In her early 40s and working in Washington, D.C., Shawn Cooper Hurt returned to her native Omaha and heard a familiar beat — the rhythm of the drums with her old drill team, the Salem Stepping Saints.
The current edition of the Saints, with their trademark high-energy precision dance, took part Saturday in a parade down North 30th Street as part of the 19th biennial homecoming known as Native Omaha Days.
Hurt recalled performing many times in the Omaha area in her teen years, as well as traveling to Walt Disney World and various cities. But Native Omaha Days always was memorable, too.
“We had costumes with sequins,” Hurt recalled, “and people always commented how beautiful they were. It was especially nice to see all the older people come out. They would just love the parade.”
A 1988 graduate of Omaha Central High, she is now the government-relations office manager for ConAgra in the nation's capital. She enjoys returning for Native Omaha Days — seeing family, friends and the co-founder of the Stepping Saints, Phyllis Hicks.
“I call her 'Mama Phyllis' to this day,” Hurt said. “She was the foundation and the glue. She's still holding the drill team together.”
The Stepping Saints, a ministry outreach of Salem Baptist Church, was formed 46 years ago — though the group's distinctive name was adopted later.
Hicks, now 70, said illness this year has kept her from as active a role as she has played in the past, when she would suggest choreography, among other things. In the parade of years, time surely marches on.
She worked for 35 years at the Omaha Opportunities Industrialization Center, and now serves as marketing and advertising manager for the Omaha Star, Nebraska's only black-owned newspaper.
“Welcome home, Native Omahans,” its front-page headline shouted.
Native Omaha Days is a time of celebration, reunion and reminiscence, of seeing old friends and reconnecting. The event originated in 1977 as a citywide celebration, but it has since been embraced by the black community.
The sponsoring Native Omahans Club provides scholarships and promotes “cultural, social and recreational activities for the inner city and north Omaha community.”
Saturday's parade is the flashiest and most public event, but the calendar of activities started last weekend. A dance was held last night at the Hilton Omaha across from the CenturyLink Center, and a Native Omaha Club cookout is set for 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. today at Elmwood Park.
Friday afternoon and evening included a Stroll Down Memory Lane, the “lane” being busy North 24th Street.
Among those who returned were sisters from Southern California — Adrienne Norman, an artist for the Walt Disney Co., and Stephanie Higgins, a photographer and insurance saleswoman.
“I've never seen this part of North 24th Street look this nice,” Norman said Friday afternoon just south of Lake Street.
The sisters said they appreciate all the activities that are planned by organizers.
“I come back because I want to go to dances and see my friends,” Norman said. “A lot of us have become friends on Facebook.”
The sisters were met by their brother, Dereck Higgins, an artist-in-residence at the Carver Bank art space, 2416 Lake St.
“I've lived in Denver and Albuquerque and have traveled with my music, but I feel blessed to live here in north Omaha,” he said. “It's true what they say about the Midwest — there are a lot of genuinely good people here.”
Higgins, retired after 30 years as a mental health specialist for Community Alliance, lamented that so many have left Omaha.
“Many people stay,” he said, “but many of the most dynamic people leave, especially from this community.”
Phyllis Hicks, too, is pleased that so many former residents return to Omaha for the homecoming, but regrets that so many departed for careers elsewhere.
The failure to retain an upwardly mobile black middle class, studies have shown, has contributed to Omaha having one of the poorest black communities in America.
“North Omaha needs to catch up to everywhere else in the city,” Hicks said. “I see money poured into midtown. I see money poured into South Omaha. We have a lack of grocery stores, a lack of drugstores. People in our neighborhood have to go out (of the area) to get what they need.”
City Councilman Ben Gray accompanied a Friday tour of North 24th Street, conducted by the historic preservation group Restoration Exchange. Nearly all of the 20 or so people on the tour were white.
That was fine with Gray, who represents predominantly black north Omaha.
“In terms of redeveloping north Omaha,” he said, “we cannot be caught up with issues of race. This area will not survive by people of color alone. It's going to take all of our community working together to turn this around.”
Vince Furlong of the preservation group explained that the area was settled in the 1890s by immigrant Jews, some of whom operated stores and other businesses. A need for labor by Omaha meatpackers led to a post-World War I migration of blacks from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
North 24th Street became a strong entertainment district, including the old Dreamland Ballroom, which attracted Count Basie and other jazz greats. Riots in the tumultuous late 1960s destroyed some buildings and left scars.
Today the area includes offices for nonprofit groups, but what is needed are more businesses that make a profit. The walking tour stopped at popular Big Mama's restaurant and at Don and Yvone McPherson's seven-year-old clothing store, Evolution of Style — which Yvone said has plans for expansion to the second floor.
Phyllis Hicks, who started what became the Salem Stepping Saints as a young woman and has taken generations of young people on trips far and wide, realizes that career opportunities also have taken some native Omahans far and wide.
She stayed, seeing the Stepping Saints not as a steppingstone but as a disciplined, well-practiced team that not only entertains but also strengthens her church and community.
On Saturday, the latest group of young Saints stepped out and performed for native Omahans and others at a lively homecoming parade.