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100 Years After the Tulsa Massacre, What Does Justice Look Like?

Before her brother’s death, Crutcher’s life was not necessarily leading to one of social-justice activism. But after his family buried Terence, they decided they needed to fight for the justice he did not receive. “We still marched,” Crutcher says. “We still took it to the streets. We still prayed, you know? We praised the Lord, and Reverend Al came in,” she says, referring to Al Sharpton. The march on Sept. 27, 2016, was one of the largest ever in Tulsa. For a while, after Shelby’s indictment, Crutcher says, “we were moving in the right direction.” Because officials had released the video publicly, because they were trying to be transparent, because the police chief had said that justice would be achieved, because the mayor-elect had said he would make it his mission to seek justice for the Crutchers, she says, “I thought that we would do the right thing here in Tulsa.”

But Shelby was acquitted on May 17, 2017. When the judge announced the jury’s verdict, “I went numb,” Crutcher says. The family’s attorneys and the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Shelby had tears in their eyes. After leaving the courtroom, her mother waited until they were in an elevator before crying out, “She killed my baby!” Crutcher’s father rallied them to prayer.

Afterward, it was time to address the news media. “I finally mustered up enough, I guess, strength to make a statement,” Crutcher says. “That’s when I made a vow and a promise that I wouldn’t rest until I transformed Tulsa’s corrupt policing department. And until I receive justice, I said, it’s not over.” She told reporters that day, “Terence Crutcher’s name is going to be that name that opens change.” At another news conference that summer, Crutcher announced the creation of the Terence Crutcher Foundation. In the words of its mission statement, the organization would “change the narrative that perceived Black men as BAD DUDES and pipeline them into a ‘community of achievers.’”

She had started with hopes that justice would follow her brother’s killing. But it was in the dashing of those hopes that, Crutcher says, her “journey to justice” began. “We in Tulsa, Okla., aren’t going to sit by and say, ‘It is what it is,’” she said at one of the news conferences. The very narrative Crutcher has committed herself to undoing — one that says Black people are inherently bad people — is one that goes back a hundred years in her hometown, when one part of the community destroyed another part of the community, a place whose prosperity and potential belonged to, but was taken from, her ancestors.

Crutcher’s childhood revolved around the institution that anchors life for many of Tulsa’s Black residents: the church. Her father, the Rev. Joey Hobart Lewis Crutcher, would play the organ and piano at congregations around the city and the country, but mainly at the New Heights Christian Center; her mother, Leanna Crutcher, directed choirs and also played the piano. Crutcher recalls always being “in spaces where there were white kids and Black kids.” She remembers they “just flowed together — we were pretty close. I had white kids, or classmates, that came to my house and played and spent the night, and I went to their houses.”

As a student at Langston University, Oklahoma’s lone historically Black college, in the 1990s, Crutcher met other Black students from all over the country. “Oh, wow, Black Wall Street,” they often said when they heard she was from Tulsa. They knew the name of the part of town where Black people began settling in the early 20th century, what became variously known as Black or Negro Wall Street — terms given to several prosperous Black communities across America — as well as Greenwood, Black Tulsa and Little Africa. Some students also mentioned the Tulsa race riot. Crutcher had never heard of any such riot. It was not something that had been discussed at home. But after hearing constant references from schoolmates who had often never been to Tulsa, she finally pressed her father for answers during breaks from school.

In 1921, he told her reluctantly, after prolonged prodding, that the neighborhood that stood where Tiffany grew up, a thriving Black community, had been destroyed by a mob of white Tulsans. He told Tiffany that buildings had been leveled and people killed or forced to flee. And the destruction in lives and property was more than just history; it was personal. His own grandmother, her great-grandmother, Rebecca Brown Crutcher, had to run away out of fear for her life. Crutcher was filled with regret when she heard this. “I didn’t get a chance to ask her questions,” she says, because she was so young when Mama Brown passed away. Her father told her that he didn’t know about what had happened to Black Tulsa until he was not much older than she was then, when he returned from the Vietnam War. Crutcher learned that her father’s own discovery of the family’s history also came with a warning — a deep fear that it would happen again. For Black Tulsans, consciously recalling the pain came with risk. The white rioters, Crutcher told me, “scared them so bad and told them if they ever talked about it again, that they would either be lynched or that it would happen again.”

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