Tullahassee 30-day clean-up: Historically all-Black Freedmen town makes a comeback

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If you’d asked Cymone Davis a year ago whether she’d be moving to Oklahoma to take on the momentous task of reviving the state’s oldest surviving all-Black town, she’d have called you crazy.

But over the past year, she’s found herself working to rebuild the historically Black, Creek Freedman town of Tullahassee, Oklahoma. It’s a time when the world’s eyes remain fixed on Tulsa’s Greenwood District, a mere 40-minute drive away. The histories of the two Black communities are linked, though most outside of Oklahoma have never even heard of Tullahassee.

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(Oklahoma Historical Society)

When scores of Black folks heeded the calls to populate Tulsa’s booming Black community of Greenwood, the surrounding Black communities also gained a boost. Many of the all-Black settlements in Northeastern Oklahoma grew from a foundation of oil-rich lands owned by Creek Freedmen—Black descendants of formerly enslaved members of Tribes who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. 

Turning a dream into a reality

Cymone Davis grew up in Kansas City, MO., though she traces her roots back to the Tullahassee area of Oklahoma through her father. She’s been across the country and around the world, accustomed to cities big and small.

Ultimately, her dream of wanting to start a Black boarding school eventually led her to crunching her soles against the rocky pavement on the streets of Tullahassee, Oklahoma, a historically all-Black town in an area long inhabited by Black Freedmen of the Creek Nation. 

Davis envisions a new wave of revitalization for this once bustling community as the town’s new city manager. In less than a year, she’s already succeeded in growing the boundaries of the town by annexing land that used to belong to Tullahassee. But she’s not stopping there.

“Yeah, I fight hard, and I’m grateful to fight hard,” Davis said, expressing the immense time and energy she’s devoted to the town.

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Cymone Davis (left) takes stakeholders on a tour of Tullahassee’s dilapidated buildings. (Deon Osborne / The Black Wall Street Times)

History of Tullahassee

It’s easy to drive by rural Tullahassee, Oklahoma without even noticing you were there. The only highway sign indicating the existence of this historically all-Black town was placed, not a few miles away, but directly across from Lincoln St., the town’s main point of entry.

It didn’t start out as an all-Black town, but rather a site of education for children of the Creek Nation prior to the Civil War. In March of 1850, the school opened its doors, taking in a few dozen pupils. It was a joint operation between the Creek Nation and the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, as a Rev. J.M. Loughridge became the first superintendent, according to the Muskogee Phoenix.

“The boys attended to the livestock and cut wood, with the girls assisting with breakfast, sewing, knitting, and in the dairy,” read an excerpt from “Missions and Missionaries of Indian Territory” by C.W. “Dub” West. The school wouldn’t be open to formerly enslaved members or their Black descendants until years later.

Creek Nation turns over school to Black Creek Freedmen

Amidst the fallout of the Civil War, families returned to Tullahassee Mission finding it overrun with weeds and broken down structures, having been used as a hospital and stable. While it was eventually utilized again, a fire in 1880 completely destroyed it.

But finally in 1881, decades after the Civil War, when Tribes that fought for the Confederacy signed a treaty with the U.S. government granting emancipation and citizenship to their formerly enslaved members, the Creek Nation set aside the school for their enterprising Black Freedmen citizens, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

By 1889, word spread and a town had begun to develop around the school, with the vast majority of the allotted land owned by Creek Freedmen. Once it was officially incorporated, It quickly grew into a vibrant 20th century community that boasted hundreds of families, businesses, and even a few millionaires, according to local officials.

1921 Tulsa Race Massacre affected Tullahassee, too

But just as the Tulsa Race Massacre drastically affected Black residents of the Historic Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street, the trauma spread to surrounding Black communities. For instance, when a White mob burned down 35 blocks of Black businesses and homes in 1921, the fear of mobs attacking smaller, rural Black communities caused some to flee, thereby lowering the population of communities like Tullahassee.

