When New Horizons dawned for African Americans in Omaha

It took the civil rights movement to bring segregation in the United States into sharp relief. The South was the epicenter of the racial equality battle but American-style apartheid as well as attempts to dismantle it were everywhere, including Nebraska.

Omaha prides itself on hospitality yet African Americans here could not always live or or work or play or attend school where they wanted through the 1960s. In response to housing and work discrimination, for example, protest marches, sit-ins and other advocacy efforts organized.

With homeowners, realtors and banks discouraging blacks from white neighborhoods, it took extraordinary measures for blacks to integrate some sections of the city. One remedy was the creation of a new subdivision, appropriately named New Horizons, located on the then-western outskirts of the city, just off 108th Street between Dodge and Blondo and just north of Old Mill. The interracial developers designed the new addition as an integrated neighborhood open to all. By all accounts their vision was fulfilled.

Situated in what was then-countryside New Horizons was established in 1965 and the first houses were built soon after on the tiered land. Corn fields stretched south, west and east of this built-from-the-ground-up neighborhood only a stone's throw away from small working farms and stables. The two major east-west thoroughfares in the area, Dodge and Blondo, were two lanes each then.

This story chronicles the experiences of some past and present residents of this mixed race community, including what precipitated their moving there. They don't necessarily view New Horizons as having been a social action or social experiment but that's exactly what it was. It was revolutionary for the time, especially by Omaha standards, where even hometown icon and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was frustrated in his attempts to move into the neighborhood of his choice. If he couldn't find satisfaction, then every day people like George and Juanita Johnson stood little chance.

In the mid-1960s the Johnsons were a college-educated, two-income married couple on an upwardly mobile track, but neither their names nor their positions gave them any influence to change that era's prevailing discrimination. He was a Benson High art teacher. She was a North High math instructor and guidance counselor. They'd recently started a family and next sought buying a new, larger home near a park and good schools.

The North Omaha residents had built a house at 38th and Bedford but having outgrown it they set their sights on moving to wherever they could find their dream home. As African Americans, however, their aspirational pursuits, like those of countless other persons of color, were blocked.

It was a time when blacks were routinely subjected to unfair housing practices, some subtle, others blatant, that effectively confined them to living in a small geographic area. Regardless of means, if you were black in Omaha then you had little choice but to live, as the Johnsons did, in the area bounded by Cuming Street on the south, Ames Avenue on the north, 40th Street on the west and 16th Street on the east. The northeast inner city became the black "ghetto." Getting out of it required a migration not alike that of blacks migrating from the Deep South.

In many ways Omaha's de facto segregation was as pernicious and long lasting as any on the books in the South, resulting in a divided city that clearly demarcated the Near Northside as Black Omaha. Red lining real estate tactics, discriminatory banking practices, restrictive housing covenants and unfair hiring standards made it difficult if not impossible for blacks to live and work in many parts of their own city, denied and discouraged simply due to the color of their skin.

Though blacks live everywhere in the metro today, Omaha's geographic segregation persists – with most blacks in Omaha still residing in North Omaha – in part due to the lasting imprint of the housing discrimination that once ruled the day.

Better opportunities in education, employment and housing slowly emerged in response to equal rights pleas, marches, mandates, laws and court rulings.

"Things were just beginning to open up with schools and jobs and activities in Omaha but you had to look for them. You know, you would see pictures in the paper of things happening, of activities that should have been open to everyone, but because of restrictive housing they really weren't," says Juanita Johnson.

She says an entire apparatus or conspiracy of bigoted hearts kept white areas off limits to blacks. Realtors and others acted as overseers in steering blacks to all black enclaves or to undesirable neighborhoods deemed ready for integration.

"We contacted some realtors and they showed us some places north. They told us we could be blockbusters and open up some new neighborhoods," Johnson recalls. "The realtors decided which areas were going to integrate and which areas weren't. They would watch the housing trends and determine, 'We'll let this block go now.'' But the neighborhoods they were offering to us didn't show much potential, they didn't look like they were going to stay good working neighborhoods, they didn't look like they were stable. There were several for rent signs on properties. "

She's sure some realtors she and her late husband George dealt with were merely "going through the motions" to placate them.  "They just showed us places that we would not have been interested in anyway – houses that were too small for what we wanted. We didn't want a place that would have other houses six feet on either side. We wanted to find a house or build a house on a good-sized lot that had room for yard and play space for kids."

Even though the Johnsons were eager and prepared to buy, it was as if their money was no good and their wishes didn't matter. The more they looked for a home and were turned away the more incredulous they grew.

