THE NEGROES OF NEBRASKA

Social Life


     (28) The Negroes of Nebraska have for many years had a social life which, perhaps as much as in any other phase of their activities, is independent from the influence of other racial groups. A number of their social organizations nevertheless function with the direct aid and active assistance of white co-workers.

     During the first years of their residence in Nebraska Negroes were too few in number to have more than the barest semblance (29) of an organized social life. The necessity of earning a living and of establishing themselves in a new country denied to them both the opportunity and the time to organize fraternal societies, welfare agencies, and the like. For the majority of the group today, hard-pressed economically, recreational advantages and other social privileges are of the meagerest sort.

     In spite of disadvantages and obstacles the Negroes of the State have developed a diversified social life which in its activities approaches and includes in some manner every member of the group. Fifty years ago their entire social life centered in their churches and began and ended on Sunday; now they have clubs, fraternal orders, women's clubs, welfare organizations, youth organizations, and recreational facilities open to all. It is true that, especially in the field of recreation, their needs are far from being satisfied, but at least they have a foundation upon which to build. Their chief handicap is a lack of funds.

     There are today in Omaha alone some twenty-five clubs and societies with a total membership of over two thousand. There are a score of such groups in Lincoln, numbering about three hundred members. Throughout the State about twenty per cent of the Negro population belongs to some social organization, local or national. While the majority of these groups are of a purely fraternal nature, others fill a number of basic needs in Negro community life, with programs of education, culture, recreation, vocational training, and welfare aid actively promoted.

      First of the Negro clubs organized only as a medium for social intercourse was the Pleasant Hour Club, which was formed about fifty years ago. Its membership was limited to those persons considered as belonging to Omaha's "upper class" Negro society. Although the club ceased to exist a number of years ago, its place is filled by the present Aloha Club. Other similar organizations are the Entre Nous Club, the Beau Brummels Club, the Dames Club, the Jolly Twenty Club, the Trojan Club, the Quack Club, and, in Lincoln, the Smart Set Club.

     The outstanding event in the social life of the Negroes of Omaha is the annual Coronation Ball held in Dreamland Hall. The presentation service, which Introduces the new King and Queen Borealis, and a Coronation Pageant precede the ball. The entire colorful ceremony is sponsored by the Church of St. Phillip the Deacon.

     The more serious aspect of Negro social life, that of their relationship and interdependence with the community as a whole, presents an entirely different picture. This is especially true among the rank and file of the Negro laboring class, getting along on an insufficient income, dwelling in congested slums, both in Omaha and Lincoln. The public-spirited, progressive men of both the white and the Negro groups have long understood that the problems raised by this situation are a matter for mutual concern. Consequently, in 1914 a Nebraska branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded at New York City in 1908, was organized at Omaha, with Rev. John Albert Williams, Negro clergyman, as its first president.

     Although the membership of the N. A. A. C. P., comprising both Negroes and whites, has fallen below its former level of one thousand, the organization, under the leadership of Dr. Wesley Jones, is still actively pursuing its purpose. Its chief objective is to help secure for Negroes equal rights with all races, as provided by the national Constitution, when such rights have been infringed upon. In the interest of full citizenship rights for Negroes the Association has waged a campaign against illegal convictions, lynchings, civil and political discrimination, and venal politicians. In recent (30) years it has extended its efforts toward bettering the economic status of Negroes, in cooperation with other agencies working toward the same end.

     In 1928 a local branch of the National Urban League was organized at Omaha, as an outgrowth of the Colored Commercial Club. The first executive secretary was J. Harvey Kerns. Five years later, in 1933, another local branch was organized at Lincoln. The executive board of each branch of the Urban League includes both Negroes and whites. The active management of the organizations is in the hands of their executive secretaries, chosen from members of the Negro race because of their qualifications as leaders and executives. The present executive secretary of the Omaha Urban League is Raymond R. Brown, formerly at Akron, Ohio. At Lincoln the post is held by Millard F. Woods.

     The constitution of the Omaha Urban League states that the primary function of the League is to foster the improvement of the industrial, housing, economic, health, social, and spiritual conditions of Negroes by: (1) Encouraging better understanding and fellowship between the races. (2) Making any necessary studies and surveys of conditions. (3) Coordination and cooperation among existing agencies and organizations by developing such other agencies and organizations as may be found necessary. (4) Promoting, encouraging, assisting, and engaging in any and all kinds of work toward the accomplishment of the purposes of the League.

