Sometimes the past can provide important lessons for the present. That’s certainly the case with one of the most disturbing incidents in Omaha’s history: the riot and lynching of 1919.
That infamous episode shows the tragic consequences — in a pattern seen in many American communities in the 19th and 20th centuries — when corruption, racial hysteria and public violence combined to trigger terrible upheaval and injustice.
Staff writer Micah Mertes examined that history in his detailed look at the 1919 riot, in which a mob besieged the Douglas County Courthouse and lynched Will Brown, an African-American man accused of raping a white woman.
The rioters came close to killing Mayor Ed Smith, a reform-minded foe of longtime Omaha political boss Tom Dennison. The mob went to great lengths to wreak extensive damage to the courthouse.
The mob action was an outrageous assault on civilized order, and by no means was it an entirely spontaneous event.
Dennison’s agents egged on the mayhem by distributing liquor and providing transportation. One of Dennison’s key associates, a chief instigator of the riot, abruptly disappeared with the political boss’s help in the wake of the tumult, relocating to Denver and returning only after the coast was clear.
A World-Herald editorial condemned the “hideous orgy of lawlessness” and called for strong punishment. Those “whose guilt can be proved ... should be sent for a long term to the state prison,” said the editorial, which received the 1920 Pulitzer Prize.
But justice failed to arrive. Although a grand jury ultimately issued 189 indictments, Mertes reported, “only a few were prosecuted, and mostly on minor charges.” In 1921, Smith was defeated at the ballot box, and “Cowboy Jim” Dahlman returned to the Mayor’s Office, with Dennison once again pulling the strings. He remained a force in the city into the early 1930s.
Public riots have had a long history in the United States. A young Abraham Lincoln, in a public address in 1838, listed tumultuous incidents in various states, then warned that the nation was gravely threatened “whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands” to carry out murder and destruction.
A decade before Omaha’s 1919 riot, an anti- Greek riot spurred the exodus of much of South Omaha’s Greek community.
The lynching of Will Brown and the associated upheaval led federal troops to impose martial law to restore order and, in particular, protect Omaha’s African-American citizens.
This horrendous setback for race relations was all the more lamentable in that a generation earlier, Nebraska had commendably adopted landmark civil rights legislation — sponsored in 1893 by Omaha physician Dr. Matthew Ricketts, the first African-American member of the State Legislature.
In 2017, our society needs to hold tight to vital principles: respect for public order and rejection of violence. Integrity in government and the justice system. Equal rights for all citizens, regardless of race or creed.
The Omaha riot of 1919 stands as a sobering reminder that if we fail in that obligation, the consequences can be catastrophic.