"We went to several open houses and at some of them it was as if we were invisible," Johnson says. "I mean, they would greet people in front of us, they would greet people that were coming in behind us and it was just as if we weren't there. I really can't say there was anything (racial) said, it was more or less as if we were invisible walking through the places. We just thought they were stupid to behave in this way and we laughed at them."

The Johnsons experienced the same frustration in their desire for a better life that the fictional Younger family encountered in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Though the Youngers meet much resistance in the story, they eventually fulfill their goal of moving out of the inner city tenement they rent into a suburban home of their own. That novel's powerful dramatization, later adapted to the stage and screen, made quite an impact on blacks facing the same issues in real life.

"I think that helped to motivate a lot of us in that it appeared to be possible and that this could happen to us as individuals," says Johnson.

But there were societal-cultural roadblocks to achieving that dream. Being shunned, ignored and disrespected the way the Johnsons and so many of their black peers were elicited hard feelings in some, discouraged others and in the case of the Johnsons, motivated them even more.

The fact that we had been looking for a place and were just tired of running into barriers," Johnson says, is what made the prospect of building a home in New Horizons "so attractive." She says New Horizons represented a balancing-the-scales effort at "an integrated community of middle to upscale housing that was out far enough from the main part of the city that people wouldn't say we were living in the ghetto – that we were in a suburban house just like anyone else."

Moving to a racially blended suburb also promised a diversity fast disappearing in northeast Omaha, where white flight left the area predominantly African American. The suburbs also meant access to better performing schools.

"We wanted to be in a situation where we could have the best for our children, the best opportunities, and we wanted them to be exposed to the cultural advantages I knew other children were being exposed to," she says. "We wanted our kids to have the opportunities to participate in whatever they were really interested in doing and not be kept out or let in because they were black. We knew we wanted an opportunity for the kids to have a really integrated education."

Enter New Horizons. Its late developers were prominent Omaha veterinarian, Dr. A.B. Pittman, architect Golden Zinnon and architect-civil engineer J.Z. Jizba. Pittman and Zinnon were African American and Jizba was white.

For Pittman, New Horizons was an expression of a commitment to helping his own people realize their dreams and to bridging the divide between people of different races and creeds. He was president of the Omaha branches of the National Urban League and the National Council of Christians and Jews.

"My father was always concerned about getting people better housing," says his daughter Antoinette "Toni" Pittman. "He was on the board of the Urban League Housing Foundation (now Family Housing Advisory Services), the Omaha Planning Board and the Omaha Housing Authority. Even before New Horizons he was involved in a housing development around 27th and Hamilton that the North Freeway took out. He was just concerned with people bettering themselves. He just did it, he didn't talk about it."

Pittman struck a personal blow for equal housing by buying a home at 97th and Dodge. In order to avoid potential obstacles or opposition he had a proxy buy it for him and then hand over the deed, explains his daughter, who grew up there. She says hers was the only black family there and fortunately they met no resistance.

The Johnsons were friends with the Pittmans through the northeast Omaha Episcopal church they both attended, St. Philip's.

"Probably George and A.B. and Zinnon had been talking about this and it just seemed it was available at the right time and we were in the right position to make that decision and build there. We were looking at getting settled before any more time went by," says Johnson.

The Johnsons moved into their newly built split-level home in the spring of 1969. Their late daughter, Joslen Johnson Shaw, was 9 at the time and their son Marty 4.

She says finally getting into the house they'd so long sought brought a mix of feelings, including relief.

"We were just real anxious to get settled in what we knew was going to be our permanent home."

Another black family there with the same surname, though no relation, felt the same sense of accomplishment.

"I remember the day we moved in there my father standing in front of the house and being so proud," says Glenda Johnson Moore, whose parents Walter and Bernice Johnson had weathered the same frustrations George and Juanita did in seeking a new home. "Who would have ever thought my father would have moved in that neighborhood? That was unheard of. It was great. I mean, it was a big thing."

It was enough of a newsworthy event that the Omaha World-Herald did a story.

For the most part, New Horizons lived up to its promise, with a nearly 50-50 split of blacks and whites at the start. A Hispanic family also became early residents there.

"It worked out fine," says Juanita Johnson, who adds that the neighborhood association and occasional neighborhood picnics enjoyed nearly even black and white participation. Her best friends there were black and white. She suspects most if not all the whites who moved into New Horizons were not looking to make any kind of social statement about diversity.

"I think they were people that really didn't care, they were just looking for housing."

That was true of Corinne Murphy and her late husband William, who built their home in 1970 directly north of George and Juanita's. Though the Murphys knew about the open integration policy it didn't factor one way or the other in their decision. "We were just looking for a place where they were building houses and this happened to be one of the places they were building them," says Corrine. "I just liked the neighborhood. It had a nice park. There weren't too many people yet."

