The Negro Experience: Chaos in Omaha
by Levaniel Tukes
Are you aware of the horrendous crimes and miscarriage of Justice committed on African Americans throughout history? I want to inform my readers of one particular incident that occurred during the autumn of 1919 in Omaha, Nebraska.
To begin, Omaha is known for its crimes such as illicit gambling and riots. Racial tensions are a part of Omaha history as the people of Douglas County always felt threatened of their livelihood whenever new groups merged. They first discriminated against the Greeks as a writer of the Omaha Daily News wrote, "Their quarters have been unsanitary; they have insulted women... Herded together in lodging houses and living cheaply, Greeks are a menace to the American laboring man — just as the Japanese, Italians, and other similar laborers are." Racial tensions elevated immediately after the First World War when Blacks migrated North, filling jobs that were once held by whites.
Triggered by African American migrations to the north, the promise of normalcy after the war was dubious as social problems prolonged and seditious violence soon erupted from Texas to Illinois, Nebraska to Georgia. A Jacksonville, Florida native, writer James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP, dubbed the monstrous riot, "Red Summer" which began in the summer of 1919.
In Omaha, the riot began on September 25. Agnes Loebeck, a white woman, alleged that she was assaulted and raped by a black man. Once reported, headlines of the Yellow Press read, "Black Beast First Stick-up Couple." "The most daring attack on a white woman ever perpetrated in Omaha occurred one block south of Bancroft Street near Scenic Avenue in Gibson last night."
The emotionalism of the headline ignited uproar throughout the entire city of Omaha. Soon after, authorities apprehended an identified black packinghouse worker named Will Brown. He was taken to the Douglas County Courthouse and booked for rape. Shortly, a mob led by a group of youth assembled outside the Courthouse. Infuriated, local people vandalized the Courthouse, shattering windows and even setting fire to the building. When Mayor Edward P. Smith attempted to simmer the riotous mob, he was attacked, d ragged out to Harney Street, and then beaten unconscious with a rope tied around his neck. Miraculously he survived, but suffered severe head injuries.
At any rate, the mob disregarded Mayor Smith and focused their attention on Will Brown. As the firemen made effort to extinguish the fire the mob raided the courthouse, and hauled Brown out the building. Brown pleaded to the lynch mob his innocence; however they ignored him, and callously beat him unconscious. The mob of 15000 people roared as Brown was dragged to Harney Street. Once on Harney Street, Brown was lynched and riddled with hundreds of bullets around 11:00 pm that night. Afterwards, his body was brought down, tied behind a car, and dragged to the intersection of 17th and Dodge. Thereafter, the body was doused with fuel taken from red danger lamps and fire truck lanterns. Finally, Brown's body was charred and dragged through the downtown streets of Omaha.
Chaos in Omaha: Restoring Order
City Officials were incapable of dismembering the mob, therefore, they desperately inquired help from federal troops, however, by the time Army Officials arrived Brown was dead, his body in flames with smokes covering the midnight sky. At any rate, what purpose did City officials serve in restraining the bloodthirsty crowd of people?
Upon learning about the occurring event, Lieutenant Colonel Jacob Wuest, Commander of Fort Omaha, refused to act without authorization from Washington, hence, he was unwilling to damage his career by intervening in a civil disorder. However, naïve, Wuest was directly referring to the form of deployment expressly forbidden prior to 1917 by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. Had Wuest been aware of current civil and military policies regarding federal military intervention in civil disorders, the emergency provisions of Army Regulations, and recent wartime precedents, troops could have been dispatched to the scene of the riot as early as 6:20 when the first call for aid was received. By the time Army Officials arrived Brown was dead, therefore, what was the purpose bringing in troops after the riot was over?
On October 1, 1919, in a move of dubious legality, General Wood, without advice, input, or orders from either President Wilson or Secretary Baker, declared modified martial law in Omaha. Despite Jacob Wuest lack of action, the real protection came when the army stormed into town. After the body of Will Brown was charred, the mob attempted to hunt for innocent black men and obliterate Omaha's black community; therefore, all blacks were ordered to remain indoors. Troops on 24th and Lake Streets secured the area, simmering racial tensions, slightly. Any citizens caught with a gun faced immediate arrest.
On September 30, a cartoon appeared in the Omaha Bee Newspaper comparing City Officials to Army Officials. The magnificently giant soldier compare to the incredibly small City Official express that only the Army, and not the local police could protect Omaha. Although Major White's troops experience no resistance, the black community had gone pandemonium; hence, the Arm Forces restored order.
Chaos in Omaha: Who was to Blame?
The question ultimately remained, who was to blame? Was it Jacob Wuest, who if not delayed the Army, and worried about jeopardizing his career, then perhaps Will Brown's death could've been prevented? Or maybe the weak force of the local police that was overpowered by the rioters. Were Tom Dennison and his political machine responsible for the riot? Or was it just a bunch of young "punks" who initiated the riot? Who exactly was to blame for this horrendous lynching?
While it's left undetermined who's the blame, in any case, the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial by the World-Herald titled, "Law and the Jungle" stated:
"There is the rule of the jungle in this world, and there is the rule of law. Under jungle rule no man's life is safe, no man's wife, no man's Mother, sisters, children, home, liberty, rights or property. Under the rule of law, protection is provided for all these, and provided in proportion as law is efficiently and honestly administered and its power and authority respected and obeyed. "Omaha has had an experience in lawlessness. We have seen, as in a nightmare, its awful possibilities. We have learned how frail is the barrier which divides civilization from the primal jungle — and we have been given to see clearly what that barrier is. It is the law! It is the might of the law, wisely administered. It is respect for the obedience to the law on the part of the members of society! May the lesson sink deep!" — Morning Omaha World-Herald September 30, 1919