The Life and Legacy of Madison’s Backbone and Village Mother

In Loving Memory

Milele Chikasa Anana

January 31, 1934 – May 6, 2020

“Love departs on silent wings.” 

The Shakespeare quote was found scribbled on a piece of paper next to Mother Milele’s bed.

All photos courtesy of Hedi Rudd and the Latimer family

Surrounded by loving family and friends, Milele Chikasa Anana made her peaceful transition today from the natural world back into the arms of the ancestors. An icon for racial and social justice, and the champion of our good news was 86.

The matriarch of the Madison community, she leaves behind an illustrious legacy only befitting this beautiful African queen. She made being Black a badge of honor and used her civil rights crusade and entrepreneur wit to make sure no one would ever forget it.

“My intent was to make this a more just and righteous world,” she once told a local newspaper. “My intent was to have America live up to its promise.”

The visionary publisher of UMOJA Magazine made Madison her home for more than half a century. Her five-foot frame commanded the presence of a giant. She protested with University of Wisconsin-Madison students to create a department of Afro-American studies. She faced a cross burning in the family’s front lawn as a congratulatory gift for becoming Wisconsin’s first Black school board member. And, through her “don’t tell me no” persistence she was recognized on sight by President Barack Obama.

Madison is also where the Oklahoma City native shed her birth name, Bettye Ingram Latimer, to unveil Milele Chikasa Anana to the world in 1996. Her African name means, forever a rare and sparkling jewel bringing joy and laughter.

On her personal journey of self-discovery, she helped the community find itself. She believed that one’s cultural and community roots are significant in shaping one’s life.

 “Strong roots nourish your spirituality and creativity and enable you to give back to where you came from,” she once said. “My first commitment is to God, second to my family and then to my community. The children need us desperately. Joy will always be yours when you give yourself to others, when you give from what has been your legacy.”

A respected elder, she was affectionately known as Ms. Milele and Mother Milele to many. Prior to running UMOJA from the basement of her Eastside condominium, she was an educator, children’s book author, a computer programmer and trainer, and a corporate manager for Procter & Gamble in Green Bay.  A pioneer, she also became the City of Madison’s first Affirmative Action Officer, served as interim director of the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission, and helped establish the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce, which now has more than 300 member businesses.

“Milele’s contribution to Madison and Dane County is overwhelming,” said Paul R. Soglin, Madison’s former mayor who hired her as the Affirmative Action officer. “Milele led significant achievements in increasing diversity recruitment in Madison schools, opening professional opportunities for women and people of color in Madison employment, and obtaining public and private contracts for minority and women owned businesses.

“Her work at UMOJA was critical to Madison’s cultural, economic and academic development. Dane County is improved by her achievements. Like so many in Madison, I was fortunate to benefit from her insight, vigorous commitment, and advice for over 45 years,” Soglin added.

She avoided becoming a slave to anything ordinary. Self-worth, self-empowerment and Black love were the things that fueled her. It was rooted in her while being raised during Tulsa’s Black Wall Street era, which served as the epicenter of African American business and culture that was built for Black people, by Black people. She witnessed how prominent Black entrepreneurs had a better chance of economic progress if they pooled their resources. 

“My fondest personal memory of Milele is how encouraging she was to me when I was struggling, in pursuit of my Ph.D,” said Dr. Ruben L. Anthony, Jr., CEO and president of the Urban League of Greater Madison.  “Every time I saw her, before the end of my conversation, she would ask me ‘how are you doing toward completion of the degree?’ She would emphasize to me that I can’t quit and stressed that young people needed to see Black people achieve at this level. 

“It would take volumes to even scratch the surface of Milele’s impact on individuals, families, children and institutions in our community. She loomed large in every facet of community life  ̶  education, economic empowerment, health, politics, and more. I even stand on Milele’s shoulders here at the Urban League where she served as a member of the Board of Directors from 1989 to 1996 and where she continued to volunteer and supported the mission even as her health began to fail,” Anthony added.

Family Is Everything

In the days prior to passing at home, the air of adoration and respect hung thick in Ms. Milele’s home, much like the aroma of simmering collard greens on the stove. A banana pudding was being scooped layer-by-layer in a dish as her children and relatives from as far away as Oklahoma and California reminisced over details about her remarkable life. 

“Did she visit Africa three or four times?”

“I love the picture of Aunt Milele with Duke Ellington and the one where she’s reading to her kids.”

“Isn’t Milele Swahili for forever or eternity?”

