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Author: Matt

Matt Holland has been researching, presenting and writing about the Omaha DePorres Club since 2002. His writing has appeared in America, Teaching Tolerance, and the Creighton University alumni magazine.


Over the past several years, I have shared the story of the Omaha DePorres Club with hundreds of students, teachers and community members.  There are three responses that I invariably get after a presentation.

The first is “How come I’ve never heard of this?”  I usually open my response by blaming my dad for keeping all the DePorres Club materials stored away in his attic.  But the real answer has to do with the time in which the DePorres Club existed and the unwillingness of the mainstream media to acknowledge the club.  It only makes sense that the sole reason for an organization like the DePorres Club to exist was the correlating existence of racism that needed to be addressed.  By ignoring the existence of the Omaha DePorres Club, Omaha could ignore its racist nature.  And since the story of the DePorres Club wasn’t a part of the mainstream narrative of Omaha while the club existed, it isn’t part of the mainstream history that is presented and remembered by the collective community. 

The second response usually comes from a student who doesn’t see what this nearly seventy year-old story full of black and white pictures has to do with his or her world; “Why do I need to know this?”  A great question.  A few years ago, a series of articles in Omaha’s largest newspaper, the World-Herald, revealed the deep poverty that exists in Omaha’s African-American community.  That poverty didn’t just happen.  If Omaha, and cities like it, are ever going to meaningfully address the gaps that exist racially and economically within their boundaries, stories like the one of the Omaha DePorres Club have to be shared in order to create an understanding of how we got to where we are today.

The third response is by far my favorite.  As I tell the story of the DePorres Club – a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things – and show the pictures of where events happened in Omaha, some young person will invariably raise his or her hand, and with a slight tilt of the head offer some variation of the following comment, “Hey, my grandmother/aunt/uncle lives right around the corner from there.”  That student will often approach me after the presentation and ask, “How come I’ve never heard about this?”

Omaha. 1947. Civil Rights?

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.