100 Years

soil-collection.jpgThis weekend marked the centenary of the lynching of Will Brown outside the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha. There were a number of events and memorial services to mark the occasion, including a gathering and soil collection ceremony outside the courthouse yesterday morning. (The soil collected from the site will be on display in Montgomery, Ala. at the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice.) It was an emotional morning on many levels. Standing in that spot, my mind wandered while the politicians spoke and played back over the events. It has been a few years since I walked around the grounds and imagined what it would have been like to be there during the riot. The morning was also a culmination of the work of so many people in Omaha over the past seventeen months to bring together the community for a commemoration like this in a meaningful way. So it was heartening to see that labor bear fruit and to have the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation be at center stage.

As part of this effort, at the invitation of the Kingfisher Institute, I delivered a lecture earlier this month at Creighton University that focused on some of the reasons why I wrote Kings of Broken Things, how I came to see myself in relation to the book, and why the story is told from the perspective of bystanders, rather than, perhaps, Will Brown himself or other victims of the violence. If you’d like to watch a recording of the presentation, you can here, with the action starting around 55 minutes the recording of the livestream. Alternatively, I’ll paste below an essay version of the presentation.

I’ve been at a loss for how I should personally observe this dark anniversary. Hopefully this will suffice.

On Whiteness and an Omaha Race Riot: 100 Years Later, a Writer Reflects on the Lynching of Will Brown

A long section of my novel Kings of Broken Things describes a race riot in World War I Omaha and the subsequent lynching of Will Brown, a 40-year-old black man who’d been dubiously accused of raping a white woman. It’s troubling material, to say the least, and how the country has changed (or failed to change) since I started working on the book a decade ago makes the history even more troubling. Focusing solely on Omaha—where major riots haven’t erupted in decades—violence and segregation remain endemic. These are difficult things to talk about in mixed company and, as it relates to the relevant history, many here would rather forget the bad times. During the first few weeks after publication, online comments questioned why I was “stirring up trouble” by revisiting the riot, and some expressed opinions similar to a Facebook user who addressed a post about the riot by saying, “History like this is hidden for a reason.”

It’s an important question to ask ourselves, if we agree that history should be hidden—or if we think that acknowledging our history is an important part of reconciling with racial violence in Omaha. Generally, I side with the famous William Faulkner line from his novel Requiem for a Nun—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—but, honestly, it’s a little murky even to me why I worked so stubbornly to finish and publish this particular novel. I’m not a native to Omaha and have no family connection to what happened here a hundred years ago. I could have largely shrugged off the troubles detailed in Kings of Broken Things if I wanted, as many do; it’s generally easy enough for white Midwest Americans like me to walk away from what can be seen as other people’s problems.

To a certain degree, I did turn away. I saw myself as a bystander: that I never meant harm to anyone and was therefore pardonable. Yet throughout the process—writing the book, researching the lynching of Will Brown—it became impossible to ignore the complicity that bystanders like me have in the violence that yet plagues our nation.

An estimated 15,000 people participated to some degree in the Omaha Race Riot of 1919. That is to say, a colossal mob of white people took over a city that was then one of the largest west of the Mississippi River in order to murder an innocent black man in retribution for a crime that likely didn’t even occur. In the process, the Douglas County courthouse was nearly destroyed, along with the rest of downtown, and Omaha’s reform mayor was also hanged when he attempted to disperse the mob, though he was cut down and would survive. Will Brown was a 40-year-old itinerant laborer who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. There isn’t much known about Brown beyond his connection to these crimes, except that he came to Omaha from Cairo, Ill., and was a “hunchback” and physically disabled. He lived in the same house with another black man and a white woman—a fact that was principal in his being accused of raping a white teenager that September. There had been dozens of white women raped earlier that summer—mostly by white men in blackface who were part of a criminal organization run by Tom Dennison that was undermining that new reform mayor by whipping the public into hysteria about “black criminality”—so after Will Brown was identified to police by the alleged victim, an angry mob nearly lynched him on the site. Though he was whisked to the courthouse without being harmed that evening, two days later, on Sunday, September 28, 1919, Will Brown would be lynched in downtown Omaha without ever being arraigned on charges.

