It’s an old-fashioned dinner, the kind many families these days succeed in pulling together only around Thanksgiving or Christmas or on some other rare occasion when they’re able to assemble far-flung extended families. Among African Americans in the South, where family ties were powerful, such large gatherings were once regular events.
They still are for the Daniels family. Each Sunday, as many as 20 people gather for dinner at either the home of Valerie Daniels-Carter or Bishop Sedgwick Daniels. Valerie and her sister, Hattie Daniels-Rush, share the cooking, serving up platters of baked chicken, dressing, greens and corn bread.
The adults crowd around one big table, with the children at another. “We are very insistent that everybody is around the table so we can talk with each other, see how the week went and if there is anything we need to discuss as a family,” says Hattie.
Lorraine Carter, president and chief executive officer of V.E.Carter Development Group, is the matriarch of another prominent and politically active African-American family in Milwaukee and a friend of the Daniels. She says the weekly family dinner used to be much more common in the African-American community.
“It was a wonderful tradition,” says Carter. “That’s when everyone would see one another. That’s when they would say, ‘You better make sure that baby’s hair gets cut’ or ‘That child’s shoes are too tight.’ That’s when you would pass on the mores of the family. That’s what the Daniels still do.”
One of the city’s most accomplished and powerful families, the Daniels came from working-class parents who produced four siblings who have risen to the heights of their chosen professions of law, business, religion and social service in Milwaukee.
Consider the two brothers and two sisters who call themselves each other’s best friends. Any one of them would be among the most prominent guests at a dinner party.
John Daniels was the first African-American attorney and partner at the law firm of Quarles & Brady. He has been national president of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers and involved in major urban redevelopment projects in Milwaukee and in cities across the country.
Bishop Sedgwick Daniels is the regional spiritual leader of more than 105 churches of the Institutional Church of God in Christ in Wisconsin and northern Illinois. In Milwaukee, he grew his Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ into a multimillion-dollar, multi-service religious, educational and social service complex in the abandoned industrial heart of the family’s old city neighborhood.
Hattie Daniels-Rush is program director for the Holy Redeemer campus, which includes five separate schools and a range of social service institutions. President George W. Bush appointed her to the National Commission on Presidential Scholars. She serves as an adviser to the Bush faith-based initiative and has been wooed for an even larger role in the administration.
Valerie Daniels-Carter, as president of V & JFoods (for Valerie and John), heads the nation’s largest minority-owned franchise food company, operating 102 Pizza Hut and Burger King restaurants in four states. In 2002, Valerie was selected, along with the likes of Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Michael Jordan, for the book 40 of the Most Inspiring African Americans, published by the editors of Essence magazine.
The national recognition these four have achieved should give them a certain measure of local celebrity. The fact that all four grew up as members of the same North Side family makes their collective accomplishments all the more remarkable.
It says something about local media and its interests in the accomplishments of hometown African Americans that the story of the Daniels family isn’t already widely known and that John, Valerie, Hattie and Sedgwick aren’t more frequently held up as the Milwaukee role models they so obviously are.
But the Daniels are also very private people. It took months to get all four of them to agree to interviews. Privately, they express concern about publicity making some members of the black community into targets, acknowledging that it may be easier to accomplish some things in Milwaukee under the radar. They also express genuine humility.
“What we do in the community is there for the people who really need it, and we’re not out looking for a lot of hype,” says Valerie. “Our true desire is to do service. I’m not trying to downplay anything, but that really is what we believe is right.”
Many of the Daniels’ community contributionssupport what they refer to as “the Bishop’s vision” to reclaim and revitalize an expanding area around Holy Redeemer Church. The church is at 3500 W. Mother Daniels Way, a street renamed by the city to honor their mother. It runs north from Hampton Avenue at 35th Street and extends west along what previously was Stark Avenue to 36th Street.
Former Mayor John Norquist admires what the Daniels have accomplished even as he recalls trying to slow down the expansion of Holy Redeemer and other Inner City churches.
“I had a little foot on the brake in dealing with them,” says Norquist, “because I don’t really think it’s a good idea for these campuses to keep growing and taking stuff off the tax base.”
Norquist remembers Sedgwick starting at a tiny church on Atkinson Avenue. With his charismatic preaching and dreams for the future, he packed the pews.
“His church today is a seven-day-a-week operation,” says Norquist. “People get a lot of services and a lot of community stuff. It’s not just about dressing up the minister in nice suits. His actually delivers services.”
In a city that has too often ignored its black leaders, the Daniels’ accomplishments are sometimes underplayed. Certainly there have been times when the family had a right to expect more public attention than it’s gotten. One was last August with the star-studded grand opening of the $15 million Mother Kathryn Daniels Conference Center for Community Empowerment and Family Reunification.
The remarkable hybrid facility includes a youth center run by the Boys & Girls Club; a public elementary school, 35th St. School; and a private elementary school, Holy Redeemer Academy; as well as adult education classes offered by Milwaukee Area Technical College, conference facilities and performance spaces.
The youth center, which now serves about 1,000 children a week, was just the latest expansion of neighborhood services offered on the Holy Redeemer site. All five schools, including two more public schools and another private school, have a total enrollment of 800 to 1,000 children. Other facilities include a medical clinic staffed by St. Michael’s and Covenant Hospitals, a credit union, a clothing and food bank, independent senior living and a wide range of youth mentoring and family counseling programs.
