Version of story published in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com). Check out the story as it appears there at Cover – TheReader.com | Omaha Weekly Reader.
Friday, April 30, 2010
In my view, one of the most underreported stories coming out of Omaha the last 50 years was what Don Benning achieved as a young black man at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. At a time and in a place when blacks were denied opportunity, he was given a chance as an educator and a coach and he made the most of the situation. The following story, a version of which appeared in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com), charted his accomplishments on the 40th anniversary of making some history that has not gotten the attention it deserves.
One of the pleasures in doing this story was getting to know Don Benning, a man of high character who took me into his confidence. I shall always be grateful.
UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change
©by Leo Adam Biga
Version of story published in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com). Check out the story as it appears there at Cover – TheReader.com | Omaha Weekly Reader.
Version of story published in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com). Check out the story as it appears there at Cover – TheReader.com | Omaha Weekly Reader.
As the March 12-13 Division II national wrestling championships get underway at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, it's good to remember wrestling, not hockey, is the school's true marquee sport.
Host UNO has been a dominant fixture on the D-II wrestling scene for decades. Its No. 1-ranked team is the defending national champs and is expected to finish on top again under Mike Denney, the coach for five of UNO's six national wrestling titles. The first came 40 years ago amid currents of change.
Every dynasty has a beginning and a narrative. UNOs is rooted in historic firsts that intersect racial-social-political happenings. The events helped give a school with little going for it much-needed cachet and established a tradition of excellence unbroken now since the mid-1960s.
It all began with then-Omaha University president Milo Bail hiring the school's first African-American associate professor, Don Benning. The UNO grad had competed in football and wrestling for the OU Indians and was an assistant football coach there when Bail selected him to lead the fledgling wrestling program in 1963. The hire made Benning the first black head coach of a varsity sport (in the modern era) at a predominantly white college or university in America. It was a bold move for a nondescript, white-bread, then-municipal university in a racially divided city not known for progressive stances. It was especially audacious given that Benning was but 26 and had never held a head coaching position before.
Ebony Magazine celebrated the achievement in a March 1964 spread headlined, "Coach Cracks Color Barrier." Benning had been on the job only a year. By 1970 he led UNO to its first wrestling national title. He developed a powerful program in part by recruiting top black wrestlers. None ever had a black coach before.
Omaha photographer Rudy Smith was a black activist at UNO then. He said what Benning and his wrestlers did "was an extension of the civil rights activity of the '60s. Don's team addressed inequality, racism, injustice on the college campus. He recruited people accustomed to challenges and obstacles. They were fearless. Their success was a source of pride because it proved blacks could achieve. It opened the door for other advancements at UNO by blacks. It was a monumental step and milestone in the history of UNO."
Indeed, a few years after Benning's arrival, UNO became the site of more black inroads. The first of these saw Marlin Briscoe star at quarterback there, which overturned the myth blacks could not master the cerebral position. Briscoe went on to be the first black starting QB in the NFL. Benning said he played a hand in persuading UNO football coach Al Caniglia to start Briscoe. Benning publicly supported efforts to create a black studies program at UNO at a time when black history and culture were marginalized. The campaign succeeded. UNO established one of the nation's first departments of Black Studies. It continues today.
Once given his opportunity, Benning capitalized on it. From 1966 to 1971 his racially and ethnically diverse teams went 65-6-4 in duals, developing a reputation for taking on all comers and holding their own. Five of his wrestlers won a combined eight individual national championships. A dozen earned All-America status.
That championship season one of Benning's two graduate assistant coaches was fellow African-American Curlee Alexander. The Omaha native was a four-time All-American and one-time national champ under Benning. He went on to be one of the winningest wrestling coaches in Nebraska prep history at Tech and North.
Benning's best wrestlers were working-class kids like he and Alexander had been:
Wendell Hakanson, Omaha Home for Boys graduate
Roy and Mel Washington, black brothers from New York by way of cracker Georgia
Bruce "Mouse" Strauss, a "character" and mensch from back East
Paul and Tony Martinez, Latino south Omaha brothers who saw combat in Vietnam
Louie Rotella Jr., son of a prep wrestling legend and popular Italian bakery family
Gary Kipfmiller, a gentle giant who died young
Bernie Hospokda, Dennis Cozad, Rich Emsick, products of south Omaha's Eastern European enclaves.
Jordan Smith and Landy Waller, prized black recruits from Iowa
Half the starters were recent high school grads and half nontraditional students in their 20s; some, married with kids. Everyone worked a job.
The team's multicultural makeup was "pretty unique" then, said Benning. In most cases he said his wrestlers had "never had any meaningful relationships" with people of other races before and yet "they bonded tight as family." He feels the way his diverse team came together in a time of racial tension deserves analysis. "It's tough enough to develop to such a high skill level that you win a national championship with no other factors in the equation. But if you have in the equation prejudice and discrimination that you and the team have to face then that makes it even more difficult. But those things turned into a rallying point for the team. The kids came to understand they had more commonalities than differences. It was a social laboratory for life."
"We were a mixed bag, and from the outside you would think we would have a lot of issues because of cultural differences, but we really didn't," said Hospodka, a Czech- American who never knew a black until UNO. "We were a real, real tight group. We had a lot of fun, we played hard, we teased each other. Probably some of it today would be considered inappropriate. But we were so close that we treated each other like brothers. We pushed buttons nobody else better push."
"We didn't have no problems. It was a big family," said Mel Washington, who with his late brother Roy, a black Muslim who changed his name to Dhafir Muhammad, became the most decorated wrestlers in UNO history up to then. "You looked around the wrestling room and you had your Italian, your whites, your blacks, Chicanos, Jew, we all got together. If everybody would have looked at our wrestling team and seen this one big family the world would have been a better place."
If there was one thing beyond wrestling they shared in common, said Hospodka, it was coming from hardscrabble backgrounds.
"Some of the kids came from situations where you had to be pretty tough to survive," said Benning, who came up that way himself in a North O neighborhood where his was the only black family.
The Washington brothers were among 11 siblings in a sharecropping tribe that moved to Rochester, N.Y. The pair toughened themselves working the fields, doing odd-jobs and "street wrestling."
Dhafir was the team's acknowledged leader. Mel also a standout football lineman, wasn't far behind. Benning said Dhafir's teammates would "follow him to the end of the Earth." "If he said we're all running a mile, we all ran a mile," said Hospodka.
Having a strong black man as coach meant the world to Mel and Dhafir. "Something I always wanted to do was wrestle for a black coach. It was about time for me to wrestle for my own race," said Mel. The brothers had seen the Ebony profile on Benning, whom they regarded as "a living legend" before they ever got to UNO. Hospodka said Benning's race was never an issue with him or other whites on the team.
