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Omaha Remembers the Lynching of Will Brown

Will Brown Rememberance EventSeveral hundred people drawn from all races filled the public square outside the Douglas County Courthouse Saturday morning to remember a reprehensible chapter in the history of Omaha.

There, following an invocation by Creighton University President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, a procession of prominent speakers recalled and honored the memory of William “Will” Brown who was lynched in the courthouse square 100 years ago to the day.

The murder of Brown occurred during nationwide race riots that swept across the United States in the spring, summer and fall of 1919 as white Americans attacked black citizens who sought employment and equal status in the wake of their participation in World War I.

The lynching of Will Brown, one of more than 150 that occurred across the United States in 1919, is considered among the most brutal.

“During the middle months of 1919, dozens of race riots shocked the United States,” Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert told the crowd, which filled the courthouse square and spilled into Farnam Street. “Much to our shame, one of the worst was right here in Omaha.”

Brown was accused of raping a white woman but vehemently denied his involvement and was denied due process after a mob stormed the Douglas County Courthouse, where he was being held, overwhelmed law enforcement and dragged him to the square where he was lynched, his corpse thereafter being tied to the rear of an automobile and dragged around downtown Omaha before being burned on a public pyre.

The full horror of the nationwide assault on black Americans in 1919 was detailed by Cynthia Robinson, PhD, assistant professor in the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media at the University of Nebraska Omaha. She said the violence was a reaction against black progress as black Americans sought economic opportunity and demanded free exercise of their right to vote.

“Lynchings were not ordinary executions,” Robinson said. “Killing black people was fun, it was sport, it was sadistic, it was legal, it was terrorism. Black bodies were beaten, tortured, mutilated, stabbed, dragged, shot, burned and hung, their body parts chopped off piece by piece, the smell of charred flesh, bone and hair in the air.”

Fr. Hendrickson, in his invocation, asked for divine forgiveness and that society be freed of “the evil of racism and inequality.”

“Aid us, we pray, in overcoming the sin of racism, grant us your grace in eliminating this blight from our hearts, our communities, our social and civic institutions,” he prayed.

“Wake us up so that the evil of racism finds no home within us.”

Other speakers included U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and Franklin Thompson, who represented Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who was out of state and unable to attend.

The gathering ended with a ceremony during which soil from the Douglas County Courthouse was distributed into several jars, one of which will be displayed at The Legacy Museum, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama.

The others will be displayed at various historical locations throughout Omaha.

The event was sponsored by the City of Omaha, Douglas County and the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation.

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