Tag Archives: African-Americans

A New Day Arisen

June 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kelly Hill stands on the corner of 30th and Lake streets admiring Salem Baptist Church’s towering cross, which looms over the landscape. A member of the church for more than 15 years, Kelly grew up in the now-demolished Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from the area. He can remember a time before Salem sat atop the hill, when the Hilltop Homes housing projects occupied the area.

“I left Omaha to join the military in 1975, and I didn’t return until 1995. I missed all of the gangs and bad stuff in Hilltop,” Hill remembers. “When I was a kid, it wasn’t a bad area at all. Me and my sister would play around there all the time.”

Within those 20 years, Hill was fortunate to have missed Hilltop’s downfall, as it would eventually become one of Omaha’s most notorious housing projects.

A major blight on North Omaha’s image in the 1980s to mid-1990s, Hilltop Homes would eventually be the second major housing project demolished in the metro area after Logan Fontenelle.

Before Hilltop Home’s razing in 1995—which had the unfortunate consequence of displacing many lower-income minority residents—the plague of drugs, murders, and gang activity had turned the area’s housing projects into a localized war zone.

It was a far cry from their humble beginnings as proud housing tenements for Omaha’s burgeoning minority population that exploded in the 1940s.

Edwin Benson

Built around Omaha’s oldest pioneer resting place, the neighborhood takes its name from Prospect Hill Cemetery on 32nd and Parker streets. Prospect Place was repurposed by the U.S. government to house a large influx of minority and low-income residents, mostly African-Americans, who migrated to Omaha seeking opportunities outside the oppressive South during the mid-20th century. Some 700 units of public housing emerged across the city in the 1940s, including Hilltop Homes and the nearby Pleasantview Apartments.

The projects were conveniently situated. Hilltop’s 225 units were positioned in a centralized location along 30th and Lake streets, near the factory and meatpacking plants on 16th Street to the east, with Omaha Technical High School to the south (the largest high school west of Chicago at the time).

Multiple generations of families would come to call Hilltop and Pleasantview their first homes; however, the collapse of the job structure on the north side of Omaha in the late 1960s would be a major catalyst in Prospect Place’s eventual downfall.

Successful factories and stores that kept the area afloat—such as The Storz Brewery and Safeway Grocery Store—closed their doors. At the same time, new civil rights laws prohibiting job discrimination were being passed. Some believe that fear of change, and fear of civil rights era legislations, motivated major employers in the community to move from northeast Omaha westward. A disappointing trend of joblessness and poverty would eventually devolve the community into a powder keg ready to blow.

Multiple riots at the tail end of the 1960s would take an additional toll on North Omaha. Four instances of civil unrest would erupt from 1966 to 1969, decimating the community.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says.

The last North Omaha riot would happen a day after Vivian Strong was shot and killed by Omaha police in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from Prospect Place. Rioters would go on to fire-bomb and destroy a multitude of businesses and storefronts in the neighborhood.

The local chapter of the Omaha Black Panthers would stand guard outside of black-owned businesses like the Omaha Star building at 24th and Lake streets in order to prevent its destruction. Many businesses would never recover from the millions of dollars in damages caused by the riots.

These disturbances would mark an important time-frame for Hilltop and Pleasantview’s gradual downfall. The turbulence within the community, spearheaded by systematic racism and poverty would take its toll on the area.

The Prospect Place projects would devolve into a dilapidated ghetto, with even harsher times awaiting the neighborhood as gangs and crack-cocaine would hit the city hard in the 1980s.

Omaha wasn’t a place people would have thought the gangs of Los Angeles, California, would make a strong showing. Quite the contrary,  gang members from the West Coast would eventually discover Omaha’s smaller urban landscape to be an untouched and lucrative territory.

Ex-gang member Edwin Benson can remember the switch taking hold in his later teenage years.

“The Crips came first, I’d say around the mid-to-late 1980s. They took over areas like 40th Avenue and Hilltop,” Benson says. “The Bloods’ territory was further east, big in the Logan Fontenelle projects and up and down 16th Street. So, gang-banging kind of took over the city for a long while.”