     The Omaha Urban League further defines its activities by classifying them into four groups, as follows: (1) To coordinate the efforts of persons and organizations working for the welfare of the colored people of Omaha. (2) To secure larger opportunities for colored people through public and private social agencies. (3 ) To investigate the social and industrial conditions of Negroes in Omaha as a basis for practical work. (4) To improve the social and industrial conditions of Negroes, with emphasis on health, housing, education, recreation, employment, and delinquency.

     The program of the Lincoln Urban League embodies eight points, as follows: (1) To provide a place for supervised recreation and social activities. (2) To sponsor neighborhood clubs and activities in those districts where needed. (3) To create opportunities for employment of colored people. (4) To serve as a clearing house on all welfare matters of Lincoln Negroes. (5) To encourage better health conditions among Lincoln Negroes through cooperation with the established health agencies. (6) To sponsor regular forums and discussions concerning Negro and interracial problems and relations. (7) To promote better interracial relations by improving and widening the cultural life of the Negro. (8) To work in close cooperation with all established social agencies.

     The Urban Leagues of Omaha and Lincoln, in common with practically all Negro organizations in Nebraska, are working under severe handicaps. They do not have the necessary facilities nor quarters spacious enough to accommodate all those who could be benefited by their program. Limited funds further curtail their activities, yet even these obstacles have not prevented the organizations from carrying out a program of undeniable social value among the Negroes of Nebraska.

     The State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs includes five local chapters in Omaha and one in Lincoln. These chapters are all branches of the National Federation, and are also affiliated with the white Womens' Federated Clubs of Nebraska. The first chapter among Negro women was organized at Omaha in 1890. The purpose of these clubs is to improve conditions among Negro women. As part of their program they make available to women instructions in healthful living, home making, motherhood, child welfare, and (31) disease prevention. The clubs cooperate with other established agencies for social service and welfare. Each chapter meets monthly, and the State Federation, since 1905, has been meeting annually.

     Ever since his arrival at Omaha in 1891, Rev. John Albert Williams was, until his death in 1934, an outstanding figure in social leadership among the Negroes of Nebraska. As first president of the N. A. A. C. P., and through his newspaper, the Omaha Monitor, he fought tirelessly for the improvement of the social and economic status of Negroes.

     There is not space to mention all those among Nebraska's Negroes who have given of their time, money, and efforts to help their race. Most of these, however, have at one time or another been identified with the Nebraska Federation of Colored Womens' Clubs, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the Urban League. The present executive secretary of the Omaha Urban League, Raymond R. Brown, and of the Lincoln Urban League, Millard F. Woods, the president of the N. A. A. C. P., Dr. Wesley Jones of Omaha, the president of the Nebraska Federation of Colored Womens' Clubs, Mrs. Lillian Wright, and others, many of them mentioned elsewhere in this text, are genuinely and whole-heartedly working for the cause of racial advancement and better interracial relations.

     There are six Negro organizations in Omaha and Lincoln whose program of activities includes direct welfare work insofar as their funds permit. Some of these also offer recreational facilities, educational courses, and vocational training. All of them are handicapped in the usual way. Insufficient funds and cramped quarters limit their activities and curtail their personnels.

     Woodson Center, a branch of the South Omaha Social Settlement Association, was founded in 1926, and was originally known as the Cultural Center. Under the direction of its Head Resident, Mrs. M. L. Rhone, and supported by the Omaha Community Chest, though a small membership fee is paid by those who can afford it, the Center fills a definite need in the lives of the Negroes of South Omaha.

     The work of the Community Center in Omaha was comparable to that of Woodson Center on the South Side. It was organized in 1920, but no longer maintains an individual existence, having consolidated with the Urban League in 1934. A similar Community Center, under the direction of the Urban League, serves the Negroes of Lincoln.

     A Colored Old Folks' Home, organized in Omaha in 1913, cares for the indigent aged. It is managed by a board of directors, and is supported by the Community Chest. The Lincoln branch is known as the Davis Home.

     The Theodore Roosevelt Post of the American Legion, organized by ex-service men among the Negroes of Omaha in 1919, with Dr. Amos B. Madison as its first commander, carries out a relatively extensive program of relief and social welfare. It has succeeded the War Camp Community Service, which was organized in 1918, with Byron K. Armstrong as its first director, and has considerably broadened the field of activities of the former organization. The present commander of the Post is Charles J. Coleman.

