Dr. Wead: Look Backward at History to Move Forward in Progress

Written by Dr. Rodney S. Wead, Class of 1953; Central High School Hall of Fame Inductee

June 24, 1969 was a hot summer day in Omaha, Nebraska; much like it is today. A group of Black youth were dancing to music in a vacant apartment at the Logan Fontenelle Housing Project in North Omaha. Carol Strong, a resident, spied the police nearby and heard that they were looking for a suspect who allegedly committed a robbery. She ran to the vacant apartment to alert the kids — especially her sister, Vivian Strong — that the cops were nearby. They immediately ran out of the apartment and toward their homes, not wanting to be caught up in confusion involving the police. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. Carol recalled hearing what sounded like firecrackers, and a flurry of young people running. When the chaos subsided, she saw her sister Vivian: lying on the ground, surrounded by her friends, a gunshot wound to the head at the hands of a white police officer.

I grew up in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Project, and often found myself in that same social space dancing with my friends. 20 years after my childhood was over, I listened to the tragic story of Vivian with my best friend, Bob Gibson, and I felt the story swing and hit close to home. My heart hurt deeply for the pain her family experienced. From all accounts, I heard that Vivian was a carefree young woman; certainly undeserving of the violence with which she was murdered. Her senseless death shook our tight-knit Black Omaha community, leading to three days of riots calling for the abolition of police brutality. The community — our community — cried real tears for Vivian, and the people’s anger intensified when we learned of the unequal justice that allowed the offending police officer to be released from jail on a mere $500 bond amid still-burning embers from the riots caused by Vivian’s death. Several months later, the police officer’s trial resulted in his full exoneration of manslaughter; he could rejoin the Omaha Police Department and remained employed until his retirement.

This remarkable moment in Omaha history illustrates the continuing conflict our local communities of color experience when confronted with law enforcement. What is more troubling is that our local experience is not unique; communities of color all across America express the same feelings of injustice and abuse. What’s more, the recent surge of Black Lives Matter protests harken back to days of similar struggle: the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, which was a time of great anguish and great hope for the Omaha community, as well as for many Black communities across America. In fact, one year before Vivian was murdered, on May 4, 1968, I myself was severely beaten at a peaceful protest by plain-clothed Omaha police officers acting as private security officers of the then-American-Party Presidential Candidate and Alabama Governor, George Wallace.

What we learn from our examination of local and national history, from reflection on the personal experiences of others within our community, and from careful observation of the current movement for civil justice is this: the struggle against racism, police brutality, and other forms of injustice is not novel. It has been a sustained, hard-fought battle rooted in a deeply-held commitment to the idea that ‘all men are created equal.’ The arch of our moral universe has been long, messy, and challenging — to loosely quote Dr. King — but it certainly bends in the direction of justice.

There is hope for our communities, now more than ever. Because people of all races have shown that they are willing to come together for the good of their neighbors.

As a Civil Rights activist now in my 80s, it is with battered breath and whispering humbleness I am requesting that all Centralites come together to stamp out racism and violence. And I have a few suggestions for how we can do that:

  • In order to disrupt the dominance of the white cultural perspective in our country, I believe that Black History should be mandatory for all K-12 students. Currently at Central High School, for example, African American History is offered as an elective course. For more than 25 years this course has educated diverse generations of Eagles on the struggles, successes, and achievements of Black people throughout America’s history. And it is only through this backwards examination of the diverse history of our nation that we can prepare ourselves to live life forward, meeting the challenges we are presented with today. This type of diverse education should not be simply available to all students, but compulsory.
  • I believe that in order to problem-solve modern day challenges heaped upon the old wounds of racism in our country, we must collectively acknowledge the treatment of abuse toward African Americans and other minorities. The only way to disrupt cycles of abuse is to study them as they are and implement changes which break these cycles. There will not be one solution, there will be many. But no solution can take hold without an acknowledgement of and reverence for the abuse as it is evidenced in our communities.
  • Finally, I believe that we must change our behavior toward, perspective of, and thinking about race in America. We are an adapting nation, we are a changing people. Americans today cannot afford to be a convert nation indifferent about police brutality or self-effacing about this malignant and perpetual issue of racism. If allowed, racism will harm education for all children, not just Black children. If allowed, racism will stunt all innovation, not just Black innovation. If allowed, racism will corrupt all systems of government, not just those which govern Black people. And if allowed, racism will hold all Americans back from reaching our true potential, not just Black Americans. We can change our understanding and perspective by listening to the experiences of others, learning from our past, and collaboratively mapping out an inclusive plan for our future.

Abolishing racism — and with it, police brutality and other acts of systemic violence against minorities — may be the calling of this new generation of Americans.

Central has built a strong, impressive community of empathetic, committed alumni who are practiced in the art of building up others as they themselves rise. I have no doubt that if all Eagles joined forces, we could contribute to the growth of our local and national community in profound ways. And that, as they say, is the ‘Eagle Way.’

Dr. Rodney S. Wead is a recognized Civil Rights leader in North Omaha, and is known nationwide for his publications, teaching, and leadership for organizations in their outreach to minorities. He grew up in the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects, and as a kid was a newsboy for the Omaha Star, a prominent local Black newspaper. He graduated from Central High School in 1953 and in 1957 earned a bachelor’s degree from Dana College.

Dr. Wead began his prominent career in social services in Omaha. Starting in 1958, he worked at the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute as an educational therapist. Then in 1966, Wead became a VISTA program director for Catholic Social Action of Nebraska. In 1967, Dr. Wead became the executive director of the United Methodist Community Centers, and opened a new facility called the Wesley House. During his leadership there, Wead was instrumental in starting the Franklin Community Credit Union in 1968, the first bank in Omaha to offer loans to low-income constituents, and in 1970, he worked with native Omahans to establish the city’s first Black-owned radio station, KOWH. He also established the Community Bank of Nebraska and the development of the Omaha Economics Development Corporation, which built a 200 unit housing center and a 10-unit strip shopping mall, as well as the nation’s first 24-hour daycare center.

In 1976, he earned his Masters degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago, and then earned his PhD in sociology at the Union Institute in Cincinnati in 1980. In 1983, Dr. Wead became the Executive Director of the United Methodist Community Centers, and later served as associate professor of Black Studies at University of Nebraska at Omaha and Creighton University. He was inducted into the first class of the Central High School Hall of Fame in 1999. Today, Dr. Wead lives in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife, Vanessa. In 2018, the Omaha City Council renamed a section of North 52nd Street “Rodney S. Wead Street” in honor of Dr. Wead.

This biography is courtesy of North Omaha History.

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