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Boys Town has been identified as one of the first intentionally integrated communities in America. During #BlackHistoryMonth, Boys Town moderator Gabby Damewood and Boys Town Director of Community Programs Tom Lynch conducted a question-and-answer discussion with Heather Fryer, Ph.D., author of "Father Flanagan’s More Perfect Union: Pushing the Frontiers of Racial and Religious Inclusion at Boys Town,” discussing Boys Town's history of diversity, inclusion, and desegregation.

Gabby: What was the social climate in Omaha around race and religion in 1917, when Boys Town was founded by Father Flanagan?

Tom: When Father Flanagan came to America, he was an Irish immigrant. He was 18 years old, and he came to America to get away from discrimination because he was Irish and Roman Catholic. He grew up witnessing discrimination. When he came to Omaha in 1917, it was a very segregated city. There were pockets throughout the city where different ethnic groups lived, and you stayed in your neighborhood. You worshipped there, you shopped there. Very rarely would people cross the line and go to a different neighborhood. Also, Omaha as a community was based on social class, and certain individuals owned most of the wealth in the city.

There were many new immigrants coming into the city to work in the meat packing plants and on the railroads. They didn’t have much access to wealth or political power. Father Flanagan discovered very quickly that if you were poor, if you were homeless, then no one really cared for or wanted you, and that applied especially to children. When he saw the children of the streets and in downtown Omaha, he realized no one wanted these children. This was especially the case for boys because girls usually would be taken as servants. Father Flanagan discovered the lowest individuals in Omaha in 1917 were these homeless boys living on the streets. They were from a variety of different races and religions. Back then, they had the idea of eugenics, which holds that certain individuals are superior to others. Unfortunately, the bottom rung would be these boys who came from different countries from around the world, spoke different languages, and were from families that did not meet the social norm of the day. They were considered the lowest of the low. That was the atmosphere. Having boys from all different races, religious and backgrounds live together in one common area caused tension in the community. Father Flanagan took a courageous step by creating his own town when integration was so widely unaccepted.

When Father Flanagan created Boys Town, he stated he would accept any child regardless of race or religion. He had several buildings in the city: one at 25th and Dodge Street and one on 13th Street in South Omaha. The building on 13th was rented. In about 1920, they were forced to move from that building because the owner wanted it for different purposes. Father Flanagan went through the city looking for a new location, but everywhere he went, he encountered people who did not want him in their area. He made plans to buy a former Protestant seminary as the permanent home. However, there are actually newspaper articles from then that say that a collective of seven local churches and ministers joined together and told Father that they did not want him in the neighborhood because he was Catholic, and because the boys were from different races and religions

Father Flanagan decided he was going to move his home for boys to the countryside where he could be free and independent to do whatever he wanted to do. In late 1920, he bought land where the current Village of Boys Town stands today. Then, it was 10 miles west of Omaha. There was nothing there except farmland. When he moved the boys, he could only afford one truck. The younger boys got to ride on the truck in the move west, while the older boys had to walk.

It took them nine hours to march from the city to their new home. Once they were there, they were free and independent. Father could have any type of programming he wanted. From the very beginning, at the entrance to the Village of Boys Town, he put a sign saying all races and all creeds are welcome to live in the village. That is what he wanted the public to realize what Boys Town stood for.

Gabby: Heather, tell us more about your work on Father Flanagan’s More Perfect Union, pushing the frontiers of racial and religious inclusion at Boys Town. What inspired you to write this?

Heather:  In 2015, I was working with Tom and others on writing the biography of Father Flanagan. Most people think of him as a real pioneer in child welfare, which he absolutely was. I came to the project with a background of having written pretty extensively on the history of race and racial discrimination, social movements and especially the incarceration of the Japanese Americans during World War II.

