Alarm clocks buzzed in the dark.
The men of the Near North Side put on their denim overalls, sipped their coffee and skimmed their newspapers — What did Ike say yesterday?
They walked to North 24th Street and handed jitney drivers a quarter, sliding into black cars with long bench seats.
Squeeze together now.
Through the chute of sleepy buildings and over the brick street, they rolled south like a funeral procession. Past Carter’s Cafe and Skeet’s BBQ and the Fair Deal Cafe — all brand-new. Past Creighton University and Joslyn Art Museum as the sky brightened over downtown.
Follow the stench.
In 1955, roughly half of all black workers made this morning commute to South Omaha. Most businesses wouldn’t hire them, but muscle and grit mattered more than race in the city’s dominant industry.
Blacks shared the packinghouse floors with whites, working as drivers, penners, shacklers, stickers, hoisters, skinners, rumpers, gutters, splitters, butchers, boners, trimmers, dippers, luggers.
Bob Boozer’s dad clocked in at Armour. Bob Gibson’s oldest brother worked at Swift. Gale Sayers’ dad worked at Cudahy. So did Johnny Rodgers’ grandpa.
Meatpacking lured black families to Omaha, put food on their tables and established a work ethic that toughened sons and daughters. Motivated them, too.
“A lot of us who grew up in that environment, we wanted to do better than our parents,” said Lew Garrison, a 1964 Tech High grad who played quarterback at Omaha University. “We didn’t want the kind of jobs they wanted.”
The jitney carpools rolled 6 miles down 24th, then turned right on Q Street, crossing the viaduct and, with the sun rising behind them — behold! — America’s butcher shop.
Thousands of livestock pens spread through the valley as far west as they could see. On L Street, trucks backed up for 3 miles waiting to turn onto Buckingham Avenue, where they unloaded cattle, hogs and sheep into the market. Commission agents assigned them pens and buyers examined the stock from elevated walkways, securing deals with a handshake.
Looming over the proceedings stood the magnificent 11-story Livestock Exchange Building with its Italian Renaissance architecture.
Curious observers — even tourists — could witness the whole experience. Except the dirtiest work.
That happened behind closed doors in 19 slaughterhouses. Purchased cattle were driven up ramps to the top level — the kill floor — where they filed into a narrow stall. A “knocker” with a sledgehammer stood over the animal and swung for the forehead.
When the beast dropped unconscious, a shackler wrapped a chain around the cow’s hind legs, flipping 1,000 pounds upside down. A third man slit the cow’s throat before a fourth worker cut off its head.
Over and over and over. The line never stopped moving.
Every day, $2 million changed hands. Six million gallons of water flowed through the Stockyards. The annual profits from manure alone matched the Florida citrus crop.
If all the animals in 1955 had lined up — one per 10 feet — they would have wrapped 13,000 miles. Halfway around the world.
At one plant alone, 2,500 workers slaughtered almost 10,000 animals per day, one every three seconds.
Haskell Lee once swore he’d never do the work. But like thousands of blacks before him, Lee — Bob Gibson’s old teammate from the YMCA Monarchs — determined that killing cows was his best way to make a living. He was 18.
One day during his break, he visited the kill floor where Red Walker — “Big Red” — handed him the sledgehammer. You want to try? Lee missed his spot and the angry bull escaped from the stall.
“Man,” Lee said, “you should’ve seen guys running.”
* * *
On Dec. 1, 1955, a 42-year-old black seamstress boarded a Montgomery, Alabama, bus and sat down in the “colored” section.
Rosa Parks did not intend to cause a stir. But moments later, the white section filled and the driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white man. She refused, prompting her arrest, the beginning of a yearlong bus boycott and the unofficial birth of the civil rights movement.
Later that week, Omaha’s Union Stockyards celebrated a milestone, too, overtaking Chicago for yearly receipts with 6,764,140 animals. The signs went up:
“World’s largest livestock market and meatpacking center.”
It took only 70 years, hundreds of thousands of immigrants and millions of gallons of whiskey.
