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Black-inspired, Black-designed and Black-led, the Center for Black Excellence & Culture plans on being a game changer

Dr. Rev. Alex Gee

In the heart of Madison’s South Side, the Center for Black Excellence and Culture will be a Black-inspired, Black-designed and Black-led project that will celebrate Black culture. It’s going to be nothing like Madison has ever seen and its founder, Dr. Rev. Alex Gee, believes it will change Wisconsin’s image and reality as it creates a space to grow the next crop of Black thinkers, influencers and leaders.  

“It’s been really cool to see that folks are understanding that the purpose of the Center is to celebrate Blackness, Black contributions and excellence all over the state. So I love the fact that the Green Bay Packers has offered us a challenge grant for a quarter million dollars that we matched and that we’re working closely with the president of the Milwaukee Bucks,” Gee says. The Green Bay Packers Foundation gave a $250,000 matching grant to the Center last year. “These professional organizations know that they’re recruiting athletes here to a state that has reputation for not being the most welcoming place [for African Americans.]

“I’m very, very excited about all of the positive things that will be going on at the Center because I’m tired of our people only being thought of pejoratively,” he adds. “I love the fact that the facility will tell the stories on walls, on touchscreens, on ceilings, on placards, the stories of Black people who have impacted the state of Wisconsin and the region.”

The Center for Black Excellence and Culture is a community-wide effort to bring together a collective Black brilliance to affirm, inspire and advance the Black community in Madison and beyond, according to its mission. For quite some time, it’s been the passion for Gee who spoke to Madison365 via Zoom — with the glorious artist’s rendition of the future Center for Black Excellence and Culture as his Zoom backdrop. Gee says they are on target for breaking ground in the spring of 2024 on the innovative, three-story, 65,000-square-foot space that will be situated on 3.5 acres on the 700 block of W. Badger Road. However, they still need to raise $13 million before that happens. So far, they’ve raised a total of $23 million.

“So we’re down the stretch, which means opening in late 2025. And in light of the pandemic and inflation costs, to still be on target and to still be able to put a beautiful building up … it’s very, very exciting,” Gee tells Madison365.

Dr. Alex Gee celebrates with community members as he announces the Center for Black Excellence and Culture has reached an early fundraising goal back in December of 2021.

In the meantime, Gee says that he is very eager to give the community a taste of what the Center will offer.

“So whether it’s drama or visual arts, or whether it’s lectures or whether it’s gatherings or theatrical vignettes, we’re going to be offering some activities over the next year and a half to give people a sense of the kinds of things that we’re wanting to do,” Gee says. “So I think that’s great, because then people will know the kinds of things that they can come to the center for.

“The stress from having to deal with microaggressions in the absence of your own cultural gathering places to just celebrate and dream and meet each other … is proving to have an impact on our health and our wellness,” he adds. “So we’re really looking at the kinds of activities that restore mental health.”

The Center for Black Excellence and Culture won’t be providing mental health services or mental health programming per se, but Gee says that the Center will be a place for people to rescue, heal and reinforce themselves.

“Let me put it this way, the reason why so many major towns have art districts and cultural districts is because it promotes transcendence. It gives you a chance to reflect on your history and realize we’ve overcome so much. It’s a way of looking in the mirror and realizing we’re smart, we’re successful. We’ll get through this – this too will pass,” Gee says. “But we don’t have that in great number in Madison. They’re not places we can go to reflect on Black programming, Black art, and Black theater that’s designed by Black people, programmed by Black people, and cast by Black people.

“So what we’re realizing is that by putting our efforts into celebrating excellence, remembering our culture, looking at our contributions, meeting each other, networking, creating, innovating, developing leaders, that that’s going to have a profound impact on the wellness of Black people because social isolation, as we found out through the pandemic, can kill anyone,” he adds. “But because it exists in the preponderance of the Black community, just being a part of this environment is hazardous to our health. The Center is working to provide this port in the storm for the Black community.”

The Center for Black Excellence and Culture is no longer a local phenomenon … it has been getting some statewide and national attention, too. Gee says that he wants people to come from around the state to experience the kinds of cultural celebrations, visual and performing arts activities, leadership development, and creative spaces.