The isolated, maze-like structure of Hilltop and Pleasantview, along with the high-rise apartments added in the 1960s by the Omaha Housing Authority, would make them ideal locations for the burgeoning Hilltop Crips and other smaller street gangs.

“I can remember kids from Hilltop coming over to Pleasantview and starting trouble.” Benson recalls. “We would fight about who had the better projects! We fought with our fists, rocks, sticks…whatever was close you got hit with!”

A refuge for illicit activity had sprung to life within Prospect Place in the 1980s. Members of the community, as well as police officers, grew hesitant to venture into the area. Hilltop became a forgotten segment of the city, lost to the surrounding metro’s progress, marred by a decade of violent crime and drug offenses.

Hilltop would see an unfortunate trend of senseless homicides and gun violence that would peak in the early ’90s.

In 1990, two young men from Sioux City were shot outside of Hilltop when they stopped to ask for directions to the Omaha Civic Auditorium on their way to an MC Hammer concert.

In 1991, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for stabbing a 13-year-old boy during a fight. That same year, a local Crip gang member was gunned down at the 7-Eleven on 30th and Lake across the street from Hilltop.

In 1993, the pointless murder of another teenager may have finally spelled Hilltop’s doom. 14-year-old Charezetta Swiney—known as “Chucky” to friends and family—was shot in the head from point-blank range over a parking space dispute on Oct. 22. A sad occasion at the beginning of the school year, Benson High School was gracious enough to host the high school freshman’s funeral with more than 700 people in attendance. She was the 31st person slain in Omaha that year.

Jay W. Green, 27, would eventually be found guilty of Swiney’s homicide, charged with second-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony in the summer of 1994. At the end of that same year, Omaha’s City Council would begin laying the groundwork for Hilltop Homes’ eventual razing in 1995.

Benson, the former gang member, believes Swiney’s murder and the rampant gang activity within Prospect Place were the main reasons for Hilltop Homes’ demolition.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says. “Once the projects were gone, I think the Hilltop Crips just kind of faded out. We would joke and call them the ‘Scatter-site Crips’ since everyone was being moved to the scatter-site housing out west! If you hear someone claiming Hilltop these days they are living in the past.”

The demolition would leave a desolate space in its wake. Fortunately, the barren eyesore would not last long, as Salem Baptist Church would make their ambitious proposal for the site in 1996.

“I can remember me and my sister marching from the old church grounds on 3336 Lake St. to the new site on the hilltop,” Hill says, reminiscing with vivid recollection of April 19, 1998, the church’s groundbreaking. It was a glorious Sunday for church members, led by then-senior pastor Maurice Watson, a culmination of Salem’s proposed “Vision to Victory.”

Salem’s groundbreaking ceremony was heralded, marking the once-troubled land of Prospect Place as an “oasis of hope.” The community witnessed the progress as the newly razed 18 acres of land transformed from a vestige of poverty into a church sanctuary seating 1,300 people, in addition to classrooms, a multi-purpose fellowship hall, a nursery, and ample parking. Prospect Place was undergoing a new renaissance which would continue well into the new millennium.

Othello Meadows is the newest pioneer at the head of changing the image of Prospect Place. Having grown up on Omaha’s north side, Meadows remembers the projects as “a place not to linger if you weren’t from there.” After years away from his hometown, seeing the remnants of Hilltop Homes and Pleasantview Apartments was eye-opening.

“When I came back to Omaha, I was surprised by the disinvestment in the area after the projects were gone,” he says. “It went from housing thousands of people, to a sense of abandonment; like, only two houses were occupied on the entire block.”

Meadows’ words ring true. Other than Salem’s deal with Walgreens, which acquired acres of land for around $450,000, no additional development had taken place for years within Prospect Place. Fortunately, Meadows and the 75 North Revitalization Corp. are looking to reinvigorate the area.

As the executive director of 75 North, Meadows refers to Prospect Place as the “Highlander” area, which helps to separate the land from its troubled past. His goal is to bring life back to the area.

