This article was originally published by American Experience to accompany the rebroadcast of GOIN’ BACK TO T-TOWN. Written by DeNeen Brown and edited by Ben Greenberg.
By DeNeen L. Brown
On September 27, 1919, a mob of at least 10,000 white people stormed the courthouse in Omaha, Nebraska, demanding the sheriff turn over Will Brown, a 40-year-old Black man. They raided the building, scaled walls and smashed windows. When the mob’s initial demands were refused, they set fire to the courthouse, turning it into a seething furnace. Omaha Mayor Ed Smith tried to intervene, but the mob tried to lynch him. Smith escaped badly injured. Terror-red-summer-Will-Brown-pd.jpg Will Brown. Public domain
From inside the courthouse, terrified white inmates threw down a note surrendering to the mob: “THE JUDGE SAYS HE WILL GIVE UP NEGRO. BROWN. HE IS IN THE DUNGEON. THERE ARE TEN WHITE PRISONERS ON THE ROOF. SAVE THEM.”
The frenzied horde finally broke into the jail and dragged Brown out. They tortured him, dismembered him, tied a rope around his neck and hoisted him up on a pole on the south side of the courthouse. As his body dangled in agony, they shot him more than 100 times. After they were sure he was dead, they sliced the rope and Brown’s body dropped to the pavement. Then the frenzied mob, which the local newspaper referred to as a “lynching committee,” cursed, kicked and spat on the body of the Black man.
DeNeen L. Brown has been an award-winning writer at The Washington Post for more than 35 years. Brown, who has written for the Metro, Magazine and Style sections, was also a Canada bureau chief for The Washington Post. As a foreign correspondent, she wrote dispatches from Greenland, Haiti, Nunavut and an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage. She is an associate professor of journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.