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  Fall 2011 Issue Excerpts

Dan Desdunes

Dan Desdunes: New Orleans Civil Rights Activist and "The Father of Negro Musicians of Omaha" - Jesse J. Otto

Jazz critic and historian George Lipsitz has observed that "established histories of jazz tend to focus on a select group of individual geniuses in only a few cities." This group includes figures such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Charlie Parker; and those "few cities" are New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, and New York. Lipsitz contends that many of the artists and cities that have been neglected in general surveys of jazz history merit attention and that Omaha, Nebraska, is one such place.

Before the end of the dance band era, around 1960, many black musicians came to Omaha in order to develop their talents and try to work their way into big name bands. Omaha jazz musician Preston Love asserted, "If New York, Chicago, and Kansas City were the major leagues of jazz, Omaha was the triple-A. If you wanted to make the big leagues, you came and played in Omaha." Omaha's black bandleaders had long upheld a tradition of nurturing and producing prominent musicians, many of whom had been attracted to Omaha from other parts of the country. Dan Desdunes was largely responsible for beginning this tradition.

The word "jazz" first appeared in The Monitor, Omaha's black weekly newspaper, on November 3, 1917, less than a year after the first jazz recordings were made. This word was used in an advertisement for a charity ball at which the music was to be provided by the Desdunes Jazz Orchestra. This band was led by Dan Desdunes, who was described as the "father of negro musicians of Omaha" in Harrison J. Pinkett's 1937 manuscript, "An Historical Sketch of the Omaha Negro."

Dan Desdunes was born in New Orleans in 1873 to an upper-middle class Creole family with a penchant for public service and for notoriety. His grandfather, Jeremiah Desdunes, came from Haiti and his grandmother, Henrietta, was originally from Cuba. Dan's father, Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes, was born in New Orleans in 1849. Rodolphe was a writer who, in 1911, published Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire, a book about the history and the culture of Creoles in Louisiana. Therein, Rodolphe highlighted the achievements of several successful Creoles. This work has been translated and reprinted many times, most recently in 2009.

Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes was a staunch opponent of segregation and was one of the principal orchestrators of the Comité des Citoyens (Citizens' Committee) on September 5, 1891. Rodolphe was the primary editorial contributor to The Crusader, New Orleans' weekly black newspaper, and held the meetings of the Comité des Citoyens at the newspaper's offices. Rodolphe succinctly defined the objectives of the organization:

"It was in 1890 that the Citizens' Committee was formed, when a return to exaggerated fanaticism about caste or segregation once again alarmed the black people. This fanaticism was not confined merely to chance meetings. We were face to face with a government determined to develop and establish a system by which a portion of the people would have to submit to the rest. It was necessary to resist this state of affairs, even with no hope of success in sight. The idea was to give a dignified appearance to the resistance, which had to be implemented by lengthy judicial procedures."

In 1890 the Louisiana Legislature enacted the Separate Car Act, which required railway companies to provide separate passenger cars for whites and blacks. It also required the railroads to halt physically anyone who attempted to enter a car reserved for persons of another race. After the Comité des Citoyens decided to challenge this law's enforcement in interstate travel, Dan Desdunes volunteered, in February 1892, to violate this act.

Dan Desdunes was one-eighth black, and according to Louisiana law, legally classified as "colored," which meant he was forbidden to ride in any "white" railroad passenger car. Desdunes' skin color was light enough that he was able to pass as white and gain admission to a "white only" coach. The Comité des Citoyens was so certain that Desdunes would pass for white that it hired private detectives to arrest him in order to ensure that the committee could challenge the Separate Car Act in court. Dan Desdunes spent no time in jail because he was immediately bailed out by the committee. After a short trial, he was acquitted. Justice John Howard Ferguson ruled that enforcement of the Separate Car Act upon interstate travel was unconstitutional because only the federal government had the authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Next, the Comité des Citoyens decided to challenge racial segregation on intrastate railway travel. They recruited Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes' friend, Homer Plessy, to be arrested in this challenge. This case eventually went to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled on May 18, 1896, that Homer Plessy's constitutional rights had not been violated by Louisiana law. This ruling was devastating to Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes, who reported that "our defeat sanctioned the odious principle of the segregation of the races."

