It is a terrible image: William Brown’s body, burned to white coal ash. It lays in the street, tied to railroad ties, surrounded by dozens of men. Some hold glasses of liquor up, as though toasting the camera, and all but the dead seem jubilant.
William Brown is rarely named in his photograph (on Internet sites the photo is captioned, simply, "Lynching victim, Omaha, 1919"). The dead do not demand to be named.William Brown is an enigma anyway. After researching his lynching for a year and a half I know little more about the man than on the first day I heard his name: I know he was accused of assaulting a white woman named Agnes Lobeck, I know he had rheumatism, and I know he died horribly. He might be one of a dozen Brown, Wm.’s listed in the 1918 Omaha directory, and all I have learned beyond these scant details is that he was an itinerant packing plant worker and he came from Cairo, Illinois. He is, certainly, the central character in the narrative of his lynching -- but speaking as a dramatist, he isn’t a very good character. He spent the previous night weeping in terror and crying from the pain in his joints, but I can’t build a sense of his personality from that. I’ve visited the cemetery where he is buried in an unmarked grave, standing above him, wondering if like the murdered Abel his blood could cry from the ground. If, hearing that cry, I could know him and write about him. But it was just an unmarked grave, and he is just a dead man. He can’t tell of his life, and there are none left who remember it.
If the details of William Brown are lost to history, the details of his lynching have been preserved. The Omaha Public Library system has microfilms of newspapers from the time, and most reputable histories of Omaha contain the story. I moved to Omaha in 1996 and, knowing nothing about the city, went to these books. William Brown’s death is readily available, presented with details accurate almost to the minute: the mob surges forward at this moment, the mayor is beaten at this location, William Brown is shot at this many times. What does not come through are the reasons for his death, the madness which would strike so many simultaneously and cause them to behave as one organism, pushing forward with terrible singlemindedness toward atrocities. This question plagues our century, which if anything has been marked by mass violence and genocide.
William Brown’s lynching offers several insights about the nature of racially motivated violence. Coming at the early part of this century, his extralegal hanging is a link to the previous century’s tradition of so-called "frontier justice". According to the Encyclopedia of Black America, between 1882 and 1968 Nebraska was the site of 57 lynchings. To those for whom the word "lynching" brings exclusively to mind images of racially motivated murders, it might be surprising to learn that all but five of the dead were white. Prior to achieving statehood (March 1, 1867) Nebraska was under Federal law -- a mostly unenforceable system which left frontier communities fending for themselves against the everpresent threat of violence and robbery. These communities dealt with crime as best they could, mostly by forming vigilante committees and ad-hoc groups which existed less to enforce the laws of Nebraska than to mete out improvised punishments on the rare occasions someone was unlucky enough to be caught. For example, when two men beat and raped the wife of a homesteader in 1861, a five hundred man "neck-tie sociable" mob dragged them from jail and hanged one of them. Claim jumpers were beaten and even systematically tortured, and saloon fights exploded into axe murders. As the start of the Westward half of the Trans-Continental railroad, Omaha was in some ways the first geographic location for the Wild West, and even our mythology of the West doesn’t do justice to how wild it could be. Even when not threatened by gangs of armed highway or deadly property feuding, frontier life was harsh and uncompromising, and bred a social condition which allowed for a certain looseness when it came to issues of social justice. Even after achieving statehood, shades of this remained, almost universally -- a number of blacks, for example, participated in the lynching of an African American man accused of assaulting a white girl in 1891.
But if William Brown’s death finds its antecedents in frontier law, it certainly found its flashpoint in racism. The first two decades of this century brought a massive migration of rural blacks into urban centers, and between 1910 and 1920 Omaha’s black population doubled to 10,000. Already having proved itself as having a certain intolerance towards minorities, these new blacks in Omaha settled in uncomfortably, if they settled in at all. May were migrants, travelling where the work took them, and work brought many of them to Omaha with its 37 plus cattle companies. Those who stayed mostly lived in several blocks of downtown Omaha, which boasted "over a hundred black owned businesses, and ... twenty fraternal organizations" as well as more than forty black church denominations, according to The Gate City: A History of Omaha by Lawrence H. Larsen and Barara J. Cottrell. In their description of black life in Omaha in these decades, Larsen and Cottrell paint the picture of a fragmented community, with established leadership disintegrating and most of the community experiencing abject poverty. Additionally, there was a growing white resentment, rooted both in the fear that blacks were gobbling up white jobs (partially based in the experiences of white soldiers returning from World War I who found their jobs in the packing plants gone) and in a mounting hysteria about the level of "black crime."
