Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Spring 2015 issue.
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“In the biting stage”: The 1955 Nebraska State Penitentiary Riots and Violent Prison Activism – Brian Sarnacki
On August 16, 1955, prisoners at the Nebraska State Penitentiary did not return to their cells following dinner. Instead, they demanded the presence of the warden and state penal director. Fearing the inmates would turn violent, Warden Joseph Bovey removed all of the guards, leaving the prisoners in charge. Half an hour later, smoke billowed from the penitentiary as the convicts set fire to their workplaces. The cannery, furniture shop, machine shop, maintenance shop, and even the inmates’ store, blazed unimpeded. As smoke filled the evening sky, prison officials left the residents of Lincoln in the dark. No one informed the press until 10 p.m.—five hours after the inmates began their uprising, and an hour after armed guards escorted the fire department into the prison yard. Though the prison administration initially retreated, they refused to grant victory to the rebels. With the National Guard and police providing reinforcements, Warden Bovey called for surrender shortly before 6 a.m. Bovey informed the insurgents that if they did not return to their cells immediately, the officers would take back the prison by force with orders to shoot to kill.
The late summer riot ended without gunfire and only five injuries, all to inmates. Newspaper reports estimated damages as high as $100,000, more costly than any other incident in the penitentiary’s history. Despite the drama, officials claimed the riot’s cause was unknown. The governor’s administrative assistant, A. C. Eichberg, proclaimed, “There has been no dissatisfaction and the food has been good.” However, even as the official stance was befuddlement, the “grapevine” suggested the riot was common knowledge beforehand. The recent history of the penitentiary gave even stronger evidence that officials were not in the dark. Riots, escape attempts, and even the murder of a guard troubled the penitentiary during the early 1950s.
Though violence was consistent, 1955 was a turning point. Various groups jockeyed for position as politicians considered the future of the prison system. The Board of Control, which oversaw the prisons, hired an outside penologist to review the conditions of the state institutions. Earlier, the governor had appointed a citizens’ committee to investigate a 1954 riot.
The inmates also sought to influence the reform process. Lacking political might, they expressed themselves through violent action. In 1955, they kept penal reform in the political discussion with a series of publicity-grabbing stunts aimed at initiating changes to improve their living conditions.
The Nebraska State Penitentiary was not alone in dealing with inmate uprisings. In 1955 inmates undertook major protest actions in all corners of the country, asserting themselves through both nonviolent and violent means. Prisoners in Nevada, New York, Rhode Island, and Texas staged sit-down strikes. Riots rocked prisons in Michigan, North Carolina, and Wyoming, and convicts in Massachusetts, Texas, and Washington took hostages. As in Nebraska, the inmates behind these actions had reforms in mind, with complaints ranging from food to the parole system. Because their demands only addressed the internal conditions of prisons, however, most academics link the uprisings to a society-wide desire for greater material comforts. While studies of later prisoners’ rights movements treat protests about racial discrimination and other issues as more significant political action, the early 1950s protests reveal an equally important activism centered on the fundamental issues of punishment and rehabilitation. The 1955 Nebraska Penitentiary riots demonstrate an emerging political consciousness among inmates during debates about the prison system’s future. Nebraska prisoners had specific reforms they wanted to institute, but with peaceful avenues largely ineffective, violence became the means through which they pushed for reform.
By 1955, inmates of the Nebraska State Penitentiary had already forced political officials to seriously examine the prison system. To do so, politicians had turned to academic experts and bureaucrats. In late 1954, Governor Robert Crosby had established a citizens’ committee to investigate the prisons, chaired by University of Nebraska sociologist Dr. James Reinhardt. The governing body of Nebraska prisons, the Board of Control, hired the former head of the federal prison system, Sanford Bates, to assess Nebraska prisons. Shortly after the experts released their findings, the Board of Control held its own inquiry in January 1955.
