The legacy of 1919

Apr 10, 2019 By Adam Klinker

To inaugurate the Kingfisher Institute, Creighton engaged students, faculty, staff and the Omaha community in a closer look at the events of the 1919 riot and how they echo a century later.

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We have made great progress, no doubt, and that has come as a result of engaging our history as a community. But there’s also no question that structures still exist that can promote marginalization, structures that were in place 100 years ago. 

Christopher Whitt, PhD Vice provost for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion

It was an era of upheaval in America. Violence on an international scale spilled over into city streets. Distrust of immigrants and people of other races and religions ran high among white Americans. From the White House, the president openly promoted racism and sanctioned white supremacy. Scandal dogged politics and sport. Fake news splattered across the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

It was the United States in 1919.

And in the middle of the country, in Omaha, Nebraska, sparks from the fire engulfing much of the rest of the nation in that Red Summer ignited the most shameful passage in the city’s history.

To inaugurate the study and work of Creighton University’s newly formed Kingfisher Institute for the Liberal Arts and Professions, Creighton is engaging students, faculty, staff and the wider Omaha community in a closer look at the events of the 1919 riot and how they echo a century later.

“The Kingfisher Institute is happy it could be part of an appropriate commemoration of those tragic events in 1919 and acknowledging that that history is important,” said Tracy Leavelle, PhD, director of the Kingfisher Institute. “The prospect of being able to participate in and support conversations about race in our community going forward is exciting. It’s hard but it’s necessary.”

As the city approaches the centennial mark of the riot, Creighton is positioned to explore the roots of the racial violence and its aftermath, says Christopher Whitt, PhD, Creighton’s first vice provost for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion. Whitt sees a continuing confluence of 1919’s bloodshed with events tinged with racial hatred in the present day, stemming from similar movements for justice and a condemnatory quietism from many Americans.

“So many people were just silent,” Whitt says. “They didn’t agree with what was going on, but they also didn’t step up to help. We need to remember: In 100 years, what side of history do we want to be on? Will we let what’s happening today fester and blow up like it did a century ago? And so, I see Creighton in a position to step up on issues of racial justice and lean into those elements of our mission that address it.”

Part of the mission has been Creighton’s place on the new Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation, an organization now meeting monthly and involving elected county and city officials, along with longtime advocates for racial justice, including the local NAACP and the Urban League. The council aims to work with the Equal Justice Initiative to place a marker acknowledging the 1919 lynching of Will Brown — as well as the 1891 lynching of George Smith — and begin a dialogue on Omaha’s history and future.

“The question we want to confront is, how can we, as the inheritors of the legacy of 1919, leave a better legacy for those going forth from 2019?” Whitt says.

More than two dozen race riots — hateful, terroristic attacks incited by white people against African-Americans, many of whom were migrating from the South or were returning from service in World War I — had broken out in cities across the U.S. in the spring and summer of 1919 by the time Will Brown, a 41-year-old black man working in Omaha, was falsely and maliciously accused in the rape of a 19-year-old white woman, Agnes Loebeck.

It was late September and the atmosphere in Omaha was already stifling after tensions between white and black workers at the city’s stockyards had nearly resulted in bloodshed a few weeks earlier. Omaha was amid a near doubling of its African-American population, becoming one of the fastest-growing cities for black migrants in the nation, a fact that riled both native-born white Omahans and new immigrants competing with black people for stockyard jobs.

David Krugler, BA’91, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, is author of the 2014 book 1919, the Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back. Krugler remembers first encountering the story of Will Brown and Omaha’s riot in his undergraduate years at Creighton.

“In 1919, Omaha was very much a city grappling with change and conflict,” Krugler says. “It was an important industrial and agricultural center, and there had already been labor turmoil as the wartime economy transformed into a peacetime economy. There were strikes, there was dislocation. A belief spread among the white working class that black people were coming in as strikebreakers to take their jobs and that perception took root.”

Feeding the perception of a black takeover of the city was Omaha’s infamous political and underworld boss, Tom Dennison. With the help of the Omaha Bee newspaper, Dennison pushed a narrative of African-American men assaulting white women. In some cases, Dennison employed his criminal operatives to go about the city in blackface, menacing whites and, in the case of Agnes Loebeck, attempting to commit assaults.

In 1918, Omahans had elected a reform-minded mayor in Edward Smith over 12-year incumbent James Dahlman, darling of the Dennison political machine. The movement toward cleaning up Omaha’s rampant booze and flesh trade, led by Police Commissioner J. Dean Ringer, infuriated Dennison and he was intent on discrediting Smith and getting his puppet, Dahlman, back in the mayor’s office.

“In some ways, Dennison didn’t expect to succeed so wildly,” Krugler says. “The fiction that the press, especially the Omaha Bee, was spinning in its pages was, I’m convinced, an orchestrated frameup of black people in Omaha and of Mayor Smith and J. Dean Ringer.”

A pawn in the game, then, became the heretofore unknown and unassuming Will Brown.

The night of Sept. 25, 1919, Agnes Loebeck and the man who would become her husband, Milton Hoffman, were approached by what they said was a black man wielding a pistol. The assailant reportedly held the gun on Hoffman while overpowering and raping Loebeck. The next day, the two identified Brown as the perpetrator. Brown was arrested and taken to the Douglas County Courthouse as officers fended off a first effort at lynching him.

Running the story the next morning, the Bee published a complete falsehood, naming Brown as the attacker and portraying Hoffman as hampered by a malformed leg. Decades later, when the late Omaha historian Orville Menard, PhD, the leading authority on the riot, tracked Hoffman down, the old man took umbrage at his depiction as crippled.

