Omaha?!? Where the heck is Omaha?
By 1967, Bob Boozer had played for NBA teams in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. His teammates shared something more than long legs: They couldn’t find his hometown on a map.
“They laughed at Bob because he loved Omaha so much,” wife Ella said. “They didn’t even know black people lived in Omaha, I swear.”
Ella could relate. The sassy Cincinnati native married her gentle giant in August 1966, just before he joined the expansion Chicago Bulls. Bob scored 18 points per game that winter, including 40 on Christmas night at the old Madison Square Garden. She, too, experienced the glamour of America’s biggest cities. The shopping! The food! But after the playoffs, Boozer asked his bride to think about their life after basketball. To put down roots in … you guessed it.
Did Ella want to move to Omaha? “Noooooo.”
But Boozer had a unique stature there. As racial conflict ripped his city apart, the 6-foot-8 power forward bridged two worlds. He made friends in the black barbershops of North 24th Street and in the white boardrooms downtown. He taught basketball clinics at Bryant Center and trained for management at Northwestern Bell Telephone Co.
He stewed over discrimination as much as anyone, but he didn’t threaten violence. Politicians cozied up to him.
Boozer had another reason to come home. His 61-year-old mother was dying of cancer in the house where he grew up.
Viola Boozer lived at 25th and Erskine when Bob’s father died in 1959. She lived there in ’66 when fires burned and National Guardsmen marched within a block of her front door. “She wanted us to hurry up and move out of the ghetto,” Ella said.
But Bob and Ella stayed with her in the spring of 1967. His favorite part of the old house was upstairs, which he remodeled as a mini-apartment. His new wife preferred the front porch, where they sat on spring nights and listened to Bob Gibson pitch on the radio. Sunday mornings they heard the organ and clapping across the street at Greater Bethlehem Temple.
In April, Bob celebrated his 30th birthday. When Mom died in May, it was time to move from 25th and Erskine.
He liked two houses, but real estate agents said no — those homes were “restricted by the owners.” So the Boozers decided to build. They found a big lot in Colonial Acres, one of the tallest points in the city. Just up the hill from Forest Lawn Cemetery, where Bob buried his mother.
Eleven days after the funeral and 48 hours after Omaha’s most bitter civil rights battle culminated in the State Capitol, they prepared to sign a contract.
That’s when Boozer got a reminder that even a man his size can’t straddle two worlds.
* * *
Three turbulent years earlier, a 26-year-old Creighton law student walked into the City Council chamber and injected levity into the opening rounds of a blood-boiling debate on open housing.
Ernie Chambers hadn’t yet adopted his trademark cut-off sweatshirt, so he pinned the tag to his lapel: “Would you let your daughter marry a real estate man?”
Laughs were hard to find.
North Omaha busted at the concrete seams. In the early 1960s, an average of five black faces — mostly Southern and poor — arrived in the neighborhood every day.
The number of school-age black kids had doubled in 10 years. From 1960 to 1965, the overall black population jumped from 25,000 to 35,000. Almost all were confined to two square miles north of downtown, where most homes were built between 1880 and 1910. In 57 percent of houses, the number of residents exceeded the number of rooms.
Black homeowners couldn’t get loans or insurance to fix roofs. Black renters paid exorbitant prices for dilapidated homes.
“The single most profitable investment in Omaha today is the leasing of substandard housing,” Mayor A.V. Sorensen said.
Slumlords wouldn’t make basic repairs. Light bulbs hung from frayed cords. Wires poked out of walls. Broken pipes reeked of sewage. Windows and doors were missing.
In the early ’60s, house fires killed 28 people in North Omaha. Federal aid to dependent children doubled. The black unemployment rate jumped into double digits. Police arrested one in five black kids before his 17th birthday, compared with one in 25 whites.
Politicians pushed for stricter enforcement of minimum housing standards and urban renewal, giving the government power to seize blighted land, buy it, clear it and resell it to private developers. Blacks resisted, worrying that such a plan would uproot them with no place to go.
The heart of the matter wasn’t slum clearance, blacks said, it was housing segregation. According to one study, Omaha’s racial divide equaled Birmingham, Alabama.
