North Omaha, Nebraska
North Omaha is a community area in Omaha, Nebraska, USA. It is bordered by Cuming and Dodge Streets on the south, Interstate 680 on the north, North 72nd Street on the west and the Missouri River and Carter Lake, Iowa on the east, as defined by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Located just north of Downtown Omaha, the community includes some of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, including the Near North Side, Bemis Park, Saratoga and Florence. It is the site of the Mormon Pioneers' Winter Quarters, the Mormon Temple, the center of the historically significant African-American community, and the birthplace of Malcolm X. Important landmarks in the community include the Bank of Florence, Prospect Hill Cemetery and the Fort Omaha Historical District.
In 2006, North Omaha became the focus of national attention after local State Senator Ernie Chambers introduced an amendment to divide the Omaha school system into three systems that some observers suggested would have created de facto segregated school systems based on residential patterns. The measure was eventually repealed.
North Omaha has a recorded history extending to 1812 with the founding of Fort Lisa by Manuel Lisa. The area was home to Cabanne's Trading Post from the 1820s through the 40s, and in 1846 became home to 2 encampments that were some 3½ miles apart from one another: Cutler's Park and Winter Quarters. This whole area became part of what is now the city of Omaha, Nebraska.
When Omaha City was founded in 1854 the boundaries were around the present-day downtown core. Prospect Hill Cemetery, a North Omaha landmark, was founded on a high hill on the outskirts of Omaha in 1856, and with more than 15,000 burials it included many of the founding figures of Omaha, as well as soldiers from nearby Fort Omaha, immigrants, and many Blacks who worked throughout the city.
During the initial period of Omaha history there were a number of outlying towns surrounding it, many of which were located in present-day North Omaha, including Florence, East Omaha, and Saratoga, all of which were settled within a few years of Omaha. Scriptown was a land grab by early legislators of the Nebraska Territory who sought to award themselves for working for the new territory. Casey's Row was a small neighborhood of Black porters who worked for the local railroads. Squatter's Row was an area between North 11th and North 13th Streets, from Nicholas to Locust Streets, behind the Storz Brewery. For more than 75 years this area was inhabited solely by squatters. Before the city of Omaha extended north beyond Lake Street, mostly Irish settlers inhabited an area known as Gophertown, located north of Saratoga and south of Florence. The towns of Benson and Dundee, both in North Omaha, were suburbs of Omaha founded in the 1880s. Fort Omaha was a U.S. Army installation that was built starting in 1878, and was home to the Department of the Platte. Growth in North Omaha was spurred by the arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad and railyards to the east.
The grand Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition was a world's fair held in North Omaha from June through November 1898. It attracted more than 1,000,000 visitors to the area in and surrounding Kountze Park, which won the location over other areas, including the Miller Park neighborhood. The Expo featured many events in the community, including performances by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at the Omaha Driving Park, where it was founded several years prior. In 1909 Omaha University opened in the Redick Mansion in the Kountze Place neighborhood.
Perhaps the most important community, if not the most visible, in all of North Omaha was the Near North Side. This neighborhood was one of the first in Omaha, emerging in the 1860s as a home to the city's influx of German and Irish. In the later 19th century, they were joined by eastern European Jewish immigrants and African American migrants from the South. The bustling corridors of North 24th Street and North 16th Street were long the centers of important commercial and social activity.
From the 1920s through the 1950s North 24th Street was seen as a "Street of Dreams" where the city's African-American culture thrived. It was home to such important locations at the Dreamland Ballroom, and fostered a variety of social and political developments, including the founding of the Hamitic League of the World. Omaha had early chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League. The early years of noted Harlem Renaissance writer Wallace Thurman were spent in the Near North Side, and Jewish feminist author Tillie Olsen grew up in the neighborhood. During this period Malcolm X was born in the neighborhood.
After restructuring of railroads and the meatpacking industries, massive job loss resulted in poverty and social unrest. In the 1960s and 70s three major riots tore apart the North 24th Street corridor. One broke out after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. With lower tax revenue because of job losses, the city had neglected many of the neighborhoods, leading to decreased police response times, decreased funding for education in the community, decreased support for youth and community programs, and other problems. A 1966 documentary film entitled A Time for Burning highlighted the racial tension which had been driving white flight from the community for the two previous decades. That film portrayed a young Ernie Chambers. A barber who later earned a law degree, in 1970 Chambers started his service as the longest serving State Senator in the history of Nebraska.
