28. Sunday, February 28, 2016 may go down in history as one of those dates that will live in infamy. The day started off with Republican Presidential contender Donald Trump seeming to fudge on the subject of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK, of course, is a domestic terrorist group infamous for a history of lynching African Americans
Then in the evening, Chris Rock, hosting the Oscars, used his opening monolog to discuss the “Oscars So White” controversy; namely that, for the second year in a row, the big Academy Award nominations had excluded people of color. In the middle part of his monolog, Rock made some jokes that many, such as the New York Daily News‘ Shaun King, found inappropriate. Rock had noted that ignoring African Americans in the Oscars was nothing new, but people back in the ’60s didn’t fuss because “we had real things to protest at the time. They were too busy being raped and lynched. When your grandmother is swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.”
That was the last straw for King. He wrote: “Listen, I know Chris steps on toes for a living, but I don’t ever want to hear a live audience laughing about the lynching of our grandmothers. I can’t imagine the deepest, darkest pain of any other group of people being used as a prime-time punchline.”
Lynching never seems to be very far off the American radar. Last year, when the world was horrified that the foreign terrorist group ISIS had burned a Jordanian pilot alive, others pointed out that our own history of domestic terrorism is filled with comparably horrible deeds.
It can hit close to home. As a midwesterner, I was reminded of the Omaha Courthouse Lynching of 1919. And, as with so much else in our history, food is part of that story.
In this case, the story starts with hogs. America’s love affair with bacon can be traced to the peculiar attributes of the domestic pig. We looked at some of this in an earlier post. Pigs are both omnivorous and indiscriminate. In short, they’ll eat anything.
My parents grew up on the farm before leaving for the city. When I was a kid, when my Dad got up from the dinner table to prep for the next day’s work, he’d joke about “going out to slop the hogs.” On the farm, that was a daily chore often assigned to the kids. Hogs were fed table scraps, i.e., slop.
Meanwhile, during the low-fat dieting craze of the 1980s, Mom didn’t understand why dieters drank skim milk. To the rest of the world, the willingness to drink the watery, flavorless liquid was a sign of modern-day Puritan virtue, part of the temporal punishment imposed by an angry and vengeful God for the sins of too much flesh. To Mom, skim milk was slop, the leftovers from butter churning, fit to be fed to the hogs.
Hogs in New Zealand, feasting on the Dieter’s Choice
In the South, besides slop, hogs were allowed to forage in the woods. At first, enslaved African Americans kept their own hogs. Then as regimented slave societies developed in the Chesapeake and Low Country, many slave owners banned their slaves from owning livestock, and tried to regulate and restrict slave diets through rationing and the use of central kitchens.
As the nation moved westward, hog raising developed into the pork industry. By 1850, Cincinnati had become “Porkopolis.” During the Civil War, Chicago took over as the nation’s leading packer.
Today, most of the nation’s pork comes from the upper Midwest. About a third of it comes from Iowa, which produces about as much pork as the next three states (North Carolina, Minnesota, and Illinois) combined. Why? Because the mass production of hogs requires an equally massive feed supply—corn, and soybean meal—which are easily grown in the upper Midwest.
But here’s the catch: Iowa produces a third of the nation’s pork, but has an internal market of only about 1% of the population. The meat has to be shipped across the country to the big cities. Live hogs don’t transport well over long distances. So meatpacking plants were built where the hogs were—Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha, Sioux City, St. Paul, Sioux Falls, and many other smaller towns.
The Cudahy packing plant in South Omaha at the turn of the last century
Meat processing is labor-intensive. Even today, much of it can be done only by hand. So the meatpackers brought in workers. In Omaha, the first wave included a large number of Greek immigrants. At the time, many whites considered the Greeks to be part of the “colored” population. In February 1909, the so-called “Greek Town Riots” in South Omaha unleashed a wave of violence, instigated by ethnic Irish leaders.The mob attempted to lynch a Greek man accused of killing an Irish police officer, but then turned their attention more broadly. Greeks were beaten, their homes and stores were burned, and nearly the entire Greek population fled the city. Some took refuge across the river in Council Bluffs, while others traveled north for meatpacking jobs in Sioux City. Within a few days, the riots had triggered sympathy riots against Greek immigrants in Kansas City and Dayton, Ohio.
The meatpackers also recruited many African Americans from down south, especially after the expulsion of the Greeks. In the face of an upswing in violence, including lynchings driven by the reemergent KKK, many were all too happy to escape Jim Crow and go north. From 1910 to 1920, Omaha’s black population doubled. By 1920, among western cities, Omaha’s African American population was second only to Los Angeles, and more than San Francisco, Oakland, or Denver.
As with the Greeks a decade earlier, many African Americans had been brought in as strikebreakers in 1917, which caused resentment among the established ethnic groups. Then in 1919, the so-called “Red Summer” finally caught up Omaha, after a series of white riots across the nation. In September, a 19-year old white girl reported that she had been raped by a black man. The police arrested Will Brown, 41. A local paper claimed that the young woman had positively identified Brown, a claim later proved to be false. Indeed, the rape seems to have been committed by a white man in blackface, as part of a deliberate attempt by a local crime boss to start a riot that would embarrass the reform-minded Mayor.
But that didn’t matter. A white mob of at least 4,000 stormed the county courthouse. (A young Henry Fonda watched in horror from a window.) They hanged the Mayor from a traffic signal, but he was rescued in the nick of time. Then, after setting fire to the courthouse, they lynched Will Brown. He was shot and hanged; then his corpse was dragged through the streets, and burned.
The riot continued. The white mob attacked the police, broke into stores, and beat African Americans who wandered into the area, along with whites who tried to rescue them. Army troops finally restored order about 3:00 a.m. Only three were killed— Brown and two whites—but the riot shocked the nation.
In the aftermath, George Edward Haynes (1880-1960) released a report on the causes of the 1919 riots. Haynes had graduated from the Columbia Univ. School of Social Work, and had an M.A. from Yale and a Ph.D from Columbia. He was a co-founder of the National Urban League. In 1919, he was serving as the Director of Negro Economics in the Dept. of Labor.
Haynes argued in his report that the nation’s tolerance of lynching and mob violence had created an atmosphere that encouraged whites to riot without much fear of punishment. Of course, that tolerance had come from the top down: Haynes’ boss, Woodrow Wilson, was infamous for his refusal to do anything about lynching. Wilson had remained silent during an outbreak of mob violence in East St. Louis in 1917. A year later, Wilson finally issued a press release, not a speech, condemning lynching, but also making it clear that the federal government was not going to be doing anything to stop it.
A few days after the Omaha lynching, the Elaine, Arkansas Massacre began, with an estimated 237 African Americans murdered by white rioters. It was the worst, and pretty much the last, of the “Red Summer” riots.
One last item: Six years later, in 1925, Malcolm Little—Malcolm X—was born in north Omaha. The house has long since disappeared, but the area is a state historical site. (If you ever go to Omaha, allow extra time—it’s not easy to find.) The Littles came to Omaha to minister to a black community that existed mainly because of pork, and that had been segregated in north Omaha as a response to a riot with its roots in pork—all quite ironic, since the Black Muslims that Malcolm later joined forbid their members to eat pork.