.

Cathy’s late father, William A. Woods, was the first black accounting graduate at Creighton University. He and Cathy’s mother were active in the Omaha civil rights group the De Porres Club, whose staunchest supporter was Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown.

“Very young, I marched,” recalled Cathy Hughes, who’s the oldest of four siblings. “I was maybe 6-years old when we picketed the street car (company) trying to get black drivers. I remember vividly being slapped on the back of my head by my mother to ‘hold the sign up straight.’ I remember demonstrating but most importantly I heard truth being spoken.”

“Cathy’s parents were community-oriented people,” King said. “They cared about their community. They were  well-to-do in their circles. Cathy grew up in that but she never lost her street savvy.”

While attending private schools (she integrated Duschene Academy), she said, “The nuns would send notes home to my mother saying I had delusions of grandeur, I talked all the time, and I was very opinionated. I bragged I would be the first black woman to have a nationally syndicated program.

“I was good and grown before I found out that had already been accomplished.”

Her penchant for speaking her mind stood her apart.

“When I was growing up black folks didn’t verbalize  their feelings and particularly children didn’t.”

Mildred Brown gave her father an office at the Star. Cathy did his books and sold classified ads for the paper. Her father also waited tables at the Omaha Club and on the Union Pacific passenger rail service between Omaha and Idaho. She sometimes rode the train with her father on those Omaha to Pocatello runs.

 

 Taken under wing

She found mentors in black media professionals Brown and Star reporter-columnist, Charlie Washington. The community-based advocacy practiced by the paper and by radio station KOWH, where she later worked, became her trademark.

“We had a militancy existing in Omaha and when you’re a child growing up in that you just assume you’re supposed to try to make life better for your people because that’s what was engrained in us. We didn’t have to wait to February for black history. We were told of great black accomplishments on a regular basis at church, in school, in social gatherings. Black folks in Omaha have a nationalist pride.

“I was imbued with community service and activism. I don’t know any different. My mother on Sunday would go to the orphanage and bring back children home for dinner. We were living in the Logan Fontenelle projects and one chicken was already serving six and she would bring two or three other kids and so that meant we got a piece of a wing because Daddy always got the breast.”

During her May visit she recalled the tight-knit “village” of North Omaha where “everybody knew everybody.”

In the spirit of “always doing something to improve your community and family,” she participated in NAACP Youth Council demonstrations to integrate the Peony Park swimming pool.

“Because we were disciplined and strategic, there was a calm and deliberate delivery of demands on our part. I don’t know if it was youth naivete or pure unadulterated optimism, but we didn’t think we would fail.”

Peony Park gave into the pressure.

Opposing injustice, she said, “instilled in me a certain level of fearlessness, purpose and accomplishment I carried with me for the rest of my life.”

“It taught me the lesson that there’s power in unity.”

Her passion once nearly sparked an international incident on a University of Nebraska at Omaha Black Studies tour to Africa.

“The first day we arrived in Addis Ababa, Eithiopia, the students at Haile Selassie University #1 were staging demonstrations that ultimately led to the dethroning of emperor Haile Selassie. Well, we almost got put out of the country because when I heard there was a demonstration I left the hotel and ran over to join the picket line with the Eithiopian students. My traveling companions were like, ‘No, you cant do that in a foreign country, they’re going to deport us.’ Hey, I never saw a demonstration I didn’t feel like i should be a part of.”

 

Charles b washington.jpg

Charlie Washington

 

The influence of her mentors went wherever she went.

“Mildred Brown unapologetically published Charlie Washington’s rants, exposes, accusations, evidence. She didn’t censor or edit him. If Charlie felt the mayor wasn’t doing a good job, that’s what you read in the Omaha Star. It took the mute button off of the voice of the black community. It promoted progress. It also provided information and jobs. It’s always been a vehicle for advocacy, inspiration and motivation.

“That probably was the greatest lesson I could have witnessed because one of the reasons some folks don’t speak out in the African-American community is they’re afraid of being financially penalized or losing their job, so they just remain silent. Mildred and Charlie did not remain silent and she was still financially successful.”

Both figures became extended family to her.

“Charlie Washington became like my godfather. He was the rabble rouser of my youth. He had the power of the pen. Charlie and the Omaha Star actually showed me the true power of the communications industry. I saw with Charlie you can tell the truth about the needs and the desires of your community without being penalized” even though he wrote “probably some of the most militant articles in the United States.”

“That’s the environment I grew up in. So the combination of Charlie always writing the truth and Mildred being able to keep a newspaper in Omaha solvent were both sides of my personality – the commitment side and the entrepreneurial side.”

Today, Hughes inspires young black communicators with her own journey of perseverance and imagination in pushing past barriers and redefining expectations.

 

No turning back

As an aspiring media professional. Hughes most admired Mildred Brown’s “dogged determination.”

“When somebody told Mildred no, they weren’t going to take an ad, she saw it as an opportunity to change their mind, she never saw it as a rejection. She didn’t take no seriously. No to her meant. Oh, they must not have enough information to come to the right conclusion because no is not the right conclusion.

“Nothing stopped Mildred.”

