CHAPTER ONE

rioters prepared to march toward 24th and Lake, a rumor stopped them: Federal troops are coming!

The mob melted into the night. The next day, 800 troops from Fort Omaha fortified 24th and Lake Streets with machine guns. Police arrested hundreds of rioters, but not one was convicted of murder or sentenced to lengthy jail time.

"Omaha was disgraced and humiliated …" wrote World-Herald editor Harvey Newbranch in a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial. "Should the day ever come when jungle rule becomes dominant … the God who rules us would turn His face in sorrow."

The consequences of the courthouse riot rippled across Omaha for years, decades, generations. Will Brown was a powerless packinghouse worker. He was nobody. But on the Near North Side, he became a symbol of everybody. This is what can happen.

Reminders kept coming. In early 1925, the KKK was at the peak of its power when hooded Klansmen visited the Omaha home of a Baptist minister and black nationalist.

Earl Little was out of town, but his pregnant wife stepped outside and received a threat. Klansmen busted her windows with the butts of their rifles.

One year later, the Littles left Omaha in fear with their four children, the youngest of whom was just learning to talk. His parents named him Malcolm.

The world would know him as Malcolm X.

From the Great Migration and the Great War, a ghastly murder and nights of terror, Omaha's half-century of de facto segregation was born.

The city couldn't shut out blacks. It could, however, lock the foyer. Exclude blacks from moving west and north like the European immigrants did. Deny home mortgages and insurance policies outside the Near North Side. Prohibit admission to restaurants and theaters and swimming pools and skating rinks and, most importantly, white schools.

Blacks weren't the only residents of the Near North Side. In fact, the area was majority white until the 1950s — poor and working class. But those whites were free to patronize Florence or Dundee. Free to move elsewhere. Free to aspire. Blacks were largely confined to the box.

Cuming Street marked the south border, 30th Street the west. The northern line blurred over time, eventually reaching Ames Avenue. And the eastern edge? Sixteenth Street.

Two square miles — with one iconic intersection.

* * *

Come a little closer to the surface. June 1938.

The night started like a church service. Crowds packed the bars at 24th and Lake Streets, turning their ears to radios. Shhhh …

At Yankee Stadium in New York, a black icon stepped into the ring to face his nemesis. Joe Louis had lost once to German Max Schmeling, a defeat that crushed black communities across America and emboldened Nazi ruler Adolf Hitler.

But the boxers met again in '38 and Louis got revenge. Three knockdowns in the first two minutes.

When the referee stopped the fight, North Omaha bars emptied. Houses emptied. Twenty-fourth and Lake resembled Times Square, with 2,500 blacks celebrating in the street.

They crashed bottles, climbed poles, detached trolleys from the tracks, started bonfires. When police arrived via motorcycles, they danced a ring around the law.

For 2½ hours, the logjam didn't budge.

The boldest of them hurled crates and stones — even a washtub — from rooftops. One car inched through the crowd with a large box shaped like a coffin and decorated with red paper, a swastika and a message.

"Here lies Max." That's the kind of fervor North Omaha felt for a black athlete it didn't even know. Imagine their reaction if they'd realized a future baseball MVP was sleeping five blocks away.

Bob Gibson was 2 years old that summer. His parents, Pack and Victoria, met in a Louisiana church. In the 1920s, they moved to Lincoln and ultimately Omaha. Pack worked on FDR's New Deal construction crews. He built a pulpit at Morningstar Baptist Church, where he was a trustee.

But in June 1935, Pack died from a form of tuberculosis, leaving his wife with six kids and another in the womb. Pack Robert Gibson Jr. arrived on Nov. 9, full of spunk but devoid of security.

Victoria worked at a laundromat and cleaned houses but couldn't satisfy seven mouths. When holes opened in Robert's shoes, he slipped cardboard in the bottom so his feet wouldn't get wet.

On Maple Street, in a two-bedroom rental, the family covered holes in the floor with tin cans. One night a rat wiggled through, climbed up an army cot and bit Robert's ear. He never forgot.

He suffered from rickets disease, but his biggest problem was breathing. At 3, Robert fell ill with asthma or perhaps pneumonia. He was wrapped in a quilt, carried to the hospital and told that if he got back on his feet he'd receive a gift.

A new baseball glove. Who made such a promise? His oldest brother, his father figure, a 17-year-old named Leroy. North Omaha knew him as Josh.

He shined on Omaha Tech's track and field team and in city baseball leagues, but after his dad died Josh considered dropping out and working full time — most blacks didn't make it through high school anyway. His mom encouraged him to stay. Josh graduated from Tech in 1939 and wanted to attend college.

Instead, at 19, he went to work at the packinghouse, a path that could've been a career until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

In 1943, the oldest Gibson son went off to war. Josh took charge of Army softball and basketball teams and learned that America wasn't the only place that scorned black men — people in India thought that he had a tail.

Back home, his family was escaping the rats.

"A Cinderella transformation of a shabby Omaha residential district."

That's how The World-Herald described one of America's first public housing projects.

Urban housing had been a national disaster since the Industrial Revolution. In Eastern cities, shanties and slums followed the factory boom, producing cesspools of crime and disease.

The New Deal provided public money for 50 housing projects. Omaha surprised big city competitors by landing two.

The second, Southside Terrace, stretched atop mostly empty hills overlooking the South Omaha stockyards. The first, Logan Fontenelle, opened in December 1937 and replaced the rat traps north of downtown.

Named after a local Indian chief, Logan Fontenelle started with 29 one and two-story brick buildings, containing 284 family apartments. It featured bright kitchens with table-top gas stoves and electric refrigerators. Even furnaces. A new city park and two recreation centers divided the new subsidized neighborhood.

The Public Works Administration, The World-Herald reported, was the "fairy godmother" whose $2 million federal grant was the "magic wand." Applications were so competitive that another 272 units were built. Initially, most residents were white.

In '43, Bob Gibson's family moved to the black section of Logan Fontenelle between 22nd and 24th Streets.

Sure, there were administrative headaches. Cracking plaster. Noisy neighbors. Fights between blacks and whites. One resident complained that he couldn't find

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