Saturday, September 10, 2011

Omaha Vice: The Lynching of Willie Brown

Omaha, Nebraska riot aftermath 1919

For forty years Omaha was ruled by a political, criminal gang that was perhaps the most lawless of any city of its size in the civilized world. There had grown up during that period, a powerful group who lived on the proceeds of organized vice and crime. These included about three hundred and eighty-four (384) houses of prostitution, together with saloons, pool halls, organized bank robbers, organized highway robbers, and professional "con" men and burglars.

Thomas Dennison and his second wife, 16-year-old Nevajo Truman, October, 1930.
Source — NSHS
Whenever a plan was made to have a election of officials, certain men in the community would assemble and hold a conference and they would decide what men it would be "safe" to elect, and they would give The Boss for his service a certain sum of money and control of the vice interests, the Police Department, the Police Court, the juries, and then proceed to elect public officials. This condition obtained, without interruption, from the early history of the city until 1908.

Reforms began in 1908 by an early closing law for saloons, followed by laws which took the control of juries and elections from the vice-ring. In 1916 statewide prohibition was carried.
We thus eliminated the whiskey interests which furnished the most of the money for election purposes, the control of the jury and election machinery, from the gang, and the actual disposition of public officers, but we had not eliminated all of the gang. There was still left the Omaha Bee which had been the mouth-piece of the vice-ring, the thugs and murderers who had ruled for years, and these combined to destroy the present city administration and regain control of the Police Department, which was absolutely necessary for the continuation of the reign and control of vice.
A mob of white men marched from South Omaha (rallied and led by a henchman of Dennison's) and converged on the Douglas County Courthouse, where the jail was. In the evening the crowd grew larger and set the courthouse on fire, forcing police to turn Brown over to them. They lynched him, hanging him from a lamppost on the south side of the courthouse, then dragging his body through the streets and burning it.

In order to accomplish this, the Omaha Bee, assisted at times by the other daily papers, began a campaign of slander and vituperation against the Police Department of the City of Omaha, and in order to make it effective they chose a line of propaganda to the effect that Negro men were attacking white women, assaulting them with intent to commit rape, and actually committing rape, with the connivance of the Police Department. They made a majority of the people in Omaha believe that all Negro men were disposed to commit the crime of rape on white women.

Rioters on the south side of Douglas County Courthouse, Omaha, Nebraska, September 28, 1919
For years there has been much illegal cohabitation of whites and blacks in Omaha, with about fifteen assignation houses where colored men met white prostitutes. Leading colored citizens asked the police to suppress these dens, but when this was begun, it only increased the slander and vituperation of the Omaha Bee, the organ of the vice-ring. This was kept up successfully until the people believed that the police were invading private property without warrant of law and arresting law-abiding citizens.
Tom Dennison. The reign of Omaha political boss Tom Dennison ended in 1933. For more than thirty-five years, he controlled gambling, drinking, prostitution and other criminal interests throughout Omaha, particularly in his seedy Sporting District. He controlled bootlegging operations in Little Italy through the Prohibition Era. He was closely allied with James Dahlman, Omaha's only eight-term mayor. Dennison was implicated in agitation of groups related to the Omaha Race Riot of 1919.

There was still left in the Police Department from the old regime a large percentage of the police officers protected by Civil Service, who were loyal to the old vice-ring, and they were doing everything within their power to hamper and discredit the honest efforts of the present city administration to enforce the law. The result of this was that together with the campaign of the newspapers, the morale of the Police Department was broken down and the city administration was unable, in the brief space of time that it had been in office, to get rid of these discordant elements.
The lynch mob white European-born immigrants and ethnic European Americans. The mayor attempted to intervene and was also hanged; he was saved only by a last-minute rescue by federal agents.
There was, furthermore, in connection with these men, fathered by these same influences, an organized gang determined to wreck the administration at any cost, and they deliberately organized a mob; they furnished it with money and liquor, and the leaders of the old vice-ring stood around in the mob, urging the men to go in and assist in wrecking the Court House, lynch the Negro, and kill the Mayor of the City and other officials.
The burning of Will Brown's body, Omaha, Nebraska, Sept. 28, 1919.
Both Brown, who was lynched, and the woman who accused him belonged to the under-world which met at the houses of assignation. They had quarreled and the woman "got back" at Brown by alleging attempted assault. It is said that at the time she was wearing a diamond ring given her by Brown.
United States Citizen, Willie Brown the lynching victim in Omaha, Nebraska, 1919.

(source: The Crisis)

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