That year's Rice/Poindexter Case proved controversial as two leaders of Omaha's Black Panther Party were sentenced to life in prison for bombing a house in which a policeman was killed. Contention spread throughout the 1970s, when, according to one government agency, "Construction of the North Omaha Freeway, coupled with social unrest in the 1970s, greatly impacted the North Omaha area. One neighborhood experienced a 30 percent housing loss and major increase in crime." However, North Omaha has not seen another riot since 1970.
In the 1990s the Omaha Housing Authority demolished the Logan Fontenelle Housing Project in North Omaha. Built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration as improved housing for working families, by the late 20th century, the project was called "Little Vietnam" because of its association with gangs, violence and drug dealing.
Notable figures from North Omaha
North Omaha has been the birthplace and home of many figures of national and local import. They include Jewish-American author Tillie Olsen, who was a labor organizer in a packinghouse and wrote about women and the poor working class; Whitney Young, an important civil rights leader and later national director of the Urban League; the Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers; actor John Beasley; and actress Gabrielle Union. Malcolm X was born there in the early 1920s but his family moved away before he was a year old.
Singer Wynonie Harris, saxophonist Preston Love, Jack Coleman Jr., and drummer Buddy Miles all called North Omaha home. Businesswoman Cathy Hughes is from North Omaha. The community was also the native home of several sports stars, including Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, football player Johnny Rodgers, Pro Football Hall of Famer, Chicago Bears Gale Sayers, Houston Texans starting running back Ahman Green, and basketball player Bob Boozer.
Landmarks in North Omaha
Due to its diverse history, North Omaha is home to numerous historical and modern landmarks. There are many buildings listed on the Registered Historic Places and designated Omaha Landmarks within its boundaries. These include the 1856 Bank of Florence, which is the oldest standing building in Omaha; the 1892 Florence Boulevard, part of H.W.W. Cleveland's grand boulevard scheme for Omaha, and; the 1897 the Sherman, the oldest standing apartment building in Omaha.
African-American community leader Jack Broomfield commissioned noted African-American architect Clarence W. Wigington to design the Broomfield Rowhouse in 1913 after the Easter Sunday Tornado ravaged much of North Omaha. This building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
Architecture in North Omaha
Houses built in Queen Anne, Arts and Crafts, Romanesque and Classical Revival styles in the late 19th century and early 20th century occupy several neighborhoods throughout Omaha. Greek Revival commercial buildings and a Spanish Renaissance Revival church represent the reverence many architects held for history. Buildings in the 20th century Prairie School and work by Thomas Rogers Kimball represented a more modern perspective. The area is also home to many modern developments.
Because of its troubles, many residents of Omaha view the North Omaha community as violent, poor, and drug-riddled, where only low-income African American people live. A recent local news report stated the area was "71 percent Black". Despite positive activities directed at improving North Omaha over the years, including those listed above, local media tend to focus on dramatic stories of racial and economic strife within the community.
Recent controversy has focused on a spoof aired by a local radio station in which a popular area radio DJ parodied a recent North Omaha tourism promotion campaign, reportedly saying on air, "Discover miles of mayhem, discover drive-bys, discover gang violence, discover North Omaha." The City Council fought against this portrayal, with North Omaha city councilman Frank Brown demanding an apology from the radio station because "the spoof paints all residents of north Omaha as criminals."
Many institutions within the boundaries of North Omaha reinforce these perceptions as they seek to disassociate with the area despite their proximity within North Omaha. A past example came from an online "information center for current and prospective medical students at Creighton University" which reported housing in North Omaha to be "...Older, smaller, more run-down... A little ways from shopping areas. It can be close to Creighton (5-10 minute drive). Many of these neighborhoods have a bad reputation and we recommend looking elsewhere for housing."
Historic racial tension
There have been a number of distinct events throughout the history of North Omaha that were caused by racial tension between African Americans and Caucasians throughout the city. In the 20th century, some of this tension has been expressed in city policies and relations with the police force. Omaha had events in common with other high-growth, major industrial cities that attracted many new immigrants and migrants, including lynchings; a race riot in 1919, known as Red Summer for similar events in other industrial cities; civil rights activism and protests from the 1920s through the 1970s; and several bloody and destructive riots in the late 1960s.
The shooting of a black 14-yr. old teenager named Vivian Strong by a white Omaha police officer in the Logan Fontenelle Projects in June 1968 marked the first of a number of incidents between individual members of the African American community in North Omaha and the Omaha Police Department. Since the late 1980s, there have been a number of gang-related clashes, as well.