Don’t get tipsy now. Understanding the economic link between North and South Omaha demands a sober mind and a short history lesson.
Back in the 1860s, about the time Nebraska earned statehood, cowboys tried to move beef to Eastern cities. The problem? The railroads were nowhere near their Texas herds. Cattle drives made folk heroes, but they didn’t make much sense.
Rather than walking longhorns north to Kansas railheads to sell, William Paxton found an alternative. He stocked the Great Plains, starting a cattle ranch near Ogallala, Nebraska.
Proximity to the Union Pacific Railroad made life easier, but there was another benefit: Texas longhorns were lean and stringy. Up north, cattle could put on more fat.
Beef production boomed following the Civil War. So did the Chicago stockyards, where western producers delivered to eastern buyers with help from innovative refrigerated boxcars.
But wait a minute. Pull out a map. There were 800 miles between Ogallala and Chicago. Why not split the difference? Start a market closer to the beef supply with access to a major railroad and river.
A Wyoming cattle baron named Alexander Swan made it happen. He partnered with six Omaha businessmen, including Paxton and John Creighton. They bought 2,000 acres south of the city at $1.67 an acre. They set aside 200 for the stockyards and committed the other 1,800 to building a town.
On Dec. 1, 1883, the Union Stockyards of Omaha was born. The first headquarters was the Drexel family farmhouse, where they stored money in the kitchen pantry and served booze in the basement.
In 1885, the first slaughterhouse sprouted. Hotels, saloons and brothels quickly followed. The timid and meek had no place here. In the early years, a mayor was mysteriously found dead with a bullet in his head. Edward Cudahy Jr. was abducted before his father, the richest man in town, paid the $25,000 ransom — the cops finally caught his captors.
Sir Thomas Lipton, a Scottish tea merchant, built the third packinghouse. When he visited, he was stunned to find so many pistols in the cloakroom. Reminded him of an armory.
South Omaha didn’t need guns to have a good time. Immigrants slugged it out in muddy streets. Cowboys fought bulls in an 8,000-seat amphitheater. Within the Stockyards, wooden drain plugs from the water troughs became a popular weapon — “Whoever had the biggest plug or the biggest fist got his cattle weighed first,” one said.
Amid all the violence, integrity never lost its currency. Livestock sales happened so fast — sealed with a handshake, of course — that any whiff of dishonesty kicked dirt on a man’s reputation. People didn’t deal with scoundrels.
Swan wanted to call his creation “New Edinburgh,” but, like Lipton, he didn’t have the stomach to stick around. So Paxton became the face of the Stockyards, which by 1890 — just six years after the first herd — had risen to third nationally in livestock sales, including 1.7 million cattle.
Officially, it became South Omaha. But a reporter christened the place with a nickname.
The Magic City.
* * *
As William Paxton and Alexander Swan dreamed of wealth, the ancestors of pro football’s first black quarterback dreamed of liberty. And Marlin Briscoe’s family didn’t let dreams slip away.
Down in Tennessee, the Civil War set his great-grandfather free, but Govner Moore waited for more. He was scheduled to receive land and money once his former slave owner died.
The plan fell apart. Coming home from school one day, Govner’s children quarreled with kids they weren’t supposed to quarrel with. Hours later, vigilante white men came to their door. Marlin Briscoe’s great-grandmother grabbed her gun and stood her ground.
“The Ku Klux Klan or Night Riders or whatever you want to call them, they didn’t win that night,” said Marlin’s cousin, Dorothea Moore, “because of a strong black woman who said ‘I’m not afraid of you.’ ”
But the threat didn’t go away. The family packed up and escaped to Oklahoma and eventually to South Omaha, where they joined a meatpacking empire.
When the Omaha Stockyards became No. 1 in ’55, the overwhelming majority of blacks — about 20,000 — lived on the Near North Side. But another 2,000 lived in South Omaha, mostly up the hill from the cattle in the Southside Terrace projects. They walked to work.
