Celebrating The Center for Black Excellence and Culture

With a mission to address Madison’s public health crisis of racism, the Rev. Dr. Alex Gee Jr. and many other community leaders announce plans for The Center for Black Excellence and Culture.
Alex Gee
Photo by Marla Bergh

Somebody pinch me.

It is not often that I feel as if I am dreaming, and when I do, that surreal moment is usually due to some unfortunate occurrence. This is certainly not the case now. In October 2020, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced an $810,000 gift to The Center for Black Excellence and Culture. In February 2021, the City of Madison approved a $250,000 grant for the project.

Somebody pinch me again!

We truly believe that creating a physical space for Black people to celebrate our culture, pay tribute to our history and nurture future Black leaders will advance the entire community, so we’re thrilled that the county and city’s budgets include support for The Center for Black Excellence and Culture, set to break ground in 2022.

We are still engaged in strategy sessions within our Black community in order to be thorough in our call for input. These sessions will inform and shape the program activities of The Center. However, we already know that The Center will proudly accomplish the following:
• Reinforce a sense of family and community: It will create meaningful opportunities to build strong intergenerational relationships throughout the Black community.
• Celebrate and teach Black culture: It will be Dane County and southern Wisconsin’s central space for learning about and celebrating African diaspora contributions to visual and performing arts, literature and music.
• Pay tribute to Black history: A dedicated gallery will place a special emphasis on teaching Black youth their local, regional, national and world history.
• Nurture and develop Black business and community leaders: The Center will assist Black entrepreneurs in developing and launching business ventures that will benefit the entire greater Madison region and showcase Black excellence in action while creating Black wealth.
• Attract, connect and retain Black talent: In partnership with local businesses, educational institutions and community-based organizations, The Center will provide cultural connection and immersion opportunities for Black professionals.
• Provide space for conversation, connection and Black wellness: The Center will host events and activities designed to bring the entire community together.

This project reminds me of the path that led me to this moment. It was actually the University of Wisconsin–Madison that drew my mother; my sister, Lilada; and me to Madison from Chicago just over 50 years ago. Mom was a 30-year-old single mother headed for divorce from an abusive husband when she, a high school dropout, decided to pursue a college degree. Although the Black population in Madison at the time hovered around 1-3%, my mother found a tiny thriving community of Black UW–Madison returning alumni. In fact, many of us children of those Black adults returning as student parents built community based on our parents’ friendships and coping mechanisms. Some of us remain connected to this day. Although these adult alumni, like my mom, were transplants from Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama and Illinois, they learned to build community together as outsiders, and eventually built community with longtime Madison residents as well.

Alex Gee

Photo by Marla Bergh

My mother earned her undergraduate degree and soon after graduated with honors from her Master of Science in social work graduate program. She paid cash for our tuition at UW–Madison, freeing her children from the future burden of student loan payments. My mother taught us important lessons like giving back, making situations better than how we found them and caring for the disenfranchised. My commitment to greater Madison and Dane County is because this community helped my mother find herself and her joy again. I am a product of Madison’s and its university’s treatment and acceptance of my mom. My work in this community is not for personal gain; rather, it comes out of personal appreciation for her and this place.

I often wonder what my life might be like today if Madison’s revolving door for Blacks had spun my mother out in the early 1970s. What if the revolving doors had spun out her community, or her mentors? And what if I, like so many of our young and talented Blacks who grew up here, had left because of the lack of space for cultural expression, upward mobility and opportunities for creating wealth and stability? I cringe to think. I would not have met my wife or have this amazing family and career.

Earlier this year, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway declared racism a public health crisis for Madison. My community has known this, and frankly, this is why businesses have such a tough time recruiting and retaining Black people to good jobs and careers here. It is killing us to live here under current conditions! What job is worth that? What education is worth that? This, and not other companies, is what local businesses are competing against as they endeavor to adhere to diversity and inclusion initiatives.

We have a solution, and The Center is it. It will not eradicate all forms of racism. However, it will provide a culturally affirming space where we can be surrounded by brilliance, greatness and innovation — Black brilliance, Black greatness and Black innovation. We’ll attract and retain a larger pool of Black professionals for local businesses. Our children will know and celebrate their ancestry and the amazing accomplishments of their ancestors. We will see our brilliance on display in a prominent, aesthetically alluring and historically significant location on the 700 block of West Badger Road in the historic Black neighborhood of South Park Street. And because of the relevance of African diaspora history and contributions, we will proudly and graciously share with non-Black people locally, regionally and nationally. I believe that this is our best opportunity to refute our negative national notoriety around race. This is how we begin to heal the tale of our two cities. And this is how we empower young Black children who will one day be proud to live here and give back to this great city as well.

Somebody pinch me!

The Rev. Dr. Alex Gee Jr. is a guest columnist to Madison Magazine. Gee is lead pastor of Fountain of Life Church and founder and president of Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development. alexgee.com, Instagram @alexgeejr