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County's only black supervisor upset she was not told of plans to rename building after Obama

County's only black supervisor upset she was not told of plans to rename building after Obama

The Dane County Board’s sole African-American member was left wondering why she was not informed of a proposal announced Thursday to rename the City-County Building after the nation’s first African-American president.

“It saddens me that we had such a noble opportunity to name this building behind the first African-American president of the United States, and yet as the only African-American colleague standing here today I was not given a very special invitation,” Supervisor Shelia Stubbs, who represents Madison’s south side, told fellow supervisors at Thursday’s County Board meeting. “So I stand here to say, 'Where is our unity?'”

She added, “I received numerous phone calls that were not positive, even from alders within this city that did not know that this was happening.”

On Thursday, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced the initiative to rename the building after Barack Obama at a press conference with three County Board members, all of them white men. Parisi and Supervisors Tim Keifer and John Hendrick weren’t available for comment on Friday. Nor was Supervisor Al Matano, who proposed the measure, which would need approval from both the County Board and the Madison City Council.

Stubbs also has a problem with the choice of the building itself, which houses the maximum security section of the Dane County Jail on its two top floors. The jail has become a symbol of racial disparities in the county, as it houses a disproportionate number of African-American men.

In an interview, Stubbs said she agreed with comments by Parisi regarding the enduring civil rights legacy of Obama’s presidency.

“I think they were very good comments,” she said. “I think they talked about the social justice and equity work of our president. I just don’t think that’s the right building.”

She said that after news broke about the renaming of the building, which has been called the City-County Building since its 1957 construction, she received several phone calls from African-American community members who were upset about the proposal.

She also said the measure garnered little initial County Board support when Matano introduced it Thursday. 

“I’ve heard people say they didn’t like the idea with the jail on the sixth and seventh floor,” she said.

She said those concerns should have been brought to the attention of those proposing the measure before it went public.

“I was very disappointed in this process,” she said. “I was never engaged.”

It didn’t soften the blow, she said, that the supervisors worked with Madison Ald. Samba Baldeh, an African-American, to introduce a companion measure in the City Council.

Baldeh was not immediately available for comment. 

“You can contact an alder who is African-American, but you can’t reach out to your colleague, who’s African-American,” she said. “I don’t think the effort was made. They didn’t care.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.

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