The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha, September 29, 1919

Read Mark 15:21-32

I refer you to an article in the Fall/Winter 2010 edition of Nebraska History. “Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot,” by Orville D. Menard. The article contains descriptions and images of gleeful white inhumanity and the horrific torture and lynching of a black man named William Brown. The article is not for the faint of heart. But we white readers should not avoid the article. As Emerson notes, we wish to be settled. But if there is to be any hope for us who are white in this culture, we must seek out things that unsettle us—things like Menard’s article.

On September 25, 1919, Milton Hoffman and Agnes Loeback were walking home in downtown Omaha after watching a late movie. A man threatened them with a gun. They reported that the man took Hoffman’s watch, money, and billfold as well as a ring from Agnes. The assailant dragged Agnes into a ravine and raped her. According to Hoffman and Loeback the man then escaped into the night.

Photo by LT Chan on Pexels.com

On the twenty-sixth, the Omaha Bee identified the criminal as a “black beast.” Two hours later a neighbor described one William Brown as a “suspicious negro.” A group of civilians connected to Agnes captured Brown at gunpoint. Hoffman and Loeback identified him as their assailant, although Agnes later expressed some uncertainty about her accusation. By that time, a crowd had gathered around the house. Reports suggest that about 1500 people had come to the house. Twice they got a rope about Brown’s neck, but police succeeded in transporting him to the Douglas County Courthouse jail.

Witnesses described Brown as physically incapable of such assaults due to crippling physical conditions. Nonetheless, by the afternoon of the twenty-eighth, a mob had formed with the purpose of taking Brown out of the jail to be lynched. The mob grew to somewhere between four and five thousand people. Late in the afternoon they attacked the courthouse building. The police chief, a city commissioner and the mayor tried to defuse the situation and were met with violence. Both the courthouse and a police car were burned. By this time, the crowd had grown to somewhere between ten and twenty thousand people. Ultimately the authorities handed Brown over to the lynch mob in order to save their own lives.

Carol Anderson reminds us of the larger context for this atrocity. “During the Red Summer of 1919 there were, in fact, seventy-eight lynchings,” she wrote in White Rage, including a man burned at the stake in Omaha, Nebraska (page 54). That man was Will Brown.

Brown was beaten and shot to death. His body was dragged behind a stolen police car to 17th and Dodge streets. His remains were burned there and then dragged further down the street. Brown’s remains were buried in an unmarked grave in the local Potter’s Field until they were reinterred in a marked grave provided by a donor almost a hundred years later.

A grand jury handed down a number of indictments in the Brown case, but no one was prosecuted in the end. One of those indicted was Claude Nethaway, a local farmer and realtor from the Florence area of Omaha. Nethaway was charged with conspiracy to murder and unlawful assembly. He was reported to have urged the mob to lynch Brown and to have claimed that he fired some of the shots into Brown’s body (Bristow, 2020). We met Claude Nethaway earlier in connection with the Lynching of Joe Coe.

Nethaway spent a few months in the Douglas County jail pending a trial. “But that was all the time Claude Nethaway would ever serve,” writes David Bristow. “Despite a dozen witnesses testifying against him, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Unable to secure convictions,” Bristow notes, “the county attorney eventually cleared the dockets of cases related to the Will Brown lynching” (Bristow, 2020).

The December 1919, issue of The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, commented on the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 as one of two such riots. This article suggested that Loeback worked as a white prostitute in one of the local houses catering to black men. The article asserts that Loeback and Brown knew one another and that at the time of the alleged assault Loeback was wearing a diamond ring given to her by Brown. The article proposed that the “rape” accusation was concocted by Loeback in order to punish Brown for an earlier quarrel between them.

In the midst of that article was the photo of this horror was published with the caption, “The Crucifixion at Omaha” (page 61). It is fortunate that the quality of the photo is poor. Otherwise we would be able to see Brown’s guts hanging out of his belly, the result of the dozens of bullets that literally shredded his body. The report from the Equal Justice Initiative on lynching describes the photo as “among the most inhumane images of lynching in America that survive today.” The caption frames the image in such a way that I can only see it now as a crucifixion.

“The contradictions between the gospel message and the reality of lynching,” wrote James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (pages 103-4) “or more precisely what white Christians did to blacks and what Romans did to Jesus—was reflected” in this photo. “If the American empire has any similarities with that of Rome,” Cone continues, “can one really understand the theological meaning of Jesus on a Roman cross without seeing him first through the image of blacks on the lynching tree?” In fact, we white Christians have spent four centuries avoiding and rejecting just such a vision. “Can American Christians see the reality of Jesus’ cross,” Cone repeats, “without seeing it as a lynching tree?” This American Christian cannot.

The Crucifixion of Omaha and the Crucifixion of Jesus bear additional similarities. Will Brown was an unwitting tool of the Denison political machine, in control of the criminal enterprises in Omaha for decades. A new, reformist mayor had been elected and was putting all that power and money in danger with his meddling. During the white riot that resulted in Brown’s death, the mayor made a public plea for calm. In response, the crowd tried to hang the mayor as well. He was rescued from death but suffered debilitating injuries and was never the same again. In the next election, the corrupt and criminal status quo was re-established.

A second result of the white riot is that military forces were called in to restore order. The military authorities ordered the Black community in Omaha to return to the North Side and not to venture out again. This order was issued in the interest of “public safety.” It resulted in the formal establishment of “North Omaha” as a fully segregated space. Black people were herded into one spot and put behind an invisible fence. They were policed and regulated behind that fence from that day until the present. The fenced in area has expanded in the last generation, but the fence remains.

In the white riot of 1919, we saw the weaponization of crowds for political purposes. “Justice” was never the issue in the Will Brown lynching. Punishment was not even the issue. Power was and is the only issue. In the same way, Pilate does not interrogate Jesus in order to establish the facts of the case. Instead, he is making sure this will be an effective visual lesson for the restive Jewish community in Jerusalem. And he looks for the information needed to gain maximum political and military power from the crucifixion. Will Brown is a cipher for the Denison machine. Jesus is a cipher for the Roman machine.

We saw a similar cynical weaponization of crowds in the January 6 insurrection in the United States capitol. The similarities with the Crucifixion of Will Brown and that of Jesus are eerie when placed alongside the events of that rebellion. The taunts of the crowds, the casual use of violence, the entwining of the national symbols and religious rituals, the irrational glee of the rioters — just read Mark 15.

The issue was not a stolen election. The issue was the maintenance of power for the few and the white male supremacist status quo for the participants. Terror was a tool of political management, and lies were the means of fomenting that terror. It was no accident that a gallows was erected, complete with noose, outside the capitol building. January 6 would have become the Crucifixion of Washington had the Insurrection been successful.

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