The development company now owns the land where the Pleasantview apartments resided before being demolished in 2008. A plan for a new neighborhood with continued growth is the main focus for the area, and he expects tangible progress in the coming months.

“If you drive down 30th Street between Parker and Blondo, you’ll see real work happening and real things going on.” Meadows says. “We have about 12 buildings under construction that are 50-70 percent complete [as of early February 2017], including a community enrichment center called the Accelerator that is 65,000 square feet, a very beautiful building. By late April to early May 2017 we should have some apartments up, and we already have people putting down deposits and signing leases. People are excited to be moving into the neighborhood.”

When asked about the targeted clientele for the new apartments and retail space, Meadows provides a broad answer: “The motto that we follow is—trying to create a mixed-income community. We’re not trying to recreate the projects, of course, but we also don’t want to create a neighborhood where longtime residents can’t afford to live. We have to balance the prospects of affordability and aspirational thinking.”

Indeed, when looking at the seventyfivenorth.org website, the ambitious vision for the Highlander Apartments is a far cry from the projects. Photo galleries and floor plans envision a renewed community akin to Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village. The images are cheerful, depicting people riding bikes and walking dogs, even an imagined coffee shop.

In a way, the renewed development, optimism, and potential for economic growth in the Highlander area can trace its roots back to the members of Salem and their desire to build a signal of hope where it once was lost.

But Hill (the former Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects resident who left Omaha in 1975 and returned in 1995) doesn’t think the church is given adequate recognition for its contributions.

“If a person didn’t know this place’s history of violence and poverty before Salem was built, they would only see the progress in this area as simple land development,” Hill says. “Salem doesn’t tend to broadcast the things they do for the area other than to its members, so those on the outside don’t necessarily recognize its lasting influence.”

It’s undeniable that the soaring church spire on the hill is a spectacle to behold on a bright, sunny day. It stands as a symbol of hope and belief. Benson still looks at the former site of Prospect Place with a hint of longing.

“I know it might sound crazy, but I was a little sad when Hilltop was torn down.” he admits. “A lot of good memories were made in those projects. But I love seeing the church up there. I hope whatever comes next is good for the community.”

Visit salembc.org for more information about Salem Baptist Church. Visit seventyfivenorth.org for more information about 75 North.

Salem Baptist Church

Marlin Briscoe

December 29, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed

Omaha native Marlin Briscoe made history in 1968 as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback. His success as a signal-caller carried huge symbolic and practical weight by disproving the then-popular misconception that blacks lacked the intelligence and leadership to play the position.

The same racist thinking not only applied to quarterbacks but to other so-called thinking-man positions on the field (center, safety, middle linebacker) and on the sidelines (head coach, general manager).

briscoe4Even in those racially fraught times, Briscoe’s myth-busting feat went largely unnoticed. So did the rest of the story. After overcoming resistance from coaches and management to even get the chance to play QB, he performed well at the spot during his rookie professional season, never to be given the opportunity to play it again. That hurt. But just as he overcame obstacles his whole life, he set about winning on his own terms by learning an entirely new position—wide receiver—in the space of a month and going on to a long, accomplished pro career. He made history a second time by being part of a suit that found the NFL guilty of anti-trust violations. The resulting ruling, in favor of players, ushered in the free agency era.

After retiring, Briscoe faced his biggest personal hurdle when a serious crack-cocaine addiction took him to the bottom of a downward spiral before he beat that demon, too.

Now, nearly a half-century since making history and a quarter-century since regaining sobriety, Briscoe’s story is finally getting its due. His 2002 autobiography spurred interest in his tale. Major media outlets have featured his story. Modern-day black quarterbacks have credited his pioneering path, and several lauded him in video tributes played at an event titled “An Evening with the Magician,” held in his honor in September at Omaha’s Baxter Arena. A life-size statue of his likeness was dedicated at the tribute event. Also in the fall of 2016, he received the Tom Osborne Leadership Award. In December he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Now, he’s preparing to watch actor Lyriq Bent portray him in a major motion picture about his life, The Magician, set to film this spring.

