Community comes together: Advocates remember Black history

Community comes together: Advocates remember Black history
Antoinette Grajeda
Special to The Free Weekly

Growing up in southeast Fayetteville in the 1960s and ’70s, Tommie Flowers Davis felt a sense of community within her historically Black neighborhood. She eventually left the tight-knit community as an adult to pursue a degree and career in social work. After 40 years away, she returned to Northwest Arkansas in 2019 following the death of her mother to take care of some family property. Davis has remained in the region, seeking ways to give back.

“I’ve been working on doing things to enhance our community because there’s not been a lot of enhancements done throughout the years,” she says. “So I wanted to do something that was going to make a positive impact.”

To that end, a cousin connected Davis with a small group of people who formed a committee and organized the Southeast Fayetteville Community Reunion Weekend. Originally scheduled for Labor Day weekend in 2021, the event will now take place June 10-12 after being postponed due to covid-19 concerns. While old neighborhood residents may return to the region for events like funerals, Davis wants this reunion to be a celebration of life and living rather than death and dying.

“That’s really the reason behind this is to get the community together, to develop positive relationships and just become unified as a community again,” she says.

Finding ways to support people in the community is something Davis’ mother exemplified. Their family home on Willow Avenue was demolished after a tree fell on it in late 2018. At that point, the house’s footprint had grown to roughly 4,100 square feet thanks to Davis’ mother hiring day workers to construct additions to the building. Creating jobs for these workers and feeding them provided motivation and helped her live a long life, Davis says.

“It was her ministry because she had a chance to have an impact or do something that was positive with those guys back then,” she says.

Davis is once again a member of her childhood community, living in a home next to her mother’s property. Much has changed over the decades, but Davis hopes to collect information at this weekend’s reunion to help preserve some of the neighborhood’s past.

“We’ve lost so much of our history and so many of our elders have also passed, we’ve got to have a way of really telling our story, getting our story in the history books of Fayetteville, because they’re a lot of people that don’t even know we had a Black community,” she says. “So we’re just trying to make sure that our story’s being told by folks that lived it, and we’re able to fellowship and share, and get people in our community aware of what our history is.”


The Southeast Fayetteville Community Reunion Weekend is being presented in collaboration with the Black Heritage Preservation Commission. The purpose of the new group — which was created by the city in August 2021 and had its name amended in March 2022 — is “to recognize, acknowledge, protect and preserve historical Black structures and cemeteries in honor of the vision, accomplishment and perseverance of Fayetteville’s early Black families and individuals, and the churches and other structures they built.”

One of the oldest community buildings still standing in the neighborhood is St. James United Methodist Church. The church was established in 1861 and built on its current site near the intersection of Willow and Center streets in 1883, according to a plaque embedded in the church’s brick exterior.

Although no longer standing, the nearby Lincoln School played a major role in southeast Fayetteville’s African American community. Built in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration for the education of Black students, the school was also located on Willow Avenue in Tin Cup Town, an historically African American settlement in east Fayetteville, according to the Arkansas State Archives.

The school provided education for students from first through eighth grades. For those who wanted to continue their education, the Fayetteville School District allocated a portion of its budget to send those students to the all-Black Lincoln High School in Fort Smith.

Fayetteville’s Lincoln School closed in 1965 following desegregation, and students moved to Bates, Jefferson and Washington elementary schools, according to the district’s website. Because of the closure, Davis attended integrated schools. While she had white friends, she says there were lots of issues with the community transitioning into a desegregated school system. Then superintendent Harry Vandergriff tried to ease tensions by pulling aside Black students like Davis and speaking with them about the discrimination they faced.

“I commend him for trying to address it at that level,” she says. “He did that, and it meant a lot to us that he was interested in trying to make sure we felt safe and comfortable in our environment.”

Living in a predominantly Black neighborhood and attending a predominantly white school district provided Davis with a life lesson about the importance of code-switching — altering one’s appearance, behavior or speech based on your environment.

“What I learned growing up in Fayetteville is that we had two different worlds — we had a Black world and we had a white world, and it was important for you to learn how to function in both of those worlds,” she says.

More than 30 years after desegregating, fellow reunion committee member Tammy Michelle Perry became a teacher in the Fayetteville Public Schools, where she remained for 20 years. Growing up in the southeast part of town, Perry learned the meaning of the phrase “it takes a village,” witnessing mothers and aunties helping look after the neighborhood’s kids.

“That I guess in some ways played a part into how I always looked at race being a teacher, looking out for other people’s kids because in a sense that’s how we were,” she says.

As a child, Perry’s mother encouraged her to participate in activities like piano and ballet, where she often was the only African American participant. Although her experience of discrimination wasn’t always overt, Perry says she was “very aware” she was Black and “was very proud of that.”

“We weren’t necessarily always excluded from things — and I say intentionally excluded — but we weren’t intentionally included,” she says.

Despite any negative experiences, Perry loved growing up in her “fun, safe, close-knit” community, saying she had a wonderful childhood that she wouldn’t trade for anything.

“It taught me that people are people … I had classmates of different ethnicities and even working with kids and families in my professional career, just learning people are people, and there’s good and bad in all races and religions and everything else,” she says.


Unlike a ticketed reunion Davis helped plan in 2007, this year’s event is completely free, and she says it marks the first time the community has planned a large, multi-day homecoming. A meet-and-greet on Friday evening at the Yvonne Richardson Center will be followed by a picnic at Walker Park on Saturday.

The latter will feature speakers sharing stories of their families’ lives in the neighborhood during the last 100 years. One of the oldest living people with ties to the community will turn 102 this year, Perry says.

There will also be an “I remember when…” activity where participants can pass the mic and discuss their different experiences growing up in the region. This may be an informative exercise that provides younger guests with insight into things older generations experienced, Davis says.

“Our community is no longer a community the way we grew up, and so there were kids who have grown up the last few generations that didn’t have the opportunities that we had or the experiences that we had as a community. And so these will be things that they probably haven’t heard either,” she says.

A rapid increase in construction projects gentrifying the southeast part of town is altering the makeup of the old neighborhood. Knowing how hard her mother’s generation fought to keep their homes, Davis is upset to see the community’s transformation.

“It’s really sad to see how it’s changing, and I’m just hoping that the small numbers that we have left will just take care of what they have, enhance what they have,” she says. “And we just have to go with the changes really. It’s sad to see that it’s not really a community anymore, not the way we experienced it.”

Perry shares that nostalgia and sense of loss of what once was. She’s disappointed with the gentrification of the region because it seems like profit, not people, is more important.

“To me it’s about money and people not having a sense of community or caring about older communities … it’s all about buying up land and building up apartments and selling them for a whole lot more than what they’re worth,” she says.

To help reconnect the neighborhood, the three-day reunion will wrap up Sunday with a two-hour Unity in the Community event at which pastors from three historic Black churches will discuss the topic of unity. Everyone is welcome to attend this weekend’s events, not just the neighborhood’s current or past African American residents.

“We’re bringing together the community, but we’re highlighting the African American culture in our community,” Davis says. “So it’s not restricted to just African Americans ‘cause we want everybody to know our history ‘cause it’s not known.”



Southeast Fayetteville Community Reunion Weekend

Meet & Greet & Registration

6 to 10 p.m. Friday

Yvonne Richardson Center, 240 E. Rock St.

Reunion Picnic

3 to 9 p.m. Saturday

Walker Park, 10 W. 15th St.

Unity in the Community

9 to 11 a.m. Sunday

Walker Park, 10 W. 15th St.

For more information about participating in the event, including how to make monetary or in-kind donations, email


Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia freelance journalist. Email her at

Categories: Family Friendly