Omaha’s 24th and Lake Streets area has seen it all – booming business, the rise of Jazz, economic downturns, Civil Rights struggles and redevelopment dreams.
The intersection is significant in Omaha history for the 1913 Easter tornado. The storm killed 150 people across the city. The largest concentration was at 24th and Lake, where 40 people died. Many of the dead were at the local pool hall when the tornado struck.
Once a vibrant area, home to businesses up and down the street, the area – known as “the Deuce” to old timers – fell on hard times in the mid-1900s and has fought to regain some success. We had an opportunity to tour the area as part of Restoration Exchange’s walking tour series.
Business boomed during the early days of the 1900s, and lasted until the early 1960s. In 1960, according to our guide, Vince, one city block had at least 40 local businesses open. Now, that same stretch has probably less than a dozen.
One business going strong is McPherson’s clothing store. The store has been in business for almost a decade. Donald McPherson worked for Kmart and Burlington chains for about 25 years before starting his own business.
Business is good. The men’s side sells at least 20-25 dress shirts a week, McPherson said. The women’s side seemed to be doing good business, as well, during our visit. The McPhersons’ store covers about 2,700 square feet.
“We have a community that supports what we do,” he said.
He started the store by selling used clothing. “I called them ‘previously enjoyed,’” he joked.
At one corner of 24th and Lake sits the old Blue Lion Center. It was established in the late 1980s as a business incubator site. The empty building has been purchased by a developer, so there are hopes that a few more businesses will join the neighborhood.
The area isn’t an abandoned neighborhood, by any means. There are businesses. Mama’s Café (a very popular café in the city) has a sandwich shop in the area. Love’s Jazz and Arts Center is in the neighborhood. The Omaha Star newspaper is one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the United States. There are clubs and few restaurants, as well. As any area seeks, the “Deuce” wants to fill empty buildings with thriving businesses.
Near North Omaha – as the area is more commonly referred to – was home to some of the best jazz, blues and swing clubs in the city. Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole were among the major acts playing nightclubs, such as the Carnation Room, Dreamland Ballroom and the Showcase.
The Dreamland Ballroom was on the second floor of the Jewell Building. The owner put up a stage and left the rest of the space for dancing and fun times. Dreamland had its own house band, in addition to the national acts. The local band would travel the region to perform, as well. The building is one of six in the area listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
North Omaha was also the birth site of a few jazz legends. Preston Love was born here. He went on to play with Count Basie and his band – at the age of 22. He eventually became the house bandleader for Motown Records’ west coast studio, working with the likes of The Four Tops, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight. He also performed in bands with national acts, including Diana Ross. Love eventually moved back to Omaha in his later years.
Buddy Miles – a famous drummer – grew up in Omaha. He found success as the drummer for Jimi Hendrix’s band. He also led his own band. He may be best known, though, for his voice talent as the lead singer of the Claymation raisins for television ads and specials.
Love’s Jazz and Arts Center honors Preston Love, as well as African-American art and jazz music. The art center is home to several special exhibits during the year. We took in an exhibit on Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. Love’s recently hosted a special photograph exhibit on the Civil Rights movement – “For All the World to See.”
Love’s isn’t the lone art center in the neighborhood. The Carver Building hosts art exhibits. The art center currently has 12 artists in residence.
The Carver building was originally known as the Carver Savings and Loan Association. It was built in 1944 and lasted until the late 1950s. It was founded by Charles Davis, who named the building in honor of the great African-American scientist George Washington Carver. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Carver Savings and Loan sought to help local people of color, who had been denied bank loans for home purchases. During the early 1900s, Omaha area banks had “redlined” the city into specific ethnic group centers. They thought African-Americans should live in one area, Hispanics in another, Caucasians in other areas, and so forth.
Mildred Brown used her role as the owner and publisher of the Omaha Star to promote and lead the community. Brown started the African-American weekly newspaper in 1938, with her husband. They divorced a few years later. She kept the newspaper.
The Omaha Star is believed to have been the longest-running weekly newspaper in the United States owned by an African-American woman. Brown passed away in 1989, but the paper lives on, currently in the hands of a niece.
Brown used the newspaper to help promote the Civil Rights movement. She was also supportive of the DePorres Club, which worked for equal rights beginning in the 1950s. The group, consisting of local high school and Creighton University students, led boycotts and sit-ins among its efforts.
Brown was honored by the Omaha Business Hall of Fame with a posthumous induction. She is honored at a small park near her newspaper building. The newspaper building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The intersection of 24th and Lake was the site of several riots during the 1960s. A couple of them made national news. One such incident actually started at the old Civic Auditorium during the 1968 presidential election. Alabama Gov. George Wallace believed in racial segregation and ran as an independent. He gave a speech at the Civic. It was here that his supporters and protesters to his appearance clashed, Vince said.
Another riot started near 24th and Lake following the shooting of an African-American teenage girl in the back by a Caucasian police officer.
Omaha has seen a unique local approach to Civil Rights presented during the movement in 1950s-60s.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the city in 1959. His approach was one of peaceful civil disobedience. A memorial to MLK stands near the intersection.
In contrast, Omaha’s own Malcom X (born Malcom Little) promoted a more aggressive style of protest. He believed in African-Americans doing things themselves. A state historical marker recognizing Malcolm X’s childhood home is located near the site at 34th and Pinkney. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Malcolm’s family moved from Omaha while he was young.
Whitney Young – probably the lesser known of the trio – sought to use the political process alongside business – to achieve civil rights. Young led the local Urban League. He eventually led the National Urban League. He was considered close to President Lyndon Johnson.
The area is home to two unique churches.
St. John’s AME Methodist Church was the first African-American church in Omaha. It was organized in 1867. The church was built in 1922. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its prairie school design.
A couple of blocks south, the Zion Baptist Church joins St. John’s on the Register. It’s on the list due to its design, as well. The church was often the site of meetings during the Civil Rights movement.
The sixth location in “The Deuce” to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places is the Broomfield Rowhouse. Clarence Wigington designed the house, which was built in 1913. It was named to the Register for its design at the time and its designer, who went on to be credited as one of the best architects in his field.
We learned a lot about a section of our city’s history. We find that walking tours can be fun and educational. Restoration Exchange offers two other tours that we plan to sign up for – South Omaha’s 24th Street area and downtown’s old Vinton Street neighborhood. We also plan our own walking tours through other neighborhoods in Omaha.
If you’re interested in learning more about Restoration Exchange or taking a tour, please visit their site at www.restorationexchange.org.