If the movie, produced by his old Omaha University teammate-turned-actor John Beasley, is a hit, it will bring Briscoe’s role as a civil rights soldier to a much wider audience than ever before. Now in his early 70s, Briscoe fully appreciates all that has led up to this moment. He has no doubt he’s ready for whatever may come. Growing up in South Omaha’s melting pot, no-nonsense mentors and peers steeled him for life’s vagaries. Fierce competition toughened him.

“The training I grew up with was the best training any young man or woman could have,” Briscoe says.

On playing fields and courts, in streets and classrooms, he found an inner resolve that served him well through life’s ups and downs.

“That’s where I learned resilience—from my mom, my sister, and all my mentors, and neighbors. They all had this type of mentality and grit. It rubbed off on me and some of the kids I grew up with. It prepared me for anything. If I had not learned core values from growing up where I did, the things I did, the obstacles I overcame would never have happened.”

His cousin Bob Rose and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s oldest brother Josh Gibson were among a cadre of local coaches who inspired youngsters of Briscoe’s generation. 

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“You had to go through them if you wanted to do something wrong, and you didn’t want to go through them,” Briscoe says. “Our mentors were down at the Northside Y, at Kellom School, Kountze Park, St. Benedict’s. They cared about where we were going in life.”

When Briscoe was bullied as boy, Rose gave him a “magic box” filled with the tools of various sports—a baseball, football, basketball, and boxing gloves—with the admonition that if he mastered these, he wouldn’t be bothered. He did and wasn’t. The magic box became the gateway for the Magician to do his thing.

Briscoe grew up respecting adults, all adults, even winos, hustlers, and prostitutes.

“They told you to do something, you did it, and went on about your business,” he says.

He conducted himself in a way that in turn earned him respect as a young leader. Virtually all the athletic teams he played on growing up consisted primarily of white players, which meant his entire athletic life he was advancing diversity. Long before he found immortality with the Broncos, he was the first black quarterback on youth teams, at South High, and then at Omaha University (now known as UNO).

Though he lived in South Omaha, Briscoe made a point of going to the proving grounds of North Omaha, where there were even more great athletes and a particular endurance test and rite of passage.

“Off Bedford [Avenue] by Adams Park, there used to be The Hills. It was like the barrier and motivational place where top ballplayers like Gale Sayers and myself would go and work out. Sometimes, I would be up there early in the morning by myself running those hills. I always tell young people today, ‘It is what you do when nobody sees you that defines and determines your work ethic and how you will turn out.’

briscoe3

“There were plenty of guys with more ability than myself—who were bigger, stronger, faster—and while they worked hard when eyes were on them, they slacked off when they were alone. A lot of guys who never made it regretted not putting out the effort to match their ability.”

Briscoe might never have made history if not for some good fortune. He started at quarterback for Omaha University his sophomore and junior years, putting up good numbers and earning the nickname “Magician” for an uncanny ability to escape trouble and extend plays with highlight reel throws and runs. Just before what was supposed to be his senior year, 1966, he got undercut in an all-star basketball game at Bryant Center and took a hard spill. He went numb and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors decreed he was injury-free. He started the ’66 season football opener versus Idaho State with no ill effects. He had a monster game. Then, late in the contest, he took a hit that caused his neck to swell. When rushed to the ER this time, X-rays revealed a fractured vertebra. He’d competed with a broken neck.

Doctors told him his days playing contact sports were over. He accepted the harsh news and dived into his studies, ready to move on with life sans football. Then during a medical checkup, tests confirmed his bones recalcified, and he was cleared to play again. He got a medical hardship waiver from the NAIA and went on to have a huge senior season in 1967, earning small college All-American honors and getting picked in the 14th round of the NFL draft.

He’s convinced he wouldn’t have taken snaps in Denver, which drafted him as a defensive back, if he hadn’t negotiated his own contract to include a clause he be given a three-day tryout at quarterback. He so dazzled the media and the public during the open practices that once the season began and Denver QBs went down due to injury or were benched for poor play, he got his shot and ran with it.