Nothing stopped Hughes either.

“When I was 17 I became a parent. I realized I was on the brink of becoming a black statistic. My son Alfred was the motivation for me to think past myself. It was the defining moment in my life direction because for the first time I had a priority I could not fail. I was like, We’ll be okay, I’m not going to disappoint you, don’t worry about it. It was Alfred who actually kept me going.”

Her first ever radio job was at Omaha’s then black format station, KOWH.

“KOWH fed into my fasciation with having a voice. I think it is truly a blessing to have your voice amplified. I wasn’t even thinking about being an entrepreneur then. I was thinking about being able to express. I wasn’t at an age yet where had come into who I was destined to be.”

She left for D.C. to lecture at Howard University at the invite of noted broadcaster Tony Brown, whom she met in Omaha. It’s then-fledgling commercial radio station, WHUR, made her the city’s first woman general manager.

Leaving home took guts. Staying in D.C. with no family or friends, sleeping on the floor of the radio station and resisting her mother’s long-distance pleas to come back or get a secure government job, showed her resolve.

“Omaha provided me a safe haven. Once in D.C., I had to rely on and call forth everything I had learned in Omaha just to survive and move forward. If I had not left, I probably would not have become a successful entrepreneur because I had a certain comfort level in Omaha. I was the apple of several individuals’ eyes. They saw potential in me, but I think their love and support would not have pushed me forward the way I had to push myself once I moved into a foreign land.”

She feels Nebraska’s extreme weather toughened her.

“It builds a certain strength in you that you may or may not find in other cities.”

If sweltering heat, high winds and subzero cold couldn’t deter her, neither could man-man challenges.

“You learn that determination that you can’t let anything turn you around. When I went to D.C. and realized there weren’t people of color doing what I wanted to do, I just kept my eye on the prize. I refused to let anyone turn me around. When you learn to persevere in all types of elements, then business is really a lot easier for you.”

 

Mildred Brown

 

Brown was her example of activist entrepreneur.

“The Star was to Omaha what Jet and Ebony were to the black community nationwide. It’s why I have this media conglomerate. When you’re 10 years old and you’re looking up to this bigger-than-life woman, she was a media mogul in my mind. She had a good looking man and wardrobe and all the trappings.”

Just as Hughes would later help causes in D.C., Brown, she said, “was kind of a one-woman social agency before social agencies became in vogue.”

“She helped a lot of people. My father graduated from college and didn’t have a place to open an office and she opened her lobby for him. He was just one of many. Charlie Washington had a very troubled background and yet because of her he rose to being respected as one of the great journalists of his time in Omaha. Dignitaries would come and sit on Charlie’s stoop and talk to him about what was going on. He was considered iconic because of Mildred Brown.

“She put students through school and raised hell to keep them there. When my mother was short my Duschene tuition, Mildred told them, ‘You’re going to get your money, but don’t be threatening to put her out.’ She literally walked the walk as well as talked the talk. She didn’t tell folks what they needed to do, she helped them do it. She continued to inspire and advise and mold me.”

Full circle

Howard’s School of Communications is named after Hughes, who never graduated college. Decades after first lecturing there, she’s a lecturer there again today.

“They say I am their most successful graduate who never matriculated. I wasn’t prepared to be the first woman general manager of a radio station in the nation’s capital. That’s why Howard sent me to Harvard to take a six-week course in broadcast management and to the University of Chicago to learn psychographic programming. I went to various seminars and training sessions. Howard literally groomed me. They were proud of the fact I was the first woman in the position they had placed me in “

Hughes readily admits she hasn’t done it by herself.

“I have been blessed by the individuals placed in my life. They sharpened me, prepared me, educated me, schooled me, nurtured me, mentored me. I have been blessed so many times to be in the right place at the right time and with the right people.”

She grew ad revenues and listeners at WHUR. A program she created, “The Quiet Storm,” popularized the urban format nationally. With ex-husband Dewey Hughes she worked wonders at WOL in D.C. After their split, she built Radio One.

Upon arriving in D.C., Hughes found an unlikely ally in Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. She met Graham through Susan Thompson Buffett, the wife of investor Warren Bufffett, and part owner of the paper.

“Susie was staying at the Grahams’ house. At that time Susie was a singer with professional entertainment aspirations and I was her manager. Katharine Graham took an interest in me and because she had this interest in me other people, including the folks at Howard University, embraced me.”

Networking

Hughes parlayed connections to advance herself.

“Part of my innate abilities since childhood has been to recognize an opportunity and take full advantage of it.”

Her first allegiance was to listeners though. Thus, she lambasted Graham’s Post for unfair portrayals of blacks, even encouraging listeners to burn copies of the paper.

Hughes has succeeded in a male-dominated industry.

“I never thought about being a woman in a male field. First of all. I was black. I’ve never put woman first. I was black first and a woman second. I had a goal I wanted to achieve, an objective that had to be accomplished. I didn’t see it as proving something to the old boys network. I was not intimidated by being the only female.

“I was naive. I really thought there would be a whole proliferation of black women owning and managing radio stations. Women have made more progress in professional basketball – they own and coach teams – than they have in the broadcasting industry.”

