The Public Space
August 19, 2015
by Ken Mayer
I was never very interested in history courses in school. Seemed like they focused on events and people, while my tendency was to study ideas. Even now, I want to know about the ideas behind physical objects. What is the importance of a building or a place? What values did the people who lived and worked there manifest?
Over the summer, a couple of morally and historically significant places in North Omaha have impressed me. Both are instructive about ideas of civil rights and race.
At Prospect Hill Cemetery on Memorial Day, they present a traditional service that features a Sousa-playing band, a little history about a person of substance interred there and a tribute to Anna Wilson, one of our city’s early benefactors.
Andrew Jackson Poppleton is buried there. Poppleton was the general attorney for the Union Pacific, but in 1879, he joined the Standing Bear defense team. The Chief was a grieving father who had traveled from Indian Territory in Oklahoma with the sole purpose of honoring a promise to his eldest son, Bear Shield, who wanted to be buried in the tribe’s Niobrara River valley homeland.
The federal government ordered General George Crook to arrest and detain Standing Bear’s party at Fort Omaha. Crook told the story to Thomas Tibbles, an editor at the Omaha Daily Herald, who wrote about it. Attorney John L. Webster and Poppleton argued Standing Bear v. Crook before Judge Elmer S. Dundy, who ruled that “an Indian is a person.”
Standing Bear famously asserted his rights at the trial saying, “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain. The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man.”
Poppleton later recalled, “I cannot recall any two hours’ work of my life with which I feel better satisfied.”
Just down the street, the Love’s Jazz and Arts Center presented “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights.” The exhibit includes the story of Emmet Till.
In August 1955, Emmett’s great uncle from Mississippi visited the family in Chicago. On his return, he was taking Emmett’s cousin to see other relatives in the South. Emmett wanted to go as well.
However, Emmett’s mother, Mamie, had another idea. She wanted to drive to Omaha, hoping to give Emmett the chance to learn to drive on the open road. Emmett opted for Mississippi, where he was accused of flirting with a white woman and was brutally murdered by a white supremacist.
When his mutilated corpse was returned to Chicago, Mamie showed his body in an open casket for more than 100,000 mourners to view and made photographs available for publication. She said, “I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till.” The images amounted to a reality bomb dropped on White America.
Emmet and Mamie Till
Mamie may have been one of the most strategically important thinkers of the Civil Rights movement and continued the work until her death in 2003. Despite her son’s fate she later said, ”I have not spent one minute hating.”
It is difficult to imagine the suffering of Standing Bear and Mamie Till, yet both turned their personal tragedies into something transcendent. Both had the courage to manifest their ideals and, in so doing, achieve a bit of justice. Not only for their lost sons, but for all of us.
As North Omaha grows and prospers once again, I think it’s important to recognize that in the older districts of Omaha, the air is full of ideas. Those tombstones, buildings and streets are only guides to stories that need telling. History is not just events and people, but ideas that need remembering.
The Public Space
Ken Mayer is a freelance writer, photographer, consultant and adjunct faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has served on the boards of The Nebraska Choral Arts Society, Downtown Omaha Inc. and Landmark’s Inc. Mr. Mayer has been a consultant and volunteer for Omaha by Design since 2002.