Briscoe’s larger-than-himself magic enabled him to make history in a crucible year for America—a year of riots, anti-war protests, assassinations, and civil rights struggles.

“For some reason, divine intervention maybe, it just seemed the stars were aligned in 1968 for a black man to break the barrier at that position,” he says. “It just seems 1968 was the pivotal year for all African-Americans, for all Americans period. For me to do it in ’68 is just eerie, the way that happened.”

So much of his NFL experience, he says, involved fighting “injustices.” Released by Denver and denied playing quarterback again, he excelled at a new position. Blackballed by the league for challenging its power, he won a hard-fought battle for himself and fellow players.

He insists he was not resentful for being shortchanged at quarterback.

“I wasn’t bitter, I was disappointed,” he says. “When you’re bitter, you give up, you take all this stuff personally, and you quit. I tell young people, ‘You’re going to have disappointments, and you’re going to be treated unfairly, but you can’t be bitter about it.’ Instead, you roll up your sleeves and fight whatever negative things come your way. Plan A doesn’t work? You go to Plan B. Life is just that way.”

Only after walking away from the game to be a broker in Los Angeles did he meet a foe—crack cocaine—that got the better of him. Before his recovery, he lost everything: his home, his fortune, his family. 

briscoe5“Here I was on a park bench trying to get some sleep in the heart of L.A. after owning homes and property,” he says.

What was so maddening about it is that he had done everything right. “It was not like I left the game with nothing,” he says. “I left the game correctly, sitting on easy street. I had wise investments. I prepared to leave the game by going to school and getting additional degrees. I was not hurt. I was in perfect physical condition.”

But in the vacuum of his post-athletic life, without the daily disciplines of workouts and team dynamics, he slipped into an unhealthy lifestyle.

“I let my guard down. I wasn’t really prepared for the L.A. scene because my whole life was always about precision, being responsible,” he says. “Then, when I didn’t have to meet all these different obligations and being single, I wasn’t rooted in one direction—I was just partying. You know, bring it on.”

No one who knew Briscoe before could believe he was in the grip of something that controlled him so completely, least of all himself.

“I had been a player rep. I was the one they always came to just as I was when I was a kid. I was the one people always came to for sage advice. And I never did drugs in the NFL,” Briscoe says.

But there he was, enslaved to a habit he couldn’t kick. Through it all, even losing his Super Bowl rings as collateral for a bank loan, he never forgot who he was inside and what he had done. Though homeless, penniless, and stuck in a jail cell when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead a team to an NFL title, Briscoe felt he shared in that victory, too.

“I felt proud on one hand, and disappointed in myself on the other hand,” he says.

He sank lower than he ever thought possible, but he came back to whip that challenge, too: “The thing is, I always knew I would let go of that descent. I always knew and prayed I’d get back to that person all Omaha knew as this accomplished individual who conquered the NFL and enjoyed all these triumphs. The people that knew me are so elated now I’ve overcome my post-career meltdown because I had been a champion for them, fighting the NFL. I was always fighting for them and fighting for myself. I put myself in positions as a player where my voice could be heard.”

Even though it was decades ago, he believes defying and defeating the NFL’s monied interests left a blemish on his career that got further stained when he was traded several times as persona non grata.

“I’m not bragging or anything, but if I had been any other player, I guarantee you, I’d have been in the NFL Hall of Fame a long time ago. Nobody had ever done it—making history as the first black starting quarterback. People don’t realize I was also the first black holder on extra points. Counting cornerback and wide receiver, I played four different positions in the NFL, and I’m not sure anybody did that before. Then you add in the fact I made All-Pro as a receiver within two years of switching positions and went on to win two Super Bowls.”

Efforts are underway to rectify his absence as a Canton inductee via a write-in campaign to the Hall’s Veterans Committee.

Just as Briscoe wasn’t bitter about being shut out from playing quarterback after his rookie year, he wasn’t bitter that other blacks followed him into the league at that position.

