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Remembering the 1919 lynching of William Brown; historical marker at Douglas Co. Courthouse

Posted at 11:38 AM, Jun 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-18 19:58:31-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Warning: The above video contains images that some people may find disturbing.

On Friday morning the City of Omaha, Douglas County and the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation unveiled a historical marker in memory of William Brown, an Omaha man who was lynched outside the Douglas County Courthouse in 1919.

President of the NAACP in Omaha Vickie Young started things off by thanking members and organizations of the community that helped make the marker possible. While the marker is a step in the right direction, Young said it serves a reminder that the fight for social and racial justice is not over and still at the forefront of society.

A number of guest speakers took to the podium to talk about the importance of remembering the Lynching of Brown so that things that were wrong and remain wrong as a result of the past can be righted and society can move forward as a whole.

After a presentation by Elliot Spillers of the Equal Justice Initiative of scholarships to local students writing about the legacy of racial injustices, the marker was unveiled for the public to see.

It reads:

On September 28, 1919, thousands of white people, aided by local law enforcement, lynched a Black man named Will Brown in Omaha, Nebraska. Allegations of crimes against Black people during this era were rarely subject to scrutiny and often sparked lethal violence even if there was no evidence tying the accused to the crime. The sympathetic white press often published false allegations and justified the public violence. After another account from a white woman reporting a rape was published in the local press, a crowd of hundreds of armed white people formed, led by the woman’s brother, and accused Will Brown. Although he maintained his innocence, Mr. Brown, a 40-year-old laborer, was arrested. Hundreds of people set the Douglas County Courthouse on fire and seized Mr. Brown from jail as local law enforcement yelled “Come and get him! He is yours!” Thousands of white men and women watched as Mr. Brown was beaten and hanged from a pole at 18th and Harney. Mr. Brown’s lifeless body was then shot for twenty minutes before being tied to a police car and dragged several blocks to 17th and Dodge. There, mob members set Mr. Brown’s remains on fire and then dragged his body through the streets of downtown Omaha. An infamous photograph of Will Brown’s remains surrounded by white men and children depicts the communal nature of racial terror violence against Black people. No one was ever held accountable for the lynching of Will Brown.

After the Civil War, an ideology of white supremacy persisted as many Americans still believed as a racial hierarchy. Violent resistance to Black equality ushered in an era of racial terrorism where more than 6,500 Black people were victims of racial terror lynchings in the United States between 1865 and 1950. Lynching became the most public and notorious form of terror and racial control. “Spectacle lynchings,” which often included burning flesh and mutilation, traumatized African American communities, and re-enforced maintained white racist dominance over Black people through gruesome public torture and murder. As photographs of lynchings illustrate, crowds of often thousands of ordinary white Americans gathered to view and participate in these violent public lynchings of Black people. During an era when the definition of Black-on-white rape did not require an allegation of force and any allegation of a Black man coming in contact with a white woman could lead to deadly violence, white mobs lynched thousands of Black men. In addition to the lynching of Will Brow, George “Joe Coe” Smith, a 50-year-old husband and father, was falsely accused of the rape and murder of a white child and lynched in 1891 in Omaha. He was arrested, seized from the Douglas County Jail, beaten to death and hanged from a pole at 17th and Harney. The names of many victims will never be known, but at least 5 lynchings have been documented in Nebraska.

The story of William Brown's murder at the hands of an angry Omaha mob has been told in recent years by multiple authors including local playwright, Beaufield Berry in the play "Red Summer."

Watch the unveiling of the marker below or on our Facebook page.

Brown was not the only man lynched in Omaha. In 1891, Joe Coe was killed by a mob outside the courthouse. To learn more about Coe watch our story from last October:

Omahans remember lynching victim at Douglas County Courthouse

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