Many of these events happened in places I walked by every day for the near-decade it took me to finish the book. (I work as a reporter at the courthouse where the riot occurred.) And once I knew that a man had been lynched and hung from a light pole on a particular corner, it was impossible to not wonder about that each time I was on the spot. Not only what happened there (what it would have sounded like, what it would have felt like to be in that crush of fanatical anger) but also the eerie experience of standing in that space a hundred years later. Knowing the history of a place can haunt you, much as that very place can be haunted.

My first writing professor, the prodigious novelist Jonis Agee, often talked about what she called “the psychosis of the land”: how trauma was experienced in most all places on the prairie, and even if you no longer see the direct effect of that trauma, it has left a mark. So I wondered what it meant that a man was lynched on the spot where now there’s a crosswalk I use to get to work, that the light post he was hung from has been replaced several times since then, but that there’s still a light post. Particularly as time passed, writing this book, as the destruction of black bodies again became a generational dilemma for our society, as we learned names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many others, how could you not wonder about what kind of nation we are, what kind of people we are, that this keeps happening?

In some ways, writing about the Omaha Race Riot was a matter of craft—incorporating primary historical sources in order to portray the riot as horrific in fiction as it was in real life—but there was some personal involved too, of course. In this case, I had to put myself in a mindset to depict the mob, to get inside the psyche of a person who would shoot at a hanged man until he was disemboweled, while also imagining what Will Brown might have had running through his mind as his hours dwindled. In the progression of the riot, I think this dehumanization comes out in excerpts like these:

1. Everybody had a theory about how these things happened, especially later, when a mob caught one, a black man who did bad things to a girl. They would wonder about it in Omaha for years after the fact. What went through his mind? What was he thinking when the cops handed him over? This one they caught, this Will Brown. They’d wonder if his ears worked, if he was able to hear what that mob promised to do to him. They’d never know. No more than fifty people had even heard of him the day he was arrested, but the day after, Will Brown’s name was on the lips of every person in Omaha, after what that girl said he did to her.

2. They got Will Brown. The raiders. Karel was there. He reached up at Will Brown but couldn’t touch him. Men had taken over again, their arms longer than Karel’s, their hips heavier when he tried to move them. Karel stretched but couldn’t reach—all at once Will Brown fell, and it was Karel’s hands that tried to catch the weight of the man and pass it off. But Karel couldn’t hold. The weight crashed through him, crumpled him into a corner. Will Brown on top. Karel saw Will Brown’s eyes as the raiders grabbed and lifted him and carried on. Will Brown’s white eyes popping out of his skull. Raiders lifted Karel to his feet, but Karel’s legs didn’t work. His legs and hands were numb where he touched the black. He flattened against the wall to watch raiders tear off down the stairs. He couldn’t follow. They held Will Brown out a window. They ripped his clothes off. They had him.

Both the causes and effects of the lynching of Will Brown remain with the community. In many ways, the old ghetto boundary lines codified by Red Lining and other racist governmental policies still segregate society. And though the city and its suburbs consistently rank among the best places to live and raise a family, and the area is praised for its suburban public schools and low unemployment rate, these features aren’t enjoyed equally. While this situation is not uncommon nationally, the gulf in Omaha is wider than most anywhere else.

In a recent series on change in the African-American community over the last decade, the Omaha World-Herald interviewed a prominent community activist, Willie Barney, who described his experience coming to the city like this:

At first he and his wife, Yolanda Barney, saw Omaha as ‘a gold mine,’ with low unemployment, strong public schools and a vibrant downtown. But where were all the black people? Not leading corporations. Not very prevalent in civic leadership. Not even present in his neighborhood […] As he looked more closely at the city, he began to see what had been hidden. Omaha might have a low jobless rate overall, but black unemployment was in the double digits. The public housing projects didn’t look as bad as in other cities, but the poverty was deep. Plus the geographic separation was stark. (OWH, 8/9/17)

While the city touted revitalization and economic success, the homicide victimization rate for African-Americans in Nebraska was highest in the nation for several years, and twice the national average, which led to Omaha being tabbed three times in this decade as the most dangerous place in America to be black. The numbers suggest how different life still is across races here.

I moved to Omaha around the same time as the Barneys and noticed many of the same things, if in a more general, clueless-white-guy kind of way. Coming of age in Lincoln, there was a persistent sense that Omaha was an outlier in Nebraska, and not in a good way. The capitol city is part of the state-at-large—a bigger actor in pioneer history, home to the state’s beloved Cornhusker football team and flagship university—yet, across the divide, broad swaths of Omaha aren’t party to the Nebraska I grew up knowing. Omaha’s urban struggles and shootings were as far away from the cul-de-sacs of my childhood as those we saw fuel the L.A. riots in 1992. What I did hear about Omaha, the parts inside the byways, communicated a consistent message: look away.

