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This infamous incident was part of the wave of racial and labor violence that swept the U.S. during the “Red Summer” of 1919. As in the nation at large, it was a turning point in the history of Omaha’s black community. Following a national pattern, the local daily newspaper carried lurid, sensational accounts of attacks by African American males on white women, without similar coverage of assaults on African American women, by either black or white males. After one particularly provocative story in September of 1919, Will Brown, an African American man, was arrested and held in the Douglas County Courthouse. Largely due to the newspaper story, a mob gathered. Omaha Mayor Edward P. Smith was nearly lynched himself when he unsuccessfully attempted to disperse the crowd. Then the mob broke into the recently constructed building, tearing off Brown’s clothing as he was being dragged out. He was hanged on a nearby lamppost and then his body was riddled with bullets. Finally the body was burned. Members of the mob tied what remained of his charred body to an automobile, and dragged it around the streets of downtown Omaha. Pieces of the rope used to lynch Brown were sold as souvenirs for 10 cents apiece.
Although some of the leaders of the lynching were placed on trial, most received suspended sentences, or were convicted of minor offenses such as destruction of public property. Some of the causes of the “Courthouse Lynching of 1919” were linked to Omaha city politics. The mayor, who was a recently-elected reformer, was at odds with the machine-controlled police department, whose members were conspicuously absent during the height of the riot. One of the thousands of witnesses to the lynching was a young man named Henry Fonda, who later remembered, “It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen…My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope.”
Montgomery College (Maryland)