Equity In Practice

Investing and Rejuvenating Historic All-Black Towns

In the aftermath of the Civil War, newly freed people scraped together funds and formed partnerships to establish all-Black towns in various states and territories of the U.S. These towns served as peaceful silos for African Americans; within a town's borders, community members had autonomy over their governance, property, education, and economy.

While the success of these communities varied, the rise of Jim Crow and white supremacist violence ultimately posed the greatest threat to their survival. Jim Crow laws siphoned funding from all-Black towns and Black-owned businesses were denied loans by banks. Some towns, such as Rosewood, Florida, were deserted due to violence by white mobs.

Reviving Historic All-Black Towns is Crucial

Investment in and rejuvenation of historic all-Black towns is crucial to preserving African American heritage. Cymone Davis, CEO of Black Towns Municipal Management, is seeking to revitalize the towns that have survived to the 21st century. Davis served as the first-ever town manager of Tullahassee, Oklahoma, the oldest historic all-Black town in the state. Now, as Davis pursues her Global Executive Doctor of Education program at the University of Southern California, she continues her mission of rebuilding historic all-Black towns with the Black Towns Revival Weekend.

Black Towns Revival Weekend, which will take place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, November 10-13, 2023, is an opportunity for planners, developers, and community activists to gather and form a plan to revitalize historic all-Black Towns. APA spoke with Davis about her time as Tullahassee's first town manager and Black Towns Revival Weekend.

DINA WALTERS: In 2020, you were Tullahassee, Oklahoma's first-ever elected town manager. What led to Tullahassee creating this role, and what inspired you to run for this office?

CYMONE DAVIS: The mayor of Tullahassee and the Board of Trustees recognized the value of having a town manager to advocate on behalf of the town. During the summer of 2020, I already had two master's degrees and a background in advocacy work.

Through a mutual acquaintance, Mayor Keisha Currin and I discovered the role and responsibility of a town manager. I was shocked; I never heard of nor knew of such a career. Granted, up until 2020, I was an educator teaching in schools and working at nonprofit organizations in Kansas City, Missouri. I was not in the space of local government and municipal management.

I was inspired and open to the role of town manager because I had recently moved to Oklahoma through a grant-funded program called Tulsa Remote in June 2020. Two months later during the height of the pandemic, I quit my remote day job and was seeking new opportunities. Mayor Currin was aware of this transition and approached me about the role of town manager. Two weeks later, I was voted in as Tullahassee's first town manager.

WALTERS: Tell us about your experience as town manager and what is your proudest accomplishment in this role?

DAVIS: Ultimately, my experience as town manager was tied to a larger purpose of building an international, interfaith Black boarding school in Tullahassee. Tullahassee once had a Black boarding school in the late 1800s and I've been on a spiritual journey to rebuild Black boarding schools since 2018. Through this purpose, I had already committed to the oldest incorporated Black town in Oklahoma. When I accepted the town manager position, I felt that to build a school, I first had to help rebuild a town.

My experience as a town manager was both challenging and rewarding. Challenging because it was charting a new path forward for a township that had such a rich history but lacked financial and capacity-building resources. Rewarding because I was living my purpose and helping my people become self-sustainable.

My proudest accomplishment was organizing the "Tullahassee 30-day Community Clean-Up" in remembrance of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The community clean-up was centered on town beautification and clearing debris from the oldest structure in Tullahassee.

Built-in 1912, The A.J. Mason Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was once a community hub. This building was both symbolic of the past and future of Tullahassee, representing the rebuilding efforts for economic growth and cultural wealth.

A.J. Mason Building in Tullahassee, Oklahoma, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Credit: Oklahoma Historical Society.

A.J. Mason Building in Tullahassee, Oklahoma, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Credit: Oklahoma Historical Society.

The community event was also special since it coincided with Tullahassee making national news and U.S. history by joining the MORE Coalition. MORE stands for Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity and the coalition was co-founded by former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock.

WALTERS: What inspired you to leave your post in Tullahassee and start Black Towns Municipal Management?

DAVIS: The desire to scale the work for other Black townships who started to inquire about my services and ask for assistance to rebuild. At the time of being town manager, my bandwidth was limited, and financially my mantra was "purpose over pay." With the town's needs being so great and resources being so few, I had to find another way to sustain the work and also scale for other townships. Thus, Black Towns Municipal Management, or BTMM for short, was born.

WALTERS: This November, BTMM will be hosting the Black Towns Revival Weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Can you tell us more about this weekend-long event and how planners may benefit from it?

DAVIS: Yes! This is BTMM's first major event and we're super excited for not only the upcoming impact but to also create a lasting blueprint for the rebuilding of Black Towns. How do we leverage cultural wealth, town assets, and intentional community/stakeholder partnerships for the sustainability and longevity of a group of people?

Specifically, Black people in this country historically and continually have been disenfranchised by the built environment, strategically placed or "planned" near harmful industrial infrastructure, and receive less financial assistance from local and federal government agencies to prepare for a better quality of life and healthier lifestyle.

Black Towns Revival Weekend commences with this reality in mind. Our anchor events include a Black Town tour with a curated rural vendor market, It Takes a Village documentary premiere (produced by Howard Tate, Kreative Alley LLC) followed by a Q&A of Black Towns representatives, and ending with a community and stakeholder meeting filled with workshops and committed actionable steps for the future. Planners and other industry professionals will be immersed in an experience the entire weekend where they can learn, grow, and act.

WALTERS: Do you have recommendations for what planners can do in their municipalities to further equity and empower their Black community members?

DAVIS: Action. Discussions are not enough. Community members have to "see" themselves throughout the entire planning and implementation process, and their vision has to come to fruition. Planners can leverage their individual and collective networks to share best practices across municipalities of what strategies work for equity and empowerment, and too, what has failed so we do not continue to replicate harmful policies and infrastructure.

Black Town Revival Weekend

Learn about the weekend-long events taking place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. KTUL in Tulsa recently featured the event. The weekend is sponsored by the UCC Church Building and Loan Fund and partnered with Bois & Peters, LLC, and The Congressional Black Caucus for New Urbanism.

This map is the outcome of a project by Next Leadership Development's Racial Equity, Accountability, and Leadership (REAL) Resilience Initiative, of which Davis was a fellow and major contributor.

View an interactive map of surviving historic all-Black towns

Top image: Welcome sign to Tullahassee, Oklahoma. Photo by Cymone Davis.

About the author
Dina Walters is a member of APA's Prioritize Equity team.

October 23, 2023

By Dina Walters