In 1917, when Father Edward J. Flanagan opened his first Home for Boys, the United States was a segregated nation. Black and White soldiers in the U.S. military served in separated units. Interracial marriages were illegal in more than 30 states. Much of America’s Protestant majority believed that Catholics’ only loyalty was to the Pope, and those of the Jewish faith were too “foreign” to be “real Americans.”
That was not Father Flanagan’s way. At his Home for Boys, he welcomed everyone – regardless of race, religion or ethnic background. The boys lived as a family that embraced their own individual heritage and were all treated equally. While his efforts drew criticism from some in the Omaha community, Father Flanagan remained undeterred and his focus on his mission never wavered.
When the segregation laws of the day prohibited him from continuing his Home for Boys in the city of Omaha, Flanagan bought Overlook Farm, well outside of the city limits, and moved his family of orphaned boys to their new home -- the Village of Boys Town. Today, Father Flanagan’s deep belief and fearless commitment to equality and inclusion remain a bedrock of Boys Town’s mission.
In an article written by Heather Fryer, PhD, "Father Flanagan’s More Perfect Union: Pushing the Frontiers of Racial and Religious Inclusion at Boys Town," she explores and documents the ways Father Flanagan and his work at Boys Town helped propel America toward racial and religious inclusion. Fryer concludes in her article that, “as an Irish Catholic priest known worldwide for his moral character, and with plenty of white Catholic boys in need of care, Father Flanagan could easily have made racial equality and interreligious harmony somebody else’s concern. Yet he never turned away from discrimination or intolerance and confronted it with a determination and moral force that shook the hardened foundations of inequality just hard enough to crack them a bit wherever he went. The young people at Boys Town who experienced Father Flanagan’s realization of his religious and civic values learned that an integrated America was not a distant dream but a natural way to live.”
Today, Father Flanagan’s original Home for Boys and the current Village of Boys Town are recognized as the first fully desegregated communities in the United States.
About the Author
Heather Fryer, PhD is an independent scholar, freelance writer and writing coach who served on the faculty of the History Department at Creighton University from 2004-2021. Her many published works include the documentary “Shinmachi: Stronger Than a Tsunami” (American Public Television, airing on PBS 2019-2024) and “Perimeters of Democracy: Inverse Utopias and the Wartime Social Landscape in the American West” (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). She considers her work on the biography for the Cause for Canonization of Father Edward J. Flanagan a highpoint in her career and continues to research the enduring impact of his work on American society and culture.