Friday, April 30, 2010
When Omaha's North 24th Street Brought Together Jews and Blacks in a Melting Place Marketplace that is No More
I never experienced it, but I was long intrigued by a period of North 24th Street history in Omaha that saw African-Americans and Jews co-exist in a mutually dependent way. For the most part, Jews owned businesses of all kinds up and down and around that strip and blacks were their primary customers. North 24th Street cuts through the heart of Black Omaha going north and south and in the years when blacks were restricted to living in that area by red lining practices, Jewish merchants naturally catered to the resident population. Jews and other European ethnic groups had settled the area and some continued to reside there as blacks moved in, although most Jews and Italians, et cetera, moved elsewhere. But enough Jewish merchants remained to create this intriguing multicultural stew.
Some blacks were also employed in Jewish stores and homes. Some black businesses and professionals also operated in this hub. The symbiotic relationship between Omaha Jews and blacks lasted through much of the 1960s, effectively ending when civil disturbances destroyed many of the business properties and much of the goodwill that had long thrived there.
The following story I wrote about it all appeared in a 2007 issue of The Jewish Press.
When Omaha’s North 24th Street Brought Together Jews and Blacks in a Melting Pot Marketplace that is No More
©by Leo Adam Biga
North 24th Street. Today, this distressed stretch running through largely African-American northeast Omaha is a hodgepodge of mercantiles, community service organizations and social agencies interspersed with empty structures and vacant lots. The sidewalks are mostly empty. Save for some new construction and streetscape improvements in the 24th and Lake environs, block after block is blighted. Signs of renewal peek through here and there in refurbished buildings, new commercial centers and handsome housing developments.
Visions of new grandeur lie in initiatives targeting the area, known as the Flatlands, for redevelopment. Still, current reality is a long way from those dreams and a far cry from North 24th’s heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s. Then, rows of buildings lining each side of the street -- from Cuming south to well past Lake north -- housed dozens of small businesses, many Jewish-owned, some black-owned.
It was a lively social-cultural enterprise zone/marketplace where a promenade of ethnicities filled the sidewalks and streets from dawn to well past dusk.
“Almost like Maxwell Street in Chicago,” said former North 24th resident Joe Kirshenbaum, referring to Chi-Town’s multicultural hub. “It was a city in itself. It was busy all the time. The only time there wasn’t any business was sun down Friday night, when everything was closed. Everybody knew everybody, blacks, whites, they were all alike. We used to leave our doors open at home at night or we’d sleep on the porch because we never had to worry...”
“On a Saturday night it was busy. It was a real hustling place,” said Mort Glass, who worked in his father’s Omaha Kosher Meat Market on 24th.
Jews and other European immigrant groups, including Italians, settled in north Omaha in the first decades of the last century. There was always an African American presence but the real wave of blacks came as part of the great migration from the South in the 1920s through the post-World War II era.
There was a time when North 24th, a major artery connecting north Omaha with downtown, was the nexus of commerce for two historically oppressed peoples, Jews and blacks. Not only did they comprise most of the area’s merchants, service providers and professionals from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, they were its primary residents and, therefore, customers, too. So it was that synagogues stood next to Baptist churches, kosher and soul food could be had on the same block and blacks and Jews were educated together, played together and did business together.
For Jews, North 24th was the Miracle Mile. For blacks, the “Deuce Four.” For many northeast Omaha residents, it represented a Street of Dreams where virtually any good or service could be found. The district enjoyed a self-sufficiency it’s not seen again, one in which residents could and did do for themselves.
Black-Jewish interaction was an every day thing. Reverends and rabbis kvetched over pickle barrels or meat counters. Each group learned things about the other, especially about their respective religious traditions.
For the Sabbath Jews called upon black neighbors to turn off the gas and lights in their Orthodox homes. Some blacks practiced their faith in tent revival meetings whose rousing spirituals and shouts of hallelujah and amen drew curious Jews.
Outside these transactions, there were occasions, like live radio broadcasts of Joe Louis fights, when everyone came together to cheer. When Louis won, people flowed into the streets to party. Blacks led the parade.
