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When Cymone Davis, former city manager of Oklahoma’s historically all-Black town of Tullahassee, desired to scale up her research to uncover Black towns from across the nation, she ran into roadblocks.
Determined to create a resource for people across the diaspora to learn about the rich, yet buried history of the United States’ all-Black towns and settlements, she eventually partnered with a Boston-based organization to achieve her goal.
In April 2022, Black Towns Municipal Management founder Cymone Davis and Next Leadership Development Corporation’s Dr. Atyia Martin unveiled the nation’s first-ever interactive map of historic Black towns and settlements. The groundbreaking resource showcases 82 settlements that prove the resilience, grit and power of Black people throughout U.S. history.
“The more support we have to build and create digital storytelling, on-the-ground storytelling, the more we can provide these Black towns,” Cymone Davis told The Black Wall Street Times. “This is only the beginning of leveraging partnerships. We’re getting information on the daily since the release of the mapping tool in April.”
Interactive Black Towns Map
A full list of towns featured in the map includes 18 towns and settlements in Texas, 14 in Oklahoma, six in North Carolina, five in New York, four in Florida, three each in Indiana and Illinois, two each in six additional states and one each in 10 additional states.
“There’s the consistent messaging that communicates who Black people are,” Boston-based Next Leadership Development Corporation founder and executive director Dr. Atyia Martin told The Black Wall Street Times. Her organization oversaw the project.
She referenced an Isi zulu phrase, sala bono, which translates to “we see you.”
“Our creator, our ancestors see you and bear witness to your presence, your struggle, your joy. It’s important because we’ve been invisible. When people can’t see you, can’t connect those dots, people don’t care. [Being invisible] makes it easier for stereotypes to sink in,” Dr. Martin added.
Building renewed awareness, resources for Black towns
Many of the Black towns represented on the map still exist, such as Tullahassee, Oklahoma and Sag Harbor, New York. Yet, the map also includes towns that were lost to history, such as through racist attacks or due to the U.S. government clearing them away through eminent domain.
Seneca Village in New York represents one of those victims of the government. Today, it’s known as Central Park.
Proving that Black towns and settlements have been integral to the history of the U.S., one of the earliest Black settlements existed before the founding of the U.S. Fort Mose in Florida was founded in 1738 and represents the first free Black settlement in what is now the United States, according to the interactive map.
Another early Black settlement, Freedmen’s Village, was founded during the Civil War in 1863. Today, the Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon sit on the land that Black people once cultivated and grew into a thriving community.
“[This] work is very important personally and professionally,” Davis said, noting that with 14 operational today, Oklahoma currently has the most Black towns.
“More Money,” more recognition
For her part, Cymone Davis has been incredibly busy since stepping up as Tullahassee’s city manager during the pandemic.
She helped bring national attention and resources to the community, with the town joining a nationwide coalition of cities seeking reparations through the MORE coalition: Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity.
As founder of Kingdom Come International, Davis is building a Black boarding school in Tullahassee for the African diaspora. By utilizing an NFL grant and with support from Tulsa-based nonprofit Racism Stinks, the Black Towns Municipal Management founder and CEO also produced and starred in a music video titled “More Money” to create a social movement around reparations and equity.
“We have a trillion in collective buying power [ as Black people], yet we are one of the most impoverished groups,” Davis told The Black Wall Street Times. As a current University of Southern California student studying the Transatlantic Slave Trade, she’s determined to break down those disparities.
While she was still seeking resources as city manager of Tullahassee in Oklahoma, Davis came across Dr. Atyia Martin of Boston-based Next Leadership Development Corporation.
“It felt as if the synergies were in alignment. We were on paths trying to figure out how to create sustainability with this work,” Davis said.
Showcasing Black peoples’ contributions to America
According to Dr. Martin, Next Leadership Development supports and cultivates community through food deliveries, gift cards, covid tests and masks on the local level. Meanwhile, on the national level the organization supports Black leadership, professional development, data storytelling and racial justice literacy.
“It really was a reminder of the power of supporting people in trying to make their concepts and goals come alive,” Dr. Martin said as leader of the organization that oversaw the interactive map project.
“It’s a missed opportunity if we don’t understand the breadth and scope of how Black people contributed to America,” Dr. Martin added.
Dr. Martin, whose daughter helped her find and catalog many of the images of the historic Black towns found on the map, said she hopes the map will serve as a reminder of the power history has to help us understand ourselves. She also hopes it will help future generations not to lose their connections to their roots.
“And it was through actually seeing all of these faces of all these black families that made it real,” Dr. Martin added.
“In absence of history we feel like we’re floating in the universe,” she said.
Interactive map provides a blueprint for federal support
As far as Cymone Davis is concerned, the creation of the interactive map helps build bridges to federal support for marginalized, yet resilient communities.
“This is a unique way that government infrastructure can centralize that support in helping leverage the economic power of Black people,” Davis said. On the local level, she wants the map utilized in the classroom. She calls it a digital road map.
As a child, Davis said she didn’t know her great-great grandmother, whom she’s named after, was from Tullahassee. She said having access to that knowledge would’ve empowered her from an early age.
“There’s tangible ways of learning that we can use this mapping tool in the classroom but also when it comes to private and public sectors when giving dollars to Black people,” Davis said.
Resources used to construct the interactive map include U.S. Census data, Blackpast.org, the National Park Service and the National Library of Congress. The map includes 81 U.S. settlements and one in Canada at the end of the Underground Railroad.
But for Cymone Davis and Dr. Atyia Martin, the work to catalog and honor these Black towns is just beginning.
“Some people say in Texas alone there were over 500, so we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Davis said.