Madison’s Black social media circles have been abuzz over the past week about a mural at Madison College’s new Goodman South Campus, which just began holding classes September 3.
The ten-foot by five-foot mural, an oil painting on two large canvases, is nestled in an alcove on the building’s lower level. It depicts 37 people, all Black, each with his or her own story, each pivotal to the history of Black Madison. Many in the center are black and white, wearing fashions from the distant past; others toward the edges are depicted in vibrant color and will be quickly recognizable to many Madison365 readers. Behind the portraits is the state capitol dome, and on each side is a train bringing more Black folks to Madison. Below are other significant markers of the history of Black Madison — Allison House, the boarding house where Black folks new to town stayed when they couldn’t find housing; a Southside Raiders helmet and cheer pom; a cover of Umoja Magazine.
This is one of 11 murals by a diverse set of local artists that grace the walls of the sparkling new campus, which was built specifically to serve a diverse student population that lives on Madison’s South Side. College leaders gave artist Jerry Jordan some guidance but also gave him broad latitude.
“The only criteria I was given was they wanted a mural depicting African America history in Madison, and specifically South Madison,” Jordan said in an interview at the college Tuesday.
Jordan turned to Muriel Simms’ book Settlin’, published just last year to chronicle Madison’s earliest Black families.
Each of the 37 people have strong connections to Madison. Some are national figures who had in impact even though they just passed through — Dr. Martin Luther King and Hilton Hannon, for example, plus musicians Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, who both stayed at Allison House while on tour.
Jordan also snuck in a portrait of Barack Obama — it was no coincidence that the issue of Umoja Magazine that he chose to include on this mural was the one featuring his own portrait of 44th president.
Many of the local people in the mural have names you still see around town — Velma Hamilton, Rev. James C Wright both have schools named after them, and Madison’s Central Park was recently renamed in honor of longtime Madison East principal Milt McPike. Many of the people depicted in color toward the outside of the mural are either recently departed — Sina Davis, for example — or are still engaged in the work. Regular readers of Madison365 will surely recognize Rev. Alex Gee, Judge Everett Mitchell, Urban League of Greater Madison CEO Ruben Anthony, activist Brandi Grayson, entrepreneur Annette Miller, even Madison365’s own CEO and publisher Henry Sanders, and others.
Some of the historical figures are people you’d recognize, but depicted from photos taken when they were much younger. Velma Hamilton, for example, is a young woman, just graduated from Beloit College.
“It was a conscious choice to use younger pictures of the more historical figures simply because they were young people at one point and very few people have ever seen them as young,” Jordan said. “Why not show them as a younger person? This is a woman standing here, full of hopes and dreams, and a big, bright future ahead of her.”
Similarly, former Secretary of State Vel Phillips and longtime civil rights advocate Eugene Parks are placed in the middle of the mural, in black and white, depicted from a time before they did the work that they’re known for today.
On the flanks of the mural are two trains, and the covers of two different versions of The Green Book, a guide published for many years to help Black travelers find accommodations that would be open to them.
The trains represent “how people got here,” Jordan said. “My family settled in Racine, but they always talk about how they got (to Madison) by train and most people came by train or bus. I’ve always liked trains.”
The Green Book is a nod to the recent film of the same name, which didn’t actually have much to do with The Green Book. It won the Oscar for Best Picture, but was widely criticized for its “white savior” narrative.
“I kind of wanted to take that narrative back,” Jordan said. “I haven’t seen the movie so I’m not going to judge the movie itself. The title, I think, was horribly named because it was named Green Book but it had nothing to do with the Green Book.”
Many of the people depicted have multigenerational connections between them. For example, right near the center of the mural is John Hill, standing in front of Hill’s grocery, the first Black-owned business in Madison. Toward the top of the collection of portraits is Freddie-Mae Hill, his daughter, who became one of the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin.
