The Smithfield neighborhood, located at North 24th Street and Ames Avenue, has a rich history and deep ties to Omaha’s African American population. On the border between North Omaha and Florence, Smithfield was initially a prominent and thriving commercial center populated by Germans, Jews, African Americans and others. The city’s railcar system - Omaha & Council Bluffs Street Railway Company - operated in the neighborhood and maintained its main storage barn at the intersection. Various businesses, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and a stunning movie theater thrived.
Photo of the window display of J.A. Gross Grocery Store from 1933
Located at 2404 Ames Avenue
However, in the post-WWII era, large numbers of white residents began to flee the Smithfield neighborhood and North Omaha, more generally, for newer, outlying suburban neighborhoods, taking their tax dollars and other economic resources with them. Discriminatory policies in real estate and financing, such as restrictive covenants, steering, red-lining and block-busting, kept black people overwhelmingly locked into what was a deteriorating area and out of the newer outlining developments.
As a result, Smithfield became a predominantly black neighborhood by the 1950s and 1960s, facing growing economic challenges, declining housing stock, decaying infrastructure and a host of other social problems. Nevertheless, African Americans worked hard to push back against the large forces preying upon the community and to reinvent the neighborhood to reflect their cultural heritage. New businesses came and went along with black churches, social organizations and cultural institutions, all of which helped create a strong sense of African American community in the area.
Despite these efforts, racial inequality continued to take a toll on the neighborhood. Racial unrest in North Omaha during the mid- and late-1960s exacerbated these negative trends fueling further flight and disinvestment from the community. In the period since the civil rights era, increased unemployment, poverty, housing inequality and economic abandonment have left the neighborhood pock-marked with vacant lots and empty buildings. Yet, the memory of Smithfield’s hey-day persists and there are hopes that the revitalization efforts taking place further down 24th Street around Lake, might ultimately extend into the area around Ames Avenue.