KEARNEY — Dirk Chatelain, a sports writer for the Omaha World-Herald, wanted to tell the story of one of the most important aspects of Nebraska’s history.
“This is something that I think has been overlooked for the last 50 years; that’s the rise and fall of north Omaha, specifically through the lens of the extraordinary athletes that came up through the neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s,” he said in an interview from his office at the newspaper in Omaha. “Names that everybody recognizes: Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Johnny Rogers, Marlin Briscoe, Bob Boozer, Roger Sayers and Ron Boone. Those are the seven that we highlight as the elite of the elite.”
Chatelain uses the stories of these athletes to tell the story of the neighborhood — which ultimately tells the story of the state.
“It’s not just a history of north Omaha, it’s the history of Omaha — period,” he said. “A lot of the themes and events that were important to that neighborhood were also important to the city.”
The book details how the meatpacking industry of south Omaha attracted blacks to neighborhoods on the northern side of the city and how that industry supported Omaha.
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“It’s a complex story that has a lot of connections between sports and history and the social conditions of the Civil Rights era,” Chatelain said. “One of the biggest points of feedback we’ve received is that even the people who lived in Omaha at that time were not aware of the segregation and discrimination that was going on in this 2-square-mile neighborhood that had been sectioned off and segregated from the rest of the city.”
Chatelain’s research resulted in “24th & Glory: The Intersection of Civil Rights and Omaha’s Greatest Generation of Athletes,” a 184-page book dissecting sports, the Civil Rights movement and the history of Nebraska. Chatelain will talk about his book during a presentation at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Kearney Public Library. Admission to the event is free.
“The biggest thing that drew me to this is that I’m a rural Nebraska kid who grew up in the generation after all these athletes,” the writer said. “I was unaware, not of just the social conditions and social restraints that these guys faced, but I was unaware that there was a north Omaha before 1968 that was very different before that year.”
Chatelain describes the neighborhood as “vibrant and bustling.” Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1968.
As a child growing up in Rising City, Chatelain, 38, now recognizes the insular nature of his hometown.
“While growing up, my perspective of north Omaha was abandoned lots, poverty and crime,” he said. “I was awakened, by this reporting process, to a much different north Omaha. North 24th Street was as dense and bustling as any place in the entire state.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, sports played an important role in social advancement.
“It was one of the few areas in which blacks could break out of poverty,” Chatelain said. “It was one of the few areas in life where they could appear on the national stage. Because of segregation and discrimination of African Americans, there were few places where they could make it big. Athletics was a primary source and a powerful motivating tool because it was the most direct way out of poverty.”
For the white community, sports offered one of the few avenues to interact with blacks.
Chatelain felt a little resistance from some of his sources.
“I hesitate to even say, this but initially there was some reluctance from people in north Omaha that a 38-year-old white guy from the World-Herald was writing this story,” he said. “So I tried to write this objectively as possible. I did not want to be someone who was beating a drum for one particular point of view.”
That objectivity allowed Chatelain to write for a wider audience.
“Honestly, there’s been no resentment and I think detaching ourselves was a big advantage,” he said.
Ultimately the story belongs to the entire state.
“24th & Glory” helps readers to better understand the fight for equality for everyone in Nebraska, regardless of geography, status and class.
“From the perspective of our readers, this is a story that badly needed to be told,” Chatelain said. “Frankly, I think it needs to be told now because many of the characters in the story, and the generation of the people we wrote about, they’re in their 70s and 80s and some of them are battling serious health conditions. There was an urgency to get it down now before they are gone so it can honor some of their accomplishments.”
The racial issues addressed in the book still linger in society.
“There’s still a lot of tension and a lot of animosity,” Chatelain said. “I think it’s important to tell the background of how some of this came to be.”