By: Rita Shelley
Ella Mahammitt was an Omaha journalist, civil rights advocate, and women’s rights activist. From 1891 until 1897, she edited The Enterprise, a black weekly newspaper published here.
The ancestral record of Ella’s life is incomplete. Fortunately, I could also mine the written record of her work at The Enterprise as a way of chronicling her life.
Ella arrived in Omaha in 1891 when she married Thomas P. Mahammitt, her second husband and the Enterprise’s publisher. Her first bylines appeared in 1894 but, as described by editor of Topeka’s Black-owned newspaper, The Plain Dealer, “The Enterprise, owned by Mr. T.P. Mahammitt and operated by Mrs. Mahammitt, is a credit to the colored people of this section…Mrs. Mahammitt deserves much credit for the way she conducts the paper. She knows the newspaper business from [typesetting] ‘case’ to the editorial chair.”
The future wife of Thomas Mahammitt was born the year of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), in Kansas City, Missouri, to William and Annie Davis. William was born in Kansas in 1842, Annie in Missouri in 1846. Given William’s and Anna’s dates of birth and that they were listed in the Federal Census as “mulatto,” can one say with relative certainty that they were born into slavery and had white ancestors? Ella would hardly have grown up knowing the history of slavery in her home state. But her parents would have, where only recently had the capture of a fugitive slave yielded a cash reward. The ransom amount depended on the age, sex, and physical condition of the person who was captured.
In 1880, William Davis was a policeman and 17-year-old Ella was a public school teacher living at home. She taught in Kansas City public schools from 1880 to 1883 and in 1887. In each of those years’ city directories, the letters “col’d” appear next to her name.
That Ella was a teacher begs the question of where she obtained her training. Might it have been at nearby Freedmen’s University at Quindaro, Kansas, a free-soil town across the river in Wyandotte County? The university had been established as a post-reconstruction all-black college. Quindaro was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. Alternatively, might William and Annie have had the financial wherewithal to send their only daughter to Tuskegee University in Alabama? Might Tuskegee have been where she met her future Enterprise-bylined colleague, Mrs. Booker T. Washington?
Or did Ella attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., where her first husband, J.M. Browne, had received his medical training? Ella and J.M. were married in 1884 when he was 28 and she was 21. J.M.’s father was a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and a trustee of Howard. What I wouldn’t give to see Ella’s and J.M.’s wedding photo! Or Ella in her cap and gown after graduating from teacher training!
Records of where Ella and J.M. met, where she was educated, and what subject she taught in Kansas City’s schools, seem to have been lost to history. The Kansas City Times account of the end of their marriage is not. In what must have been humiliating detail for the couple, the Times printed Ella’s allegation that her husband returned home intoxicated “at least five nights a week” and did not provide for her. They divorced in 1887. J.M. died in 1888. His funeral was at the home of Ella’s parents.
When Thomas Mahammitt brought his bride to Omaha, they were feted at the home of Millard Fillmore Singleton, an officer in the Omaha Colored Republican Club, the Omaha branch of the National Afro-American League, and one of Omaha’s leading citizens. Inside the Singleton home there was celebrating, perhaps even prayer and a toast. But outside awaited the cruel world of Jim Crow-era Omaha.
Four months after the Mahammitts’ wedding, the lynching of George Smith, a porter, was reported in the Omaha World-Herald. In disturbing prescience of the 1919 lynching of Will Brown, Smith was accused of assaulting a five-year-old white girl. Upon his arrest, authorities didn’t or couldn’t protect Smith from a mob that broke down the jail’s steel bars. He was dragged through the streets of downtown Omaha, stomped on by hundreds of onlookers, and hanged from a telegraph line though he was already dead. For hours, a long line of prurient gawkers viewed his remains where they were on view at the Heafey-Heafey funeral home. Four men were charged with first-degree murder and arrested, posting $5,000 bond each. The four were George Greevy, a Union Pacific foreman; Ed Newchaffer from Rising City, Nebraska; Walter Brandes, a saloon keeper and future developer of South Omaha’s Brandes Block; and “General” Megeath, a clerk. I found no account of their convictions on murder or lesser charges.