She says the idea of living in a racially mixed neighborhood "didn't bother us" and that, if anything, she admired her new black neighbors, most of whom were professionals. "They were a lot smarter and better off than I was. They all had good paying jobs and were well educated. I got along with them all."

She says her five kids became fast friends with the black kids in the neighborhood.

"Marty Johnson and my son Rory were very good friends. There was a time when they were walking home from school and kids were picking on Marty and my Rory just got right in the middle of that argument with those kids and made sure he got home OK. Yeah, they were best friends, they really liked each other. They still do."

Marty says neither the white kids he befriended there nor their parents ever betrayed any hint of racism.

"I was always up at their houses playing and their parents were always very friendly and welcoming to me, and they'd always come down and play at our house."

Whatever sport was in season, he says, neighborhood kids would join in playing it, older kids, young kids, black kids, white kids.

"Looking back on it now somebody driving by having no idea what this neighborhood was about would probably be really surprised to see all these kids of different colors playing together. It was probably very unique. I look back at it and I think, 'Oh wow,' it was probably pretty groundbreaking."

Lee Valley, an adjacent neighborhood built around the same time as New Horizons, stood in sharp contrast because it lacked any diversity. The Horizons kids would occasionally challenge the Valley kids to a game of football or baseball and the marked difference in their makeup was hard to ignore.

"We were this totally mixed group of kids playing these white kids," Marty says.

The area school Marty and Joslen attended, Edison, was all white until the Johnson siblings and some of their fellow black Horizons neighbors attended there. Marty says he never ran into racism in the neighborhood but did at school.

Glenda Johnson Moore also had a hard time adjusting to otherwise all white schools but her Horizons experience wasn't all peaches and cream.

"The people that lived across the street from us were extremely racist," she says. "We were called names. It got better eventually but you felt it, you absolutely you felt it. It was uncomfortable for a long time."

Overall, she's grateful to have grown up there.

"I'm glad I had the diversity. It's made me a stronger person, it's made me who I am today. I can communicate to anybody. It was a good place, it was a good thing."

Juanita Johnson says she wanted her kids to have the enrichment that comes from diverse experiences because her "progressive" parents wanted the same for her. Her father Saybert Hanger was one of the area's first black attorneys and a federal meat inspector. Her mother Ione Hanger was an elementary school teacher in the Omaha Public Schools and later taught at Creighton University. Johnson says her parents wanted full opportunities for all kids "and I was fortunate enough that they pushed and encouraged me to break barriers."

At Omaha Central High, circa 1945, Juanita was the only black student on the year book and school newspaper staffs. She received her master's from Creighton University at a time when few blacks attended there. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's  International House she resided with students from around the world and she attended interracial camps that attracted students from the four corners.

Similarly, her husband cultivated black and white friends growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa and he integrated Wayne State (Neb.) College.

It's not coincidental both Marty and Joslen involved themselves in activities, including her showing horses, that meant interacting mainly with whites. Joslen integrated Brownell-Talbot School. Many of their friends were white. Each ended up with a white life partner.

Marty says, "I think my well-rounded life is because my parents were always exposing me to different things. They really were pioneers in a lot of different things. This was the pattern of their life –  breaking barriers. If there was a barrier they certainly eliminated it. They were groundbreaking and cool and somewhat courageous, too."

His mother says all of it was meant to foster a time when "I didn't want my children to have to look at the things they were doing as being barrier breakers. If they wanted to try out for something they could just go ahead and try and either be good enough to be accepted that every other child was accepted or refused because they weren't good enough, but not because of their color."

Juanita and George were also intentional about keeping their family's ties to Omaha's traditional African American community alive. For example, they continued attending their home parish, St. Philips, whose congregation was entirely black. Marty took music lessons from an instructor in northeast Omaha. Joslen was active in Jack and Jill, a social club designed to reconnect young blacks dispersed when their families moved from the Near Northside.

Marty says he appreciates "all that my parents exposed us to and always giving us opportunities. I feel very fortunate they made the choices they made. It's pretty amazing to me how forward thinking they were."

Juanita Johnson still lives in New Horizons and her next door neighbor is still Corinne Murphy. The neighborhood is not nearly as diverse as it once was and the homes show their age, but it's held its own. Many old-line black residents have moved or died off and few new blacks have moved in. Johnson attributes the paucity of blacks there to the fact they have so many more options today. That was the whole point of New Horizons anyway – freedom to live where you want.

Now the metro's replete with diverse neighborhoods just like New Horizons used to be and may be again.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

posted at 12:15 am
on Thursday, January 17th, 2013

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