Men have played a vital role in her business success.

The two black partners in Syndicated Communications,  Herbert Wilkins and Terry Jones, loaned her her first million dollars to build Radio One. Wilkins has passed but Jones and his wife Marcella remain close friends.

When things were tough early on, it was Jones who instructed a downcast Hughes to change her mindset.

“He said to me when people ask you how are you doing they can’t be hearing you complaining or saying I don’t know. You’ve got to say it was a great day because the first person that hears the lie is you. Tell yourself your business is doing good. Tell yourself you’re going to make it. Everyone’s going to start agreeing with you. He told me to change my terminology, which changed my thinking, and guess what, one day it was no longer a lie, it became my truth,” she shared in Omaha.

Friends and family true

Theresa Glass said success has not changed Hughes, who looks keeping it real.

“She’s the kind of friend who’s always your friend and we always can start off where we last left off. I never have to do a whole bunch of catch up with her. We immediately go into friend mode and are able to talk to one another. A lot of times you’ve been away from somebody for a long time or your lives have really shifted and they’re not even close to being the same, and you feel awkward, and that’s not happened for us.”

Hughes acknowledges her success is not hers alone. “I didn’t do it on my own. Right time, right place, right people.” She leans on staff she calls “family.” She believes in the power of prayer she practices daily. She credits her son’s immeasurable contributions.

“Radio One was me. TV One was totally Alfred. He decided he wanted his own path. Our expansion, our going public, all of that, was in fact Alfred. He does the heavy lifting and I get to take all the bows.”

Not every mother-son could make it work.

“Alfred and I had to go to counseling, alright, because one of us was going to die during those early years. It was not happy times – and it was basically my refusal (to relinquish control),” she said at the Hilton.

Alfred Liggins acknowledges their business partnership ultimately worked.

“It was my mother’s willingness to want to see me succeed as a human being and as a business person and unselfish ability to share her journey with me. When it came time to let me fly the plane, she was more than willing to do that.”

He recognizes how special her story is.

“I could always recognize and appreciate her drive, tenacity and lessons. We didn’t let any of the mother-son-family potential squabbles disintegrate that partnership, so I guess we’ve always been a team since the day I was born.”

Challenges and opportunities 

“Buddy” King. who’s had his own success in satellite radio, is happy to share a KOWH tie with Hughes.

“I’ve always admired Cathy. We KOWH alums are all proud of her success because her success shines light on what we did in Omaha.”

King further admires Radio One continuing to thrive in an increasingly unstable broadcast environment.

“iHeart media and Cumulus, two of the largest broadcast owners in the country, are both in bankruptcy, but Cathy is still chugging along. Her son has done an excellent job since making it a publicly-traded company. As the stock market fluctuates, they’ve able to survive.”

Diversification into online services and, more recently, the gaming industry, has kept Urban One fluid.

The changing landscape extends to Me Too movement solidarity around survivors of sexual harassment in the entertainment field.

“Was I subjected to it? Yes, absolutely,” Hughes said, “and I’m so glad women are stepping forward. Now we have a voice. The reality is we need more than a voice, we need to have action. Just talking about it doesn’t change it. I mean, how long have black folks talked about disparity and a whole host of things.

“It’s great that women are speaking out but we have to put pressure on individuals and on systems. Wherever we can find an opening. we must apply pressure to change it. Let’s start with education.”

She despairs over what she perceives as the dismantling of public education and how it may further erode stagnant income of blacks and the lack of inherited wealth among black families. She shared how “disturbed” she was by how Omaha’s North 24th Street has declined from the Street of Dreams she once knew.

 

 

Street Dedication for Cathy Hughes

Mrs. Marcella Jones, Alfred Liggins, III and his mother Cathy Hughes

 

 

Black media

Voices like hers can often only be found in black media.

“Black radio is still the voice of the community. Next to the black church, black-owned media is the most important institution in our community,” she said.

She embraces technology opening avenues and fostering change, but not at the expense of truth.

“I pray that truth prevails in all of these advancements we’re making. I see a world of opportunity opening, particularly for young people. I’m so impressed with this young generation behind the millennials. These kids are awesome because they’re not interested in just celebrity status. They’re interested in real change and I think the technology will be a definite part of that and I think with it comes a different level of responsibility for media than we’ve had in the past.

“Information is power. Mildred Brown understood that and it wasn’t just about a business for her – it was about a community service.”

Hughes credits an unlikely source with unifying African-Americans today.

“President Trump has single-handedly reignited activism, particularly in the black community. That did not occur in the Clinton administration, nor the Obama administration. But Trump has got people riled up, which is good. He has made people so mad that people are willing to do things, voice their opinion, and that’s why black radio is so important. You are able to say and hear things that you couldn’t get anywhere else.”

The Omaha Star is in its eighth decade. Hughes maintains its survival is “absolutely critical – because again it’s the voice of the people,” adding, “It’s our story from our perspective.” She still reads every issue. “It’s how I know what’s going on. The first thing I do is read Ernie Chambers’ editorial comments.”