In fact, it was Brown who had a malady, a severe case of rheumatism that would have made his participation in the crime impossible. But it was no matter to the Bee, or to the flames it fanned in hundreds of Omahans who were convinced of Brown’s guilt.

Three days later, Sept. 28, Hoffman was at the fore of a mob that swelled to more than 4,000 white people, who ultimately stormed the courthouse, set fire to the building, attempted to lynch Mayor Smith, and lynched, mutilated and burned the body of Will Brown, having dragged him from the courthouse to 17th and Dodge streets. There, photographs published in Omaha newspapers captured a gleeful crowd beaming above Brown’s smoldering remains. A headline accompanying the photo in the Sept. 29 Omaha World-Herald read: “Frenzied Thousands Join in Orgy of Blood and Fire.”

“That photo,” says Whitt, who began his tenure at the University in 2018. “I’d seen it before, but never made the connection. During the hiring process for me, I dug a little deeper into Omaha and I found that that famous photo was taken right here, just a few blocks from this campus.”

For a century, that photo and others like it have borne silent witness to Brown’s murder and served as a reminder that the specter of lynching was not just a problem in the American South. No monument has ever been erected to remember Will Brown or the hundreds of other black Omahans who were threatened and beaten in the days following.

But the photos stand as a testament and, in 1919, they also served as an aid in tracking down the criminals who incited the riot, lit the courthouse and killed Will Brown. When U.S. Army troops led by Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood marched into the city on Sept. 29 to quell the rioting, Wood saw the photographs and ordered soldiers to begin investigating and searching out those who appeared in it. By mid-October, the troops assisting Omaha police had made more than 150 arrests, resulting in 120 indictments, with 535 witnesses to the riot and its aftermath, including Brown’s murder.

“More white people were arrested in Omaha in 1919 for the riot that killed Will Brown than in any other riot targeting blacks that year,” Krugler says. “Those photographs helped Leonard Wood track down a lot of people. But while there were lots of arrests and trials, there were very few convictions. Juries were very reluctant to convict anyone and the pattern that emerged was that the more serious the charges, the more likely an acquittal.”

Of the 11 men charged in Will Brown’s murder, just one, a 17-year-old boy named Sam Novak, was convicted. He spent a year in a reformatory as his sentence.

One of the Kingfisher Institute’s initiatives is a campus-wide reading of the novel Kings of Broken Things by Creighton alumnus Ted Wheeler, MA’08, MFA’15. Through lenses including ones focused on Omaha’s baseball scene, the immigrant community and the Dennison political machine, Wheeler’s novel explores the run-up to the riot and the maelstrom left in its wake.

Wheeler’s research took him deep into the archives in the Omaha Public Library and at Creighton, where he began stitching together newspaper accounts of everyday life for people like his characters. As he wrote, the historical touches of the novel dovetailed with present-day events.

“It took some time to put characters I’d grown fond of into something so aberrant and irredeemable,” Wheeler says. “But I was writing at the moment when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson (Missouri). It was a reminder of how important these past events were in our time and history. It’s something I never thought I’d see growing up in suburban Lincoln (Nebraska).”

In the White House, President Woodrow Wilson, even as he was serving as the architect of the first international organization dedicated to governance and peace, the ill-fated League of Nations, was assenting to racial violence and screening the era’s most racially provocative and violent film, Birth of a Nation, with its heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan and celebration of white supremacy.

Krugler’s book specifically identifies ways African-Americans confronted violence perpetrated by white Americans and white institutions. Three crucial areas of resistance included armed self-defense, the use of the law to win acquittals for black people falsely accused of crimes, and combating the fake news of the day, such as the out-and-out lies published in papers like the Omaha Bee.

“You can draw a line between today’s Black Lives Matter movement and what was happening in the Red Summer,” Krugler says. “Black Lives Matter is seeking to ensure the application of justice is not done differently, not on the basis of color, and race is still unquestionably a factor for us today. That summer, winning the fight to correct the record was perhaps the most important part of the resistance, not only for the wrongly accused, but for posterity’s sake. In Omaha, you saw a massive test case of that fight, because the Bee, especially, was perpetuating a false narrative that was deadly for many African-Americans.”

In fact, the sensationalized accounts of what happened in Omaha percolated to other media outlets around the nation. Within days of Omaha’s riot, a massacre of 237 black people at the hands of white murderers in Phillips County, Arkansas, marked the bloodiest chapter of the Red Summer. The local paper in the days leading up to the bloodshed had been flush with headlines of Omaha’s riot.

A general desensitization to the violence was also happening, as the world reeled from more than four years of carnage in World War I.

“The U.S. has been at war my entire adulthood,” Wheeler says. “We have militarized cities, homes. That was a tenor that was struck in World War I, too. Violence seemed to be more acceptable and new weapons were being created. Internalize that violence and add a nativist character to it and you get people who become used to it, more likely to carry it out.”

While the nation and Omaha have made great strides in the century since the Red Summer, racist structures and systems continue to rear their heads. Racial disparities are still evident on the city’s streets and in the media.

“We have made great progress, no doubt, and that has come as a result of engaging our history as a community,” Whitt says. “But there’s also no question that structures still exist that can promote marginalization, structures that were in place 100 years ago. People often overlook elements of racism that started generations ago. There’s still a chasm of disparity when it comes to political voice, economic advancement, wealth advancement. The legacies from that era can still be our legacy. 1919 was a moment in time for an entire nation. 2019 is our moment and our opportunity to leave a legacy for the generations to come.”