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Hearing the Echoes: Novelist, panel, confront the lynching of Will Brown in 1919, racial violence today

Theodore WheelerMore than 100 people from the Creighton and Omaha communities attended a reading and discussion of Kings of Broken Things from author and Creighton University alumnus Theodore Wheeler, MA’08, MFA’15, on Thursday evening at Creighton University.

Kings of Broken Things is Wheeler’s first novel. Set in Omaha, the story takes place against the backdrop of the Red Summer of 1919 and the lynching of Will Brown. Though the story is fictional, the racist violence that culminated in the lynching is not.

After an opening invocation from Creighton University President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, Wheeler read from his novel, providing historical context and his reasons for writing the story. Wheeler says that trauma can leave a mark in a space, and that for him, standing at the location in downtown Omaha where the lynching took place, he can “hear the echoes” of the violence 100 years ago.

A panel discussion followed the talk, with Eric Ewing, executive director of the Great Plains Black History Museum, and Creighton professors Heather Fryer, PhD, the Rev. Henry W. Casper, SJ, professor of history, and Palma Strand, JD, professor of law, negotiation and conflict resolution program. Lydia Cooper, PhD, associate professor of English and Timms Endowed Professor at Creighton, facilitated a conversation about how fiction can advance the conversation on racial reconciliation, implications for the legacy of racial violence today and how segregation remains widespread.

Kings of Broken Things PanelWheeler says it’s important to acknowledge history and quoted William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” During the decade of writing his novel, Wheeler says that he has met individuals with family connections to Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot and he calls his novel an “act of remembering.” Fryer echoed the sentiment more broadly, noting that, “We can relegate things to the past, but it does not go away. [The lynching of Will Brown] is not ‘an incident;’ it is a part of a long pattern that we are connected to.” Strand explained, for example, how “redlining” in housing practices connected to the riots and impacts the composition of the city.

Cooper asked the panelists to each leave the audience with a charge. Ewing encouraged everyone to “get uncomfortable” with having difficult conversations and emphasized that “there is no change unless there is discomfort.”

On Sept. 28, a 100th Year Community Remembrance Ceremony for Will Brown will take place to encourage awareness, education and public reckoning with this part of Omaha’s history. Visit bit.ly/1919ceremony to learn more.

 Photos by Cole Mowery

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