Historic civil rights movement
The civil rights movement in North Omaha goes back to at least 1912, when a local chapter was founded of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1928 the first Urban League chapter in the western United States was started in North Omaha. Both of these organizations continue today.
Student and youth activism in North Omaha led to the creation of two unique groups: Creighton University's DePorres Club, started in 1947, and the Black Association for Nationalism Through Unity (BANTU), popular through the 1960s. In the summer of 1963 the Citizens Civic Committee for Civil Liberties rallied to demand change equal rights for all African Americans in Omaha.
While the Omaha civil rights movement did not reach its stated goals of gaining a state law ensuring equal housing opportunities or a separate state law ensuring equal job opportunities, it was successful for raising awareness of the inequities facing African Americans in Omaha. From the film A Time for Burning to Senator Ernie Chambers' recent legislative action, the civil rights movement has had a significant legacy in Omaha.
North Omaha is a sustaining community with business centers on North 16th, 24th, and 30th Streets; Ames Avenue, and in other pockets. The area is the home to numerous small, locally-owned, and independent businesses. It is also the site of numerous government programs designed to spur further economic growth. Some area enterprises include Chubb Foods, Fraternity Barber Shop, Leola's Records and Tapes, D.J. C.D. "Rydin Musik" Local Independent Omaha Mixtapes, Da Shop, FreshWear Urban Clothing, Jim's Rib Haven, Goodies Gas Station, Phil's Foodway, Al's Oasis, CBC Staffing, and Goodwin's Spencer Street Barber Shop. Goodwin's, located at 3116 N 24th Street since 1955, is one of 24th Street's few legacy businesses.
North Omaha has a range of important community based organizations and government programs conducting community development, educational assistance and low-income housing. Additionally, a series of private and public ventures are developing local businesses in the community.
Path Concept Homes is a project that concentrates on urban development in the residential area between 25th and Parker that is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The PCH plan will serve as a template for other development projects to follow, providing homes which are good for the consumer-friendly and the environmentally conscious. These homes are required to be sold to low-income and minority families. Other organizations providing housing in North Omaha include Holy Name Housing Corporation, Family Housing Advisory Services, Inc. and Rebuilding Together Omaha.
Children and youth
A number of youth organizations and programs serve North Omaha children and youth. They include the North Omaha B.E.A.R.S. Youth and Sports club. BEARS is an acronym which stands for Building Esteem and Responsibility Systematically and the program combines sports with academics and social enhancement. The Hope Center and Hope Skate are innovative programs aimed at meeting the recreational and social needs of the community's young people, while the Safe Haven Community Center is a youth center located at 2895 Binney Street. The North Omaha Boys & Girls Club Jaguars Football Team, North Omaha Christ Child Center, YEP! (Youth Empowerment Program) and Girls Inc. serve the area as well.
North Omaha is home to several important medical institutions. They include St. Joseph's Hospital, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Immanuel Medical Center and the Creighton University Medical Center. The Charles Drew Health Center provides a variety of services to low-income community members, as well.
Among the many community development programs are the historic Urban League of Nebraska, the Charles Drew Health Center, Heartland Family Services-FAST, New Community Development and the Benson-Ames Alliance Community Plan, which is community-driven planning process for neighborhood revitalization.
North Omaha was affected by pollution and harmful emissions from the American Smelting and Refining Company, better known by the acronym "ASARCO". The windfall from their downtown Omaha plant led to more than 8,000 acres (3,237 ha) in North Omaha being designated by United States Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund national priority site. As of 2003, 290 acres (117 ha) were cleaned.
Today North Omaha is the focus of the Lead-Safe Omaha Coalition. As is usual in older homes, there are sources of lead in older paints and other fabrications which have been found to be harmful. The Coalition offers lead screenings and workshops on hazards of lead poisoning, safe home evaluations, lead-safe practices workshops, environmental certification training, HEPA vacuum rental, and the Information Resource Center on Lead to residents through North Omaha.
The Omaha Star has long been a source of employment and positive news for citizens in North Omaha. The North Omaha Development Project is a project of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce designed to "bring... business and community leaders together to find ways to positively impact the economic growth of the North Omaha community." It seeks to leverage city, federal and private sector funding to support public infrastructure and economic development. The North Omaha Business Park is located at 24th and Clark Streets, the business park is "a joint effort of the Omaha Chamber and the City of Omaha... [It is] a 15 acre development on the former Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects site." It is home to several businesses including Wes & Willy’s, Cintas Corporation, Jobosh, Inc., and Armored Knights Company.