Bates recommended professionalizing the prison system by hiring mental health professionals such as social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists, creating a department for statistical research, and adding a trained state director to oversee the state system. He also suggested the prisons needed better guards, advocating for increased pay to attract better candidates and more training, such as in jujitsu. Though Bates gave positive reviews of “housekeeping” issues, like cleanliness, lack of crowding, and living and working conditions, he rebuked prison administration’s lack of theoretical focus, writing, “the rank and file of officers have a dim idea as to what the whole purpose of a corrective institution is.” He blasted the prison’s punishment practices, especially the most severe punishment, the hole, calling it “a punishment section totally unworthy of the state of Nebraska.” Bates’s reforms represented a shift in attitudes towards prisoners. He called for a more modern approach in which the prison would prioritize rehabilitation, making the prison more than a simple “custodial institution from which men emerge possibly chastened but very likely no better than when they came in.”
Describing the Nebraska Penitentiary in the early 1950s as “a bleak and miserable place to live,” former inmate Raymond “Ramon” Tapia echoed Bates’s critiques of the prison. He recalled that the guards were “mostly uneducated” and many stayed in dorms at the penitentiary because they could not afford other housing. Living in conditions similar to the inmates they oversaw, guards developed a “Gestapo mentality” and swiftly punished any prisoners who challenged their authority. Deputy Warden John Greenholtz was a frequent target of protest as inmates objected to his “kangaroo court” methods of putting prisoners into segregation (removal from the general prison population) for an indefinite period of time, sometimes for petty, personal reasons, if he gave any explanation at all.
As in Bates’s report, Tapia remembered the punishment practices as severely outdated. The penitentiary’s “third grade” served to isolate problematic prisoners. Housed in the west cell block, which lacked amenities like faucets that ran hot water, third grade was a way for prison authorities to remove inmates from the penitentiary’s general population. Guards let third grade inmates out of their cells only for meals and for a once-a-week opportunity to shower and shave. Prison officials could send more problematic prisoners to the jail, a small building in the prison yard. Inmates facing long-term punishment in the maximum security section would be housed in the top two floors, while the prison’s most brutal punishment, the hole, occupied the jail’s bottom floor. The hole was six back-to-back, concrete, square cells with eight-foot walls. Lacking a light bulb, the hole’s furnishings were sparse: a tap for drinking water above a nineteenth-century-style toilet, a plastic cup, and a slab of concrete on which to sleep. Twice a day, guards delivered toilet paper and food, three slices of bread per meal for two days and regular meals on the third. Guards gave inmates showers on Fridays, where they would shave the heads of prisoners sentenced to ten days or more in the hole. Prison authorities used the third grade, jail, and hole to punish prisoners for infractions as well as a method of pressuring them into admitting wrongdoing. Tapia recalled being sentenced to the hole indefinitely, or rather until someone confessed, after a guard found marijuana in the yard where he and several other inmates had been congregating.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2015 issue.
A Gentleman’s Game: Nineteenth-Century Soccer in Omaha - Bruce Gerhardt
What Americans call “soccer” is one of several sports that evolved from games played for centuries in Europe, loosely called “football.” The history of the sport in England is well known, especially the meeting when “rugby” proponents and “association football” proponents made their famous break from each other. In the United States, history is complicated by our development of “American intercollegiate” or “gridiron” football from a rugby origin at the same time that soccer was being introduced in many cities and colleges. Terminology overlaps in older sources, so that when the term “football” is used in some texts, it is not always simple to understand which exact sport is being played.
Unearthing the game’s history in Omaha is a reflection of American history. Early soccer shares several common American narratives: immigration and foreign traditions being brought to the United States; the growth of commerce and ever larger companies whose employees would socialize and seek entertainment; transportation enabling the spread of people, ideas, and developments; and higher education and the growth of organized sports among students. Omaha’s history with soccer seems to be fairly typical of how the sport developed in other cities across America.
When was soccer first played in Omaha? The game seems to have come and gone at various times, resulting in several different references to the “first time” soccer was played there. The historical records may be opaque, but what is clear is that soccer was played in Omaha far earlier than most would guess.
