The Omaha DePorres Club’s pioneering efforts to challenge racial discrimination and segregation were so unfamiliar for their time that one business owner recalled their behavior as “a series of impulsive, threatening and peculiar actions.”
The Omaha DePorres Club worked with and was known by national leaders like Lester Granger and Whitney Young of the Urban League, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, and George Hauser and Walter Nelson of CORE.
Steady Leadership and a Diverse Group of People
Fr. John P. Markoe, S.J. – Moderator A 1914 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Markoe was dishonorably discharged from the Army in 1915 for conduct unbecoming an officer due to his “craving for and utter lack of tolerance for alcohol.” Markoe’s brother William encouraged and eventually persuaded John to join him at a Jesuit seminary outside of St. Louis where they encountered and vowed to fight the racism faced by Blacks in America, especially within the Catholic Church. Markoe continually reminded DePorres Club members of the immorality of racial segregation and discrimination – that it was “a moral evil that perpetuates itself.” Markoe would refer to Omaha’s Jim Crow system as “the damnable, unwritten, illegal, immoral, rotten but efficiently enforced by cowardly and sneaky means, policy of enforced segregation.” Before his death in 1967, Fr. Markoe was recognized by Whitney Young as “one of this century’s champions of interracial justice and human rights.”
Denny Holland – President Denny Holland enrolled at Creighton University in 1946. During the summer of 1947 Holland spent a week at Chicago’s Friendship House; a group of young Catholics vowing to live in poverty while working and living in Chicago’s black community. Holland returned to Creighton that fall “awakened in many ways” and reached out to Fr. John Markoe. After some discussion, the two men decided to start a group focused on racial justice. Fr. Markoe became Holland’s mentor; “He was helping my education. I pretty much wasn’t accomplishing much in classes, but I was getting a lot of education pretty fast.” DePorres Club members recalled Holland had a talent for conducting productive meetings that kept members coming back and that he led by example – even as Fr. Markoe guided the club into actions that initially left Holland “scared to death.”
The Omaha DePorres Club had hundreds of members over the years. Some attended one meeting and never returned. Others joined and stayed members for months, or years – until they moved, started families, or careers. Of those members, some stood out for their active participation in the club.
A former Marine, Corbett was a colleague of Chet Anderson in Creighton’s English department. Corbett joined the club in 1948 and edited and managed the club’s newsletter.
In her early fifties when the DePorres Club was founded, Hanna provided support and encouragement to Denny Holland and the club’s younger members. As Virginia Walsh recalled, “It was very reassuring. You had the feeling that even if the bishop didn’t think you were doing right, your mother did. Or somebody else’s mother.”
A member from 1947 to 1949. Vice-president during 1948-1949. For Reid, a Creighton pre-med student from British Honduras, Omaha’s racial discrimination was an unpleasant surprise – not what he had expected in “the land of the free.”
Club member from 1948 to 1951. Corresponding secretary 1949-50.
“I was very much aware of segregation and the need for integration in Omaha. I really wanted to become active and I liked the mission, the idea, of the DePorres Club.”
Virginia Frederick (Walsh) A member from 1947 to 1951. Secretary during 1949. Her mother, Mary Frederick, was also a member. “It turned us into activists. We didn’t know the word even, but that is what happened to us.
A Creighton English professor, Anderson joined the club in 1948. He headed several committees and managed the club’s written publicity.
Jean Waite (Holland)
Joined club in 1949. Secretary from 1952-1954. Waite recalled, that along with weekly meetings, picketing, leafletting and letter writing, there was also a fun side to the club. “They were quite a crowd, ok? There were some good parties.”
An early member of the club, Phillips recalled Fr. Markoe’s strong influence; “Father would say ‘Are they discriminating? Is it wrong? Then go tell them.’ We had to go or admit we didn’t have the guts.”
Phillips led the club for a year (1959-60) when it challenged the Omaha Public School district’s discriminatory hiring policies.
One of the early members of the DePorres Club, Calloway headed an early effort to gain more publicity for the club, meeting with the publishers of Omaha’s black newspapers, The Guide and The Star.