“It was wonderful,” said Helen (Handler) Rifkin-Chorney, who grew up near North 24th and spent many an afternoon and evening there. “After a Joe Louis fight, when he was the champ, everybody was dressed in their Sunday finest and they were celebrating, too, because one of their own was the world champion. I used to think that was one of the greatest things in the whole world. It was wonderful.”
Then there was the pageantry of Easter Sunday, when Christian folks got decked out in all their fancy new finery.
“You never saw nothing until you saw Easter Sunday on 24th Street. Dressed to kill,” former North 24 denizen Nate Shukert said. “We used to go down just to watch,” ex-24er Gloria Friedman said. “It was beautiful. The parade of colors was amazing,” Rifkin-Chorney added.
“It was Omaha’s version of the Easter parade on Fifth Avenue in New York,” said Martha (Hall) Melton, who grew up just off the famous thoroughfare.
Community leaders hoping to revitalize the area look to recapture some of its rich, robust past. A past that saw an abundance of mom-and-pop grocery stores, butcher shops, fish markets, bakeries, cafes, delis. Hardware, appliance, clothing, shoe and department stores. Tailor shops, repair shops, pawn shops, barber shops, beauty shops. Ice houses, a junk yard, a lumber yard. Drug stores. Doctors offices. Laundries, cleaners. Dance halls, night clubs, bars, billiard parlors, movie theaters. Social halls, fraternal clubs, gyms. After-hours joints. Whore houses.
“We had everything out here,” said north Omaha native Vera (Mitchell) Johnson. “You name it, we had it. We really didn’t have to go out of the neighborhood for anything.” North 24th was, as fellow lifer Charles Carter said, “it’s own entity.”
Glass-fronted brick buildings spread the length of 24th, gleaming in the sun.
“When I was in the wholesale liquor business I made calls on 24th, and when I got there at 7 in the morning and the sun was shining, you’d think it was a sea out there...a sea of glass,” Irv Forbes recalled.
A whole social stratum of attire was on display. Grocers, butchers and bakers in aprons. Businessmen in fedoras and three-piece suits. Construction, packinghouse, railroad laborers in overalls. Domestic workers and porters in uniforms. Ladies in fine dresses and feathered hats. Religious in yarmulkes, prayer shawls and Sunday whites. Children in school clothes. Hep cats in zoot suits. Cops in blue.
Peddlers pushing carts and delivery men, driving horse-and-wagon outfits in the early days and trucks later on, sold everything from rags to milk to ice to produce.
Melton recalls a peddler who came by to sharpen knives. Shukert remembers one vendor, who wore a conductor’s cap and hung a lamp on his cart, hawking tamales with, “‘Get your hot tamales today, they’ll be gone tomorrow.’”
Street vendors shined shoes and sold newspapers. The blare of radio broadcasts, the melody of Yiddish, Hebrew, Italian and English voices, some Southern-tinged, others European-accented, the shrill of live chickens and crying babies and the clatter and roar of autos and streetcars created a kind of music. The yeasty, oven-fired aroma of fresh baked bread, rolls and bagels, the sweetness of pickled herring and watermelon rinds, the sour of pickles and the spice of corned beef blended with the smoky fragrance of barbecue and savory goodness of greens.
“When you hit this area, you smelled it,” Shukert said. “Whew, it would give you a smack, boy.”
This feast for the senses only added to the North 24th experience.
In an era when Jews and blacks were excluded from much of mainstream white society, the walls of segregation largely disappeared on this strip, where interracial commerce flourished. That’s not to say all was rosy, especially for blacks. Prior to the ‘60s entire sections of northeast Omaha, even portions of North 24, were closed off to blacks. Some establishments refused to serve or hire them. A few public schools were integrated, but most were divided along strict racial lines.
Forbes, whose father and uncles ran the commercial Forbes Bakery on 24th, recalls that as late as the ‘20s, even the ‘30s, Jews and blacks were still wary of the Klan, which was active in the state for decades.
Still, North 24th was an oasis, much as South 24th was, compared to wider Omaha.
