Racial Tensions in Omaha
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African American Migration:
Dennison's Political Machine

Tom Dennison
Thomas Dennison and his second wife,
16-year-old Nevajo Truman, October, 1930.
Source — NSHS.

Behind the scenes of this racial situation was a political machine that may have contributed to one of the most ugly incidents in Nebraska history. In the first two decades of the 20th Century, Omaha had acquired the reputation of a "wide open" city controlled by a political machine run by Tom Dennison. In 1910, one estimate put the number of prostitutes in the city at 2,500 women. Dennison was a professional gambler who had little education or social standing. To be a gambler in a city where gambling was illegal meant that he needed friends in politics and the police. Dennison bought those friendships through lavish campaign contributions and his ability to get out the vote. His base of operation was in the downtown third ward where he handed out jobs and welfare to residents in need. The third ward included the heart of Omaha's gambling and prostitution houses. At election time, the ward could be counted on to deliver huge and lopsided vote totals for Dennison's chosen candidate. Dennison developed a host of allies and alliances in the Omaha area, which enabled him to dominate politics in the city.

One of his most prominent allies was Edward Rosewater, the publisher of the Omaha Bee newspaper. Rosewater was a political fighter, once described as the "best practical politician in Nebraska." He knew Omaha politics as well as any other man. Rosewater was politically ambitious and wanted to exert as much influence as possible on any political decisions made in Omaha. He needed Dennison's influence over candidates as well as his ability to deliver votes.

James Dahlman
Mayor James "Cowboy Jim" Dahlman, who some accused of being a front man for Dennison. Dahlman was generally popular, but not with everyone. Someone wrote "Wonder if he could find the Key hole?" on the surface of this photo-postcard and sent it to the mayor. Source — NSHS.

On the other hand, Dennison needed Rosewater's social standing and newspaper, so the two men teamed up. Just after World War I, a returning soldier was hired as a cub reporter on the Bee. One day his boss told him to go talk to an Omaha businessman tied to Dennison. The reporter was told to take down whatever the businessman said and to not bother checking the facts. "Mr. Dennison is interested in this story," the reporter was told, "and it is the policy of this paper to print whatever Mr. Dennison ... wants."

From at least 1897 through 1906 the alliance rode high, united behind Mayor Frank Moores who allowed the "open city" to remain open. But, the political marriage between Dennison and Rosewater was turbulent. Both men were Republicans, but the Republican party in Omaha also had a reform element who were caught up in the Progressive Movement. In 1906, the progressive Republicans nominated a reformer named Erastus Benson, and Dennison and Rosewater each pushed their own men. Benson won a divided primary, and Dennison was afraid that Benson would come out in favor of prohibition. In the meantime, the Democrats had nominated a popular, first-time politician named James C. ("Cowboy Jim") Dahlman. Dahlman seemed to be more tolerant of the "sporting district," so Dennison threw his support behind him. Rosewater simply couldn't support a Democrat. Dahlman was elected and continued his close relationship with Dennison. He won eight out of nine campaigns for mayor between 1906 and 1930 — but it was the election Dahlman lost in 1918 that set the stage for racial violence.

Mayor Edward Smith
Reform Mayor Edward Smith. Source — NSHS.

From 1908 through 1918, progressive Omahans had been pushing for reform and were slowly chipping away at Dennison's political machine. Finally, in 1918, the reformers were able to elect Democrat Edward P. Smith as Mayor of Omaha. He was joined by a new police commissioner, J. Dean Ringer, who was determined to purify a sinful city. Smith went after Dennison's gambling and liquor interests. Dennison and Rosewater were re-united and were determined to throw out the Smith/Ringer administration.

The Dennison's political machine would do anything it could to disrupt the Smith administration, while Rosewater would resort to yellow journalism to destabilize the reformers. The volatile racial situation in 1919 was the perfect issue for their purposes. Rosewater began to report allegations of black men raping white women and blamed the new reform administration for allowing lawlessness to run rampant. Dennison began to work behind the scenes to stir up violent emotions.