Mel and Dhafir set the unrelenting pace in the tiny, cramped wrestling room that Benning sealed to create sauna-like conditions. Practicing in rubber suits disallowed today Hospodka said a thermostat once recorded the temperature inside at 110 degrees and climbing. Guys struggled for air. The intense workouts tested physical and mental toughness. Endurance. Nobody gave an inch. Tempers flared.
Gary Kipfmiller staked out a corner no one dared invade. Except for Benning, then a rock solid 205 pounds, who made the passive Kipfmiller, tipping the scales at 350-plus, a special project. "I rode him unmercifully," said Benning. "He'd whine like a baby and I'd go, 'Then do something about i!." Benning said he sometimes feared that in a fit of anger Kipfmiller would drop all his weight on him and crush him.
Washington and Hospodka went at it with ferocity. Any bad blood was left in the room.
"As we were a team on the mat, off the mat we watched out for each other. Even though we were at each other's throats on the wrestling mat, whatever happened on the outside, we were there. If somebody needed something, we were there," said Paul Martinez, who grew up with his brother Tony, the team's student trainer-manager, in the South O projects. The competition and camaraderie helped heal psychological wounds Paul carried from Vietnam, where he was an Army infantry platoon leader.
An emotional Martinez told Benning at a mini-reunion in January, "You were like a platoon leader for us -- you guided us and protected us. Coming from a broken family, I not only looked at you as a coach but as a father." Benning's eyes moistened.
Joining them there were other integral members of UNO's 1970 NAIA championship team, including Washington and Hospodka. The squad capped a perfect 14-0 dual season by winning the tough Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament in Gunnison, Colo. and the nationals in Superior, Wis. It was the first national championship won by a scholarship team at the school and the first in any major sport by a Nebraska college or university.
Another milestone was that Benning became the first black coach to win an integrated national championship in wrestling and one of the first to do so in any sport at any level. He earned NAIA national coach of the year honors in 1969.
University of Washington scholar John C. Walter devotes a chapter to Benning's historymaker legacy in a soon-to-be-published book, Better Than the Best. Walter said Benning's "career and situation was a unique one" The mere fact Benning got the opportunity he did, said Walter, "was extraordinary," not to mention that the mostly white student-athletes he taught and coached accepted him without incident. Somewhere else, he said, things might have been different.
"He was working in a state not known for civil rights, that's for sure," said Walter. "But Don was fortunate he was at a place that had a president who acted as a catalyst. It was a most unusual confluence. I think the reason why it happened is the president realized here's a man with great abilities regardless of the color of his skin, and for me that is profound. UNO was willing to recognize and assist a young black man trying hard to distinguish himself and make a name for his university. That's very important."
Waltersaid it was the coach's discipline and determination to achieve against all odds that prepared him to succeed.
Benning's legacy can only be fully appreciated in the context of the time and place in which he and his student-athletes competed. For example, he was set to leave his hometown after being denied a teaching post with the Omaha Public Schools, part of endemic exclusionary practices here that restricted blacks from obtaining certain jobs and living in many neighborhoods. He only stayed when Bail chose him to break the color line, though they never talked about it in those terms.
"It always puzzled me why he did that knowing the climate at the university and in K-12 education and in the community pointed in a different direction. Segregation was a way of life here in Omaha. It took a tremendous amount of intestinal fortitude of doing what's right, of being ready to step out on that limb when no other schools or institutions would touch African-Americans," said Benning. He can only surmise Bail "thought that was the right thing to do and that I was the right person to do it."
In assuming the burden of being the first, Benning took the flak that came with it.
"I flat out couldn't fail because I would be failing my people. African-American history would show that had I failed it would have set things back. I was very aware of Jackie Robinson and what he endured. That was in my mind a lot. He had to take a lot and not say anything about it. It was no different for me. I had tremendous pressure on me because of being African-American. A lot of things I held to myself."
Washington said though Benning hid what he had to contend with, some of it was blatant, such as snubs or slights on and off the mat. His white wrestlers recall many instances on the road when they or the team's white trainer or equipment manager would be addressed as "coach" or be given the bill at a restaurant when it should have been obvious the well-dressed, no-nonsense Benning was in charge.
Hospodka said at restaurants "they just assumed the black guy couldn't pay. They hesitated to serve us or they ignored us or they hoped we would go away."
Washington could relate, saying, "I had a feeling what he was going through -- the prejudice. They looked down on him. That's why I put out even more for him because I wanted to see him on top. A lot of people would have said the heck with this, but he's a man who stood there and took the heat and took it in stride."
"He did it in a quiet way. He always thought his character and actions would speak for him. He went about his business in a dignified way," said Hospodka.
UNO wrestlers didn't escape ugliness. At the 1971 nationals in Boone, N.C., Washington was the object of a hate crime -- an effigy hung in the stands. Its intended effect backfired. Said Washington, "That didn't bother me. You know why? I was used to it. That just made me want to go out there more and really show 'em up." He did, too.
]"We were booed a lot when we were on the road," Hospodka said. "Don always said that was the highest form of flattery. We thrived on it, it didn't bother us, we never took it personal, we just went out and did our thing. You might say it (the booing) was because we were beating the snot out of them. I couldn't help think having a black coach and four or five black wrestlers had something to do with it."
Hospodka said wherever UNO went the team was a walking social statement. "When you went into a lot of small towns in the '60s with four or five black wrestlers and a black coach you stuck out. It's like, Why are these people together?" "There were some places that were awfully uncomfortable, like in the Carolinas," said Benning. "You know there were places where they'd never seen an African-American."
At least not a black authority figure with a group of white men answering to him.
The worst scene came at the Naval Academy, where the cold reception UNO got while holed up three days there was nothing compared to the boos, hisses, catcalls and pennies hurled at them during the dual. In a wild display of unsportsmanlike conduct Benning said thousands of Midshipmen left the stands to surround the mat for the crucial final match, which Kipfmiller won by decision to give UNO a tie.
The white wrestling infrastructure also went out of its way to make Benning and his team unwelcome.
"I think there were times when they seeded other wrestlers ahead of our wrestlers, one, because we were good and, two, because they didn't look at it strictly from a wrestling standpoint, I think there was a little of the good old boy network there to try and make our road as tough as possible," said Hospodka. "I think race played into that. It was a lot of subtle things. Maybe it wasn't so subtle. Don probably saw it more because of the bureaucracy he had to deal with."
"Some individuals weren't too happy with me being an African-American," said Benning. "I served on a selection committee that looked at different places to host the national tournament,. UNO hosted it in '69, which was really very unusual, it broke a barrier, they'd never had a national championship where the host school had an African-American coach. That was pretty strange for them."
