Terence — and Other Crutchers


When Terence Crutcher was killed last week in Tulsa I felt the sadness and anger and wish to know more exactly what happened that have become my standard reaction to the sadly all too frequent stories of black men dying in interactions with the police.  But this time I felt something more than that.  I felt a personal connection. My maiden name is Crutcher.

Not only is my family name Crutcher but I already knew that there are black Crutchers and that at least one member of my family owned slaves.  I have a cousin who is an archivist, working professionally at the library at the University of Florida but also interested in family history.  Just a few months ago she sent me a fascinating story.  I already knew the name Thomas Crutcher.  I had discovered several years ago, on a visit to Nashville, that a forebear of mine had been mayor of that city in 1819 and had also served for twenty five years as treasurer of the state of Tennessee.  He died in 1840.

According to the documents that my cousin found through the Digital Library on American Slavery from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Thomas Crutcher owned a “negro woman slave named Temperance…and she has been an industrious and faithful servant.”  He testifies in documents from 1837 that “he [had] promised that whenever she refunded to him the purchase money he would free her.” He stated that he was ready to fulfill the promise, Temperance having paid him back for her purchase.  But the laws of Tennessee required that upon gaining her freedom Temperance leave the state.

Another document shows that Temperance was requesting permission of the legislature to not “be driven from the home of nativity kindred and friends, to seek a home in the land of Strangers.” She promises that if allowed to remain in the state she will “give bond & security…never to become a charge as a pauper upon any county in this state…”

Twenty citizens of Nashville petitioned the legislature of the state of Tennessee to grant Temperance, “a female slave owned by Thomas Crutcher,” permission to remain in the state as a free person of color.  The petitioners included former owners who testified to her “good Character, honesty, industry & fidelity.” They further wrote that they do not question the policy that requires free persons of color to leave the state.  They know, they write “that a majority of them are worthless and destitute, but they believe there are many cases that ought to be exempt from the general rule, and that Temperance is one of those cases.”

There are many questions the file does not answer.  I can’t help wondering what exactly was the relationship between Temperance and Thomas.  Was his interest in keeping her in Tennessee, more than friendly? And what happened to her?  Did she obtain permission to remain in the state?  There is so much still to know.  And, while I don’t question that many former slaves were destitute, I am pained to see so many, my relative perhaps included, so easily dismiss free blacks as, “worthess.”

This weekend is a festive one in Washington, DC where about a mile from where I live the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall will open tomorrow. My friend Barbara Mahone is in town for the opening.  She is chairman of the board of the Shiloh Community Restoration Foundation near Tuskegee and she attended Shiloh School there.  As I walked back from visiting with her this morning I was thinking that I can’t wait to vgo to the museum and see the desks from Hope School in Pomoria, South Carolina, that are displayed there along with the school’s original sign.

But I also found myself thinking about Terence Crutcher and feeling related to him — if not by blood, exactly, then by a  long, long strand of history — family history and national history — that ties us together.

Looking up the details of the incident I found this, from columnist Goldie Taylor:

If Crutcher’s civil liberties do not remain intact, neither do yours or mine. Injustice is injustice, no matter who it touches or who they were. No previous arrest justifies a death sentence. He was entitled to his life—his pursuit of happiness—and that was stolen.”

I couldn’t say that better.  Like the story of Rosenwald schools, this is not African American history.  It is OUR history.