Black student unions - The University of Tulsa

Black student unions

Gerald Davis and the founding of the Association of Black Collegians

 

One of the most vibrant student organizations at The University of Tulsa is the Association of Black Collegians (ABC). This group was established in 1969 during the midst of civil rights upheaval and desegregation in the United States, when the push for Black student unions at colleges and universities was at an all-time high. Now, over 50 years later, the need for Black student unions is no less crucial.

man standing in front of a brick building wearing a grey cap, white shirt, striped tie and blue blazer
Rev. Gerald L. Davis (BA ’72)

We recently joined TU alumnus and ABC co-founder Reverend Gerald Davis (BSBA ’72) at The Church of the Restoration, where he has ministered every Sunday since 2007, to gain an insider’s perspective on the formation of the organization.

Heeding the call to ministry

Davis did not always know that he was going to be a minister. In fact, upon graduation, he hardly knew what step he was supposed to take next. Davis felt some inclination to go to law school and follow the same path as his eldest brother. He also thought about going to graduate school and getting his master’s in business or finding work at the Office of Juvenile Affairs. In the end, none of those options aligned with his core interests.

During his time at TU, Davis was active with the Canterbury Center for United Ministry (now Little Blue House). It was there that Davis was first introduced to campus minister Thad Holcomb. In addition to campus ministry, Holcomb was also the minister for a conference center run by the Presbyterian church in Abiquiu, New Mexico, called Ghost Ranch. During the summer, Ghost Ranch frequently employed college students as staff and hosted various professors from all over the country. It was there that Davis decided to spend his first summer as a college graduate.

Black and white photo of a young man with dark hair wearing a light-colored shirt and dark tie and blazer
Davis’ senior photo

“It was a really nice summer,” Davis said. “I brought my saxophone because I had played in all the TU bands. The acoustics were beautiful.” While sitting in an arroyo and listening to the sounds, Davis had a religious experience: “All at once a feeling came over me and there were no words. There was just an understanding that said ‘I love you.’” Davis knew from that moment what he was supposed to do with his life.

Luckily for him, Professor David Butrick of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary had been teaching classes at Ghost Ranch that summer and had already taken a liking to Davis. At Butrick’s recommendation, Davis applied to seminary in Pittsburgh where he would later graduate with a master’s in divinity. Davis also received his master’s in social work from the University of Pittsburgh.

Ordained in 1976, Davis has since served as a missionary in Zaire and, closer to home, as associate director of Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries and director of corrections ministry and jail chaplain for Tulsa. He has also served as a co-minister in Denver and now is an affiliate minister at Tulsa’s All Souls Unitarian Church and the minister for the Church of the Restoration. 

The mother of invention

TU is where Davis’ desire to help people began. “Activism is a part of ministry. TU gave me the launching pad,” said Davis, recalling the early days of his activism. While at TU, he joined the Student Association, where he pushed for an outward focus on helping the community.

Black and white photo of two young people conversing outside
Davis and classmate Pat Putnam

Davis also helped operate a 24/7 crisis center hosted by Canterbury Ministries on campus. It was a place where students in distress could go to calm down and talk to someone. It gave Davis an understanding of mental health and, he believes, is likely the reason he chose to pursue social work as a career. However, Davis’ most resounding extracurricular was his role in co-founding the ABC.

Black and white photo of a drum major marching
Drum Major Davis

In his youth, Davis was the only Black student in his high school band and the only Black student on the student council at Sapulpa High School. Davis also served on academic and administrative councils during his time at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he was, once again, the only Black student to serve. “I’ve always been a border walker,” said Davis, and it is for that reason that he emphasizes the importance of organizations like the ABC.  

“Everything starts with a lack,” commented Davis, contemplating the formation of the ABC and his role in that venture. “They say the mother of invention is necessity, and at TU in 1968 when I first walked on campus, there were very, very few African Americans.” 

Davis recalls sharp and articulate classmates William Horn, Shiphrah Williams and Sheryl Arbuckle sharing the same convictions regarding the need for a Black student union. They all reported feeling ostracized and excluded from their university, which claimed to be liberal, and they all felt it necessary to establish an organization founded on inclusivity. 

Headshot of a black woman outside in front of foliage
Professor Cecilia Palmer

Before the ABC could properly establish themselves, they needed bylaws and a sponsor. The University of Oklahoma’s Black Student Union gladly shared its bylaws with the ABC. Soon after, the ABC found a temporary sponsor in Professor of English James Matthews before establishing Associate Professor of Education Cecilia Palmer, the first and only Black professor at TU and a survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, as the group’s official sponsor. 

Once the group found its footing, Williams and other ABC members began writing a column for the Collegian titled “Forever Black.” Davis recalls students rushing to get a copy of the papers: “To hear someone speak from their heart on how it feels to be a Black student on campus was hard for some people to hear, but it started a conversation.”

Proud dad and a powerful legacy

young woman with dark hear, smiling and wearing a white T-shirt
Olivia Davis (Class of 2022)

A lot has changed in 50 years, but Davis’ admiration for his alma mater has not faltered. He is particularly proud of the fact that his daughter, music major Olivia Davis, is set to graduate this spring and is carrying on the legacy started by her father when he was her age.

Having a space that celebrates Black culture and education has been as formative an experience for Olivia as it had been for her father: “ABC has played a huge role in my decision to stay at TU. Community is very important to me and it is sometimes difficult to find spaces around campus that affirm and cater to developing that sense of community.”

Given that their participation in ABC spans half a century, there is a strong sense of legacy between the two Davises. “Being a part of that legacy holds a special place in my heart, and is something precious between me and my father,” said Olivia. 

Organizations like the ABC are as important now as they were 50 years ago for many reasons. Above all, however, is the significance of community and togetherness in these marginalized groups. “You are doing what you’re supposed to do in order to clear a path for those who want to follow in your footsteps,” said Davis. “It’s always we. It’s always us.”

Healthy bodies and spirits

Established in North Tulsa in 1999, Davis’ Church of the Restoration has been home to various community programs and religious institutions since its construction in 1947. 

one-level brown brick buildingIn the 1940s, when polio and tuberculosis had yet to be eradicated, having access to a vaccine clinic was crucial. Black North Tulsa residents, however, had access to none. That all changed in 1947, when a group of Tulsa artists and entertainers took note of the fact that Black workers employed in the homes of white families were unvaccinated and without the resources to get vaccinated.

According to Davis, the group, known as The Variety Club, did not want unvaccinated help in their homes, so they resolved to build The Variety Health Clinic on Greenwood Avenue. North Tulsa residents welcomed the clinic with a marching band parade when it finally opened for business. 


Want to stay up to date on future ABC meetings and events? Email tulsau.abc@gmail.com for information on how to get involved and be sure to enjoy out the various Black History Month events on campus this February!