I am always amazed but not surprised when I review media coverage of major events in my life while growing up in Omaha, Nebraska during the 1950s – 1970s. This photo of then-U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy is a prime example of what’s missing in the recorded history.
Presidential Candidate Kennedy captivated my family’s attention and that of the majority of the black community in our hometown. My father, Dr. Rodney Wead and Jack West, both young and respected men who worked for non-profit organizations, were the RFK Campaign Co-Chairs in Omaha’s Black community.
Some accounts of Kennedy’s fast-paced tour through Nebraska and Omaha characterize his stop at 24th & Erksine, in front of the Tully’s Men’s retail store, as an after-thought or last-minute idea of his campaign’s staff. It wasn’t. That morning, my Dad told his four children that we would meet someone very special later that day. He described Kennedy’s platform in basic terms so that we would grasped the important points. He loaded us in our Chevrolet station wagon and we rode to the site where Kennedy would make a speech to a welcoming crowd.
It was a cold and rainy day in May 1968. I remember complaining about the weather conditions after downpour of rain hit just when we shook hands with Kennedy. I was 10 years old and didn’t know that this was an important day and time for Black Omahans and for me. The photo, captured by Rudy Smith, a photographer for the Omaha World-Herald newspaper, speaks volumes. It shows that:
- Kennedy was comfortable on the small stage where enthusiastic, captivated supporters surrounded him on all four sides.
- The rain and cold were evident by the hair coverings, umbrellas and coats along with the brave souls in short sleeves.
- The campaign headquarters erected triangular flags above and around the area where Kennedy spoke.
- There were nearly washed away Kennedy campaign images sharing the brick wall with the Tully’s advertisements.
What my 10-year-old self remembered about that day was that Kennedy was a nice man. He shook each of our hands, especially striking those of children. He included my sisters, brother and me. I remember the cold and the rain and Kennedy’s warm heart. Smith, the photographer, captured it all that cold and rainy day on Erksine Street. He was the only black photographer at the daily newspaper during my childhood and teenage years in Omaha. Kennedy was assassinated in California about two months after this photograph was taken. He followed the tragic fate of his brother, John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated nearly five years earlier.
If Smith had not photographed key events in the Black community, part of our history — family and Omaha’s — would have been lost. It is my drumbeat to encourage Black folk to document our history, especially in relation to what has been recorded and published in the general media, school books and genealogical journals.
Smith joined the ancestors shortly before this book was published in 2020. His former colleagues at the Omaha World-Herald pitched in and completed the book in honor of Smith. Smith’s legacy is that he was always “there” to capture breaking news and feature stories for the Omaha region. He always carved out time to record events that impacted Black folk such as the riots after young Vivian Strong was killed after being shot in her back by an Omaha police officer, or the parades for hometown sports heroes who included Gayle Sayers, Johnny Rogers, Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer. He was there for so much more during his decades of work for the major daily newspaper and our community.
I am grateful that his colleagues paid tribute tribute to Smith’s role as a valuable, visual historian of Omaha’s Black community. https://omaha.com/entertainment/book-and-exhibit-the-black-experience-shows-lifetime-of-photos-by-late-world-herald-photographer/article_2400e8fa-e4a1-5c65-a81e-645d2dd50d52.html.