Historical marker in remembrance of Will Brown lynching unveiled

Photo: Douglas County Board of Commissioners

(Omaha, NE) -- A new historical marker is placed outside the Douglas County Courthouse in remembrance of a man lynched in 1919.

On Friday, the marker on the lawn of the courthouse was unveiled in remembrance of Will Brown and lynching in America. On September 28th, 1919, Will Brown was lynched in front of the courthouse for allegedly sexually assaulting a white woman. Brown was executed by an angry mob without ever getting a trial.

The woman and her boyfriend reported that a black man had robbed the couple and raped the woman. Brown was arrested and his alleged crimes were widely reported on in local newspapers. Days after his arrest, hundreds of people descended on the courthouse, looking for vengeance. Brown was forcibly removed from a jail cell in the courthouse and lynched, with his body being paraded through downtown Omaha.

Many historians believe that Tom Dennison, Omaha's political boss at the time, manufactured the scenario to reinstate his political allies who had been voted out of office the year before.

“Until we make atonement for the lynching of Will Brown, our community will continue to grieve,” said Vickie R. Young, president of the Omaha NAACP. “This Historical Marker is a monumental step toward racial justice and reconciliation in our city. It will forever stand on the Douglas County Courthouse lawn, ensuring our community never forgets the racial injustices we’ve experienced.”

The historic marker reads:

On September 28, 1919, thousands of white people, aided by local law enforcement, lynched a Black man named Will Brown in Omaha, Nebraska. Allegations of crimes against Black people during this era were rarely subject to scrutiny and often sparked lethal violence even if there was no evidence tying the accused to the crime. The sympathetic white press often published false allegations and justified the public violence. After another account from a white woman reporting a rape was published in the local press, a crowd of hundreds of armed white people formed, led by the woman’s brother, and accused Will Brown. Although he maintained his innocence, Mr. Brown, a 40-year-old laborer, was arrested. Hundreds of people set the Douglas County Courthouse on fire and seized Mr. Brown from jail as local law enforcement yelled “Come and get him! He is yours!” Thousands of white men and women watched as Mr. Brown was beaten and hanged from a pole at 18th and Harney. Mr. Brown’s lifeless body was then shot for twenty minutes before being tied to a police car and dragged several blocks to 17th and Dodge. There, mob members set Mr. Brown’s remains on fire and then dragged his body through the streets of downtown Omaha. An infamous photograph of Will Brown’s remains surrounded by white men and children depicts the communal nature of racial terror violence against Black people. No one was ever held accountable for the lynching of Will Brown.
After the Civil War, an ideology of white supremacy persisted as many Americans still believed as a racial hierarchy. Violent resistance to Black equality ushered in an era of racial terrorism where more than 6,500 Black people were victims of racial terror lynchings in the United States between 1865 and 1950. Lynching became the most public and notorious form of terror and racial control. “Spectacle lynchings,” which often included burning flesh and mutilation, traumatized African American communities, and re-enforced maintained white racist dominance over Black people through gruesome public torture and murder. As photographs of lynchings illustrate, crowds of often thousands of ordinary white Americans gathered to view and participate in these violent public lynchings of Black people. During an era when the definition of Black-on-white rape did not require an allegation of force and any allegation of a Black man coming in contact with a white woman could lead to deadly violence, white mobs lynched thousands of Black men. In addition to the lynching of Will Brown, George “Joe Coe” Smith, a 50-year-old husband and father, was falsely accused of the rape and murder of a white child and lynched in 1891 in Omaha. He was arrested, seized from the Douglas County Jail, beaten to death and hanged from a pole at 17th and Harney. The names of many victims will never be known, but at least 5 lynchings have been documented in Nebraska.

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