From the Bishop: A Family Reflection on Racism and Reconciliation
My great grandfather Joseph Barker lived in Omaha 100 years ago. He kept a line-a-day diary for his entire adult life, and those volumes now belong to me. This week in 1919, he wrote:
Sunday Sep 28, 1919. Up 9 AM. Rain. Church – fine dinner with Bostwick Massey …
Mob burned courthouse and lynched negro. Nearly killed Mayor Smith. Cut fire hose – Military at 1 a.m.
On the next day, his terse account continued …
Monday Sep 29, 1919. Soldiers all over town, more coming. Riot over. Father Holsapple’s family missed train (and) stayed our house … wrote a lot of riot Insurance … Brandeis – 1,000,000. Bed 8:30. Rain.
On September 28, 1919, a massive crowd of white Omahans laid siege to our county courthouse, brazenly scaling its walls and setting it ablaze. They eventually successfully abducted and murdered a black prisoner by the name of William Brown, a meatpacker who – historians now broadly agree – had been unfairly accused of assaulting a white woman. Brown was beaten, hanged, shot and burned. Eventually, his body was dragged through the streets of Omaha. Rioting by the all-white mob continued for the better part of two days, terrifying Omaha’s black community. Though there were thousands of witnesses to the violence – and dozens of photographs taken of the lynching – no one was ever prosecuted for Brown’s murder.
Omaha is soul searching this week. We’re remembering the facts of what the World Herald called in Sunday’s paper, “Omaha’s Darkest Hour.” We’re trying to be faithful and fearless about examining the legacy of racism in this community and the myriad ways that racial prejudice and hate still influence life in our “Nebraska Nice” city.
With the rest of the nation, we have come a long way in 100 years. My great grandfather would not have dreamed of school desegregation, powerful black politicians and business leaders, the racial integration of cultural institutions from the Boy and Girl Scouts to the country club … let alone a black President. But for all the ground that has been gained in the past century, Omaha – like virtually every U.S. city – continues to struggle with its legacy of racism and the reality that institutions like government, schools, law enforcement, and even our churches continue to be deeply influenced by individual and structural racism.
Grandpa’s two diary entries tell a heartbreaking story both in what they record, and in what they leave out. Grandpa apparently does not know the name of the victim of the lynching or, if he knew Brown’s name he decided it wasn’t worth mentioning. Though he was a man of real faith and charity, Grandpa does not indicate that he was moved to protest, pray or organize against the violent crowd of his fellows who terrorized the city for two days. In the diary entries which follow after these, there is never any mention of ongoing work to seek justice for William Brown or for Omaha’s black community. In fact, as an insurance man, the diary notes that grandpa did a brisk business in “riot insurance” that week, including the sale of a $1 million policy to Brandeis, a local department store.
Even 100 years later, I am struck by parallels in Omaha and throughout the U.S. today:
- Grandpa’s failure to acknowledge the humanity of William Brown by even recording his name in a diary feels a lot like the way many residents of Omaha will refuse to shop, eat and attend events in North Omaha (the city’s predominantly black neighborhood) despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that most white Omahans have few friends in, nor personal acquaintance with, that beautiful and historic part of the city.
- Grandpa’s ability to turn a profit on the fears of white Omaha by selling riot insurance is echoed in the way that (largely white) corporate America is enriched today by the privatization of our prisons, and the corollate expansion of “tough on drugs” laws to fill those prisons – laws that get passed because people are afraid, even though it’s been proven time and again that such laws are enforced far more often against people of color than equally guilty whites.
- Grandpa’s silence and complicity in the face of the brutality of his fellow white citizens, is surely echoed in the silence of middle America today in the face of burgeoning hate speech and a resurgent movement of white supremacy … not to mention white America’s fundamental ignorance of black history, and African-American intellectual achievement in the U.S.
Racism, it is said, is America’s “original sin.” Such a distinctly religious language applies perfectly here. Racism is indeed a virulent and deadly sin, and it is in the American air we breath. Like every human sin, it is insidious and dangerous enough that in the end, it is only by the power of the living God that we can hope to be saved from it.
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, has called us to follow Jesus’ “Way of Love” as a Christian denomination. Along with evangelism and creation care, Bishop Curry is encouraging his fellow disciples to work and pray towards racial reconciliation both in our individual lives and in our Church, especially by seeing and caring for the person of Jesus in every one of our brothers and sisters.
I can’t help but wonder what might have happened 100 years ago, if my great grandfather and his fellows had seen the person of Jesus in William Brown. Perhaps by God’s grace, we will have that vision in my hometown this week. If we are faithful and brave, we will take the time to remember Omaha’s darkest day. We will look unflinchingly at the terrible wrongs that were done – and are still done today – in the name of “humor” or “justice” or “pride.” We will fearlessly examine our own lives and consciences to reveal the ways in which we are complicit in the sin of racism in our city and in our churches here and now. We will confess and repent of those sins, and partner with the great reconciler to build a more just community.
My siblings in Christ, may we strive to seek and serve Jesus in all persons, loving our every neighbor as ourselves.
+ Joseph Scott Barker
XI Bishop of Nebraska
Ed. Note: This week, Trinity Cathedral, Church of the Resurrection, and All Saints invite all to an eight-day prayer vigil for racial justice and reconciliation, as we remember the 400th anniversary of the start of the slave trade in America, and the 100th anniversary of the brutal lynching of William Brown by an Omaha mob. The vigil started with a screening of the film Traces of the Trade on Friday, September 20th, continues each day with a reflection posted to Facebook (@trinitycathedralomaha, @resurrectionomaha, @AllSaintsOMA), and ends with the following two events:
Durham Museum: Race: Are We So Different?
Sunday, September 29th • 1:30 PM • Durham Museum • 801 S. 10th St
Meet at 1:30 PM in the main lobby. (There is free admission from 1 to 5 PM on Sunday to this exhibit.)
Sunday September 29th • 6:00 PM • Clair Memorial United Methodist Church
5544 Ames Ave • City-wide race and reconciliation worship service
Please join us in prayer, reflection, and action.