Hughes is adamant blacks must retain control over their own message.

“You cannot ever depend on a culture that enslaved you to accurately portray you. That just cannot happen. I think too often African Americans have looked to mainstream media to tell our story. Well, all stories go through a filter process based on the news deliverer’s experience and perception and so often our representation has not been accurate.

“The reality is we have to be responsible for the dissemination of our own information because that’s the only time we can be reasonably assured it’s going to be from the right perspective, that it’s going to be from the right experience, and for the right reasons.”

Yet, she feels blacks do not support black media or other black business segments as much as they should.

A challenge she addressed in Omaha is black media not getting full value from advertisers.

“My son and I are not going for that. We want full value for our black audience and we insist on that with advertisers. I learned that from Mildred Brown. She did not allow y’alll to be discounted because it was a black weekly newspaper. She wanted the black readership of the Omaha Star to have the same value as a white readership to the Omaha World-Herald.

“I learned at the Omaha Star you don’t take a discount for being black.”

 

 

Still learning 

Six decades into her media career and Hughes said, “I’m still learning. I’m not totally prepared for some of the responsibilities and charges I’m being blessed with now. Like I’m just learning how to produce a movie (her debut project, Media, premiered on TV One in 2017). I want to learn how to direct a movie. I want to learn how to do a series. Thank God we went into cable, which has given me an opportunity to learn the visual side.”

She’s searching for a new project to produce or direct.

“I’m reading everything I can get my hands on. I am just so thankful to the individuals in my life who have loved and nurtured me that I keep acquiring new skill sets at this age. I’m still growing and learning. which is kind of my hobby.”

Hughes is often approached about a documentary or book on her life. If there’s to be a book, she said, “I don’t want someone else interpreting who I am. I don’t want someone else telling my story from their perspective. I want to tell my own story.”

 

 

 

 

Lasting impact and legacy

Her staff is digitally archiving her career. There’s a lot to capture, including her Omaha story.

“I thank Omaha. Nothing’s better than making your mark in your hometown.”

Getting all those accolades back here is not her style.

“In Omaha, we just don’t get carried away with a whole bunch of fanfare and hero-worshiping. Again, it’s how I grew up. That’s our way of life in Omaha and I thank God for that because it’s made a big difference. It’s a whole different mentality and way of life quite frankly.”

Omaha’s impact on her is incalculable.

“It touched me probably a lot more deeply and seriously than I realized for many decades. When you’re trying to build your business you don’t have a lot of time to reflect on how did I get here and the people who influenced me. I went through a couple decades working on my career and my personal and professional growth and development before I realized the impact the Omaha Star had had on me and what a positive influence Omaha has been on me.”

“Buddy” King said he always knew if from afar.

“Even when she was a young single parent, Cathy was a fighter. It all to me comes back to her Omaha roots.”

Though Alfred Liggins and his mom have been back several times, with this 2018 visit, he said, “you feel like you finally made it and made good and you’re making you’re community proud.”

“It’s about meaning and legacy. That’s why this is hugely different. It really is the culmination of a journey I’ve shared with my mother trying to elevate ourselves and in the process elevating the community from which we came. I’m proud to have been part of what my mother embarked on and I feel like I am being recognized alongside her.

“And it is a deserving honor for her. She’s got guts, grit and she still has a ton of energy. She always gives me lots of praise and lots of love – until I do something she doesn’t like. But it has kept me on the up-and-up and to have my nose to the grindstone.”

At the close of her Empowerment Network talk, Hughes articulated why coming back to acclaim meant so much.

“I think Omaha teaches you to best your best and practices tough love. If you have the nerve to leave here and go someplace else, you better hope you do good because if you come home, you don’t want to hear (about returning a failure). But it’s really love telling you, You should have done better, you should have been more persistent.

“That whole village concept sometimes is not comfortable but it’s so productive because it pushes you to best your best. It teaches you that when you come home one day … they may hang a sign and name a boulevard in your honor.”

As she told a reporter earlier, “My picture’s on the floor of the Press Club, okay  It don’t get no better than that.”

Visit https://urban1.com.

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

Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet

June 6, 2018 1 comment

 

Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet

©by Leo Adam Biga, Originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com)

The Mill Lady is hard to miss at the Florence Mill Farmers Market on summer Sundays. She’s the beaming, bespectacled woman wearing the straw hat adorned by sprays of plastic fruit and vegetables.

Market vendors include local farmers, urban ag growers, gardeners and food truck purveyors. It’s been going strong since 2009 thanks to Linda Meigs, aka The Mill Lady. As director of the historic mill, located at 9102 North 30th Street, she’s transformed a derelict site into a National Register of Historic Places cultural attraction “connecting agriculture, history and art.”

She “wears” many hats beyond the fun one. As market manager, she books vendors. She organizes exhibits at the Art Loft Gallery on the mill’s top floor. She curates the history museum on the main level. She schedules and hosts special events. She writes grants to fund operations. Supervising the mid-19th century structure’s maintenance and repairs is a job in itself.