He said the committee chairman exhibited outright disdain for him. Benning believes the '71 championship site was awarded to Boone rather than Omaha, where the nationals were a big success, as a way to put him in his place. "The committee came up with Appalachian State, which just started wrestling. I swear to this day the only reason that happened was because of me and my team," he said.
He and his wrestlers believe officials had it in for them. "There was one national tournament where there's no question we just flat out got cheated," said Benning. "It was criminal. I'm talking about the difference between winning the whole thing and second." Refs' judgements at the '69 tourney in Omaha cost UNO vital points. "It was really hard to take," said Benning. UNO had three individual champs to zero for Adams State, but came up short, 98-84. One or two disputed calls swung the balance.
Despite all the obstacles, Benning and his "kids" succeeded in putting UNO on the map. The small, white institution best known for its Bootstrapper program went from obscurity to prominence by making athletics the vehicle for social action. In a decade defined by what Benning termed "a social revolution," the placid campus was the last place to expect a historic color line being broken.
The UNO program came of age with its dynamic black coach and mixed team when African-American unrest flared into riots across the country, including Omaha. A north side riot occurred that championship season. UNO's black wrestlers, who could not find accommodations near the UNO campus, lived in the epicenter of the storm. Black Panthers were neighbors. Mel Washington, his brother Dhafir and other teammates watched North 24th St. burn. Though sympathetic to the outrage, they navigated a delicate line to steer clear of trouble but still prove their blackness.
A uniformed police cadet then, Washington said he was threatened once by the Panthers, who called him "a pig" and set off a cherry bomb outside the apartment he shared with his wife and daughter.
"I found those guys and said, 'Anybody ever do that to my family again, and you or I won't be living,' and from then on I didn't have no more problems. See, not only was I getting it from whites, but from blacks, too."
Benning, too, found himself walking a tightrope of "too black or not black enough." After black U.S. Olympians raised gloved fists in protest of the national anthem, UNO's black wrestlers wanted to follow suit. Benning considered it, but balked. In '69 Roy Washington converted to Islam. He told Benning his allegiance to Black Muslim leader Honorable Elijah Muhammad superseded any team allegiance. Benning released him from the squad. Roy's brother Mel earlier rejected the separatist dogma the Black Muslims preached. Their differences caused no riff.
Dhafir (Roy) rejoined the team in December after agreeing to abide by the rules. He won the 150-pound title en route to UNO capturing the team title over Adams, 86-58. Hospodka said Dharfir still expressed his beliefs, but with "no animosity, just pride that black-is-beautiful. Dharfir's finals opponent, James Tannehill, was a black man married to a white woman. Hospodka said it was all the reason Dharfir needed to tell Tannehill, "God told me to punish you." He delivered good on his vow.
It was also an era when UNO carried the "West Dodge High" label. Its academic and athletic facilities left much to be desired. "The university didn't have that many things to feel proud of," said Benning. Wrestling's success lifted a campus suffering an inferiority complex to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Wrestling was one area where UNO could best NU, whose NCAA wrestling program paled by comparison.
"Coach Benning and his wrestling teams elevated UNO right to the top, shoulder-to-shoulder with its big brother's football team down the road," said UNO grad Mary Jochim, part of a wrestling spirit club in 69-'70. "They gave everyone at the school a big boost of pride. The rafters would shake at those matches."
"You'd have to say it was the coming-together of several factors that brought about a genuine excitement about wrestling at UNO in the late 1960s," said former UNO Sports Information Director Gary Anderson. He was sports editor of the school paper, The Gateway, that championship season. "There were some outstanding athletes who were enthusiastic and colorful to watch, a very good coach, and UNO won a lot of matches. UNO had the market cornered. Creighton had no team and Nebraska's team wasn't as dominant as UNO. It created a perfect storm."
Benning said, "It was more important we had the best wrestling team in the state than winning the national championship. Everybody took pride in being No. 1." Anderson said small schools like UNO "could compete more evenly" then with big schools in non-revenue producing sports like wrestling, which weren't fully funded. He said as UNO "wrestled and defeated 'name' schools it added luster to the team's mystique.
NU was among the NCAA schools UNO beat during Benning's tenure, along with Wyoming, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas and Cornell. UNO tied a strong Navy team at the Naval Academy in what Hospodka called "the most hostile environment I ever wrestled in." UNO crowned the most champions at the Iowa Invitational, where if team points had been kept UNO would have outdistanced the big school field.
"We didn't care who you were -- if you were Division I or NAIA or NCAA, it just didn't matter to us," said Hospodka, who pinned his way to the 190-pound title in 1970. The confidence to go head-to-head with anybody was something Benning looked for in his wrestlers and constantly reinforced.
Said Hospodka,"Don always felt like we could compete against anybody. He knew he had talent in the room. He didn't think we had to take a back seat to anybody when it came to our abilities. He had a confidence about him that was contagious."
The sport's bible, Amateur Wrestling News, proclaimed UNO one of the best teams in the nation, regardless of division. UNO's five-years of dominance, resulting in one national championship, two runner-up finishes, a third-place finish and an eighth place showing, regularly made the front page of the Omaha World-Herald sports section.
The grapplers also wrestled with an aggression and a flair that made for crowd-pleasing action. Benning said his guys were "exceptional on their feet and exceptional pinners." It wasn't unusual for UNO to record four or five falls per dual. Washington said it was UNO's version of "showtime." He and his teammates competed against each other for the most stylish or quickest pin.
Hospodka said "the bitter disappointment" of the team title being snatched away in '69 fueled UNO's championship run the next season, when UNO won its 14 duals by an average score of 32-6. It works out to taking 8 of every 10 matches. UNO posted three shut outs and allowed single digits in seven other duals. No one scored more than 14 points on them all year. The team won every tournament it competed in.
Everything fell into place. "Nobody at our level came even close to competing with us," said Hospodka. "The only close match we had was Athletes in Action, and those were all ex-Big 8 wrestlers training for the World Games or the Olympics. They were loaded and we still managed to pull out a victory (19-14)." At nationals, he said, "we never had a doubt. We had a very solid lineup the whole way, everybody was at the top of their game. We wrapped up the title before the finals even started." Afterwards, Benning told the Gateway, "It was the greatest team effort I have ever been acquainted with and certainly the greatest I've ever seen."
Muhammad won his third individual national title and Hospodka his only one. Five Mavs earned All-America status.
The foundation for it all, Hospodka said, was laid in a wrestling room a fraction the size of today's UNO practice facility. "I've been in bigger living rooms," he said. But it was the work the team put in there that made the difference. "It was a tough room, and if you could handle the room then matches were a breeze. The easy part of your week was when you got to wrestle somebody else. There were very few people I wrestled that I felt would survive our wrestling room."
"It was great competition," said Jordan Smith. "One thing I learned after my first practice was that I was no longer the toughest guy in the room. There were some recruits who came into that room and practiced with us for a few days and we never saw them again. I was part of something that really was special. It was a phenomenal feeling."
