Caire: The Black Hands That Built America

Kaleem Caire wrote a guest column in the August 2020 issue of Madison Magazine.
Kaleem Caire
Photo Courtesy of Kaleem Caire

Who would have thought, after graduating from Madison West High School in 1989 with a 1.56 GPA and a C-average in my high school English classes, that I would be writing an editorial for this magazine 31 years later?

It’s important to have friends like Neil Heinen, who normally writes a monthly column in Madison Magazine but found it important to give me a space to share a unique view of our city and the time we live in. It was also important that I attended a historically Black college after serving three years in the U.S. Navy immediately after high school.

Hampton University, located in Hampton, Virginia, is known for producing historical Black figures such as Booker T. Washington, and national leaders in education, business, industry and government. It was the first school where I had a Black teacher, learned about the extraordinary contributions Black people made to this country and developed the inspiration and motivation to routinely work past midnight to earn my 4.0 GPA. More importantly, it was where I learned, in wonderful detail, that Black hands built America.

For at least seven generations, my family has called the United States home. For the last 113 years, or five generations, we have called Madison home. My grandfather’s uncle Samuel Pierce was the first family member to settle in this city. He was a porter on the Chicago and North Western Railway Co. train that ran between Chicago and Minneapolis. As a native of New Orleans, he chose Madison as his residence because it was a good midway stop on his route. With the help of a few Black families who lived in Madison, he purchased a home currently at 1442 E. Williamson St.

It was in this home, which still stands, where Sam’s mother Hettie Pierce, a freed slave born in captivity on Jan. 1, 1829, and who lived on Southern plantations until 1867, would spend the last 34 years of her amazing and tumultuous 115-year life.

When slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865, there were three things that grandma Hettie wanted that was common among freed men and women of her day. First, she wanted to find her family members who were shipped off like cattle to tend cotton, sugar and tobacco fields in the blazing heat, construct homes, buildings and railroads from sunrise to sunset, and contribute, without benefit, to the seeds of white wealth and America’s growing agricultural and manufacturing economies. Second, she wanted to ensure that local and state laws were passed that would enable this nation’s builders to move beyond the limitations that slavery, Black Codes and later, Jim Crow, imposed on them. Third, she was exceedingly dedicated to ensuring that her 11 children received a formal education.

Prior to emancipation, it was illegal for slaves to be educated in the South. The year slavery ended, 89% of all Black Americans were held captive by our nation’s plantation system. It was estimated that only 10% could read and write.

I wonder what grandma Hettie and her contemporaries would think if they knew that 155 years after slavery ended, only 18% of Black children in America, and 12% of Black children in Madison, would be reading at grade level in 4th grade. I wonder what she’d think about Black and brown Americans who allow this, and white Americans who either turn a blind eye to it, don’t care about it, conveniently blame the uncompensated builders’ offspring for it, or do very little with their power and resources to help change it.

Think about this for a moment. In 155 years, the United States has become the most powerful and productive nation on the planet. Yet, 15 decades after emancipation and 52 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Kerner Commission formally implicated white racism as the primary reason Blacks weren’t moving forward as a people, Black reading rates are all too similar. Black America is too quiet, and white America is lucky we don’t riot.

Kaleem Caire is founder and CEO of One City Schools.