By Mikel Kwaku Oshi Holt
Of the many African American women who helped mold me during my formative years (which continue to this day), three in particular can be credited with tilling the hardened American soil deeply enough to seed my growth.
And while each have joined our ancestors, I (we) continue to stand in their shadows reaping the benefits of their wisdom and maternal instincts.
Civil rights icon Vel Phillips, cultural advocate and educator Virginia Stamper and Polly Williams, the mother of school choice were on different political and cultural trains, but the same track, which intersected at the waystation of Black empowerment.
Some of us boarded their trains, while unfortunately far too many others chose instead to find comfort under the shadow of slavery, which explains why we have not fully progressed as a people.
Phillips, who died last week, was the matriarch of Milwaukee’s civic rights movement, breaking ground in the political and legal battlefields.
Queen Virginia was the personification of Ghana’s Yaa Asantewa, introducing hundreds of college students—including myself—to the richness of our native land, inspiring intellectual curiosity, and more importantly, planting the seeds of cultural pride.
Mother Polly was the only true independent state representative of my era, putting her people before her “adopted” political party (and thus incurring their wrath), and espoused a Black Nationalist philosophy that ultimately resulted in the most significant educational movement in U.S. history.
I loved all three sisters, each of whom played an important role in my life.
Call it fate, coincidence or a nudge from Nyame, each of these pioneer sisters’ voices have been in my ear this month.
Vel’s death last week sparked a well-earned citywide commemoration. The city’s first African American and female alderwoman, judge and state office holder (secretary of state), she was a tireless worker for civil rights and equal opportunity.
I first met her through my mother, who Vel would always describe as, “my dearest friend.”
Vel opened doors for my mother when she recommended her to cater a series of functions for Milwaukee’s Black Bourgeoisie.
I use that term because there was—and continues to be—a caste system within the confines of apartheid that provides a clear distinction between the haves and have nots (which is not to say they were any less “Black”, or committed to overturning apartheid, but that they separated themselves from us through culture and social mingling.
Among the elite were the doctors, lawyers and “some” entrepreneurs who met specific educational and lifestyle prerequisites.
W.E.B. Dubois called them the “Talented Tenth,” theorizing they would lead. But my first exposure to them left a bad taste in my mouth that took years to cleanse.
My mother was consumed with the idea of being a first-class caterer. She studied the culinary arts, and put that knowledge to good use. Equally important, she took particular joy in service, both because of her upbringing and also her strong Christian ethics.
My two siblings and I generally accompanied my mother at her catered functions, but I could never get over how these members of the Negro hierarchy seemed to look down on us.
Obviously, I was wrong in one respect: while a caterer was commissioned to serve, he or she was not a servant, but an entrepreneur.
But at the time, I viewed our “clients” as prestigious “House Negroes” who disrespected my mother and every hard working menial Black worker by their uppity attitudes.
Maturity and exposure ultimately changed my minds about them.
Vel helped to change my perception.
She could have sat on a throne. Instead, she dedicated her life to activism, starting with her championship of the open house ordinance, which was my first exposure to the civil rights movement.
The White media painted a picture of the “po’ Negroes” being led by the “great White father,” Roman Catholic Priest Father James Groppi during the 200 days of the open housing campaign. But while I would recommend him for sainthood, the marches were the brainchild of Vel, and orchestrated by the NAACP and Commandoes.
Vel inspired and tasked us to continue marching even as we confronted racists on the Southside who refused to allow us to live in their neighborhoods. The bricks and bottles thrown at us were not enough to stop us from revealing the system of apartheid that still exists in Milwaukee.
Vel’s involvement in dozens of other political campaigns opened many doors, and while we disagreed on her seemingly blind loyalty to the Democratic Party and her opposition to school choice, I loved, respected and applauded her accomplishments.
Queen Virginia, was my cultural mentor, my Black English and creative writing teacher and my co-parent (that latter title given for her help in raising my late son, Malik, as I took on the challenge of being a single parent).
Queen Virginia brought Africa to life through her cultural mentorship, and opened my eyes about the African elements that we subconsciously kept alive that link us back to the Motherland.
Did you know that we say “dis” and “dat”, not because we have poor grammar, but because there was no “t” sound (as in “this” and “that”) in many West African languages? The Queen taught us that in her pioneering study of African American linguistics. She proved Ebonics was rooted in African languages and Black English is a result of a culture that refused to be beaten out of slaves.
Virginia took us through a matriarchal-inspired rites of passage, opening our eyes to the rich and beautiful culture of our ancestors.
And her dedication was such that she left UWM to run Urban Day school, where she could plant seeds in the fertile minds of hundreds of Black youth.
And unbeknownst to many, the Queen was also one of the early catalysts for the school choice revolution. She attended the historic meeting in 1988 with MPS Superintendent Robert Peterkin who sought a partnership with Black independent schools. The bill he “authored” was ultimately high jacked by the teachers’ union. The next year, a bill introduced by Polly was signed into law, where upon the Queen proudly filled out the application making Urban Day the first school in the program.
There was probably no more polarizing and empowering sister in politics than Polly.
Over the years, she lambasted Republicans on a regular basis and Democrats as often as necessary. She was forced to turn to the Republicans to support the school choice legislation because her Democratic Party colleagues put special interests (teachers) before Black children, prompting Polly to declare, “No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent issues.”
Indeed, Polly was one of the few Black leaders who was unafraid, didn’t care about party politics and was quick to call a liberal a racist, as she was a conservative.
Polly was unapologetically Black. And although she was a champion for justice for all, she prioritized what was best for Black folks, and was uncompromising in her ethics and her sledgehammer tactics.
She first emerged on the scene as co-chair of the Coalition to Save North Division (which has been resurrected in light of the meddling of the same union that wanted to limit Black student options) and even sponsored legislation to carve out a separate school district that would be totally staffed and controlled by Black educators.
When the union stopped that revolutionary effort, she turned to school choice to empower Black families to control the education of their children.
I served as a lieutenant in Polly’s Army and learned to appreciate her tenacity and philosophy (which I shared).
After this paper took on the establishment (“eduacracy”) in support of choice, Polly and I traveled the country promoting Black empowerment.
My book, “Not Yet Free at Last” paints a portrait of this dynamic leader.
In fact, it was originally conceived as a biography of her, but morphed into a chronology of the educational revolution.
The seeds these three women planted in the hard ground of American apartheid can be witnessed in the advocacy of their protégés, each of whom takes on the attributes of their mentors.
Alderwoman Milele Coggs is today’s Vel Philips, following in her footsteps as an attorney (Vel once said all council members should have law degrees—obviously I disagreed) and alderwoman.
Coggs learned through Vel to analyze issues from all perspectives, to stand fast in her positions and to use her office to close the gap between rich and poor, business and labor, haves and have nots.
Russell Stamper II has taken into office many of the attributes of his mother: her tenacious spirit, her cultural foundation and her unwavering desire to empower our people.
As an added bonus, he also carries with him into battle his father’s intellect and assertiveness.
I am a product of each but many would assess Polly’s imprint is my most obvious tattoo.
I don’t disagree, but Vel and Queen Virginia significantly influenced who and what I am.
Virginia explained to me the importance of planting a tree to commemorate my son’s passing. That cultural paradigm is particularly apropos given that each of these sisters have now joined him among the ancestors.
So, next time you feel a tug on your shoulder or a tingling sensation and no one is there, it just might be these sisters trying to tell you something. You should listen.