Enter the real estate agents, who frequently refused to show houses in white neighborhoods to black buyers. Or they abandoned deals fearing it might ruin their good names.
In 1963, real estate icon and former city councilman N.P. Dodge issued an extraordinary defense of his industry. Housing above all else, he wrote, exposes whites’ fear of social integration.
“I don’t believe the Negro fully comprehends the depth of this feeling nor the distinction between this barrier and others, such as job opportunity and education.
“The white man will trade and work with the Negro. He will purchase from a Negro clerk, ride in the same bus, eat in the same restaurant, occupy the same hotel. ...
“This same average white family will not purchase a house next to a Negro’s home, and if a Negro family buys next to him, he will move.
“No real estate agent can alone change the pattern. Wherever it has been tried, he risks bankruptcy because the 90 percent white majority on whom he depends for his livelihood will cease to trade with him. Any business which loses 90 percent of its customers fails. ...
“When the white neighborhood will accept a Negro as a neighbor, as it is now doing on an increasingly broader scale in restaurants, stores, hotels and offices, this last barrier to first-class citizenship will disappear.”
In April 1964, as Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, prompting a national backlash, Omaha blacks targeted the “last barrier.” They wanted a local ordinance making it illegal for a homeowner or his agent to refuse to sell, rent or lease on the basis of race. Councilmen, fearing their own white backlash, preferred to let the voters decide. They delayed action over and over, including on April 28, 1964.
“For less cause than you are giving us here today, a revolution was waged,” Chambers said. “You are telling me that America is incapable of granting full rights to every citizen. You think about that.”
* * *
James Freeman came to Omaha in 1966 as one of the Omaha Public Schools’ first black high school teachers. Like Ella Boozer, he didn’t know what to expect.
The 23-year-old graduate of the Tuskegee Institute rode from the airport down 30th Street. When they turned onto Paxton Boulevard, Freeman asked his driver why there were so many “For Sale” signs. The answer: A black family had managed to buy a house near there. Now other white owners raced to leave, too.
“That was my first memory of Omaha,” Freeman recalled.
Once white flight started, agents exploited the fear factor to sell more houses. Many whites would have stayed if there were just a few black families on their street. But inevitably, one seller said, whites would become the minority.
“They have a right to a home just like anyone else,” a white homeowner said. “But I hope the neighbors don’t all sell to Negroes.”
Across the city, blacks encountered the same problems when they tried to move out of the Near North Side. One bought a house in all-white Rockbrook — 3624 S. 94th St. When he hired a painter to change the color, his neighbor across the street ordered the man to leave.
The raised ranch was two different colors “until we could find a workman with enough backbone to finish the job,” the owner later wrote.
His name? Bob Gibson.
If Bob Gibson had played for the Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers, he might have left Omaha for good.
“Why do you move out of the ghetto?” Gibson said in his autobiography. “Because it’s the ghetto. I want the better things in life just like everybody else.”
There was another motivation, though.
In 1965, Bob Rose — mentor to Marlin Briscoe and the Sayers brothers — moved his family to 5617 N. 63rd St., near Benson Golf Course. He wanted a nicer home. He also felt a responsibility to lead. To break out of the box so others could follow.
Rose took his family on long weekend drives through the country. They packed the car and headed to Nebraska City to pick apples.
Monday mornings Rose commuted back to the black neighborhood, where he taught at Horace Mann. He mentored Dick Davis and Johnny Rodgers. When they fell short, he extended his term of endearment, “sad sack.” When they really messed up, he pulled out the strap.
His own son had it harder. Bob Rose Jr. attended Nathan Hale, a white school just down the street from their new home. He learned patience and tolerance. He got a better education. But socially, he was always on alert. He frequently heard the N-word.
While classmates chased girls and passed notes, Bob Jr. kept his head down. He never asked to be a pioneer.
* * *
Ed Danner heard all the horror stories. He yearned to make a difference.
But as he walked into the State Capitol on Jan. 3, 1967 — the only black face in the 77th session of the Nebraska Legislature — Danner didn’t seem equipped to represent the civil rights movement anymore.
He wasn’t educated or brash like Ernie Chambers. He wasn’t eloquent or radical like Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. He was an old man in a young man’s game.
