A side of Omaha you won’t see during the College World Series
Two miles from Charles Schwab Field sits North Omaha, a historically Black neighborhood where there’s an ongoing mission to revitalize the community
OMAHA, Neb. — Every June, tens of thousands of people show up to Charles Schwab Field to see college kids play their hearts out on the baseball diamond. The pageantry of the function, these days, is mainly limited to the ancillary blocks around the stadium, extending through downtown to The Old Market.
There’s a loud, country-fried din over the proceedings in the immediate environs of the park, with bros in performance khaki shorts, ball caps and polos. For many fans, this is The Omaha Experience.
But two miles away sits one of the most historic corners we have in America. A short trip down North 24th Street, known as The Deuce, is the newsroom of the legendary Omaha Star, the weekly Black newspaper founded in 1938. A symbolic and central hub of North Omaha, on this Juneteenth, folks were finally back outside.
On Sunday, the city went all-in on its annual historical event, back for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic, complete with a parade and not one but two separate celebrations. And folks were happy to see it. One event was at the birth site of Malcolm X, a National Park Service historic site. The other was at 24th and Lake, more focused on the artsier side of the community.
For all the hubbub that is the greatest show on dirt, there’s a whole lot more to Omaha than the College World Series.
Centuries back, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored there along the Missouri River, where the stockyards would ship their wares all over the country. Eventually, the city became one of the most popular places for folks to settle during the Great Migration.
Short version: Historically, Omaha is one of the Blackest places in America.
Ernie Chambers is a perfect example. First introduced to the world in the 1966 movie A Time for Burning as “the intelligent barber,” Chambers was playing himself as part of the documentary about a Lutheran pastor trying to convince his congregation to accept Black parishioners. (That happened to be the same year Texas Western became the first NCAA men’s basketball champion to field five Black players in its starting five.)
In the movie, while giving a guy a cut in an Omaha barbershop, he breaks down to the preacher exactly why he had no particular interest in his goal.
“The few particulars that make Omaha different from New York are just incidental. The problem exists because white people think they’re better than Black people. And they want to oppress us and they want us to allow ourselves to be oppressed,” said Chambers, who is now 84 and was the longest-serving state senator in Nebraska.
“You did not take over this country by singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ you did not gain control of the world like you have it now by dealing fairly with a man and keeping your word. You’re treaty breakers, you’re liars, you’re thieves, you rape entire continents and races of people. Then you wonder why these very people don’t have any confidence or trust in you. Your religion means nothing, your law is a farce and we say it every day.”
As the years passed, he became a civil rights activist outright. His days in the state legislature are the stuff of legend, including the time he went onto the chamber floor wearing a Nebraska Cornhuskers jersey and helmet, and carrying a football to advocate for student-athletes to get paid by the NCAA. This was in the eighties. He was also critical in getting the state’s death sentence temporarily suspended in 2015 until Nebraskans voted to bring it back the following year.
Globally, the state known for corn was also the first to divest from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa due to legislation he introduced in 1980. Man was everywhere, and still is.
North Omaha, specifically, is — like many other formerly industrial cities that actively redlined their communities with zero impunity — effectively the place where the Black people in town live. From July 2019 to May, the Union for Contemporary Art hosted an exhibit called Undesign the Redline, a full-floor immersive museum that detailed how Omaha was split up along racial lines via structural racism where home loans and access to credit were denied to Black people.
According to the 1938 Home Owners’ Loan Corp. Residential Security map, the museum is in a redlined area. As were the stockyards, one of the places Black folks were allowed to work, besides the lead smelting areas. Between 1934 and 1962, the federal government backed $120 billion in home loans. More than 98% of them went to white homebuyers.
Meaning, in everyday life, the ballfields and courts were the places you were most likely to find any sort of decent coming together of Black and white people in Omaha for quite some time. More specifically, of course, the late St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, the late NFL great Gale Sayers and former NFL player Johnny Rodgers are all hometown heroes from eras gone by.
These days, a different type of hero is saving homes in his hometown.
