The little-known history of a Catholic club that got Coca-Cola to change its racist hiring practices
In April of 1951, a small contingent from the Omaha DePorres Club paid a visit to the offices of the local Coca-Cola Bottling Company to address the company’s refusal to hire Black employees. With the sound of Coke bottles rattling noisily along an assembly line in the background, members of the multi-racial civil rights group opened the meeting by emphasizing the immorality of racial discrimination, in order to convince Coke’s management to change their policy.
Coca-Cola’s plant manager responded by explaining that the company had given some thought to hiring Blacks, but they first needed to check with the company’s white employees to ensure none of them would object.
The club’s visit to the bottling plant came on the heels of their first effort to convince a business to change their hiring practices. The year before, in the summer of 1950, the multi-racial, Catholic club challenged a local laundry to hire Blacks for more than just menial jobs. That effort at the laundry also began with a visit to discuss the immorality of racial discrimination. When laundry owners rebuffed the club’s overtures—explaining that their hiring policies had never been a problem before—the DePorres Club undertook a relentless eight-month-long boycott that ended with the laundry hiring Black clerks to work in their front office.
The company had considered hiring Blacks, but first needed to check with their white employees.
The first of its kind in Omaha, the boycott stirred up controversy; and the range of reactions was reflected in the the city's newspapers. Omaha's mainstream white newspaper refused to print anything about the DePorres Club's confrontational effort. The city's Black newspapers carried the story in detail and the club's later efforts fighting discrimination would be front-page stories in Black newspapers in Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Chicago.
Several nearby laundries, aware of the financial impact of the boycott, reacted by hiring their own Black clerks and drivers. The Omaha office of the F.B.I. also took notice, opening a file on the club and interviewing its leaders.
We have seen in the news the past two years a wealth of discussions of the historical struggle against racism in the United States. What is not always included in those accounts are the unlikely adventures of bold Catholics fighting against entrenched, institutional racism in unlikely places, like Omaha, Nebraska.
One of these Catholics was the club’s founder, 57-year-old John Markoe, S.J., a Creighton math professor and civil rights pioneer who had challenged racism for nearly three decades while working in Black communities in St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee and Omaha. Father Markoe founded the Omaha DePorres Club on the campus of Creighton University in November of 1947. Named after then-Blessed Martin de Porres, the club’s purpose was “to educate people to think along the lines of charity and justice as regards inter-racial matters.”
Tall and imposing, Father Markoe carried himself with the bearing of the West Point graduate and former cavalry officer that he was. In a 2005 interview, the DePorres Club member Agnes Stark remembered Markoe as someone who “just exuded this warmth and this kindness.”
John Markoe, S.J., had challenged racism for nearly three decades.
Working with Denny Holland, a Creighton student and club president (and who also became my father), Father Markoe gathered a predominantly Catholic group that included college students, housewives and parishioners from St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, the designated parish for Omaha’s Black Catholics.
Tessie Edwards, then a 23-year-old Creighton student and the club’s corresponding secretary, was one of the members who visited the Coca-Cola plant. In an interview 60 years later, Ms. Edwards recalled how, as a Black Omahan, she had identified with the goals of the DePorres Club. “I was very much aware of segregation and the need for integration in Omaha,” she said. “I really wanted to become active and I liked the mission, the idea, of the DePorres Club.”
Omaha was a deeply segregated city, having earned the nickname “the Birmingham of the North” from the city’s Black residents and those who traveled to the city. Father Markoe would later describe the city’s systemic racism as a “damnable, unwritten, illegal, immoral, rotten, but efficiently enforced by cowardly and sneaky means, policy of enforced segregation.”
Omaha was a deeply segregated city, “the Birmingham of the North” according to the city’s Black residents.
Early meetings of the Omaha DePorres Club featured Father Markoe guiding members through discussions of what was then a controversial premise: Racism is immoral, a sin that violated both justice and charity. Father Markoe had written and spoken about the immorality of racism for years, but his views were not widely accepted at the time. Club members recalled being challenged by Catholic clergy when they asserted that racial discrimination was immoral.
It was not until 1958 that the Catholic Bishops of the United States, in their letter “Racial Discrimination and the Christian Conscience,” acknowledged that it was time to “cut through the maze of secondary or less essential issues and to come to the heart of the problem. The heart of the race question is moral and religious.” Until the wider church accepted Father Markoe’s views, he had to repeatedly assure DePorres members that, when it came to fighting discrimination, they were in the right.
Ms. Edwards, then a recent convert to Catholicism, recalled how she valued the leadership Father Markoe provided: “The very fact that a Jesuit was over it was sufficient for me.”
In 1948 the DePorres Club moved off the Creighton campus and rented a vacant storefront located a mile north of Creighton in the Omaha neighborhood known as the Near North Side, where the city’s 16,000 Black residents lived. White Omahans simply referred to the area as the ghetto. Sam Barton was the director of the club’s new home, the Omaha DePorres Center, where they organized speakers and youth clubs, dances and clothing drives to serve the neighborhood.