This band of brothers is well represented in the Maverick Wrestling and UNO Halls of Fame. The championship team was inducted by UNO and by the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Benning, Mel Washington, Dhafir Muhammad and Curlee Alexander are in the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame. But when UNO went from NAIA to NCAA Division II in '73 it seemed the athletic department didn't value the past. Tony Martinez said he rescued the team's numerous plaques and trophies from a campus dumpster. Years later he reluctantly returned them to the school, where some can be viewed in the Sapp Fieldhouse lobby.
UNO's current Hall of Fame coach, Mike Denney, knows the program owes much to what Benning and his wrestlers did. The two go way back.
Benning left coaching in '71 for an educational administration career with OPS. Mike Palmisano inherited the program for eight years, but it regressed.
When Denney took over in '79 he said "my thing was to try to find a way to get back to the level Don had them at and carry on the tradition he built." Denney plans having Benning back as grand marshall for the March of All-Americans at this weekend's finals. "I have great respect for him." Benning admires what Denney's done with the program, which has risen to even greater heights. "He's done an outstanding job"
As for the old coach, he feels the real testament to what he achieved is how close his diverse team remains. They don't get together like they once did. When they do, the bonds forged in sweat and blood reduce them to tears. Their ranks are thinned due to death and relocation. They're fathers and grandfathers now, yet they still have each other's backs. Benning's boys still follow his lead. Hospokda said he often asks himself, "What would Don want me to do?"
At a recent reunion Washington told Benning, "I'm telling you now in front of everyone -- thank you for bringing the family together."
Radio One Queen Cathy Hughes Rules By Keeping It Real, Native Omahan the Creator of the Urban Radio Format
I remember reading something about Cathy Hughes somewhere years ago and after digesting the fact this African-American woman was a major media mogul born and raised in my hometown my next reaction was: Why didn't I know about her before? I mean, she's a big deal, and her hometown didn't seem to acknowledge or celebrate her success the way you would expect. One of the nice things about what I do as a freelance journalist is getting the opportunity here and there to rectify such perceived wrongs or at least to put my own spin on someone's story and perhaps introduce a whole new segment of the population to the subject. That is precisely what I did in the following profile I did on Cathy Hughes for The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper in 2005.
I share the story here simply because hers is a story that cannot be told too often.
Radio One Queen Cathy Hughes Rules By Keeping It Real, Native Omahan the Creator of the Urban Radio Format
©by Leo Adam Biga
The cool hip-hop culture is driving the urban -- read: black -- entertainment industry explosion. Radio’s no exception. Omaha’s Hot 107.7 FM loudly carries the banner here for urban radio’s mix of rap, hip hop, soul and R&B. Contemporary rock KQCH 94.1-FM tries a little ebony flavor. But no matter how much they try positioning themselves as urban players, these stations are part of white owned and operated networks -- Waitt Radio and Journal Broadcast Corporation, respectively.
To be sure, a more authentic urban electronic media model exists. One with black ownership-management and a black sensibility. Just not in Omaha. That’s ironic, too, as the queen of the urban format is Omaha native Catherine Liggins Hughes, a 58-year-old African American whose Radio One network is described as “the voice of black America and the lightning rod for the black community.” Her stations feature music, news and talk from a black perspective. She and her son, Alfred Liggins Hughes, reign over the Baltimore-area-based Radio One empire comprising 69 radio stations, one television station and, since January 2004, the new cable/satellite channel, TV One, a lifestyle and entertainment option aimed at middle-age blacks. TV One is a joint venture with Comcast Corporation. Her parent company went public in 1999 and is valued at $3 billion, making it one of the largest radio broadcasting companies overall and the largest black-owned media firm. She estimates more than 2,100 of her 2,800 broadcasters are black. Many are women.
Hughes adventure in radio comes full circle on May 14, when she receives an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the 2005 commencement at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she got her first big break in the industry. But it was in Omaha her love of radio first bloomed.
It’s been years since Omaha sustained a truly black station. One of the last was KOWH. A group of Kansas City, Mo. doctors and a consortium of Omahans, including Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, NBA veteran Bob Boozer, social service director Rodney Wead and businessman Al Gilmore, bought it in 1969 and operated it through the mid-1970s. Warren Buffett was an advisor. It’s where Hughes got her start in radio as a do-everything volunteer.
Her rise to national prominence the last 25 years has made her, outside Oprah Winfrey, Eunice W. Johnson and Condoleezza Rice, perhaps the most powerful black woman in America. She’s been called so by Essence Magazine. She counts Ebony Magazine publisher John H. Johnson and award-winning journalist Tony Brown as friends and mentors. Yet, her story’s largely gone untold in her hometown. It’s not surprising given Omaha’s conservative daily newspaper and her penchant for ruffling feathers. But hers is the classic American success story. Despite hailing from an educated and accomplished family, she overcome major obstacles growing up. A shining example of black upward mobility, her climb serves both as an inspiration for how far passion can carry one and as a reminder of how too many blacks remain disenfranchised.
Growing up in the now old Franklin Plaza projects just off 24th and Franklin in north Omaha, Hughes fired her imagination to the museful sounds emanating from the oversized radio she listened to in her room at night.
“My love affair with radio started when I was 8-years-old when my mother gave me a 15-pound transistor radio. I used to get spankings, because at night -- when I was supposed to be asleep -- I had my radio on under my pillow,” Hughes said.
Unlike her mother, Helen Jones Woods, a former musician, Hughes had “no musical talent. So, rather than being drawn towards music and embracing it, I kind of shied away from it...I felt awkward that I couldn’t sing, dance or carry a tune. The interesting thing about my relationship with radio is that the part I loved most was the commercials, not the music. Today, Radio One is a case study for the Harvard Graduate School of Business, and when they were doing their case study they said, ‘Well, no wonder y’all did OK, because your love of radio was not the music, it was the commercials.’ Yeah, I loved the commercials. I used to take my toothbrush and pretend it was a microphone and be up in the mirror -- in the projects -- giving commercials,” said Hughes in the earthy tones of a late-night urban deejay.She was on track meeting her family’s high standards, attending a private school, when, at 16, she got pregnant. Her marriage to the father didn't last. “I went into shock because I had my whole future ahead of me,” she said in a 1998 Essence Magazine interview. The birth of her son snapped her out of her “arrested development. I was a lost ball in high weeds.”
Being a mom, she said, “was the last thing I ever anticipated and it turned out to be the greatest blessing of my life. Absolutely, my son changed my life. He’s the reason I am who I am today. By that I mean spiritually. He necessitated a belief in a power much greater than myself.”