Jews and blacks lived and worked in close proximity to each other and, by all accounts, coexisted in relative harmony. Despite obvious differences, people made this relationship work for the most practical of reasons -- they had to. After all, each group relied on the other for survival. In a symbiotic relationship of mutual co-dependence, Jewish businesses provided essential goods and services to blacks, not to mention jobs, while blacks provided a major customer base for many Jewish merchants. Practicality made tolerance the order of the day.
“You have to understand this getting along wasn’t because there was this great big love affair, but it was a toleration. You tolerate me, I’ll tolerate you, and that’s the way we lived,” said Shukert, whose family’s meat market was a North 24th fixture. “We’re both here. You’re not going to leave, we’re not going to leave, so we might as well understand the situation and make the best out of it. We knew how to live with people. I don’t think color meant that much.”
“Well, we grew up with them -- that’s the way it was,” said Friedman, whose father had a shoe store on 24th. “Right, if they were your next door neighbor, they were your next door neighbor,” Rifkin-Chorney said.
“You learned to tolerate” each other’s differences, Melton said. The way Shukert sees it, “We could have taught the world a lesson in how to be tolerant.”
Mort Glass said it was “a joining of two widely diverse people that really cohabited pretty much there for a long time.” Shukert said “the real miracle was that we all got along.” Charles Hall, whose soul food eatery the Fair Deal Cafe was a landmark there from 1953 to 2001, said the North 24th experience proves hatred is taught.
In purely economic terms, Shukert believes Jewish-owned grocery stores and suppliers of other perishable staples were most dependent on the black trade.
“Basically we got along with the Jews because they owned the grocery stores and all of the markets,” said John Butler, a North 24th veteran. Hall goes so far as to say, “It was a known fact that if you had a business and the blacks didn’t support you, you couldn’t make it.”
Shukert said blacks were not only vital customers but key laborers. “We hired them,” he said. “We didn’t care what their color was as long as they could work, and they liked to work.” “Most of the time the Jews would hire some blacks to do stocking, deliveries...They had a lot of blacks work for them,” Butler said.
Butler’s first jobs as a kid were shining shoes inside Pomidoro’s Shoe Repair shop and making deliveries, with a wagon he pulled behind him, for Hornstein’s Grocery. He said the Hornsteins “used to help me with my schoolwork.” Butler had a brother that worked at Tuchman’s Market. Hall worked several years at Frank Marks and Irv Rubinow’s Parker Street Market before opening his own business.
Dorothy (Stansberry) Freels-Smith earned the sobriquet “The Black Jew of 24th Street” after decades behind the counter at Reid’s Drug Store and as the first black butcherette at the Jewish-owned Sell-Rite supermart, where her boss was Sol Lincoln. “I knew all those Jews on 24th Street and I got to be very close to all of them,” she said. “Most all of them were very nice.”
Well-off Jews employing black domestic workers in their homes, Shukert said, understood their housekeepers struggled to get by and therefore often provided their “help” extra food and clothes. Butler, who grew up on 24th, said his mother, like many black women at the time, cleaned house for Jews in Dundee and confirmed it was common for domestics to get care packages from their employers.
Relationships formed between Jewish and black families.
“When I was a girl we had a black lady by the name of Lucille White who cleaned house for my family,” said Rifkin-Chorney, “and when a family member died she’d be the first one there. This woman would come if it was the middle of the night to be helpful and we felt the same way about her family. I mean, it was not a matter of color. It really and truly wasn’t.”
Rifkin-Chorney said family and community were at the core of Jewish and black life. In an era when extended families lived together or within walking distance, there were few strangers. Not just relatives, but neighbors, beat cops and merchants kept watch over kids. Butler said a trip to the market or to school was nothing like it is now. He’d encounter any number of figures, black and white, who knew him and inquired after him and his folks. “...the Jewish store owners knew all the kids in the neighborhood and they knew what family you belonged to,” he said. “Everybody knew everybody. It was almost like a family thing,”
It was a time when adults checked kids’ behavior, irregardless of race. Freels-Smith said she could tell any child, “You know better than to do that. I’ll tell your mom.”