Omaha Soccer – the Original “Gunners”
Arsenal Football Club is one of the most famous soccer clubs in the top flight of English soccer, the Premier League. Arsenal traces its storied history to 1886, when workers from the Woolwich Arsenal Armaments Company formed a soccer team. Ever since, Arsenal has been tagged with the nickname of “Gunners,” and their famous crest features a large cannon on a red background. Omaha’s soccer origins trace six years before Arsenal, when some notable Omaha men, “several of whom have been members of distinguished English clubs,” met at Collins & Petty’s gun store to form a “football” club. The meeting on the evening of September 29, 1880, elected officers and admitted thirty-five members. Edmund John Shakeshaft may have been a typical member: born in 1861 in Lewisham, Kent County, England, he had come to the United States at nineteen years of age from Purley, in Surrey County. He worked in Omaha for the Union Pacific. The club made Omaha Mayor Champion S. Chase its honorary president, and Joseph D. Iler its president. Thirty-five and soon to be married, Iler was a co-owner of the Willow Springs Distillery and a liquor wholesaler. The sixty-year-old Chase was not a player, but Iler could have been. The team’s uniform was to be blue and white jerseys, dark blue pants with blue and white stockings, and red and blue caps.
At another meeting several weeks later Alfred Sorenson, George P. Bemis, and Charles D. Dorman were added to the club. Sorenson was city editor of the Omaha Bee; including him was probably a wise move to assure news coverage. Bemis was a prominent real estate man and future Omaha mayor. Dorman would later work for the Burlington & Missouri Railway, a company connection that will come up again.
The Omaha football club played its first game on Saturday evening, October 23, 1880. The two teams were short-handed with nine players each, and Captain Stewart’s team defeated the team of Captain C. S. Nash. The Bee reported that “a large crowd of ladies witnessed the game,” but there was no mention if the ladies were duly impressed or not. At the next club meeting on November 5 two more officers were added: Benjamin S. DeGroat as vice captain to Stewart, and Charles B. DeGroat as assistant secretary. Mr. Smith of the Burlington & Missouri Railroad and Richard Shakeshaft also joined. The DeGroats owned a hat store at 1314 Farnam Street, but wouldn’t be in Omaha much longer. In March 1881 their store caught fire under mysterious circumstances and insurance money was quickly collected. The DeGroats were later arrested for arson while on the run in St. Louis.
The club is not mentioned in the local press after the fall of 1880. Another seven years would pass before the newspapers reported the return of soccer to the Omaha sporting scene.
Cricketers Roll out a Ball at the Sulphur Springs Friendly
Sulphur Springs was an area bordering Cut-Off Lake (now called Carter Lake) north of early Omaha. It’s best known in Omaha history as the site of Isaac Neff’s murder in 1863, and where his killer, Cyrus Tator, became the first person legally hanged in Nebraska. Twenty-five years later, an open field at Sulphur Springs was the site of a less macabre public event: an exhibition soccer match. It was hosted not by soccer clubs, but by cricket clubs from the Burlington & Missouri Railroad and the St. George’s Club of Chicago. Kickoff was set for 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, 1887—the first soccer game in Omaha using Association rules in seven years. The game had not been forgotten, as the headline in the Omaha Daily World noted it was “[a] Revival of Foot Ball.” But even this second launch would later be lost to the Omaha newspaper, which reported a game in the following decade as the “first in Omaha.”
Why would two cricket teams play an exhibition soccer match? It was common for large companies in the latter nineteenth century to have athletic clubs. These companies had large numbers of younger immigrants or the children of recent immigrants as workers—as clerks and freight agents, in the case of the Burlington & Missouri Railroad. They organized these clubs for socializing and exercise, and would have been fond of cricket from their ties to England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Cricket was popular in the United States at the time and traces back to the first European settlers. It bears a passing resemblance to baseball, as a “bowler” throws a ball to a batsman, who attempts to hit the ball into the field of play. The fielders attempt to catch or return the ball to the pitch area where the batter is running before the batter can score runs. (Baseball is said to be derived more from the British game called “rounders.”) The St. George’s Club was well known in New York, Chicago, and other large cities as one of the earliest cricket clubs, with an English membership. A St. George’s Society was organized in Omaha in 1882, and dedicated to the appreciation of English culture and heritage.
It’s hard to say what brought team captains A. T. McPherson of the railroad and E. W. Ayres of St. George’s together for the match, but they were undoubtedly enthusiastic about the growth of association football in England and eager to demonstrate the sport to locals, in addition to their game of cricket that was already widely played in Omaha. Perhaps there was also a connection between Mr. Smith and Charles Dorman—members of the Omaha football club seven years earlier and Burlington & Missouri employees—and the Burlington & Missouri cricket team of this event. Indeed, when Charles Dorman retired from the Burlington & Missouri in 1889, A. T. McPherson was one of the guests at a banquet held in his honor by the Apollo Club in the Millard Hotel.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2015 issue.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2015 issue.
