131 years later, a new marker remembers George Smith, who was lynched in Omaha
The Black man was killed by a White mob in 1891 outside the Douglas County Courthouse
The front side of a memorial, unveiled Friday before a group outside the Douglas County Courthouse, which marks the 1891 lynching of George Smith. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — “No one was ever held accountable for the lynching of George Smith.”
So reads the last sentence of a freshly planted plaque that was unveiled Friday in front of the Douglas County Courthouse, marking the murder of a 20-year-old Black man at the hands of a White mob in 1891.
On Friday, however, a ceremony at the new memorial attempted to take a step toward racial reconciliation.
“This act serves to enshrine Mr. Smith, honor his life and to serve as a focal point for people’s memories through the years to come, that such uninformed, wrong-minded mob violence never occur in our city again,” said the Rev. T. Michael Williams, master of ceremonies.
Up to 100 or so people gathered by the courthouse steps, listening to song, poetry and remarks from community leaders including Williams.
Ninth-grader Kaleciana Perry of Central High School read a dramatic poem.
Former City Councilman Franklin Thompson led the group in singing the Black national anthem.
The Rev. Beverly Thompson followed with a rendition of “Strange Fruit,” a haunting song that mourns lynchings.
Cynthia Robinson of the Black Studies Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Eric Ewing of the Great Plains Black Museum recited the inscription on both the front and back of the plaque.
In part, the message reads: Local newspapers falsely reported that a white girl died after being assaulted by a Black man. The next day, police arrested Smith, without evidence and despite the fact that he had an alibi.
“Within hours, thousands of white men, women and children shouting, ‘Bring the nigger out,’ marched on the Douglas County Jail and Courthouse.”
By the time his brutally beaten and dragged body was hanged at 17th and Harney Streets, it was lifeless. The local coroner concluded Smith had died of “fright.”
White people collected pieces of the telegraph pole used to lynch Smith as souvenirs.
Also known as Joe Coe, Smith was married, was a dad and had worked as a railroad porter.
The public hanging of Smith occurred nearly three decades before the 1919 lynching of Will Brown, also outside the courthouse, which a White mob set on fire. A similar marker, dedicated a year ago to Brown, is positioned across from that of Smith.
The Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation organized both ceremonies, which are part of the Montgomery Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative Community Remembrance Project.
The Equal Justice Initiative says that more than 4,400 African Americans were lynched across 20 states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. Its Community Remembrance Project described the “racial terror lynchings as more than just hangings.”
“They involved groups of white people committing acts of fatal violence against African Americans to instill fear in the entire Black community,” the project says.
“These lynchings were frequently carried out in broad daylight and perpetrators could expect impunity. Government officials frequently turned a blind eye or condoned the mob violence. The era of racial terrorism shaped the geographic, social and economic conditions of African Americans, and America as a whole, in ways that are still evident today.”
In a trend this year in Congress, the U.S. House is considering a bill that would put lynching sites in western Tennessee on track to become part of the National Park Service to advance discussion of the nation’s often violent racial history.
At Friday’s event, former State Sen. Brenda Council read a message from the Equal Justice Initiative and founder Bryan Stevenson: “George Smith was like too many black people in this community who are accused and presumed guilty simply because of their race.
“For too long we have been silent about this history of racial violence and terror. That silence has made generations culpable in failing to treat an open wound that still bleeds. … Today we say, ‘no more.’ ”
Other speakers and dignitaries included Mayor Jean Stothert, the Rev. Stan Rone of The Worship Center, Karen Johns of the UNO Black Studies Department and Sarah Walker of Creighton University.
In closing, Marisa Hattab, the county’s diversity and inclusion officer, told the audience that the day’s reminders of generational trauma inflicted on Blacks is so weighty that she had to remind herself to breathe.
She recalled Stevenson’s words that hopelessness is the enemy of justice, and left the group with her own message: “Be grounded and steadfast in hope.”
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