 

 

 

Ever since she and her late husband John acquired the abandoned mill in 1997. Meigs has been its face and heart. An artist by nature and trade, she also has an abiding appreciation for history.

“Omaha would be such a beautiful city with some of the architecture we’ve torn down. This is not the most beautiful architecture in Omaha, but it is the oldest historic business site and the only still-standing building in the state that bridges the historic eras of the overland pioneer trails of the 1840s with the territorial settlement of the 1850s. That’s a very small niche – but what a cool one. And it has this Mormon heritage and connection to Brigham Young, who supervised its construction.”

It took her awhile to arrive at the ag-history-art combo she now brands it with.

“I had very vague, artsy ideas about what to do. But that first summer (1998) I was in here just cleaning, which was the first thing that needed to be done, and I had a thousand visitors and the building wasn’t even open. A thousand people found their way here and they were all coming to see those 1846 Mormon hand-hewed timbers

“It was like those timbers told me it needed to be open as an historic site after that experience.. This is my 20th summer with the mill.”

She made the guts of the mill into the Winter Quarters Mill Museum with intact original equipment and period tools on view. Interpretive displays present in words and images the site’s history, including the western-bound  pioneers who built it. She converted the top floor into the ArtLoft Gallery that shows work by local-regional artists. Then she added the farmers market.

“It was not really until after it happened I realized what I had. Then I could stand back and appreciate the integrity of it. I felt like it was a natural fit for that building because it was an ag industrial site and an historic site. The pioneer trails is certainly a significant historical  passage of our country.

“Then, too, I’m an artist and a foodie. I think supporting local is good for both personal health and for conservation of resources. It promotes individual health and the health of the local farm economy. It has less impact on the environment with trucking when you bring things in from close by as opposed to far away.

“I’m into fresh, locally-produced food. In the summer I pretty much live on local vegetables. I am a gardener myself and i do support my farmers market folks, too.”

Farmers markets are ubiquitous today in the metro. Hers owns the distinction of being the farthest north within the city limits. It proved popular from the jump.

“That first farmers market started with six vendors. Hundreds of people showed. It was a crush of people for those vendors. And then every week that summer the number of vendors increased. I think we ended up with about 40 vendors. I was pleased.

“Really, 30 is about the perfect number. It’s the most manageable with the space I have. I’m not trying to compete with the maddening crowd market.”

 

 

Finding the right mix is a challenge.

“You want to have enough variety to choose from, but you also have to have the customers that will support those vendors or they wont come back. If the community doesn’t support it, it’s hard to keep it going.”

Other markets may have more vendors, but few can match her setting.

“This one is quite unique. It’s in a field. It’s inside and    outside an historic ag building. And it feels like an authentic place for a market.”

She cultivates an intimate, upbeat atmosphere.

“It’s like a country fair. I have live music. Dale Thornton’s always there with his country soft pop ballads in the morning. The afternoon varies from a group called Ring of Flutes to old-time country bluegrass circle jams. Second Sundays is kind of a surprise. One time I had harpists show up. Lutist Kenneth Be has played here several times. I’ve had dueling banjos. Just whatever.”

A massage therapist is usually there plying her healing art. Livestock handlers variously bring in lamas, ponies and chickens for petting-feeding.

A main attraction for many vendors is Meigs.

“Oh, she’s beautiful. Nice lady, yeah,” said Lawrence Gatewood, who has the market cornered with barbecue with his T.L.C. Down Home Food stall.

Jared Uecker, owner of O’tille Pork and Pantry, said, “Linda’s exceptional to work with and really cares about the market and its vendors. She’s passionate about local food and is a frequent customer of ours.”

Jim and Sylvia Thomas of Thomas Farms in Decatur, Nebraska are among the produce vendors who’ve been there from near the start and they’re not going anywhere as long as Meigs is around.

“Everybody loves Linda. She’s what makes it,” Jim Thomas said. “She’s really doing a good job and she’s pretty much doing it for free. I mean, we pay her a little stall fee but for what we get its a deal.”

“Jim and Sylvia Thomas came in the middle of that first season and they’ve come back every year,” Meigs said.

“We kind of grew along with it,” Thomas said. “It’s a really nice friendly little market. We’re also down at the Haymarket in Lincoln, but it’s touristy, This (Florence Mill) is more of a real, live food market.”

Thomas is the third-generation operator of his family farm but now that he and his wife are nearing retirement they’re backing off full-scale farming “to do more of this.” “I like the interchange with the people. I guess you’d say its our social because out in the boondocks you never see anybody. The thing about Florence is that you get everybody. It’s really varied.”

That variation extends to fellow vendors, including Mai Thao and her husband. The immigrants from Thailand grow exquisite vegetables and herbs

“They came towards end of the first season and they’ve always been there since,” Meigs said.

Then there’s Gatewood’s “down home” Mississippi-style barbecue. He learned to cook from his mother. He makes his own sausage and head-cheese. He grows and cooks some mean collard greens.

Gatewood said, “I make my own everything.”

“I call him “Sir Lawrence,” Meigs said. “He’s come for the last three years. He smokes his meats and beans right there. He grills corn on the cob.”