Whereas Rodolphe primarily dedicated his life to scholarship and civil activism, Dan Desdunes pursued a livelihood in arts and entertainment. The son's means may have differed from his father's, yet Dan's career allowed him to work toward Rodolphe's goals. Dan Desdunes not only became a musician and an educator but also worked against racial segregation.

The entire essay appears in the Fall 2011 issue.

The Nebraska Statesman

The Nebraska Statesman: The People Behind the Picture - Patricia C. Gaster

Perhaps the most memorable thing about the Nebraska Statesman, published in Broken Bow from 1885 through the end of 1890, was Solomon D. Butcher's arresting photograph, taken in 1886 when the town was booming. The Statesman may not have been one of Nebraska's most notable newspapers, but because of this iconic photograph, it is one of the most visually recognizable. What's the story behind the picture and the people (not identified by Butcher) who stare confidently at the viewer from the entry and the board sidewalk in front of the newspaper office across a span of 125 years?

Broken Bow was platted by Jesse Gandy in 1882, only three years before the birth of the Statesman, and grew rapidly. It won the Custer County seat from Westerville that year and in 1883, the county fair. By the spring of 1884 it was incorporated, and there were rumors of a railroad. A Burlington and Missouri River Railroad survey was made in 1885, and the first train arrived in August 1886. The Omaha Daily Bee in September credited the town with a population of one thousand, eight general stores, four drug stores, three hardware stores, three hotels, and three well edited newspapers.

The two Broken Bow newspapers sharing the journalistic field with the Statesman in 1886 were the Custer County Leader and the Custer County Republican. The Statesman, established in late 1885 as a "red hot Democratic paper" by John S. Dellinger and Robert E. Martin, prospered briefly because it enjoyed the patronage of the land office at Grand Island. First located on the south side of Broken Bow, it moved to the railroad addition on the north side of the tracks after the train arrived in town. Dellinger and Martin established a branch paper at Mason City, the Mason City Transcript, in June 1886. The pair later dissolved their partnership, with Martin retaining the Statesman.

In 1888 the Statesman, edited by Martin, claimed a circulation of 1,100 with an annual subscription rate of $1.50. In June it was consolidated with another local paper, the Broken Bow Times. In the only surviving issue-that of December 6, 1888-the four pages of the Statesman carried little local news, but a great deal of advertising and many final proof notices from the Grand Island and North Platte land offices." The newspaper ceased publication when editor and publisher Martin left Broken Bow in early January of 1891. A. Z. Lazenby purchased the plant of the defunct Statesman later that year in November and hauled it to Merna, where he established the short-lived Merna Reporter.

Although the figures in Butcher's 1886 photo of the office of the Nebraska Statesman (including the young woman, probably an employee, holding a typestick) are not identified, Dellinger and Martin may be among them. Martin, described by Butcher in his history of Custer County as "an ex-Confederate soldier and forcible writer," was a native of Missouri. Born April 26, 1841, he served with the Fifth Missouri Infantry, Company H., during the Civil War, attaining the rank of sergeant.

The entire essay appears in the Fall 2011 issue.

I don't know what we'd have done...

"I Don't Know What We'd Have Done Without the Indians": Non-Indian and Lakota Racial Relationships in Box Butte County's Potato Industry, 1917-1960 - David R. Christensen

As the sun rose behind the Sandhills, illuminating the sky to a reddish-orange tint, a Lakota family emerged from their white canvas tent ready for the day's potato harvest. Two Lakota men and women crossed the farmyard to the corral, where they helped the farmer hitch horses to wagons and to the potato digger. An elderly Lakota woman remained in the tent, brewing coffee and looking after the children-who were already scurrying about the farmyard playing "cowboys and Indians." A dusting of frost on the grass, dirt, and equipment signaled the need to finish the harvest before a hard freeze ruined the potatoes. The Lakota women's feet felt the sting of the morning chill through their moccasins. With the horses hitched, the farmer, his sons, and the Lakotas left for the potato fields to finish the harvest. En route, the sons and Lakotas engaged in a friendly conversation and wager regarding which group would pick the most potatoes-even though the Lakotas always won. Such a scene occurred annually on almost every farm in Box Butte County, Nebraska, during the first half of the twentieth century. Although anti-Indian prejudice was always present, the potato industry improved racial relationships between Lakotas and non-Indians, even resulting in enduring friendships.

