On Juneteenth, let us remember that racial terror did not end with slavery


Terence Crutcher, a father of four who sang in his church choir, was shot and killed by police in 2016 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His twin sister Dr. Tiffany Crutcher saw history repeat itself.

Terence, who had his hands up, needed help but got a bullet instead. It was fired by the same police department that had replaced members of the lynch mob that started the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre 95 years earlier. It made Dr. Crutcher thinks of perhaps the most prominent victim of that massacre, the famous surgeon Dr. A.C. Jackson. Dr. Jackson was shot as he left his home, also with his hands in the air.

The Crutchers are direct descendants of a survivor of the 1921 massacre, which devastated Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District. Dr. Crutcher is also a leader in the movement to get official recognition and restitution for that destruction. I had the honor of standing with members of that movement in Tulsa this past week to commemorate the Juneteenth holiday.

The Tulsa Race Massacre was probably the worst incident of racial violence in post-slavery American history. As many as 300 black residents were murdered in an 18-hour period. More than 10,000 others were displaced as refugees in their own countries. More than 1,250 black homes and hundreds of black businesses and gathering places were burned.

Last week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit seeking damages for the last known living survivors of the Tulsa Massacre (ages 110 and 109). But another important fight continues. Such is the fight to create a national monument where the Greenwood District once thrived. A bipartisan bill to do that has been introduced in Congress by Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.). President Biden could also erect the monument with executive authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906.


A similar movement is underway to erect a national monument to the 1908 race riots in Springfield, Illinois. That riot, in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown, shocked the nation and was a major catalyst for the founding of the NAACP six months later.

Just one generation removed from slavery, Tulsa’s Greenwood District was a 35-square-block bastion of black prosperity. It was nicknamed “Negro Wall Street” by Booker T. Washington. It was a particularly prosperous part of a boomtown and was seen as a promised land for the black people who flocked there. In the era of lynchings and race riots, this seemed like an exception to the rule. During the Red Summer of 1919, when at least 26 cities across the country experienced intense racial violence, Tulsa remained peaceful.

But the peace did not last. Resentment against the famed “Black Wall Street” and the success of its residents simmered among white Tulsans. Like Dr. Crutcher notes, “in an era of white supremacy, black people were not allowed to thrive… if you tried to live free, tried to vote, or even looked at someone the wrong way, it was an excuse to destroy and black lynching people.”

The spark that ignited the powder keg in Tulsa was the same one that ignited so many other examples of racial violence in America. A black boy was accused of assaulting a white girl. A lynch mob formed. And when the crowd was turned away, all hell broke loose.

This month, as we celebrate Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the US, Dr. Crutcher reminds us that “we are celebrating an idea that has yet to become a reality.”


That’s because when it comes to dealing with and healing the wounds of our nation’s history with race, we still have a long way to go.

For decades after the massacre, the history of that terrible event remained buried in what Dr. Crutcher calls a ‘conspiracy of silence’.

Dr. Crutcher grew up in Tulsa, just a few blocks from historic Greenwood, and even went to school in Greenwood. Yet she never learned the history that had such an impact on her community – and her own family. She first heard about the Massacre and Black Wall Street when she went to college and told people she was from Tulsa.

When she got home from college one weekend, she asked her father about it. Dr. Crutcher not only learned about the massacre, but also that her great-grandmother, Rebecca Brown Crutcher, had narrowly escaped it. She learned that her father only found out when “Mama Brown,” as the family called her, was caught up in the midst of Dr.’s murder. King and the riots that followed in the late 1960s, whispered to him, “Something like this happened. here.”

She whispered because she was still scared all these years later. Survivors were told that if they spoke about the events, they would be lynched or cause another massacre. So for decades, history was erased not only from textbooks and schools, but even from the oral traditions of families.


One reason a national monument is so important is the need to protect and learn from our history. As we commemorate Juneteenth, we should not only remember history and the end of slavery. We must remember the long shadow cast by the dehumanization of Black people in this country. And we must recognize that we still have not fully stepped out of that shadow and into the light.

Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club and professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

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