“If I had not succeeded in 1968, James Harris would not have gotten drafted by the Bills as a quarterback out of Grambling in 1969. If I would have failed, they would have brought James in as a tight end. But the fact I was a litmus test and succeeded, they could take a chance on a black quarterback, and James was drafted.

“Ironically, he and I ended up being roommates in Buffalo. We knew each other’s plight. We would have conversations after practice. I would tell him different things that were going to happen to him and to be prepared for them.”

While Briscoe is known as the first black starting QB, another black man, Willie Thrower, briefly got into two games as a QB with the Bears 15 years before Briscoe’s experience with the Broncos. High off his rookie year success, Briscoe had a chance meeting with Thrower in Chicago. The two men hit it off.

briscoe6Briscoe, Harris, Doug Williams, and Warren Moon have formed an organization called The Field General that uses the still-exclusive legacy of the black quarterback to educate and inspire young people. Blacks still comprise but a fraction of the professional QB ranks. The same is true of head coaches, coordinators, and general managers. That fact, combined with the journey each man had to make to get to those rarified places, reveals just how far the nation and league still have to go.

Never in his wildest dreams did Briscoe imagine his story would get so much attention this many years after he played.

“It just goes to show that, if you never give up, a lot of these things will come your way. Sometimes things come late, like this movie project about my life,” he says.

Briscoe says he only agreed to let his story be told in a movie if it stayed true to who he is and to what happened.

“It’s not for self-gratification,” he says. “It’s hopefully as an inspiration for others that you can overcome any obstacle if you really want it. I look back on my life and see what it can do for others. It’s not just a football movie. If it were, I probably wouldn’t be a part of that interpretation of my life. My life is a lot more than just football.”

He’s sure the movie’s message of “if you never give up, you’ve got a chance” will resonate with diverse audiences. He’s proud to be living proof that anything can happen when you keep fighting.


Visit marlinbriscoemovie.com for more information.

This article was printed in the January/February 2017 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Alisha Davis

December 23, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Alisha Davis, like so many of her digital generation, is a self-taught photographer. She didn’t study the subject in school, had no mentors, and her teachers at Central High never knew she was interested in photography. CreativeLive courses, contacts, and workshops made up the UNO grad’s education on the subject. Her devotion to the subject is personal, illuminating the faces of her neighbors.

“I learned valuable business information online,” Davis says. “But the people are my inspiration, and I have the privilege of meeting them each and every day.”

Davis is currently working on a project called “Building Our Legacy in Love & Light,” encouraged in part by the Thomas Allen Harris documentary  Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. “I love it,” Davis says of the film that tells the story of how images have affected the lives of black Americans. “Everyone should watch it.”

alishadavis1Her objective is to capture and present as public works of art “strong, positive images of black Americans” in places where everyone can see them. “I wanted to create images that capture not only people’s eyes, but their minds too. I wanted stories to be told. African-Americans are consistently misrepresented in the media,” Davis says. “This propagates a sense of fear around the image of black people. It sets the tone for the stereotypes associated with African-Americans and gives way to judging a person’s character by their physical appearance.”

The photos in “Building Our Legacy” show images from the daily lives of African-Americans in Omaha rather than images that reinforce misleading stereotypes. “The exhibit features a total of 12 images, six of which were chosen by project supporters at the December release party to be transformed into murals around Omaha during the spring,” she says.

Davis is working with noted Omaha muralist Reggie LeFlore to transform her photographic moments into murals for everyone. “It’s great,” Davis says of her work with LeFlore. “We’re both passionate artists who feel compelled to use our gifts to help the community we care about. It’s about bringing people together, sharing positive energy, and igniting power within those who feel powerless. You become what you are surrounded with.”

Images create a constructed reality in the minds of the viewer regardless of their accuracy.

“If you spend a majority of your time surrounded by controlled media images, what they create becomes normal to you,” she says. “If you spend a majority of your time tuning into the life around you, you can paint your own picture and decide for yourself what is normal and acceptable. The change that can come from that is unbelievable, but not impossible.”

