Many people in Madison knew Milele Chikasa Anana, who passed away on Wednesday at age 86, as the longtime publisher and editor of UMOJA magazine, the trailblazing publication that highlighted the incredible people and stories of Madison’s African-American community.
A significant part of the community also knows her as mentor, advocate, community leader, trailblazer and “Village Mother” for her lifetime of volunteer efforts, activism, community organizing, extensive mentoring, and willingness to serve those in need.
Hedi Rudd, director at Badger Rock Neighborhood Center and a longtime close friend of Anana, remembers her fondly.
“I remember her on assignment … Cultivating and supporting new talent. Opening doors, sharing her knowledge and wisdom, holding us accountable while carrying us to new heights we never thought imaginable, fighting for Black people to be recognized fully and without restrictions, pouring her heart and soul into our village,” Rudd wrote on her Facebook page Wednesday.
Rudd was Ms. Milele’s right-hand woman at UMOJA for many years taking photographs and writing stories about Madison’s African-American community, first starting at the end of the ’90s for a few years and then again from 2011 to the present.
“I owe my life to her,” Rudd says. “Without her, I would never have found my passion or purpose. She gave me the tools to be able to care for my family and community and I am forever grateful to her. May she rest in Heaven and in peace.”
Anana received many great honors in her life, including the prestigious City of Madison’s Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award in 2009 for her service to the community. But recognition was not her driving force.
“I once described Milele as the person who shares the news of the best of us to the rest of us. Her deliberate and intentional approach to providing positive news about Madison’s Black community filled a huge void in this community,” Gloria Ladson-Billings tells Madison365. Ladson-Billings, a faculty member on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus for more than 26 years who held the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education, has known Ms. Milele for 29 years, ever since she first arrived in Madison in 1991. “She described Black Madison as ‘the village’ and we knew her as the village’s ‘griot’ – the one who is the keeper of our stories and the chronicler of our history. She is unique in her deep and abiding love for our culture, our history, and our people.”
Ray Allen, a longtime MMSD school board member, former Madison mayoral candidate, and former owner/publisher of The Madison Times Weekly Newspaper, knew Anana for more than three decades and considered her to be a treasured friend.
“We did some partnership stuff between Umoja and The Madison Times which I really appreciated. She was just a tremendous supporter of the paper and the community,” Allen tells Madison365.
For many years, Allen and Anana owned two publications that reported extensively on the African-American community at a time when most of Madison’s mainstream journalism focused on the white community.
“Milele’s ability to chronicle the lives of Black Madison was extraordinary. She made UMOJA a monthly Rolodex of who’s in Black Madison, what they’re doing, and certainly tracking their lives,” Allen says. “She not only captured our people, but she captured our history. Milele was, to me, Black Madison’s Smithsonian Institution.
“She’s someone that we are all very proud of and somebody that younger generations can be thankful for because of her trailblazing efforts to chronicle events and people that have made Madison what it is today,” he adds.
Beyond the pioneering in community journalism and the non-stop civil rights advocacy, Allen says it’s important that Anana be remembered for her mentorship of so many people in the community.
“She groomed and mentored past and current leaders of our community. She was a mentor to people that we now call upon and have been historically moving Black Madison forward,” Allen says. “She was a proactive mentor, too. Nobody had to make a match for her. She identified people and assisted them and mentored them. That was a tremendous asset. And Milele was doing that long before it was popular to do.
“She’s a part of the history of Madison that just makes Madison a better place for all of us to live in and in a lot of ways she’s an unsung hero,” Allen adds. “She will always be tied to Madison just like [former Mayor] Paul Soglin is tied to Madison. And she opened so many doors for so many people.”
Anana opened the door for Shalicia Johnson, whose Arrowstar Photography company continues to grow as it captures the community through fantastic photos like Ms. Milele once did.
“The first time I was asked to work for Ms. Milele I was terrified!” Johnson remembers. “I was taking photos of the students at the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Outstanding Young Person Awards at Edgewood College and I asked Hedi Rudd about a thousand questions so I wouldn’t mess anything up. Hedi’s advice? ‘Do whatever Ms. Milele says.’
“Community-wide, that was the consensus. She was our Village Mother, the boss, in her little frame and larger than life stature,” Johnson adds. “Every time I saw her after that, she’d motion me over and ask me to tell her my name again. She personally signed me up for the Madison Black Chamber and reached out to me for photos to use in UMOJA from various events I’d shot.”
