History Highlights: Politics

African Americans have never made up more than a fraction of Nebraska’s population, thus making election to statewide office difficult. Dr. Matthew Ricketts, a physician whose parents were once enslaved, managed to win election to the state legislature in 1892, becoming the first of only a handful of blacks to ever serve in its chambers.

Former packinghouse union official Edward Danner served in the Legislature 18 years, representing predominantly African-American District 11. Danner died in office, and George Althouse was appointed to replace him; but in the next general election a young firebrand named Ernie Chambers unseated him. No one before or since has generated the discussion or controversy Chambers has managed with his sharp views on issues and strategic use of legislative process. His push for district elections resulted in the first blacks voted into office on the Omaha City Council, and other city and county public bodies.

Attorney Brenda Council has twice made history for her public service. She was the first African American woman to serve as Omaha School Board president. She was the first woman of color elected to the Omaha City Council. She subsequently came within a hair of winning the mayoral race, which would have made her the first person of color in that office. When State Sen. Ernie Chambers gave up his District 11 seat due to term limits in 2008, Council campaigned to replace him and won, thus becoming the first African American woman elected to the Unicameral (JoAnn Maxey was earlier appointed there by then-Gov. James Exxon).

The same year that Council was voted into the Legislature, a second African American woman, Tanya Cook, representing District 13, joined her. It marked the first time two African American female legislators served concurrently in the Legislature. Council lost her re-election bid to Chambers. Cook won re-election and serves alongside Chambers today.

Entrepreneur Fred Conley holds the distinction of being the first African American elected to the Omaha City Council. He won a place at the table for blacks with his election in 1981. He served two terms.

Corporate executive Carole Woods Harris became the first African-American woman elected to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, where she served three terms. She also won election to the State Board of Education, serving from 2004 to 2008.

Several more African Americans have achieved elected office in the last few decades, including Former Councilman Frank Brown, Councilman Franklin Thompson, Councilman Ben Gray, Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers and Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing, Jr. Outside elected office, two African Americans have served as chief of the Omaha Police Department – Thomas Warren, Sr. and Alex Hayes.