She managed supporting herself and her son, got an education and made a career out of her first love -- radio, and Alfred was beside her every step of the way. “I took him everywhere with me. I stayed in constant trouble with my employers, particularly when I moved to the East Coast, because I knew no one there and I was not going to entrust him to strangers. And, so, I brought him to work with me.”
Her wild success has not made her forget her struggle or the huge gap that still separates many African Americans from the good life. A self-described “black nationalist,” she’s all about promoting and strengthening the black community and emboldening her people’s sense of pride. She learned social activism from her parents, members of the social justice action group, the De Porres Club, and from crusading Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, for whom she worked and whose offices hosted De Porres meetings. The faith-based Club led Omaha’s early Civil Rights fight under the late Jesuit priest, John Markoe, of Creighton University. Formed in 1947, the Club agitated for change via demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts that opened lunch counters, like that at Dixon’s Restaurant, and desegregated employment rolls at such work sites as Coca-Cola and the street-railway company.
Hughes was also a protege of Markoe’s. She recalls marching in demonstrations when she was only five. As a teen, she helped integrate Peony Park. Markoe, a close family friend, sponsored Hughes at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, where she became the first black graduate, and loaned her mother the money to attend nursing school. “He took special interest in a lot of young black people. He saw their potential. He was a pioneer,” said Hughes’ mother. The family visited Markoe when he was dying at the old St. Joseph Hospital, where a West Point classmate of his, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, also said goodbye.
Forging new ground and contributing to The Cause is a family trait Hughes inherited from her parents and maternal grandfather. “They were always very committed to trying to improve the plight of our people,” she said.
Her mother’s father, Laurence C. Jones, was one of the first African-Americans to receive an Ed.D from the University of Iowa. In 1909 he founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. Still a premier boarding school for disadvantaged African-American students, it places the vast majority of its graduates in college. Hughes is its largest contributor. Her mother, who was adopted by Jones and his wife, attended the school and played trombone in its touring all-girl swing band -- the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. As the band gained popularity down south, the Sweethearts chafed at being a cash cow for the school and left, en masse, to perform separately from the institution. Woods was among the rebels. The popular band, which included bi-racial and white members, played all over the U.S., even headlining the Apollo Theater. “When you play at the Apollo Theater, you know you’ve arrived,” Woods said. During World War II, the band entertained overseas black American military personnel as part of the USO. The orchestra disbanded in the late 1940s.
Helen Woods met and married her husband, and Cathy’s father, William Alfred Woods, while with the band in his hometown of Chatanooga, Tenn. After the couple moved to Omaha, he became the first African American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University. When no one would hire him as an accountant, he worked an overnight line job at Skinner Macaroni. That is, until “the Jesuits just refused to accept the embarrassment any longer of their first black accountant bagging macaroni at night, and prevailed upon the Internal Revenue Service to give him an opportunity,” Hughes said. He later went into business for himself. Helen became an LPN and, later, a social worker at Douglas County Hospital. The couple’s first of four kids was Catherine Elizabeth, who helped raise her younger siblings.
Fascinated and Inspired
By the late ‘60s, Hughes was taking liberal arts courses at Creighton and then-Omaha University. “Fascinated with radio,” she leapt at the chance to get in on the ground floor at fledgling KOWH. “This was too good to be true, you know. Black folks owning their own radio station. This was a learning opportunity. That’s the reason I was motivated to volunteer and help out.” Even though her real radio education came later, she feels KOWH played a key role in her broacast odyssey.
“I think the reason we have a $3 billion corporation today is because Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Rodney Wead and the other individuals who invested in KOWH inspired me to do it for myself and become a broadcast owner. I saw them do it and so I figured I could. I think none of my success would have taken place if I had not seen the example set by that group. That’s very important to me, because often times when I tell in interviews what a profound effect people in Omaha had on my life, it gets left out of the story because some editor doesn’t consider Omaha exciting.”
Hughes’ big break came on the heels of love and tragedy. It was the early 1970s and she served on UNO’s Black Studies Committee, which sponsored appearances by noted journalist Tony Brown, who befriended her. The man Hughes was dating at the time was hired by Brown, then the dean of Howard University’s newly formed School of Communications, to chair a department in the School. Meanwhile, her father was given a contract by the Office of Minority Business in Washington, D.C. to organize the books of small minority businesses. Her father was set to leave for D.C. when he fell ill and died of a heart attack.
A grieving Hughes went to D.C. and was surprised when Brown offered her a job as a lecturer in Howard’s School of Communications. “I said to him, ‘But I didn’t finish college,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Neither did anyone else on the faculty other than myself.’ The faculty he allowed me to join included Quincy Jones, Melvin Van Peebles, Stan Lathan. It was a list of non-degreed practitioners of the media and this was quite revolutionary for a major institution of higher learning.”
Hughes began volunteering at Howard’s radio station, WHUR. “When I found out they had a radio station I was like, ‘Oh, let me learn, let me help out. What can I do?” Within a short time she was hired as sales manager and, later, general manager, engineering a turnaround that dramatically increased advertising revenue and put WHUR near the top of D.C.’s highly competitive black radio market.
The Quiet Storm
It was at WHUR she created The Quiet Storm, a sexy late night music-chatter format that's come to dominate urban radio programming (once featured on 600 stations). She formulated the concept after Howard showed faith in her by sending her to a broadcast management course at Harvard University and a psychographic programming seminar at the University of Chicago. Psychographic studies help broadcasters design programming based on target audience lifestyles and trends.
So, what did Brown see in Hughes? “He saw my love of radio. My determination and commitment to the student body. He saw this was a passion for me. He knew it was like throwing a duck into water. That I was so happy for the opportunity and so fascinated with everything. I used to write back home saying, ‘My eyes are tired seeing the glory and the beauty of being an African living in America.’ Because I had never seen black men and women wrapping their heads and wearing African fabrics and having black plays and black radio. This was a new experience for me. Coming from Omaha, my daddy was the only black accountant, who knew the only black lawyer, who knew the only black dentist, who knew the only black doctor. These were the days when we had one of each in Omaha.”
When Howard University balked at licensing The Quiet Storm on the grounds it was commercially unviable, Hughes left for DC’s WYCB-AM and, in search of more creative control, began looking to acquire her own station. When DC’s WOL came up for sale, she sought to purchase it. Married at the time to Dewey Hughes, the couple made a bid with $100,000 of her own money, plus an additional $100,000 from 10 investors who put up $10,000 each. Another $600,000 came from a group of black venture capitalists. She still needed $1 million dollars from a senior lender. She was rejected by all-male lenders at 32 separate banks. Chemical Bank was her 33rd try and a new-on-the-job Puerto Rican female loan officer there approved the loan. The 1980 purchase made WOL the base of Radio One’s pioneering 24-hour talk from a black perspective format, with its theme: Information is Power.
