If you really concentrate, you can imagine the town that this community’s elders describe. There was the grocery store on the highway, and the gas station. There were the shops where children walked to buy lunch for 50 cents on school days. There was Ms. Sadie’s chicken shack and Dr. Minn’s office. All of that’s gone now. In their place, either vacant lots or dilapidated buildings.
Today, you’re more likely to see loose dogs than people on Lincoln Street, the town’s main drag. There are a couple of horses in a yard just across from the town hall, which used to be the center of a bustling commercial district. Now, Lincoln Street has a handful of homes, the low-slung cinder-block town hall, two churches and just one storefront, Bates Barbecue.
The once-thriving all-Black town of Tullahassee was ravaged by government policies that divested it and other Black communities, said Mayor Keisha Currin. And she says the city is owed reparations to get back on its feet.
Last year, Currin joined Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity (MORE), a group founded by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. It counts more than a dozen mayors across the country as members, and its goal is to become a laboratory for new reparations programs that address slavery and the decades of explicitly anti-Black government policies that followed.
“There’s never been a moment like this in American history,” said Ron Daniels, convener of the National African American Reparations Commission. “I’ve worked on this issue my entire adult life, and it’s only recently that I’ve seen reparations move from the political fringes to the mainstream of discourse.
“There are initiatives that are sprouting up daily all across the country, and that’s a recognition of the growing demand, and of the generational damages and harms not only of enslavement but all of the legacies of enslavement, all the racially discriminatory policies, including redlining and policies like the GI Bill where Black people were excluded,” Daniels said.
As the idea of reparations is being explored in communities across the country, Tullahassee stands out. In addition to being the smallest member of the MORE coalition — population 83 — it has a unique connection to the idea of reparations. Other cities are seeking ways to redress the harm they inflicted on their Black residents; Tullahassee was the victim, not the perpetrator, of racist policies. Oklahoma’s Jim Crow laws, banks’ refusal to lend money to residents and businesses, and the fear that engulfed people as the government stood by and allowed White mobs to ravage and destroy the nearby Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, all helped bring down Tullahassee. Its vision of reparations involves finding resources to rebuild the town and, by doing so, creating a blueprint for the hundreds of all-Black communities that once dotted the United States and drew African Americans fleeing racial violence.
“Oklahoma’s Black communities are overdue,” said Mayor Currin, 38, a fourth-generation Tullahassee resident. “Tullahassee has always been in a fight, always fighting to exist and always fighting to thrive. You’re talking about decades of withheld funding and opportunities for these towns. So we are owed reparations, reparations to rebuild all of our Black communities.”