Through Black History Month, Madison365 will publish stories from the History of Black Madison, provided by National Guardian Life Insurance Company. Today: The Educators.
“They never saw anybody that looked like them, and never came in contact with any such thing as a teacher of color.”
Geraldine Bernard made that comment to author David Giffey in a story collection called “The people’s stories of South Madison,” published in 2001. Bernard was the first Black teacher at Madison Metropolitan School District. MMSD hired Bernard in the early 1960s and she worked for Silver Spring and then Aldo Leopold Elementary.
After retiring from Leopold in 1989, she continued to volunteer and was a prominent member of Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Today, she is 90 years old and is still remembered as a pioneer and trailblazing educator.
Before MMSD hired Bernard, Helen McLean got an interview to be a teacher in 1958. She would have been the district’s first Black teacher, but the interviewing committee didn’t hire her. The committee chairman said he didn’t think the parents of white students would be comfortable with a Black teacher. The Beloit school district hired McLean but after her story reached the media, Madison hired her and she relocated to Madison to work at Longfellow Elementary.
In 1973, around a decade after students of color started seeing glimpses of representation in Madison, the Madison School Board adopted an affirmative action policy that commits the school district to actively recruit women and people of color.
That same year two south Madison neighborhood centers filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights claiming racial discrimination by the Madison School District. The courts ruled in June 1983 that the Madison schools were discriminating against minority students in the way it managed school closures and boundary changes.
Dr. John Odom became the first Affirmative Action Officer for MMSD in 1976 and would later become the first Black middle school principal in Madison at Cherokee Middle School.
When Odom died Oct. 30, 2020, Rev. David Hart, an attorney, author, Madison community leader, and pastor of Sherman Avenue United Methodist Church told Madison365 that Odom had mentored countless Black teachers, principals and leaders.
“There is not a single organization in Madison that is focused on Black people that hasn’t either been touched positively by Dr. Odom or influenced by his work, his goodness, his benevolence and his activism,” Hart said.
In 1979, Milt McPike became principal at East High School after holding the vice principal position at Madison West.
During McPike’s time at East, he was named Wisconsin’s Principal of the Year and a Reader’s Digest Hero of American Education. In 2002, President George W. Bush named him one of the nation’s top 10 educators.
Edith Hillard told Madison365 in 2017, nine years after McPike died of cancer, that she still remembers him as a principal making house visits to parents.
“He changed the way things were done at East and we won national awards. I think that was because Milt didn’t just take it as a day-to-day job… it was so much more,” Hilliard adds. “East was part of his life.”
In 1995, Gloria Ladson-Billings became the first Black woman to earn tenure in UW–Madison’s School of Education. She became one of the nation’s leading scholars of education, pioneering research and scholarship on education debt and critical race theory. She earned more awards and accolades than can be listed here, and retired in 2018. She remains a Madison community leader and regular contributor to Madison365.
In 2013, Dr. Jack E. Daniels III became the first African American to lead Madison Area Technical College in the school’s 106-year history. He led a monumental effort to vacate the college’s downtown location and build a sparkling new campus on Madison’s south side, which opened in 2019.
In January of 2018 after being the first female, African American appointed to serve as an assistant state superintendent, Carolyn Stanford Taylor became Wisconsin’s first Black state superintendent of public instruction. And although she is not running for reelection once her term expires in July 2021, she said she is still committed to education equity.
“Every child in this state deserves the chance, the opportunity, and the supports to become a success,” Stanford Taylor said in Jan. 13 a statement. “This will only happen if we — educators, the governor, legislators, parents, and community members — work together to make sure every student has what they need to learn when they need it.”
On Aug. 4, 2021 Carlton Jenkins became the first Black superintendent of MMSD. He is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate and former MMSD employee.
“With this role comes a tremendous responsibility, and although there are challenges we face as a school district, through community engagement and support for schools and teachers, we will work hard to ensure that all of our students are at the center of everything we do, and that the district remains grounded in its strategic framework goals,” he said.
Coming next week in the final installment of the National Guardian Life Insurance Company Black History Series: The Musicians.