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Part Two Women & Work

The era in which Dorothy Williams grew up in Omaha was one in which women, black and white, were limited in their choices of careers.  For Dorothy to grow up with parents who advocated progressive views regarding women was significant. Although The Monitor did not address the issue of women’s careers in particular, it did express sentiments in support of women participating in society. Reverend Williams included items such as an article by Francis J. Grimke on the front page that stated, “The average man is in no sense superior to the average woman, either in point of intelligence, or of character” (“The Logic of Woman Suffrage”). He also included brief dispatches by Lucille Skaggs about young women across the country excelling academically at their respective colleges and universities, as well as a section identifying the triumphs and mistakes of African American women in a half-century of freedom. Skaggs declared that “[t]he possibility for development came slowly to the Negro woman … Today she labors against odds never dreamed of by women of other races … Yet she is slowly coming into the light of Christian, cultured womanhood” (“Our Women and Children”). According to historian Fred Dixon, Dorothy’s mother Lucy was active in the community as well, serving in several capacities in organizations connected with St. Philip’s, such as the Women’s Auxiliary. She also served on several boards of management in the community.

One can conjecture that as Dorothy Williams grew into womanhood, she was surrounded by a community that also placed an emphasis on education. The Monitor frequently included news about African Americans at colleges and universities, and Skaggs’s “Our Women and Children” section offered advice to parents as to how to ensure children take the right courses and do well in school (6). The women’s clubs in the community even gave out some full-tuition scholarships to help students attend universities and military academies in Nebraska (“Women’s Clubs”).

The Monitor sometimes praised specific instances of positive relations between blacks and whites, such as merchant Arthur Brandeis’s kind treatment of African Americans, and throughout The Monitor there is a strong sense of civic pride, of being not only citizens of the African American community but also of the city of Omaha: “Are you not proud of the fact that you are a citizen of this great growing metropolitan city, pulsating with patriotism and progressiveness?” asks John Williams in an editorial about Flag Day.

However, the Omaha in which Dorothy grew up was not always friendly toward African Americans. In November 1915, the movie The Birth of a Nation was to be shown at Brandeis Theater. The Monitor, in a front-page article the week before the film was to open in Omaha, made “a calm, dispassionate appeal … to the sense of justice and fair play upon the part of the men and women of Omaha, whom we believe can be relied upon to oppose anything that is distasteful to any large group of our citizens” (“Will Omaha Permit”).

It was too much to hope for. Reverend John Williams and a group of others held a mass meeting to oppose the showing of the film, at which several members of the black community made speeches “to the effect that in Omaha, as elsewhere, race prejudice seems to be on the increase, and that therefore it was imperative that united action should be taken against every agency responsible for this condition” (“Favor Opposing”). Those present passed a resolution to form a committee of nine black citizens, complemented by nine white citizens, that would try to prevent the showing of the film by pressuring the managers of the Brandeis Theater and the board that had power to censor the play. If everything else failed, they would attempt to legally prevent the showing of the film. Reverend Williams served on the committee, which met with the manager of the theater and a man presumably representing the film company. The committee asked only that two of the most offensive scenes be excluded. However, according to an article, “[t]his reasonable request of the committee was met by a positive and blank refusal from the theatrical representatives” (“Favor Opposing”).

At the same time, Nebraska was economically benefiting from an influx of African Americans from the South during the “Great Migration” of the World War I era. The Monitor actively encouraged this migration. A June 1920 AP dispatch printed in the Omaha World Herald entitled “Race Question A National One” speaks positively of an NAACP conference in Atlanta, “a free and frank discussion of race betterment by leaders of both white and black,” and makes the point that with the great migration of African Americans to the North, the entire country faced the question of what to do about lynching and social justice.

It was against this backdrop of injustice mixed with hopefulness that Dorothy Williams graduated from Central High School and enrolled at Omaha University in 1920. She was not the first African American to go to Central, though she was one of only two in her graduating class. Other African Americans had also attended Omaha University in the past, but none had spent four years there (Dixon).

 

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Part Three University & Beyond

Unfortunately, there is not much information to be found about Dorothy William’s time at the University. Her 1923 yearbook picture is accompanied by the inscription, “A diligent student and a capable teacher, whose pleasant smile and cheery disposition quickly won the hearts of all her tiny pupils.” Besides a few mentions of her on the society page (receiving a guest from Iowa and holding a meeting of the “Smarter Set Society” at her home), Dorothy Williams herself does not appear very much in The Monitor until May 1924, the month of her graduation from Omaha University. Then, possibly due to her proud father’s position as editor, her picture appears on the front page under the headline “Will Graduate From University of Omaha.”

Fifty-one students graduated that May, and among them was Williams, the recipient of a Bachelor of Arts degree (“University