Who tells the story of a place? Who plots the points of history—chooses the moments and names that inhabit the official portrait of the past?
“In a textbook, a significant historical event can get boiled down to a single sentence,” explains Emily Brush, project director for the Omaha Public Schools program Making Invisible Histories Visible. “This means a lot of opportunity for contextualization, for learning, is lost.”
Brush has seen a lot of opportunity realized through MIHV. With an academic background in art history and American studies, and a resume that includes time as a practicing lawyer, she was the first MIHV hire in 2010 and has remained at the helm ever since.
“I jumped at the chance,” she recalls.
MIHV is an immersive, multi-week curriculum that invites high school students to ask hard questions about Omaha’s rich, diverse cultural history. Students examine primary source documents, meet with local historians and leaders, and take guided tours of Omaha’s historically significant locations.
The program began in 2010 when Harris Payne, then the director of social studies for OPS, aspired to present students with a more robust and complete picture of Omaha’s history.
Today, MIHV hosts more than three dozen OPS students each summer, guiding them through deep dives into the overlooked cultural histories of Omaha. Among the many fruits of their labor are multiple e-books, documentary films, and a sprawling, interactive map, precisely charting the homes and biographies of nearly all Omaha-area African American jazz musicians from 1940 to 1960.
When sleuthing in the realms of the cultural past, a single artifact can be the key that opens many doors. For the Omaha jazz project, an accounting ledger from the Local 558, Omaha’s black musicians’ union, was just the relic students needed to peer into an entire arts scene. “If you were a musician playing professionally in town, you had to be in the union, it wasn’t optional,” Brush explains. “Any time anyone played a gig, they had to pay a small royalty to the union, so what we had in our hands was a line by line record of almost every working African American musician in Omaha, including their name, instrument, address, and where they were playing.”
From this dry accountant’s ledger, students were tasked with finding the life between the lines, sussing out biographies and whole artistic communities from pages and pages of names and figures. After investigating a total of 200 names from the ledger, students worked to build interactive GIS maps, situating the lives of the artists within their particular geographies.
“It was really fascinating to the students,” Brush explains, “when they mapped all the names and saw how close people were living, and then imagined the impact that would have on collaboration and creativity.”
Omaha’s music communities have been the subject of a number of student-powered projects for MIHV, including histories of the pivotal women in Omaha’s indie rock community, the growth of mariachi music in South Omaha, and the heydays of Omaha’s funk and polka scenes.
Brush has remained at the helm of MIVH. In the program’s 10-year history, she has been integral to shaping the course of study, ensuring that the work and research of prior students has laid the foundation for future young scholars.
“It was important to me that kids and teachers approached local, underrepresented history through interviews with community members, historic objects, and artifacts,” Brush says. “I wanted students to have the opportunity to ‘think like a historian’ and draw their own conclusions about what they were finding.”
In the summer of 2019, students investigated specific neighborhood nodes, with particular focus on architectural features. This work of exploring history at the street level can conjure some hard realities: “Learning about the heyday of a neighborhood, what made it thrive, inevitably leads to questions about abandoned buildings and empty blocks. Tracing that path of diminished economic vitality is a tough thing to learn. The Redlining conversations were especially hard.”
Redlining: the New Deal-era home lending practice that identified predominantly African American and immigrant communities as “hazardous,” drawing literal red lines around nonwhite communities on over 200 city maps across the country. What followed, in Omaha and elsewhere, was a legacy of disinvestment, ghettoizing, and urban decay.
“It was a painful discussion,” Brush says. “The kids listened very carefully to what was presented. This was a case of students hearing new information that, for them, illuminated work that their peers before them had done. It was no coincidence that all those African American musicians were living in the same neighborhoods.”
This fall, Brush is sharing her broad knowledge of Omaha’s cultural past in a new capacity, serving on the community advisory committee for The Union for Contemporary Art’s Undesign the Redline project. Along with 20 other educators, historians, and community leaders Brush is helping guide public programming and community outreach for the exhibit. Once again, it’s an opportunity to explore her dual passion for the intersection of history and culture.
Brigitte McQueen-Shew, executive director at The Union, notes “The committee is an incredible snapshot of the rich diversity that exists in our city. It’s been a pleasure being able to work with Emily in her role as a committee member. From day one, she was all in—completely committed to the work and helping us to resource stories and information to add to the timeline. I have long admired the work done through Making Invisible Histories Visible—to have her stand with us as we shine a light on these often overlooked, painful moments of our shared history has been incredible.”
“It’s a difficult conversation to have whether you’re in eighth grade or an adult,” Brush says. “But these harder realities can’t be separated from the history of culture–how it’s created and transmitted, the world it’s responding to.”
If the forces that have shaped your community for generations remain obscured, plotting a path forward can feel less like an act of will than a matter of circumstance.
“We tell the students, ‘You’re hearing this, but that doesn’t mean that it’s over.’” Brush contends. “In all these stories, we can always point to someone who wasn’t passively sitting by. There’s always power in the community.”
Ultimately, for Brush, the joy and impact of her work can be traced back to her early interest in material culture—the architecture, songs, and ephemera that illuminate the lived experiences of the past more clearly than any line in a textbook could.
“The young people we are educating in OPS will one day become Omaha’s civic and business leaders; our young people need to know what happened in Omaha’s past, and understand its impact on the present, before they can grow up to help shape a strong, inclusive future for our city.”
This article was printed in the October 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.