Notable African-Americans in Nebraska history

Written by Toné Mendoza, Lecturer/Diversity Specialist Librarian

African Americans made up 4.4 percent of Nebraska’s population according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 population estimates report[1].  Many of Nebraska’s Black citizens have made significant contributions to the state’s and, in some cases, to the nation’s history.  Listed below are a few such individuals.

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)
Many African-Americans have accomplished great feats, and Aaron Douglas is among them.  Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1899 and was inspired as an artist by his mother’s drawing and sketching talents. In 1918, Douglas enrolled at the University of Nebraska’s fine arts program and has been noted as this university’s first African-American graduate.  A drive for self-improvement and betterment in life characterized Douglas’s lifelong success in art.  He became a prominent figure during the Harlem Renaissance, creating impressive works of art and publishing many of these in notable journal publications of his day. Read more about Aaron Douglas from the Archives of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln or from Oxford Art Online.

Lela Knox Shanks, (1933-     )
Author, speaker and human rights advocate. Well-known for her lectures and writings on African-American history, the civil rights movement and Alzheimer’s disease.  She obtained a degree in journalism from Lincoln University in Jefferson, MO.  Read more online from this March 30, 2006 story about Lela Knox Shanks in the Lincoln Journal Star.

Malcolm X (Little) (1925 – 1965)
Born in North Omaha, he was one of the most prominent civil rights leader in the United States.  He focused on Black pride and economic reliance until he was killed in 1965.  To learn more Malcolm X, check out The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Call #: BP223.Z8 L57943 1992 – Book Collection – 2nd Level) or one of the related books listed in the library catalog.  Or, for an online biography and additional suggested sources, see Biography Reference Bank.

Mildred Brown (1915–1989)
An African American journalist/newspaper publisher, she helped lead the Civil Rights Movement in Omaha. As part of the Great Migration, Brown she came from Alabama via Chicago and Des Moines. In Omaha, she and her husband founded the Omaha Star, a newspaper of the African-American community. Read more online at this Nebraska Educational Telecommunications (NET) webpage on Mildred Brown.

Silas Robbins, (       -1916)
Was the first Black lawyer admitted to the bar in the state of Nebraska in 1889, and was respected in both Black and White communities.[2]

Zanzye H J Hill, (1891-1935)
Hill was the first Black woman lawyer to graduate from the University of Nebraska in 1929, and became legal council to Woodmen of Union Insurance Company, the largest Black-owned insurance company in the country. She later taught law at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.[3]

Tuskegee Airman from Nebraska:

  • Alfonzo W. Davis,  43-C-SE 3/25/1943 2nd Lt. 0798944 Omaha NE;
  • John L. Harrison, Jr. 43-K-TE 12/5/1943 2nd Lt. 0817600 Omaha NE
  • Woodrow F. Morgan,  43-I-SE 10/1/1943 2nd Lt. 0814199 Omaha NE
  • Ralph Orduna, 44-E-SE 5/23/1944 2nd Lt. 0830793 Omaha NE
  • Edward W. Watkins, 45-F-SE 9/8/1945 Flt. Officer T70424 Omaha NE

List source:  Learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen in Credo Reference.


1. US Census Bureau. (2008). Population estimates report Table 1: Nebraska population by race and ethnicity: 2000 and 2007.

2. Smith, Jr., J. Clay. (1993). Emancipation, the making of the Black lawyer, 1844-1944.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press.  (Call #: KF299.A35 S65 1993 – Book Collection – 2nd Level).

3. Ibid.