20 Years Later: Honoring the Life and Legacy of Timothy Thomas

Written by Katheryn Toren-Jones, Norwood Branch Manager, in collaboration with the Black Events & Exhibits Committee  

Timothy Thomas never sought fame. I imagine that his loved ones would give anything to strip his name from all the newspapers and TV screens he’s appeared in over the past two decades and have him returned to his ordinary life. No number of headlines can come close to reflecting the entirety of a person. As April 7 marks the 20th anniversary of his death, let us think about Timothy and pause to reflect on his life and all that it held. 

A Life Cut Short  

Timothy was just 19 years old in 2001. He was going through the growing pains of many young men his age with the added complexities and challenges of being a Black man in America. He had recently become a father and gotten serious about the direction he wanted for his life. Timothy earned his GED and got a job. He aspired to a career in electronics. Perhaps getting his driver’s license was next on his list of obstacles to overcome. Of course, we’ll never know. Regardless of what the future may have held, his life mattered.  

None of us on the Black Events & Exhibits Committee (BEEC) knew Timothy Thomas personally. While we’ve learned as much as we can through firsthand accounts, library resources, and media clippings, we want to honor Timothy the person, not just remember his death and its aftermath. It is difficult to escape a heavy sadness in finding so little information about this young man who sparked such change in our city. Who had his life taken a split second. Whose whole story we can never truly know.  

Looking Back, Moving Forward  

Timothy Thomas was an unarmed Black man, killed by white police officer Stephen Roach in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati on April 7, 2001. Thomas’ attempt to run away from the police that night due to outstanding warrants, mostly for driving without a license and not wearing a seat belt, cost him his life.  

This tragedy sparked an uprising in the city and gained national attention. The rebellion lasted four days from April 9-13. During the months that followed, clashes between citizens and police, economic boycotts, and a class-action suit resulted in the creation of the city’s Collaborative Agreement 

On April 12, 2002, just over a year after Timothy Thomas’ killing, Cincinnatians voted in favor of the Collaborative AgreementThe mayor, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the head of the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union, and the president of Cincinnati Black United Front signed the agreement. It called for a community- and evidence-based approach to policing that tackled the root causes of crime rather than meeting quotas. Twenty years later, community-police relations are still very much a work in progress. 

I only have my own imaginings of what could have come into being for Timothy Thomas. A teenager on the cusp of adulthood, trying his best to become the man his girlfriend and baby needed. I think of my own children making their way in the world, hanging on to hope, putting in the hard work to follow their dreams. I shed a tear for Timothy and what could have been. 

Over the course of the next month on the blog, members of the Library’s Black Events & Exhibits Committee are sharing their reflections on the life and death of Timothy Thomas, the impact it had on the city, and the work still necessary. 

Keep up-to-date with all of our upcoming BEEC events, including two virtual panel discussions with city leaders and activists that take a critical look at where race relations in Cincinnati stand today, how we got there, and where we go from here. You can register for all BEEC events on our events calendar.