Born in 1900 in Guthrie, Oklahoma — the same county Marlin Briscoe’s ancestors came from — Danner was 10 when his father died. He didn’t graduate from high school.
Danner migrated to Omaha and butchered cattle at Swift before rising to vice president of the local packinghouse union. He raised nine kids on Pinkney Street and didn’t miss Sundays at Zion Baptist, where he was a deacon.
In 1963, Danner entered the Legislature and made headlines when a Lincoln cafe refused to serve him. He sponsored his first open housing bill, gutting his own proposal when amendments rendered it worthless. In 1965, he tried open housing again, but it failed in committee.
Danner’s activist constituents thought he was out of touch — they hated when he labeled them “Negro” instead of “black.” They thought he yielded too much to the white establishment. They called him a “Tom.”
But in 1967, the old butcher itched for a fight. He proposed open housing one more time. The governor supported Legislative Bill 358. So did business leaders and newspaper editorial boards.
A full-page ad on page 9 of The World-Herald featured the names and addresses of 1,865 Omahans.
The motto of the great State of Nebraska proclaims as a goal of our state “Equality before the law.” Unfortunately, for many Nebraskans, equality is severely restricted — particularly when they look for a place to live.
Racial discrimination in housing has ... been well documented as a major underlying cause of many social ills. It creates ghettos, which typically receive inferior education, health care, street improvements, law enforcement, and other public services. Discrimination divides the community, and destroys many of the individuals affected. ...
In this Centennial Year of the State of Nebraska, we hereby declare as our goal that these injustices, which have made a mockery of our state motto, shall be relegated to Nebraska’s first century — that Nebraska celebrate its Centennial by enacting fair housing legislation with enforcement procedures to proclaim and assure “Equality before the law” to be a reality for all citizens.
The barrier still loomed large. Riots and demonstrations had increased white opposition to open housing across America. A year earlier, 51 percent of Americans opposed open housing. In 1967, it rose to 63 percent.
Moreover, Danner’s rivals in the Legislature came primarily from rural Nebraska. Their only images of North Omaha were stereotypes.
In May 1967, Danner had lunch with Scottsbluff maverick Terry Carpenter, a state senator also born in 1900. “Terrible Terry,” as his constituents called him, earned a congressional seat during the Depression before failing nine times in bids for governor and the U.S. Senate. He started Nebraska’s only gasoline refinery, became a millionaire and founded the village of Terrytown. He followed nobody.
If you can show me this ghetto exists, Carpenter told Danner, I might vote for open housing.
On May 23, the same day Bob Boozer’s mother died, Danner stood before his legislative colleagues and wept, pleading with senators to delay judgment on his bill and join him on a tour of North Omaha.
Let me show you.
One week later, 40 senators took a timeout from lawmaking, boarded an air-conditioned bus and embarked on a field trip. Imagine rolling up North 24th Street for the first time — like the Negro League buses in the 1940s — and seeing the best of North Omaha: Skeet’s BBQ and Bryant Center, Goodwin’s Barbershop and Kountze Park.
They saw the worst, too. Peeling paint and sagging roofs, junked-out cars in open lots and houses marked with yellow signs — “Condemned.” Black faces stared at them curiously from front yards. For 90 minutes, senators looked out their bus windows but never stopped and got out.
Danner hoped the tour “opened some eyes.” But his opponents left with a different observation.
“I saw a lot of very poor housing,” said Sen. Lester Harsh of Bartley. “But I can take you to any small town and some farms and show you housing just as poor.”
Carpenter’s assessment was more damning: “The area wasn’t as dilapidated as I was led to believe it is.”
Danner felt a pang of regret: Maybe he was better off leaving North Omaha to their imaginations.
* * *
”R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me ...”
On the morning of June 5, 1967, America’s No. 1 song pumped through cars and cafes on 24th Street. At the Fair Deal, aka “Black City Hall,” community leaders talked politics over eggs, grits and (if the conversation was good) a slice of sweet potato pie.
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Take care, TCB ...”
Halfway around the world, the Middle East erupted in a six-day war, a conflict that doubled Israel’s territory and drew the battle lines for the next half-century. Overnight torrential rain left eastern Nebraska under water. But Aretha Franklin kept singing.
“Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me ...”
Down in Lincoln, North Omaha’s elected voice walked into the Capitol for the defining debate of his career. And when Sen. Carpenter motioned to dismiss LB 358, Ed Danner spoke up.
He cited support from Nelson Rockefeller and Robert McNamara. He pointed to open housing laws in 23 states, including Colorado, where real estate agents fought legislation until realizing it actually benefited their business.
Danner referenced studies showing that desegregated housing lessened prejudice because it improved black/white communication. He picked apart the notion that government can’t regulate private property. What about eminent domain, zoning and construction codes?
Without an open housing law, Danner said, “those advocating Black Power retain one of their most powerful weapons.”
Then Danner ceded the floor to Sen. William Swanson, a Lincoln real estate agent.
“I’m certain that no thinking member of this Legislature can deny that a problem exists. Most of us last week saw it firsthand — living conditions in parts of Omaha which are deplorable. ... Discrimination and inequality are and must be a burden on our social conscience. ...
“But let’s reduce LB 358 to a matter of economics for a moment. Let’s suppose that a retired couple invested their life savings in a 10- or 12-unit apartment house. ... If this couple advertises an apartment for rent, they cannot refuse to rent to anyone on certain designated grounds. Suppose for a moment that these owners do rent to a member of a minority group. What happens? Too often the other tenants move out and vacancies are almost impossible to fill. In the rent business, vacancies kill you off and the apartment house becomes a white elephant. ...
“Now what’s wrong with this situation? I’ll tell you what’s wrong. This bill says it’s unlawful for the owner to discriminate even though it may lead to his financial ruin. The real culprits are the other tenants who move out.”
Danner had tried to persuade through empirical evidence. Now the old butcher, frequently mocked by black youths because he wasn’t articulate or educated, delivered an argument that Ernie Chambers would have endorsed.
“I’d like to remind you again that the bullets on the battlefield do not discriminate. ... The burden that the soldier on the battlefield bears — the Negro soldier bears — is just as heavy as the pack that the white soldier bears, but the Negro soldier at home bears a far heavier burden because he is denied the right of rental of property. He’s all right to give his life, fight for the government, defend the nation, but you can’t live in certain places. ...
“I have a son that spent 15 years of his life in the Air Force. ... His mother received a call the other day that he is going to have to go to Vietnam. ... You’re saying because of the pigment of his skin being dark, he doesn’t have a right to live in rental property?”
There must have been part of Danner that believed he’d won right there. That undecided senators would rally behind him like in a Hollywood movie. Instead, Sen. Herbert Nore of Genoa took the floor and began reading a letter he’d received.
“The people who live in these slum areas have no one to blame but themselves. If they would get off the corner bar stool and use the money that they spend on drinks for some paint and paper and such, their homes would be livable. Instead of driving big expensive automobiles they would get a cheaper one and put food on the table and clothing on their backs. ... They have made their own ghettos and are now wanting for the government to furnish them with new homes, food, and clothing so they can have more money for luxuries.”
Sen. Clifton Batchelder threw the next verbal punch. An Omaha resident, Batchelder once sat on the Near North YMCA board. Now he led the charge against open housing, citing British statesman William Pitt’s 18th century speech before the House of Lords:
“Although the peasant’s house is made of thatch and the wind and the snow may enter, the king and all his legions may not.”
The “repulsive” open housing proposal, Batchelder said, weakened “the most greatly cherished right that Americans have.”
“I would think that the members of the minority groups would realize that this is not good salesmanship to push this. They need the friendship. They need the cooperation. They need the respect of all of these people and yet they are so impatient. ...
“The conditions that they describe ... have been exaggerated. The amount that will be accomplished by the passage of this law has been exaggerated. Their own progress has been minimized. Also, they have exaggerated the good for their cause that will come from the passage of this law.”
Sen. Carpenter, the old titan of the Legislature, waited to throw the knockout blow. He didn’t bother with housing.
