Turning Pain Into Purpose

Lessons from the Tulsa Race Massacre

Paris Lawson

Feb. 25, 2021

I n October of 2016, the Oklahoma City Thunder played the Memphis Grizzlies in a preseason game in the BOK Center. The exhibition contest in Tulsa was all but irrelevant in the grand scheme of an upcoming 82-game NBA season.

This game, however, was different.

Sitting courtside was a 4-year-old boy, giddy with excitement as he buzzed in and out of the aisles. He watched wide-eyed as towering, celebrity NBA players sprinted up and down the floor with highlight-worthy crossovers and posterizing dunks. But it was the subtle addition of two new letters to the team’s warm-up shirts -- TC -- that outshined every play on the floor that day for the little boy and his family. The initials were placed to honor the life of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed Black man shot and killed by a white Tulsa police officer in September. The little boy in the stands was Terence Crutcher Jr.

Since that fateful day, Crutcher’s twin sister and Terence Jr.’s aunt, Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, has dedicated her life to activism. She has been fighting for justice not just for her brother, but for the overwhelming number of Black Americans who have been oppressed or wronged in her own community of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

For Crutcher, the lineage of racial wrongdoings in her family that she is working to reconcile can be traced back to May 31, 1921, when her great-grandmother was forced to flee her home in the affluent Black community of Tulsa’s Greenwood District in order to escape the carnage of one of the largest race massacres this country has ever seen.


RANDY KREHBIEL HAS SPENT the past two decades milling through old newspaper clippings, scouring microfilm and tracking down eyewitness accounts of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. It was one of the most tragic and devastating acts of racial violence on American soil and yet, Krehbiel is among a small faction of individuals who could be considered an expert on the topic. In 1999, working as a reporter for the Tulsa World, Krehbiel was assigned the task of covering what was then the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. From that day on, he dedicated a major portion of his professional career to studying and covering the event to the point where he authored an entire book on the subject entitled, “Tulsa 1921.”

“I don't think there's a day that has gone by in the last 21 years that I haven't thought about this or tried to do some research on it or some reading,” said Krehbiel.

For those who haven’t spent two decades of work studying and researching the Tulsa Race Massacre like Krehbiel, it is likely that you didn’t hear much about the event in detail. This is the exact situation that Dr. Crutcher found herself in.

As a native resident of North Tulsa, Dr. Crutcher attended middle school just 1.5 miles away from the historic Greenwood District and played in the streets of what was once known as Black Wall Street. However, it wasn’t until she was hundreds of miles away attending college in Alabama that Dr. Crutcher first heard about the horrific event that took place on the very streets she called home.

“I went off to college and every time someone from New York, Atlanta or Chicago would ask where I was from and I would respond Tulsa, they would immediately say ‘Oh, Black Wall Street’ or the ‘Tulsa race riot,’ and I had no clue what they were talking about,” said Dr. Crutcher. “One day I went home and asked my dad what these people were talking about.”

That’s when she also learned about her great-grandmother, Rebecca Brown Crutcher, who, along with her husband Alan, owned a barbeque pit in the heart of Greenwood. They were a quintessential example of what the area offered to its Black residents: 35 square blocks teeming with self-sufficient Black-owned businesses such as doctors’ offices, law offices, restaurants, movie theaters and retail shops.

Such communities were a rarity in the early 1920s. Just 55 years removed from slavery, many Black Americans still lived in what Krehbiel referred to in his book as “virtual peonage as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, tied to landlords by debt, intimidation and courts with a very narrow view of the 14th amendment.” This is why Tulsa’s Greenwood District was given the moniker “Black Wall Street” and why Black community across the country looked to it as a promised land full of opportunity to become self-sufficient.

“On the one hand, it was a place of hope and independence, promise and pride for most of the Black community,” said Krehbiel. “But for the white folks, it looked different.”

This white perspective of Black Wall Street only fueled the flames that would ultimately burn Greenwood to the ground. All it took was a spark. That spark was an incident in an downtown Tulsa elevator, when a Black teenager, Dick Rowland, was accused of assaulting a young white female, Sarah Page. What followed was an inflammatory news article rife with racially charged language that led to Rowland’s arrest. Armed mobs of both white and Black men formed outside of the courthouse holding Rowland. A scuffle ensued, a shot was fired and as the paper reported the following morning, “all hell broke loose.”