The Nebraska Commission on Mexican-Americans at the Crossroads: The Dilemma of False Expectations – Neither Service nor Power, 1973-1980 - Roger P. Davis
In March 1972 Nebraska became the first state to establish a statutory agency specifically charged with advocacy on behalf of its Hispanic population. Because the overwhelming majority of the state’s Hispanics were of Mexican origin, the body was named the Nebraska Commission on Mexican-Americans, popularly known as the Mexican-American Commission or the MAC. Through its founding and early years, the MAC struggled to find its proper role and purpose.
Following its establishment in November 1971 as an advisory body to the office of the governor, critical voices emerged around the politics and meaning of the commission. From the western part of the state, where Chicano activism was prevalent, the leadership of the Scottsbluff New Congress for Community Development was skeptical of a commission appointed by government officials. Ramon Perez, director of the New Congress, condemned the governor’s council as “an expensive puppet show” whose true purpose would be to serve the wishes of the executive office. In blunt language directed to the governor, Perez dismissed any legitimacy for a commission where “the figurines have been carved out by you, the rhetoric and limited action is supplied by someone at the top, and the audience is compiled of the poor and Chicano community.”
The questions and criticism continued despite the March 1972 passage and governor’s signature of LB1081, establishing the commission as a formal statutory agency. In April 1973 the Scottsbluff chapter of the American G.I. Forum complained that the “Mexican people” were “gravely dissatisfied” with the commission, and in a formal statement to the governor, the Forum declared, “We want the Mexican American Commission to be accountable to the people they represent. The Commission should actively seek out the problems of our people, find workable solutions for them, and report on the progress they have done.” The Scottsbluff Forum wanted an agency dedicated to grassroots activism to empower the Hispanic community.
That month, the commission’s first director, Stan Porras, acknowledged the concerns and criticisms regarding its proper role and purpose. In the first issue of the commission newsletter he defined a judicious balance for the agency. For Porras, the militant refrain of “power to the people” was a sterile exercise in rhetoric. He explained, “Organization is the key-stone of political effectiveness,” and “Our interest should be to cultivate getting things done by as many people as are interested in doing, than without any one person telling the other what to do.” From this foundation, Porras defined the commission’s role and purpose: “We are a liaison between the people and the state government. This is a service agency, not a force of power, and our concern is service not power.”
From 1973 to 1980 the commission worked diligently, under directors Stan Porras and his successor, Peter Urdiales, to enhance its reputation and provide needed services to the Hispanic community. These efforts crystallized in two particular initiatives: the Migrant Action Program, and the establishment of a Western Office in Scottsbluff that would provide “direct services” to the community. Porras and Urdiales believed that success as a state service agency in these and other areas of concern would provide the legitimacy and accountability necessary to silence the critics. By 1980 the commission had a clear record of success as an effective agency of service to the Hispanic community of Nebraska.
Rather than insuring the commission’s integrity, however, this record became the catalyst for further criticism, threatening the commission’s demise. The story of this challenge and its outcome provides insight into the interaction of state politics and the diversity of Nebraska’s broad Hispanic community.
In one of its first concerted efforts to fulfill its mandate of service, the commission targeted the migrant labor community and its bureaucratic support structure. As part of the 1960s War on Poverty, a proliferation of federal programs emerged to address manpower issues, and in particular the issue of migrant farm labor, which was overwhelmingly Mexican in origin. Following the ending of the Bracero Program in 1964, Congress created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and directed it to provide resources to state-level agencies to deal with migrant labor. In 1973 the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) was signed into law, and this agency took over the task of addressing migrant labor issues. CETA programs were overseen and administered by the U.S. Department of Labor from 1974 through early 1981. At the time of the creation of the Mexican-American Commission, Nebraska hosted approximately 3,000 migrant workers. By 1974 that number increased to more than 4,000. While some of these represented itinerant railroad and meatpacking labor, the overwhelming majority worked the seasonal sugar beet fields of western Nebraska.