“If that woman had not gambled on me then I would not be in business today. She was the one that made the difference,” Hughes said. “I never asked her why she did it. I assumed because she saw me a good investment. Those 32 men that told me no probably told some man yes the same week.”
Even today, after all her proven business acumen and personal wealth (in the mid nine figures), Hughes said women of color like herself still lack respect in the business arena. “It hasn’t changed. Not at all. Particularly when you’re one who’s outspoken. It’s not a role white women have enjoyed for too long and, so, it’s definitely still brand new for African American women. It’s the whole confidence factor. You find it with your lenders...your staff...your audience. The most perilous time in the history of my company was when I divorced my husband (Dewey Hughes). He was not making a contribution to the business. He was a drain. But that’s not how it was seen by advertisers, lenders, creditors...They saw it from the perspective that I wouldn’t be able to survive.”
Networking and Visioning
Today, her network of stations is in virtually every major black market: Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Washington, DC, Louisville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami. Radio One's 1995 purchase of WKYS in Washington, D.C. for $40 million, reportedly the largest transaction between two black companies in broadcasting history, made Hughes the first woman owner of a #1 ranked major market radio station.
Radio One’s among the few black-owned media companies to stave off the Wall Street wolves and conglomorates that began buying up black stations and networks. Hughes’ corporate strategy of acquiring and turning around underperforming urban stations has proven profitable and grown the company exponentially. “We’re turnaround experts,” she said. Yet, only a few years ago, she tells how at “a big affair of financial types a gentleman who was not very well informed stood up and thanked my son for saving my company. Gave him full credit. And when my son tried to correct him, he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, but you made a difference.’ Alfred tried to say, ‘No, I wasn’t even old enough to be around to save her company,’ but they weren’t having it. Alfred has an MBA from Wharton. He’s the one that took us public and, so, he gets the credit for about 15 years of hard work that existed before he became part of the scenario.”
Hughes’ vision for the company was big from the start and then federal legislation compelled her to keep getting bigger. “I always wanted more than one station but our corporate strategy crystallized in 1996 with the passage of the TeleCom bill (Telecommunications Act),” which removed limits on the number of stations a company could own. “It basically says, Either you grow or you go. Either you become one of the big boys or you sell out. I wasn’t interested in selling out,” she said. According to Hughes, that same Act has made radio/TV ownership a rigged system that forces vulnerable stations into the hands of giants and prevents smaller companies from buying in. She’s bought out many stations herself. The spiraling cost of media properties makes it harder, especially for prospective black owners.
“Black folks own more stations, but there are fewer owners. Sixty-nine of them belong to me. It costs several million dollars before you can get a station. It’s very difficult, unless you’re independently wealthy, to put together the financing and go through the rigors and the process of securing the license. There’s some great (black) individuals who would do a great job of running a radio station, but they’re not able to get the start-up money and organizational revenue they need.”
No dilettante operating from afar, Hughes is a hands-on media owner. It makes sense considering she came up through the ranks of radio. She’s done everything at the station level except engineer. Her first days at WOL found her scrounging for everything and even sleeping some nights on the office floor. Up until the mid-’90s she was a popular on-air personality who set the frank tone and assertive agenda for Radio One’s fierce community activism and involvement. These days, she hosts her own show, TV One On One, on the new TV One network.
A Passionate Woman
She said critics’ decrying her pro-black stances “misinterpret” her. “I’m a very passionate woman. My voice raises. I get excited. I start to talk fast. When I was on the radio, nationalism was not quite as understood and accepted as it is now. So, a lot of white journalists mistook my passion, my excitement, my commitment to my people as me being a fire-breathing activist who didn’t like white folks. Well, my second in command to my son is a white woman, Mary Catherine Sneed. She’s like a daughter to me. Just because I love my people doesn’t mean I don’t like other people. I laugh about it, because I grew up in Omaha, and if you’re black and not an integrationist in Omaha, you perish. OK? There’s not enough black folks.”
Even with Radio One and TV One ever expanding, (at one point, TV One was gaining a million new subscribers per month), Hughes is not complacent. “I don’t see it as success yet. I still see it as a work in progress. The reason I have to keep driving forward is the reality that my community seems not to be making the progress for the masses we should be making considering how blessed more of us are each year.” She feels whatever success she’s had is rooted in her community focus. “Our commitment to our community is what has built brand loyalty. It’s a misnomer that you can’t do good and do well. You don’t have to forsake your peoplehood in order to get wealthy. In fact, I’ve had just the opposite experience.”
Of her many riches, she said she’s proudest of “rearing a son by myself that grew up to embrace my vision, my dream, my commitment to electronic media.” She still get backs to Omaha, where her mother resides. Aside from being honored at a Native Omaha Days, Hughes keeps a low profile here with family and friends, seeing old haunts and attending mass at St. Benedict the Moor. “I earn my living being in the spotlight. When I come home, the best past of it is that there is no spotlight.”
Helen Woods never imagined all this for her daughter, although she suspected something special was in store. “Some people are destined for greatness,” she said.
Howard University's newest crop of grads have a model of greatness they can call their own.
Growing up, I knew of a certain barbershop in northeast Omaha for one reason and one reason alone, it is where former Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers held court as a barber and firebrand activist. I never drove past Goodwin's Spencer Streeet Barbershop nor walked into it until a few years ago, when I went there to file a story on the special place it holds in the local African-American community beyond the usual gathering and gossip stops that barber and beauty shops serve.
Chambers is one part of the story, but another is the shop's namesake, Dan Goodwin, who in his own way is an activist every inch that Chambers is. When they worked the shop together at the height of the civil rights movement and racial tensions in Omaha, they made a formidable duo of strong, socially conscious black men cutting their way to freedom.
A version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 2006.
Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too
©by Leo Adam Biga
The splintered front window of Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop, 3116 North 24th Street, might as well read: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too. Amid all the jive, the shop’s a forum for street-wise straight talk, scholarly debate, potent ideology and down home lessons from its owner and master barber, Dan Goodwin, and the gallery of young fellas and Old Gs (old guys) that hang there.
That was never more true than during the Black Power movement and Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and ‘70s. That’s when the Spencer was a must-stop for anyone partaking in the vital brew of philosophy, polemic, dialectic and rhetoric coursing through black America. The “star” attraction was a then-young Ernie Chambers, the barber-provocateur-activist turned-politician. Between razor cuts, relaxers and jeri curls, he and Goodwin made like Malcolm and Langston, interpreting the times in an eloquent spoken word style that was part call-and-response sermon and part lecture. They were variously protagonists or antagonists. The customers and curious onlookers, their disciples or students or foils.
“It was like open line every day of the week down there,” said Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith. “All the conversation topics were about relevant things that were not talked about on radio/TV or written about in newspapers or discussed in school. Whenever you went there you were always intellectually challenged and stimulated.
