Racial Tensions in Omaha
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African American Migration

Railroad waiting room in Florida
Video
Segregated railroad waiting room at the Union Terminal, Jacksonville, Florida, 1921.
Source — Florida State Archives.

Between 1910 and 1920, the African American population of Omaha doubled from around 5,000 to 10,315. Those 10,000 blacks made up five percent of Omaha's population, while blacks made up only around one percent of the general population of the state. Despite these small numbers, the rate of growth of the minority population was becoming alarming to the white population. By 1920, the rate of increase for blacks was over 130 percent from the previous decade.

Why did African Americans come to Omaha and other northern cities? In 1910 — nearly 50 years after the Civil War ended — 89 percent of all blacks remained in southern states, and nearly 80 percent of those lived in rural areas. But between 1915 and 1920, at least 500,000 blacks migrated north. Some estimates double that number to a million. Thousands more migrated west. There were a number of reasons for the exodus.

  • From 1913 to 1915, falling cotton prices brought on an economic depression across the South.

  • After prices dropped, boll weevil insects destroyed much of the cotton crop.

  • In 1915, severe floods destroyed the houses and crops of farmers along the Mississippi River, most of whom were black.

  • African Americans suffered under "Jim Crow" laws in the South that segregated schools, restaurants, hotels, railroad cars, and even hospitals. Blacks were effectively kept from voting by laws requiring a literacy test (if you wanted to vote, you had to show you could read) and a poll tax (you had to pay to vote). Whites were exempted from either test by a "grandfather clause" — if your grandfather voted, you could, too.
Those were some of the factors that pushed African Americans away from the South. There were other factors that pulled migrants to the North.
  • Northern industries were going through an economic boom, especially as the war in Europe began creating a demand for war goods.

  • Those industries could no longer rely on new immigrants from Europe to fill the jobs. The war had limited immigration from Europe.

  • When America got into the war, many young white men (and some young black men) were recruited into the military, leaving their old jobs open.

  • Salaries were higher in the North. Wages in the South ranged from 50 cents to $2 a day. In the North, workers could make between $2 and $5 a day.

  • During these years, there were a number of strikes as unions began to organize and demand decent wages. In general, blacks were willing to become "replacement workers," as the companies called them, or "scabs," as the unions called them.
Black newspaper article
Article in the African American newspaper the Cleveland Advocate, March 6, 1920. Like many black newspapers, the Advocate reported on the great migration. Source — LOC.

As if these "pushes" and "pulls" were not enough, the packing plants in Omaha were actively recruiting African Americans throughout the South, despite laws against recruiting in several southern states. Meatpacking in Omaha was big business, but there weren't enough workers to fill the available jobs during the 1910s.

Also, the city's black newspaper, the Omaha Monitor, was filled with stories of how good it was for blacks in the city. The Star and other black newspapers regularly reported on the progress of the migration. They knew this was an event of historic proportions.

White newspapers took note as well. During the first week of August 1919, the Omaha Bee newspaper reported that as many a 500 Negro workers, mostly from Chicago and East St. Louis, arrived in Omaha to seek employment in the packinghouses.

When Omaha experienced strikes by railroad workers, teamsters and stockyard workers, the employment of blacks as strikebreakers was viewed with considerable contempt by the papers and by workers who had been displaced.

Click here to see some of the frustration in the faces of white strikers
against the Burlington Northern Railroad in nearby Plattsmouth in 1922.

The Bee engaged in sensationalism and heightened the level of racial tensions and contributed to the general anxiety. Thus, the migration of blacks to Omaha and the hiring of black workers created a source of friction in the labor market that was adding economic pressure to existing racial hostilities.