In 1917, Servant of God Father Edward Flanagan founded his Home for Boys in Omaha, Nebraska, on the principles of racial and religious tolerance and acceptance. Many people did not appreciate or support this revolutionary concept, and Father Flanagan eventually left the city to create his own community – the Village of Boys Town – away from disapproving critics.
Many organizations that fought for racial equality supported the Home, including the NAACP. Over the decades, Boys Town sought out African Americans who could actively participate in its mission and serve as role models for its young residents.
Jesse Owens was one of those people. Owens gained worldwide fame by winning several gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and overshadowing Adolf Hitler’s efforts to portray the Aryan race as superior. Following those successes, Owens became an advocate for civil rights, promoting programs to assist youth in need. From 1974 to 1977, Owens served as member of the Boys Town Board of Directors. During his tenure, he helped guide the Home into its current Family Home Program and often met with the students to discuss his life and how he overcame the challenges he faced.
Another African American who became active with Boys Town was the late Dr. Mildred Jefferson. The first African American female to graduate from Harvard Medical School, Dr. Jefferson received 28 honorary degrees during her career, and was active in many youth- related projects, including founding the National Right to Life organization. In 1978, Dr. Jefferson was the first African American recipient of the Father Flanagan Award for Service to Youth. Over the years, she made frequent visits to the Home, encouraging students to continue their education after high school.
Many former African American Boys Town residents also achieved great success. In 1961, the year he graduated, Cornelius Arnold was elected as Boys Town’s mayor. An outstanding athlete, Arnold excelled in academics and earned the Mabel O’Donnell Award for Outstanding Service to the Home. Following graduation, he would go on to college and a long-time career as a physician.
Vernon Baker was a Boys Town resident in the 1930s, when the Home was suffering through the Great Depression. Baker followed many World War II-era Boys Town alumni into the military. He won the Distinguished Service Cross while fighting in Italy with the C 370th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division. In 1997, President Bill Clinton presented Baker with the Congressional Medal of Honor, which had been denied to him during the war because of his race.
As Boys Town approaches its 100-year anniversary, it celebrates its rich history of diversity and the achievements and contributions of its African American supporters and alumni.