The African Americans who came to Nebraska were part of a continuing migration that left the unemployment, racism, and poverty of the rural South, seeking opportunity in the North. From 1910 to 1930 nearly 2 million African-Americans left the South for the industrial cities of the North. Omaha’s black population doubled between 1910 and 1920. While most went to the urban areas, many settled in rural communities as well.
Unemployment among minorities was high even before the Great Depression; it got worse in the 1930s. In some areas, black unemployment reached 60 percent with nearly 80 percent of the minority population received federal support in the form of money and surplus food. Labor unions helped bring blacks and whites together. The all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (railroad) joined the interracial Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
In York County, there were 25 minority people (22 black) in 1930 – not counting Reformatory inmates or children in the Mothers’ Jewels Home. Only two minority families owned homes. All of them worked at low paying jobs – laundry, shining shoes, serving as porters and maids or working construction. Later in the decade, John Berry, a retired baseball player from the Negro Leagues, moved to York. There were also three Mexican Americans attending York College in 1930.
One family was headed by John Farr, Sr.; John, his wife and her relatives had been part of many of the major milestones in black history. Birdie Farr – John Junior’s wife – tells the history of her family, from freed slaves to buffalo soldiers to black homesteaders.
Birdie Farr and Thurman Hoskins had very different experiences with race relations in Nebraska during the 1930s and 1940s. Birdie Farr’s father taught her how to react when people insulted her because she was black. He told Birdie, “If people act like that, you don’t want to go to their level… They’re acting that way because they’re ignorant and because they don’t know you… If they don’t want to take the time to know you, that’s their loss, not yours. You just let that roll off your back and you go on.” And her mother told the children they should feel sorry for people who were hateful to them because of their race. Birdie says her mother told them to pray for those people and go on. “So, that’s what we did.”
Thurman Hoskins’ life in York has been a little more confrontational than Birdie’s. When people at school asked him to put on blackface makeup and play in a minstrel show, he refused. “I wasn’t black enough.” Although he had a number of white friends in high school, others would yell racial slurs from their cars. That stopped after Thurman started carrying rocks to hurl back. And he was hurt when he was told not to swim at the town’s new pool.
Yet, in the end, Thurman chose to return to York County after a 20-year career in the military. He says he feels at home here. Many whites in the community have tried to live in fellowship with minorities.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.