Gatewood gets his grill and smoker going early in the morning. By lunchtime, the sweet, smokey aroma is hard for public patrons and fellow vendors to resist.

“He’s a real character and he puts out a real good product,” said Thomas.

Kesa Kenny, chef-owner of Finicky Frank’s Cafe, “does tailgate food at the market,” said Meigs. “She goes around and buys vegetables from the vendors and then makes things right on the spot. She makes her own salsa and guacamole and things. You never know what she’s going to make or bring. She’s very creative.”

Kenny’s sampler market dishes have also included a fresh radish salad, a roasted vegetable stock topped, pho-style, with chopped fresh vegetables, and a creamy butter bean spread. She said she wants people “to see how simple it is” to create scrumptious, nutritious dishes from familiar, fresh ingredients on hand.

“From a farmers market you could eat all summer long for pennies,” Kenny said.

More than a vendor, Kenny’s a buyer.

“She’s very supportive,” Meigs said. “For years, she’s bought her vegetables for her restaurant from the market.”

“It’s so wonderful to have that available,” Kenny said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meigs said that Kenny embodies the market’s sense of community.

“She comes down to the market and does this cooking without advertising her own restaurant. I told her, ‘You need to tell people you’re Kesa of Finicky Franks,’ and she said, ‘No, I’m not doing this to advertise my restaurant, I’m doing this to support the market and to be part of the fun.’ That’s a pretty unique attitude.”

“Kesa’s also an artist. She I knew each other back at the Artists Cooperative Gallery in the Old Market. She quit to open a cafe-coffee shop and I quit to do an art project and then got the mill instead. It’s funny that we have reconnected in Florence.”

Jim Thomas likes that the market coincides with exhibits at the ArtLoft Gallery, which he said provides exposure to the art scene he and his wife otherwise don’t get.

“I really enjoy the artsy people and the crafts people. They’re so creative. I guess what I’m saying is for us it isn’t about the food as much as it is about the people.”

Being part of a site with such a rich past as a jumping off point to the West is neat, too.

“That’s some big history,” said Thomas.

He added that the variety and camaraderie keep them coming back. “It’s really diverse and we’ve developed a lot of friendships down there.”

“It’s a great mingling of different nationalities and cultures.” Sylvia Thomas confirmed. “All the vendors help each other out, which is very unique. At a lot of markets, they don’t do that. Here, if you don’t have something that someone’s looking for, we’ll refer you to who has it. After you’ve been there long enough like we have, vendors and customers become kind of a family. Our regular customers introduce us to their kids and grandkids and keep us posted on what’s going on, and they ask how our family’s doing.

“We kind of intertwine each other.”

The couple traditionally occupy the market’s northeast corner, where gregarious Jim Thomas holds court.

“Linda (Meigs) tells us, ‘You’re our welcoming committee.’ It’s very fun, we enjoy it a lot,” Sylvia Thomas said.

Lawrence Gatewood echoes the family-community vibe found there.

“It’s real nice there. Wonderful people.”

Even though business isn’t always brisk, Gatewood’s found a sweet spot on the market’s southeast side.

“Not every Sunday’s good, but I still like being out there mingling with the people.”

But food, not frivolity, is what most patrons are after.

“Our big deal in the summer is peppers and tomatoes,” Jim Thomas said. “We also have onions,p ottos,  cucumbers, eggplants. We do sweet corn but sweet corn is really secondary. Early this year, if we get lucky, we might have some morels down there. Morels sell like crazy. We can sell just as many as we’ve got.”

In the fall, Thomas pumpkins rule.

The veggies and herbs that Mai Thao features at her family stall pop with color. There are variously green beans, peas, bok choy, radishes, fingerling potatoes, cucumbers, kale, cilantro and basil.

Makers of pies, cakes and other sweets are also frequent vendors at the market.

The farmers market is not the only way the mill intersects with food. Meigs has found a kindred spirit in No More Empty Pots (NMEP) head Nancy Williams, whose nonprofit’s Food Hub is mere blocks away.

“We both have an interest in food and health,” Meigs said as it relates to creating sustainable food system solutions. “Nancy is also into cultivating entrepreneurs and I guess I am too in a way.”

Jared Uecker found the market “a wonderful starting point” for his start-up O’tillie Pork & Pantry last year.

“It was the perfect home for us to begin selling our meat products. I really enjoyed its small-size, especially for businesses new to the market such as ourselves. It gave us a great opportunity to have a consistent spot to showcase our products and bring in revenue for the business. I particularly enjoyed the small-town family feel to it. It’s filled with really great local people using it for their weekly shopping as opposed to some other bigger markets which can feel more like people are there more to browse.”

The mill and NMEP have organized Blues and Barbecue Harvest Party joint fundraisers at the mill.

Meigs has welcomed other events involving food there.

“I’ve hosted a lot of different things. Every year is kind of different. In 2014 the mill was the setting for a Great Plains Theatre Conference PlayFest performance of Wood Music. The piece immersed the audience in reenactments of the mill’s early history, complete with actors in costume and atmospheric lighting. A traditional hoedown, complete with good eats and live bluegrass music, followed the play.

