Remembering Vivian Strong

June 19, 2009, 7 a.m. ·

Forty years ago, a 14-year-old black girl was shot and killed by a white police officer in Omaha. Her death caused Omaha's Northeast neighborhood to erupt into violent riots. Now, for the first time in 40 years, her sister agreed to an interview.

In the hot summer of 1969 when Vivian Strong was killed, it was the height of the civil rights movement and racial tension hung thick over the city. But for Vivian Strong and her sister Carol, now Carol Larry, the years leading up to her death in the Near North Side neighborhood were carefree and fun.

“There were kids, neighborhood kids that you played with every day,” Larry recalled during a recent visit to her hometown. “It was a time in my life that I enjoyed, I loved, and I used to think ‘Boy, I never want to grow up, I always want to stay a kid.’”

But that innocence ended on June 24, 1969 when Larry was 13. A neighborhood kid told her about a party in a vacant apartment in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects where they lived. She knew they could get into trouble and steered clear, but her 14-year-old sister went anyway. “I know some of the kids had gone into the empty apartment, and they were playing music,” Larry said. “They were just dancing.”

Police showed up saying they’d been called on suspicion of a robbery, so Larry went to check on her sister. She stuck her head in the door and told the party the police were there. Immediately, everybody took off running to the back door. “But actually, all she had to do was step out the door with me,” Larry said. “Because all I did was I just stepped back out the door.”

Soon after, Larry heard what sounded like fire crackers, and then a crowd of people gathered around something on the ground. Small as she was, she made her way through the crowd and looked down. It took her a moment, she said, before she recognized her sister’s skirt and blouse. Vivian had been shot in the back of the head by one of the police officers.

“He didn’t have to shoot,” Larry said. “There were tons of kids out there. How do you decide to shoot when you’ve got kids running outside? She hadn’t stolen anything. She was running because somebody said, I said the police is here.”

“When I got the call, [I felt] this immediate rage,” said Dan Goodwin, owner of Goodwin’s Barber Shop, a fixture of North Omaha for over 50 years. Goodwin said rage immediately erupted in the neighborhood. People took to the streets and a three-day riot began. Shops were burned to the ground, including those lining the street where his barber shop stands today.

“The real target really was Caucasian establishments,” Goodwin said, “but most everything was owned by Caucasians. So, it wasn’t a case – people were very angry, they were very angry, it was as simple as that.”

Fires raged over at least a nine-block area. Grocery stores were burned, even a local candy store, one of Vivian and her sister’s favorites. Larry said she never understood why the community rioted. They could have protested or marched, she said, but the riots destroyed their own neighborhood.

The riots only continued though when news broke that the police officer involved, James Loder, was released from jail on a $500 bond. Goodwin said the community’s anger had been building and this incident brought it to a head. They felt Vivian’s death was totally unjustified.

According to news reports, the police say they were called in to investigate a burglary; they apprehended a young man, and a crowd of “Negroes” gathered. Papers reported witnesses saying Loder fired at Strong for no apparent reason. But he was ultimately found innocent at trial and was reinstated by the city as a police officer where he remained until 1971. Forty years later, Larry finds that the hardest part to deal with.

“He meant to kill her,” she said. “He wasn’t shooting to wound. When you shoot somebody in the head, you’re shooting to kill them.”

“Why? See, there’s no reason why,” she said. “And why the city let him off, no reason, no explanation whatsoever.”

James Loder did not want to comment for the story. But in a phone conversation with his wife, she said this incident has deeply impacted her family, and, overcome with emotion, said she wishes it would be put to rest. No police officers from the time are still working at the Omaha Police Department, but Chief Eric Buske said any time someone as young as Vivian is killed, it’s a tragedy.

Larry said her mother had a nervous breakdown after Vivian’s death and began drinking heavily. For her part, she said she had to take care of her younger brothers and learn to be strong.

“We never got any counseling for it,” she said. “I saw my sister laying on the ground dead. I went to the funeral. I mean it was hard, and there was no counseling back then to help kids get through things. I was a teenager.”

In some ways, the neighborhood has never recovered. The buildings, which once surrounded Goodwin’s barber shop, were never rebuilt. And North Omaha has never again experienced that same bustle of thriving local businesses.

Larry said the destruction only amplified the unnecessary violence of her sister’s death. The neighborhood, and Larry, were both forever changed.