by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
If this were a movie, I would say there was a disruption in the force during the last few weeks. As it is, I guess you could say the death of three local Black history makers in a two-week span has created a rift in the historical continuum.
I would venture to guess that many of today’s generation know little if anything about Fairbanks Cooper, Dr. Anthony Mensah and Larry Harwell. They weren’t politicians, and didn’t grace the headlines frequently. They weren’t entertainers, and they went about their respective work without fanfare or notoriety. But in each case, they left their footsteps in the sand that altered the course of the mighty ocean. They made conscious decisions to impact our community, and they did so in ways that affect us to this day.
And from my perspective as an unofficial official Griot for our community, my recordings will say our lives were greatly enhanced by those three brothers of the struggle.
I didn’t know Fairbanks Cooper that well, but his deeds in the religious community spoke volumes about his character and convictions.
He was a catalyst and architect behind the construction and design of Calvary Baptist Church, which was built to pay homage to African villages.
He later spearheaded the initiative that became the Calvary Housing Development, one of the largest senior facilities in the city. His efforts to finance that project and to provide an appropriate facility for Black elderly served as a catalyst for his ultimately being named to head the city Housing Authority.
Fairbanks was a leader in the Baptist community, and used his expertise and status to promote housing initiatives for churches throughout the Midwest.
He was committed to his spiritual tenets and was a mentor and advocate for Christian faith. He enriched many lives, which is more than can be said for all but a few of us, and was a testament to his faith and his community.
Dr. Anthony Mensah emerged during a transitional period in the evolution of Black Milwaukee culture. We had recently emerged from the civil rights and Black identification stage and Dr. Mensah was the catalyst for a cultural awakening in which we sought identification to the Motherland.
He became an identifiable bridge, promoting (and in some cases introducing) cultural awareness to a people in desperate need of stepping out of the shadow of slavery and apartheid.
With the strong support and influence of Rueben Harpole (who some called the Black mayor of Milwaukee), Dr. Mensah introduced many Black Milwaukeeans to the cultural richness of West African culture through his “rites of passage” program.
The program is as old as Mother Africa, and is rooted in the cultivation process in which Black African men lead Black boys through the sojourn from adolescence to manhood. Historians say a British Army officer who observed the “rites of passage” programming of the Zulu tribe in South Africa introduced the Boy Scouts to the West.
Of course, the Boy Scouts are not going to instruct its members on the cultural nuances of Africa, but there are some aspects that translate across cultures. Dr. Mensah’s program was culturally attuned, and sought among other priorities to instill a sense of pride in his students, to cement a cultural foundation and to instill a sense of unity and harmony.
Dr. Mensah taught young Black boys to be men. To be proud. Self-confident. Culturally grounded. To be leaders, who accepted a role as members of the collective, the community, and the village.
He touched and influenced hundreds of young brothers, including my son. They were all better because of his leadership, his mentorship, his teaching.
I had the privilege of chronicling the advocacy of Larry Harwell through interviews and personal observations for much of the 1980s and 90s. He was an uncompromising warrior and champion for Black empowerment. He was a brilliant tactician who was unapologetically Black in his methodology, his motivations and his philosophy.
Larry was a Black Nationalist in the mold of Delaney, Garvey and Malcolm. And history—vs. the “HisStory” we are force-fed—will say that Larry Harwell was at the vanguard of a national education revolution that helped topple the wall of educational apartheid in America.
And I’m not exaggerating.
The Community Journal’s educational philosophy was shaped in part by Larry Harwell. Our first publication challenged the underlying intent of the 1976 school desegregation process by the Milwaukee School Board. Larry challenged whether the process was rooted in school integration, as it was claimed, or school desegregation, which is what the court ordered. He charged the process in Milwaukee was nothing more than a racial sham that not only placed the burden of busing on the shoulders of Black children, but moreover, that there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Larry used his mastery of statistical analysis to show the Milwaukee Public Schools’ were making money off an elaborate busing scam, that Black children were pawns in a covert educational scheme that disadvantaged them educationally. Even while under court order to do otherwise, MPS continued to maintain a system of apartheid.
Larry was the founder of the Organization of Organizations (also known as “Triple O”), and one of my first interviews when the Community Journal started publishing in 1976. Larry proudly declared he would never be a member of the established “Negrocracy,” and consistently challenged Black status quo politics.
When Black leaders were advocating for integration, he pushed for Black empowerment. When they pressed for a piece of the corporate pie, Larry called for Black business expansion and “Buy Black” campaigns. And when they pressed for token political or civic appointments, Larry challenged political parties to carve out Black controlled legislative districts that would guarantee Black representation.
In fact, his effort while serving as an aide to State Rep. Polly Williams is the only successful challenge of a legislative redistricting map in state history. That was because Larry Harwell could–and did–out think and out maneuver the status quo.
To many observers, Larry Harwell was always in the shadow of his friend and confidant, Polly Williams. He preferred it that way. But those of us on the inside knew his value.
We also remembered how he never retreated from controversy or a challenge. For example, he was a lone voice when he started “Blacks for Two Way Busing,” which forced the School Board, the Courts and the Negrocracy to consider the disproportionate impact of busing on the Black community. Ultimately, the “conspiracy” that was revealed by Larry and the Community Journal was years later confirmed by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Larry was given free reign as Polly’s aide. Polly was the voice, and Larry served as the architect and strategist behind her.
His body of accomplishments is best epitomized by his work on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Larry took Polly’s vision and crafted legislation and a movement that sparked a collective mass change in the paradigm of American education.
Today, there are school choice programs empowering Black people in 23 states. It all started with Wisconsin. With Polly Williams, and her man Friday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday…. Larry Harwell.
Tyrone Dumas responded to the three obituaries on the front page of last week’s Community Journal by asking me in a phone conversation, “who will replace them? Who will pick up the baton handed off by Fairbanks, Dr. Mensah and Larry?” My response was that we did. Our challenge is to keep their memories and missions alive, and to have faith that God will select others to fill their giant shoes.