“When I heard men like Carmichael on television ... advocate the insurrection and the destruction of this form of government and when I see them surrounded by the Black Panthers and the other people such as Cassius Clay ... I don’t care how bad the situation is. White or black. No man has a right to advocate the destruction of this government. We have Cassius Clay, a man of great faith. He’s willing to tear the head off of every one of his opponents, but in order to shirk his responsibility as a good citizen he says he’s a minister. If he’s a minister, I’m a monkey’s uncle.”
Danner didn’t let the remark slide.
“If all the white people exemplify bigotry as this senator does, then I can understand why Mr. Carmichael thinks as he does,” Danner said. “It’s this kind of thing that has been going on for 100 years. This same thing we find here today.”
But Danner’s sense of history and injustice reached deeper than 1865.
During debate, he spoke of his Vietnam-bound son who couldn’t rent an apartment. Danner didn’t reference a character just as relevant to the discussion — his father.
When Sen. Batchelder declared that “the hellish part of this whole situation” is the erosion of a right that “has come to us so torturously over so many years down through so many ages,” he certainly wasn’t thinking of a man like Mack Danner.
Born in Mississippi in 1859, two years before the South fought a war to preserve slavery, Ed’s father didn’t have a right to property.
He was property.
The following morning, June 6, 1967, senators cast their final votes — 28-21 — to kill open housing again. Danner walked out of the chamber and informed the sergeant-at-arms he wouldn’t be there for the next order of business: the Legislature’s official portrait for 1967. Centennial edition.
The photograph shows 48 white senators and one empty desk.
* * *
Two days later, Bob Boozer got a phone call from his housing developer: The deal was off.
Emboldened by the Legislature’s vote, 30 percent of homeowners in Colonial Acres “strongly objected” to a black man moving to their hill. They threatened to “wreck” the development if Boozer bought a lot.
“How do they have the right to sit on their fat mortgages and dictate whether I can move into this neighborhood?” said Boozer, whose annual NBA salary exceeded the cost of new construction. “If I could become white overnight, any community in Omaha would welcome me with open arms.”
Boozer had scheduled two weeks of basketball clinics that summer at Bryant Center. When kids see a public figure treated unfairly, he said, “it sabotages all I’m trying to do and drives them into the arms of Stokely Carmichaels.”
Passions burned hot in the summer of 1967. In San Francisco, hippies descended on Haight-Ashbury for the Summer of Love. In Houston, a jury convicted Muhammad Ali for refusing induction in the armed forces. In urban ghettoes across the country, race riots flared in the streets. Omaha remained relatively cool.
Downtown cranes constructed the city’s first skyscraper, the Woodmen Tower. Nebraska changed its license plate from “Beef State” to “Cornhusker State.”
In September, a healthy Marlin Briscoe returned to All-American form at Omaha University, escaping the pocket, scrambling around defenses, firing lasers downfield.
“Every time he’d make a throw,” teammate Lew Garrison said, “you’d say, how did he do that?”
“What sets him off from all the other players I’ve coached is his basic instinct of sensing people around him,” his coach, Al Caniglia, said. “At times he almost seemed to have radar.”
Briscoe’s tricks earned him a nickname: The Magician.
In October, Gibson returned from a broken leg suffered in midseason and won three more World Series games, including Game 7 at Fenway Park. In 27 innings against the Red Sox, Gibson recorded 26 strikeouts and yielded just three runs.
Six days before Christmas 1967, the sports heroes of North Omaha gathered at the Wesley Community House for the Super-Star Banquet. Bob Devaney attended. His assistant Monte Kiffin spoke.
Boozer flew in from Chicago, where Wilt Chamberlain had just outscored him in one game 68-27. Boozer and Gibson described how Josh Gibson groomed them to be great with frequent kicks in the butt. Roger Sayers told stories of Bob Rose motivating Gale when he was just an 85-pound eighth-grader.
The night felt like a reunion. It might have been the calm before the storm. A week later, North Omaha flipped the calendar to the year that — for better or worse — defined their generation and the neighborhood.
Next up: Losing their Rhythm
The contentious 1968 presidential campaign comes to Omaha as segregationist candidate George Wallace delivers a speech at the Civic Auditorium that would set off some of the most turbulent nights in North Omaha's history — embroiling some of the neighborhood's best athletes.