These conditions were not unique to Omaha -- the summer of 1919 brought a wave of violent confrontations between blacks and whites across the country, and is referred to in history books as the "Red Summer," but the Omaha press played a distinct role in fanning the flames of hostilities locally. With the exception of the black-edited Monitor, which editorialized against racial animosity, papers such as The World-Herald and the Bee railed against African-Americans with almost gleeful abandon, printing even the most trumped up charges without a shred of journalistic integrity and publishing editorials denouncing the black community for a series of bogus rape accusations.
Agnes Lobeck’s charge that William Brown assaulted her seems preposterous, considering his debilitated condition. Brown was never tried, and aside from Lobeck’s identifying him as the assailant, no evidence is available to either convict or absolve him. During the lynching one of Lobeck’s female friends is reported to have pushed her way to the front of the crowd and begged desperately to be allowed to speak. It’s tempting to speculate that she might have resolved the question of Brown’s guilt once and for all, but her the crowd ignored her and her words went unsaid, and we cannot know what they would have been. For Brown, it did not matter whether he was guilty or not, all that mattered was that he was another black man accused of assaulting a white woman. Those familiar with the black experience in America tend to sniff at these accusations anyway--cries of "rape" against black men in the U.S. historically functioned in much the same way as the Blood Libel functioned against the Jews of Europe. It was a rallying cry to raise up violent rage against a despised minority, an effective rabble-rousing device. Considering these historical circumstances, puzzling over whether Brown was guilty as charged seems as absurd as puzzling whether Jews actually killed Gentile babies to use their blood in Passover matzoh. In all likelihood, Brown was just one more black man falsely accused on the tail end of a summer of false accusations, in a year of violence.
Fifteen thousand or more took to the streets and dragged Brown from the courthouse, setting fire to the building and lynching their own mayor in order to do so. In their savagery, it was not enough to kill Brown--his body was mutilated, shot repeatedly, burned, and dragged through town. These facts help distinguish Brown’s death from those of lynched horse thieves and con men before him. These facts help distinguish Brown’s death as being racially motivated. His murderers were not offended by his crime, they were offended by his blackness, and the accusation of a crime gave them the excuse to tear his hated skin right from his body. The mob behaved symbolically, hanging and firing bullets into a man already dead and then ceremoniously burning the body, finally parading it around town. Their violence was not limited to Brown, but was directed at any black they found, and at any white who tried to intervene.
How interesting, then, that Reverend John Williams (the black editor of The Monitor) would write of the lynching that it was not a race riot. And how much more interesting that the World-Herald--which had certainly contributed to the climate of hatred and fear which brought about Brown’s death--would write of it: "It is over now, thank God! Omaha henceforth will be safe for its citizens, and as safe for the citizens within its gates, as in any city in the land. Its respectable and law-abiding, comprising 99 per cent of the population, will see to that." In keeping with it’s long-standing publishing policy, the World-Herald closed out this editorial with a reprimand to Omaha’s black community to obey the law. This won its author, Harvey E. Newbranch, a Pulitzer Prize.
When contrasted with the details of the lynching, both Reverend Williams and Mr. Newbranch’s commentaries seems as myopic as those of General Leonard Wood, who commanded the 1600 troops dispatched to quell the riot. Seeking to affix blame to someone, Wood said: "Just one agency was to blame for this--that was the I.W.W. and its red flag, the Soviet organization of this country." Did I say myopic? This comment was the verbal equivalent of Wood pressing his fingers in his ears and humming while shaking his head frantically. Of course, he was a soldier and not a politician, so perhaps a sophisticated analysis of race relations in Omaha was a little much to expect from him. The shame is, he wasn’t alone in plugging his ears and humming. No one was prosecuted for Brown’s murder, no one served time, and the Douglas County courthouse was quickly repaired. Although I hear it’s still possible to find bullet holes in the facade of this structure, I’ve never seen them. Instead, the building seems as though there was no riot and there was no lynching. The event has been preserved in no way, not even with a plaque. Perhaps this is unsurprising, as who besides Brown would demand something so terrible be remembered? And Brown cannot speak to make demands.