Racial Tensions in Omaha
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African American Migration:
Yellow Journalism Spikes Tension

Victor Rosewater
Victor Rosewater (1871-1940), publisher of the Omaha Bee after his father’s death in 1906 and a founder of the American Jewish Committee. Photo taken in 1903.
Courtesy The Independent, Volume 55, Public Domain

During 1919, Edward Rosewater’s Omaha Bee newspaper published a series of sensational stories of racial incidents that may have inflamed emotions throughout Omaha. There were lurid stories in the Bee as 21 Omaha women reported that they were assaulted from early June to late September of 1919. Twenty of the victims were white and 16 of the assailants were identified as black. Only one of the victims was black.

The World-Herald, the Daily News, and the Monitor (a black community weekly) were all very subdued in their coverage of these incidents. The Bee was not. Its coverage was a good example of what’s known as "yellow journalism" — the practice of reporting the editor’s interpretation of the news rather than objective journalism. The information reported is usually inaccurate or biased, and the language and tone is intended to arouse passions. The public has little chance to figure out the truth.

The Bee carried vivid descriptions of the arrest of blacks charged in these incidents. When police and prosecutors could not convict any of those arrested, some Omaha citizens became even more critical of the police department and the reform Smith administration. The pro-labor Mediator newspaper warned that vigilante committees would be formed if the "respectable colored population could not purge those from the Negro community who were assaulting white girls."

In early June, the Bee published an article about a young white girl in Council Bluffs who was said she was robbed, throttled, and assaulted by a black male. The World-Herald merely reported that a woman had escaped an attack by a black man.

The Bee sometimes printed editorials on the front page of the newspaper, assailing police commissioner Ringer for practicing tyranny and abuse and complained that "a ‘carnival of crime’ is being visited upon the city, with assaults, robbery, and violence the consequences of incompetent police unable to safeguard citizens."

In early September, the Bee resumed its attack on the city administration following the shooting of a young black bellboy during a police hotel raid. The paper referred to the death of the bellboy as "the ‘crowning achievement’ of the police department reflecting its ‘disgraceful and incompetent management’."

By the late summer of 1919, labor unrest, racial hatred, crime, and government ineptness fueled by a sensationalist press, had provided the ingredients for crisis in Omaha. Racial violence erupted on September 28, and before it ended, a black man would be lynched, two other people would die, the Douglas County courthouse would be in ruins, and the city would be under federal military control.

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