One of the most horrendous events in Nebraska history eventually led to two of Henry Fonda’s most critically acclaimed films. His performance in those films was likely the inspired result of the nightmare of violence on September 28, 1919.
The national mood was tense during the summer of 1919, nicknamed the “Red Summer”. There had already been a spate of violent race riots in many industrial cities across the United States. In Omaha, Nebraska, there was already a simmering dislike between white and black livestock workers in the Omaha Stockyards. The black population of Omaha had doubled because of recruitment efforts by the meatpackers in the city.
The ranking of the black population was second to Los Angeles. Omaha had more blacks than San Francisco, Oakland, Topeka, Kansas, and Denver, Colorado. Tensions increased during the meatpacker strikes of 1919. The major employers hired blacks as strikebreakers during that time. The conservative newspapers featured sensationalized coverage of the labor strike which resulted in an escalation of racial discord. In addition to the labor dispute stories, The Omaha Bee and the Omaha Daily News trumpeted front page feature stories about supposed sexual assaults by black men upon white women.
Apparently, Will Brown and Agnes Loebeck were acquainted through the Omaha underworld. The city’s black newspaper, The Crisis, claimed that Loebeck blamed Brown of attempted assault after a quarrel between the two.
The Crisis alleged that political boss Tom Dennison used the incident as a wedge to discredit the mayor and to regain control of Omaha. Dennison was in charge of the downtown Omaha 3rd Ward and Democratic party hack. In 1916, boss Dennison had lost power when rival Ed P. Smith defeated incumbant mayor James Dahlman.
On September 28th, Will Brown had been placed in protective custody at the Douglas County Courthouse. A group of white youths gathered in South Omaha then marched to the courthouse. Soon, thousands of angry whites were congregating outside the courthouse building. Omaha officials and police were trapped inside. A riot ensued at 8:00PM when whites began shooting at the courthouse. This resulted in the death of a businessman and the 16-year-old mob leader.
Around 8:30PM rioters set fire to the courthouse building. Omaha mayor Ed Smith appeared at the scene, asking the crowd to allow firefighters to extinguish the fires. The mayor was pushed to the ground and soon found a rope being tightened around his neck. The mayor was rescued either by police or by a youth, Russell Norgaard. The details are sketchy about that incident.
While the mayor was being rescued, some of the rioters entered the courthouse and seized Will Brown. He was beaten unconscious. His clothing had been torn away before reaching the outdoors.
A rope was put around his neck then he was hanged from a nearby lamppost. He was shot numerous times. The body was taken down and dragged behind a car then it was burned at a major street intersection. Brown’s body was then dragged through the downtown streets of Omaha.
After the lynching, rioters marched to the black neighborhoods of Omaha, attacking any blacks they met. Windows were broken, looting took place and much black owned property was set on fire.
Federal troops were finally able to quell the riots early in the morning of September 29th. The final toll included the three deaths and over 50 severe injuries.
The grand jury report said that Smith’s administration was ineffective and police were incompetant in prevention and in halting the escalation of the violence. 120 civilians were indicted for involvement in crimes. Most of the individuals were eventually found innocent. None of the defendants served any sort of imprisonment.
One of the witnesses to the lynching of Will Brown was the young Henry Fonda, who was 14 years old at the time of the riots. Fonda’s father owned a printing company located across the street from the Douglas County courthouse. Fonda witnessed the violence from the front window of the business. His acting in two movies, “Young Mister Lincoln and “The Ox Bow Incident” had lynching as major plot elements.
The Blue Jay of Happiness hopes that we always remember to honor the right of every person to enjoy the full protections and rights granted by the Constitution. There is no need for any sort of vigilantism in the United States.