Similarly, Jordan pointed to three different portraits scattered around the mural: “this man here, Korean War veteran James Green was married to Delores Green, who is her oldest sister,” he said, pointing to the portrait of Muriel Simms. “It was really cool to be able to find the history and how people are connected.”
Jordan said a key to who’s who in the mural will be installed near it soon.
“I’ve always wanted to be an artist.”
Jordan grew up in Racine, where he fell in love with visual arts through cartoons and comic books.
“ I’ve always wanted to be an artist,” he said. “Always wanted to be an artist of some type.”
His initial plan when he got to the art department at UW-Whitewater was to make a living designing album covers.
“Albums were still a thing” when he started college in 1984, he said with a laugh. “But that quickly just dissipated as soon as I got to school. An older student came back talking to us and said, ‘Yeah, album cover work is done. It’s a thing of the past.’ So I had to reevaluate things. I finished my art degree and came to Madison and worked at the State Historical Society for a few years in a conservation lab. We restored magazines, newspapers, photographs. That’s how I learned how to do my own framing for my paintings now. It was a really cool job. I learned about photography and stuff like that.”
In addition to the art degree, he earned a master’s in art education. He taught drawing at the MATC Truax Campus part time from 1997 to 2001. In 2000, he joined the University of Wisconsin’s office of undergraduate admissions full time. He currents works at UW’s school of education as a recruiter and academic adviser.
“Working at the university is rewarding work,” he said, even though the job and family life forced him to put down his paintbrushes for a time.
“There was a time when I kind of stopped because I had a family and a job that required me to travel,” he said. “So art kind of got put on the back burner. Kind of like a lot of people I assume, life gets in the way. But then I really started back maybe about 12-15 years ago, really pursuing it really hard and practicing and putting in the long hours.”
That pursuit has paid off, and not only with this Madison College commission. He regularly exhibits in galleries around Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. His next exhibit will be in a group show at Overture Center for the Arts beginning in December.
Commitment to Local Art
Goodman South Campus Dean Valentina Ahedo said the commitment to including diverse and local arts in the new building has been part of the vision since the project was conceived about two years ago.
“From the get-go, it’s really been about showing that we’re reflective of the community so that when people walk in to this place, they feel welcomed, they feel invited, they see themselves reflected in everything from the languages that are on our welcome circle, to the people they see in front of them at the service desk, to the art that they see on the walls,” she said.
Ahedo said the college put out a call for artists, specifically seeking artists from four underrepresented communities: African American, Latinx, Native American (with a specific emphasis on the Ho Chunk Nation) and Asian Americans (specifically focused on Hmong). Of the 11 murals currently hanging in the building, four are by African American artists, two by Native American artists, two by Latinx artists and three by Hmong artists.
“I think that’s really cool (Madison College) really showed a commitment to the community and to actually choose local artists, give local artists a shot at doing this, shows real commitment,” Jordan said. “I think it’s awesome. And then all the other murals around here, this shows us a lot of talent here in Madison. There’s some incredible pieces in this building.”
Ahedo said all the artists were given general guidelines (no nudity or obscenities, for example) and a general theme, but were allowed to express themselves how they saw fit. That means some of the works might be considered “edgy,” Ahedo said.
In fact one of them, by artist Lori Mathis-Rose, depicts a Black woman perched on a seat made of the word “Reparations.”
“That’s art. right? It’s to teach, it’s to initiate conversation, it’s to talk about our common humanity,” Ahedo said. “And so those ideas, I think, are reflected in all of the pieces that we have. They tell the story, they talk about those common threads, and sure, that one in particular, that has the word ‘reparations’ on it, but also has ‘opportunity.’ And I think through all of them, it’s uplifting, and that’s what art is supposed to do. So, I think in that sense, we were successful.”
One of the conversations initiated by Jordan’s mural is whom he chose to include — and whom he didn’t.
“I’ve heard from other people that other people were left out,” Ahedo said, leaving open possibilities to include more of Madison’s Black dignitaries in future projects. “We didn’t fill all the alcoves, so who knows?”