Though the lynching of Will Brown is the most explosive incident of race violence in Nebraska, it isn’t talked about all that much and has been treated very much like settled history. More palpable are a series of riots, lootings, and fire-bombings that began in 1966 and devastated the Near North neighborhoods. These riots peaked in the summer of 1969 when black, fourteen-year-old Vivian Strong was shot in the back and killed by a policeman near the projects where she lived. This is a familiar story, how riots broke out after Vivian Strong was killed. Red-lining was in full effect by then and the construction of the North Freeway in the 70s would further segregate the peoples and economies of Omaha—but the way I’d always heard it growing up was that members of the black community had destroyed north Omaha during the riots and that its prolonged depression is therefore the mess of the black community to clean up, regardless of why the riots started, regardless of anything, really. Punitive sentiments likes this have not exactly left us either.

Whoever owns the legacy in this political sense, it’s true that such unleashed anger and destruction sealed a certain fate for many neighborhoods. And, as like everywhere, suburban flight showed who could walk away and who could not.

When I moved to Omaha after college, in 2005, my fiancée and I ended up in a diverse low-rent neighborhood in midtown, one that was pretty rough around the edges. Like many in our generation, we were trying to reverse suburban flight, if for no other reason than we didn’t want to live in the middle of a parking lot. Those days, there was quite a bit of violence on our block—a friend mugged, a few acquaintances jumped outside bars, two ex-cons across the street who fought drunkenly with baseball bats—though most of what made the papers was related to drug deals gone bad and, really, I never felt all that unsafe. I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t talk shit, so why should I worry?

I was right about that. We were just starting out, my fiancée-then-wife and I. That’s how the prevailing narrative for folks like us goes here—not exactly rags to riches, but along those lines. Soon after marrying we had our first kid, bought our first house, got our first good jobs, had another kid, bought a better house in a better neighborhood that has better schools. More or less how it’s supposed to go. We didn’t stay in the low-rent neighborhood much longer than we had to, because, honestly, the calculus changed and we were mobile. Why wouldn’t we move twenty blocks west if it made life easier? We weren’t fleeing, we were recalibrating.

The toughest question I struggled with while writing Kings was why I was the person who should write this book. There was a little voice inside my head that told me to be quiet. In truth, although it’s much too late to turn back now, I’m still not so sure that I was the right person. The instinct is to hold tightly to the good things I have in life and forget the rest. However, as I was writing the novel, I struggled with appropriation issues and finding the best perspective to tell the story, there was another little voice that told me I couldn’t use my position or race as a way to get out of writing about these issues; or, for that matter, contemplating how ethnicity and whiteness have been elemental forces in the development of Omaha. Failure was always an option, of course, but I had to try my best to write and publish this novel, so I didn’t feel like I’d copped-out when given an opportunity to do good work. For me, Kings was always about reaching—to understand ideas bigger than me… to compose a novel beyond my abilities… to write a story that’s more than the sum of my fears, misconceptions, and prejudices, these things that comprise the worst face for all of us. There are lots of reasons to write, the most tangible for me has always been the process of creating something from myself that’s better than myself. This, and I believed that someone could tell about the lynching of Will Brown in a way that would draw more attention to the story than straight history. On my good days, I believed that I could be that person.

Even at the start, armed with this high-mindedness, I wanted to use certain immigrant narratives and the shaky status of German-Americans during World War I to set up what I knew was coming at the end of the novel. (German immigration and the settlement of the West is a big part of my family’s legends, as you might suspect.) The literal placement of whiteness in the riot was a key part of this strategy, insofar as the riot had to involve diverse notions of whiteness. Not only belligerent working class louts who storm the courthouse, but also reviled hyphenated German-Americans eager to improve their station, political movers-and-shakers who wield prejudice to get what they want, and, just as important, a bunch of pleasant folks who are there to be nice to their neighbors, who desire little except to remain pleasant. Those Nebraskans who want to live on the fringes, just out of reach of the troubles of other folks. Bystanders, like me.

