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Joining a group of U.S. mayors in pursuing a path to reparations, Oklahoma’s historically all-Black town of Tullahassee has enlisted Lieutenant Governor Matt Pinnell to join its advisory commission.
A few months ago, City Manager Cymone Davis organized a community cleanup to revitalize Tullahassee, Oklahoma’s oldest surviving all-Black town. She didn’t know what to expect.
Months later, after renewed interest in the community, a trip to Los Angeles, and national media exposure, she and Tullahassee Mayor Keisha Currin are embarking on a path they hope can be replicated in other communities across the country.
“We’re looking at a new blueprint for how townships can be for Black people,” Davis said in an interview with The Black Wall Street Times.
Confirming his appointment in a phone call with The Black Wall Street Times, Lt. Gov. Pinnell said Tullahassee represents an important part of the state’s history and culture.
“I’m proud to be on the Tullahassee advisory commission and work with other leaders to foster equity and prosperity within this community,” Pinnell said.
Reparations denied for decades
Since the end of the Civil War, generations of Black Americans have been offered racism over restitution. Political power has switched between Democrat and Republican over the past 150-plus years like a pendulum. Meanwhile, reparations remain a seemingly distant dream.
That hasn’t stopped Black legislators from taking matters into their own hands. For three decades up until his death in 2019, Rep. John Conyers from Detroit, MI drafted and supported legislation called H.R. 40 that would study reparations for Black people on a national scale. In recent years, Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) has taken up the torch, reintroducing the legislation each session.
This summer, the bill went further than it ever had in its three-decade history.
In April, the House Judiciary Committee voted 25-17 to establish a 13-person commission to “study the lasting effects of slavery and racial discrimination throughout the country’s history. The panel would submit findings and recommendations, including compensation to Black Americans, to Congress. The committee sent the bill to the House floor for a full vote, where it has lingered for months.
Push for reparations moves to cities
Yet, with Congress in a stalemate over infrastructure, voting rights, and other legislation, there doesn’t appear to be an appetite to send H.R. 40 to the Senate any time soon.
Meanwhile, states and cities have stepped in to prove what’s possible.
This year, California became the first state to establish a task force to study ways to remedy harms against Black Californians. Los Angeles followed suit when it announced an advisory committee to study a reparations pilot program for its Black residents. The announcement came as a group of 11 mayors announced the formation of a coalition of cities that would undertake similar pilot programs.
As a city manager tirelessly working to revitalize one of the oldest surviving Black towns of the West, Cymone Davis found herself getting invited into the MORE (Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity) coalition as its smallest member-city. She eventually got connected to the Mayor’s Office of Los Angeles just in time to join their announcement of the coalition.
The coalition, which has grown to 13 members, includes Los Angeles; Sacramento; Calif.; Denver; Stockton, Calif.; St. Louis; Kansas City, MO; Austin, TX; Providence, RI; Durham, NC; Asheville, NC; Carrboro, NC; St. Paul, Minn.; and Tullahassee, Okla.
30-day cleanup results in national exposure
Previously, we highlighted Tullahassee’s 30-day clean up in June, when City Manager Davis organized revitalization efforts to restore the historic A.J. Mason Building, school sites, and to repave gravel-laden roads. “I feel quite amazed” about the turnout, said Davis, who felt determined to represent Tullahassee in the best way possible on the 100-Year anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Tullahassee originally began in 1850 as a settlement for a school run by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. It was during a time when several Tribes, along with Southern Whites, enslaved people of African descent. By 1881, the Tribe turned it over to a community of Black Freedmen.
Roughly 45 minutes outside of Tulsa in rural Wagoner County, Tullahassee boasted a thriving community, a refuge from the explicitly racist elements of the State. For instance, after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, some residents of Tulsa even fled as far as Tullahassee, seeking safety.
While its population has been reduced to barely 100 today, the tenacity and vision of its leaders are inspiring a rebirth and an earnest study into what reparations could look like for a historically all-Black town.
Keisha Currin is mayor of Tullahassee. Her family has lived there for generations.
