June 25, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Winter was just getting underway in Omaha, and the grand lobby of The Rose Theater was a bustle of preparations. It was 1995, and the staff was preparing the historic building for its celebrated reopening. After decades as a majestic movie theater – and several more left vacant and decaying – the building was starting a new chapter as a children’s playhouse.

Roberta Wilhelm, who ran the theater until 2003, was getting some work done at the ticket counter [tk-fact check] when an elderly African American woman entered the building. Leaning on her walker, she asked Wilhelm if she could enter the auditorium. Slightly confused, Wilhelm told her ‘Sure, but no show is being staged.’ The woman responded that was fine; she just wanted to see it. She wanted to sit in the luxuriously upholstered [tk-fact check] seats and see the stage – with its ornate arch and gilded walls – from the front rows. As a child, the woman had come to watch movies and performances in the building with her parents. But she’d only ever seen them from the shadows of the upper balcony – looking down on the glamorously dressed audience – far from the main stage. Her father had sat right up front, but she and her mother were tucked away in the dark.

The woman’s father was light-skinned enough to pass as white. She and her mother were not, and the downstairs auditorium was off-limits to blacks.

That was when the old theater was still segregated, sometime between 1927 when it opened as the Riviera and the late 1950s when it closed as the Paramount. The woman could not be tracked down so it’s unclear precisely when she visited the theater. But her story is one of many in Omaha – stories of racial segregation and humiliation that are bound in the walls of the city’s buildings and the memories of some of its residents.

Omaha doesn’t see itself as a city with a hostile racial past. But its struggles with prejudice are part of its identity – buried, but not forgotten.

Archie Godfrey is a living almanac of many of those uncomfortable stories. Sit down with him and minutes dissolve into hours as he recounts the tragedies and successes of Omaha’s civil rights history. Godfrey led Omaha’s branch of the NAACP Youth Council in the early 1960s. He was here when white lifeguards taunted and spat on African Americans trying to swim in Peony Park; when restaurants around the city folded one by one to demands they serve black diners. In a conference room at his office in North Omaha, Godfrey says racism north of the Mason-Dixon Line was more subtle at that time – and the fight to break it was different.

“You didn’t have to educate the country that racism was in the South,” he says. “You had to educate the people in the North that there was segregation and racism in the North because it was a different type – you didn’t talk about it.”

The demonstrations at Peony Park and local restaurants brought Omaha to a realization, Godfrey says. “More people became educated that the attitude was prevalent in the city,” he says. “From a black standpoint, we felt it, we knew it, but who are you gonna talk to about it?”

Most of the NAACP Youth Council’s demonstrations succeeded through persistent protests at locations like Ross’s Steakhouse on 72nd Street which refused to serve black patrons [tk-fact check], and F.W. Woolworth, where lunch counters were segregated [tk-fact check].  But although they succeeded in edging their way into Omaha’s white society, Godfrey says he knew they hadn’t changed hearts and minds. After Peony Park’s gates were opened to him and his friends, he could never bring himself to go out there and swim.

“It was an emotional thing,” he says, his voice lowered, and his words slow and deliberate. “It was almost – after it was over, it wasn’t over.”

Bill Johnson moved to Omaha from Arkansas when he was 17 years old in 1954. He never joined the NAACP nor stood in line to protest. “Being a person from the South,” he says, “you kind of gravitate away from confrontation.” Johnson knew how ugly and violent demonstrations could get, and he says he saw Omaha as a far better place to live. But still he endured the subtleties of Midwestern prejudice.

Johnson joined the Omaha Fire Department in 1961 as one of its few black firefighters. It was five years after the department was officially desegregated, but Johnson’s first years on the job were marked by humiliating slights and exclusions. Sipping hot chocolate at a Village Inn in northwest Omaha, Johnson recalls his station captain explaining the dining rules: ‘When the white firefighters sit together for lunch, you’ll have to wait,’ he told him. ‘You can’t eat with the other men, so go outside and get yourself something to eat, then you can eat in the kitchen when they’re done.’

Johnson swallowed the humiliation. He’d left a position at F.W. Woolworth to be there, and with three kids at home, he wasn’t going to risk his livelihood. “It was a good job,” he says. “I made up my mind – I don’t care what goes on, they can say what they want, call me whatever they want – I’m gonna stay here because I don’t want to go back to that dead-end job that I had.”

Johnson rose through the ranks for almost 30 years, and in 1990 was asked to serve as interim fire chief – making him the first African American to serve in the top job. He served again in 1999, and retired as assistant chief.

But as for those early days – sometimes it easier to forget. “It’s kinda hard to talk about it,” Johnson says. “It’s old baggage.”

The upper balcony at The Rose today is walled off from the main auditorium. A darkened room with rows of wooden chairs, it has been transformed into a deliberately accessible space utilized by groups like Pride Players, teen performers who produce plays about LGBTQ issues; Young, Gifted and Black, another teen group that highlights African American theatrical works, and a diverse array of other performers. “This ends up being an exciting exploratory space for some of the people whose ancestors, grandparents even, that had to be up here,” says Matt Gutschick, The Rose’s artistic director, as he toured the room.

“[Segregation] was meant to put up walls,” he says. “And hopefully – not to get too hokey – we’re tearing them down with the work we’re doing.”

That erosion of prejudice is encouraging to Johnson and Godfrey. “Things that weren’t tolerated because certain people had such stiff necks and narrow sightedness are falling by the wayside on almost every front there is,” Godfrey says, “social, religious – straight across the board.”

But the effect of Omaha’s hidden history continues, he says, and it’s hard to argue disparity when the city’s 4% unemployment rate hides a disparate 13% on its predominantly black North side.

“Sometimes the victimized and the victimizer share the same destiny,” Godfrey says. “To put somebody in a pit, you have to dig the pit, and you’re in it too.”

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