“This was an area that was, by the standards of the day, a pretty prosperous business district and residential area,” said Krehbiel. “People would put their lives into it and within a matter of hours, by about noon on June 1, it was ashes.”

Historians are still working today to pinpoint the number of lives lost in the Tulsa Race Massacre. An exact tally is still unknown, but the estimates are in the hundreds. Lives, businesses, property, security – all lost, the effects of which can still be felt to this very day.

“You had the loss of family wealth and property and as we know, that's a big issue today in minority communities and particularly the African American communities. They don't have the household wealth, on average, that the white households do. They lost that,” said Krehbiel.


DR. CRUTCHER DESCRIBES a tangible racial divide that still exists in Tulsa today between the white and Black neighborhoods. In 1921, a set of railroad tracks served as a physical barrier between Greenwood and the rest of the city – between the Black side of town and the white side of town. Almost 100 years later, those railroad tracks symbolize the same thing.

“You can see it today, where a child's life expectancy on the north side of the tracks is 10 years less than a child's life expectancy on the south side of the track,” said Dr. Crutcher. “The north side of the tracks is a food desert. We don't have a quality grocery store. The educational resources are far, few and in between. Black entrepreneurship is far fewer and in between. Gentrification has run rampant. We don't own anything in that area.”

The ripple effects of the massacre permeated through the passing decades and Dr. Crutcher’s family has experienced that reverberation with each generation. The same racially charged violence her great-grandmother experienced in 1921 is the same that took her twin brother’s life in 2016 at the hands of a white police officer. Five years later, in January of 2021, the Crutcher family suffered another tragic loss as Dr. Crutcher’s mother, Leanna Crutcher, lost her life to COVID-19 ¬– the pandemic that has disproportionately affected minority communities across the country.

“We've dealt with every systemic issue in our family, but we're a faith-based family and we've learned how to turn our pain into purpose, and we hope that we can show our youth how to overcome adversity and to keep fighting in spite of whatever comes their way,” said Dr. Crutcher.

Dr. Crutcher and her family have channeled that purpose into action as all eyes will be on Tulsa in May for the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Dr. Crutcher has worked to elevate the stories and perspectives of the known living survivors of the massacre and has also begun work on one of the first memorials in Tulsa dedicated to the victims of the attack. Meanwhile, two full-length film projects are in production, the first of which is scheduled for release in May.

“We do have a huge opportunity, especially this year, to acknowledge truth and truly get to a place of healing and reconciliation,” she said.

“I believe it's my duty to right the wrong and make sure we educate future generations so history won't repeat itself.”

–Dr. Tiffany Crutcher

The Crutcher family is not alone in their efforts to uplift and amplify the story of the Greenwood District. Following the death of George Floyd last May and the summer filled with calls for racial and social justice, a rise in attention has swept over the Greenwood District and conversations surrounding systemic inequality are being held.

The Thunder, for example, announced last July the launch of the Thunder Fellows Program in partnership with CAA Sports, which aims to create a pipeline to professional roles in sports, entertainment and tech for Black students in Tulsa. The program, which includes the hiring of an Executive Director, highlights various career paths in each respective industry and helps facilitate the opportunities to achieve them. The program will have a Thunder-powered Data & Analytics Center housed and staffed in Tulsa’s Greenwood District.

It has been these sorts of lasting and sustainable efforts that Dr. Crutcher and her family have been striving for since they lost Terence in 2016. While she acknowledges that no amount of work can bring her twin brother back, everything she does is to ensure that a brighter future awaits young Black boys like Terence Jr., who is now 9. But in order to create a better future, it starts with a complete acknowledgement and reckoning with the past, no matter how ugly it may be.

“I believe that it's my duty to right the wrong and make sure that we educate future generations so that history won't repeat itself,” said Dr. Crutcher. “It's going to take accountability, it’s going to take repair, it's going to take respect and it's going to take restitution for what took place.”



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