Historic marker placed for Omaha lynching victim George Smith

There's a new marker on the Douglas County courthouse lawn unveiled Friday. It acknowledges the October 1891 lynching of George Smith.
Published: Oct. 7, 2022 at 5:28 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Decades before Will Brown was lynched by an angry white mob here in Omaha, George Smith was murdered in the same fashion.

Both were falsely accused of crimes they did not commit.

Three years ago a historic marker was placed on the Douglas County Courthouse lawn to memorialize Brown.

Friday morning a new marker for George Smith was unveiled at the courthouse lawn marking another dark chapter of Omaha history.

George Smith was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery. There are many other memorials there, marking the site where people in the late 1800s were laid to rest.

But for George Smith, there were no markers, no monuments to mark this ugly chapter of Omaha history until Friday when a historical marker on the lawn of the Douglas County Courthouse was unveiled to acknowledge the October 1891 lynching of George Smith, also known as Joe Coe.

“Today we’re together to reflect on a historic day in the City of Omaha,” said Mayor Jean Stothert. “Certainly not a proud day in our city’s past, but we must recognize history, the good and the bad.”

The marker tells the story of how bad it was for George Smith back in 1891.

Smith was falsely accused of assaulting and killing a young white girl, who was very much alive when he was murdered. In the early hours of Oct. 10, an angry white mob ignored law enforcement, stormed the courthouse, and pulled him into the mob.

They beat, kicked, and trampled Smith, so severely that by the time his body was hanged, he was already dead.

Smith was 20 years old, married, and had a child.

“The local coroner concluded that he had died of fright,” said Eric Ewing with the Great Plains Black History Museum. “No one was ever held accountable for the lynching of George Smith.”

Smith was lynched more than 30 years before Will Brown, who was murdered in the same violent fashion. Now both markers line the Douglas County Courthouse lawn. Two markers for an ugly chapter of Omaha’s history that some believe this country has failed to learn from.

“To me, January 6 was the visual of a lynching that could have happened,” said Dr. Cynthia Robinson, the chairperson of the Department of Black Studies at UNO. “Not Black people, but they were going to lynch people that they found there if they could have found them. So that mob that was assembled partly by the people who were in charge, that happens and that is why we had George Smith lynched, that is why we had Will Brown lynched.”

Organizers of this ceremony say this is not an attempt to lay blame, but an opportunity for the city to reconcile what happened in the past.

“I think historically, Omaha has had its challenges racially. With public schools for instance, redlining for instance, there have been lots of issues here and it’s an opportunity for us to say today again that’s wrong and we need to do better going forward,” said Rev. Michael Williams, President of Omaha NAACP.

The Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation worked for years to make this ceremony and acknowledgment possible.

The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama provided the marker for George Smith and Will Brown.