OMAHA — Burned into James Freeman’s memory is the sight, 58 years ago, of an ongoing string of for-sale signs posted in front of homes along a boulevard on the north side of Nebraska’s biggest city.

The Georgia native had just arrived in Omaha, recruited from college to be part of the first National Teachers Corps class. Freeman, who had marched alongside civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, asked the driver about all the yard signs.

He was told that Black families had purchased houses in the area and white people were moving out.

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ Because I had been part of the civil rights movement out in the Black Belt counties of Alabama — and thought I was leaving that part. And here I am coming to Omaha and seeing the same thing.”

Now 81, Freeman recounted those first impressions during the filming of a documentary called “Divisible” — which uses Omaha to tell the history and ongoing impact locally and nationally of redlining.

“It’s hard for me,” Freeman continued, still emotional after all those decades. “To see what was, what happened and what we fought for — Did it matter?”

The retired educator is among numerous Nebraskans featured in the documentary, which was selected to be part of the weeklong Omaha Film Festival that runs through March 3. Divisible was shown Friday evening.

Among other locals who appear: Leo Louis II, board president of Malcolm X Memorial Foundation; Jasmine Harris, RISE program manager; Lasha Goodwin, Seventy Five North operations director; Dawaune Lamont Hayes, artist; Allen Stevenson, North Omaha dad and resident, and entrepreneur Jade Rogers.

Their stories and circumstances, said filmmaker Lizzy Barrett, helped illustrate how redlining and discriminatory policies of the past have shaped modern inequalities in areas such as housing, health, education, economics, highways and criminal justice.

Barrett, founder of Equity Media, based in Washington, D.C., said her inspiration for “Divisible” came after spending time in Omaha for a different social justice-related project.

She had only a surface understanding of redlining at the time, but she said she saw a broader story and decided to dig deep with help from a team of experts including Omaha Black studies professor Nikitah Okembe-Ra Imani, community organizer Schmeeka Simpson and lawyer and educator Terri Crawford.

Starting in the summer of 2020, she said, the team spoke to an estimated 100 or so people who influenced the storyline.

“It really just opened my eyes,” Barrett said. She saw Omaha as a “poignant example” and case study to capture a national issue.

Up until now, the documentary has been viewed by some private audiences, including in North Omaha. Friday’s showing at Aksarben Cinema was its first at a festival, Barrett said, which makes the event its “world premiere.”

She hopes it will be valuable in the future as an educational tool.

About 75 minutes long, the documentary begins with historical context. Sprinkled throughout is data, including numbers showing a gap nationally in the homeownership rates of Blacks vs. whites in 2022.

The gulf widens in Nebraska, the filmmaker said, with 70% of whites in the state owning their homes compared to 28% of Blacks.

Such disparities stand in the way of wealth accumulation and can be linked to past government policies and practices, the experts said.

“There are actual documents, paper trail, how neighborhoods were redlined and then what occurred as a result of that,” said Harry Lawson Jr., director of human and civil rights at the National Education Association.

“That’s the nature of segregation and discrimination,” said Gary Fischer, former lawyer for Family Housing and Advisory Services of Nebraska and Iowa. “Once you’ve set it up and the system is operating, it’s self-perpetuating.”

Kimberly Johnson, a New York City professor of social and cultural analysis, said that many mistakenly believe that fair housing and civil rights laws created an equal playing field.

“What happens with the sort of historical memory of the Civil Rights Movement and enactment of legislation like the Fair Housing Act of 1968 is I think a lot of people assume that racism or inequality simply disappeared at the stroke of a pen,” she said.

Segregation continues in part, Lawson said, because of refusal to “really provide direct remedy” to existing practices and behaviors that linger from redlining.

Various Omahans offered their personal experiences to help make the case.

“I don’t talk about redlining in the abstract,” said Preston Love Jr., shown in the documentary guiding a bus tour through neighborhoods where he grew up. “We were, like cattle, shifted to North Omaha.”

There were good times, he said.

“Part of what came out of it was something you cannot hold back with racism and redlining, which is the evolution of the human spirit … We became unified in our plight.”

The documentary shows the rioting of 1969 in North Omaha, sparked by a young Black girl being killed by a white police officer. Burning and looting destroyed businesses in the area’s key commercial district.

Job availability, property valuations and other conditions further declined, and many “flew the coop” to areas farther west, Love said, including himself.

Others stayed, and northeast Omaha area remained a majority Black community.

Freeman, in an interview with the Nebraska Examiner, said that while he didn’t plan to stay long in Omaha, the Teachers Corps offered him a master’s degree at what was then Omaha University.

He advanced quickly and became a popular principal in North Omaha. He married and settled, finding camaraderie among native Omahans and a core of other Black teachers recruited from the South.

Today he lives in northwest Omaha. He recalled how the home he and his wife built in that area some 35 years ago had been ransacked. Vandals left graffiti unwelcoming to the new Black residents.

Freeman reflects back on a career that makes him smile. Yet he said he is saddened to think about how practices such as redlining set back certain students and communities.

“We’ve come a long way, but we could have been so much further.”

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