Kesa Kenny catered a lunch there featuring Darrell Draper in-character as Teddy Roosevelt. A group held an herb festival at the mill. Another year, crates of Colorado peaches starred.

“I occasionally do flour sack lunches for bus tour groups that come,” Meigs said. “I make flour sacks and stuff them with grain sampler sandwiches that I have made to my specifications by one of the local restaurants. It’s like an old-fashioned picnic lunch we have on the hay bales in the Faribanks Scale.”

The mill is part of the North Omaha Hills Pottery Tour the first full weekend of October each year. The Czech Notre Dame sisters hold a homemade kolache sale there that weekend.

Visit http://www.theflorencemill.org.

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

 

 

Coming home is sweet for media giant Cathy Hughes



 

Coming home is sweet for media giant Cathy Hughes

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the June 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Sweet nostalgia flowed when Omaha native media titan Cathy Hughes got feted in her hometown May 17-19. It marked the first time many Nebraskans heard of Hughes, even though this head of national networks cites her Midwest upbringing for the resilience behind her barrier-breaking entrepreneurial success.

After the hoopla around her coming back, she owns the state’s undivided attention.

The Omaha African-American community that produced Hughes has long followed her achievements. Her multimedia Urban One Inc., whose brands include Radio One and TV One, are black-centric platforms. Despite a media footprint rivaling Oprah and a personal net worth of half a billion dollars, her black market niche didn’t register with the general public. Until last month. Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers marshaled coverage for street renaming, Empowerment Network and Omaha Press Club recognitions.

Surrounded by friends, family and local black leaders, Hughes, the 71-year-old Urban One chair, and her son and business partner, CEO Alfred Liggins Jr., 53, basked in the glow of defining legacies. Liggins said admiringly of her: “She’s got guts, grit and she still has a ton of energy. She’s well-deserving of these honors.”

She recently produced her first movie, Media, for TV One.

Rodgers is among history-makers whose paths she’s intersected. She appreciates him making her mogul ascent more widely known so as to inspire others.

“Johnny told me, ‘I’m doing this for the black kids that need to know you exist – that you grew up in the projects in Omaha (to become the first black woman chair of a publicly traded company).’ Johnny added, ‘I’m also doing it for the white folks who don’t realize that in a whole different arena and way you’re our Warren Buffett.’ That kind of caused me to choke up.”

She came up in Logan-Fontenelle public housing when northeast Omaha truly was “a village.” Her accountant father and International Sweethearts of Rhythm musician mother were civil rights warriors (the De Porres Club). The former Cathy Woods attended Catholic schools. She demonstrated for equal rights. The bright Central High student was “the apple of many influential eyes.” When she became a teen single mom, she didn’t let that status or reality define her, but drive her.

Neither did she keep her radio fame ambitions to herself.

“Ever since I’ve been born, I’ve been running my mouth. I remember once almost getting suspended because I challenged a nun. She said, ‘You have a big mouth,’ and I said, ‘One day I’m going to make a lot of money off of my big mouth.’ I knew as a child I was a communicator. As I grew in my knowledge and awareness of my African history and legacy, I realized I was from the giro tradition of maintaining folklore and history in story form. I just innately had that ability.”

In 1972 she left for Washington D.C. to lecture at Howard University at the invite of noted broadcaster Tony Brown, whom she met in Omaha. It’s then-fledgling commercial radio station, WHUR, made her the city’s first woman general manager. She grew ad revenues and listeners. A program she created, “Quiet Storm,” popularized the urban format nationally. With ex-husband Dewey Hughes she worked wonders at WOL in D.C. After their split, she built Radio One.

“Omaha provided a safe haven, but once in Washington D.C. I had to rely on and call forth everything I had learned in Omaha in order just to survive and move forward. Folks in D.C. were like, ‘Oh yeah, another small town hick girl come to town to try to make a way for herself.’ It was an entirely different environment.”

Remarkable connections opened doors.

“I was prepared to recognize an opportunity and take full advantage of it. Howard University (whose School of Communication is named after her) literally groomed me. They were proud of the fact I was the first woman in the position they placed me in and they kept going with me because Katharine Graham (the late Washington Post publisher) was enthusiastic about me.”

She met Graham through the late Susan Thompson Buffett, the first wife of billionaire investor and then-major Post shareholder Warren Buffett.

“Susie was staying at her house. At that time Susie was a singer with professional entertainment aspirations and I was her manager.”

Hughes already knew Buffett from their shared social activism in Omaha.

“Katharine Graham took an interest in me. Because of her interest in me other people, including the folks at Howard University, embraced me. They saw potential in me. They paid for me to get training at Harvard University and the University of Chicago.”

The late publishing magnate John H. Johnson (Ebony, Jet magazines) became a friend, mentor and adviser.

She first got schooled in community-based black media by Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown and columnist Charlie Washington. Her keen social consciousness got sharpened by Ernie Chambers, Rodney Wead and Al Goodwin. Thus, her guiding credo: “I’m unapologetically in the black people business.”

