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Editorial: We can learn positives, negatives from Omaha's racial past

Editorial: We can learn positives, negatives from Omaha's racial past

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An attendee fills a jar with soil. The jars will be on display in Omaha and at a national memorial to lynching victims in Montgomery, Alabama. 

We mustn’t ignore the injustices, past and present, in American society. At the same time, we can take inspiration for future progress by appreciating past figures who stood up for what’s right. Omaha provides examples on both those scores.

A recent commemorative event in Omaha remembered a disturbing event in our city’s past — the lynching of George Smith by a white mob in 1891. In that rampage, a crowd of about 10,000 people stormed the Douglas County Courthouse and brutally attacked Smith, who was awaiting trial after being accused of sexually assaulting a white child despite scant evidence. The mob hanged Smith’s body from a streetcar wire at 17th and Harney Streets. Such terrible assaults were frequent in parts of the South during the Jim Crow era, but such incidents also took place in the Midwest and West.

In a recent gathering in downtown Omaha, people listened to speakers read a historian’s account of the 1891 lynching, then the group placed dirt from the courthouse grounds in jars to be displayed along with Smith’s story in Omaha and at a national memorial to lynching victims in Montgomery, Alabama.

At the same time, Omahans can benefit from understanding the example set by Dr. Matthew Ricketts, an Omahan who served as the first Black member of the Nebraska Legislature. Just a few years after the Smith lynching, Ricketts succeeded in getting an anti-discrimination law passed forbidding business operators from refusing to serve people on the basis of skin color. That law later provided inspiration during Omaha’s important civil rights struggles in the mid-20th century to end a range of local racial discriminations.

These examples show how Omaha can look to the past in striving to build a better future.

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