Posted on April 6, 2022

A Historic All-Black Town Wants Reparations to Rebuild as a ‘Safe Haven’

Emmanuel Felton, Washington Post, April 1, 2022


The once-thriving all-Black town of Tullahassee was ravaged by government policies that divested it and other Black communities, said Mayor Keisha Currin. And she says the city is owed reparations to get back on its feet.

Last year, Currin joined Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity (MORE), a group founded by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. It counts more than a dozen mayors across the country as members, and its goal is to become a laboratory for new reparations programs that address slavery and the decades of explicitly anti-Black government policies that followed.

“There’s never been a moment like this in American history,” said Ron Daniels, convener of the National African American Reparations Commission. “I’ve worked on this issue my entire adult life, and it’s only recently that I’ve seen reparations move from the political fringes to the mainstream of discourse.

“There are initiatives that are sprouting up daily all across the country, and that’s a recognition of the growing demand, and of the generational damages and harms not only of enslavement but all of the legacies of enslavement, all the racially discriminatory policies, including redlining and policies like the GI Bill where Black people were excluded,” Daniels said.

As the idea of reparations is being explored in communities across the country, Tullahassee stands out. In addition to being the smallest member of the MORE coalition — population 83 — it has a unique connection to the idea of reparations. Other cities are seeking ways to redress the harm they inflicted on their Black residents; Tullahassee was the victim, not the perpetrator, of racist policies. Oklahoma’s Jim Crow laws, banks’ refusal to lend money to residents and businesses, and the fear that engulfed people as the government stood by and allowed White mobs to ravage and destroy the nearby Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, all helped bring down Tullahassee. Its vision of reparations involves finding resources to rebuild the town and, by doing so, creating a blueprint for the hundreds of all-Black communities that once dotted the United States and drew African Americans fleeing racial violence.

“[Oklahoma’s Black communities are] overdue,” said Mayor Currin, 38, a fourth-generation Tullahassee resident. “You’re talking about funding, you’re talking about grants, you’re talking about missed opportunities just because of the town that you live in…And so being able to be a part of rebuilding and reparations…is definitely monumental for our communities.”

On a bright, brisk February afternoon, Tullahassee’s town hall took on the air of a family reunion as current and former residents came together to talk to planners from the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Quality Communities about what they wanted for their town. As people laughed over barbecue and distant cousins worked out how they were related, community members sketched out their vision: more housing, fewer loose dogs on Lincoln Street, the renovation of the old gym, more spaces for kids to play and the clearing of overgrown lots. By the end of the weekend, the team from the University of Oklahoma had drawn up an action plan that then-Town Manager Cymone Davis planned to pass on to another team, this one from Oklahoma State University, to help build out.

This had been Davis’s job for the past year and a half — finding and marshaling resources to rebuild Tullahassee. Davis, a native of Kansas City, Mo., first learned about Tullahassee from the documentary “Struggle and Hope,” which chronicled the history of Black towns in Oklahoma. At the time, Davis, a former educator, was planning a private Black boarding school inspired by the 100 such schools that existed across the country before desegregation. After seeing the documentary, she decided it had to be in Oklahoma. That’s when she contacted Currin on Facebook.

Currin, who has a full-time job at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Davis instantly felt a bond, and the mayor started pushing Davis to move to Oklahoma to help her rebuild Tullahassee. Davis was sold when she realized that she had roots in the area, and in 2020, she moved to Tulsa on the Tulsa Remote program, which provides grants to people who work from the city. After that, Currin offered her a job as Tullahassee’s first town manager.

Before Davis arrived, Currin had been working for years out of the limelight to turn around the town’s fortunes. When she took office, Tullahassee was facing a crisis. It owed the neighboring town of Porter over $30,000 in past-due water bills, and the mayor of Porter was threatening to cut off Tullahassee’s water. For a town that takes in less than $2,000 a month, that was a huge bill. It took Currin years to pay it off. She applied for grant after grant, but could secure only one, from the Eastern Oklahoma Development District.


“Tullahassee has always been in a fight, always fighting to exist and always fighting to thrive,” said Davis. “You’re talking about decades of withheld funding and opportunities for these towns. So we are owed reparations, reparations to rebuild all of our Black communities.”

Since the 1930s, Tullahassee has been defined by what it’s lost. In 1935, Flipper Davis College closed. In 1990, Carter G. Woodson, the town’s only school, closed. Only the skeleton of the structure remains. In the early 2000s, the community gym, which would draw hundreds of people on the weekends for basketball games, was shuttered. Maps documented the losses as land was de-annexed and taken over by Wagoner County or nearby Porter. Tullahassee even lost its post office and Zip code.


In its early days, the town had the Tullahassee Town Site Company to go out and pitch the community as a place safe from the racial strife facing African Americans elsewhere, and Currin says the key to rebuilding is advertising the town once again as a place of reprieve from racism.

“Being Black and safe in America is a big deal,” Currin said. “That’s what Tullahassee has always provided. It’s just always been a safe haven for us in our community.”


Currin and Davis say they know that the challenges facing Tullahassee are stark. Given the history of hostility from some of their White neighbors, Davis said they’ve already started to think about how to keep a flourishing Tullahassee safe.

“As we rebuild these townships, we’re thinking about safety and protection — that has to be number one,” Davis said. “We’re even talking about, as we’re building, how we probably need to cover some stuff from the highway so people don’t really see what’s going on.”

This year Davis stepped down as town manager, but she still works closely with Tullahassee. She resigned, in part, because the town was only able to pay her a salary of $9,000. She has since started a company, Black Towns Municipal Management, to do the sort of work she’s been doing in Tullahassee in the hundreds of other struggling all-Black communities across America. And she still hopes to build her Black boarding school in Tullahassee. So she continues to work closely with Currin and Tullahassee’s MORE commission, which includes community members, academics and Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell (R). {snip}

Pinnell said there has been a lot of interest in Black history tourism in Oklahoma since Tulsa’s Greenwood Massacre gained national attention, and he thinks those tourist dollars could turn into long-term investments for Tullahassee and Oklahoma’s other surviving Black towns.

“We think all of this interest and tourism can lead to some real economic development,” Pinnell said. “So we’re looking at using American Rescue Plan Act dollars, we’re trying to shake the trees at the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce, and we’re getting the Department of Commerce to talk up these towns to companies looking to locate in Oklahoma.”