In the late 60s, there were a number of ‘race riots’ in which people burned down much of the commercial district of North O from Cummings to Lake Street. Once, it was over a young girl being shot by police. Once it was in response to a scuffle at an event where George Wallace, segregationist governor of Alabama, was having a presidential campaign rally. Most of the stores burned were owned by people who lived outside of North Omaha. North Omaha is still trying to recover from that wholesale destruction of those storefronts.
I teach an MBA class which meets at various locations around Omaha to learn about business and society. One of the places we always go to is the Loves Art and Jazz Center near 24th and Lake. That area was at the north end of the fires which raged in 1969 during the uprisings or ‘race riots’ which rocked Omaha at that time. Loves is an art gallery which features prominent African American artists primarily.
Tonight we heard from a friend of mine from North Omaha. She shared a lot of experiences about North Omaha. She is about 40 and she said she felt like she was part of the last generation to be raised by a village– in other words, she lived in North Omaha at a time when people knew each other and worked hard to raise kids right.
She related a couple of somewhat discouraging stories to us. One of her friends had gone to a local high school to share insights about how to save money and be financially responsible. At one point she asked the students what their financial dreams were. The women said that their goal was go get onto section 8 (a government program to pay for your housing). The boys said their goal was to ‘get with’ a girl who was on section 8. (you get more money depending on how many kids you have).
She related another story about a woman who works with housing for residents of North Omaha who was trying to get people in one of the ‘projects’ to get excited about a new program. On the the new program, people who were on section 8 housing could use their section 8 money towards their mortgage payments for 15 years on buying a house instead of having it go for rent. This woman had figured people would stream to her program to get their house. But instead, she found little interest. At first people would say, “why do I need that, I already got a place to stay?” and then after she explained the whole program they would say “well then if something got broke I’d have to fix it myself– as it is I just call that number and they come and fix it.” Of course at one level this is rational. But as my friend said, at another level it displays that these people have lost the ability to hope for better– to dream the American dream.
Until the late 1960s, de facto segregation and racially restrictive housing covenants made it virtually impossible for African Americans to live outside of a prescribed area of North Omaha. Banks wouldn’t give them loans on houses in ‘white’ areas, and real estate companies wouldn’t provide insurance for them outside the ‘black’ area. This “redlining” kept racial boundaries intact until the 1970s. Omaha never changed those practices, despite repeated civil rights protests in the city until the federal government forced them to. (don’t say that the Federal government never does anything right). Insurance companies also wouldn’t insure African Americans outside of the North Omaha area. I’ve heard stories of people buying houses even recently in certain neighborhoods where the old deed (from the 50s or 60s) had exclusion covenants on them– restrictions on black or brown ownership in that neighborhood (essentially you couldn’t sell the house to someone of color).
Once laws made redlining illegal, and African Americans were allowed to move to other parts of town, many did. It made it easier for a lot of the upper and middle class residents began to leave North Omaha for west Omaha where they could live in the affluent suburbs in new houses. This simply exasperbated the problem in North Omaha though, because many of the good role models left the community. Today the middle class of north Omaha is made up primarily of government workers (including teachers) and people involved in the social services. A huge portion of residents are single mothers. Ive heard again and again that a lot of the young people from North Omaha who are bright and do well get out of Omaha as soon as they can and move to places where there seem to be better opportunities for them– like Atlanta, which has a very strong vibrant African American community. They can make a lot more there, because there are simply more opportunities for them there. Omaha remains a highly segregated city, due to some of the social habits which run so deep. Many would call it intstitutional racism– which isn’t about one person hating another or having bad feelings towards them– but rather that the way that the system is set up makes it extremely difficult for someone of color to ‘get in’ to the system. Its about the social dynamics more than anything, and that is a hard thing to change.
Only about 50% of students graduate from High School (50% drop out). The majority of families are run by single moms. Many young people lack the skills to help them land a job, even if they wanted to do that.
Omaha is good at bricks and mortar, and they have a north omaha development plan which is a guideline for rebuilding particular strategic areas and helping to reinvigorate the economy in those places through landscaping and building which they hope will attract private investment and creat jobs :www.omahachamber.org/project_north_omaha.html And there are a number of programs aimed to help establish real community and even help people get job training as well: http://www.empoweromaha.com/
It is a very real, very desperate situation in many respects. Its hard to know what to do to help this situation. But whatever we can do at least to become more knowledgeable about the situation and to make inroads to be more connected to those issues is helpful. We live only blocks from some pretty serious social deterioration, and its up to us to try to reach out to it in the love of Christ.
If you haven’t seen it, you should see the documentary “street of dreams” which is about the history of North Omaha and how the uprising of the 1960s decimated the commercial sector. (you can get it for $14 through Nebraska Public Television: https://secure.netnebraskastore.org/SearchResult.aspx?q=street+of+dreams
For a list of riots which have occured in Omaha over the years, check out this site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_riots_and_civil_unrest_in_Omaha,_Nebraska
May God have mercy on us all…