“People would always bring in books and articles and things, and they would read them there and discuss them. Sometimes, people would come there and not even get their hair cut. They’d just come to listen. Others would come just to vent.”
“You’d go at ten in the morning and you may not leave until two or three in the afternoon. You’d sit around and listen to a lot of positive things,” Omahan Richard Nared said. “You’d go and get a lot of ‘mother wit’ (knowledge).”
Things could get intense. Smith said Goodwin, Chambers and company “could be confrontational. Sometimes they’d take the opposite position just to stimulate your thinking and to broaden your perspective. But it wasn’t meant to destroy you -- it was meant to strengthen you. Now, I didn’t always agree with ‘em, but I didn’t always oppose ‘em either. I enjoyed it and other people did, too.”
Smith said “the salient” subjects batted around included “Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Hughie Newton, racism, economic development, the lack of black teachers in the public school system, housing discrimination, police violence” and any “issues relating to our people.”
Memories of Vivian Strong and other victims of police gunfire still elicit strong responses. Goodwin refers to the 1969 fatal shooting of the 14-year-old Strong as “murder.” The incident ignited disturbances that he said were branded a riot.
Unlike some leaders who’ve done more reading about The Struggle than living it, Goodwin speaks from the harsh experience of a man who’s encountered his share of police harassment and brutality, including the cold hard steel of a double barrel shot gun pressed to his temple and the butt of that same gun jammed into his gut. He’s been rousted and arrested for “driving while black.”
His social consciousness was stirred in the U.S. Navy. He left Tech High at age 17 to enlist. “It was a good experience. But I went through a lot in the military. I went through boot camp with only one other black in my company. In the tent I was in in the Philippines, I was the only black. I’d hear things. I didn’t start nothin’, but I wouldn’t take nothin’. Every time I had a fight, they thought they could just say anything -- the ‘n’ word, you name it -- and I didn’t take it. But, you know what, it wasn’t that I was tough. I was dealing with cowards and they weren’t looking for much of a reaction. I must admit sometimes after I finished off one of those people, the other Caucasians would say, ‘Man, he had it coming.’”
Back home, he hit the streets protesting injustice as a member of the 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties). Unlike other organizations here reluctant “to confront” the system, the 4CL “believed in going out and demonstrating. It was an action group,” he said. “We integrated different places and we petitioned for jobs and open housing. We marched on city hall. We did things like this that brought about some changes. We were considered troublemakers and that’s what it takes to get the changes.”
He marched on Washington in 1963, a witness to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He helped sponsor a 1964 Omaha speaking appearance by Malcolm X, a personal favorite whom he met. In 1996, Goodwin got on the bus and went to Washington again for the Million Man March.
Over the years, he’s filed complaints about police misconduct and other improper behavior directed at him and his people, making enemies along the way. All that’s bound up in him and in his shop is symbolized in the cracked glass out front he’s never fixed. Bullets hit it one night years ago. It’s a reminder of past incidents. Once, he got an anonymous call saying cops shot out the window at his old place. A warning to tone it down and to play like Uncle Tom. For many, the broken glass at the present site symbolizes hostility toward blacks. It’s also a defiant proclamation that Goodwin will not be intimidated or silenced or run off.
“I can handle anything that comes down,” Goodwin said.
As a visceral reminder of that resolve, he’s made the shop a fertile ground for developing not just the mind, but the body, too. The muscular Chambers introduced weight training there. Goodwin started lifting at age 40. With a ripped body that testifies to his dedication, Goodwin has in recent years become a world-class power lifter in the masters division. He’ll wear you out in the makeshift gym he has in a corner of the shop or wear you down with his treatise-like arguments. Some of the trophies, plaques and ribbons he's won take up one side of the shop, whose walls are filled with clippings/photos of some of the sports greats to get their hair cut there (Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Sayers, Ron Boone, Johnny Rodgers, etc.).
Along with the Fair Deal Cafe, the shop was the place to be for any politically aware person interested in serious dialogue about the black experience.
If you were a Black Muslim or Panther or garden variety activist, then you went there to hear the latest thinking. Whether you supported Malcolm or Martin, read Cleaver or Chrisman and marched in step with the NAACP or the Urban League, you were ripe for the Spencer Street indoctrination.
“Dan Goodwin and Ernie Chambers had a great influence on us. They made sure we were accountable. They had high standards for us,” said Frank Peak, a former Black Panther member in Omaha. “They were mentors.”
If you were a minister, you’d better go prepared to recite the Bible chapter and verse or defend your theology. If an elected official or a candidate seeking the black vote, you tested the waters there.
If you were an idealistic white student or adult civil rights sympathizer, you came as an acolyte to learn at the feet of the black men who, by virtue of the oppression they endured and resisted, earned the right to hold court there.
If you were a reporter looking to measure the pulse of the community, you no sooner flipped open a note pad or switched on a tape recorder then you got more than you bargained for in the way of unvarnished views.
“It wasn’t always serious, now,” Smith said. “There was a lot of laughter. And sometimes people laughed to keep from crying.”
Nothing much has changed. The same issues persist, only the incendiary talk has been somewhat muted and the rallies that got their start there have been relegated to the history books except for an occasional revival.
At age 77 Goodwin commands respect from young and old alike for still being a relevant spokesman and soul brother.
“He’s like the father of this barbershop,” customer Charles Taylor said. “I’ve noticed a lot of the young men that come in here refer to him as Mr. Goodwin. That shows respect.”
Goodwin’s not lost the fervor to fight injustice or to do the right thing. But there is an edge of resignation in his words and in his voice today. Chalk it up to all the shit he’s seen go down from his perch on North 24th, where the promise of a better tomorrow hasn’t been realized the way he hoped.
“I feel a lot of frustration. I was naive enough to believe that by now it would be different for our youngsters,” he said. “Racism is everywhere. It’s just a little more sophisticated now, that’s all.”
His vintage red brick building, only a stone’s throw from Lothrop Magnet Center, Littlefield’s Beautyrama and Church of Jesus Christ Whole Truth, is a symbol for the once teeming area gone to seed. The upper floor windows are boarded up. On the north wall, a faded advertisement for “Uneda Biscuits, 5¢,” faces a vacant lot upon which other buildings and businesses once stood. The south wall is awash in a celebratory mural portraying “the way things used to be,” said Goodwin. The mural depicts a parade in which young people hold a banner that exclaims, “Beating the Path to Freedom,” something he’s invested the better part of his life doing.
It hurts him to see his community a shadow of its once vibrant self and to be still embroiled in the quest for equal rights, yet unable, in this era of divided ranks, to marshal the support a systemic movement takes.