Davis comes from a family of artists, poets, and musicians. Her grandmother chronicled memories that stayed with Davis, energizing her mission to become “the eye behind the lens.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by cameras and photographs,” says Davis, whose current “weapon of choice” is a Canon Rebel XS. “Taking pictures to capture memories was something my grandma was passionate about. She never practiced it as a profession, but it was an important element at all of our family gatherings. I used to love looking back at all of the photos she had collected over the years, reliving the moments, even if I hadn’t been there to live them. It was like therapy for me. Those photos were the pages in a book, and I was reading the story.”

Visit facebook.com/daviegrams for more information.

Nurturing Young Artists in North Omaha

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Within one year of establishing The Union of Contemporary Art in 2011, its founder and executive director, Brigitte McQueen Shew, noticed neighborhood kids arriving unexpectedly at the arts facility on North 24th Street.

The Union didn’t have formal weekend classes at the time. But the kids didn’t mind. They would show up, knock on the door, and ask: “Can we come in to make stuff?”

Union1McQueen Shew was happy to accommodate. “We just started letting them come in and do whatever they wanted,” she says.

The informal weekend sessions grew into the weekly “Art Club” in 2013, and the program continues to grow. Now, on any given Saturday, there are local artists helping out, teaching lessons, and serving as mentors.

“It really started organically, and the majority of the kids involved in the program still walk to the building,” McQueen Shew says of the free program for youths who are between the ages of 6 and 13, living in North Omaha. Art Club takes place every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The focus of each Art Club session depends on the artist(s) leading the group. McQueen Shew says they try to have a ceramic artist instructor available, “because the kids love working with clay.”

Sometimes the artistic medium is painting or printmaking, and they have also done yoga with the kids. Meanwhile, urban agriculture is an important aspect of Art Club every week.

“We’re located in one of the largest food deserts in the state of Nebraska,” she says, referring to North Omaha’s dearth of affordable, fresh, and healthy food. “We have a garden that basically belongs to the community, but the kids are responsible for it. They help us plant, maintain it, and during the summer when they cook lunches for each other, a lot of the produce come from the garden.”

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Art and North Omaha

Within the past year, McQueen Shew has been trying to connect Art Club lessons with African-American art history. Her focus emerged from a guest lecture she gave at Sacred Heart School in North Omaha.

“I started the presentation by asking, ‘Who likes art?’” McQueen Shew says. “Everyone raised their hands. Then, I asked if anyone could name a famous artist, and I got lots of ‘Picassos.’ And then, I asked them they could name a famous African-American artist, and it was like crickets.”

During the next half hour of her presentation, she showed a steady stream of African-American artwork on the projector. At the end of her talk, she asked again, “How many of you can name an African-American artist?” All hands went up.

Union2Students were excited to learn about the important cultural and artistic contributions made by African-Americans. McQueen Shew says making the connection is important.

“It’s not really a conversation that we have in North Omaha,” she says. “Most after school programs focus on sports, which is why we really want to do this. There’s just no cultural outlet for kids living in the community. So, we work around a lot of art history ideas because I think it’s really important for the children and their families to connect themselves to the conversations.”

Art Club, and the rest of The Union’s youth outreach programming, strives to achieve The Union’s ultimate goal: to “unite artists and the community to inspire positive social change.” The youth outreach programs build on The Union’s other efforts to provide studio space and facilitate exhibitions for contemporary artists in Omaha.

Youth Outreach

The Union has gradually expanded its youth outreach over the past few years. Youth programs are free; however, most are directed at serving North Omaha residents living east of 72nd St., west of the Missouri River, south of Interstate 680, and north of Cuming Street or Northwest Radial Highway.

Over the summer, activities included a new family program on Thursday nights, various art workshops, and a summer camp for kids. The family night program could become a regular feature at The Union in the future.

For the past two years, The Union has offered “Teen Art Night” every Friday. Teen Art Night began as a collaboration with Catholic Charities for at-risk youth. The teen night is now geared towards all teens—ages 13 through 19—offering open access to The Union’s studio space, darkroom, print shop, ceramic studio, paints, drawing materials, and assorted art supplies every Friday from 5-8 p.m.