Today, when walking through the town for a superficial glance, one notices what remains of the burned-down Carter G. Woodson Schools, a dilapidated but historic A.J. Mason Building and sparsely populated homes along stretches of unfinished roads. But when one immerses themself in the history of community members’ stories and stares out into the beauty of Tullahassee’s greenery, open fields and bodies of water, you can almost feel a spiritual connection to the land, like a faint whisper of ancestors calling out for a rebirth of the community.

A Tour of Tullahassee

“We can’t even talk about redevelopment when our roads aren’t even clear,” Tullahassee City Manager Cymone Davis said during a private tour of the town with The Black Wall Street Times at the end of April. Davis explained her plans to launch a 30-day clean-up event for the town during the month of June. But it involves more than just picking up trash or painting a sidewalk. Davis has planned an ambitious three-part volunteer event to revitalize the community: clearing out debris from the town’s original building after being incorporated, the A.J. Mason building, clearing up the site in and around the Carter G. Woodson schools, and clearing old roads and paving new ones.

Days later, on May 7th, Davis and Tullahassee Mayor Keisha Currin led a diverse group of stakeholders on a tour of the town, explaining the event’s goals and building support for the month-long event, 30 Days of Tullahassee Community Clean-up.

The tour started with the stakeholders—many from Tulsa—introducing themselves to Mayor Keisha Currin, a third-generation Tullahassee resident. Tullahassee City Manager Cymone Davis said Currin’s tenacity is the reason the town still stands.

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Tullahassee Mayor Keisha Currin. (Deon Osborne / The Black Wall Street Times)

Tullahassee Mayor Keisha Currin

“As you see, it looked just like this when I was growing up,” Mayor Currin told the group as she stood in front of an open field. “But when my mother and grandmother were growing up, it looked so much different. There were homes everywhere. The streets were actually usable. We had a store. The school was open. There were so many things that my grandmother and my mother got to see growing up here that I didn’t.”

She said it’s been a passion of hers to restore the community ever since she was volunteered to serve as the mayor. “So that my son can have what I didn’t. And he can have that here. And it’s so peaceful here. I love country life. It’s my mission to bring Tullahassee back.”

The mayor and city manager laughed as they explained how the mayor was persistent in persuading Cymone to work for Tullahassee. Cymone Davis was on the hunt for a location for her Black boarding school. Mayor Currin was on the hunt for residents to relocate to Tullahassee. Neither of them even knew what a city manager was at the time.

“I stepped in like no, this is a business. We need to reach out, we need to network,” Mayor Currin said. “And then I met Cymone. I put it on her mind and her heart and God led her here.”

The entire month of June will be devoted to the clean-up projects, and the town’s two main leaders passionately led the group of stakeholders throughout the sites where the projects will take place.

Project One: A.J. Mason Building

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Tourists walk through the ruins of the Historic A.J. Mason Building. (Deon Osborne / The Black Wall Street Times)

Firstly, the town is calling on volunteers to assist in clearing away debris from the A.J. Mason Building, a structure built in 1912 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Volunteers will spend the first two Fridays and Saturdays of June cleaning the building in preparation for architects and construction managers to start work on restoring it to its former glory.

Kayla Lee is a licensed architect with a Master’s Degree from the University of Kansas. She lives in Tulsa, and when she heard about the projects, she knew she had to get involved as one of the stakeholders.

“It’s a nice gem off of the highway. My GPS was like, ‘you’re gonna turn left.’ I was like, ‘I don’t see a street, and there’s a semi behind me,” Kayla Lee told the Black Wall Street Times on the tour. But after making a U-turn and entering the town, she was surprised by its beauty.

Architecture plans

“It’s like, wow. When you see architecture like this you realize people really put time and energy into making it. That’s incredible. Masonry construction takes time to make. It’s really cool,” Lee said.

Hoping to lend her skills in support however she can, Lee said she got in touch with Cymone Davis, Tullahassee’s city manager, through another architect named David Contreras.

“We’re BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color], and we do BIPOC projects,” said Contreras, who owns Pistil Consortia, an architecture firm specializing in real estate, property development and historic preservation. David Contreras, from Dallas, and Cymone Davis are both members of the Tulsa Remote program. Contreras heard about her story through colleagues and felt inspired to get involved.

