Madison’s African-American community is ready for a renaissance, says Rev. Dr. Alex Gee, Jr., senior pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church and CEO of the Nehemiah Center of Urban Leadership, and he is excited to announce the creation of The Center for Black Excellence and Culture, a much-needed cultural space to celebrate and advance Dane County’s Black community.
“This will be a place where we certainly strengthen our community and nurture and foster greatness in our communities. We are going to attract and retain Black talent. We are going to build Black businesses and community leaders. This will also be a place where the broader community can see us through a light we shine,” Gee tells Madison365. “We create this space and we create this narrative … and no one else. That’s never happened in this part of Wisconsin.”
The Center, as Gee hopes people will refer to it as, has the goals of fostering a sense of family and community; celebrating and teaching Black Culture; paying tribute to Black history; nurturing and developing Black business and community leaders; attracting, connecting and retaining Black talent; and providing the space for conversation, connection, and growth.
“There’s always been this lament of who tells this story and who educates our kids and where do we celebrate our history that’s been bubbling up from [Fountain of Life Church] parishioners and from families we’ve served at Nehemiah to when I’ve worked on campus for years,” Gee says. “People who were new to Madison felt it was hard to connect because they lived in communities previously where there was a clear demarcation of ‘Black space’ – where the could be a celebration of art and culture.
“I actually think that the lack of that kind of space is what helps to exacerbate the disparities that we have,” Gee adds.
Those racial disparities are well-documented in the city of Madison, often recognized as one of the best places to live in the United States for its White residents, but one of the worst places to live for its African-American citizens.
“I got to a point where I wanted to stop merely quoting these statistics and not offer solutions. This Center is a solution,” Gee says. “We can’t control the whole world; but we can control about three and a half acres to send a message to the city, county and state that there is space where we are going to proliferate and celebrate the contributions of African Americans.”
The new The Center for Black Excellence and Culture will be located on 3.5 acres on the 700 block of W. Badger Rd. just off the Beltline Highway and close to Park Street. Longtime Southsiders will remember that there was a large self-serve car wash there for many years that was demolished in 2014.
“We acquired the property 10 years ago because we wanted to send the message that gentrification is not going to happen here and that this is going to be a place where we always celebrate our history and our contributions to his area, this country and this world,” Gee says.
The Center, which Gee and others have been planning for a year and a half, will be designed to house core, long-term elements while maximizing flexible space for multiple uses. The Center will have the ability to adapt over time as new needs arise. Gee says that they hope to begin building in 2022.
“We’ve already been listening to community influence, and we’ll do some more of that, about the content, about the performance space, the banquet space, creative/artistic space, business/incubator space for artist and technologically advanced folks,” Gee says. “We will do some fundraising in 2021. We need to be building this in 2022.”
The sentiment for many years around the possibility to have a space like this in Madison, Gee says, has always been ‘Oh, yes, that would be nice.’
“I realized that we can’t be the generation of African-Americans in Madison who say ‘Oh, that would be nice.’ We had to create what’s not here rather than lamenting what’s not here. And this is using our skills as innovative and creative Black people.”
Gee says the new initiative will “bring together a collective Black brilliance to affirm, inspire and advance the Black community.” He is adamant about people referring to The Center for Black Excellence and Culture as “The Center.”
“We used to call the South Madison Neighborhood Center ‘The Center.’ So we’ve purposely nicknamed The Center for Black Excellence and Culture ‘The Center’ because for our old-school African-American population we are communicating to them that we have not forgotten the gathering space that was for children and adults,” he says. “It’s where we learned crafts and where we learned culture. It’s where I got one of my first mentors. It was central to our community and it was everyone’s center, whether you lived in close proximity or not.
“For me, it’s my subtle way of saying that I have not forgotten the older Black Madisonians,” Gee continues. “For those of us who grew up in south Madison, that was our hub … that was our headquarters. Next to the church, that center was the most sacred collective space we had and I want the spirit of that to continue with this new center.”
The last time Gee and Madison365 had talked about this, the new building was going to be called the African American Center for Culture and Advancement.
“What we realized with my trip to Ghana is that we as African Americans have not stood on the strength of the whole African diaspora, so we have intentionally named this The Center for Black Excellence and Culture because we are going to partner with the African – West African, specifically – and Caribbean Black culture to tell that collective Black story. So there will be a strong trace of pan-Africanism in this as we draw not only the African-American community but the African, Caribbean. I’m so excited about that.”
Gee says that it is going to take a community-wide effort to enable those collaborations that will, someday, drive positive change and lessen Madison’s racial disparities. He adds that he’s excited to be breaking the news through Madison365.
“You’ve been here since back in the day and I appreciate that. We have watched how African-American people have made Madison better for everyone. We need a place where we honor those folks, as well,” Gee says. “So this will not just tell the story of folks who have lived and are no longer alive. Our living legacy folks are still around and we have to tell the stories of how these people shaped Madison for everyone and I do believe that Madison can be attractive to a broad spectrum of people.
“There is a need for art and innovation that speaks to us that we shape,” Gee adds. “We’ve never been able to tell our stories; others have told it for us. So many of our children have been fed that. This is a way to right so many wrongs and to proliferate and support the African-American community.”