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When Segregation Prevailed in the US, Boys Town May Have Been Nation's First Integrated Community

Omaha World Herald

This article was originally written by Henry Cordes and published by the Omaha World-Herald on March 2, 2024.

When Harry S. Truman’s motorcade rolled up to Boys Town in June 1948, the president was leading a deeply segregated nation.

Even the U.S. military he presided over as commander in chief had historically kept Black and White servicemen in separate units.

That makes the scene he encountered that day in Nebraska all the more remarkable.

Truman was greeted by a welcome banner held by boys who were White, Black, Hispanic and Native American. And as the president stood for photos amid the Boys Town choir, the boys surrounding him represented a true spectrum of skin colors.

It underscores what one former Creighton University history professor believes is an underappreciated legacy of the Rev. Edward J. Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town: At a time segregation prevailed in America, both in the North and South, Father Flanagan may have established the country’s first fully integrated community.

“I can’t say I’ve found another,” Heather Fryer said in an interview. “It was an absolute expectation at Boys Town that to be a citizen of this small American village meant that you treated every single person as your brother, without regard to race, creed or religion.”

Fryer, who was on Creighton’s history faculty for nearly two decades, spent years researching Flanagan’s life and legacy as part of the effort to gather evidence for his candidacy for sainthood.

As a historian with a focus on mid-20th century America, Fryer was familiar with just how widespread discrimination and segregation were during Flanagan’s time. Even in places where White and non-White people lived within the same borders — including Omaha — the races tended to live in their own segregated sections.

But the community that the Catholic priest established west of Omaha was unique, Fryer said in a history paper she prepared for Boys Town. Hard as she looked, she said, she found no other place from that time where non-discrimination was truly “a lived principle.”

“Nowhere outside Boys Town did one find a community in the United States where respect for religious diversity and racial integration were not only allowed or encouraged, but expected of every member of the community,” Fryer wrote.

She says it all can be traced to Flanagan.

‘An intentionally integrated city’

A young, immigrant priest from Ireland, Flanagan first established the home for orphaned, troubled and abandoned boys in a former Omaha boarding house in 1917. Then in 1921, he purchased Overlook Farm west of Omaha and established Boys Town, incorporating it as a Nebraska village.

Not only was the nation highly segregated during that time and resistant to efforts to integrate, racial prejudice was also widespread, Fryer said — including in Nebraska.

In 1923, the Ku Klux Klan boasted 45,000 members in Nebraska, with chapters in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, Fremont, York, North Platte, Scottsbluff and Hastings. Nebraska was also among 38 states with laws that banned racial intermarriage, a measure passed by state lawmakers in 1911.

But Flanagan established Boys Town as “an intentionally integrated city,” Fryer said.

Flanagan frequently expressed his belief in the inherent value and potential of every boy, regardless of background. He made it clear the home was open to anyone, regardless of race, creed or religion.

“Let the strength of understanding and love crush the foul seed of prejudice,” Flanagan once wrote.

The hundreds of boys on the Boys Town campus lived together in dormitories and shared the same classrooms and dining facilities. They were also exposed to campus leaders of minority races.

Boys Town’s first music teacher and band leader was Black Omaha musician Dan Desdunes.

In 1943, Flanagan hired Kiyoshi Patrick Okura as Boys Town’s first head of psychological services. Flanagan had worked to get Okura and his wife released from the California internment camp where they and other Japanese Americans had been relocated and locked up during World War II.

When Boys Town’s sports teams, band or other entertainment groups traveled off campus, particularly to other states, they often were confronted with hotels or restaurants who refused to serve Black people.

“It was a very strange experience and very enlightening for boys who had spent a lot of time at Boys Town to encounter the world outside of the village — even in Omaha,” Fryer said.

A president visits Boys Town

As Fryer was researching the racial history of Flanagan and BoysTown, she came across the striking video of Truman’s visit on June 4,1948.

Truman came to campus to pay his respects to Flanagan, a friend who just three weeks earlier had died of a heart attack at age 61 while on apost-war humanitarian mission to Germany. In addition to speaking to the boys, Truman laid a wreath at Flanagan’s tomb.

There is no sound behind the government video that was shot that day. But the images captured speak volumes about the racial makeup of the campus and the harmonious way the boys lived together.

As Truman stood for photos and cracked jokes with the Boys Town choir, boys who were Black, White and Hispanic laughed.

A World-Herald photo from that historic day also shows Truman shaking hands with Boys Town’s elected mayor — Eddie Dunn, who was Black. White-majority Boys Town had elected a Black mayor almost two decades before any major White-majority U.S. city did.

Fryer said she doesn’t know whether Dunn was even the first Black youth chosen to serve as Boys Town’s mayor. Campus histories didn’t treat such facts as relevant.

“I have always been struck by how multiracial the Boys Town group is,” said Laurie Austin, an audio-visual archivist with the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.

Perhaps Truman was struck, too.

Desegregating the U.S. military

As history would have it, just 52 days after his Boys Town visit — and against the objections of politicians, generals and many other detractors — Truman signed an executive order desegregating the U.S. military. It was a crucial moment in the American civil rights movement.

Officials at the Truman Library say there are no public accounts of Truman’s impressions of the diverse scene he encountered at Boys Town weeks earlier. So there’s no evidence the president’s visit had any impact on his decision to sign the order.

But Fryer said it certainly couldn’t have hurt. When it came to race relations, she said, Boys Town was a place where children outshone the adults.

Many alums of Boys Town would speak years later about how they learned at Boys Town to care about one another and not discriminate, Fryer said.

One boy who came to Boys Town from deeply segregated Texas spoke in an oral history of how he found himself bunking next to a boy who was Black. They became best friends.

At Boys Town, Fryer said, boys came to see that race simply did not matter. And that again goes back to Flanagan.

“He just never strayed from this notion that human beings are human beings,” she said, “How we worship or where our ancestors were from is fairly irrelevant to any of this.”

A Vatican tribunal is still reviewing the case for Flanagan’s sainthood, a process that can take years.

Before Flanagan can ultimately be canonized, proof will need to be offered of a miracle that occurred through his intercession.

Fryer said she’s not sure establishment of the nation’s first truly desegregated community would qualify as a miracle in the Vatican’s eyes. But in the context of America’s centuries of tortured racial history, Fryer would argue it does.

“To me,” she said, “that is nothing short of a miracle.”