Sam and George Barton Sam (left) was director of the DePorres Center during its second year. George, who coordinated picketing for the 1953 Reed’s Ice Cream boycott, coined the phrase “less than Uncle Tom’s” for people who walked past pickets to buy ice cream at Reed’s.
Agnes Wichita (Stark)
Secretary from February 1950 to February 1952. “I really didn’t have time for this but I just couldn’t help but be part of that admirable group of people.”
Ola McCraney The Omaha DePorres Club’s first secretary, McCraney was a member for a year and a half. She “didn’t go along with” some of the club’s more controversial efforts and methods.
Woodrow Morgan A Tuskegee Airman who was shot down over Italy in 1944 and held in a German POW camp, Morgan was a Deporres Club member from 1951 to 1953. He joined the club after members helped him and his family move into a home he had purchased in a white neighborhood.
Raymond Metoyer An early member of the club, Metoyer would later join and become a leader of the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL) that formed in the early 1960s to continue the fight against Omaha’s institutional racism.
A member from 1951 to 1954, Tibbs was a strong advocate of affiliating with labor organizations like the United Packing House Workers and the Congress of Industrial Organizations to change Omaha’s Jim Crow system.
The Omaha DePorres Club had three homes; Creighton University, The Omaha DePorres Center and the offices of the Omaha Star newspaper. Each represented a phase of growth for the club and its members as they progressed from an emphasis on what club president Denny Holland called “sweet, kind things” to more confrontational activities.
November 1947 to October 1948
For its first year, the Omaha DePorres Club met on the Creighton University campus. Early club members were mostly Creighton students and black Catholics from St. Benedict’s Church. One of the first actions the club took was to visit pastors of nearby Catholic churches and ask why they did not allow black students to attend their schools. These visits resulted in the admission of black students, but they also brought the club to the attention of the president of Creighton, Fr. William McCabe. After ten months at Creighton, the club was asked to find a new meeting place.
The Omaha DePorres Center
October 1948 to September 1950
After the Omaha DePorres Club was asked to move their meetings off the Creighton campus, Fr. Markoe used his contacts in Omaha’s African-American community to find a new home for the club – a vacant storefront on 24th and Grace. Calling their new home the Omaha DePorres Center, club members brought in speakers and held weekly forums on topics related to racism. The club distributed clothes to the needy, held dances and organized youth groups for local children.
Members also contacted area businesses that refused to hire blacks, including the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company. During the summer of 1949 they gathered 2432 signatures on a petition intended to convince the Street Railway Company to hire black drivers – marking the beginning of a campaign that would continue for the next five years.
In July of 1950, the club began a boycott against the Edholm-Sherman Laundry. Located in the heart of Omaha’s African-American community, the laundry refused to hire blacks to work in the front office or drive delivery trucks. The DePorres Club’s boycott resulted in the hiring of black office workers at several area laundries.
For a number of reasons, including the Omaha DePorres Club’s inability to keep up with the $40 monthly rent, the Omaha DePorres Center was closed in September of 1950.
The Omaha Star
October 1950 to October 1954
July 1959 to July 1960
After closing the DePorres Center in August of 1950, the Omaha DePorres Club met briefly at the North Omaha YWCA. In October the club announced that Mildred Brown, publisher of one of Omaha’s black newspapers, the Omaha Star, had offered to let the club meet at her offices free of charge. The club intended their stay at the Star to be temporary – they would look for other meeting sites more than once – but the newspaper’s offices would remain the club’s home for the next four years. While they settled into their new home, the club continued their boycott against the Edholm-Sherman Laundry and their ongoing campaign against the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company. They also organized successful boycotts that targeted the hiring practices of the Omaha Coca-Cola Bottling Company and Reed’s Ice Cream.
In 1954, under pressure from the combined forces of the DePorres Club, the Omaha branch of the NAACP, and the Omaha Urban League, the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company finally agreed to hire black drivers for Omaha’s bus system. The end of the bus company campaign marked the beginning of a five year hiatus for the DePorres Club.
In 1959 Wilbur Phillips, who had been a club member in the early 1950s, resurrected the club to challenge the discriminatory hiring practices of the Omaha Public Schools. Phillips led the club during its year-long, but unsuccessful campaign to convince the Omaha district to hire additional African-American teachers – beyond the handful the district employed at the three elementary schools designated for black students.