Resting comfortably in a lounge chair in the living room, another sat quiet rubbing her fuzzy sock covered feet. Well-wishers called the home and others came for brief visits by her side. Fresh bouquets of Stargazer lilies and roses dot the room.

Generations gathered under one roof.

She married Dr. James H. Latimer, an accomplished musician who later became the timpanist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and the couple had five children. They include Major Clark Latimer, Catherine Latimer McCarthy, James Danielsen Latimer, Treater Prestine, and Julia “Amani” Latimer Burris.

Each flourished musically. Four of the Latimer children started playing the violin as early as 3 years old by learning the Suzuki method, which is an internationally known music curriculum and teaching philosophy created by Japanese violinist and pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki. Although the couple divorced, the family grew to 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Education was something emphasized.  It was a given. Ms. Milele earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Talladega College and a master’s degree in English from Purdue University. Her family had no wiggle room, or excuses not to partake in the rite of passage.

“One of the most memorable things all of her nieces and nephews will never forget was when Aunt Milele would come for visits,” said Lisa Brown, her niece from Oklahoma City. “We would line up to recite our confirmations that she taught us. ‘I am Lisa. I am Black. I am beautiful. I am successful. And my future will be.’ That just gives me goose bumps.

“If you didn’t get it right, you had to go to the back of the line of kids. We knew afterwards we would be getting a big Easter basket or Christmas present. But, more importantly, we have passed those confirmations on to our own children and they recite the affirmations, too,” Brown added.

They revel over her community-wide influence along with her elbow-to-elbow conferences with political and community dignitaries. They treasure the memories shared like the times when she attended Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial and Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration. 

“Bettye had always reminded me of this poem that says ‘I smile because you’re my sister, and I laugh because there’s nothing you can do about it,’” Marsha Bradley said of her big sister. “I just love her so much.”

For Us, By Us

Ms. Milele forever altered the way Black people are portrayed in Madison and across Wisconsin. She believed it was her duty to banish stereotypical portrayals of African Americans in mainstream media. She didn’t want negative images of police arrests or tomfoolery played on television’s nightly news to seep into the minds of young Black children, thus extinguishing hopes of having a bright future.

UMOJA Magazine became the instrument for reputation defense. It unapologetically celebrated personal and professional milestones and achievements, while making relatively unknown Black artists household names.

In 1990, Madison resident Carolyn Ewing and friends started UMOJA as a two-page calendar of events. Ms. Milele took the helm two years later and expanded the publication into an eight-page newsletter. UMOJA is Swahili meaning “unity.”

Production of the magazine was a family affair. As publisher and editor, Ms. Milele wrote and edited the articles, covered events, and took photographs. Her son, James Danielsen Latimer, created the original logo. Page designing, event planning, chauffeuring, magazine deliveries and alphabetically cataloging printed snapshots, kept family members busy over the years. 

“At the time my vision was to have a magazine prolific with beauty that would accent the positive things people do with their lives and with reading material that any child could keep for a lifetime,” Ms. Milele said during the publication’s 10th anniversary celebration.

It became her dream realized  ̶  a full-color, 48-page, monthly magazine. It is said to be the only one of its kind in the country to focus on positive news about the African American community, while showcasing Black art on the cover. For many, the treasured documents are never meant to be thrown away.

“I always think of Milele often in terms of Black Lives Matter,” Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell. “To me, Milele has always been #BlackStoriesMatter. She knew how important authentic stories needed to be told that weren’t being told before UMOJA jumped on the scene.”

Everett, the senior pastor at Christ The Solid Rock Baptist Church, met Ms. Milele in 2005 when she reported on his extensive work with restorative justice programs for ex-offenders. He and his team developed a system so men and women who return from prison would have a residence, employment, support, treatment and education.

“She got the word out about the positive things going on in the program,” he said. “As I moved around in my career here in Madison, she has always been that conscious voice.”

For Ms. Milele, UMOJA was the tool the growing Black community here needed to make connections between economic classes, to build a bridge between generations and to erect a strong barrier against any negative news about Black people in local media outlets.

Borrowing from the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,” Ms. Milele did more than just repeat the old adage. She lived and promoted it by referring to Madison’s African American community as “The Village” within the publication’s pages. She did so as a reminder that a village is too small to be indifferent to the needs of your neighbor.