Yet, in the early drafts, no main characters were actively involved in the riot. I worried a lot about making my characters likable, at least those who were precious to me, who resembled me, but the novel was flat, written this way, particularly because I didn’t want to implicate my “good” characters in such an evil act by even having them inside the courthouse, much as I wouldn’t want to implicate myself. The novel only really began to make sense after I transformed teenage baseball prodigy Karel Miihlstein into an active participant in the riot and let him find his way to the spot where Will Brown is seized by the lynch mob.

After letting Karel evolve into a fallible being, his emotional darkness and struggle to be accepted by others became organizing principles. By making Karel a courthouse raider, this was no longer disembodied whiteness that merely observed evil acts. Karel was there, he touched Will Brown. (But Karel couldn’t hold. The weight crashed through him, crumpled him into a corner. Will Brown on top. Karel saw Will Brown’s eyes…) It took me a long time to willingly go to this place with one of my precious characters. Of course, from the beginning, none of the characters in Kings of Broken Things were ever clean. There was no purity to protect.

During those specific months of revision, I found myself more and more interested in the group of boys who surround Karel in his working class neighborhood and come together because of their love of baseball. Because of this, Kings of Broken Things spends a lot of time reveling in the hijinks of young white men. Petty theft, brawling, sneaking into bars, trying to catch a glimpse of a girl’s pubic hair, barging into neighborhoods where black people live and returning to “tell the tale.” Traditional good-old-boy lore. Of course, I too went through similar initiation as a young man—the vastly more restrained 1990s Lincoln version—and what I remember most are the times we should have got in trouble for whatever we were up to, but we were almost always let off the hook. The argument in favor of this cycle is that we were shitheads once, sure, but we grew up, we’re balanced and successful men now, so what’s in the past no longer matters.

Around when the final draft was nearly done, in February 2015, I was talking with a friend from those salad days. He asked, “Do you think we would have been part of the riot if we were teenagers then?” At first we both said, “No, not ever.” But given a moment, we admitted that we would have been there. Not as raiders who snatched Will Brown, but amidst the teens who took advantage of the chaos to smash out a window in the courthouse and slur police without consequences. Of course we would have been there. We’d have nothing to lose. Not in a physical sense, not in terms of our freedom.

It makes me sick sometimes to think about all the things my friends and I got away with, not because our misadventures were so terrible, but because not every young man in this country gets to walk away from petty crime.

I’d never thought to use Kings of Broken Things as a way to vindicate anyone for what happened—the lynching of Will Brown was an irredeemable act—but even for those who weren’t perpetrators, even for bystanders, there is a degree of complicity. From walking away, from looking away. I couldn’t have written this novel without appreciating that. In my author’s note I mention that I consider this novel an “act of remembering,” which is to say it’s a call for ownership of that history, and in a similar, maybe more important way, it’s also an act of seeing where we live, who we are, and who we live with.

 

 

Solitude Atlas Arrives in Omaha

My copy of the Solitude Atlas arrived in the mail today, so I thought I’d share a few photos with you all. See below for those. I already wrote about the publication at length back in August–so see this post for more information on how the book came together to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of Akademie Schloss Solitude. It’s interesting stuff. Also, here’s the webpage for the book, where you can order a copy of your own.

I’m happy to finally have this in hand, and am of course proud to be one of the 145 authors of this atlas of Solitude. Also, it’s always gives me a little extra thrill (or is that self-importance?) to see my work translated. So there’s that too.

Thanks so much, Jean-Baptiste, for sending this copy my way.

Cover Preview for “On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown”

Here’s the cover image for my forthcoming chapbook (“On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown”) that will be published by Reihe Projektiv/Edition Solitude later this winter, in late February, to be exact.

This will be the first writing I’ve had published about the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 and the lynching of Will Brown at the Douglas County Courthouse. I’ve posted here many times on the subject, one I’ve been researching and writing fiction about for over five years now. I’WheelerCoverm both excited and nervous to finally be sharing this work with audiences. Hopefully it’s found to be pertinent and well-considered work.

The chapbook will be released in conjunction with my upcoming presentation at Akademie Schloss Solitude as part of their two-day, cross-discipline workshop titled “Quotes and Appropriation.” DJ Darren Keen and I have been hard at work on our opening night event that will feature readings from the chapbook and a DJ set from a melange of music that was important to the writing of the chapbook, plus a presentation of photographs and film from my research. It will be a good time.