As I was working on the biography, one of the things that came out in our conversations and in what I was seeing in the records, was that Boys Town was so incredibly integrated. I was noticing things that were common then were to have a community that might be integrated, but people were living in separate areas because segregation was still seen as the norm. This isn’t what I was seeing at Boys Town. I was seeing photographs and images of boys at Boys Town where everybody was completely integrated and all together. This really started to get my radar pinging. I said a little bit about this in the biography but put it on the back burner because I wanted to do some checking. It is possible Boys Town was the first place in the United States where people of all races and religions were not just accepted or tolerated, but where the baseline expectation was that everybody would live together as citizens, as family, as Americans?  After doing quite a bit of checking, I am very confident Boys Town was the first fully integrated community in the United States. By that I mean there is an ethos that people of all races and creeds belong here, because as Tom said, Father Flanagan experienced racial and religious discrimination himself.

He also understood the growth and development of children, where as his counterpart in Council Bluffs was saying children are just biologically bad seeds, the throwaway children Tom was talking about, the children of color, Catholics, Jews. Father Flanagan was saying the problem really is what he called the foul seed of prejudice. It didn’t just prevent those boys who were discriminated against from growing into their God-given gifts and talents, but also white children, because it created narrow-mindedness. The attitude was almost violent, not peaceful, and not anything that would build a good America.

Father Flanagan’s thinking was so forward looking. If you think about the fact he passed away in 1948, the year that President Truman desegregated the Armed Forces, which was the beginning of formal desegregation in American life. That, to me, is remarkable that before there was all of that, there was Father Flanagan just living it out.

Gabby:  Would you add anything Tom?

Tom:  I think Heather is correct, totally. I mean, this was a unique community. We have boys telling us that when they arrived, they’d be shocked because they’d be walked into a dormitory and told, “okay, you’re going to live with these boys.”

They saw boys of different races or religions. They had never encountered that before. It took them a few days to accept that. But after a while, they realized they’re just kids like them, and everybody got along and worked together. It was eye opening for a lot of these boys, and they went home to their communities and shared those views with their families and friends saying, “why are we discriminating against this individual due to race and religion? At Boys Town, I knew someone of that race and religion, they’re a beautiful human being, I loved them as my brother.”

This attitude wasn’t just tolerated, it was encouraged.  It was expected that when you came to Boys Town, this is how it is and there’s no way around it. If you’re at Boys Town, this is how we do it.

Gabby: I love what you said that it wasn't just tolerated, but it was encouraged. And it was expected that when you came to Boys Town Father outlined it as “this is how it is and there's not a way around it. And if you're at Boys Town, this is how we do it.”

Heather:  Like Tom said, it didn’t seem so out of the ordinary for those that were there because it was their norm. I think that’s such a wonderful model even for today. Let’s be honest, we are still trying to work out what true inclusion and true equity looks like. In some ways, Father Flanagan achieved it by not overemphasizing it. He had a leadership style that was just about doing what was right. He set his course and said, we have real trouble in this country with prejudice that undercuts our values as American citizens. Father Flanagan was a very committed Catholic, but he was also very committed to American values. He talked about American values. Because of that, he just set the stage for what inclusion would look like. So now you have the beautiful Dowd Chapel, but you also have a Jewish temple. You also have services for Protestants.

Boys come in and no one is really talking about what race, religion or what their ethnicity is. But at the same time, Father Flanagan would let you know that he was a proud Irish Catholic man. He didn’t pretend that he wasn’t Irish. He encouraged boys to do the same. They had, in school events for example, where it would be a League of Nations or United Nations. All the boys were encouraged to speak from the perspective of their own racial or ethnic group. This was a place where everybody understood that people had different backgrounds. Yet that was not relevant because the larger point at Boys Town is to create great young men who can create a great world for the rest of us. And that is a very easy principle to buy into.

Gabby:  Heather, in your article, you made a point to mention that Father Flanagan could have easily made racial equality someone else's concern, someone else's problem. As he is up for sainthood, explain how this was such a testament to who Father Flanagan was as a person.

Heather: I think that there are several dimensions to this. I think that the baseline dimension probably is that if Father saw that a child was suffering and becoming someone who would suffer their whole life, and that their talents would be wasted, he was going to intervene. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement and even during it, the thinking was that what pertained to the well-being of black people was for black people to deal with. If you’re concerned about the welfare of black children, that’s a problem for black people. 