North Omaha is home to a wide variety of cultural institutions, events and activities that anchor the community. The Dreamland Ballroom was a historic venue that featured a wide range of national talent, as well as local legends including saxophonist Preston Love, who once said, "North Omaha used to be a hub for black jazz musicians, 'the triple-A league' where national bands would go to find a player to fill out their ensemble."
Early North Omaha bands included Dan Desdunes Band, Simon Harrold's Melody Boys, the Sam Turner Orchestra, the Ted Adams Orchestra, and the Omaha Night Owls, as well as Red Perkins and His Original Dixie Ramblers. Lloyd Hunter's Serenaders who became the first Omaha band to record in 1931. A Lloyd Hunter concert poster can be seen on display at the Community Center in nearby Mineola, Iowa. Nat Towles was a renowned territory band leader based in Omaha. One of Omaha's most notable musicians of the 1940s was Anna Mae Winburn. As the leader of North Omaha's Cotton Club Boys, which included the amazing guitarist Charlie Christian, Winburn traveled the local region as a typical territorial band. However, upon the advice of Jimmie Jewell, owner of the Jewel Building, Winburn left Omaha and hit the "big time" with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
North Omaha's musical culture also birthed several nationally and internationally reputable African American musicians. Influential drummer Buddy Miles was friends with Love while they grew up and played together. They collaborated throughout their lives, and while they were playing with the greatest names in Rock and Roll, Jazz, R&B and Fund. Funk band leader Lester Abrams is also from North Omaha. Omaha-born Wynonie Harris, one of the founders of rock and roll, got his start at the North Omaha clubs and for a time lived in the now-demolished Logan Fontenelle Housing Project. Another notable local musician was Lomie Washburn. Born in North Omaha, she went on to write songs and sing backup with such legends as Chaka Khan, Rufus, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. She and many of the musicians from North Omaha have been inducted in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame.
North Omaha is home to several important annual events that help define and celebrate the community, its history, and its future. Native Omaha Days is a biennial North Omaha cultural tradition, reuniting members of the city's African-American community. The Days are commemorated with a variety of events, including the Evergreen Reunion, named after a town in Alabama from where many family's ancestors migrated. Other annual activities include the Juneteenth Parade, to mark Emancipation; the Fort Omaha Intertribal Powwow; the Omaha Blues, Jazz & Gospel Festival, Florence Days, and the Omaha North High School Homecoming, which includes a parade for the community. The Stone Soul Picnic is also an important annual event in the community.
With its long history of migration from other countries, North Omaha has a rich religious tapestry that embodies faith in Nebraska today. The diversity includes its Mormon roots in Florence to the historic locations of Jewish synagogues in the Near North Side, as well as the modern home of the Nebraska Zen Center. Several African American congregations populate the area, including the historic St. John's African Methodist Episcopal Church and Salem Baptist Church. The Episcopal Church of the Resurrection on 30th Street by Miller Park is Nebraska's only fully integrated Episcopal parish. The Holy Family Catholic Church is the oldest existing Catholic church in Omaha; and the St. Cecilia Cathedral, designed by Thomas Rogers Kimball, took more than fifty years to build. Evidence of the community's Jewish history can been seen at the Pleasant Hill Cemetery or the Golden Hill Cemetery, while Christian burials have long been held at Forest Lawn Memorial Park and the historic poor cemetery called Potter's Field.
Education institutions in North Omaha include Creighton University, Metropolitan Community College (Omaha) located at Fort Omaha and the Charles B. Washington Branch of the Omaha Public Library, located at 2868 Ames Avenue. The area is served by Omaha Public Schools, including the local feeder school, Omaha North High Magnet School. Tech High School, once the largest technical education high school in the Western United States, was closed in 1977. Omaha University was founded along North 24th Street in 1909, and their football team once played on the field at Saratoga School. The Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary was once located in the heart of the Kountze Place neighborhood, closing in 1947.
North Omaha is represented on the Omaha City Council by Frank Brown, District 2, and Jim Suttle, who is the city councilmember from District 1. Lowen Kruse is a state senator for Nebraska's 13th Legislative District, representing far North Omaha. Brenda Council is the state senator for Nebraska's 11th Legislative District representing near North Omaha. Ernie Chambers was the longest-serving state senator to ever serve in the Nebraska legislature. He served North Omaha for more than 30 years.
Lee Terry, a Republican, represents all of Omaha, including North Omaha, as part of Nebraska's 2nd congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Deb Fischer, a Republican, is the incumbent junior Senator from Nebraska, including North Omaha. Mike Johanns, a Republican, is the senior United States Senator from Nebraska, including North Omaha. The current Governor of Nebraska is Dave Heineman, a Republican.
