1919 September 28

Lynching, Riot in Omaha; Federal Troops Restore Order

 

A major race riot erupted on this day in Omaha, Nebraska. A white mob of about 4,000 people lynched and burned the body of Willie Brown, an African-American who was being held in the county jail. The mayor of Omaha, who was white, was almost lynched by the mob, which did set fire to the county courthouse. The origin of the riot lay in racial conflict in the extensive city stockyards and meat packing plants. (A similar conflict underlay the East St. Louis race riot that began on July 2, 1917.)

The lynching of Willie Brown was spurred by rumors that he had raped a white woman. (Later reports by the police and U.S. Army investigators determined that the victim had not made a positive identification.) The riot lasted for two days, and ended when over 1,200 federal troops arrived to restore order. Although martial law was not formally proclaimed, for all practical purposes it existed, with troops remaining in the city for several weeks.

The noted actor Henry Fonda was born and raised in Omaha. He told the story of his father taking him to witness the riot and the lynching, just standing and saying nothing. Fonda remembered it as is father’s way of telling him that racism and violence were just wrong.

The Omaha riot was only one of an estimated 20 incidents of racial violence in the summer and fall of 1919. See especially the major Chicago race riot that began on July 27, 1919 and the race riot in Washington, D.C., that began on July 19, 1919.

Read: Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (2011)

Learn more about the Dyer anti-lynching bill: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/dyer-anti-lynching-bill-1922

Read the 2015 report on the number of lynchings: Equal  Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (2015)

Learn more about African American history: Henry Louis Gates, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 (2011)

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