Credit was extended to poor families, again irrespective of race.
“You’d run a tab and you didn’t have to pay until the end of the week when dad got paid. They would let us get all the groceries we’d want. Of course, they knew how much we could afford,” Butler said. Shukert said, “My dad never turned anybody down. He said, ‘Hey, look, people have got to eat.’”
Generosity between neighbors was common. Martha Melton, her brother Charles Hall and their family lived next door to the Shukerts, who kept a strict Orthodox home. Melton recalls her and her sister turning off the gas and lights at the Shukert home to keep them in compliance with the Sabbath.
The Halls’ other neighbors, the Levines, kept, sold and slaughtered live chickens and shared their bounty. “They would give us chickens and things,” Melton said. When some Jewish households served hallas, non-Jews would be invited to partake. Shukert said his mother would schmeer slices with butter and jelly as a treat for neighborhood kids -- black and white -- who came by.
More than once, Melton said, white friends aided her poor family. She said two Central High schoolmates, Nate Shukert and Nuncio Pomidoro, “knew our circumstances. Many a day I had no lunch money and they would pay for my lunch, which was a generous thing to do. They helped that way.”
“Poor blacks knew that without us a lot of them would have gone hungry. They had nothing to eat and they weren’t ashamed to take it,” Shukert said.
Gloria Friedman said her father supplied free shoes -- as part of a city shoe fund -- to Kellom School students, many of whose families were too poor to afford them.
Freels-Smith gave away food and other stores to poor kids, black or white, that stopped by Reid’s. “Color didn’t matter to me,” she said. She’d let them snatch penny candy. She’d make a batch of soup and dish it out to anyone who “wanted something warm” and she kept cold beers on ice for the beat cops.
Rifkin-Chorney surmises that good relations between Jews and blacks “had something to do with the fact we’re talking mostly about Depression times, when we were all poor.” “That’s why we all got along,” Shukert agreed, “because they had nothing and we had just a little bit more. So economically we were pretty much on the same plane, except we had a little bit more, so we could share it with you.” “Yeah...that’s the truth. Jewish folks had maybe a small store or something and they were just making a living,” Hall said. North 24th Jewish merchants were, Butler said, “working class people in business.”
Any angle or sideline was exploited to help make ends meet. “Everybody was doing what they could to make a living,” Melton said.
As a boy Butler helped his father sell fresh vegetables grown on three family gardens. His dad, a Cudahy packinghouse worker by day, also sold “real silk hosiery door to door.”
Not everything was legal. A black man who worked at Shukerts, Andrew “Babe” Bender, was also a pimp who ran brothels behind the store, Shukert said. “He was like the Duke of 24th Street. He made a lot of money.” From the back of the market Shukert could identify the johns frequenting these dens of inequity. “I was amazed by some of the people I would see going in there. People that I knew. Yeah, God’s chosen,” he said.
A few Jewish grocers were known to not play square by rigging the scales or ringing up bogus purchases. Some had open contempt for blacks. But in the main blacks were “treated well” by most Jewish merchants, Hall said.
Butler feels an important reason why Jews and blacks were simpatico is their shared legacy of struggle. “Well, you must remember they were segregated too at the time,” he said. “They knew how we felt and we knew how they felt.”
Rifkin-Chorney said there was an unspoken understanding that blacks and Jews shared a similar struggle as “minorities that are persecuted. It’s a common denominator.” By and large, she added, Jews recognized blacks have a much harder time. They can’t hide their color and so they are discriminated against.”
“That’s why they have to fight for themselves,” Shukert observed.
“And they have to go to more extremes,” Rifkin-Chorney said. “They’ve had to do their marches. We fought, too. We didn’t do it in the same way, because we didn’t have the numbers...”
“We did it by going to school...getting educated. We got smart enough to know how it was to change your life,” Shukert said. “The Jews bartered this, bought that, got a little property, saved their money and bought themselves into a better life.” “The black people have to take it on themselves to do the job,” Forbes said. “They’re never going to get it done unless they do it themselves.”