If you heard me read at the Key West Literary Seminar in January, Solitude Nacht in July, or in December at the Fair Use Reading Series in Benson, this is some of the same material. It includes what I read then and quite a bit more.

If you’re interested in acquiring a copy of the book, the best way would be to just stop in at Akademie Schloss Solitude in February and pick up a copy at the event. If Stuttgart is a little far afield, other options will be available thereafter, hopefully in both hardcopy and digital editions. More on that to come.

Many thanks to Todd Seabrook (editor/designer with The Cupboard) for his work on the cover and book design. He’s great. If you’re looking for someone to work with on a chapbook project, he’s your guy.

On Researching Lynchings, and Writing About Bad Things That Really Happened

The bulk of my writing work this summer has revolved around the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, a tumultuous and hugely traumatic event that I’ve been attempting to dramatize in Part 5 of my novel-in-progress, The Hyphenates of Jackson County. The riot, a well-known scar on Omaha’s history, one that is referred to from time to time in this space, was set off and punctuated by the lynching of Will Brown, an itinerant black worker who’d been accused of rape.

Omaha World-Herald, Sept. 29, 1919.

A lot of my previous work has dark themes, and I felt pretty well accustomed to portraying violence in my work. But I haven’t been as prepared for the kind of in-depth experience that researching and writing about a lynching has been. The darkness has kind of caught me by surprise sometimes–maybe because these bad things really happened, where the violence in my previous work was purely fictional. It isn’t something that can just be packed away at the end of the day, going through hundreds of horrific images with a mind toward depicting them, or getting inside the psyche of a character who would shoot at a hanging body and burn a corpse, or trying to imagine what that person who would be lynched might be thinking as their days and hours dwindled, before they were about to die in an infamous way.

Many of these things I researched happened in places I walk by everyday, as I work as a reporter at the Douglas County Courthouse, where the riot and lynching occurred. It was easy to be reminded, which, I suppose, was kind of the point of the project in the first place.

Most of my work was spent reading and re-reading local newspaper accounts of the riot–in microfilm copies of the World-Herald, Daily Bee, Daily News, and Monitor, the black weekly, from 1919. Some of the accounts are chilling. Eye witness and insider accounts. The riot built over the course of eight hours, so there was considerable news coverage. The Bee‘s headquarters was right across the street from the Douglas County Courthouse (where the Woodmen Tower stands now) at the epicenter of the riot. There are many photos, some graphic accounts. The news now is pretty tame in comparison to what it used to be like, in some ways.

Here’s how the Nebraska State Historical Society describes the lynching of Will Brown on their web site NebraskaStudies.org:

Brown ended up in the hands of the crazed mob. He was beaten into unconsciousness. His clothes were torn off by the time he reached the building’s doors. Then he was dragged to a nearby lamp pole on the south side of the courthouse at 18th and Harney around 11:00 p.m. The mob roared when they saw Brown, and a rope was placed around his neck. Brown was hoisted in the air, his body spinning. He was riddled with bullets. His body was then brought down, tied behind a car, and towed to the intersection of 17th and Dodge. There the body was burned with fuel taken from nearby red danger lamps and fire truck lanterns. Later, pieces of the rope used to lynch Brown were sold for 10 cents each. Finally, Brown’s charred body was dragged through the city’s downtown streets.

The Omaha Race Riot happened toward the end of what James Weldon Johnson coined as the Red Summer, a period of months following the end of World War I when race riots gripped numerous major American cities. At least forty-three African-Americans were lynched in America, from January to September, in 1919. This was at the height of the Great Migration, at the same time as white soldiers were returning from service in Europe to find their old jobs filled, at the same time as labor disputes and strikes were common and heavily reported on by the Yellow Press, at the same time as the U.S. government was using global tension to crack down hard on any dissident group it didn’t like, and there were many they didn’t like. It isn’t surprising that so much violence broke out. What surprises is the utter glee with which that violence was undertaken.

I found that the more I read about the lynching of Will Brown, the harder it was to go through the rest of the day–which is as it should be when confronting such examples of dehumanization. It became necessary to split up the work, to take days off, to take time working on unrelated short fiction, so as to not walk around with a diseased soul all the time. To not be gripped with outrage and sadness.

