Research compiled by: David S., Charity P., & Demetrice M.
The first African-American to serve on the Nebraska State Legislature was Dr. Matthew Oliver Ricketts. He served for two sessions in 1892 and 1894. His election to the Nebraska State Legislature reinforced Ricketts' position as a political leader in the Black community in Omaha. Since Ricketts there have been other African Americans that have served on the state legislature including Dr. John A. Singleton, F.L. Barnett, Dr. A.M. McMillan, George W. Hibbler, John Adams, Jr., JoAnn Maxey, John Owen, and Ernie Chambers. In 2008 two African Americans women were elected to the State Senate; Brenda Council, replacing Ernie Chambers who served the predominantly African American community in district 11 for the state record of 38 years, and Tanya Cook who won the senate seat for district 13. (Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Unicameral Information Office)
Then Governor Tiemann called Wallace and his supporters “racist and bigot[s]” and blamed them for the civil disorder.
The first noted involvement of African Americans in the government happened Post-Reconstruction in the late 1800’s. During this time, many African Americans in Nebraska and throughout the country were able to hold multiple positions in government. In 1893 Brownville, Nebraska elected the first black mayor in the state. Men like Dr. M. Ricketts, who was twice elected to the Nebraska state legislature, along with other community leaders, were able to make great advancements for African Americans. Unfortunately, the era of corruption in politics that followed Reconstruction in the state hampered the efforts of African Americans to continue expanding their political power until many years later.
One of the major turning points in political power for the African American community in Omaha came from the adoption of district elections over at-large elections in the 1970’s. Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers, a North Omaha native elected in 1970, sponsored bills to change elections from at-large to district voting on the Omaha School Board in 1975, the City Council in 1979, and the Douglas County Board in 1991. Due to citywide segregation from redlining, African Americans were concentrated in one area and could pool their votes together and elect people they felt represented their interest. The implementation of district elections allowed for the first African Americans on the City Council in 1981 and the Douglas County Board in 1992. The voting power of the African American community also helped elect Bob Kerry as governor in 1982 and Mike Boyle as mayor of Omaha in 1981.
African Americans in politics have not been limited to elected positions. Many governors and mayors have appointed African Americans to positions of power in the government. In 2003 Thomas Warren was appointed as the first African American Chief of Police for the city of Omaha and Marlon Polk was the first African American appointed to serve as a District Court Judge in 2005.
Although African Americans have made considerable strides in politics both locally in Omaha and statewide, the students involved in this project realized that there is still room for improvement. State Senator Brenda Council calls on the African American community to train and encourage young people to become involved in politics. “The talent is out there, but there needs to be [a] way of grooming or preparing these folks” to step into roles of political leadership. Hopefully some of the students participating in this program will one day serve their community by getting involved in politics.