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When Cymone Davis, former city manager of Tullahassee, a historically all-black town in Oklahoma, wanted to do more research to uncover black towns across the country, she ran into roadblocks.
Determined to create a resource for people across the diaspora to discover the rich but buried history of all-black cities and settlements in the United States, she eventually partnered with a Boston-based organization to achieve her goal.
In April 2022, Black Towns Municipal Management founder Cymone Davis and Dr. Atyia Martin of Next Leadership Development Corporation unveiled the country’s first-ever interactive map of historic black towns and settlements. The groundbreaking resource features 82 settlements that prove the resilience, courage, and power of Black people throughout United States history.
“The more support we have to build and create digital storytelling, on-the-ground storytelling, the more we can deliver to these black cities,” Cymone Davis told the Black Wall Street Times. “This is just the beginning of a leverage effect on partnerships. We have been receiving information on a daily basis since the mapping tool was released in April.
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Interactive map of black cities
A comprehensive list of cities featured on the map includes 18 cities 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 message that communicates who black people are,” Dr. Atyia Martin, founder and executive director of the Boston-based Next Leadership Development Corporation, told the Black Wall Street Times. His 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 fight, your joy. It is important because we have been invisible. When people can’t see you, can’t connect those dots, people don’t care. [Being invisible] facilitates the integration of stereotypes,” added Dr. Martin.
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Building Renewed Awareness, Resources for Black Cities
Many black towns depicted on the map still exist, such as Tullahassee, Oklahoma and Sag Harbor, New York. Yet the map also includes cities that have been lost to history, for example due to racist attacks or because the US government eliminated them through eminent domain.
Seneca Village in New York is one such victim of government. Today it is known as Central Park.
Proving that black cities and settlements are an integral part of US history, one of the first black settlements existed before the founding of the United States. Fort Moses 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 former black settlement, Freedmen’s Village, was founded during the Civil War in 1863. Today, Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon sits on land that blacks once farmed and have grown into a thriving community.
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“[This] the job 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 becoming Tullahassee City Manager during the pandemic.
She helped bring national attention and resources to the community, with the city joining a national coalition of cities demanding reparations through the MORE coalition: Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity.
As founder of Kingdom Come International, Davis built a black boarding school in Tullahassee for the African diaspora. Using an NFL grant and with support from Tulsa-based nonprofit Racism Stinks, the founder and CEO of Black Towns Municipal Management also produced and starred in a music video called “More Money” to create a social movement around reparations and equity.
“We have a trillion in collective purchasing power [ as Black people], but we are one of the poorer groups,” Davis told the Black Wall Street Times. As a current student at the University of Southern California studying the transatlantic slave trade, she is determined to eliminate these disparities.
While still seeking resources as city manager of Tullahassee, Oklahoma, Davis met Dr. Atyia Martin of Boston-based Next Leadership Development Corporation.
“It was as if the synergies were aligned. We were on paths trying to figure out how to create sustainability with this work,” Davis said.
Showcase the contributions of black peoples to America
According to Dr. Martin, Next Leadership Development supports and cultivates the community through food deliveries, gift cards, covid testing and masks at the grassroots level. Meanwhile, nationally, the organization supports black leadership, professional development, data storytelling and racial justice literacy.
“It was really a reminder of the power of helping people try to bring their concepts and goals to life,” said Dr Martin as the head of the organization that oversaw the interactive map project.
“It’s a missed opportunity if we don’t understand the scale and scope of black people’s contribution to America,” Dr. Martin added.
Dr Martin, whose daughter helped her find and catalog many of the images of 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 to understand us. She also hopes it will help future generations not lose their connection to their roots.
“And it was seeing all these faces of all these black families that it became a reality,” added Dr. Martin.
“With no story, we feel like we’re floating in the universe,” she said.
Interactive map provides blueprint for federal support
For Cymone Davis, the creation of the interactive map helps build bridges toward federal support for marginalized but resilient communities.
“It’s a unique way for the government infrastructure to centralize that support by helping to leverage black economic power,” Davis said. Locally, she wants the card to be used in the classroom. She calls it a digital roadmap.
As a child, Davis said she didn’t know her great-great-grandmother, whom she is named after, was from Tullahassee. She said that having access to this knowledge would have strengthened her from an early age.
“There are tangible ways to learn that we can use this mapping tool in the classroom, but also when it comes to the private and public sectors when we give money to black people,” Davis said.
Resources used to build the interactive map include US Census data, Blackpast.org, the National Park Service, and the National Library of Congress. The map includes 81 American colonies 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 cities has only just begun.
“Some people are saying that in Texas alone there were over 500, so we have a lot of work to do,” Davis said.