A civil rights icon. A mother figure. A founder of our community.
Those are the words used to describe Omaha Star’s founder Mildred D. Brown by Interim Editor and Publisher, Frankie J. Williams.
Williams said one of the great things about Brown’s legacy is that her niece, Marguerita Washington, Ph.D., who took over the paper when Brown passed away, created the Mildred Brown Memorial Study Center to offer a journalism program for high school students and a scholarship program for college students studying in the field.
“Even though she’s no longer here, she’s still having a major impact on young people exploring fields in communication,” Williams said.
Mildred D. Brown was born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1915 to prominent minister Bennie Brown and teacher Maggie Brown. She graduated from Miles Memorial Teachers College, a historically black college, at the age of 16 in 1931 and found a teaching job at an elementary school in Birmingham, Alabama.
Brown studied journalism at Drake University and the University of Omaha, what is now the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She took a job as an editor for the Sioux City newspaper The Silent Messenger and worked in advertising sales before taking over as the publisher.
Brown moved to Omaha with her husband in 1937 to work for another friend’s paper before she discovered that newspapers in Omaha hardly reported any news happening in the North Omaha community.
“She wasn’t able to read positive news about her community. She also wanted a vehicle wherein she could share ideas and educate the community on trends in political and social matters that would impact their lives,” Williams said.
Brown refused to publish stories about crime, killings and other stories that painted the black community in a negative light because major newspapers at the time were already doing so, Williams said.
“It also gave her an opportunity to paint another picture of our community,” Williams said. “We continued to cover news that affected the community, and Mildred was a big proponent of – of course – voting.”
Some of the difficulties Brown faced when working at the Omaha Star were the discrimination against people of color, and on top of that, Brown was a female business owner before the second wave of gender equality.
“She also had to deal with advertisers not wanting to support a paper that was found by and centered around African-Americans.”
Williams said she had the privilege of working at the Omaha Star with Brown during her high school years.
“I really thought I was Mildred’s favorite kid that she had worked with,” Williams said, “until I started talking to other people of my generation and learned that she made everyone feel that way, which was a good thing.”
Williams said she offered many young black men their first job at The Star, selling the newspaper and teaching them about time management, budgeting and many other real-life responsibilities.
“They learn a lot through that because they have to plan out, come on Saturday morning, received ten papers, sell them, bring them back, get paid for those, take another ten out.
Mildred would often come out and talk to them about budgeting, about the responsibility of having a job, and that the harder they work, the greater the chances of winning a bicycle.”
Williams said one of the most profound experiences was on Thursday, April 19, 1968, the day the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.
“We were working, and it was the day the paper mailed out. Then our photographer came in and told us Dr. King has been shot, and it felt like we all quit functioning,” Williams said, remembering the reactions in The Omaha Star’s newsroom.
“Mildred came out and we all shed tears. Then, one by one, without any calls or implementation, ministers in the community started coming into the office.
“Their moods went from sorrowful to anger,” Williams said. “That was one of the greatest Black History lessons—that’s where I learned how much of a powerful figure Mildred was in the community.”
Williams said another fond memory she shares of Brown was during the June 1969 riot in North Omaha, where the Black Panthers were stationed to protect the Omaha Star newspaper building.
“Mildred never ceased operations and we worked right through that. We felt very protected coming in and working there.”
The Omaha Star’s coverage of the urban riots in the 1960s was commended by the White House, and Brown was appointed a goodwill ambassador to East Germany by President Lyndon Johnson.
Brown continued to operate the newspaper as the sole publisher until her death in November 1989. Her niece, Marguerita Washington, Ph. D., took over as owner and publisher at the time until her passing in 2016.
Williams said the award-winning Omaha Star continues to inform and educate people in the North Omaha community about politics and how events impact their community and our lives.
You can go into barber or beauty shops or restaurants and hear debates and discussions about topics in the paper that people read about, Williams said.
“Most of our out-of-town subscribers lived in Omaha and want to stay invested on what’s going on in the community, because they take the paper and are able to stay in touch with their hometown,” Williams said.
Brown was one of only three women inducted into the Omaha Business Hall of Fame. She was also posthumously inducted into the Nebraska Journalism Hall of Fame in 2007 and the Omaha Press Club Journalism of Excellence Hall of Fame in 2008.
The Omaha Star is the only American newspaper founded by a black woman—a powerful, influential woman. Williams said Brown is responsible for many black educators in the Omaha area because she fought to allow black people in the Omaha area to teach the next generation.
“When you start looking at the impact she had, she’s the reason why I felt comfortable going anywhere we wanted to go,” Williams said. “That is a part of her legacy.”