Fans turn out for proposal supporting Ernie Chambers museum

Questions also emerge on future operation of the North Omaha facility

By: - February 17, 2022 5:00 am

Director and producer Bill Jersey, left, and Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers attend the AMPAS hosts a screening of “A Time For Burning” at the Academy Theater in New York City in 2008. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

A proposed law seeking the State of Nebraska’s support for an Ernie Chambers museum brought forth fans of the Unicameral’s longest-serving senator — and fond gushings from those who served with him.

During a public hearing Wednesday on Legislative Bill 1205, Sen. John Lowe of Kearney lauded Gayla Lee-Chambers’ impassioned talk about her dad’s contributions.

“I had flashbacks there for a minute,” said Lowe. He recalled the “incredible” sketches that emerged on pieces of scrap paper that Chambers would bring to committee hearings. Lowe acknowledged some wrangling, as well.

State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

 “I miss those days,” Lowe said.

The bill, introduced by Chambers’ successor, Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney, would set up a partnership with the state to help develop the Ernie Chambers History-Arts-Humanities Museum in an industrial warehouse at 4401 N. 21st St.

46 years a lawmaker

Spanning about 60,000 square feet and two stories high, the building is to chronicle change ushered in by the senator who, for most of his 46 years in the Legislature, was the lone African American. The museum is intended to enshrine Chambers’ art and feature the art of others. Plans call for a ballroom and theater.

Those testifying said the renovated complex should nudge improvements to surrounding real estate and attract tourists and economic development to the neighborhood.

Currently, Lee-Chambers said, the media center is sometimes used but she said the overall  facility is not ready or open for public use.

The McKinney bill, sponsored also by Sens. Matt Hansen of Lincoln and Megan Hunt of Omaha, calls for the State Historical Society (now known as History Nebraska) to administer a fund and, before the year’s end, help create a detailed development and construction plan for the museum. About $131,000 of state funds would be allocated for that plan.

The Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee took no action on the bill.

It should be a priority for our state to enshrine his legacy.

– State Sen. Terrell McKinney

State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha (Courtesy of Craig Chandler/University Communication)

In his plea, McKinney recounted accomplishments of Chambers, who lists his occupation as “Defender of the Downtrodden.” Chambers’ racial justice efforts included abolishing the death penalty in 2015, though that action was later overturned. He wrote laws to institute district (vs. at-large) elections for Omaha’s City Council, helping Black Omahans gain representation.

Some may not like Chambers’ fiery persona or his actions. But, said daughter Lee-Chambers, no one can deny the “value of his life’s work and how he has made significant change.”

Asked about her dad, Lee-Chambers told the committee, “he’s doing great.”

Noting Chambers’ aversion to monuments in his honor, she said she knew she would have to take the wheel on developing the museum.

People’s Champion

Urban Planner Manne Cook used the words “iconic intellectual” and “the people’s champion” to describe the museum’s namesake. He said that Chambers also was an artist and that the museum would be a link to teach future generations about the area’s history, culture and Chambers’ devotion to the oppressed.

At one point State Sen. Tom Brewer noted Chambers’ support of issues related to Native Americans. He told a story about a handmade tomahawk he had given Chambers.

State. Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

The tomahawk remained a symbol of their friendship, Brewer said, and he described how Chambers displayed the gift on his last day on the legislative floor.

Melissa Gengler of Historic Resources Group in Lincoln gave a history of the warehouse poised to house the museum. Built in 1919 for the Imperial door company, it was remodeled for a farm equipment manufacturer and used by Lozier before becoming a manufacturing and job-training center run by the Omaha Housing Authority.

Gengler said a museum would be a “smart growth strategy that will revitalize the neighborhood.”

Questions

Still, questions emerged. While not doubting Chambers’ impact, Trevor Jones of the state’s historical society said his organization hasn’t had such an administrative role in a facility that it didn’t own. (Lee-Chambers, through Legacy Property LLC, earlier bought the property.)

Jones said he is interested in knowing more about how a partnership would work and about the expected responsibilities of the historical society.

McKinney acknowledged details needed to be ironed out. The bill, for example, didn’t lay out responsibility for costs or operation. But McKinney said he thought answers were within reach.

“It should be a priority for our state to enshrine his legacy.”

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics. She has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW) and the Associated Press. Cindy has been recognized by various nonprofits for community contributions and diversity efforts. She chairs the board that oversees the local university’s student newspaper.

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