History Harvest finds treasures in north Omaha
October 24th, 2011
Omaha, NE – Dozens of people showed off their family heirlooms and treasures at a museum in north Omaha Saturday: those pieces stored in their homes that tell the history of their families, their community, and a country.
“Hi there, how are ya? Good. Good to see you. This is my dad, Ralph Orduna…” Phillip Orduna Reese stood behind a fold-out table at Love’s Jazz and Art Center on Saturday, with photographs and documents neatly lined up before him, proudly telling the story of his father: one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of African American military pilots.
As he greeted each visitor to his booth, he made sure to pull out his most prized possession: his father’s Congressional Gold Medal.
“If I can get this out… when they got ‘em in here, they got ‘em in her good,” he laughed. “See, feel that, that’s pretty heavy.”
Orduna-Reese’s booth was part of History Harvest, an event organized by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of History. In partnership with the Love’s Jazz and Art Center, which hosted the event, along with the Great Plains Black History Museum and the Malcolm X Foundation, Saturday’s gathering was Nebraska’s third History Harvest. The first two were held in Lincoln and Nebraska City.
“Nebraska in general has a much more rich and complex history than is often given credit for,” said Dr. Patrick Jones, a key organizer of the project, and an Associate Professor of History and Ethnic Studies at UNL.
“So the idea is that, periodically, we go to a different community, and we invite people to bring out their historical artifacts,” Jones said. “So we’re acknowledging that there’s this diverse and complex history that’s often overlooked or hidden, and also a realization that it’s ordinary people that hold on to that history, either in the stories that they have to tell from their experience, or in the objects that they keep in the course of their lifetime that are important to them.”
One of those objects became one of Jones’ favorite artifacts of the day: a small silver drinking cup that dates back to slavery, brought in by Warren Taylor, a native of north Omaha, who grew up just a few blocks from 24th Street.
“See it expands,” Taylor said, as he pulled open the silver, etched cup, which collapses into a bracelet-sized ring. “I can just see her in the cotton fields in Mississippi, and take this out to get a drink of water.”
Taylor found the little silver drinking cup, when he was clearing out the last remaining possessions of his great-aunt, when she passed. “She left notes of what I was supposed to do with everything,” he said, pulling out a frayed slip of paper. “And she says, “This was mama’s drinking cup” which would be my great-grandmother.”
Taylor said north Omaha’s history of its long-time African American residents is not recorded in the way it should be. And, unfortunately, he said, many of the people who understand that it should be recorded and celebrated are no longer living.
“One of the things I do regret is that we didn’t spend more time talking to our elders about their lifestyle at that particular time,” he said. “But, you know, being black, we didn’t think it was important, who cared about the history of black people?”
Documenting the history of African Americans in North Omaha has a troubled past. Hundreds of artifacts collected for years by the founder of the Great Plains Black History Museum, Bertha Calloway, were almost lost to the community. Calloway collected artifacts in much the same way the History Harvest is doing – calling on members of the community to bring in their treasures. But her museum fell into disarray when she became too old to look after it. Many of the artifacts are now in Lincoln, being rehabilitated by some of the students and historians from this History Harvest project. Jones said the findings from her collection have been amazing.
“It has been an incredible experience,” he said. “I’m a professional historian, I work with this stuff all the time, and it is mindboggling the incredible treasures that are in that museum, a testament to Bertha Calloway and her family for collecting that material and caring about it.”
“So we hope to salvage, rehab, preserve and then share that again.”
Each of the pieces brought in to the History Harvest was photographed, scanned and digitized to form an online archive that will go live, and be freely available to residents, students and historians. And the archives from the Great Plains Black History Museum will also be accessible again soon. Jones said they will be brought back home to north Omaha in a matter of weeks – taking up residence in an – as yet unannounced – space on 24th Street.
Jones said bringing the pieces home from to north Omaha, and out of people’s homes online for the rest of the state, and the country, is an important part of connecting people to their shared past.
“We’re just facilitators in this,” he said. “Without community involvement, this project can’t be successful. So it’s been overwhelming, the degree of positivity that this project and the work that we’re doing with the Great Plains Black History Museum has received from the community, again emphasizing the real hunger and thirst for this history, and to get a different kind of story out there.”