Father Flanagan's More Perfect Union
How Boys Town Led America Toward Racial and Religious Inclusion
Below is a summary of the article written by Heather Fryer, PhD, “Father Flanagan’s More Perfect Union: Pushing the Frontiers of Racial and Religious Inclusion at Boys Town,” View the full article here.
"Let the strength of understanding and love crush this foul seed of prejudice. If we can but do this the future generation will be broadminded, not prejudiced, and the world will be a better, more beautiful, more peaceful place in which to live.” - Father Edward J. Flanagan
Father Flanagan’s Boys Home was founded for homeless boys of every race and religion.
The United States was a segregated nation when Father Flanagan opened his Boys Home in 1917. Black and White soldiers in the U.S. military served in segregated units. Interracial marriages were illegal in Nebraska and more than 30 other states. Much of America’s Protestant majority believed that Catholics’ only loyalty was to the Pope and that Jewish people were too “foreign” to be “real Americans.” The boys at Father Flanagan’s home would live as a family of many races and religions, each proud of their heritage and living “in parity” with one another, even if it drew criticism from the Omaha community.
Father Flanagan moved the Boys Home from Omaha to Overlook Farm to free the community from segregation in 1921.
Boys Town was an intentionally integrated city. Father Flanagan moved his Boys Home from Omaha to Overlook Farm to free the community of discrimination of all kinds. Father Flanagan’s Boys Home and Boys Town itself were the first fully desegregated communities in the United States.
Boys Town was designed with spaces for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish worship.
Father Flanagan was a committed Catholic priest who expressed his faith openly. He also supported others in practicing their faiths openly and proudly. Boys Town was (and continues to be) nonsectarian, but Father Flanagan did require every boy to practice a faith of his choice. In addition to a Catholic chapel, Boys Town had spaces to serve the Village’s Protestant and Jewish communities. Father Flanagan asked local ministers and rabbis to conduct services and provide religious education in Boys Town’s houses of worship.
Father Flanagan worked with a broad range of community members.
Father Flanagan had legions of supporters among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. One of his good friends was Henry Monsky, a leading Jewish philanthropist and president of B’nai B’rith. Monsky was an early financial supporter of Boys Town and made numerous public presentations with Father Flanagan on matters of public concern, including child welfare and problems of prejudice. Father Flanagan and Henry Monsky broadcast their Unity Through Service Inter Faith Program over WOL radio in 1945 to urge greater inclusiveness in the wake of World War II.
Father Flanagan took pride in Boys Town’s diversity.
There was no mentioning Boys Town without saying that it was a home for boys of every race, creed and color. This included those targeted for heightened discrimination. In 1921, the year the state of Nebraska passed a law prohibiting only Asians from owning land, Boys Town proudly announced the arrival of its first citizen of Chinese ancestry, Tat Wong. His full-page photo was the August cover of the Boys Town Journal with the caption, “Our Friend Tat Wong.”
Father Flanagan brought talented leaders of many backgrounds to Boys Town.
Members of the Boys Town Band received first-rate musical training and original compositions from Dan Desdunes, the father of Omaha jazz, from 1917 to 1929. Japanese American psychologist Kyoshi Patrick Okura headed psychological services and led a Boy Scout troop for many years at Boys Town (from 1942 to 1959) and went on to become a national leader in the mental health field. By simply practicing non-discrimination, Boys Town provided some of the nation’s best care and education. Boys Town alums knew that great leadership was a matter of talent, discipline and character, not of race or religion.
Boys Town was a haven for Japanese Americans during World War II.
In the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. government removed 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from their homes on the West Coast to incarceration camps in the interior states without evidence of wrongdoing. Father Flanagan opposed this injustice and worked with the government to release of “a few” Japanese Americans from the camps to fill positions at Boys Town held by staff drafted into the military. The “few individuals” grew to 10 by the end of 1943 and numbered 43 by December 1945. Every Japanese American newcomer was a full, visible member of the Boys Town community. They were treated with the same care as the boys—especially children like Toshio Takahashi: “Father Flanagan came up and greeted me, he hugged me, he was very, very loving.” Being treated with kindness made a big difference to people who had been rejected by their nation because of their ancestry.
Father Flanagan confronted prejudice whenever he saw it.
Father Flanagan did not let prejudiced statements go unchecked, even if he risked support for Boys Town. He responded to a letter from a woman urging Father Flanagan to be more suspicious of Japanese Americans with, “I don’t think…that we should be a party to condemning people until they are proven guilty, and I am sure this is your attitude also.” To a critic of Boys Town’s openness to all people Father Flanagan wrote, “We must not permit ourselves to be smeared with the same moral filth we are criticizing in our enemies.” There was no space for prejudice in public or private conversation with Father Flanagan.
Citizens of Boys Town refused to participate in segregation or discrimination.
Boys Town’s nationally recognized sports teams and musical groups lived in parity wherever they toured in the U.S. When a Black member of the Boys Town variety show was told by a South Dakota hotel manager to eat in the kitchen while the White boys ate in the dining room, Father Flanagan summoned the White boys to eat in the kitchen too. When the management refused to serve them together in the kitchen, Father Flanagan gathered the boys and left, saying that Boys Town did not patronize establishments that refused service to “colored” people. When four Black football players were denied lodging at a hotel in Washington, D.C. in 1945, a local Boys Town supporter sent a stretch limousine to transport them to their luxury accommodations, instead of being sent in a taxi to the “colored hotel.” These are the same tactics that civil rights organizations would use in the 1950s and 1960s.
Living in parity is natural to generations of Boys Town alumni.
Harold Popp is just one of thousands of Boys Town alumni bringing their ability to live in parity to their communities and workplaces. As a high school football and basketball coach, Popp works mostly with African American athletes and has led his teams to success. Coach Popp credited Boys Town for teaching him discipline, not being prejudiced and caring about people as people. “Because of Boys Town,” he said, “I had friends that were Black...and when I went over to an all-Black area I didn’t have any problems, because they could tell if you’re prejudiced.” Popp’s leadership, and that of his fellow Boys Town alums, created more spaces in the world where young people were treated as people and not as social categories or pegs on a social hierarchy. Wherever they go, Boys Town alumni are models of acceptance and inclusion, just as Father Flanagan was to them.