“I had my team come out here and dimension the A.J. Mason Building,” Contreras said. During the month of June, he and his team plan to do the same for the Carter G. Woodson schools. “And then we can start playing with design concepts and put visualizations together.”

Project Two: Carter G. Woodson schools

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Stakeholders tour the ruins of one of the Carter G. Woodson schools. (Deon Osborne / The Black Wall Street Times)

Returning to the original site that eventually birthed a community, Davis led the tour to the dilapidated skeleton of a Carter G. Woodson school, the second major project of the 30 Days of Tullahassee Community Clean-up in June. Similar to the A.J. Mason Building volunteers will spend the last two Fridays and Saturdays of June cleaning up debris in and around the Carter G. Woodson school sites to make way for future architecture and construction plans.

“It’s a shame what’s happened to it,” Davis said. “It used to serve K-12, graduating at the top of their class.” 

But the school closed down in 1990 when the district consolidated with nearby Porter, according to The Oklahoman. In the middle of the school year, children at the all-Black Creek Freedman town of Tullahassee were bussed to Porter’s school district, becoming a minority overnight.

Tullahassee’s school consolidation

Mayor Keisha Currin was among the students at Carter G. Woodson who was bussed to attend a school in Porter. She vividly remembers the experience.

“I kinda consider 1990 the last straw to what we see now,” Tullahassee Mayor Keisha Currin said.

While the mayor explained the emotional toll it took on her and other children, Porter’s then-superintendant highlighted the academic success her district hoped the consolidation would bring to all children.

“Integration was not the intent of the consolidation but it had that effect. We hope this will make Porter a much better school system and we can do other things we couldn’t before,” Lee Cobb told the Oklahoman in 1990.

A future international Black boarding school in Tullahassee

Decades later, with a dream to create a new education center in the heart of Tullahassee, City Manager Cymone Davis said aspirations and Mayor Keisha Currin’s municipal needs collided. “She was the one who encouraged me to build the Black boarding school here,” Davis said. 

Though she’d been called on a journey to start a Black boarding school since 2018, it wasn’t until watching a documentary about Tullahassee that Cymone began to see the area as a potential location. She reached out to the mayor in 2019 and, realizing she had her own ties to the area, toured the community for herself. 

Cymone has two master’s degrees: one in media studies and one in education. The community voted her in as Tullahassee city manager in September, and one of the first things she did was annex land that originally belonged to the town.

Consequently, stakeholders taking part in the tour were astonished at what remained of one of the Carter G. Woodson schools as they meandered through the debris, stepping into a time machine of history.

Diverse stakeholders vow to support the rebirth of Tullahassee

Professionals as diverse as coders, lawyers and tax specialists were in attendance, gazing at the dilapidation in front of them, but also envisioning how they can best utilize their skills to support a rebirth of the community.

LaToya Rose is an author, public speaker, educator and senior tax accountant at Rose Tax Solutions on the historic Greenwood Avenue in downtown Tulsa, home of Black Wall Street. She said she got connected to Cymone Davis through Charity Marcus, a business consultant in Tulsa. Immediately after meeting, Rose and Davis discovered they both belonged to the same sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

“I was already drawn to the project. But then it was like, this is my sister, I’m my sister’s keeper. This is where it’s at.”

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LaToya Rose, a tax specialist who runs Rose Tax Solutions, located on Black Wall Street in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District. (Deon Osborne / The Black Wall Street Times)

Rose said she has a three-point outlook on how to help: by providing her expertise related to accounting, taxes and business structuring, helping to build a new business, and assisting with the education system. But she’s not just in it to support. She even wants to eventually build a home and raise her daughter in Tullahassee. 

“In 1939 my great-grandmother was brought into Redbird, Oklahoma to help build up that Black town. So it’s almost kind of like deja vu,” Rose said about the opportunity to walk in on the ground level of building an all-Black town. 

“I already see the grocery store and the kids playing, riding their bikes. I see the cattle run… I’m literally visualizing the reality of Tullahassee and really just excited to be a part of this whole thing.”