Her hard work didn’t go unnoticed. Years ago, the late Dr. Nellie McKay, lauded professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, declared Ms. Milele to be more than a historian and archivist, but a griot, “preserving African American memories in the city of Madison.” Then, on May 13, 2015, the City of Madison passed a resolution commending the achievements and community contributions of the beloved publisher and editor in recognition of UMOJA’s 25th anniversary.

Lifting others up came natural. She mentored over 100 young people as interns.

“Ms. Milele demonstrated what is possible when we dare to discover the best within ourselves,” said Anaré V. Holmes, one of UMOJA’s longest writers who went on to work for CNN. “She overcame her own challenges, setbacks and heart breaks to build a life of her own design.

“Always lifting others up above the hurdles that stand in our way, Ms. Milele was determined to improve the quality of life for Black men and women in her sphere of influence,” Holmes added.

In November 2018, she retired and served as UMOJA’s publisher emeritus. Shortly after, the Rotary Club of Madison honored her with its Manfred E. Swarsensky Humanitarian Service Award. She devoted the $2,500 prize as seed money to start the Milele Chikasa Anana Scholarship Endowment for youth of color in partnership with the Goodman Community Center and Madison Community Foundation. 

“She gave her all to UMOJA and she loved it,” said Lily Komino, a close family friend. “She did it all for the love of her community. Even when she didn’t feel well, she kept going.”

Gift of Friendship

Dana Warren met Ms. Milele on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. while on break from their civil servant jobs. The happenstance meeting resulted in a 30-plus year bond.

“Friends are a gift you give yourself,” Warren said. “Milele was my gift. And like the poem says, ‘people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.’ I know this one was for a lifetime.”

Also known as the “Village Mother” for her many volunteer efforts, promoting equal rights, inclusiveness and serving those in need, Ms. Milele was a member of Mt. Zion Baptist Church and a charter member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

“Ms. Milele was the heart and soul of the African America Community,” said Edith Lawrence-Hilliard, a longtime friend whose family has lived in Madison for more than a century. “It was her passion to uplift and highlight our community of color.  Prov. 31-26 reads ‘She open her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness.’ That was my Ms. Milele.”

The self-admitted “hell-raiser” who was not afraid to stare down racism, found time to play bid whist with cherished friends and share her opinions with the community’s longest running Black book club called Sisters With Books.

“She was a mentor and spiritual God mommy to me and my family,” said Jacquelyn Hunt, founder and CEO of F.O.S.T.E.R. of Dane County (Families Overcoming Struggles to Encourage Resilience). “This is a tough loss for me and the whole Madison community. So many people loved her.

“Having her in my corner all these years made me actually believe in the things that were in my wildest dreams. … She used to take me and other single moms out for brunch after church on Mother’s Day so we wouldn’t have to go home and cook,” added Hunt who hosts an annual Pre-Mother’s Day Brunch in Ms. Milele’s honor.

In her spare time she worked with the Wisconsin Historical Society to strengthen their Black history exhibit, founded Black Restaurant Week, chaired Madison’s Minority Affairs Commission and volunteered time to the NAACP, the Urban League of Greater Madison and Madison Kwanzaa, to name a few.

She Lives In Us

“As long as you speak my name I shall live forever.” This powerful African proverb means in essence that our names and very beings carry power when we speak them aloud.

Say Ms. Milele’s name and nearly everyone has a story to share.

There are the college-bound youth she escorted to the airport off to start their new journey. There’s the newly-weds she surrendered her bed to, for a floor palette, just so the couple had a place to rest. And there were the office executives whose attention she captured, ready or not, when she’d sit unmoved in their lobbies until they heard what she came to say.

“I started out as a writer for UMOJA in the late 90’s and upon my return to Wisconsin from Las Vegas in 2011,” Hedi Rudd recalled. “Upon my return home, Ms. Milele gave me her Canon Rebel and asked me to shoot photos at the Juneteenth celebration. I had never used a professional camera before, but she assured me I would figure it out.

“Thanks to her belief in me, I now have a thriving photography business and have found my passion. I never pick up my camera without thinking of her and wisdom and belief in me. Thanks to her, I have traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the second inauguration of President Obama and the opening of the Dr. Martin Luther King monument and to New York City to attend the Harlem Fine Art Show. Her energy and love have lifted my life to new heights, and I am eternally thankful to her presence and guidance in my life,” Rudd added.

The very heartbeat of the village, this resilient and precious soul became one of Madison’s most visible civil rights activists. The contributions of Ms. Milele’s life and legacy can be felt far and wide.

Milele Chikasa Anana was the fruition of her ancestors’ most hopeful and ambitious dreams.