|North Platte’s Wikipedia page displays dark history, 3:21, KNOP-TV, October 4, 2021|
Mayor Brandon Kelliher of North Platte, Nebraska thinks that the town of about 24,000 residents needs to improve the town's image on the internet. He even campaigned on the issue in the election. He may be right. Looking at the Wikipedia article for the town, he saw a 1929 lynching as the main event highlighted in the town's history along with the expulsion of Black residents which immediately followed. Local museum curator, Jim Griffin, confirms the accuracy of the history on Wikipedia but wants to balance information on the lynching. The news anchor concludes that city officials are "working to find a solution that adds a more positive spin to North Platte's history on the page".
Wikipedia editors should be quick to let the North Platters know that we just report the facts, as gathered from reliable sources weighing the coverage according to the weights given in those sources.
Wikipedians should write more, not less, about lynchings. Several thousand people were lynched in the U.S. There are over 800 counties where well documented lynchings occurred, most have articles which omit any information about the lynchings. Compare the extensive well-written history of Leonardtown, Maryland with this recent article in The Washington Post. Many people could benefit from access to information on lynching. Black people would like to know their history better, and to know that the world has not forgotten their struggle. White people who still wonder "What's the big deal about Black lives matter?" or "Why ruin a football game by kneeling during the National Anthem?" could also benefit. Knowing the truth can set us all free.
It turns out that North Platte already had some balancing information on Wikipedia. The article North Platte black exodus was balanced by North Platte Canteen, which is about providing a rest stop for soldiers and sailors during and shortly after World War II, 1941–1946. Neither article was well integrated into the article on the town. Both are showing their age and need to be updated.
|Platte Canteen, 7:00, Jay Lorenzen, August 26, 2007.|
|Bob Greene on History Bookshelf Once Upon a Town, 3:55-49:47, C-SPAN, June 24, 2002|
We may still have some balancing left to do. Twelve years after the lynching a remarkable event occurred – spread out over five years, running from early morning to late at night – which completely changed my view of the town. The women of North Platte and the surrounding small towns voluntarily served over 6 million U.S. military personnel during 10–15 minute train maintenance stops. Most of the soldiers and sailors were coming from boot camp and being deployed in combat. Perhaps they hadn't seen a friendly civilian face since entering boot camp.
The Nebraska women were not paid for their work or for the food supplies. They had to contend with wartime rationing of food and gasoline. They served up to 30 trains each day and gave away 30 birthday cakes each day. The canteen was well documented in local newspapers, wartime films and postcards, as well as a 2002 book Once upon a Town by Chicago journalist Bob Greene. The 288 pages show that Greene considered the North Platte Canteen to be America at its absolute best.
There's one postcard photo taken of the canteen that I'd like to show you but can't include here for copyright reasons: PFC Clifton Hall receives a birthday cake from Mrs. Lyda Swenson. Private Hall, a Black man, looks a bit surprised but otherwise shows little emotion. Mrs. Swenson's expression is odd, but inscrutable. The mystery is solved when you look at the expressions of the seven women who surround them. Their smiles are all beaming.
There's no way that I can reconcile these two events – the lynching and the canteen – happening in the same small town 12 years apart. Truth, or at least the history told in reliable sources, may be stranger than fiction, or the stories told in fringe sources. But if we can document those two seemingly irreconcilable events, we can include them both.