Home for Marlin Briscoe, his mother and little sister was 2834 S St., where the boy occasionally found a fugitive cow chewing grass in his front yard.
That door was his destination at 9 or 10 years old when he sprinted off the schoolyard, chased by a bully. They dashed into the cluster of matching two-story brick buildings, all the way to the far corner of the complex, the black section.
Marlin hoped to see his mother, but the door was locked.
Thump, thump, thump.
His mom looked out the window, saw her boy and the bully. She turned away. Geneva Briscoe raised her son to stand up to a fight.
Marlin and the bully threw a few awkward punches, settled their score and eventually became friends. But Marlin received more than a lesson in camaraderie.
His cousin — a 24-year-old teacher who worked summers in a packinghouse — heard about the confrontation. He showed up at Marlin’s door with a flimsy cardboard box, filled with old balls and gloves, coated in dust.
I’m going to teach you to play these sports, Bob Rose said.
Remember that name. Over the next 15 years, Rose becomes a huge figure in the black community. The heir to Josh Gibson, mentor to the Sayers brothers, Johnny Rodgers and hundreds of other teenage athletes. But that day, Rose was just trying to give a fragile kid a start.
Neighbors must have thought Marlin was nuts the first time he laced up his black high-top shoes, grabbed a football from the box and walked to the corner of 29th and S. He locked his eyes on a skinny birch tree and fired a spiral.
Chase the ball. Hurry back to his spot. Try again.
The faces watching from the windows — black and white — worked as butchers and maids, trash collectors and bartenders, pimps and prostitutes. They babysat Marlin when he first moved to the projects. But they didn’t have Marlin’s vision.
That birch tree? He pictured it wearing a Baltimore Colts jersey, No. 82, split end Raymond Berry. And he wasn’t some poor black kid in Omaha. He was Berry’s quarterback, the great No. 19.
Marlin wasn’t the only kid dreaming big. In terms of density, the Southside Terrace projects may have been the most fertile athletic ground in the city. Dick Davis and Mike Green, Nebraska running backs in the late ’60s, grew up a few doors apart. Dwaine Dillard went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.
But those positions were integrated. Quarterback was not. White coaches considered it too complicated for blacks.
Briscoe’s quarterback teacher in the projects was Ron Kellogg, whose son later shined in the Final Four for Kansas — and whose grandson played quarterback at Nebraska.
Kellogg, a teenager at the time, invited Marlin to play tackle football with the older kids. And when it came time for Marlin’s first Pop Warner tryout, Kellogg and friends walked him eight blocks to Christie Heights Park.
Entering the white neighborhood risked a fight, but Marlin’s escorts wanted to see if he’d get a fair shake. Sure enough, he showed off his skills, earning a spot at his chosen position.
“Not one time did they call me a black quarterback. I was a quarterback.”
His cardboard container of toys — the gift from Bob Rose — withered away. But years later Marlin gave it a nickname:
The magic box.
* * *
Back on the kill floor, the temperatures soared past 100 degrees.
The blades were so sharp — the work so relentless — that 20% of employees suffered a disabling injury every year. The slightest concentration lapse or mechanical flaw might sever a finger or hand.
Lew Garrison was a 120-pound teenager when he got a job on the kill floor, carrying chains from the end of a conveyor back to the start.
“I think it took me two weeks before I could eat lunch,” Garrison said. “You’ve got all this blood and stuff on your clothes. You can wash your hands, but you’re still covered with it.”
Once the animal had been whacked, knifed, decapitated and skinned, meat surgeons went to work on lower floors, slicing choice cuts, removing organs, wasting nothing. Women filled gruesome processing jobs, packing intestines, collecting blood, boiling bones, cleaning guts.
The pace never stopped. The next chunk of meat was always on its way from the floor above.
Workers slipped on wood floors coated with animal fat. They scorched their hands on processing ovens. A flogger suffered a broken foot when a steer stepped on him. Cow urine spilled into another man’s work boot, freezing throughout the day and producing frostbite.
