In the late 1800’s, Omaha, Nebraska, was a booming western city, that was soon to become number one in the world in livestock meat production. In the early 1900’s, nearly 80% of Omaha’s population of an estimated 125,000 people, had livestock related jobs. These workers were primarily of European decent and from 1910 to 1919, their participation in labor strikes and the first World War, left many vacancies at the meat packing plants.
To fill the void, company owners vigorously recruited Blacks in the southern states. There were ads in newspapers in Omaha and throughout the South, that beckoned Blacks to come North for better wages and living conditions. The wages that Blacks were paid at the Omaha plants were lower than White workers, however it was significantly more money than they could earn in the South. Hundreds of Blacks began to replace White plant workers and by 1915, a burgeoning Black community was established near the meat packaging plants in South Omaha and the north side of the city.
A new Black newspaper called “The Monitor,” began circulation in the summer of 1915. The Monitor was published weekly, with news stories, columns, and advertising, that was vital to establishing a strong sense of community among Blacks in Omaha. By 1920, over 10,000 Blacks were living in Omaha.
Because of the rapid growth in the Black population and the employment situation at the meat packaging plants, racial tension began to build in Omaha. This tension culminated in the summer of 1919, when one plant worker in particular met a horrible fate.
On September 25th, 1919, a nineteen year old named Agnes Loebeck, claimed forty-one year old Will Brown had attacked and raped her. Brown was arrested and taken to the Douglas County Courthouse. Before Brown was even identified, a civic storm was already brewing in Omaha. This storm was due to a series of inflammatory stories published in the Omaha newspaper and struggles for political power between Thomas Dennison and Omaha’s mayor, Edward Smith.
On the evening of September 28, 1919, an estimated crowd of 5,000 to 10,000 people gathered outside the Douglas County Courthouse and demanded that Brown be handed over to them. Inside the courthouse, a frightened judge sent a note down to the crowd, saying that they would surrender Brown, but the blood-thirsty crowd could not wait. They rushed into the courthouse to seize Mr. Brown. Once in the hands of the crowd, Brown was beaten, hung from a lamp post and shot more than 100 times.
Actor Henry Fonda, at the time just 14 years old, witnesses the horrendous event from a second story window at his father’s printing company across the street from the courthouse. The ghastly attack, ended with the burning of Will Brown’s body.
An Omaha World-Herald photographer captured one of the most infamous photographs in American history. After the riot, federal troops were called in and for 2 days, Omaha was under marshal law.
Even though over 100 people were arrested in connection with the riot and the murder of Will Brown, no one was charged. For Omaha’s Black community, an editorial picture published in the Monitor spoke volumes. [insert picture here]
Will Brown was buried in 1919, in an unmarked grave in a potter’s field at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Omaha. Ninety years later in July of 2009, a man from Riverside, California, Chris Herbert, who has no ties to the city of Omaha and has never visited before, was moved to pay $450 of his own money for a marker for Will Brown’s grave. Herbert said he watched a special on actor Henry Fonda, which mentioned the riot and how it affected his life and acting career. Herbert also said that he hopes people will stop by the headstone and reflect on what happened to Will Brown in 1919, so that we may never let ourselves sink again to this level of inhumanity.