The Gilded Age Plains City

The Great Sheedy Murder Trial and the Booster Ethos of Lincoln, Nebraska


Explore the City

Spatial Narratives

Interpretation and Narrative

Race/African Americans

Soon after the arrival of the railroads, a small community of about sixty to eighty African American families numbering around three hundred people, developed in Lincoln. From their first arrival, blacks tended to cluster in a small residential area south of the Haymarket; most had migrated south from Omaha or north from Kansas City. Most blacks in Lincoln found work with the railroads, downtown hotels, as servants in elite households, or in grocery stores, barbershops, taverns, and clubs in the Uptown district. In the railroads, most black employees worked as Pullman porters; from the very establishment of the Pullman, companies hired blacks as porters to give the cars a more hotel-like environment. The city's location, halfway between Chicago and Denver enabled employees to run shifts both east and west with a crew change in Lincoln. In hotels at the time black doormen and butlers were commonplace; proprietors generally thought they added a touch of southern gentility to hotel service. This niche position for black men expanded to include privately owned barber shops. By providing a shave and a hair cut, but also baths, racy reading material, smoking rooms, and male conversation and sociability, barbershops were significant outposts of the male subculture. The barber became a kind of verbal gazetteer of what was going on in town. So too, some black entrepreneurs established "black and tan" clubs which were meant primarily for black customers, but in which blacks and whites mingled together in defiance of a local tradition, later backed up by the segregation ordinance that prohibited interracial mixing. One of these clubs became the location for several meetings of an African American fraternal society in Lincoln. Others ran boarding houses catering to blacks. Mary Brown and her husband John, for example, ran a boarding house and grocery at 1021 Q Street.

Monday McFarland's employment history traces the outlines of a small black entrepreneurial community. In 1882 he worked for Henry Brown at 1035 O Street and a year later he started his own barbershop with Charles Coil across the street at 1010 O Street. Around 1885 he began working for Harding at 142 North Tenth Street, directly south of the Quick building. McFarland then briefly worked at 100 South Ninth Street, and moved back to Harding's before finding employed with Peter Crampton's father in the Coffield building at 930 P Street.

Likewise, McFarland's residences over the years reflect the spatial patterns of African-American life. In the early 1880s he lived in a series of boarding rooms in downtown Lincoln, living first in a basement room on O Street between Thirteenth and Fourteenth streets. Around 1885 he moved into a room in 1408 O Street and later moved down the block into another room at 1426 O Street. There were other blacks in some of the apartments on O Street past Thirteenth or Fourteenth; their presence demonstrates that there was only limited segregation. In the late 1880s McFarland moved into a house at 724 B Street. At the time that he allegedly assaulted John Sheedy in January of 1891, he lived in a house with his family at the corner of Twenty-third and O streets.

Some residents of Lincoln considered race relations to be deteriorating in the late 1880s as evidenced in the spatial separation between whites and blacks. During that decade, an African Methodist congregation established in 1873 and a Colored Baptist congregation established in 1879 both built churches on the Bottoms just east and south of the railroad yards. The African Methodist church at Ninth and C streets, with forty families, became the center of a small black neighborhood. McFarland moved into this area in the late 1880s. But no sooner did this cluster of African American develop than they faced considerable invasion pressure from Germans from Russia who increasingly located their homes along the Bottoms both north and south of the yards. Some African Americans migrated back up through downtown in search of housing, while others moved east of downtown out around O and Twenty-fifth streets. Later, other black residents would move north from there onto the high ground up toward R, S, and T streets. There is also some evidence that hotels began shift to white employees more in the 1890s. Police raided black establishments, especially black and tan clubs, more frequently. In time these efforts increased as law enforcement officials sought to enforce a local segregation law.

The nature of race relations in Lincoln was evident in McFarland's 1891 experience throughout the Sheedy murder trial and its coverage in the press. Three times he was portrayed by pictorial images in newspapers: one image was a straightforward line drawing of a black man; another was a sketch of a debonair gentleman — as he was known to many — wearing a top hat; and the third pictured him "waiting for the Mob" - drawn as a beastly black demon. McFarland's portrayal covered the same spectrum as public opinion of race relations — from reasonable equity and fairness to out-right disdain and dismissal.

Crampton, Peter [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Directed by Timothy R. Mahoney, Plains Humanities Alliance, in collaboration with the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.
Funded by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, the Nebraska Humanities Council, and the Plains Humanities Alliance.
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