“In Omaha, we had black pride and black love and a militancy that was very unique. When you’re a child growing up in that you just assume you’re supposed to try to make life better for your people. That’s what was engrained in us. We didn’t have to wait to February for black history. We were told of great black accomplishments at church, in school, in social gatherings. I thank Omaha for instilling that in me.

“The combination of Charlie (Washington) always writing the truth and Mildred (Brown) keeping a newspaper solvent were both sides of my personality – the commitment side and the entrepreneurial side. Charlie taught me how to be proud of my blackness and Mildred taught me how not to compromise my blackness.”

Working at KOWH. the metro’s first black radio station, affirmed for her blacks could realize their media dreams.

Fulfilling her dreams necessitated leaving home.

“If I had not left Omaha I probably would not have become a successful entrepreneur because I had a certain comfort level here.”

Her career’s based on the proposition black media is the unfiltered voice of a people.

“It is impossible for a culture that enslaved you to accurately portray you. Our people are still under oppression and denied opportunities. We don’t need anybody to give us anything, just get the hell out of our way. All we want is self-determination.”

She advocates black consumers collectively focus their purchasing power in support of black businesses, thus creating greater opportunities for economic growth and job creation within black communities.

Her visit home sparked bittersweet nostalgia.

“Driving down North 24th Street was so disturbing to me,” she said of sparse business activity along this former Street of Dreams now undergoing revival efforts.

Fittingly for someone whose amplified voice reaches millions, the North Omaha Legends Award she received celebrates her work “”to empower individuals and communities through the power of information.”

She thanked those “who removed obstacles out of my path so I could be who God destined me to be” and  “Omaha’s tough love” for pushing her to excel.

“I haven’t done it on my own. Right time, right place, right people. Sometimes prepared, sometimes not. But the combination of it propelled me forward.”

She rejects the idea her recognition here was overdue.

“Everything in its proper time. I don’t think I’ve been overlooked or anything. Nothing’s better than your hometown saying job well done.”

Meanwhile, when she gets asked, “Are there black people in Omaha?” she’ll continue bragging on its notable black sons and daughters:

Bob Gibson

Malcolm X

Buddy Miles

Marlin Briscoe

John Beasley

Gabrielle Union

Monty Ross

Yolonda Ross

Kevyn Morrow

Q. Smith

“I want to help put Omaha in the right light. I am unapologetically Omaha until the day I die.”

Visit https://urban1.com.

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

 

 

The Reader asked some African-American native Omaha media professionals what they find inspiring about Cathy Hughes:

ANGEL MARTIN

Freelance journalist

“Just to see where she started from in her career with a small studio in D.C. to large media owner. She was determined to never give up no matter what challenges she had to face. Very inspiring for a freelance journalist and radio host-producer at Mind and Soul/Malcolm X Radio like me. She also comes from very humble beginnings right in the Omaha metro. A very positive example of what can happen when you keep your eyes on the prize, so to speak.

“With her being a double minority -– this is a great example of how one should not only play with the ‘good ol’ boys’ but rather change the rules and win. When you think of radio and media ownership, Oprah’s name comes to mind and when you do your research you’ll soon realize Ms. Hughes is right up there, in fact she’s the number two based on her net worth.”

_ _ _

MONIQUE FARMER

Omaha Public Schools communications director

“Her accomplishments are truly inspirational, particularly for African-American women in the fields of journalism, communication, entertainment and entrepreneurship. She’s been breaking glass ceilings for decades and she continues to prove that some barriers are merely mental. She’s also proven that hard work, drive, discipline and possessing the boldness necessary to reach for one’s goals can account for so much. She makes us native Omahans all proud to be from the city we call home.”

_ _ _

WILLIAM KING

Founder, 1690-AM The One and 95.7-FM The Boss

“It’s inspiring because I’m currently walking in her footsteps with the creation of radio stations. I’m following every lesson from the matriarch of radio and TV.

“She’s an example that greatness come from the North Omaha community. It gives one the belief that if she can do it so can I. It’s motivation that drives you to succeed.

I recently talked to her and our conversation focused on both of us telling our stories on how we struggled and sacrificed to build our radio stations.”

_ _ _

MICHELLE TROXCLAIR

Mind and Soul radio host

“A black woman having achieved the success she has is an inspiration and motivator to all black women. Her accomplishments have transcended the barriers of race and gender. She has laid an important path.”

_ _ _

CARINA GLOVER

Founder, Ace Empire Media

“Cathy Hughes has raised the bar in the media industry and is inspirational as a black woman, professional,and business woman. As a young woman from Omaha on the path to building my own empire in media and tech, Cathy Hughes is a major inspiration. On a national scale, there’s a false perception that the roots of successful media companies generate from the west and wast coasts. Cathy demonstrates the barriers that can broken and how there’s no limit to success, despite where you began your journey.”

_ _ _

CHANELLE ELAINE

New York-based film producer (First Match

“What i find inspiring is Ms. Hughes’ willingness to take chances, to go against expectations and push forward by her own definition of what a young African-American woman can do. She refuses to be put in a box by gender, color or origin, giving us all equity in the landscape of opportunity.”

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