Like many American cities during the 1960s, Omaha experienced a series of racial disturbances that led to protest and occasional violence against property. These periodic racial eruptions were rooted in the historical inequalities black people faced in Omaha, and a new spirit of rebellion that reflected both the progress and failures of the civil rights movement. What makes Omaha notable is that there were at least four significant race riots during the mid- and late-sixties, perhaps more than any other American city. The riots were centered around North 24th Streets from Clark to Lake Street. The 1969 riot in response to the police killing of Vivian Strong at the Logan Fontenelle Housing Project exposed living conditions.
In 1991, African American litigants won a series of court cases that led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to replace this project with better housing for residents. The Logan Fontenelle project was built as a public works project in the Great Depression and had grown to house thousands in a relatively small part of the city around Paul Street stretching from 20th Street to 24th Street.
There have always been racial
tensions in Omaha, Nebraska ever since the Great Migration, when African
Americans moved out of the south and into the northern cities. Having always
wanted full equality and freedom without any discrimination, Black people have
fought in many ways since slavery. The 1960s is the decade in which the Black
Power movement emerged from the popularly named Civil Rights Movement. One of
the ways they have been and still are fighting back is in the form of peaceful
protests, rebellions, and what many like to call riots. Omaha is one of the
most hyper-segregated cities in the country with neighborhoods cut specifically
for the different racial and ethnic groups. North Omaha is the neighborhood
where the majority of Black minorities reside. In Omaha’s Near North
neighborhood, specifically along North 24th Street, four riots took
place during the 1960s in response to police brutality.
On 4 July, 1966, along North 24th and Lake Streets, residents from the neighborhood were outside celebrating the holiday
in the blazing heat. Come evening, a couple of police cruisers pulled up with
officers yielding batons, threatening the Black community with incarceration
and violence. The crowd, in response to the officers’ threats, vandalized the
police cruisers. With rages running rampant, Molotov cocktails were thrown into
vacant buildings and storefronts were left broken and destroyed. This riot
lasted a total of three days until the local civil rights organizations
finalized negotiations with the mayor to provide more funding for their community
The second riot of the sixties
ensued on 1 August, 1966 along North 24th and Ohio Streets. After
partaking in a burglary on 25 June, Eugene Nesbitt was shot and killed by an
off-duty white police officer. The day after his burial (31 June), the Near
North Omaha neighborhood ran rampant setting firebombs off in buildings
throughout the vicinity. Mayor Al Sorensen, along with many news sources,
claimed that the Black Panthers were responsible for instigating the riot. When
in reality, the Black Panthers did what they could to protect the neighborhood,
standing guard at the Omaha Star and
many of the local historic churches in an effort to halt any vandalism.
On 4 March, 1968, many high
school and collegiate students from Omaha’s Black community were out protesting
the presidential campaign of George Wallace- a southern white segregationist
from Alabama. Shortly after the protest commenced, counter-protesters began
rebutting using violence. When police officers intervened, the violence only
increased, allowing for dozens to be injured on both sides. Many made an effort
to flee the scene, including one young Black person who was shot and killed. In
response to the whole incident, many rioters continued on in the surrounding
neighborhoods causing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to cars and
businesses. Local barber and known leader Ernie Chambers stepped in to rally
the youth and calm them before the riot ensued any further.
What is said to be the most notable
riot of the sixties began on 24 June, 1969. Vivian Strong had been with friends
in an unoccupied building in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects. When police
officers James Loder (white) and Jimmy Smith (Black) responded to the call of a
break-in, many of the youth fled. Without announcing his presence to any of the
youth fleeing out the back, Officer Loder shot Vivian at the base of her skull,
killing her instantly.
By midnight on the evening of
Loder’s acquittal, a riot ensued along North 24th Street starting
with the vandalism of two Jewish-owned businesses. By the following evening, an
entire ten-block radius was engulfed in flames while more than two dozen
bystanders were hospitalized due to crowd attacks. The riot lasted a total of
three days resulting in 21 arrests, 88 hospitalized and close to a million
dollars’ worth of damage in a 55 by 24 block radius. In response to what had
occurred, the city bulldozed the remnants of the riot and left them empty.
Part of the Near North Omaha
neighborhood remains in shambles today as parts of the neighborhood were never
rebuilt. The white community blamed many civil rights organizations for the ‘riots,’
and did not want to finance the replacement of buildings that the Black
community so easily and ‘carelessly’ burned to the ground in the sixties. Although many in the Black community took part in these 'riots,' there were also often peaceful protests as well. While some people hoped to remain nonviolent as some civil rights groups had done, the violence drew more media attention to what had happened.