“Slavery has played a huge part in my family and in my community,” Currin previously told media. “This program is going to show our community that we care.”
Building the reparations advisory commission
When seeking members for the commission, Davis said she sought to have seven qualified members who can each bring a unique perspective or resource to the commission, similar to the ones formed by the other cities. With all seven members chosen, Davis said Lt. Gov Pinnell remains the first and only White member.
“What I have decided to do strategically is to recruit not just within the town of Tullahassee but within the state of Oklahoma,” Davis said.
She met with Lt. Gov. Pinnell personally at the office of Black Businesswoman Charity Marcus in downtown Tulsa. There she shared with him the news around the 30-day cleanup and the resulting exposure. Davis noted that each invitee for the commission received a personally addressed letter.
“I gave him the invitation letter and he didn’t even open it. He was like ‘yes, absolutely.’ He just kept saying yes,” Tullahassee City Manager Cymone Davis said.
According to Davis, each city must meet three requirements to join the MORE coalition:
- Support Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s H.R.40 legislation.
- Form an advisory commission within the city to help guide the mayor on programs and initiatives.
- Once public and private funding is achieved, rollout the pilot program.
“It wasn’t a lot of push and pull to get him to say yes. I just laid it out to him, and he agreed,” Davis added.
Lt. governor wants to bring tourism, economic development to all-Black towns
For his part, Lt. Gov Pinnell told The Black Wall Street Times he believes revitalizing Tullahassee and other historically all-Black towns can be achieved partly through tourism.
“Tourism is the front door to economic development,” Pinnell said. “So if we can develop an all-Black town tourism trail, which we are currently working on in Oklahoma, and get more people visiting these all-Black towns, I’m very optimistic that that will lead to economic development in those communities.”
Pinnell said he wants to help foster job creation in these communities as well. He said it ultimately starts with raising awareness about the existence and history of communities like Tullahassee.
“If a tourist comes to Tulsa to visit Black Wall Street we should have a brochure telling them about the other Black towns we have in Oklahoma. If they have enough interest to go to Black Wall Street, they’ll go to Tullahassee if we tell them about it. Most people in Oklahoma have not been told that history, and we need to teach it again.” Pinnell told TheBWSTimes.
Oklahoma’s motto translates to “labor conquers all.” Lt. Gov. Pinnell said towns like Tullahassee, whose residents created a community barely a generation removed from enslavement, embody what Oklahoma is all about.
“The history there and the grit and determination of the leaders and mayors that are currently running those towns, we just want to come alongside and help. We want to foster economic development but we want to be listening to them first,” Pinnell added.
As a member of the commission, he said he’s already been working to strengthen connections and resources for Tullahassee and other communities.
“I’m making sure that the Department of Commerce is actively involved in these Black towns,” he said.
The Future of Tullahassee
What started as a quest for a location for her soon-to-be Black Boarding School, Kingdom Come International, has morphed into a journey to create a safe haven for Black people across the diaspora. Davis said Tullahassee is a unique member of the MORE coalition because the historically all-Black town isn’t out to right wrongs. Instead, it seeks to create a safe haven.
“We wanted to recreate it as a place for Black families to live and thrive. So, it is timely and also very unique for us to be part of this coalition and for us to lead coalitions for what it looks like for families to be safe,” Davis said.
When asked what she expects for Tullahassee in five years, Davis couldn’t give details on what reparations would look like or where the funding would come from. The commission will sort out those details.
“Five years from now I literally have no idea what to expect because four or five months ago we weren’t even here.”
But she confirmed that the first task on the agenda will be to fully restore the town’s historic A.J. Mason Building as a cultural museum and welcome center. The commission will hold its first closed-door meeting in Tulsa in mid-October, according to Davis.
Excited for the future, Davis highlighted the fact that mere months after the state’s governor banned the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools, Tullahassee has enlisted the Lt. Gov. to join its advisory commission on reparations and equity.
“We’re doing some work here. We’re doing some powerful work.”