Historical marker unveiled at the site of the 1891 lynching at the Omaha Courthouse

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Those seeking justice at the Douglas County Courthouse will now walk between two monuments commemorating two of the ugliest and most violent injustices in Omaha history.

A historical marker, unveiled in a moving ceremony on Friday, tells the story of the lynching of George Smith by a white mob outside the courthouse in 1891. The marker also chronicles the background to the murder: from 1865 to 1950, thousands blacks were victims of racial terror and lynching. The lynchings were “intended to intimidate black people and enforce racial hierarchy and segregation.”

The other plaque, unveiled last year, commemorates the lynching of Will Brown outside the courthouse in 1919.

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Metal plaques frame the sidewalk leading to the main courthouse entrance at 17th and Farnam streets.

Their prominent placement “denotes the importance of reconciliation,” said Brenda Council, a former Omaha City Councilwoman and Nebraska state senator, after the Smith marker was unveiled on Friday.

“It contains a tragic but real story of the role racial injustice has played in Omaha City,” the Council said. “It’s a new day, and we must move forward – not ignore the wounds, but recognize them and seek to heal them.”

Nearly 100 people attended the ceremony on a cool fall day. It was led by members of the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation, which worked with the Alabama-based Equal Justice initiative on markers and a series of events.

Friday’s ceremony mixed lament for past injustices with exhortations to do better in the present and the future. It included a moving a cappella rendition by the Reverend Beverly Thompson of “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching anthem popularized by Billie Holliday.

Former Omaha City Councilman Franklin Thompson led a chorus of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the black national anthem. Central High School student Kaleciana Perry read a powerful poem she wrote about Smith’s lynching. Reverend T. Michael Williams, president of the Omaha NAACP Chapter, and Reverend Stan Rone offered prayers.

Eric Ewing, executive director of the Great Plains Black History Museum, read the marker’s account of Smith’s murder. A 20-year-old hotel boy with a wife and young daughter, Smith was arrested without evidence on suspicion of assaulting a white girl. After inflammatory and inaccurate newspaper reports, a mob of thousands of white people descended on the courthouse, broke Smith out of jail, killed him, and hung his lifeless body from a telegraph wire.

Professor Cynthia Robinson, chair of the UN’s Department of Black Studies, read Marker Smith’s background information on the Omaha lynching.

“Many African Americans have been lynched on charges of violating social customs or committing crimes, even when there was no evidence linking the accused to any offence,” read Robinson. “Black people faced hostile suspicion and a presumption of guilt that left them vulnerable to white mob violence and lynching. White mobs have routinely shown complete disregard for the legal system.

It was, Robinson added, “because sometimes the legal system was part of it.”

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said Smith’s murder shattered America’s founding commitment to equality and injustice.

“As we unveil the marker to draw attention to its history, we recognize that racial violence and suffering was part of our country’s shameful past,” Stothert said. “We are committed to rejecting hate and prejudice and contributing to a community of acceptance, where we can speak openly about our past, learn from hateful actions and educate each other and future generations that tolerance, respect and inclusion are hallmarks of a civil society.”

Franklin Thompson said the day was not about guilt and shame.

“It was all about reconciliation,” he said. “The Omaha Community Council on Racial Justice and Reconciliation, we want justice, but we also want to reconcile with each other and move forward and reach our potential as human beings.”

Marisa Hattab was so affected hearing the story of Smith’s murder that she had to remember to breathe.

“I wasn’t there during that time but the trauma, the generational trauma that was inflicted on black bodies, I still feel it,” said Hattab, director of diversity, equity and inclusion. of Douglas County.

She said she struggled with despair when she thought of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. But she believes in a concept expressed by Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative: despair is the enemy of justice.

“There really is hope,” Hattab said. “We are standing, we are sitting, in the hopes and prayers of many of our ancestors that things will change. …And so I just want to encourage you to be grounded and steadfast and hopeful. Because if we truly surrender to despair – and that enemy is real, all of you – justice will not prevail.

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