“Father would say, ‘Are they discriminating? Is it wrong? Then go tell them.’"
Two years later the club closed the center. In a 1994 interview, my father recalled the realization that he and other members had come to. “We closed the center because we discovered the problem wasn’t uplifting the Black community. The problem was getting the white community to get their feet off of the Black necks.”
After closing the Omaha DePorres Center, the club began meeting at the offices of The Omaha Star, one of the city’s Black-owned newspapers.
The club began to shift its focus to employment and efforts challenging the racial discrimination practiced by many of Omaha’s businesses. The confrontational and controversial nature of those groundbreaking efforts tested the fortitude of club members. Virginia Walsh, then a 20-year-old Creighton student and club member, called it “enthralling and terrifying.” DePorres Club members were pioneers—their first boycott took place while Martin Luther King, Jr. was a 21-year-old divinity student.
Father Markoe’s emphasis on the immorality of racism—“it is a matter of what is right and wrong”—remained at the core of the club’s new efforts. As Wilbur Phillips, one of the club’s Black members, recalled, “Father would say, ‘Are they discriminating? Is it wrong? Then go tell them.’ We had to go or admit we didn’t have the guts.”
"We discovered the problem wasn’t uplifting the Black community. The problem was getting the white community to get their feet off of the Black necks.”
Three weeks after the club’s initial visit to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, DePorres Club meeting minutes reported that Coke was still a “lily-white” company. The Omaha DePorres Club decided it had waited long enough. Calling for the company to hire Black employees and publicly state their employment policy was open to “able and qualified persons regardless of skin color,” the club announced it would “take the final step of getting people to stop buying Coca-Cola.”
Over the next month members handed out thousands of flyers with the message: “Refuse to Support Discrimination. Don’t Buy Coke.” They picketed in front of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company carrying signs that read “Omaha Coke Unfair to Negroes. Don’t Buy Coke.” Picketers included Sam Barton and his twin brother George, and Lawrence McVoy, who would go on to become president of the Omaha chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.
Members also gathered signatures from 47 businesses pledging that they would not carry Coke until the company “opens employment, at all levels, to Negroes.” After a month of negative publicity and loss of sales, the bottling company announced it had hired two Black men to work in the plant. The Omaha DePorres Club was unconvinced: “The DePorres Club will make no decisions regarding this until the people are actually working there.”
Coca-Cola asserted that it had hired “two fine Negro men” while registering their dismay with the Omaha DePorres Club’s “impulsive, threatening and peculiar actions.”
After Coke’s hiring announcement, Creighton president, Carl Reinert, S.J.—at the suggestion of Father Markoe—wrote Coca-Cola’s management regarding whether Creighton should continue selling Coke on campus. Coke’s plant manager Mac Gothard responded to Father Reinert, asserting the company had hired “two fine Negro men” while registering his dismay with the Omaha DePorres Club’s “impulsive, threatening and peculiar actions.”
Shortly after Father Reinert’s letter, the Omaha DePorres Club announced that its boycott against the company would remain in place—Coca-Cola had not publicly announced a change in its hiring policy. Five days later a meeting took place at the offices of the Omaha Urban League. The Coke plant manager revealed that the company’s new hiring policy would be open at all levels, regardless of race, creed or color. Along with keeping the two men they had already employed, the company would also look to hire a Black delivery driver.
The Omaha DePorres Club announced that the Coke boycott was over. As had happened with the earlier laundry boycott, there was a ripple effect that impacted other businesses. Within weeks the local 7-Up Bottling Company hired four Black employees and a nearby dairy company hired two new Black employees.
The Omaha DePorres Club would continue its efforts for several more years, successfully challenging the discriminatory hiring policies of several other Omaha businesses, including a years-long campaign against the company that held the city’s streetcar and bus franchise.
A decade and a half after the Coke boycott, Mac Gothard reflected on his encounters with the Omaha DePorres Club as Coke plant manager. “If there is anything I can say about the Omaha DePorres Club, it is that they were ahead of their time,” he said. “The methods and pressures they used were not thought of in those days. If confronted by such a group today, my hair would not bristle upon my back as it did 15 years ago.”
Today, even as the U.S. Catholic Bishops write letters condemning the moral evils of racism, we still struggle with how to confront and root out the systemic racial discrimination that persists in our national daily life. Even within the church, Black Catholics can continue to feel unwanted, marginalized. The DePorres club used bold, direct action tactics to make its case and win changes. They took their moral claims and simply put them into action. The persistence, courage and faith of its members, and the straightforward, pragmatic tactics they used to effect change, can provide both inspiration and a blueprint needed for the church to do the hard labor of rooting out racism today.