Can an All-Black Boarding School Bring an Education Revolution?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this big idea could transform a town — and education writ large.
By Kristi Eaton
- Cymone Davis, 30, is launching a Black boarding school in Tullahassee, Oklahoma, the oldest all-Black town in Indian Territory.
- It’s designed to revive a struggling small town and be a shining star at a time when the education system is failing Black students.
The town started with a school. In 1850, the Creek Nation opened a school that became the focal point for a community of formerly enslaved people. In 1881, the Creeks handed over Tullahassee, Oklahoma, to the Black residents, and it now stands as the oldest surviving historic all-Black town in Indian Territory.
The forgotten, complicated history of small towns that sprung up at the end of slavery — which was practiced by some Native tribes as well as Southern whites — was one elevated by education. Tullahassee’s African Methodist Episcopal Church ran Flipper Davis College in the early 20th century, but it closed its doors for good in 1935.
With the town’s population fallen from 200 to 100, and little economic opportunity in this rural patch about 45 minutes from Tulsa, Cymone Davis has an unlikely idea to revive a forgotten place: a boarding school.
I originally thought this was revolutionary, but then after doing research, I realized this is how we used to do things.
Davis, 30, is the new city manager of Tullahassee, and the town’s only full-time employee. She’s not even an Oklahoma native. She has, however, taught 11th- and 12th-grade students in Kansas City, Kansas, and worked for a nonprofit organization that partnered with Kansas school districts. And she is passionate about creating a beacon for Black excellence in the form of a private independent institution for Black students ages 12 to 18. It’s still in the very early stages of development, but it already has a name: Kingdom Come International. And it will focus on STEAM education, self-sufficiency and project- and work-based learning. She hopes to have two levels of education at the school, like middle and high school, but the terminology may be different.
Davis arrived in Oklahoma from Kansas City in mid-2020 as part of the Tulsa Remote program, which pays participants to relocate to Tulsa and work remotely. She soon afterward found a job as city manager in Tullahassee, about 45 minutes away.
“How did I end up here and have this career shift so suddenly?” Davis says that as a researcher, she reads a lot — and found this line of work compelling. She also has a city manager mentor who flew out and helped her learn about everything from property taxes to ordinances and charters. “I’m now speaking languages I never had to speak or process,” she says.
In working on economic development planning, there have been a lot of opportunities for growth and experimentation. For example, the town recently held a lighting ceremony and block party, showcasing a community that was once struggling to survive, she says. “This town was literally on the brink of dying,” Davis adds.
Davis, who says she is spiritual, was praying in November 2018. She was disheartened by the education system and was searching for a new intentional solution while engaging learning.
“Around 2 a.m., I went to sleep and was awakened by a voice that said, ‘You are to start a Black boarding school.’ I got out of my bed, started pacing my apartment and taking notes on what I was hearing from my spirit. The rest is history.”
Black boarding schools also have a rich history. Before the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, there were more than 100 Black boarding schools in the United States. “I originally thought this was revolutionary, but then after doing research, I realized this is how we used to do things,” she says. Davis is working with architecture firms to determine how much the endeavor will cost and has started meeting with organizations who may be able to act as sponsors so she can take donations. She is unsure at the moment when the school will open.
Tullahassee Mayor Keisha Currin notes that the town had its own boarding school that evolved into Flipper Davis College.
“Tullahassee is a community that was built on love after slavery,” Currin says. “Tullahassee was much bigger than what it is now. And it can be that way again. I want people to know that Tullahassee is here and we will do more than survive. Tullahassee will thrive again.”
Jamel Donnor, an associate professor of education at The College of William and Mary, notes that during the height of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, African Americans established a number of private and independent schools across the United States. Some questions Davis might consider, Donnor says, are: timeline, curriculum, teacher selection and key metrics to determine student achievement and progress. “Because schools are pillars, if not building blocks of a community, issues regarding quality are paramount,” he says.
Donnor points out that public schools are nearly as segregated now as they were at the time of the Brown decision in 1954. “Moreover, the educational fortunes of African Americans, quality-wise, have not improved writ large,” he says. “That said, one could argue, as some scholars have, that since we as a society are already racially and socially economically separated, the least we can be is equal.”
A graduate of Claflin University, a historically Black university in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Davis, who holds master’s degrees in media studies and education, is Tullahassee’s first employee in what she estimates has been more than a decade. The mayor works on a volunteer basis.
A fan of baths, which she calls her hydrotherapy, Davis also enjoys traveling and reading. She recently turned to the Harry Potter series to learn more about her next venture. “I wanted to find tropes about boarding schools that were fun — that were about learning and engaging,” she says. “It was this holistic way of teaching a child from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep.”
She also is a football fan by family necessity: Her identical twin brothers were drafted into the NFL this year, playing on the defensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
These days, she spends most of her time rustling up support for her school while being followed by a documentary film crew.
“This is a big idea,” she says in a video promoting her efforts, “a big journey that takes so many small, various steps.”
- Kristi Eaton, OZY Author Contact Kristi Eaton