Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 28, 2012

Will Brown’s pyre at the Omaha Race Riots

September 28, 1919: The Omaha Race Riots begin. The riot was just one of many during the Red Summer of 1919. During World War I, there was a shortage of immigrants to work in the factories in the industrial US. African-Americans came north to look for work and began to fill the slots that would have been filled by European immigrants. After the war ended and with veterans back in the workforce, there were tensions between them and black workers who were filling the jobs. During the course of the war, about 500,000 blacks had moved from the rural South to take jobs in the industrial North and Midwest. They not only found jobs in Yankee territory, but could escape from Jim Crow laws and the horrific conditions in the South, including random lynchings.

In Omaha, African-Americans came to work in the meatpacking plants and stockyards. During the 1910s, the black population of Omaha had doubled and had become one of the most populous enclaves in the west for blacks. By 1920, there were more than 10,000 African-Americans in Omaha with only Los Angeles having more with 16,000. There were more blacks in Omaha than in San Francisco and Oakland, Topeka, or Denver. In 1917, the major meatpacking plants had hired African-Americans as strikebreakers which did not endear them to the ethnic white population which had been striking. They met an entrenched Irish subculture in Omaha which had already managed to expel a Greek subculture from the city.

Reform mayor Edward Parsons Smith went through his agenda to reform Omaha with little support from the Omaha City Council or the city’s labor unions. The previous year, Omaha’s Police Department’s “moral squad” shot and killed an African-American bellhop without recourse. On September 25, 1919, local media published the rape of white 19-year-old Agnes Loebeck. The next day, police arrested black 40-year-old Will Brown as a suspect. Conflicting reports are given as to whether or not Agnes actually ever identified him as her attacker. There was an attempt to lynch Brown on the day of his arrest.

On this day, at 5 PM about 4,000 whites began an assault around the courthouse. Fifteen minutes later, fire hoses were turned on the crowd without the desired effect. The crowd began to pelt the building with bricks and rocks and broke every window. The police tried to get the crowd to disperse but by 7 PM they had barricaded themselves inside the building. By 11 PM, the mayor appeared before the crowd and offered himself for hanging if they would disperse. They took him up on his offer, but someone saved him. Eventually, the crowd got hold of Brown and he was lynched. Two whites also died before the US Army infantry was employed to calm down the crowds at 3 AM on September 29. Brown’s burned and battered body was laid to rest in Omaha’s Potters Field on October 1.

It is the belief of many that the entire responsibility for the outrage can be placed at the feet of a few men and one Omaha paper. – Omaha Reverend Charles E. Cobbey

Several reported assaults on white women had actually been perpetrated by whites in blackface. – grand jury finding

It is a shame that it took these deaths and others to raise public consciousness and effect the changes that we enjoy today. When I discovered that William Brown was buried in a pauper’s grave, I did not want William Brown to be forgotten. I wanted him to have a headstone to let people know that it was because of people like him that we enjoy our freedoms today. – Chris Herbert

The lesson learned from his death should be taught to all. That is, we cannot have the protections guaranteed by the Constitution without law. There is no place for vigilantism in our society. – Chris Herbert

Also on this day:

Victory – In 1781, George Washington began his assault on Yorktown, the last battle of the Revolutionary War.
Hostage Taking – In 1975, the Spaghetti House siege began.
Black Sox – In 1920, eight Chicago White Sox players were indicted.

2 Responses

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  1. Dave Anders said, on September 28, 2012 at 11:11 am

    Like most racists, in this story Patricia Hysell prefers the reason for a person’s actions to be racist over the fear of starving to death as was to all the participants in these riots. Perhaps Patricia Hysell is such a spoiled brat that she should undergo the starving effects on her own body before giving starvation a poor rating in reasons to fight.

    • patriciahysell said, on September 28, 2012 at 11:36 am

      I allow people to comment on my writing without censoring them. I do this because I believe we should be permitted a voice in this world.

      If you believe there is any reason for the horrific acts perpetrated upon this poor man, I don’t know what else to say. Starving or not, working or not, safety net or not, this was despicable.

      Amazingly enough, there is another frequent commenter here from California who has called me both a racist and a spoiled brat and commented on starving unreasonable people saying their actions are always within reason and apparently they aren’t held to the same standards of community living and civilization as the rest of the inhabitants of this world, even those in places where people are literally starving to death.

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