This 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.