The Common Council Chambers in Fitchburg City Hall are now the Frances Huntley-Cooper Common Council Chambers.
A standing-room-only, overflowing crowd of political leaders (including a former Wisconsin governor and the current Wisconsin governor) and community leaders converged on Fitchburg City Hall on the night of March 8th to tell emotional and heartwarming stories about and to honor the legacy of Frances Huntley-Cooper at the official dedication of the Frances Huntley-Cooper City of the Fitchburg Common Council Chambers.
Huntley-Cooper made history in 1991 when she became the mayor of Fitchburg and the first African-American mayor elected to office in the state of Wisconsin. The City of Fitchburg Common Council announced it was naming its chambers after Huntley-Cooper last year, and on March 8, the entire community came out to celebrate as it was made official.
Kesha Bozeman, who helped organize the event, served as the mistress of ceremonies, while Fitchburg Mayor Aaron Richardson gave the welcome.
“I think it’s long overdue to celebrate Frances Huntley-Cooper and all the great things that she has done not only for the city of Fitchburg, but for the state as well,” Richardson said. “I think that when I look at the things that she’s accomplished, and you look at how she’s been a trailblazer and someone who has come forward and has been really an idol, someone’s been a mentor for many people, including people of color, as well … I think that’s really the legacy.”
Dr. Alex Gee, the founder of The Center for Black Excellence & Culture, gave the invocation at the event. Gee has been living in Fitchburg since 1995.
“There are many things about this city that make me proud. But of all my years of being here, this is the proudest moment that I’ve been a part of – that the city would recognize the legacy of this great leader, this great woman,” Gee said. “The other thing I want to say is that Ms. Frances came out of semi-retirement to be a co-chair for our capital campaign for the Center for Black Excellence and Culture. And that’s nothing that I’ve asked her to be a part of, but she did not hesitate to support me. Miss Kesha [Bozeman] earlier said she can’t imagine a world without Miss Frances. Because of the action that we’re taking today, we will never have to imagine Fitchburg without her.”
Huntley-Cooper had spent quite a lot of time in the Fitchburg Common Council Chambers. Before making history as mayor, Huntley-Cooper spent four years as Fitchburg’s District 1 alderperson including serving as president of the Common Council.
TEMPO Madison, who helped organize the event, presented Huntley-Cooper with a plaque that will be displayed in the chambers. The official plaque unveiling was done by attorney Shana Lewis of Renning Lewis & Lacy, S.C., Dr. Leslie Petty of Madison College and Michael Johnson, president & CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County. Johnson was responsible for getting the ball rolling on the renaming with an open letter to Fitchburg Mayor Aaron Richardson and a social media campaign back in 2021.
“I’m just so thankful to see so many people in this room,” Johnson said. “And let’s not just celebrate Frances today, let’s celebrate her every day, every year. We are just so thankful for the leadership you’ve provided to this community and just personally, I know when I have called on you at the Boys and Girls Clubs, you have always been there. Frances, we love you. And we are so thankful that you’re being honored today.”
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers told the crowd that he remembered the first time that he had ever met Huntley-Cooper when he was the superintendent of the Verona School District and she was the mayor of Fitchburg.
“Frances, your efforts and involvement over the years have been instrumental in making our state a more just, inclusive, and equitable place for all of us to call home,” Evers said. “Frances, you represent the best of us and everyone is here to celebrate with you tonight. This happening is a testament to the positive effect that you’ve had and the impact you’ve had as a leader for the state of Wisconsin.
“And as individuals come through these chambers and see this plaque, whether they’re newly elected members of the Common Council or their first time here to speak on the issue, they will be reminded of your service and leadership and they’ll also be reminded how much representation matters,” Evers adds. “They’ll be reminded of how important it is to be civically engaged, to take a chance to be a leader in the community, and to do all that with kindness and empathy and respect and compassion.”
On top of being the first Black mayor in Wisconsin, Huntley-Cooper was elected as a Barack Obama delegate to the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver, Colorado and she attended his inauguration as the United States’ 44th President in Washington, D.C. in January of 2009. Additionally, Huntley-Cooper was elected to be a delegate to the National Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina from September 3–6, 2012.
Appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle, Huntley-Cooper was also an administrator in the Worker’s Compensation Division of the State of Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development prior to retiring in 2011.
Doyle, who was governor of the state of Wisconsin from 2003-2011, told the crowd that he and his wife, Jessica, had a friendship with Huntley-Cooper that “goes back almost 50 years.”
“I think probably in the first couple of days after I’ve been elected, I made the call to Frances to see if she was ready to join the administration,” Doyle remembered. “And we were so fortunate to have Frances for all of those eight years. And there were a lot of hard times and good times.
“But I know this, as everybody who has worked with her in city government knows, if you needed somebody to quietly talk you through an issue and have just incredibly good values and high intelligence and a good analytic mind and come up with an actual workable solution, then Frances is the person to turn to and she did it over and over and over again.”
Outside of her distinguished political and professional career, Huntley-Cooper has been active in the Madison community through a variety of organizations over the years including the Kappa Psi Omega Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and the Dane County NAACP. She has a long career in and passion for social justice, and for inspiring and supporting achievement for African-American high school students.
Dr. Jack Daniels, president of Madison College, remembered Huntley-Cooper for her great work as the chair of the Madison College Board.
“Frances’s influence and impact go much beyond all the awards and recognitions that she receives,” Daniels said. “She’s a tireless advocate for Black folk and their inclusion into every facet of this community and the society as a whole. She’s a fierce fighter for equity, inclusion and fairness for all. She represents this community on our college board. Exactly the same way I just said.
“And although she is retiring from the board, her influence on Madison College will be felt for several several years to come,” he continued. “I think it’s awesome, and it’s fitting for the Fitchburg Council Chambers to be named the Frances Huntley-Cooper City of Fitchburg Common Council Chambers. Her impact and her legacy will live on and on and on.”
Other speakers at the official dedication included City of Fitchburg alder Joe Maldonado, the Honorable Judge Hamdy Ezalarab, Alpha Kappa Alpha President Stephanie Bradley Wilson, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, TEMPO Madison President Michelle Vetterkind, 100 Black Men of Madison’s Dr. Floyd Rose and community leader Carola Gaines.
In closing, Huntley-Cooper acknowledged all of the elected officials in the room and thanked Fitchburg residents in the room who voted for her and worked on her electoral campaigns. She thanked everybody in the room for coming.
“Let’s keep up the good work and champion diversity, equity, and inclusion every day, not just one day, one month, but every day … let’s challenge each other respectfully,” she said. “I just want to also acknowledge all of the people in the room who I’ve worked with and everybody who was on the program. Thanks for coming and for all of the kind words you said and the things you did.”