The future Ernie Chambers Museum and the lost city of Saratoga

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This story was originally published in NOISE.

The North Omaha area where the Ernie Chambers History-Arts-Humanities Museum will be located near 21st and Ames was once part of a frontier town called Saratoga. Museum founder Gayla Lee Chambers, daughter of Nebraska’s longest-serving senator, has teamed up with architectural historian Melissa Dirr Gengler of Historic Resources Group (HRG) to uncover some facts about a boom town abandoned by its investors and long ago by Omahas Northward expansion was swallowed up.

Lee Chambers and Gengler have asked the city to expand a nearby “Preservation of Economic Vitality District” around the museum to facilitate development in the area. The heart of Saratoga (and the designated district) is on 24th and Ames, but the museum is a few blocks east.

Gengler, Lee Chambers and former Senator Chambers presented at the Fabric Lab on February 17 as part of Preston Love’s Town Hall community event series. The highlight of the evening came when Chambers, 84, spontaneously did 30 push-ups as the crowd cheered him on.

Things got off to a more staid start as Gengler showed slides of old maps and buildings while also providing a brief history of Saratoga’s origins. “It was a speculative land development company. A guy, Erastus Beadle, who was from Saratoga Springs, NY, speculated and bought some lots and came here to start his town. He only stayed a few years,” she explained, leaving because the city wasn’t making any money for the investors.

Beadle had laid claim to a bend in the Missouri River which he named Sulfur Springs. Carter Lake was not yet formed. (According to Northomahahistory.com, Saratoga once extended west from the river to 56th St. and at least from Locust St. to Kansas Ave.) As speculators withdrew, others continued to settle and develop Saratoga.

Gengler displayed photos of notable landmarks in the area including the first Saratoga School, the Suburban Theater and the Northstar Theater (which seats 688) which has shown both live performances and films, the Beltline Railway which loops around Omaha made, and the Omaha Driving Park, where Commercial Ave. is. Both horse and car races were held there. An early Franklin Company racing car raced in the park in front of thousands of spectators in 1911. Later the driving pool was closed and plated for development.

Gengler said the Northstar Theater building still stands today but is used for storage.

The last photos she showed were of a building called the Oliver, built in 1917 as the Imperial Window, Door and Wing Building. It was later bought by the Lozier Corporation and modernized the facade. It was auctioned off by Gayla Lee Chambers to create a museum for her father’s legacy.

Sen. Chambers next addressed the crowd. He read the text of two historical markers at Pinkney St. in Kountze Park, which he believes was thought by locals to be Malcolm X Park because Omaha’s famous son was born in a house at 3448 Pinkney St.

Saratoga School in 1885. Northomahahistory.com

A marker says that Buffalo Bill Cody performed the first of his Wild West shows at the Omaha Driving Park in 1883. He returned to perform for Blockbuster people at the 1898 Trans Mississippi Exposition. Cody staged his Wild West shows in 12 countries for millions of people for 30 years, but he started in North Omaha. The other marker is a reminder that Kountze Park is on the site of the 1898 Fairgrounds, which stretched from Ames to Binney and from 13th to 24th Streets.

Chambers deviated from the script at this point to delight the crowd with oft-told stories from his Omaha childhood and 46 years in the Legislature. The moral of repeating the story of classmates in the 1940s who laughed at him – the only black child in the room – while the teacher read “Little Black Sambo” is intended to show the moment he was learning, in a hostile environment to survive. He sat very still. He remembered sweating in the hot classroom while trying to be invisible.

“But when I became a man, in all those years between having that kid and becoming a man, I didn’t take anything away from anyone’s knowledge. I didn’t care who it was. If something was said or done to me and required a flogging, I would flog, but I would not swallow spit and look down as if I owed that white person something.”

This courage accompanied him into the legislature. He let her listen to him. He said he owned the legislature. “My enemies say I changed the way the legislature works. I told these white guys the story I told you about Little Black Sambo. And I said, ‘If your kind hadn’t done what they did to that black kid, you wouldn’t have to deal with a black man that you have here now to run your legislature.’”

He was amazed that term limits were specifically put in place to remove him from office. The fact that he was re-elected meant to him: “You have made me your God. There is a verse in Revelations where God is said to speak and say, “I am the Alpha and the Omega. The first and the last.’ why am i your alpha I went out for a semester for a limited time and then came back. And what about the last one? Due to the term limit, no one will be able to serve as long as I have. So I am the alpha and the omega of the legislature, in other words, your god and you can do nothing against me.”

After the laughter had stopped, he said, “I hope you young people understand that what has happened to you so far is not the end of the world. You will have to believe in yourself. Trust your judgement. Never give up. Never stop. Don’t get discouraged and don’t worry about what anyone says” because “Words are just words”.

Finally, Chambers told the story of how he drew a target on a sweatshirt and went to Norfolk at “high noon” because someone from there said they were going to shoot him. He went to a park, to a restaurant (although he didn’t eat) and was interviewed by a local radio station. Nobody shot him.

He ended with his signature line from Popeye, “I am what I am and that’s all I am.”

Chambers’ daughter spoke last. He introduced her by saying, “Daughters will make their fathers do things no one else can.” He said he would not allow anyone but his daughter to direct a museum in his honor.

Lee Chambers explained, “One of the things I wanted to do as a young girl was to praise my father for all his hard work. When he was outside fighting for the community, that slowed us down a bit as kids. And my mother was scared to death most of the time about the things he was doing out there. But I wanted to be the one to make sure the true stories about my father are told when the time comes. And the best people who can do that are his children.”

She continued, “I’m looking at Preston [Love, Jr.], and he doesn’t know it, I am always committed to him and the work his father did in this community. And it makes me sad because they did the Preston Love [Jazz and Arts Center] I always thought that Preston Love [Jr.] was part of it.”

“How can you not include the legacy of a great person?” she asked.

The original Love’s Jazz and Arts Center (LJAC) was founded circa 2005 by non-family admirers of Preston Love, Sr. When the city decided not to renew LJAC’s lease on the building at 2510 24th St. N., Preston Love, Sr. was asked to be part of future plans for the building and an organization that honors jazz heritage honors his father.

Then, in 2021, the 24th Street Business Improvement District barred Preston Love, Jr. from involvement in future plans and even refused to rent him office space in the building once named for his father.

Chambers spoke of his great affection for Preston Love, Sr. and his successful negotiations to divert refund taxpayer money from the construction of a downtown hotel to the creation of a jazz center in his honor, long before LJAC was formed.

Lee Chambers explained that she testified before lawmakers this week in support of LB 1205, Senator Terrell McKinney’s bill that would want the state to partner with to develop a museum honoring her father.

She said plans for the Ernie Chambers History-Arts-Humanities Museum include a library, performing arts center, ballroom, dance studio, media center, events space with outdoor patio, full kitchen and art galleries.

NOISE is an Omaha-based, black-owned news agency focused on recapturing the narrative of Omaha’s historically black communities and black Nebrascans. Drawing on current events, history and direct feedback from our neighbors, we work to provide content that is relevant to people’s daily lives and as nuanced as the people we represent.

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