The racial climate of Omaha surely was a source of Ella’s determination to speak truth. She was among activists who in 1895 inaugurated the National Federation of Afro-American Women in Boston. Margaret (Mrs. Booker T.) Washington was elected president. Ella represented the federation’s western district as one of four regional vice presidents. Another visionary, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, was also founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was arguably the most famous Black woman of her time. Ella and Wells-Barnett were also friends–in 1896, Ella congratulated Ida upon the birth of her first child.
The Boston Conference, Ella wrote in 1896, was for the purpose of consolidating several organizations of African-American women “for the weal of the nation.” She averred that by speaking in a unified voice, Black women “indisputably establish the fact that Negro Intellect is identical with the intellect of any other people.” Efforts to demand fair wages for skilled domestic workers also gained her support.
The Enterprise’s 1896 Easter edition was billed as written, edited, and produced entirely by women as a fundraiser for the Federation of Negro Women’s clubs. Among its bylined writers were members of Ella’s Federation network, including Margaret Washington, who called for educated Black women of the South to not turn their backs on other women of their race.
Of the power of Mrs. Washington’s voice, Ella wrote, “the experiments of our Southern sisters must come as an inspiration. When we read from their own pens the trials which they are passing and the fierce wars they are waging almost single-handed, against poverty, ignorance and vice our hears cannot help warming to the work of race-building, and closing our eyes to the old scars and gaping wounds, we plunge in once more. To the weak-hearted, Mrs. Washington’s letter will give renewed vigor.”
Another byline was that of Victoria Earle Matthews, also a nationally prominent journalist, author, and lecturer. Matthews had been born into slavery and is believed to have been “owned” by her white biological father. She wrote that “organization of Afro-American women’s clubs will someday be written of as one of her monuments. Considering the forces [that] labored for over two centuries to bestialize her, there is something bordering the miraculous in her present moral status.”
Alongside national voices, Ella highlighted the local organization she had established, the Omaha Women’s Club, of which she was president. Other officers were Ophelia Clenlans, Laura Craig, Nettie Johnson, and Clara B. Franklin.
Mrs. Clenlans was a freed Platte County, Missouri, slave who was married to Emmanuel Clenlans, an Omaha postal clerk who also was active politically. Ophelia’s legacy lasted well into the 20th century with the establishment of a North Omaha women’s club named in her honor. In 1922, the club’s members wrote a letter urging Senator Gilbert M. Hitchcock to support an anti-lynching bill.
Laura Craig, Ophelia’s daughter, represented Nebraska at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition. Clara Franklin was listed as a printer in the 1890 census. Other traces of Clara’s life, and that of Nettie Johnson, are sparse.
Elia Peattie, a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, wrote a review of Ella’s 1896 Easter edition. She described it as “simple and unaffected,” surprising to her because “many of its contributors are novices in the matter of writing for the press.” She wrote that the writing was well above average, also remarkable to her because the authors were “of a race that a little over a quarter century ago was in shackles.”
Tangentially, Peattie addressed a controversy among Omaha Woman’s Clubwomen as to whether Black women were entitled to membership. Peattie’s account also provides insight into the accommodation of white women that was still expected, even for a woman of Ella’s accomplishments: The question was proposed to the board, apropos of Mrs. Mahammitt, a young and beautiful colored woman of good education, and honest intellectual ambitions. Mrs. Mahammitt showed singular good sense. Rather than engulf the club in difficulty of any sort, she started a club among her own race, and has led that society of women along pleasant fields of study. Not long ago, as president of the Omaha Colored Woman’s club she was invited to address the 500 members of the Woman’s club. This she did with singular modesty, propriety of language, and good sense, and met with the warmest applause. So far, and no further have the women got on the color question in this city.