The attitude was that white people don’t need to be concerned about this. Racial prejudice, religious discrimination, that’s not a problem for us.  Father Flanagan made that an important matter in his work in the world of child development because he saw the two as very intricately tied. If you can’t accept a person for their humanity, then we can’t do anything for our children because we’re going to keep injuring them through discrimination, whether they are the child who is discriminated against or the child who learns the lie of discrimination and carries the foul seed into the next generation.

I think this really speaks to an insight that is more mainstream today.  For him, it’s very hard to know where it would have come from, were it not from a very deep faith that tuned out a lot of the noise of the time and place he was living in. He was involved with politics, but he didn’t accept the framework that society is set up by different races of people who are inferior and superior to one another. Nor did he have the belief that people who did not practice Catholicism were in some way not worthy or part of our society or the world that we are trying to create together. I think that is not an intellectual thing. I think that it is something else.

Tom: I would add that everything Heather said is so true, and Father Flanagan considered racial discrimination and religious discrimination as cancer on American society. He described it as that. He said children learn it when they’re young. He actually gave it an age. He said that by about age 10, a child can be made racist. That’s why at Boys Town, we talk about teaching love. That’s what he advocated here, teaching children love. If you teach children from an early age to accept everyone regardless of race or religion, you’re going to have a society where everyone lives together in harmony. That’s what he witnessed here at Boys Town with the thousands of boys that came to live with him. He saw how race had ruined the lives of some of these children. Not all children were allowed to stay here because they had been too exposed to racism. They would come and not accept their fellow students of different races and religions. Father would not allow them to stay. He would say, if you are going to come here and cause trouble and not accept your fellow students, then you cannot stay here at Boys Town.

Gabby:  Heather, you mentioned that through your research you found that Father Flanagan's original home for boys and the current Village of Boys Town have been named one of the first intentionally integrated communities in the United States. Tom, would you give us a little bit of background of what that means?

Tom: What that means is that Father Flanagan created a community here that is a role model for the rest of the United States. It’s a community that’s been here for a hundred years. It shows how children, and even adults, can come and live together. The staff here is a very diverse staff. Even in Father Flanagan’s time, as Heather mentioned, the Japanese Americans who were interned, they actually came and lived here with the kids in the Village of Boys Town and were trusted employees. Father Flanagan welcomed them as equals when they came to live here. It’s a community that people visit every year. It exists in the city of Omaha. People drive by us every day. I don’t think they quite realize the uniqueness of the community we have here at Boys Town.

Boys Town is an example of how America can function as a country and as family units. It’s exactly what Father Flanagan wanted. He wanted this to be a role model for the rest of the United States, if not the world, on racial and religious tolerance.

Gabby:  Integrating that community was no easy feat for Father Flanagan, as we've discussed. Tom, what other challenges occurred after the move?

Tom:  Father Flanagan accepted no funding from any religious organization or community program because of their policies. They would say that children had to be raised a certain way and follow a certain faith, or that you could only serve certain children, or that maybe children of a certain race would not be accepted at that time. Father Flanagan said no, I’m only going to accept donations from the American public that really wanted to support me. 

One gentleman wrote in saying he objected to the fact that there were African American children here. Father shot back saying, “you’re not a very good American if you think that, because I’m going to serve all children. And you have to get a better attitude on how you look at children and your fellow American citizens.”  Father had issues with working with schools, too. The school administrators from the state of Nebraska didn’t like Father Flanagan’s schools because he had totally integrated them for both religion and race. The administrators would put extra limits on what he could teach. He had incidents where people would come and try to stop him. Even the Ku Klux Klan at different times objected to what Father Flanagan did with his traveling shows, not allowing them to perform in their towns and communities. The same thing happened with our sports teams. Our football teams, as they traveled, encountered discrimination even into the 1960s. That’s partly why we weren’t allowed to join the Nebraska high school leagues until the 1960s. Schools objected because we had children of different races and religions living here.

