Wishing for What We Cannot Have Back

Originally published by NOISE

“There are things that I wish I had back.”  - Dr. Franklin Thompson.

The year 2019 marks a pivotal moment in time for Omaha, Nebraska. We come upon the anniversary of two events that have shaped our city for generations: in 1919, the lynching of Will Brown and in 1969, the police killing of Vivian Strong.

On a rainy Tuesday night at First United Methodist Church on 70th and Cass Street, a full house of 425 patrons gathered to learn about and discuss this crucial Omaha history.

A group of speakers, moderated by A’Jamal Byndon, that included Vickie Young of the NAACP, author Ted Wheeler, Preston Love Jr. with Black Votes Matter, Dr. Franklin Thompson and Dr. Cynthia Robinson from UNO painted a picture for the crowd.

The lynching of Will Brown was one of the most heinous acts of racial violence not only in the  history of Omaha, but in the history of the United States. The photo of the scene is infamous.

Brown, accused of raping a white woman, was given no opportunity to prove his innocence. Following arrest, he was seized from his jail cell by a violent mob. He was hung, shot, dragged and burned for the city to witness.

50 years later, a tragedy of equal bearing pierced our city. A police officer shot and killed fourteen-year-old Vivian Strong. She and her friends were hanging out and playing music one night in an empty unit at Logan Fontenelle housing projects, when a police call disrupted their gathering and sent everyone running. Upon her attempt to escape, Strong was hit with a bullet in the back of her head. The officer, James Loder, was later found not guilty.

Former city councilman Franklin Thompson knew Vivian Strong. He was just a boy, only a year older than she.

As if it were yesterday, he painfully remembered North 24th Street, and the collection of stores and shops, burned to the ground as anger and frustration gripped the community. A half century later, the area has yet to fully recover.

“From that day to this day, it’s the same day,” said Dr. Cynthia Robinson reflecting on the ripple effect of racism and violence in Omaha, and across the country, that we still feel today.

Following the speeches, the engaged audience asked thought-provoking questions. How do we still see these events impact us today? Why is it important to revisit these painful moments in our city’s past?

Upon conclusion of the night, the crowd rose to their feet for a standing ovation. A melting pot of different ages, races, religions, and backgrounds, gathered for one of many discussions we as city have long avoided.

“When I look at this audience right here,” Robinson said, “I see a very diverse crowd, but this is not the Omaha that exists in Omaha.”

She’s right.

“I believe in this country,” Thompson said, “but in order for us to get where we need to, we have to do some things new. But we also have to reclaim some things that are lost.”

“And I’m hoping that in this year, that can happen,” he said.

As we approach the 100th year anniversary of the lynching of Will Brown and 50th year anniversary of the murder of Vivian Strong, our city enters a crossroads moment. We are given a test to see how far Omaha has come.

Will we remember? Will we reconcile? Will we push not only for collective introspection, but also for change?

“People don’t understand that racism is far more than just physical chains,” Thompson said, “Racism touches the heart in a damaging hysteria.”

May we capture the spirit found that April night in an Omaha church sanctuary, and channel it into not just conversation, but into action. We must work against racism and racial injustice in our communities, so that we may not find ourselves again, wishing for what we cannot have back

Nick Beaulieu is a filmmaker and journalist from Omaha, NE. His current project is a documentary film, examining race relations in Omaha over the last four years, where he’s captured more than 100 hours of events and conversations pertaining to the subject. To learn more and for future updates on the film, visit omahadoc.com.