24th Street, The Deuce. The main drag where, before the riots, places such as Dreamland Ballroom served as regular stops on what was colloquially known as the chitlin circuit for many years. Jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, orchestra leader Duke Ellington, and singers Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday are some of the folks who graced the venue in its day. Now, it’s an official Omaha landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nowadays, the strip is home to places such as Deuce Detailing, whose slogan is “come get your shine on.”
North Omaha feels like exactly what it is: a husk of its former self, still deeply affected by structural inequities originally designed to limit the ability to pursue happiness in America. Everywhere you look there are reminders of what used to be.
But on this hot summer day — cruising by Bud Crawford’s gym, and Goodwin’s, the very barbershop Chambers cut hair — Othello Meadows III is explaining to me why Omaha, his hometown, was just a place he couldn’t overlook.
“It’s just so undervalued,” Meadows said. “Nobody wants to live over here. And it’s a violent place, but I always tell people, because people are always scared about North Omaha, ‘Do you gang bang?’ Because if you don’t sell dope and you don’t gang bang … you’ll be fine.
“And growing up here, that was the deal. If you didn’t do those things, in 99% of the cases, the worst that’s going to happen is you’re going to get your a– whupped, and you can come back from that. Do you know what I mean?”
It’s a similar refrain that goes on in a lot of “urban” America. The reality of life in a so-called violent place looks very different on the ground than people think. Meaning, when provided with real opportunities, people take them. But too often, policies end up being self-defeating because too many interested parties feel the need to be in control, either politically or financially. That’s where Meadows comes in.
A standout basketball player at Creighton Prep in high school, he played four years at East Carolina University. From there, he got his law degree at historically Black North Carolina Central University in Durham. After about a decade in the Tar Heel State, he moved to Atlanta, where he met his wife and started his own firm.
What brought him back to Omaha? Politics.
“I ended up doing this voter registration thing. Like, it went really well,” Meadows said. “So District 2 went for Obama during that election. And it was crazy because everybody thought the election was going to be close. And the only reason there was all this money pouring into this district was because Nebraska portions its Electoral College votes. So there was one Electoral College vote to be had from the city of Omaha.”
Obviously, it worked. From there, well-connected and clearly successful, he took on a nearly impossible task: rebuilding the projects.
“He did a thing that, for 50 years, no one else has been able to do, No. 1, but also [he was] willing to do so and he took on that risk,” said Mike Greene-Walsh, athletic director and assistant principal at Omaha South High School. “Every year we hear we need to revitalize North Omaha, we need to invest money. But it never happens. He actually made it happen.”
Greene-Walsh, who is white, actually went to Omaha North High School, and the elementary school that is now a vital part of the project came to be known as Seventy Five North.
“This is all Crip area. And so we got cats whose daddies gang banged here, who still feel like they have some claim to this area. And I’m like, ‘Man, you just can’t.’ “— Omaha native Othello Meadows III
“The whole goal of it was to completely revitalize a section of town that hadn’t gotten any love for, 30, 40 years,” said Greene-Walsh, who is commissioner of the Metro Legion Baseball League locally. “I took an interest in it because that was where I went to elementary school, at Howard Kennedy. I went to high school at North, just up the street. You would drive through there and it was rough, and now it’s not. It’s the exact opposite, and I think a lot of that is just because he had a vision of what that neighborhood should look like.”
So, in 2011, they got to work with the launch of Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. with Meadows as the organization’s CEO. Fueled by what they called a purpose-built model, everything was focused on education, mixed-income housing, and community health and wellness. On the surface, that sounds easy, but the idea of completely overhauling an education facility with a neighborhood is something that if it was easy, everyone would do it.
The idea is, if it doesn’t directly amplify the quality of the education and betterment of the community through youth empowerment and education, it’s not part of the program. Which is not always easy to define when dealing with areas formerly on heavy gang turf.
“It’s like, how do you change expectations and behaviors?” Meadows said as kids ran around the lawn waiting for their parents after church. “So where this is, this used to be Pleasant View. Where that church is was Hilltop project. This is all Crip area. And so we got cats whose daddies gang banged here, who still feel like they have some claim to this area. And I’m like, ‘Man, you just can’t.’ ”
In the 1998 film Belly, the plot focuses on a group of New York drug dealers who move their operation to Omaha to take advantage of the lower level of rivalrous activity back in their hometown. In a couple of pivotal scenes, the Black Nebraskans are depicted as country and clearly suspicious of the new big city goons in town.
