Omaha, 1947 and Civil Rights. A place, a time and a movement that, because of the little known story of the Omaha DePorres Club, have a surprisingly deep and meaningful connection.
The story of the Omaha DePorres Club resonated beyond Omaha through black newspapers in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Kansas City. The club was also well-known and highly regarded by leaders of the country’s major Civil Rights organizations. Lester Granger, Executive Secretary of the National Urban League, wrote about the club’s efforts in 1950. Whitney Young worked closely with the DePorres Club while he was Executive Secretary of the Omaha Urban League and cited the club’s co-founder, Fr. John Markoe, S.J., as a major influence. Roy Wilkins, of the NAACP, met with the leadership of the Omaha DePorres Club in 1951 and heard the story of the DePorres Club’s campaign against the city’s streetcar and bus company.
Due to the influence of Fr. Markoe, one of the unique features of the Omaha DePorres Club was the early and insistent stance that racism and segregation were moral issues, at a time when such a position was not the norm – even in America’s churches.
During its first year, the Omaha DePorres Club held a sit-in at a local restaurant that had earlier refused to serve several of the club’s black members. Nearly sixty years later, I found the story of Omaha’s early sit-in mentioned in interviews with elderly white residents of Greensboro, North Carolina. The Omaha sit-in was pointed out by the Greensboro residents in an attempt to minimize the significance of Greensboro’s historic sit-ins of 1960 – they had heard that Omaha was first but never got the credit.