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Community remembers Will Brown lynching 100 years later

Posted at 7:02 AM, Sep 25, 2019

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) - — September 28, 1919.

It was a day that forever changed the city.

"We ought to know this history because it is an example of early American terrorism against black people," UNO Department of Black Studies Dr. Cynthia Robinson said.

For many African Americans, that bloody day during the red summer has been ingrained in their memories for generations.

"It's important to realize where we've been so that we don't repeat those mistakes, but also a chance to assess how far have we come," City of Omaha Human Rights and Relations Chair Franklin Thompson said.

Historians say Will Brown was likely in his early 40s when he was killed.

Brown, who was a black man, was falsely accused of assaulting a white woman.

He was arrested within days of her report.

But it's what came after Brown was in jail that changed history in Omaha.

A mob of thousands of mostly white men stormed the Douglas County Court House and decided to take matters into their own hands.

Brown was beaten, shot multiples times and then lynched, and his body charred in front of the entire town ... all for a crime historians say he didn't commit.

"What has shaped and impacted this city is the racism that caused that lynching so that's still here," Robinson said.

The Red Summer of 1919 changed much of the country, especially here in Omaha.

Area residents like Vickie Young, president of the Omaha chapter of the NCAAP, say they don't want his story to be forgotten or misunderstood.

"We didn't just lay still to allow this to happen," Young said. "Were we outnumbered, possibly so, but I don't want the community and or anyone else to think that there was not a fight."

Young tells us while many get lost in the horrific details of Brown's death, she says they fail to realize there were champions like Reverend John Albert Williams (the first president of the Omaha NAACP) fighting for Brown the entire time.

"Here in Omaha, he was advocating for the release of Will Brown, he was advocating for the release of the mayor," Young said.

Not only did the mob attack the court house and take Brown by force, they also took the mayor who was nearly lynched himself.

"I would say there's still effects from 100 years ago that are still evident today," Thompson said. "The redlining that took place during that same time still has an impact the housing and disparities today."

All three agree, understanding the history of the city is important today.

"If it would've been the other way around--a mob of black people--assaulting white men, lynching white men, cutting off their body parts, their genitals, their ears, their nose, their lips [and] auctioning their body parts off ... laws in our country would be so different. "This would be in our history books," Robinson said.

Evidence remains from that horrific night in 1919.

It includes bullet holes on the walls inside the Douglas County Court House.

Reminders of what can, and once did happen.

"It's our city, it's where we live, it's part of our community," Young said. Those of us who live here, we need to know about it so we can do better."

The city council unanimously passed a resolution recently, apologizing for the action of thousands in 1919.

An official community remembrance ceremony will take place on Saturday at 9 a.m.

The ceremony will include prayers, music and speeches from Vickie Young and Douglas County Board Chair Chris Rodgers.

Mayor Jean Stothert and Representative Don Bacon are expected to attend.

Soil is going to be collected from the courthouse lawn, and will go to the national memorial for lynching victims in Alabama.

The event will be held on the north steps of the Douglas County Courthouse at 17th and Farnam.