|Early staff of the Nehemiah Community Development
Corporation: Dr. Rev. Alex Gee (l-r), Kevin
Evanco, Fabu Carter, Rev. Jackie Gee, Rachmaan Weatherby
and Jean Conklin
Nehemiah Celebrates 25 Years of
Foundational Work in South Madison
Quarter Century of Service
One of the troubled neighborhoods was Sommerset-Eric Circle, which was located just down Badger Road from Union Tabernacle.
“To know the families and the issues first hand, it really shaped how we looked at our work,” Gee said. “I remember the after school
homework club at Sommerset. We called it US back in the day. It stood for Union Tabernacle-Sommerset. We called it the US program. And then
we weaved some Black History into it. It was a homework club with some Black History. And then there were some Bible studies going on.
That was really the impetus for ACE, our Academic Center for Excellence. Sherry Lucille and Fabu were helping to lead programs there. But
that US program was the outgrowth of that.”
For the members of Union Tabernacle, it was a two-way street in terms of the giving and receiving with the people in Sommerset-Eric Circle.
“We lived out of our own personal experiences,” Gee said. “Although we dressed up in Bucky red, the truth of the matter is, most of the folks
who were part of our church had grown up in impoverished backgrounds, single parent households, physical and/or sexual abuse and
learning disabilities. So we found that the community of Sommerset-Eric Circle gave us the chance to tell our story because you don’t
necessarily walk onto Madison’s campus and talk about that. And we didn’t grow up in churches where you talked about it. This was an
opportunity to do both of those things together. That was powerful. And we stayed in the community. That’s a key point that people forget. It
wasn’t a short-term mission trip for us.”
While Union Tabernacle was running the program as an outgrowth of its spiritual ministry, John Smith, who was Park Bank’s community
reinvestment act officer and point person in South Madison, took note. And he encouraged Gee to think bigger than what Union Tabernacle had
“‘Have you ever thought about applying for money to expand that work,’ Smith asked me,” Gee recalled.’ “I said, ‘People give money to do
programs like this?’ He said, ‘Yes, they are called grants.’ And that was the beginning of starting Nehemiah. Rodney Tapp was the branch
manager at the time. But John Smith actually coached me in the early days. He actually helped me to design what was called Nehemiah’s Plan
for Planning. It was a precursor to a plan that actually helped me to align community leaders with the concept of Nehemiah Community
Back in those days, there was little Black leadership recognized in the greater Madison community safe for several institutions like the NAACP,
Urban League, Mt. Zion Baptist Church and Equal Opportunities Commission. Majority Madison was looking for additional leaders to deal with
the growth in population and urban issues. Gee saw the opportunity.
“As a city, the diversity was experiencing the need for having people of color represented in all aspects of leadership in the community,” Gee
said. “Those were very interesting days. And it was an opportunity for our community to step up. And Nehemiah was part of that desire to have
people from the community exert some leadership.”
The name for the new organization they were planning came from a sermon that Gee preached one Sunday.
“In the Book of Nehemiah, it’s really about rebuilding the city walls around the temple,” Gee said. “But he employed the indigenous folks who
lived in the community. He didn’t use folks who were from other parts of Palestine. He said, ‘For the people who are going to live here, you
need to take stock in rebuilding it because it means the most to you.’ He led a revival, so to speak, that helped recapture cultural identity and
spiritual identity. When I thought about that, I said, ‘I think African Americans could use a great dose of that. There’s not a lot of talk about
culture in schools. And there seems to be more of a separation between the role of faith and Black folks than what you see in major cities like
Chicago, Philly, Atlanta and Milwaukee. There’s a greater connection. I didn’t see that here. So those two things, the cultural and spiritual
revival, are what I thought would help strengthen the African American community because that was a bridge to making Madison better
overall. You couldn’t have these two Madisons. And so I chose the name Nehemiah. Nehemiah also means ‘God comforts.’ So this sense of
comforting people, acknowledging the pain and disenfranchisement was where we started. This was not right. And although there have been
systems put around disparity, racism and classism, it breaks God’s heart. We want to put some systems together that bring comfort and not
further injure people. And I’m a word person, so the name Nehemiah just made sense to me.”
In Gee’s words, the planning team for this new organization Nehemiah was very eclectic.
“We had retired professors, retired non-profit leaders, Black and white pastors and people who had struggled with crack and homelessness,”
Gee said. “The group provided a great deal of accountability. You couldn’t have poor people saying ‘those people’ because those people, the
power brokers, were in the room. And you couldn’t have the folks who were the professionals saying ‘those people’ because the recovering
drug addict was in the room. It made for a very honest conversation.”
The group decided on four programmatic thrusts for Nehemiah, their pillars Gee would say. “They were academic assistance for elementary
children — we thought the middle school was too old — youth leadership development, which includes smooth transitioning into adulthood and
youth employment, family empowerment because we realized we couldn’t just serve the children and not strengthen the parents and housing
and economic development,” Gee said. “Right from the beginning, we knew that those would be the four pillars. I asked myself, ‘What could I
push? What could I live for? What could I work for if I never got a dime? What would make me come to work every day for free?’ And I said that
it would be the advancement of one of those four areas. That’s what we positioned ourselves to do.”
Nehemiah Community Development Corporation came into being in 1992 as more of an idea and concept than as a social service organization.
“Initially, our funding came from the Madison Community Foundation, which was matched by local churches,” Gee said. “They offered a
$20,000 grant if we could match it. And local churches did. They matched it within two weeks. We got that released and we opened Nehemiah.
We found $10,000 somewhere else, maybe private gifts.”
A new, community-based non-profit was born in South Madison.
Next issue: Growth and evolution
By Jonathan Gramling
Back in the mid to late 1980s into the 1990s, Madison’s economically
challenged neighborhoods came under more intense stress as the Reagan
budget cuts — fraying the safety net — the crack cocaine epidemic and
sudden population growth particularly in neighborhood along the Beltline
Hwy. corridor took hold. The population growth, in particular, was fueled by
individuals coming from larger urban areas seeking economic opportunity.
But they often came into Madison unconnected to any Madison institutions
and then began to stagnate in the economically challenged neighborhoods
where they resided and complex social issues began to fester.
In the midst of this sat Union Tabernacle Church — which changed its name
to Fountain of Life Church — with Rev. Alex Gee as its pastor.
“At the time, Union Tabernacle, as you may recall, was about 25-30 people,”
Gee said. “And 95 percent of us were either UW students, grad students or
alums, which meant that on a per capita basis, we had more Black alumni
than any other church in the country. But that was the start of wanting to
give back to the community. That was a strong value for us, that we were
living into our heritage, that for the African Americans who were fortunate
enough to receive a formal education, it was expected that you would give
back. And we practiced that.”