In Tel Aviv I started writing by hand on a legal pad–out of necessity there, as I didn’t want to lug around a laptop overseas–and continued the practice here at home. It’s been very helpful to do this, in a surprising way. Not only have I kept writing on the legal pad, but I’ve done so outside of the house too. It’s been so much harder to write inside our house than it is to write outside of it. At first I thought it was a product of being bored in my office–where I do almost all of my work, thinking that the trip to Israel helped to bust loose some cobwebs–but I believe it’s been of a distancing method from the material on an emotional level more than anything. On some level, I think, I’m not really all that comfortable bringing this stuff into my house. It makes me nervous, or guilty, to write about a lynching across the hall from the room where my daughter sleeps. But if I’m outside our home–on the patio, at the Joslyn Sculpture Garden, at the courthouse itself, or out of the U.S. altogether–then the material comes out. I’m able to write about it. It’s been kind of strange, and I hope the work come off okay.

I’m almost done with the book. I’d been saving this stuff for last, not sure exactly how one writes about it.

Will Brown’s body was burned at 17th & Dodge Streets in Omaha. Photos like these were turned into souvenir postcards.

I’d like to share one of my online sources that I found particularly haunting–and that is the web site Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. (There’s a book also.) The site features hundreds of photos of lynchings from around the country. What’s even more disturbing, is that most of these photos were on postcards sold afterwards, in what has to be the darkest bit of Americana. They were found at flea markets and in private collections. Apparently quite a few of them are out there still.

Also, here is a database listing of lynchings by state, in case you’re interested.  Over the period of 1882-1968 the database covers, 4,743 people–of all races–were lynched in forty-one different states.

The Case of Willie McGee

These past couple weeks I’ve begun work on drafting the final section of my novel, The Hyphenates of Jackson County. Since I began the book, I knew the story would end with the events surrounding the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 and the lynching of Will Brown outside the Douglas County Courthouse, and in some ways I’ve been working backward from that point in my mind, figuring out both how such a thing came to happen and why it’s a part of the story I’m telling.

Will Brown, killed by lynch mob in Omaha, in 1919.

There’s quite a bit that’s been written about what happened in downtown Omaha on September 28, 1919–first-hand accounts, timelines of events, conspiratorial explanations for its cause, a Grand Jury investigation–but surprisingly little has been written about whether or not the accusation of rape that led to Will Brown’s brutal lynching was true or not, or somewhere in-between. This is so for a variety of reasons. Foremost, there was never anything resembling a trial that would have brought some of the details of the case to light; Brown was lynched a mere three days following his arrest. Beyond that, there was a fire at the police station years later that destroyed any police record of the event, and Will Brown wasn’t from the Omaha area, and he didn’t have family here that would remember or memorialize him. I imagine any of his friends would deny any connection to him after the riot, out of fear. Also, as is common, no one really wanted to talk about the incident after it happened, particularly in the intervening years. So the truth remains something of a mystery. Which is where the historical fiction writer comes in, I guess.

During my preparation for writing this final part of the book, I came across an NPR feature from last spring that is really quite enlightening, horrifying, and sad. I feel compelled to share it here, and strongly urge you to take a listen. I’m not sure if Bridgette McGee-Robinson–the granddaughter of a man, Willie McGee, who was accused of raping a white woman and subsequently executed in an electric chair–unearths a lot more information than she already knew before she sought out to find the truth about her grandfather, but the story illustrates so well why such things happened. Most likely, Willie McGee had an ongoing sexual relationship with woman for quite some time, and once that relationship was found out, it was easier for her to damn McGee than it would have been to suffer the stigma attached to a white woman who willingly carried on with a black man. It’s the pull of propriety that caused the whole thing to happen like it did. For the jurors (all white) to admit the possibility that a white woman had sex with a black man consensually would turn their society upside-down, of course. McGee was originally kept from being lynched by the National Guard, and if it wasn’t for that, the affair and its dirty, deconstructing realities would have disappeared much more quickly and completely, as was the case with Will Brown’s murder.

Willie McGee, executed by electric chair in Mississippi, in 1951.

But history doesn’t always stay buried like it’s supposed to, and that’s what makes this feature so interesting to me–in particular, that it’s a family historian, the granddaughter of an executed prisoner, who brings the story back into our field of vision and gives the accused a second chance at some kind of redemption. It’s amazing how far-reaching the impact of such injustices reach. But there were spouses involved in this case, and kids, and eventually grandkids too. That this can become a trauma that stretches generations makes perfect sense–and there would be a tangential shame attached to the plaintive woman’s lineage too, I’d imagine–but maybe it’s something that gets lost in all the drama of courtrooms, jail cells, and electric chairs. Even if the families never talked about what happened to so-and-so, there would be a gap in the line.