That sentiment is the theme of new black empowerment-covenant efforts underway in Omaha.
If there was ever a time when Jews and blacks were in sync, it was the height of the civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s. “There were probably as many Jews as there were blacks at some of those marches because we were marching really for a common cause. We had the same reason,” Rifkin-Chorney said. As Shukert said, “We were white, but we had the same reason.”
Joe Kirshenbaum, whose father delivered bread for Himmelbloom Bakery, said the north side had geographic boundaries for affluent and less affluent Jews.
“It seemed like the majority of Jews who were middle income and lower income lived in this particular area,” he said, referring to the North 24th corridor. “If you lived west of 30th Street you were pretty well off and if you lived in Dundee you were really pretty well off.”
As a boy Shukert dreamed of making it to the other side.
“I always wanted to make it across 30th Street,” he said, “because that’s when you had it made. You got to go around with all the big shot kids. I was home from the service and my folks told me we’d moved west.” Where did you move? he asked excitedly. The family’s new address -- 2935 Nicholas -- put him “right to the brink,” but still outside the promised land. “I never made it across to 30th.”
There was also the feeling that a high tide raises all boats.
Hall recalls something the wife of the grocer he worked for said. “She told me what the black man doesn’t realize is, every boost the black man gets in life is a boost for the Jews. It made sense because they were ostracized and picked on, too.”
A live-and-let-live attitude prevailed.
“I think things were extremely amicable...everyone got along,” Hall said. “It was a black-Jewish neighborhood and everyone went to their jobs and came back home and they went to 24th Street and different areas there to enjoy themselves.”
People in similar straits made the best of tough times.
“At that time it wasn’t a thing of black, white, Jew, Catholic, Protestant, it was just people,” Melton said. “See, if you give respect, you’ll get respect. They respected us and we respected them.”
When Rifkin-Chorney was newly married to her first husband, the late Ben Rifkin, the couple went to North 24th every weekend. Ben grew up there. His father and uncle were peddlers and then property owners. When she and Ben would walk down the Deuce Four she learned how thick Jewish-black relations ran.
“We passed at least half-a-dozen young black men and they all knew my husband. They all called him ‘Binny.’ I asked him, ‘How do you know everybody and how do they all know you?’ And he said, ‘They’re all my neighbors.’ Again, it was with great fondness and affection and he felt the same way towards them.”
Shukert said multi-racial fraternizing extended to recreation. Whether it was kick-the-can, pickup softball, baseball or football, Jews and blacks “played together” in the streets and the parks around 24th. Then-North Omaha YMCA director Marty Thomas, a giant black man who commanded awe, oversaw organized youth sports.
“We respected him so much. If he told you to do something, you did it,” Shukert said. “You talk about race, he was a man ahead of his time. He saw to it all the rules were the same, no matter who you were, black or white. He was the best.”
Mixed crowds danced at the Dreamland Ballroom to the swinging sounds of stellar black performers like Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
A shared sense of community was lost when the Jewish exodus began in the late ‘40s. By the ’50s, most Jewish residents were gone, including Shukert, Friedman, Kirshenbaum and Rifkin-Chorney. Some Jewish businesses remained into the ‘60s, but Mort Glass said “it was dwindling...a pretty sharp decline.” While Jews were free to most anywhere, blacks were not, restricted by red lining-covenant practices that prohibited or discouraged the sell of property to “non-whites.”
“We were held back,” Hall said.
The final Jewish hurrah on North 24th came in the wake of late ‘60s public disturbances in which businesses were burned, damaged or looted. The disorder was an expression of black anger over inequality and injustice. The worst riot, in ‘69, was sparked by the fatal shooting of a black girl by a white police officer. Charles Hall, who still lives near 24th, recalls a white man asking him at the time, “‘What’s wrong -- what do they want? “I said, ‘They want the same thing you want, and that’s an even chance to make money and to make a decent living.’”
