At its meeting last night, the Madison Board of Education voted unanimously to rename Falk Elementary, located on the city’s west side, in honor of Milele Chikasa Anana. Chikasa Anana was a trailblazing Black Madisonian who, among a host of other accomplishments, was the first Black person to be elected to Madison’s school board.
The Board of Education’s decision to rename Falk Elementary came less than a year after the death of Chikasa Anana, who spent decades advocating for Madison’s Black community. She passed away last May at the age of 86.
In addition to her tenure on Madison’s school board, she spent nearly thirty years as the publisher and editor of UMOJA Magazine — an independent publication that celebrates the life, work and achievements of Madison’s Black residents.
“One of the things we do (at UMOJA) is to acknowledge our contributions and the ordinary things we do,” Chikasa Anana told WORT in 2012. “Secondly it’s to provide a historical record in the African American population. I am trying to preserve some of the things we were doing for the generations to come.”
She was also a City of Madison Affirmative Action Officer and the first African American elected to the Madison school board — and to any school board in the state of Wisconsin.
Current school board President Gloria Reyes read a statement from Anana’s family last night to mark the occasion.
“Public service and education was important to her, as it made a difference in her life. Just as the community made a difference in her life. Just as being seen and valued as a human being makes a difference in all lives,” Reyes read.
The final vote to rename the school was brief — board members reached their unanimous decision in less than twenty minutes. But it comes after months and months of committee meetings and deliberations.
The process began in earnest back in 2018, after the school’s original namesake – former Madison Superintendent Philip Falk, who served from the late 1930s to the early 1960s – was accused of racism.
According to the Capital Times, Falk was allegedly a member of a UW-Madison student group called the Ku Klux Klan — but it was unaffiliated with the national group. He also reportedly rejected Black applicants for teaching positions, arguing that they “weren’t qualified enough.”
It wasn’t until last summer that a community member put forward Milele Chikasa Anana as a potential candidate.
What followed was several months of public input meetings and procedural discussions. A renaming committee tasked with handling the process considered four different names; including the late U.S. Representative. John Lewis, who passed away last summer, and late Madison residents Dolores Green and William Noland.
Sarah Hall is a social worker at Falk Elementary and served as a member of the committee. She’s also the parent of a biracial student at the school, so for her the board’s ultimate decision carried particular significance.
“I think [the renaming] is just testament to the persistence and tenacity of the people in our school community who care so much about our kids and their families and that they’re represented in a way that helps define us,” Hall told WORT.
Hall says that the renaming process at Falk could open the door for other Madison area schools. She says one goal of the committee was to make the renaming process more straightforward for those who follow.
“For me, it’s really a call to action that we rename Jefferson and Madison Memorial High School,” she says. “Our kids do not deserve to sit in buildings that are named after slaveholders and I hope that this gives some momentum to those changes as well.”
The official name change won’t be until the start of the fall 2021 semester. Until then, the west-side elementary school will continue operating as Falk Elementary.
(PHOTO: Element 5 / UNSPLASH)