Project three: Road Clearing

The third project, clearing the roads for improvements, will take place every Wednesday and Thursday in June.

With some streets no longer drivable, the goal is to utilize the resources of Black-owned trucking companies to help renew and rebuild the roads.

Though funding has always been an issue with revitalizing the town, new interest in the community has drawn experts in federal funding.

Annie Vest is the planning department manager for Meshek & Associates, LLC, an engineering firm. She met Cymone at a county meeting for the Wagoner County Hazard Mitigation Plan. The two connected, and Vest said she was drawn to help. She’s on the board of directors for the National Hazard Mitigation Association, an equitable grassroots organization.

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Annie Vest, planning department manager for Meshek & Associates, stands in front of a group of stakeholders touring Tullahassee, Oklahoma. (Deon Osborne / The Black Wall Street Times)

“We wanna make sure they actually can implement the vision that they have and I think that’s how I can help her,” Vest said.

University of Oklahoma partners with Tullahassee

And to help craft that vision, Cymone Davis enlisted Vanessa Morrison, associate director for the Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma’s Gibbs College of Architecture. The college works on community projects across the state.

“We worked with Cymone and Tullahassee this semester in an environmental design course to really support their visioning efforts for the community and help them come up with some conceptualized ideas on how they can revive the town and make it a quality place to live and grow,” Morrison said.

With so many professionals working to put a spotlight on the town, Mayor Keisha Currin hopes it changes the attitude of a county that has failed to properly place signage of Tullahassee on the highway.

Mayor hurt by lack of support from Wagoner County

“It’s hurtful. I just believe that Tullahassee has always been a community that people didn’t want here,” Mayor Currin said. 

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a sign at 69-Highway because there’s a sign that says ‘Porter.’ You’re literally bypassing the entire community of Tullahassee,” Mayor Currin said.

But now, with the help of people like Cymone Davis, Charity Marcus and interested stakeholders, the mayor has renewed hope in restoring the community to even better than it was in its heyday. 

“It’s an unbelievable feeling. Just overwhelmed with joy and pride because I love my community. It’s absolutely amazing and nothing short of coming from God,” Mayor Currin said.

Tullahassee’s restoration needs volunteer support

Beyond June, Davis and Currin have eyes on restoring the Rodeo, creating a new baseball diamond and hopefully a sports facility that can attract regional revenue. They also want to restore the current gymnasium inside. 

Most notably, Cymone Davis is unwavering in her goal to provide children with an inclusive and effective education at a future Black boarding school in Tullahassee. She strives for an educational hub for children from across the African diaspora, regardless of income status.

When it comes to the town’s 30-day event during the month of June, Davis said the projects will be multi-phased. It starts with the clean-up and ends with the reconstruction of historical buildings and lands. Volunteers will be crucial for the project’s success.

Yet, money remains the common thread connecting the dots to these various projects. City leaders are working toward building a line of credit with a bank. In the meantime, anyone wanting to support the town’s efforts can visit Tullahasseeok.com or email City Manager Cymone Davis: citymanager@tullahasseeok.com.

As the world watches the City of Tulsa grapple with its 100-year-old crime, along with the necessary reconciliation and reparations that survivors and descendants of the massacre demand, Cymone Davis hopes the oldest surviving all-Black, Creek Freedman town of Tullahassee, Oklahoma will be included in this once-in-a-century cultural revitalization.

“I feel like I’ve been called home to advocate,” Davis said.

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2 comments

Nicole Michelle May 17, 2021 - 10:53 pm

Very excited to good things unfold. Thank you for sharing.

Ronald Grant July 25, 2021 - 2:59 am

I can remember the fierce rivalries between Tullahassee and Muskogee Manual. Bringing back these predominantly(can’t say all black anymore.some whites has moved in most of them)Black towns would give people.in Muskogee and Wagoner something to do and showcase again. I’m actually not shocked that whites in Wagoner don’t support efforts to revitalize a black community in its County. Thst would mean blacks spending their money with blacks instead of sending white kids to college.

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