If you visit the Boys Town Hall of History, you will see a big bus there. That bus is what Father and his boys drove when they had to travel very far for sporting events because they couldn’t play Omaha teams. If you haven’t visited, make sure you come out and see it.  And if you’re not close to Omaha, we do have virtual tours on our website.

Q: Heather, how did Father Flanagan’s deep belief in integrating Boys Town serve as an example for the rest of America to follow in pursuing racial and religious equality and inclusion?

Heather: He gives us a number of examples that I think any of us can do. They would be really effective. Father Flanagan was absolutely uncompromising where racism and religious discrimination were concerned. Wherever he saw it, even if it was from a donor, even if it was from the hotel that was supposed to lodge the Boys Town football team and then said that nobody could stay there because it was a mixed group of kids, even if it was from the United States government saying it’s actually wrong on principle to incarcerate a group of people simply on the basis of their race and ethnicity. He was consistent in that view. Not in an angry, fiery way, but just where there was racism, he pushed back against it no matter who it was. I would venture to say that sometimes, even if it made some things harder, he wouldn’t compromise. I could not find an incident where he compromised. Of course, on a day-to-day level, not all of us can be the great examples of change in civil rights.

When a child came to Boys Town and met Father Flanagan, it didn’t matter who they were, they were met with love, they were met with interest in who that child was as an individual. They often got candy from Father Flanagan’s candy drawer. It didn’t matter who they were. I think that anyone can do that: appreciate and approach people with an openness, a curiosity, and an assumption that they are more like us and a part of us than they are different from us and a potential problem for us. There’s one other thing that Father Flanagan did that’s worth mentioning. He not only personally taught the kids to not be racist through his example. He also brought instructors to Boys Town such as music teacher Dan Desdune, who was African American, and Patrick Kora, a Japanese American psychologist. These people were mentors and teachers to the kids -- kids of every race, including white kids, which was unheard of at that time. It taught those kids that they can learn from anybody and to not see race as a salient fact.

Gabby:  Tom, how does Boys Town continue to implement Father Flanagan’s inclusive values?

Tom:  Our boys and girls still live in homes mixed by race, age and religion. They go to school together, they worship together. Our staff is a group of individuals from different backgrounds, different races, different religions, different ages, all here together working for the children of Boys Town. Again, it’s been that way since our founding. As Heather mentioned, we had the Japanese here after World War II. The home actually took in Holocaust survivors who stayed and worked here in the Village of Boys Town. We’ve always had diverse ideas and concepts. We’re a community that for over a hundred years has shown an example of living with different backgrounds, races and religions. We are the future of America created by Father Flanagan over a hundred years ago. I would encourage people to come out and visit the village of Boys Town to learn what we’re doing. Come to the Hall of History.

We have a black history display in the museum right now that shows the great individuals who’ve taught here at Boys Town or have impacted the children at Boys Town. People are always encouraged to come and learn more about our community.

Gabby: Heather, is there anything else that you would like to mention on what stood out to you about Father Flanagan and your work?

Heather: I just think the foresight and the courage that Father Flanagan showed, and that he saw beyond the politics of the time and really helped us have a vision of a better version of America. I really marvel at the fact when I think about where the United States was during the course of his lifetime. Again, in the Armed Forces, black and white soldiers could not serve together in the same regiment until 1948. It was not considered constitutionally legal or guaranteed that partners of different races could marry. That was in 1967. Here is Boys Town living as a mixed-race family. The thing that inspires me is not just the question of racial inclusion, but that this is a model that we can all draw from. Any of us can look beyond the stuff of the present day, the things that are just illusions like race and religious differences. We can use Father Flanagan’s example of really envisioning a different, more just world if we return to the simple principle that there’s no such thing as a bad boy or a bad person, there’s just bad social environments.

What can we do to undercut the bad things in the social environment, to bring about so much of the good that America was created to be, is meant to be? If we work at it, we will  become this ideal vision of America.