Monday, February 1, 2016

African Americans and Omaha: A Reading List

Recently I reviewed Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson's Free Radical: Ernest Chambers, Black Power, and the Politics of Race (Texas Tech University Press, 2012), for an academic journal. Although I made a few critiques, I think that Johnson's biography of Chambers is incredibly important. Because Chambers has toiled in Nebraska his entire life, serving since 1970 (with one brief hiatus) as the legislative representative for Nebraska eleventh district, he has not received as much attention on the national level as his talent, charisma, and penchant for controversy deserves. Love him or hate him, Chambers is one of the most fascinating political leaders in Nebraska history. Johnson's biography should be read by anyone interested in the history of the U.S. black freedom struggle or in Midwest, Nebraska, or Omaha history (for more on Chambers, I've written briefly on him elsewhere, focusing on his starring role in the acclaimed documentary A Time for Burning).

In national histories of the long civil rights movement, Omaha often gets mentioned for two things: it was the birthplace of Malcolm X, whose parents served as leaders of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association in the city during the 1920s, and it was the scene of the horrific riots and mob murder in 1919 of Will Brown, whose assailants posed smiling for the camera as his body burned.

But thanks to Johnson's biography of Chambers, and also to a recent influx of books documenting Omaha's rich history of African American leadership and civil rights protest, readers can now get a much better sense of the struggle and vitality of African American life in Omaha. I've listed three recently-published books that would make great companions to Free Radical below. All of these books tend towards an emphasis on the heroic. That is, while they do not ignore the segregation, mob violence, and police brutality inflicted upon Omaha's African American residents over the past century, they tend to highlight more the resilience of those fighting for justice. I can only hope that over the next few years we'll see even more work of this quality on the history of African American life in Omaha.

From the publisher: "In the spring of 1968, the Omaha Central High School basketball team made history with its first all-black starting lineup. Their nickname, the Rhythm Boys, captured who they were and what they did on the court. Led by star center Dwaine Dillard, the Rhythm Boys were a shoo-in to win the state championship. But something happened on their way to glory. In early March, segregationist George Wallace, in a third-party presidential bid, made a campaign stop in Omaha. By the time he left town, Dillard was in jail, his coach was caught between angry political factions, and the city teetered on the edge of racial violence. So began the Nebraska state high school basketball tournament the next day, caught in the vise of history. The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central tells a true story about high school basketball, black awakening and rebellion, and innocence lost in a watershed year. The drama of civil rights in 1968 plays out in this riveting social history of sports, politics, race, and popular culture in the American heartland."

From the publisher: "Mildred Dee Brown (1905–89) was the cofounder of Nebraska’s Omaha Star, the longest running black newspaper founded by an African American woman in the United States. Known for her trademark white carnation corsage, Brown was the matriarch of Omaha’s Near North Side—a historically black part of town—and an iconic city leader. Her remarkable life, a product of the Reconstruction era and Jim Crow, reflects a larger American history that includes the Great Migration, the Red Scare of the post–World War era, civil rights and black power movements, desegregation, and urban renewal. Within the context of African American and women’s history studies, Amy Helene Forss’s Black Print with a White Carnation examines the impact of the black press through the narrative of Brown’s life and work."

*although this book is self-published, I can vouch for its quality. It is solid history and also an engrossing narrative. 

From the publisher: "Before Civil Rights heroes like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King made their courageous stands, before the creation of the iconic images that represent the struggle against racism in the United States - before there even was a Civil Rights Movement - there was the story of the Omaha DePorres Club. The DePorres Club's pioneering efforts not only challenged racial discrimination and segregation, but aimed to convince people that the two were morally wrong - sins that demanded attention. Led by Fr. John Markoe - a Jesuit priest who was a 1914 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and was called a "champion of interracial justice and human rights" by Whitney Young - the Omaha DePorres Club worked to change the pattern of discrimination and segregation in a city known by African-Americans as "the Birmingham of the North." Author Matt Holland recounts the events that led to the creation of the Omaha DePorres Club and traces the arc of the club's evolution from 1947 to 1960 - revealing the courage and camaraderie of club members as well as the challenges, fears and failures they faced as they ventured into the uncharted territory of the early Civil Rights Movement."

Feel free to add to this list in the comments if you have any suggestions. And if you'd like to read shorter pieces that cover African American history in Omaha, you should check out Nebraska History, the quarterly publication of the Nebraska State Historical Society. Many of Nebraska History's articles are available online. In particular, Volume 3/4 in 2010 was a special double issue devoted to African Americans in Nebraska, and all of those articles are available online in PDF form. 

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