At one critical point, in which the character played by Method Man shows up looking to cut a deal with the local bigwig, he asks him, “Is that the illest n—a in Nebraska?” While comedic, there’s an odd level of truth to the query. It’s not quite Chicago, it doesn’t have the pro sports presence of Kansas City and it’s obviously not the size of St. Louis; nobody really thinks “Omaha” when it comes to a Black cultural presence anymore.
It’s something that affected a few generations of Black folks here. If you wanted to make it in life, you had to leave town.
One of those guys was Curtis Marshall. A basketball standout who grew up with Meadows, he’s seen the changes and how real the effects can be. Mr. Basketball in Nebraska in 1991, Marshall went on to NC State, where he started for four years before playing professionally in Germany.
But the two met at Creighton Prep, where being from North Omaha meant that you stuck out, even if you were an athlete. A senior when Meadows was a freshman, they’d known each other from basketball circles before that, and instantly became homies.
“When you go into Creighton Prep, it’s one of those things where if you’re a brother that comes from where we came from, North Omaha, it was culture shock,” Marshall explained. “You know what I mean? Matching Porsches in the parking lot. I went from all-Black elementary, all-Black middle school to Creighton Prep. So I had went through it for three years at Prep and I wanted to give some guidance to the young guys on how to maneuver around Creighton Prep and how to really, ‘Hey, hang in there, because eventually it’s going to be worked and you’ll see, by the time of your senior year you want to leave.’ ”
The reputation Omaha had was real. When Bloods and Crips started expanding nationally, Omaha was on the list.
“There were documentaries on Omaha and how Omaha was becoming this violent place in the ’80s and early ’90s. And that was because of how the gangs just came and took everything over,” Marshall said. “So you had to work your way through poverty, work your way through single-parent homes, and I had a single-parent home, my mother had me at 15. So she was working and everybody was fending for themselves at that point.”
It’s a tale typical of many cities of that era. But Omaha was a place where sports really were the way out, not just a bad poverty porn assertion that fuels further stereotypes about Black urban life.
“You had sports, you looked forward to practice, you looked forward to getting away, hanging with your boys,” Marshall said. “And you didn’t know you didn’t have anything at the time, you just thought, ‘Hey, let’s go to practice and try not to get chased by a damn dog on the way to practice.’ And try not to run into the wrong cats.”
As for his old hoops buddy, Marshall, who is now a marketing executive, is still blown away by what Meadows helped put together in his time back home. (Meadows left the CEO role in 2020, and recommended Cydney Franklin, his chief operating officer at the time, to replace him. He didn’t want to be the guy holding on to his own creation so tightly that it couldn’t grow without him.)
“It was inspiring,” Marshall said. “First I’m like, ‘You’re doing what? Hold on, you’re doing this 10,000-vote registration initiative for the Obama campaign and then you’re deciding to stay here? So you worked that hard for that law degree and that hard to start your own practice, and you just thought, ‘Screw it, I’m done?’
“You’ve given up a lot of bread, you’re giving up a lot of money and a lot of work and a lot of stuff that you worked extremely hard for to say, ‘You know what, there’s a bigger plan for me, there’s a different calling for me.’ And that is super inspiring, but at the same time, that takes some serious balls to do that. To jump to say, ‘I’m going to do that and give that up,’ I don’t know if I could have did it at the time. … And I always give him grief: He convinced his wife to give up her successful career as a lawyer to come to Omaha, Nebraska.”
But when you see people populating the coffee shop at Seventy Five North, just like any other day, and a food hall that sells a local sister’s great food, along with a whole host of other amenities on the grounds, you understand.
After Chambers, Meadows just might be the illest Black man in Nebraska. If nothing else, he’s tried harder than pretty much anyone.
With Seventy Five North, the prospect of growing up in Omaha doesn’t feel so desperate. A generation of kids with a real chance and community investment is all you can ask among a sea of cornfields and despair. Maybe one day those kids will grow up to play on the field down the street that all the tourists talk about.
As for Meadows, standing by the pool of the community he rebuilt, his conclusion is simple.
“It’s my proudest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”