The basic organizational structure for migrant support involved the OEO providing funds for community organizations. In the Great Plains region the Texas Migrant Council and the Colorado Migrant Council were the principal organizations providing services for a mobile labor force. Organized from 1966 through 1969, the councils received funding from the OEO Migrant Branch to support programs in both child and adult education, including Summer Head Start and VISTA programs. Qualifying migrants included both intrastate and interstate seasonal workers.
In 1972 Nebraska did not have a formal farm worker program. Migrant support was limited to supplementary social services administered by the Nebraska Panhandle Community Action Agency, funded through the Colorado Migrant Program, and some educational programs administered by public school districts. An emerging controversy in Alliance, Nebraska, in the spring of 1972 provided the Mexican-American Commission the opportunity to lay claim to a key service role within the politics of migrant labor.
On May 30, 1972, the Nebraska State Board of Education held its regional meeting in Alliance, Nebraska. At that meeting a group of local Mexican Americans, led by a representative of the New Congress for Community Development (NCCD), charged that children in the migrant education program were being beaten and humiliated. They presented to the board a list of six ultimatums and then walked out. The list of demands included the firing of the program director and two teachers, replacing at least half of the current staff with Mexican Americans, allowing parents to participate in administrative decisions, and formal participation for parents on the executive board. The migrant education program was overseen by the Alliance public school system. In addition to Alliance, the program offered services in Scottsbluff, Bayard, and Imperial. It served 750 students annually and was in its fifth year of operation. Education Commissioner Cecil Stanley denied the charges, but invited a review of the program by federal education officials. In the meantime the NCCD set up an alternative school for Alliance; within a month participation in the Alliance program dropped from 125 students to 77.
In late June 1972, the head of the national migrant program of the U.S. Department of Education, Vidal Rivera, visited Alliance and met with state education officials and the public. Rivera concluded that the state education program complied with the intent of Congress and the law and was a “worthy” program. Despite the vindication, Commissioner Stanley remained wary, telling the press, “I personally feel that the current migrant program is but a pawn in a much larger game.” Stanley’s instincts were acute. The national migrant program was on the cusp of a major overhaul signaling the end of the Office of Economic Opportunity and the start of administration by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration. Funding and administrative structures would change and various bureaucratic agencies could now contend for the resources and opportunity to serve the public. This would be a valuable service opportunity for the Nebraska MAC.
Just prior to the events in Alliance, and before the MAC had even hired an executive director, members of the commission hosted a presentation at their Scottsbluff meeting by Pete Mirelez, director of the migrant division of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Mirelez acknowledged a role for the commission in administering migrant farm worker programs and advised the members to be sure to be sensitive to “the needs of those you represent.” As events unfolded the commission was invited to be one of four state agencies to participate in the public meeting with Vidal Rivera regarding the affairs in Alliance. The commission hired Stan Porras just a few days later and, not surprisingly, the issue of an appropriate migrant farm worker program became a priority for the new chief officer.
From the spring of 1972 through the spring of 1973 Porras and the MAC took initiatives to become the central directing agency for federal migrant funds for Nebraska. Porras attended the National Conference on Migrant Councils in early January and began work on a comprehensive plan to establish a Nebraska council overseen by the commission. The MAC filed papers to incorporate a “Migrant Action Council of Nebraska” in March 1973 and simultaneously submitted a funding proposal to the Office of Economic Opportunity. Unfortunately this was just at the point of the transition of the migrant programs from the OEO to the Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration (CETA). With the consequent change in bureaucratic structure, the proposed Action Council was denied funding and the Mexican-American Commission was forced to bide its time and redesign and resubmit the proposal.
While this was a disappointment, one bright note gave Porras hope that all would go well. In the interim, the OEO released $10,000 of emergency funds channeled through the Colorado Council. In June 1973 it was announced that the MAC would administer these funds in Nebraska. While Porras was delighted with the news, the head of the Nebraska Panhandle Community Action Agency was not. As a contending organization which had received funding in the past, the NPCAA challenged the right of the MAC to operate in this area. The agency’s director bitterly declared that the MAC had no OEO experience, no direct migrant service experience, and was only engaged in a bid to expand itself at the expense of migrant families. The matter was put to rest when the Nebraska governor forwarded to the agency a ruling by the Nebraska attorney general that the MAC could legally function in this area.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2015 issue.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2015 issue.
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