“I think this community like all communities in the inner city in America has big problems and the problems are even bigger now than they have been. Schools are in trouble. The job situation is bad. Drugs. There are so many things plaguing us now. It’s really interfered with what we called The Struggle. In my judgment, were a lot more fragmented today, to the point where we can’t come together to bring about real change. I miss the unity and the organization -- when people were more focused on trying to bring about improvements. A lot of our young people are not even enlightened about the things we did struggle to try to change. I don’t feel real good about it sometimes, but you can’t put up your hands. You just do what you can and keep pushing.”
He rues the loss of moral constraints that allows, as he sees it: an unjust war to continue; elected leaders to lie; war profiteers to flourish; corporate execs to cheat; celebrities to set an indecent example; and drugs and gangs to proliferate.
“There used to be rules. Nobody was perfect, but at least we knew right from wrong. There were certain lines you wouldn’t cross. Now, there’s no line. The message now is, Whatever you want to do, it’s OK. It’s out there. It’s a whole different culture, the drug and gang culture. I don’t blame kids. I blame my generation. We allowed the rule book to get thrown out. And I’m not a fool or anything. I’m not even into religion. I’m into right. I’ll believe in right till I die.”
He sees a corrupt ruling class setting a precedent of greed and malice that only serves to widen the gap between the haves and have nots and to reaffirm the anything-goes mantra.
“Too many people can’t see past what’s happening to them right now. They don’t look at the consequences of what they’re doing today,” he said. “There was a time when you really felt like there were people that really wanted to see some things different. But there just wasn’t enough people that wanted to see the right kind of change. Now we’ve reached a time when liberal has been turned into a dirty word and decent people run from it. That says a lot about this country. I don’t feel good about that or the fact black people get done in just for telling the truth.”
Lively discourse has always been part of the scene at the Spencer Street, but was at its peak when Goodwin took on Ernie Chambers, a loquacious minister’s son and law graduate who used his barber chair as a lectern. Chambers proffered doctrine there from the mid-'60s through the early '90s, a period that saw him build a constituency, first as a grassroots leader, and then as a state senator (District 11). He was the only black in the Nebraska Legislature during the entire four-decades he served as a member of that conservative, otherwise lilly-white body.
Chambers came to the shop after being fired from the U.S. Postal Service. The then-Creighton Law student was an outspoken activist. It was a perfect match.
In Goodwin, Chambers found a kindred spirit. “I liked the kind of person he was. We got along very well. He’s true to his beliefs. He rented me a chair and I stayed there for years and years,” Chambers said. In Chambers, Goodwin found “a young man who could articulate like nobody I’ve ever known. He always had answers. He did his homework. He knew what he was doing and saying. People were really impressed with him. And we communicated real good. We were really seeing things so much alike.” Not that they didn’t disagree. “Oh, we used to argue nose to nose. We had some good ones,” Goodwin said.
“It just so happened Ernie fit in with the atmosphere and then he began to exert himself,” Rudy Smith said. “I think the shop gave Ernie a platform to grow, as it did a lot of other people.”
They made a formidable team. Their give and take, something to behold. They were arrested together. They traveled together when Chambers made lecture stops.
“As Ernie grew, so did Dan,” Smith said. “Dan wasn’t an intellectual, but he became that as he expanded his knowledge and his sphere of understanding issues socially, politically, psychologically. Ernie spearheaded that. He’d stimulate him.”
“Dan didn’t go to college, but whatever conversation came up he could talk about it. No matter where he goes, people stop and talk to him” Richard Nared said.
The pair’s persuasive powers are immortalized in the 1967 Oscar-nominated documentary A Time for Burning. The film filters the era’s militancy through the charismatic figure of Chambers, who’s captured, alongside Goodwin, eloquently making points in the manner that made the shop a hotbed of impassioned ideas. Amid sports memorabilia on the walls were images/articles/cartoons that graphically illustrated the opression blacks lived under. An in-your-face reminder to pale-faced do-gooders of what The Struggle was all about.
“A lot of people came down to this barbershop to hear him speak to the problems. To be honest, a lot of people feared him because he spoke out so strong. He’s tough. Even now, he asks no quarters and he gives no quarters. He says what he wants to say and he’ll say it the way he wants to say it,” Goodwin said.
“A lot of people came to talk to me to discuss issues and it was a place where others would meet when they wanted to talk and just speak freely about what was on their mind. It was like a gathering place,” Chambers said.
Roger Sayers of Omaha said the shop was “kind of the northside human relations department for folks who felt their rights were being trampled on by the police or the school board or the city. If Dan and Ernie thought you had a case, they would try to help you resolve the problem with a letter or a referral or a phone call.”
Richard Nared said the duo were among the cooler heads to prevail at a time when agitators interpreted “by any means necessary” as a call to violence. “A lot of things happened in north Omaha,” Nared said. “People would come in and talk to them about wanting to hurt somebody that’d messed them over. ‘Man, I ought to go kill him.’ Well, Dan and Ernie would say, ‘Hey, man, do what you’re supposed to do, and walk away. It’s not that serious. Life is too short to get hung up on some petty mess. It’s not worth it. You’ll end up two ways -- in jail or dead.’ I feel to this day Ernie and Dan were a big factor in keeping the peace.”
Even though Chambers long ago left his barber chair, the two men remain close. “We talk all the time,” Goodwin said. “He’s a great influence. I’m just impressed with his brilliance. So, it’s friendship and mutual respect.”
He loathes the possibility of Chambers being forced out of office by term limits. “It’ll be a big void. Nobody’s more committed. His whole life is what he does in the legislature. I mean, everyday he’s working on something involving the people.”
As much as Goodwin’s been influenced by Chambers, he’s his own man.
Goodwin set the agenda for the shop and made it into what Smith calls an “institution of higher learning.” “That’s exactly what it was,” Smith said. “It fostered an arena of ideas. It’s still going on -- without fail. The barbers there were all like teachers and professors and in many ways they were more articulate in espousing their points of views. I was stimulated more sometimes in the barbershop than I was in college. It’s the only barbershop of it’s kind. It should be on the national historic registry.”
Goodwin’s much admired for remaining in the community, where he and his shop provide stability and continuity. “And especially when he continues to grow personally and intellectually,” Chambers said. “It lets people know that not everybody who could go someplace else is going to do that. This is home and this is where we stay. People do need to see that, especially the young ones. When they can see people (like Goodwin) who are in a position where they don’t have to hang around, but they choose to, that lets them know there’s something of value in our community and a benefit to staying here.”
For Goodwin, staying put is a matter of “this is where I feel comfortable. I don’t even consider retiring. I’m doing what I like. I’m doing what takes care of me. It’s mine.” There’s no chance he’ll mellow. “I don’t believe in turning the other cheek. I do believe in non-violence. But the truth is the truth. I have to tell it like it is.”