Jewish businesses were largely spared, said John Butler, who patrolled North 24 during the ‘69 riot as part of a brigade of community-minded citizens. “Some of us stayed there and tried to protect them,” he said. “Some blacks stood in front of Jewish grocery stores and wouldn’t let the mob burn them down,” Kirshenbaum said. “One like that was Abe Schloff’s,” said Shukert. “They stood right in front of his store, with guns and said, ‘Don’t touch this man’s store.’ Because he always treated them straight.”
While most Jewish concerns survived unscathed, the psychological trauma of the riots spurred the last of North 24th’s Jewish merchants to leave.
“They all got afraid,” Smith said. “They moved out after that because things started getting different,” Butler said. “It wasn’t just them moving out. We began moving out then, too. It started a migration of both races.”
Butler moved north, to an area once off-limits to blacks. Melton and her late husband Billy moved a couple miles west. Smith also moved west.
Relatively few new businesses sprang up in the ensuing years to replace the Jewish-owned ones that left. With mom-and-pop operations a thing of the past, the area lost grocery stores, drug stores and many suppliers of basic items it was once rich in. Where other parts of town saw large chains come in to fill the gaps, North O does not. High crime stats don’t help. Existing businesses get squeezed by a dwindling economic base as middle income whites and blacks exit the inner city.
“It’s a matter of confidence. If you’re going to invest a couple hundred thousand dollars in something there you want to be reasonably assured it’s a safe investment,” Shukert said.
Hall said blacks did not fill the void because the kind of money needed to start businesses was denied them. “Back in those days the small business associations and the banks that helped Jews and whites wouldn’t give blacks 50 cents. We were discriminated against just generally in every way down through the years,” he said.
Two groups once close, grew apart. An innocence was lost. Perceptions put a new spin on things. For example, the Yiddish term for a black person, Shvartzer, was acceptable once, but as Rifkin-Chorney noted, this vernacular was deemed demeaning in the context of the civil rights-black power era.
“It wasn’t meant that way, but it could be determined as a derogatory way to speak about someone,” she said.
Shukert thinks it’s tragic that blacks became the object of fear. He said a white person walking down a street thinks nothing of an approaching group of whites, but gets alarmed at the sight of a group of blacks. “For some reason whites have always been afraid of blacks,” he said. “Why have we put that stigma on them?”
He and others are dismayed by the shootings that plague the north side these days. He knows it’s just a few “bad apples” causing the trouble, but it’s made him and old friends fearful of visiting North 24th for a nostalgic tour.
“It’s too bad you can’t, in 2007, feel free to go any place you want to, but that’s just the way it is,” he said.
Shukert and his contemporaries don’t understand why so many people resort to violence now as a means to resolve disputes or to gain respect. That’s not the way things were done in their day, when words or fist fights sufficed.
“We would never do anything to disgrace our neighborhood, our church, our family,” Martha Melton said. “It’s a shame young people don’t know the unity that there was. It does break my heart to see 24th the way it is now. It will never be the same. I have fond, fond memories of the way it was.”
All the changes and the population shifts have dislocated people from their roots. “It looks like we’re divided more now than ever,” Dorothy Freels-Smith said.
John Butler, who lives around 26th and Evans, sees hope in the new diversity emerging in northeast Omaha. “In my two-block area I’ve got whites, blacks, Hispanics living next door to each other or across from each other. Integration sometimes is good -- if people get along, and I see they’re getting along.” What’s different, he said, is that people don’t know each other the way they used to.
Back in the day on 24th, diverse people mixed and mingled in close-knit quarters. “It made a better person out of me,” Butler said. Said Hall, “I got an education working down in the neighborhood.” “We knew people better then,” said Shukert.
Speculation about the future of North 24th centers on proposed mixed use developments for transforming the area into a model of urban gentrification. These discussions bring up new issues, such as the displacement of longtime residents and what stake blacks will have there. Old-timers like Shukert believe no matter how much the strip is built back up it will not be the melting pot marketplace he knew.
“It’s never going to be,” he said. “The memories are great. I never will forget the way it was. So many people don’t have memories like that of North 24th Street, because they didn’t live it. I can tell you story after story after story, but unless you lived it it’s just a story.”