Diversity Torch: Justin Crouch

June 14, 2024 - Emily Jodway

Torch During the month of June and the days leading up to Juneteenth, a national holiday celebrating the emancipation from slavery in the United States, our thoughts are centered around the enslaved, both named and unnamed, who never gave up hope. Not all lived to see the day they would be freed from their enslavement, but their legacy of hope and perseverance in the name of freedom carries on all the same. 

Justin Crouch, a 2024 graduate of the College of Social Science, has helped to play an integral part in the remembrance of these individuals. Through his work with the history department and the Enslaved.org project , Crouch helped to preserve the legacy of enslaved people of African descent. He is our Diversity Torch for the month of June. 

Crouch fostered an interest in history from an early age, spurred by conversations in middle school American History class. “The bigger thing for me was how parts of the past can impact our present or future, and especially as someone who is African American, the slave trade and how that history has been a little bit forgotten, or obscured,” he explained. 

When it came time to decide on a college, Crouch had Michigan State on his preliminary list, but was especially swayed by an invitation to the Social Science Scholars program. He was able to talk to its director, Associate Professor of History Dr. John Waller, and instantly felt that he would feel welcome on the campus of MSU. “He is just a great, wonderful person,” Crouch said. “He helped make a great deal of my time here amazing. And as someone who is interested in both psychology and history, he kind of gave me the ability to dabble in both.”

One such project Crouch has a particular pride for was a group research study he did on grade school textbooks. He and his peers analyzed images in textbooks used in schools across the country to see if they represented inaccurate stereotypes of people and events in history or used problematic, caricature-like illustrations. They would also see if the textbook company had made any type of acknowledgement that the images are not meant to be real or precisely depict how people were during that period of history. Crouch hopes that their findings can shine a light on the importance of accuracy in textbooks, especially when using them to educate young, impressionable people. 

“We also thought about how this could impact kids, especially kids who are in areas where this is maybe the only time they learn about history,” he said. “I think it’s very important that the books can give at least some resemblance of trust and honesty instead of a caricature, which can give kids this mistaken belief or view of different groups of people.”

Crouch also got the opportunity to work on a particularly special project with Dr. Hawthorne, a professor of African and Digital History and director of the Enslaved.org project.

The project saw Crouch working both on campus and on-site at historical inventory centers in Fairfax, Virginia, looking through original documents from hundreds of years ago. In particular he examined the wills and inventories of slave owners, extracting any information available on named enslaved people of African descent in order to create a digitized record of these individuals. This can help to preserve their stories in history and paint a picture of their lives all those years ago, and can even help people trace their ancestry and family history. 

“It was a very different experience, at least from what I was used to up to that point, because I got to actually handle real historical documents,” Crouch said of the project. “It was so interesting, navigating these documents and feeling transported back to that place in time. I found that it was a somber experience but also very enlightening. There’s so much history about slavery, but there’s still some untold that we don’t know about, so any bit of it that we can find that helps unravel and tell more of that story is always important.”

During the course of working on this project, Crouch was awarded with a scholarship, the recently established Henderson Family Award, making him the first-ever recipient of the award. This scholarship, along with an earlier awarded PURI grant, made it possible for Crouch to work on this project, in particular the ability to travel to Virginia and work with Heather Bollinger, an archivist who frequently works with the Enslaved.org project. More about Crouch’s reception of the Henderson Award was covered in a story for the history department and can be found here

Crouch’s passion for uncovering the rich histories of these enslaved individuals has given him many insightful thoughts on the importance of Juneteenth, and acknowledging both the good and bad events in history that have shaped our society today.

“By acknowledging the past, including negative things, you can see how far you’ve come,” he explained. “I treat history like you would treat a person. There are good things and bad, and you can recognize both the good things you’ve done, but you should also acknowledge the bad- these are mistakes we’ve made. We can look back at them, see how we made those mistakes and how we can avoid them in the future.

“Ancestry and history has great power and motivation as well. Especially in places like America where it’s a melting pot, a very diverse place where these various cultural backgrounds are amplified and you can acknowledge and praise all the good they’ve done, and how far they’ve come as well. With Juneteenth, even though it’s specifically about African Americans, it’s also about America as a whole. African Americans are a part of America; so when we’re raising these voices up, we’re also raising America’s voice.”


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