Olivia Davis - The University of Tulsa

Olivia Davis

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 a 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 the various Black History Month events on campus this February!

Study abroad in Ghana

Many students use summer as a break from studying, turning instead to work or internships and, if they’re able, relaxing. One University of Tulsa student who chose a different path this year was music major Olivia Davis. Between her junior and senior year, this adventurous soul packed her suitcase and headed to the University of Ghana, where she enrolled in two intensive courses.

woman with long black hair crouching near a rock formation
Olivia Davis at Shai Hills Resource Reserve

Davis’s time in West Africa was made possible by a Frederick Douglass Summer Scholars Grant, which is awarded to qualified students who applied for but were not chosen for the Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship. Recipients are given funding to support their participation in a CIEE study-abroad program. In Davis’s case, she opted for Summer Ghanaian Studies.

“I chose to study in Ghana because I find that a lot of courses centered on African and African American history are difficult (at least for me) to be fully immersed in the material while studying at a predominantly white institution,” said Davis. “I wanted to be able to go to the source to learn about my history and fully experience the richness of Ghanaian culture.”

History, language and travel

Between arriving on June 13 and departing on July 12, Davis took a course on the Atlantic slave trade and another on Twi, one of the many languages spoken in Ghana. In addition to her studies, Davis volunteered with an organization called Play and Learn (PAL), serving as a mentor and tutor for a group of middle- and high-school students in reading comprehension, dictation and essay writing.

woman with long black hair holding a large orange-yellow cocoa pod
Olivia Davis at Tetteh Quarshie Cocoa Farm

While helping at PAL, Davis was struck by the fact the material the children were reading lacked cultural and ethnographic representation and diversity. This stood out to Davis, in part, due to her work at Fulton Street Books and Coffee, located in Tulsa’s Heights neighborhood, whose mission is to bridge the gap between representation and diversity in literature by highlighting books written by and for people of color. “As a Black woman,” Davis commented, “I know that it makes quite an impact to read, learn and be surrounded by those that look like me.”

For Davis, a major benefit of being physically present in Ghana was the ability to go with other study abroad students to sites related to the material they covered in class. These places included the W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Centre, the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum (Nkrumah was Ghana’s first president) and Black Star (Independence) Square. Davis and her fellow students even had the opportunity to try haggling in Twi with vendors at the Accra art market: “Twi became easier once I used the language outside of the classroom. I loved surprising Ghanaians by speaking Twi in conversations!”

Among all the many fascinating excursions, Davis’s trip to the former slave trade embarkation points of Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle was, she said, “the most moving and unforgettable part of the program. Being able to physically step into spaces that harbor such an unjust, sinister history was a lot more overwhelming than I had expected.” Despite the emotional impact of these blood-soaked sites, “I found that it was necessary to go there to understand the reality of the conditions. By stepping into the dungeons and walking through the castles, I was able to experience the conditions in real time and to relate what I read about in my coursework directly to an experience I was able to see and feel.”

Intangible rewards

Beyond the new knowledge her courses provided and the physical immediacy of field trips, Davis’s time abroad illuminated for her several intangible benefits: “Ghana is a very peaceful country and there is a sense of community that is simply not found in America. I think of places like the markets we’d go to and the hospitable and friendly nature of everyone, despite me being an outsider.”

four people seated around an outdoor picnic table in a tropical setting
Left to right: Mitch Deckard, University of Texas at Austin; Destiny Shippy, Woffard College; Leo Kim, Occidental College; Olivia Davis, University of Tulsa. At One Africa Resort in Elmina

Davis was surprised and impressed by how welcoming everyone in Ghana was, “even though each of us came from very different backgrounds and demographics. We were seen as people wanting to learn more about their culture and way of life. I never felt judged and looked at differently for being American.”

Her summer experience in Africa also brought home to Davis “the value of immersive education and the need for community in education and life.” Living and learning in Ghana, she said, “taught me how to be more intentional with my relationships towards others. I deepened my sense of the impact even the simplest of conversations can have on an individual, and my time abroad helped me to solidify the need for more meaningful and intentional practices in my own life despite cultural or language barriers.”

Now back home in Tulsa, this semester Davis is enrolled in a history course entitled “Africans in the Americas from Slavery to Freedom.” She is looking forward to sharing what she learned in the classroom at the University of Ghana and in the field at the sites she visited.

Diversity in musicianship

woman smiling while laying down on the floor of a long wooden suspension bridge
Olivia Davis at Legon Botanical Gardens, Accra

Davis’s fascination with global languages, cultures and histories plays out, too, when she looks at life after graduation. “I hope to explore ethnomusicology further and be able to research the importance of music in non-Western cultures,” she remarked. “Within the music field, I’ve found there is often an erasure of indigenous music and music composed by people of color. I aspire to research, create and curate music and allow first-story narratives of music into spaces that celebrate and educate listeners about diversity in musicianship.”

Associate Professor of Music in Voice Judith Raiford is one of the many at TU who has no doubt that Davis will achieve her lofty ambitions. “I first met Olivia after her impressive performance of Cinderella in the musical Into the Woods at Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences,” Raiford recounted. “I’ve been privileged to be her voice teacher at TU ever since and have been continually amazed and inspired by her musical growth and intellectual curiosity.

“As Olivia was determined to use her music major to explore her interests in the African American experience, we began to seek out new repertoire together-embracing a journey of discovery that has enriched my own awareness and understanding of the African-American culture and its history. With Olivia’s gentle soul and her unwavering commitment to advocating for underrepresented peoples in underprivileged communities, I look forward to seeing how she impacts the world with her passion and grace.”

If Olivia Davis’s expansion of mind and spirit in Ghana inspires you, be sure to check in with TU’s Center for Global Engagement.