Perhaps the worst job of all was underground. The hide cellar.
That’s where Bob Gibson and his best friend, Rodney Wead, worked one summer during college. Wead’s father, a packinghouse veteran, got them jobs. They hauled manure and body parts they didn’t care to identify. They salted 100-pound hides and stacked them. Eleven hides per wheelbarrow.
“Slave work,” Wead said.
One day an older co-worker — a full-time employee — put one hide too many on the barrow and Gibby, a standout athlete at Creighton, protested. They bickered back and forth until Gibson took his 1,200-pound load, dumped it and quit, the chip on his shoulder as sharp as ever.
Every day at 4 p.m., workers staggered outside in search of relief. Men 25 years old looked like they were 40, Garrison said.
Some headed home and tried to shake the odor, immediately shedding their clothes and taking a bath. On payday, they cleaned up and hit the North 24th Street stores. You could tell a packinghouse worker by his strong handshake, his Stetson hats and Stacy Adams shoes. Wead aspired to own those brands.
“To this very day, I wear Stacys.”
But some delayed the ride home and headed for the red-light district. South Omaha was “a curious mixture of honest labor and whispered sin,” according to one writer, and the packinghouses, like the steel mills of Ohio, anchored a web of taverns, pool halls and nightclubs. Prostitutes occupied street corners, waiting for payday.
A bar owner didn’t dare close early on Friday. Nor did he deny a butcher a beer based on the color of his skin.
South Omaha wasn’t immune to discrimination or segregation. And fights for packinghouse jobs divided ethnic groups in the 1910s and ’20s. But by the 1950s, unions were integrated and merit usually determined the best jobs.
Packinghouse workers shared an identity — a bond of mental fortitude and physical exhaustion. White, brown, black, didn’t matter.
They all smelled the same.
* * *
John Beasley never forgot his introductory scene.
The Tech High grad — and future Hollywood actor — had just left the military when his brother drove him down 24th Street and dropped him off at the packinghouse. Beasley waited in the office for his supervisor, lunch sack in hand, when he saw a dead cow roll by on a cart, its head hanging over the side.
“I go back out the door and I flag down my brother. Hold on! That was my first and last day, man.”
Briscoe wasn’t so lucky. Like Gibson, he eventually served his time. He experienced the horror of the kill floor — the sledgehammer revolted him. But the hide cellar, Briscoe said, separated the men from the boys.
“The rats down there were as big as dogs.”
Briscoe attended South High with classmates who didn’t see a way out of the projects via books or balls. They got packinghouse jobs as 11th-graders, liked the smell of a paycheck and never graduated.
For him, the packinghouse was something different. A reminder of what awaited him if he quit sports. A driving force to break out of the box.
“I guarantee you, that let me know I needed to go to college.”
A generation earlier, blacks didn’t have scholarship opportunities. But by 1963, Briscoe had shown enough promise in football and basketball to earn a full ride to Omaha University. He spent the next five years racking up points and accolades.
Every May, he returned to his neighborhood’s vital industry, never considering it might go away.
In ’68, even after the Denver Broncos drafted Briscoe, he lugged beef carcasses three days a week, midnight to 7 a.m.
When it finally came time to leave town, the hide cellar took notice. Here was a kid with no father and no money receiving a chance to get out. How would everyone react?
Briscoe got called to the Workmen’s Club off Q Street, right between Armour and his front door. He walked in and saw the faces who looked out on his birch tree. The men and women — black and white — who taught him to shoot craps in the taverns, dance in the courtyards and fight in the streets.
He was their blood brother and they had a parting gift for him.
A $50 savings bond.
Next up: Sundays at the park
In vibrant, bustling North Omaha, the best athletes pushed each other in Kountze Park pickup games every Sunday. But competition alone didn't maximize talent. Gale and Roger Sayers, who came to Omaha from Kansas and moved frequently throughout their childhood, needed a neighborhood safety net in the form of a hard-working coach to become world-class athletes.