Coming home for Native Omaha Days
July 29th, 2011
Omaha, NE – Hundreds of people are coming back to North Omaha this week for the Native Omaha Days homecoming. It’s the largest African American festival in the state. And while North Omaha has faced a declining population and dwindling jobs over the years, those coming home are keeping their focus on the positive: a community still rooted in the old neighborhood.
“As you step into our club house, you can just hear the reunion of people,” said Louis Wright, the Vice President of the Native Omahans Club, as he walked through the jazz-hall style atmosphere of the club’s headquarters on 24th Street in North Omaha. It’s a dimly lit bar with blue lighting and a cozy atmosphere. Black and white images of historical events in the city, and famous native Omahans line the wall.
As he walked through the room, Wright spots one of the club’s founders, Vera Johnson, sitting at the bar. Johnson, after being enticed to say a few words about the early days, said she started the club with Bettie McDonald 36 years ago, to give people a reason to return home. “Usually when people were coming back home, they were either coming back home to take care of a family member or to bury a family member,” Johnson said, “and we thought it would be nice for them to come and unite with the family in a happy manner.”
Wright, who said he’s in his 50s, said to see Johnson still active in the organization inspires him to “continue the legacy that they started.”
Native Omaha Days is a six-day celebration that’s filled with homecoming cookouts that line the streets, a homecoming gala, and culminates in a parade on Saturday. Wright lead me outside where tents were being set up, and the smell of barbecue is starting to waft through the air.
“You can see the vendors setting up,” he said pointing across the street. “One gentleman makes some of the best barbecue ribs in, I’d like to say the North Side,” he laughed, “but they’re quite tasty.”
He doesn’t have a specific count, but Wright said Native Omaha Days brings back hundreds of families who’ve left the city and want to come home.
“I mean, we have people coming from California, Arizona…. We’ve sent packages of information from Florida, Texas. As people left the city, they look forward to coming back home to see the renewed pride.”
North Omaha has struggled to keep its black middle class for decades. The area, which was once a bustling neighborhood in the 1960s, has been plagued by desolate streets and vacant buildings, as the economy in the area floundered. Those African Americans who are now coming back for a visit, left for a lack of jobs. But, at the Native Omahans Club, nobody wants to talk about the struggles North O has been through. The club, and the festival, is about the positive culture of a community returning home.
“Pride of reunion,” Wright said. “The reconnection of families, showing the civic importance of what this community wants presented and displayed, to what it has transformed to.”
“It’s a positive culture,” Wright said, “and that’s what our club tries to promote, a good social welfare.”
Native Omaha Days will continue through the weekend, with a final homecoming celebration on “Blue Monday” before the families return to their new homes away from the old neighborhood.