and the Awakening of Black America
Omaha's white population featured a large percentage of immigrants (Czechs, Germans, Russian Jews, Swedes, Italians, and Poles), due mostly to the city's meatpacking and railroad industries. The African-American population of Omaha sharply increased during World War I, especially due to the expanding workforce of the meatpacking industry. More than half of Omaha's African-American population worked in the meatpacking industry, and far-more-than-half lived in a segregated area, north of downtown.
Omaha's whites were seething over the combination of lost jobs and a higher cost-of-living. Omaha was hit with many strikes from many industries during-and-after World War I, due mostly to a desire for more wages. Businesses used African-Americans as "scabs" to try and break the strikes, which added even more tension between the races in Omaha. Tension increased further due to the newly-elected Mayor Edward P. Smith's (pictured) focus on reducing crime and vice. Whites were unhappy with the mayor since they believed he wasn't arrested nearly enough African-Americans, and African-Americans were unhappy in that most believed that the Mayor Smith was focusing too much attention on them.
The Omaha Bee wanted the new mayor out of office (the paper was controlled by the previous "Boss"/mayor), and most of their stories were anti-Smith and anti-African-American. And, as if there wasn't enough tension in Omaha in the Summer of 1919, 21 white women reported being attacked, and 16 of the suspects were African-Americans.
Millard Hoffman led the call for lynching Brown, and by Sunday afternoon, a mob of 600 whites were in front of the Douglas County Courthouse. In just two hours, the mob reached 4000, yet the Chief Marshal, figuring that the situation would not escalate, sent 50 police officers home. For the officers that remained in the courthouse, they knew they would be unable to keep the mob from entering the building, since there were multiple entrances and too many angry white citizens. The mob became far-more agitated and dangerous when a man on a horse appeared, displaying a noose; almost immediately, officers in the courthouse did their best to hide Willie Brown.
All the while, the Commander of federal troops at Fort Omaha refused to act; he had the authority to do so, but he refused to use it, claiming among other reasons that he hadn't received orders to intervene from the Secretary of War. By Sunday at 7 pm, rioters and police were exchanging gunfire INSIDE the courthouse. Shortly after that, the mob of whites set fire to the lower floors, destroying official records, furniture, and threatening the rest of the building.
When firefighters arrived, the mob cut their hoses, and when more police arrived, they were not only overwhelmed, they had their guns taken from them as well. Mayor Smith asked the Commander at Fort Omaha for help, and the Commander refused. Major Smith, who had been in the courthouse, showed remarkable courage as he tried to appeal to the mob. The reward for his courage was that he was brutally attacked, and nearly lynched and killed by the mob.
Brown was beaten, strung up on a lamppost, and then shot, many times over; his corpse was then driven several blocks away, soaked with gasoline, and burned on railroad ties, with at least hundreds of whites watching. After the fire died down, members of the white mob kicked Brown's corpse down the street. The mob started to head towards the African-American section of Omaha, but fell apart before reaching the border, perhaps knowing what was in store for them after what occurred in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Knoxville.
Federal soldiers from Fort Omaha showed up with overwhelming force, and overwhelmingly late; the Commander had finally received orders from the Secretary of War to act. The financial costs from the destroyed Douglas County Courthouse ranged from $750,000 to $1.1 million ($10 million to $14.6 million today).
General Wood (pictured) believed that a highly publicized presence in Omaha would enhance his bid for the Presidency in 1920. General Wood's theory was that the riot was caused by the IWW (the very socialist Industrial Workers of the World, nicknamed the "Wobblies" by their enemies), in that they had inspired African-Americans to start the riot . . . there was never a shred of proof, then or now of that theory. It was lost on General Wood that any sane individual could see that a mob of whites started and carried out the violence. The NAACP praised Mayor Smith, and decried the "assininity" of the police. Mayor Edward P. Smith was the only white that put his life on the line to protect Willie Brown; as a result of his near-death experience with the mob, he served out his term, and refused to seek re-election (the previous "Boss" and his "Machine" returned to power). There was one conclusion that General Leonard Wood got right: he blamed the Omaha Bee for being a primary cause of the mob violence.
(Below: a brief video segment of the "Spectacle Lynching" of Willie Brown)