North Omaha has several main arterials. The major routes running north and south are Abbott Drive, North 16th Street (also called Sherman Avenue), North 24th Street (locally called "The Deuce"), North 30th Street, North 42nd Street, North 52nd Street, North 60th Street and North 72nd Street. Fontenelle Boulevard, Northwest Radial Highway, Military Road, Happy Hollow Boulevard, Country Club Avenue, John A. Creighton Boulevard and Saddle Creek Road each run north, south, east and west. Other important streets in the area include Burt and then Cuming Streets, which are the same street, and eventually earn the designation as Nebraska Highway 64 from North 27th Street west. Hamilton Street, Bedford Avenue, Sprague Street, Ames Avenue, Sorenson Parkway, Fort Street, Martin Avenue, Forest Lawn Avenue and McKinley Street are all important, as well. Lake Street eventually becomes Maple Street, which also spurs off as Military Avenue, all in North Omaha.
Several streets in the area are named after locally, regionally, and nationally important individuals. One of the main thoroughfares is North 24th Street, which from Cuming Street on the south to Reed Street on the north, is commonly thought to represent North Omaha's greatest historical legacy and hope for the future. North 24th was addressed as Omaha's "Street of Dreams" because of the prosperity and hope it embodied for its early African American, Eastern European and Jewish residents.
Several North Omaha traffic ways are named after military interests. They include Military Road, which is a historic road first laid out in 1854 by the US Army. It starts in North Omaha just off Hamilton at North 45th Street, where it is signed as Military Avenue. General John J. Pershing Drive was named after the successful World War I U.S. Army leader, and flows from East Omaha north by Florence, by the historic site of Fort Lisa and towards Blair. Similarly, Sherman Avenue, also known as North 16th Street, was named after William Tecumseh Sherman, the commander general of the U.S. Army in charge of the Indian Wars. Fort Street between North 30th and North 24th is named for Fort Omaha.
Sorenson Parkway, a modern contribution to the historic park boulevard system, was named after an Omaha mayor. It was built along an abandoned railroad bed and runs from North 72nd Street to North 30th Street, which is the historic Main Street of Florence. Sorenson is an example of a street in North Omaha which has been renamed; prior to 1996 Sorensen Parkway west of Northampton Boulevard was called Redick Avenue until 72nd Street. That year the city changed the name, and currently Sorensen Parkway travels beyond 72nd Street, continuing to the intersection of Blair High Road and North 90th Street, which is the start of Nebraska Highway 133. John A. Creighton Boulevard was named after the brother of Edward Creighton.
U.S. Highway 75 is a historic highway flowing along North 30th Street to become the North Expressway. This stretch of the highway was the source of much contention in when it was constructed in the 1970s and 80s. As a Nebraska state agency reports, "Construction of the North Omaha Freeway, coupled with social unrest in the 1970s, greatly impacted the North Omaha area. One neighborhood experienced a 30 percent housing loss and major increase in crime." Interstate 680 is the north bypass freeway that is a boundary for North Omaha. The Mormon Bridge is located on this stretch.
Other important streets in the area include Lake Street, Ames Avenue, Cuming Street, State Street, Abbott Drive and North 20th Avenue.
The historic founding, development and current identification of North Omaha is bound to its geography. Located next to the Missouri River and Carter Lake, North Omaha includes several streams, small lakes, cliffs, and artesian springs. One historic report identifies a sulphur spring at the "foot of Spencer Street", with another at the "foot of Grand Avenue". The foot is presumed to be where 16th Street meets Commercial Avenue.
In addition to its many historic neighborhoods, North Omaha has a number of substantial neighborhoods. In successive generations the area has been home to Irish, German, Jewish, Lithuanian and other European immigrants, as well as African American migrants from across the Eastern United States, whose community in North Omaha has lasted more than 100 years.
Statistics gathered from the 2000 United States Census for the North Omaha area show that by percentages, North Omaha has a population of 43,621 and is 59% African-American, 29% White, 5% Hispanic and 7% other.
In 2003, the African American population in Omaha was estimated at 52,273 or 13.1 percent of the city’s total estimated population of 397,713. That makes African Americans the largest minority group in Omaha, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Omaha Star office at NE corner of 24th & Grant Streets
Webster Telephone Exchange Building, once home of the Great Plains Black Museum
General Crook House at Fort Omaha
Now-closed Mister C's, a local landmark restaurant
Historical marker for Omaha's pioneer Prospect Hill Cemetery
Historical marker for Fort Omaha
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