The Black Experience in Omaha early 1900’s: a major hub of cultural activity in the Midwest
The timing of Malcolm’s birth and his familial presence in Omaha could not have been more significant. During the period 1910 to 1920, Omaha experienced a major growth in the size of the African American population concomitant with the growth of the meat packing industry and its recruitment of African Americans as employees. These newly minted residents faced a quandary. Segregation was not formally legislated, but it was commonly practiced in public places. You have then the juxtaposition of a large and growing population, with high levels of employment and increasing political and economic power, “the irresistible force,” meeting the “immovable object” of historical discrimination. While this situation was becoming intolerable for all African Americans, it was particularly resented among a population when it occurred against an “official” backdrop of equality. A flashpoint was the public lynching of Willy Brown in 1919, who was accused of raping a white woman. A riotous mob stormed the Douglas County Courthouse, took Brown by force, and he was lynched in the middle of downtown. Like most organized race-based violence, it had the desired short-term effect of chilling African American initiative and interaction with the majority population. But also like such violence, it had the long-term effect of exposing the deep-seated ethnic antagonisms under the surface and setting the stage for much more formal agitation and sociopolitical organization for change. (1) In fact, in 1921 Claude L. Nethaway, an Omaha city council candidate, insisted that the protection of women and prevention of riots was linked to disenfranchising African Americans and maintaining segregation. (2)
It is within the context of this local population with political voice and unique cultural perspective to express, possessing the resources to sustain more sophisticated sociopolitical organization, the threat of “race”-based violence and intimidation and the backdrop of the pre-existing context for nationalist ideologies that Reverend Earl Little comes in the 1920’s to establish the Omaha chapter of the U.N.I.A.
The Littles were involved in Marcus Garvey’s movement UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association). Rev. Earl Little as one of Garvey’s Christian ministers who help spread the movements unique fusion of African repatriation ideology and orthodox Christianity and Mrs. Louise Little as a member of many of the auxiliary associations of the movement including the women’s association and the association in charge of the newspaper publication and distribution. (3) “Garveyism” eventually evolved into a religion of success, inspiring millions of black people worldwide who sought relief from racism and colonialism.
This activism was not without risk, as noted in The Autobiography of Malcolm X the political activities of Earl Little were dangerous. Soon after Malcolm’s birth in their home in Omaha in 1925, the family was terrorized and threatened by the Ku Klux Clan. The Little Family moved from Omaha approximately 18 months later.
Provided by The Malcolm X Memorial Foundation
1 Camille Steed, A Street of Dreams (Documentary), (Lincoln, NE: Nebraska ETV Network, University of Nebraska at Omaha, and Nebraska Humanities Council, 1994). For full film see: http://netnebraska.org/interactive-multimedia/television/street-dreams.
2 “Claude L. Nethaway to Charles Bryan,” March 5, 1923, Charles W. Bryan Papers, Nebraska State historical Society, Lincoln Nebraska.
3 Ted Vincet, “The Garveyite Parents of Malcolm X”. The Black Scholar , 20(2), 10–13. (1989) https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1rZ3BUKfFs75uQXOQh-4m7DS8StMSOUvP