Artist rendition of the future Center for Black Excellence and Culture

“For a smaller city. There are a lot of people who are connected to Madison because they lived here or they love people who live here,” Gee says. “There are others who are connected to Madison because of a perceived understanding of Madison being more progressive and liberal and so they’re intrigued that we’re having to do this in Madison.

“But the other reason that this is getting traction is that the solution is Black-led. It’s not just more ‘let’s make people more dependent’ or “let’s focus on the deficits and giving people more social services rather than helping them to thrive.’ Our big focus is we want Black people to thrive and not just survive. And this will be a place where we will teach that from young kids all the way to older folks. And so I’m really excited that this is closer to becoming a reality.”

Gee has seen decades upon decades of well-meaning white people in Madison continuously providing solutions and giving advice on what they think Black people need. On the contrary, many of the things that they will be doing at the Center for Black Excellence & Culture will come under the heading of “Black-led solutions.”

“A lot of what’s offered for solutions for Black people in Wisconsin are not created by Black people. So we’re creating space to center the Black community and Black-led research,” Gee says. “We’ve been around Madison for a long time and we’ve seen so many stories about why Wisconsin is so tough on Black people and why it’s not a great place for us to live … yet so many Black people are thriving. Why aren’t there papers being written on what has been that secret sauce for those of us who have been able to do well here? Why aren’t we studying that? Why are we only studying the negative things?

“And so we want to take a look at the strength and resilience of the Black community by interviewing the Black community, engaging them in the research process, hiring residents as researchers to work with us so that we begin to create solutions that we can offer to other communities and to businesses and universities to better understand the capacity of the Black community to thrive and succeed.”

This picture of the former car wash on West Badger Road next to Fountain of Life Covenant Church, taken in 2014 before it was demolished, will be the site of the new Center for Black Excellence and Culture.
(Photo by A. David Dahmer)

Gee is also the pastor of Fountain of Life Church, located right next to the future Center. He is the founder/CEO of the nonprofit Nehemiah Center of Urban Leadership Development and a lifelong Madison Southsider. His mother, Verline Gee, brought her young children to Madison from Chicago just over a half-century ago to pursue a new life and provide a brighter future and the Gee family now consists of three generations of UW-Madison graduates.

The south side of Madison has always been their home, but with all of the wonderful construction — including a new home for Centro Hispano and a new Black Business Hub for the Urban League of Greater Madison — the area is going through a Renaissance. The Center, whose design is the work of Rafeeq Asad of JLA Architects, has a chance to be a game changer, too.

“South Madison has always been a very rich community. I’m excited to see the south corridor getting this kind of attention. I’m excited about becoming one of the crowning jewels because you’ll see us from the Beltline and sort of draw people in. I love that,” Gee says. “But I also love the fact that Karen [Menendez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano] and Ruben [Anthony, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison] and I and others in this area are really committed to ending the gentrification. We’re building this to remind the broader community that there is a place where people can come from all around the state to remember the contributions of Black people in the state of Wisconsin.

“And so we’re doing this so that South Madison can continue to be a place where people of color can live and thrive. We’re not doing this so that white developers can now come in and take advantage of enhanced properties. We want to make a really strong statement that South Madison is not up for grabs,” Gee continues. “This is still a place that we want people of color to come to visit, to shop in, to learn history and to celebrate in because it’s still a place where we thrive and our stories are told. We’re very concerned about the threat of gentrification, and we don’t want it to happen on our watch. We want South Madison to still serve and be called home to the people that have called it home for as long as I’ve lived in Madison — a half-century.”

Still at least two and a half years away, Gee says that the dream of the Center for Black Excellence and Culture some days feels like it is coming along really fast … yet some days, he admits, “it can’t come fast enough.” He knows one thing for sure — he will have that last $13 million raised before they break ground.

“Next year, we’re going to break ground on a debt-free facility … we will not have debt. So the beauty of this is — this is why I’m just beating the pavement and meeting people every day — is that we will build without debt so that our ongoing fundraising will be for programs or operations or building maintenance, ” Gee says. “So in that regard, it feels like, ‘Wow, it’s really close. We’re almost there.’ But on some days I’m impatient and it seems like it’s far away. So it’s a mixture, but both emotions that are held with lots of anticipation and lots of excitement and a great sense of pride and a sense that I’m doing it with others and for others and not just by myself.”