Johnson says she still cherishes an e-mail from Anana she received after sharing her work from Rev. Marcus Allen’s first pastoral anniversary at Mt. Zion Church. It’s an e-mail, she says, that she will never, ever forget.
“‘Hi, Shalicia. Your work is exceptional,” the e-mail read. “I don’t usually like pictures of me and landscape photos of the crowd, but I like yours. You really get a variety – individual, crowd, pulpit activity, etc. Keep up the good work!”
“I read it over and over again to make sure she didn’t mean to send that email to someone else,” Johnson smiles. “I will remember her words, and that gesture for as long as I live.”
One of Johnson’s pictures that Anana loved so much (above) she would use for her publisher photo that you would see at the beginning of UMOJA Magazine.
Anana was a trailblazer long before UMOJA was even born. She was elected to the Madison School Board in 1974, becoming one of the first African-American elected officials in Wisconsin. She served as Madison’s first African American affirmative action officer, hired by Mayor Paul Soglin to increase people of color and women in city government. She also served as interim director of the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission.
“Milele was a friend to many … to others, a mentor, and to others, a community mother,” says Madison365 CEO and Publisher Henry Sanders. “To me, she was an unapologetic trailblazer for our community. She was a blessing and it was an honor to know her.”
Michael Johnson, CEO of Boys and Girls Club, tells Madison365 that Ms. Milele was a “jewel” and that “her legacy and commitment to our city will live forever.”
“She has been on the front lines advocating for African Americans in Dane County for decades and has been a pillar in our community for years,” Johnson tells Madison365. “She has done a marvelous job highlighting the achievements of African Americans and her UMOJA Magazine will carry that torch because of her sweat equity. I hope someday a journalism program or building in Dane County memorializes and honors her legacy as she has been a trailblazer, mentor and friend to many throughout Dane County and beyond.”
Dr. Ruben Anthony, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, said in a statement that it would take volumes to even scratch the surface of Ms. Milele’s impact on individuals, families, children and institutions in our community.
“She loomed large in every facet of community life – education, economic empowerment, health, politics, and more,” Anthony said. “I even stand on Milele’s shoulders here at the Urban League where she served as a member of the Board of Directors from 1989 to 1996 and where she continued to volunteer and supported the mission even as her health began to fail.”
Anana worked with the Wisconsin Historical Society to strengthen their black history exhibit. She was a founding board member of the Black Chamber of Commerce where she worked to develop a directory of Black-owned businesses and to start Black Restaurant Week.
“She was a leader, mentor, friend and champion of the Black community. We saw firsthand her dedication to helping businesses owned by people of color to earn opportunities and get the recognition they deserved,” says Camille Carter, president of the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce, in a statement. “As a Black female business owner, I am grateful for the path she created and the strength and determination she instilled in me. I know other business owners feel the same way.
“Ms. Milele’s work and legacy will be carried on through all we do at the Black Chamber, including our annual awards dinner and Black Restaurant Week,” she adds. “She made positive impacts on many people in our organization and in Madison, and she will be greatly missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family.”
Anana was also an honorary advisor to the African American Black Business Association (AABBA) which promoted the economic and social development of small African American/Black businesses in Madison. She chaired Madison’s Minority Affairs Commission and has volunteered in a variety of ways for the NAACP, Urban League, Black Chamber, Madison Kwanzaa, Mt. Zion Baptist Church and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
The Deltas were very special to her. She was extremely involved in their service work and events in Madison. In fact, Anana was one of 22 trailblazing women who chartered the chapter of Delta Sigma Theta right here in Madison in 1977.
“Those 22 women got together here in Madison and decided that this city needed some direction for African Americans to be influential in politics, economic development and in the educational system,” former Madison Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc President Terri Strong explained to Madison365 in an article from 2017. “Twenty-two great minds came together and It was some of the real power hitters here in Madison, some that are still here in Madison, making changes and still fighting for civil rights and human rights.”
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell considers Anana to be a close friend and mentor. When the Madison Downtown Rotary Club presented Milele Chikasa Anana with the Manfred E. Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award at their luncheon at Downtown Rotary in November of 2018, Mitchell was the guest speaker and he spoke about her in his talk “Standing Up for All Children: Reflections on Ms. Milele’s Call for Justice.”