“We decided to open it up and let other teens come in, so that’s not open just for North Omaha, but also to everyone from the greater Omaha area,” McQueen Shew says. The summer family night was also open to residents of the larger metropolitan area.

Union4Changes are on the horizon for The Union. The non-profit space will relocate to the nearby Blue Lion building in the fall. The larger space will allow The Union to accommodate even more youths, instructors, and families. 

In January, The Union is planning to launch a new after-school arts program for North Omaha youth called “Union After School.” They are currently accepting participant registration for the program.

“We are also adding an element to the programs that we do with the kids when we move to the new building, and that’s theater,” McQueen Shew says, noting the hiring of Denis Chapman from Omaha Community Playhouse. “We’ll have a youth theater ensemble that will perform productions throughout the year.”

The Union’s move into the renovated Blue Lion building corresponds with a growing number of community developments in the vicinity of North 24th and 30th streets. McQueen Shew is excited to play her part in the area’s revitalization.

“There is so much happening in the community right now,” she says. “It’s a pretty amazing time.” 

Visit u-ca.org/youth-outreach for more information. FamilyGuideUnion5

Tim Christian

September 9, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine.

Nebraska lacks an infrastructure to support a film industry. Omaha Creighton Prep graduate Timothy Christian is trying to change that. After years away pursuing a music industry and new media career, he’s returned to base his feature film financing and production company, Night Fox Entertainment, here.

Where most local film ventures are micro-sized with no-name talent, Christian backs real projects with $10 million-plus budgets boasting recognizable cast and crew. Case in point, Z for Zachariah. Shot in New Zealand, the post-apocalyptic drama stars Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine. It’s directed by Craig Zobel, whose 2012 Compliance made waves. Z netted strong reviews at Sundance and will get a 2015 theatrical release.

In post-production now is the thriller Headlock starring Andy Garcia, Justin Bartha, and Dianna Agron.

Night Fox further limits investor exposure by only financing pictures with strong pre-foreign sales, capping individual contributions, and spreading capital around several projects. That model is securing local movers and shakers to buy into projects, including Tenaska’s recently retired Paul Smith, also a Night Fox partner.

Christian says film financing can be a “tough sell to people who are of a conservative investment nature,” adding, “They need to see kind of black and white what you have, what you’re doing, how the money looks, so we have to make sure the approach is right.” Once it “makes sense,” he says investors “are all interested in being part of growing a business not prominent in Omaha.”

Besides, having a piece of a project with stars, premieres, awards, trailers, and posters has a “cool” factor other opportunities don’t offer.

More than anything, Christian says people invest in him.

“People have to like you. Even if they don’t like the other people involved, they have to like you. If they don’t like you, they’re not going to want to work with you or give you their money.”

Being a Nebraskan helps him relate to investors.

“They like to deal with someone away from that Hollywood mindset. They want a straight shooter, someone who they deem as honest and down-home who has Midwest values. That goes a long way.”

Upon meeting him for the first time, some folks reveal surprise that he’s African-American.

“Once they understand I know the business, I know what I’m talking about, I know how to protect their money, then all that goes out the window.”

As a Nebraska film financier, he’s already an outlier. As an African-American doing it, he’s pushing new boundaries.

“From a cultural standpoint I think it’s really significant because it gives some hope to other young African-Americans in terms of what they can do. That means a lot.”

Christian, married with one child, mentors at Jesuit Middle School in North Omaha.

An advantage to being in Nebraska (Night Fox also has an office in L.A.) is giving investors first shots at projects otherwise being shopped only on the coasts.

His next step in making the state a film player is East Texas Hot Links adapted from the Eugene Lee play. Omaha’s own John Beasley is a producer and actor in it. Samuel L. Jackson is an executive producer. The film may shoot in-state. If not, Christian’s committed to bringing future projects here as he believes film production can be an economic engine that employs people and boosts tourism.

Tim Christian 2