Final Push to Make the Center for Black Excellence a Reality: The Home Stretch (Part 1 of 2)

Alex Gee

Rev. Dr. Alex Gee superimposed on the architectural rendition of the Center For Black Excellence and Culture by Rafeeq Asad

by Jonathan Gramling

The seeds for the Center for Black Excellence and Culture were planted long ago in the imagination of Rev. Dr. Alex Gee, who is spearheading the effort to build it on Badger Road, adjacent to the Nehemiah Corporation. Like any other kid in Madison when he was growing up, there wasn’t a great deal said or depicted about Black history and culture, especially in the mainstream media.

But as a student at UW-Madison in the 1980s, Gee’s eyes were opened.

“I remember taking classes from Professor Nellie McKay at UW-Madison,” Gee recalled. “I took a few courses from the Afro-Am Department as it was called in the 1980s when I was there. I just loved discovering things and learning things about myself that I never heard or learned before about the contributions of Black Americans and the role of the Black Church. That intrigued me because I was still in ministry in those early days. It thrilled me and I realized culture is this glue that holds people together. It’s a part of legacy, but it also inspires you to leave legacy. It is something that connects us. And I feel that we don’t have that anymore in Madison.”

Back when Gee was growing up, the main body of Madison’s Black community was centered in the Bram Hill neighborhood with Mt. Zion Baptist Church and the South Madison Neighborhood Center serving as anchors for community life.

“The South Madison Neighborhood Center — now the Boys & Girls Club — we used to call it ‘The Center,’” Gee said. “There is a reason why we use The Center as a moniker for The Center for Black Excellence and Culture to send this message to older Black folks. I remember when that was really central to our community. And I remember going to a dance when I was in sixth grade at Centro Guadalupe/St. Martin House. Ms. Mae Mitchell threw a party for people going into the sixth grade. It was a coming of age. And I notice that we don’t have that. And many folks in the Black community are going to Milwaukee, the Twin Cities and Chicago for culture. As I got older, I also realized that the people who are just community folks are now heroes and heroines. People are talking about these folks like Mary Caire and Anna Mae Mitchell. I knew them as a young person. They encouraged me. And I realized, ‘Wow, where do you go to hear their story and their legacy?”

That sense of a community center — that kept the community centered — seems to be lost in a world where people no longer know their neighbors. And community members may not know who they are, which is so important for people to feel secure and progress in life.

“They made Madison wonderful for everyone,” Gee said about Black community pioneers. “And I took on this onus — no one put it on me — this responsibility that I want space to tell their stories, that honors them as well as Black influencers around the entire state of Wisconsin and not just Milwaukee, Madison and Racine and Beloit, but also La Crosse and Eau Claire and Rhinelander and other places. So the Center will be a place that centers the stories of those influential Black individuals and those Black firsts, but also give us a place to celebrate and to unite and to breathe and to bring out the best of ourselves and to have this space for enjoying each other, learning from each other and leaving a  legacy for our children. This dream has been evolving as I have noticed the Black community becoming more and more transient where people are just coming here for jobs and then leaving. I want to create cultural space so that this can feel like home for people.”

While there has been some progress, there is still a lot of negativity and negative attitudes about Black people that needs to be deliberately counteracted in order for people — especially Black children — to know who they are.

“If you don’t understand it, it is easier to believe that we only amount to the worst images in the media, the worst stats that you hear in the news,” Gee emphasized. “But when you start listening to the history and the fact that we were organized changes things. Mt. Zion Baptist Church is 115-116-years-old. And the people who helped start the NAACP and the Urban League are families I know. I realized I am so connected to history. But my daughter and grandchildren won’t if we don’t have a space that collectively tells of that. So it is history that is so close, but it is so close to being so far away. And I want to bridge those two realities.”

What is important to Gee is that the Center serve as a vehicle for the Black community to tell its own story from its own perspective.

“I want there to be a place where those stories and stories like those around the state are told so that not only does the Black community learn about itself, but we leave a different example and legacy for other cultures to see us through our stories,” Gee said. “We want to tell those stories. We don’t want those stories told in Black face. We want to tell those stories. We want to produce those stories, edit those stories.”

The Center is planning to break grown for its 68,000 sq, ft. building sometime next spring. It has raised $35 million of the $38 million needed to construct the building and open it debt free.

“We hope to break ground in late spring 2024,” Gee said. “It will take about 1-2 years to build this. We have a beautiful designer, JLA Architects who designed it. Findorff is building it. We’re working with a Black construction company out of Milwaukee. We are working with a Black architect, interior designers and landscapers. We’re really, really trying to ground this in the Black Aesthetic and do something that exudes a sense of cultural pride and celebration. They are going to take their time and build this.”

The Center for Black Excellence is in its final push to raise money and hope the community will push it across the financial finish line.

“People can go to our website, which is,” Gee said. “They can give that way. It’s a portal for credit cards or people can mail their gift in. Certain larger gifts can be pledged over three years. But we are really asking people to make end-of-the-year donations because they get the tax benefit and we get the benefit of having it matched from this special fund that we now have available. When they go to the portal, it will explain all of the many ways in which they can give.”

Next issue: The Vision for The Center