Ella’s journalism career halted by 1902 when Thomas Mahammitt accused her of adultery and filed for divorce. The divorce was granted in 1902.
Ella’s final column in the Enterprise, in which she praised the work of Omaha’s Visiting Nurses Association as a far-reaching charity, was printed in 1897. She returned to Kansas City, where she reclaimed her first married name, Ella Browne, and worked there as a domestic servant (col’d).
The 1910 Federal Census calls into question the accuracy of the enumerator’s work. A 17-year-old “brother,” born in 1893 while Ella and Thomas were married, was named Henry Mahammitt Brooks and lived with Ella. Brooks was the surname of the man who was named in Thomas Mahammitt’s accusation of adultery.
1920 found Ella working as a nurse in Orange County, CA. She was the western division representative for the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and a member of its executive board and committee secretary for a mayor’s Colored Citizens’ Campaign. She died in Los Angeles in 1932.
Writing Ella’s story set off my own reflections on the invisibility of race in my two “home” states, Kansas and Nebraska.
I was not taught that lynching was not uncommon in the Sunflower State, including events at Alma, Kansas, reported in the July 21, 1899 Alma Enterprise: “Kansas has got into the game at last. There was a lynching bee up at Alma Sunday afternoon, but they were only amateurs at the business and allowed the marshal to cut the body down before the negro was dead.” I also was not taught about the heroic roles Kansans played in the run-up to the Civil War and abolition, including the establishment of the Freedmen’s University that Ella Mahammitt may have attended.
The legacy of slavery was not lost on me when I worked at one of Omaha’s Fortune 500 companies. Amongst more than 5,000 employees, I had only two African American colleagues during the decade I worked there, both men. Lacking the protection of student deferment because he couldn’t afford college, one had served in Viet Nam. The other had fallen short of his dream of a broadcasting career; he had been told that Omaha already had a Black news anchor.
In a story about the accomplishments, barriers, and near invisibility for entire decades of the life of a politically astute Black woman, why am I devoting two entire paragraphs to my own story? Perhaps this is because I long for the day when my home and adopted states bear witness to the truths we were not taught in school.
 “Two Divorce Suits.” Omaha World-Herald. 10 August 1901, p. 12.
 “Woman’s Column.” The Enterprise. 13 February 1897, p. 1.
 “Clubdom.” California Eagle. 30 December 1922, p. 11.
 “Farmer for Mayor.” California Eagle. 17 Febuary 1923, p. 16.
 “What They Say.” Alma Enterprise. 21 July 1899, p. 1.
 “A Word With the Women.” Omaha World-Herald. 7 April 1896, p. 8.
 “The Clenlans Women’s Club Writes Hitchcock.” The Monitor. 24 February 1922, p. 1.
 “Omaha’s Colored People.” Topeka Plain Dealer. 18 July 1901, p. 1.
 Missouri State Archives. Missouri’s Early Slave Laws: A History in Documents. sos.mo.gov/archives/education/aahi/earlyslavelaws/slavelaws Accessed 2 Febuary 2023.
 O’Bryan, Tony. “Quindaro, Kansas” Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Libray. Accessed Monday, January 9, 2023 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/quindaro-Kansas
 “Why They Must Part.” Kansas City Times. 19 July 1887, p. 8.
 “Frightened to Death.” Omaha World-Herald. 20 October 1891, p. 8.
 “Left Ruin All Around.” Daily Nebraska State Journal. 11 October 1891, p. 2.
 “All Are Free Again.” Daily Nebraska State Journal. 22 November 1891, p. 5.
 “Woman’s Column.” The Enterprise. 24 August 1895, p. 3.
 “The First National Conference of Colored Women.” The Enterprise. 7 April 1896, p. 7.
 “Brief History of The Woman’s Meeting Organized and Conducted in the Town of Tuskegee, Alabama”. The Enterprise. 4 April 1896, p. 1.
 “Colored Woman’s National League.” The Enterprise. 7 April 1896, p. 7