     The Centralized Commonwealth Civic Club, commonly called the 4 C club, was organized in 1937. Under the direction of its president, Edward Fletcher, the club sponsors group activities and community events among the Negroes of Omaha. It has a membership of about one hundred and ten people.

     There are three troops of Boy Scouts among the Negroes of Omaha: Troop 23, organized before the World War, Troop 79, and Troop 83, sponsored by Woodson Center. Troop 79, under Scout (32) master Thomas P. Mahammitt, numbers more Eagle Scouts among its members than any other Boy Scout troop in America. The colored Boy Scouts attend an annual outing at Camp Gifford. There is one Boy Scout troop among the Negroes of Lincoln. In both cities a high level of cooperation exists between the colored and the white Boy Scout organizations.

     A branch of the Young Womens' Christian Association, known as the North Side Y. W. C. A., was established for the Negro girls of Omaha in 1919. The organization Is of particular value in that its activities are extended considerably beyond those normally within the Y. W. C. A. sphere. There is no branch organization for the Negro girls of Lincoln, but its place is filled by the Girl Reserves. There is also a Colored Girl Reserves organization in Omaha.

     The first fraternal organization among the Negroes of Nebraska was the Good Templar Lodge, founded at Lincoln in 1874. It is not active at present. The Knights of Pythias, with chapters in both Omaha and Lincoln, was formerly much more active than today. Other lodges, now inactive, include the United Brothers of Friendship, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, the Royal Circle, the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, the Daughters and Sons of Jerusalem, the Daughters of Bethel, and the Court of Calanthe.

     The Masons, with several lodges in both Omaha and Lincoln, have about 750 members among Nebraska Negroes. They own their own Masonic Temple in Omaha and in Lincoln. The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks has lodges in both Omaha and Lincoln, and in both cities, like the Masons, the Order owns the buildings. There are about 400 members in this organization.

     The ladies' auxiliary to the Masons is known as the Order of the Eastern Star; that of the Elks is known as the Daughters of Isis. Both groups have chapters in Omaha and Lincoln.

     There are two Greek letter fraternities among Nebraska Negroes. Both of these limit their membership to college students and former college students of Nebraska Universities. Alpha Phi Alpha, organized at Lincoln in 1927, has chapters in both Lincoln and Omaha. Kappa Alpha Psi was organized in 1929.

     Although the Negro fraternal organizations limit their activities in general to those of a purely social nature, those that can afford it aid somewhat in the welfare activities of other Negro organizations. Death benefits and some relief are available to the members of groups financially able to offer them. Primarily, however, the lodges are benevolent organizations. One, the Elks, awards an annual university scholarship to the winner of an oratorical contest sponsored by it.

     To the Negroes of Nebraska, particularly those in Omaha, the problem of amusement and recreation is one of peculiar importance. Although legally they are admitted to all public and municipal playgrounds, parks, and swimming pools in common with all races, actually they have been discouraged in their attempts to use them. Consequently they have turned to other sources of entertainment. Too often these turn out to be questionable resorts, pool halls, or low types of dance halls. The Urban Leagues aid the Social Settlement Houses to do the best they can, through supervised recreation and planned amusement to counteract these influences, but the limitations previously mentioned handicap them. Two men, Martin Thomas and Clyde W. Malone, directors respectively of recreational activities at the Urban Leagues in Omaha and Lincoln, carry on programs of organized recreation for Negro youth which are invaluable as an aid to character-building.

     For the past nineteen years an annual picnic, sponsored by the Sunday School Alliance of twelve Omaha Negro Churches, both (33) Methodist and Baptist, and held in Elmwood Park the last Thursday in August, is the most important outing of the year. About ten thousand Negroes in and about Omaha usually attend this picnic. Another annual picnic, sponsored by the Urban League, is also held for the older people.

     The Negroes in past years often held local celebrations or picnics on the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, though never on such a scale as were those in other states, Kansas, for example. One of the first well-organized festivals ever held by Negroes in Nebraska was a celebration in Omaha, August 1, 1878, on the anniversary and in honor of the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies.

     It is interesting to note that the first Afro-American fair ever held in the United States took place in Omaha, July 3-4, 1894. Only Negro-owned horses were entered in the races, and all exhibits were restricted to articles made or owned by Negroes.

 

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