Named for Madison’s First Black School Board Member, and Fierce Advocate for Educational Equity
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. ~ William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
A name that is sweet on the lips of the community, will now adorn an elementary school in Madison.
That name, Milele Chikasa Anana, will be spoken for generations to come through this fitting tribute. On Jan. 25, the Madison Metropolitan School District unanimously approved the renaming of Falk Elementary School to Milele Chikasa Anana Elementary School.
“We as her family are honored and we know she would be thrilled,” said Amanit Latimer Burris, one of Anana’s daughters. “Thank you to everyone in the community who supported this action … So many individuals, groups, and committees caused this to happen and hung in there with Ms. Milele, just as she hung in there with us, as we grow from being diamonds in the rough to diamonds through the rough.”
The beloved community activist and trailblazing publisher of UMOJA Magazine, spent much of her life tirelessly defending Black people’s rights and pounding the importance of education with her velvet hammer. Anana also broke color barriers in 1974 by fearlessly becoming Madison’s first Black school board member ꟷ and the first in the entire state of Wisconsin.
“You know, as we know, this is pretty big,” Superintendent Dr. Carlton D. Jenkins told the school board prior to it accepting the recommendation of the ad hoc citizens committee naming selection.
School Board President Gloria Reyes concurred, adding Anana, affectionately known as Ms. Milele, held high expectations on those she took time to mentor and pushed countless toward greatness.
“I am just so grateful for this opportunity to be in this position to be able to rename one of our schools after her name … ,” said Reyes, the school board’s first Latina member. “I know it’s one of the best things I’ve done on the board in making this decision tonight.”
Madison lost Ms. Milele, its “community mother” and “Black Madison’s Smithsonian Institution” in May. She was 86. An admitted hellraiser, Ms. Milele was dedicated to her role in bringing an authentic voice and credence to the potential in every student.
“Milele spent most of her life recording, articulating, and educating the Madison community about the African American experience. I can think of no greater honor than the naming of an educational institution after someone who worked so hard to promote the broad sharing of knowledge,” said Ray Allen, a longtime MMSD school board member and former owner/publisher of The Madison Times Weekly Newspaper.
A Shakespearean lover and word crafter, Ms. Milele was a freelance writer for publications such as Essence, Ebony Jr. and The Black Scholar. She also worked as a professor of English at Florida A&M University. After attending the Marching on Washington in 1963 and working with the NAACP to fight for better schools during the Boston busing plight, Ms. Milele came to Wisconsin in 1968 with her husband, Professor James Latimer, who was recruited by the University of Wisconsin- Madison.
She would later become Madison’s first Affirmative Action Officer, making space for women and minorities at a time when the belief was that they were not strong enough, nor good enough. She proved them wrong.
The fire in her belly lead to her devotion of bringing positive news about the Black community through the pages of UMOJA Magazine. Last year, the publication celebrated its 30th anniversary making it the oldest Black magazine in Wisconsin.
Her presence in Madison was ubiquitous. Ms. Milele’s death sent shock waves that were felt near and far. Gathering restrictions resulting from a pandemic of the novel coronavirus, robbed the community of a traditional homegoing ceremony.
Suggestions poured in for recommendations to honor Ms. Milele’s life including renaming a street to erecting a statue. Richard Scott Sr., a longtime friend to Anana, learned Falk Elementary was engaging in school renaming efforts after a UW-Madison researcher found Philip Falk — a former Madison superintendent — had also been a member of a KKK student group. Scott proposed memorializing her namesake because of her deep-rooted commitment to public service and betterment of Madison-area children.
Falk school leaders, backed by staff, parents and community members agreed to efforts of having a school name that’s in line with its “desire to claim a name better suited to our mission, vision and the community that we serve.”
“It became very apparent very early on that this was really a bullseye match to exactly the sort of person we were looking for in honoring with a new school name,” Adam Zingsheim, principal of Philip H. Falk Elementary, told WKOW-TV.
Scott said it’s imperative that Ms. Milele’s legacy lives on.
“I have always believed Ms. Milele was God’s gift to our community… ,” Scott said. “I had known Ms. Milele for well over three decades and during that period I have personally witnessed just how much she believed in the importance of the lives of our Black adult community and the children who will be the important aspects of our future achievements.”
Zingsheim said the goal is to have the new name finished in the fall.
This will be the second Madison school renamed in honor of an African American Madison-area woman. In January 2020, the school board approved renaming Glendale Elementary School on the east side in honor of Dr. Virginia Henderson. A beloved and legendary educator, philanthropist, and matriarch for many in the Madison community, Henderson died in April 2019.
“I appreciate that Milele’s chosen name is the name we are using for this school. … and we can use this time to celebrate and recognize her incredible leadership and contributions to our community,” said school board member Ali Muldrow, referring to Ms. Milele ceremoniously dropping her birth name, Bettye Jean Ingram for an African name connected to her culture.