Mitchell sent over two pictures of him and Ms. Milele – 13 years apart.
“This was Ms. Milele and I back in 2006 and us in 2019. Her smile and love were so electric,” Mitchell explains. “Even when I saw her in the hospital or in the community, she continued to encourage maintaining a stellar focus on seeing the best in our Black children. I believed because she believed. I’m going to miss her so much.”
Community leader Charlie Daniel has known Ms. Milele for nearly 40 years and they became dear friends.
“Mother of the village, so Black, so proud, so strong! She loved her people and was so proud of her people. Milele always made us stand tall and say, ‘I am Black and I am proud!” Daniel tells Madison365.
Anana is, of course, most famous for founding UMOJA Magazine in 1990 to highlight all of the positive things African Americans were doing in Dane County that were being ignored by the mainstream media whom, she would always say, “just want to run the negative stories about us.” Over the years, she produced more than 300 magazine issues and had mentored over 100 young people as interns at UMOJA.
“I remember when Milele took over UMOJA Magazine from sister Carolyn Ewing … it consisted of only two mimeographed sheets. I will always applaud Milele’s creative and innovative production of the award-winning community cornerstone UMOJA,” Club TNT Executive Producer Gaddi Ben Dan, a 2018 MLK City-County Humanitarian Award winner, tells Madison365. Dan and Anana were side by side at hundreds of community events over the last three decades chronicling the people, places, and events of black Madison for their respective publications.
For years, Anana did almost everything with UMOJA – writing, editing, photography, layout, advertising, marketing, subscriptions. She was everywhere so she seemed to know everybody in Madison’s African-American community. And if she didn’t know you, it means that you were probably new to town and she was going to get to know you really soon. Her work ethic and vast connections were unmatched, making her an almost impossible act to follow. Current UMOJA Publisher and Editor in Chief Yvette Craig knew that when she took the helm of UMOJA on Jan. 7, 2019, and tells Madison365 that it’s been the hardest and most rewarding position she’s ever had.
“Ms. Milele’s eyes are something I will always remember. That’s where we connected. I loved piercing the depths of her wisdom, tenacity and fierceness in her guiding eyes,” Craig tells Madison365. “With one look, I knew whether or not she was pleased with me or whether I needed to work even harder.
“Continuing the UMOJA Magazine legacy is humbling. It’s our responsibility to tell our own story so we can define and name ourselves. That’s part of the very core behind UMOJA and I intend to carry it on,” Craig continues. “Here at UMOJA, we’re going to continue her legacy and strive to exemplify her hard work and dedication. Her courage and strength will guide us into the future.”
Jeff “JP” Patterson, owner of JP Hair Design, the largest Black barbershop in Madison, says that Ms. Milele always had some good business advice￼ for him and he credits her with helping his business grow over its 22 years in Madison.
“She always told me to be the example of an excellent business owner and ‘Don’t cut corners.’ All the articles that Milele ran in UMOJA about JP Hair Design, Inc. in our 20-plus years have helped create our brand and credibility. Milele expected high standards from me and she always pushed me to be a good example to my fellow Black business owners,” Patterson tells Madison365. “I ran my business thinking there is no way I will let Milele and others down. So, that helped make decisions of integrity.”
Brandi Grayson, founder and CEO of Urban Triage, first met Ms. Milele 30 years ago in church at Mt. Zion when she was just 10 years old. Rev. James Wright was the pastor at the time. It was around the same time that UMOJA was born.
“Milele Chikasa Anana, our village mother, was the epitome of what all humans strive to achieve including finding and living out our passions, living authentically without apology, being fully self-expressed and embodying the wisdom, love, and compassion of God herself,” Grayson tells Madison365. “She left behind a road map that all Black people should follow: 1. Stay rooted in God. 2. Faith without works is dead. 3. Forgiveness is about you. 4. Leadership is nothing without integrity. 5. Put God first, family second, and community third. 6. Leadership is bringing people with you. 7. Centering Blackness is Black excellence. 8. Art is self-care. 9. Be consistent. 10. Write your own story.
“She will be forever remembered and she will forever be my guide on how to live fully while remaining rooted in love,” Grayson adds.