Sisters Remember Omaha Civil Rights

Having Our Say is a home-told story of two sisters who have lived to be 103 and 101 years old. Two African-American women experiencing life through the Civil Rights Movement from beginning until now, Bessie and Sadie Delany have an interesting history to tell.

Similarly, Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, the two real-life sisters portraying the Delanys, have memories and a history of their own. Born in 1950 and 1954, the Metoyers grew up and experienced the changing time of Omaha's Civil Rights Movement.

The Metoyer family was a lot like the Delany family. "Our great-great grandfather knew that owning land and keeping it in the family was the key to prosperity. He was uneducated and could only sign with an X for his signature, but he had a legal document written that stated his land could only be owned or sold to a family member, and to this day it is still in our family," said Lanette.
Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore as Bessie and Sadie Delany

On the other side of the family, the Metoyers experienced the racial mixing that Bessie and Sadie talk about in the play. They recently found out their grandmother had a white father, so she was given to a black couple to be raised, a fact that she may never have known herself. "Our parents were very similar to the Delany parents: our father, Raymond, was very light-skinned and married the prettiest brown-lady, Lois, that he had ever seen," said Lanette. "Our parents raised us just like the Delany sisters to believe that you could be 'black, white, grizzly or gray... you were you!'"

"Through the height of the Civil Rights Movement, our family was very involved," said Camille. "Our father was the president of the Nebraska Urban League. He hosted Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson and others, which we had the privilege of meeting as children. I remember Malcolm X saying I reminded him of his daughter."  Her father owned a profitable business on the North Side at the time when there were many riots, but no one ever bothered it because of the respect held for his work in the community.

A jazz aficionado, Camille and Lanette's mother stayed at home with her four children. "Our mother did all the housework, which is why Lanette and I can't clean to this day!" said Camille. Strong parents, the Metoyers always made sure their children knew about equality and how things should be. "Their approach was always to educate people that might be racist as opposed to fighting them," said Camille.

Lanette remembers how much her parents emphasized their children's education. "They knew, like the Delany sisters, that education was the key to equality," said Lanette. "They made sure we had every opportunity at our disposal and any resource that was available to better our education." They even moved the entire family out to West Omaha (from the North side) to give their children a source of better education.

The only black family moving into a home on 100th St. in 1966, however, became somewhat of a dangerous choice. "There were petitions to remove us, eggs thrown on the house, nails in the driveway, threatening phone calls and mysterious drive-ups to our home in the middle of the night," said Camille. "My father had to have friends protect the home with guns before we moved into it."
Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten as Sadie and Bessie Delany

Though the two older kids were able to stay in their high schools after the move, Camille and her younger brother enrolled in West Omaha schools. Although she said that she made lasting friends during this time, Camille remembered hearing rude and upsetting remarks from the other students because of her race and a back brace she wore at the time.

"My most devastating moment came when I was denied the lead in the high school musical Guys and Dolls because my music teacher stated that no black girl was going to kiss a white boy on his stage," remembered Camille. "That man went on to become the head of OPS music... I can only imagine the damage he continued to wreak upon the children of color from his leadership position."

It was during the Civil Rights movement that Camille was arrested alongside with her parents for marching on City Hall in support for open housing. "The police carried us out, and the press took a picture of me and my dad that went out on the Associated Press across the nation," said Camille.

Camille still remembers her first encounter with racism when her family tried to eat dinner at King Fong's Cafe and was not allowed inside. "I remember my mother explaining that we would encounter people that wouldn't like us because of what we are, not who we are," said Camille. Similarly, when Omaha passed the law integrating Peony Park, Camille remembers when she went there for the first time. "All I could think was, no one wants me here." Even years later, when she took her own children to that park, Camille couldn't shake that feeling from when she was only eight.
Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore as Bessie and Sadie Delany

Unfortunately, the effects of racial inequality have still not disappeared. "Every place I have worked, I was either passed over or denied the opportunity to have a higher position," said Camille, "regardless of my education and experience." This included, at her last job, a white counterpart with the same education but less experience to receive $20,000 more a year. "If you look at Omaha today and still see the huge remaining segregated neighborhoods, the lack of Black people in city and corporate leaderships positions, we have to realize the effects of inequality remain."

Through the hardship they have faced being black women during this time period, Lanette is still thankful for her situation and her family. "We were blessed to have such wonderful parents who always let us know that we were worth something. They taught us that it is what you possess on the inside that makes you who and what you are. Sadie says in the play 'that God has never let them down,' and never a more true statement has been made."

You can see sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore playing the Delany sisters in Omaha Community Playhouse's Having Our Say, which will be running Jan.17 - Feb. 9; Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $35 for adults and $21 for students. To purchase tickets, or for more information, call (402) 553-0800, visit the Box Office or click here.

Story by Shannon Kern

2 comments:

J. S. Keys said...

I will not miss this performance. I remember your parents and the high standards taught to you.

Buddy Hogan, Sr. said...

Ray Metoyer, Sr. was the head counselor of Marquette Hall at Boys Town when I resided there beginning in 1951. Ray was a no no nonsense disciplinarian and I was on the wrong end of that more than once. He was a role model to me throughout his life, long after I left Boys Town. He hired me as a part time Counselor in Marquette Hall after my return to Omaha to enroll in Creighton University. I remember vividly the racism that he and his family endured when they integrated Maple Village in Omaha. Ray was the first perrson to donate to my City Council campaign in 1977. I am not inspired by the success of his children; he and Lois raised them well.