In doing research on my own family I’ve often come across gaps in the lineage, or points when a branch on the family tree stops. The family records don’t often go back that far. People just want to remember the good things, so the bad seeds are left out of the family history. It’s understandable, and I’m sure we all do something similar in our own families. However, a gap can be extremely disappointing if it so happens that that gap, that bad seed, was your great-great-grandfather, and there’s now no way to track down their history, or even their name, much less what they did to shame everyone so much. I’ve had particular trouble compiling information on the Wheeler line beyond a few generations. I have no real reason to suggest that the reason for this lack of information is something bad, I just don’t know. Although my great-great-grandfather, Squire H.P. Little, was stabbed to death in the streets, in 1918, by a man he was supposed to arrest. The assailant “had had some trouble with his wife,” according to The Democrat of Caruthersville, Mo. People talk about that, though. Maybe it’s just that they were too poor to really keep track of their lineage, and only the census bureau or the WPA cared enough to write these things down otherwise. More than likely, that’s the explanation.

As I mention above, nothing is really known about the family of Will Brown, but his relations are out there somewhere still, even if there are no direct descendants.

Here is a link to the NPR story: My Grandfather’s Execution.

The Historical Novelist on a Historical Tour

Wife Nicole and I went on the Gritty City tour this Sunday, a docent-guided trolley ride through downtown Omaha that highlights the dark side of our city’s history, focusing on the brothels, burlesques, and saloons that were commonplace here in the early 1900s. The idea here was that the tour, part of the Durham Museum’s education program, would add to the historical background for the novel I’m working on.

I was already familiar with much of the historical information the tour covered, but there were a few new things. Supposedly, the netting which to this day still covers the Douglas County Courthouse was put up in response to the Omaha Race Riots of 1919, when the windows were smashed out and the building eventually fire-bombed by a lynch mob demanding that Will Brown be released to them. Being that I’m at the courthouse on a daily basis for my reporting gig, I’d often wondered about the netting, so it was kind of cool to find out that bit of information. Especially as the lynching of Will Brown is the basis for a critical section of my novel The Open City. Synergy! To take this even further, when we first moved to Omaha four years ago, it was on a walk to the Old Market that I first noticed the netting and wondered what it was all about, because it is kind of weird. (My first thought actually was that the nets were to prevent people from throwing things at the courthouse, but that seemed kind of stupid at the time. Turns out I was standing very near the spot where the lynching had taken place. Now I know.

Speaking of the Brown lynching, I was a little surprised that this particular historical episode was included on the tour—not because it isn’t significant, but because there was definitely a whimsical tone to the trip. The lynching was treated with the upmost respect and solemnity, as it deserves, but it always strikes me as odd when people try to make history “fun” and “colorful.” Many of the anecdotes were funny in a way, but there’s something perverse about cracking jokes on mob hits and girls being forced into prostitution. I guess it would be harder to sell tickets to a tour that treated dark and depressing history as if it were dark and depressing history. So it goes.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Gritty City was in how few of Omaha’s landmarks have been preserved. Most of the time we were idling in one parking lot listening to a story about a place that is now another parking lot. Omaha’s immigrant and labor history is so rich, but it’s all been whitewashed over the past couple decades. Jobber’s Canyon was torn down when ConAgra wanted a new corporate campus; the old City Hall and Omaha Bee buildings were lost for the Woodman tower; the buildings of the old red light district and free hospital for the Freedom Center, the Holland Center, and the Courtyard by Marriott. And, of course, so much space is required for the parking needs of all these places that they bleed over onto even more land. I realize that Omaha would be a pretty sad place without such incarnations of progress, but it is sad that nothing more could have been done to preserve what the city was while transforming it into what it now is.

Anyway, I believe the tour will help me with The Open City. If nothing else, I picked up some valuable slang and lingo from the era. How else could I have come across such great terms and names as Hell’s Half-Acre, the Queen of the Tenderloin, Scandal Flats, and the Everlay Brothel. I’m pretty sure I misheard this last one, but I’m sticking with it!