Remembering the lynching of Will Brown during Omaha race riot of 1919

Published: Feb. 25, 2019 at 9:18 PM CST
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Several organizations are working to commemorate one of the darkest chapters in Omaha history.

The groups are planning to recognize the lynching of Will Brown. The 100th anniversary of the event is this fall; the riot occurred Sept. 28, 1919, and into the morning hours of Sept. 29, 1919.

Preliminary plans call for The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. — which honors thousands of victims of lynchings — to place a marker commemorating Brown's murder somewhere in the city.

Death didn't come easy for Brown.

He was accused of assaulting a white woman. While he sat in the Douglas County Courthouse jail, an angry mob gathered outside of the courthouse demanding that Brown be turned over to them.

The mob didn't want to wait for a trial. They stormed the courthouse, grabbed Brown, beat him, hanged him from a light pole, shot him repeatedly, dragged him through the streets and set him on fire.

None of the faces in the photographs from 1919 looked remorseful.

"They were on a mission, and this is what they were going to do. They were proud that they accomplished it, and sadly, not thinking of the consequences of their actions and what they were doing, there were children in those photographs," Kathy Aultz with the Douglas County Historical Society said. "Has anybody ever go to jail for this? No. The simple answer is no."

The 41-year-old man always claimed he was innocent, right up to the time the mob dragged him to his death.

Preston Love Jr. is an author and adjunct professor at the

. He said Brown most likely could not have committed the crime.

"He had a physical impediment. He was not even able to commit the crime. He had problems on, I forget which side, but he was not strong enough to assault," Love said. "So that was not taken into effect, so he was a victim of racist criminal justice."

The situation was unique.

"The environment was Will Brown lived in a house with another African American who had a white girlfriend and so they were focal points," Love explained.

Aultz said the mob was out of control, and even tried to kill Mayor Ed Smith when he tried to restore order.

"They were attacking it from the south, they were attacking it from the north side, they were ramming through, trying to get through the doors, slashing fire hoses, just really talk about mob mentality. Just really out of control," Aultz said.

The mayor sustained injuries trying to intervene.

"They absolutely grabbed him. They strung him up and you know, luckily somebody saved him. They rushed him to the hospital, but he was severely injured," Love said.

The Douglas County Courthouse, built seven years before the mob attack, was ruined. Windows were shot out, offices were trashed and records were burned.

The courthouse still wears the scars from the riot 100 years later. It's still possible to see the buckshot drilled into the marble.

No one will ever know if Brown was guilty or innocent, but it's clear a local newspaper, the Omaha Bee, found Brown guilty without a trial.

"And if there were any stories, black men being arrested anywhere in the country, they would exploit that. Any minor arrest in town and they would blow that up," Aultz said.

Some would say the media's accounts incited the mob.

"If you read the accounts, the man was surely convicted and found guilty in the newspaper. You don't get a crowd to show up at the courthouse unless someone is stoking the fires," Love said.

The lynching of Brown wasn't the first instance of mob mentality ruling over justice.

Almost 30 years before the lynching of Brown, in 1891, a mob grabbed another African American man from his jail cell and lynched him. George Smith was a 50-year-old railroad porter accused of assaulting a white child.

"In the aftermath, I think that people were shocked and couldn't believe that it happened here, but at the same time, there wasn't a big effort to try to make changes. As far as how the black community was treated or equality, there wasn't a big effort to turn things around either," Aultz said.

An angry, hate-filled mob took justice into their own hands in a building where justice should be served.

There was no justice for Will Brown.

Gov. Pete Ricketts issued a statement Friday:

"This day was a stain on our state’s history. It is painful to remember and difficult to discuss. Yet it’s important that we learn from the past—even its most shocking and saddening chapters. The events of September 28, 1919, serve as a stark reminder of our duty to oppose hate, condemn racism, and uphold due process and the rule of law. I know my fellow Nebraskans will join me as we solemnly recall what happened 100 years ago and renew our commitment to racial harmony.”