At the edge of the Sandhills, Box Butte County is located in the center of the Nebraska Panhandle. Today the county has only two incorporated towns: Alliance, the county seat, and Hemingford, eighteen miles away. In the 1910s expansion of the county's potato production created a need for migrant labor. Until about 1960 Lakotas from the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations in South Dakota came to work the potato harvest. Before the 1930s both farmers and other non-Indian county residents mostly treated the Lakotas well, grateful that their labor saved the potatoes from rotting in the fields. Likewise, the Lakotas were pleased to have jobs where they were paid, fairly treated, and appreciated by non-Indians.

Although migrant labor exposed non-Indians to Lakota culture and initially helped dispel mutual stereotypes, racism and prejudice eventually soured relations between the two groups. During the Great Depression and World War II, the once welcoming communities in Box Butte County expressed anti-Lakota sentiments. Many farmers who hired the same Lakota families for decades rejected the towns' prejudice; still, relationships between farmers and Lakotas were susceptible to the fluidity of the potato market. Periods of drought, depression, crop disease, and low potato prices resulted in low wages, which at times combined with alcohol-related problems to strain relationships.

Scholars have revealed that migrant labor was essential to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century expansion of western extractive industries. American Indians used wage labor as a means of subsistence and community building, oftentimes entering and leaving wage labor at their own discretion. Many different systems of labor emerged, but Native peoples relied on their vast kinship networks for support, and strengthened their cultural identities while creating non-reservation Indian communities.

Building on this scholarly framework, I will argue here that social relationships between non-Indians and Lakotas are a crucial and neglected part of interracial dynamics in western Nebraska. The poor race relations between Lakotas and western Nebraska residents are well known. Lakota scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., referred to Alliance as "a town almost as notoriously anti-Indian as Gordon [Nebraska]." Even so, emphasizing racial tension overlooks cases of racial understanding and cooperation, and misses the complexity of Lakota and non-Indian relationships forged during the early twentieth century potato harvests.

Settlers of Box Butte County in the 1890s soon discovered its agricultural potential, and in the early 1900s local farmers began to see potatoes' promise as a cash crop. Western Nebraska's altitude-3,500 to 5,000 feet-results in lower temperatures essential for greater tuber growth. Its sandy soil improves the development of a tuber's size and shape. Cool nights, light rainfall, and few insects make for ideal conditions.

A 1914 Alliance Commercial Club pamphlet praised the potato crop's reliability and profitability. In 1915 work started on large warehouses in Alliance, Hemingford, and Marsland (a town northwest of Hemingford along the Niobrara River). The warehouses would protect the crop from frost while farmers waited to ship during peak prices. Demand for tubers grew in the East, and the Chicago-based Albert Miller & Co. contracted 100,000 bushels of potatoes for 1916.

Potatoes quickly became a profitable investment. In 1915 seven acres of potatoes produced 1,232 bushels valued at $520.72, a $74.40 per-acre average. According to the Alliance Semi-Weekly Times, in 1916 farms in the county earned an average of $1,250 each from potatoes alone. E. I. Gregg, a farmer outside of Alliance, had forty acres in potatoes and received $3,000; another grower received $5,000 on forty acres. The average amount planted in tubers was twenty-five acres, yielding 150 bushels per acre. Moreover, with numerous acres of undeveloped prairie, Box Butte County's potato industry had room to grow.

The entire essay appears in the Fall 2011 issue.


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