A highlight of the opening was an opportunity for neighborhood children to meet privately with NBAsuperstar Michael Jordan, who talked to them about sports and succeeding in life. Jordan and Marc Marotta, the former Marquette basketball star who is now Gov. Jim Doyle’s secretary of administration, christened the youth center’s basketball court with two perfect shots.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson was on hand, along with a who’s who of state and local political leaders of both parties and other community leaders. Mayor Tom Barrett was there with two of his former political opponents, former Mayor Marvin Pratt and former Republican Gov. Scott McCallum, prompting Barrett to publicly nominate Bishop Daniels for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Of all of the words spoken to the crowd, perhaps the most eloquent were those Sedgwick addressed directly to the children.
“Some of you are listening to me now and you are on the streets. I know that some of you sell drugs and do other things. But I want you to know today is the turnaround day for this community. You don’t have to be on the street any longer. You can get in the doors of the Mother Kathryn Daniels Conference Center.
“You can be trained. You can exercise your gifts and talents. You can work on the computer. You can throw the basketball. You can write your stories.… And you can fly like an eagle!”
It was a thrilling public event that drew more than 2,000 people. The next day, the story appeared at the bottom of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s local news page with a headline describing it as merely the opening of another Boys & Girls Club.
“The scope of what the people in this community have done together far exceeds that,” Sedgwick said later. “We’ve done $25 million worth of development here. But what can you do? You just have to let your statements speak for you.”
One of the few times the Daniels family appearedon the front page of the Journal Sentinel was in the kind of story the late Mayor Henry Maier used to call “synthetic conflict.”
A story appeared before the presidential election describing a rift in the “politically divided” Daniels family, with Sedgwick and Hattie supporting President Bush and John supporting John Kerry. The story speculated how this division could affect the black vote in Milwaukee and even the outcome of the presidential election.
To anyone who knew the tight-knit Daniels family, the idea of any kind of deep division among them was amusing. Barrett was closer to the mark when he described them working with all sides.
Lorraine Carter, who is no relation to Valerie’s late husband, Jeffrey Carter, knows the Daniels well and admires both their loyalty to each other and their political skills in dealing with outsiders.
Carter says the pattern of successful African-American families supporting each other in business and community projects is a necessity for those few blacks who manage to break through in a community where whites control most of the power.
“There are some who criticize Carter Development because my son, sister, nephews and brother and all are involved in some way,” she says. “But you rely on each other and the folks you trust.”
Of the Daniels’ political prowess, Carter says, “One of their unusual assets is that as a family, they have mastered the whole political relationship. One may say he’s independent and the other may lean one way or the other, but who they support has always been beneficial [to them].”
Sedgwick and Hattie were delegates to the Republican National Convention renominating Bush, who has twice visited Holy Redeemer. Sedgwick decided to work within the Republican Party because, he says, “It’s better to be in the boardroom or at the board table than to be on the agenda.”
Norquist places their political involvement in the context of achievement. “The really good thing for the African-American community is that none of them are really dependent on the government for where they are,” says Norquist. “They’re really successful, and they like power. That’s not unusual for people who’ve become rich. They end up hanging out with powerful Democrats and powerful Republicans. George Bush probably thinks Sedgwick Daniels is his best friend, but if a Democratic president got in, he would think Sedgwick Daniels was his best friend, too.”
Sedgwick notes that over the past 20 years, he has supported both Republicans and Democrats in local and state races. And it’s not unusual for John to support different candidates.
In the governor’s race, John’s primary endorsement of Madison’s Jim Doyle against Barrett from Milwaukee, announced jointly with other prominent African Americans, was a Doyle coup. Many may not have realized Doyle had been John’s classmate at Harvard Law School. John had previously introduced Doyle to prominent leaders in Milwaukee’s black community.
Sedgwick split his vote in the governor’s race, supporting Barrett for the Democratic nomination and McCallum for the Republican nomination.
In the racially contentious mayoral race, both Sedgwick and John were prominent supporters of Milwaukee’s first African-American mayor, Marvin Pratt.
“You had two good guys there,” says Sedgwick. “As gentlemen, they could have had a very healthy, clean race where the city would not be divided. But there were people who made conscious choices to say that if you supported this person, you were pro-African American and if you supported that person, you were pro-European. That was terrible.”
John was one of the most vocal African-American community leaders who met privately with Journal Sentinel editors to object to what they perceived as racial bias in coverage of the race.
Sedgwick believes the bias has continued: “Why does theJournal Sentinel refer to Marvin Pratt all the time as acting mayor? That’s an insult to the African-American community. He was sworn in. He was mayor. Now he’s former mayor. That was addressed to them and they still do it. So it’s intentional.”
Says Norquist: “The Daniels really stuck their necks out for Marvin.”
Pratt, who represented the Holy Redeemer neighborhood as alderman, says it was unusual for John to take such an open role in his campaign. In the past, John preferred to work behind the scenes.
“John is kind of a low-key guy,” says Pratt. “He doesn’t particularly want the press. There was a book called The Millionaire Next Door. A number of people who have money are not real ostentatious or pretentious about it. They just kind of fly below the radar. John has done that for a number of years.”
So who are these Daniels whose community contributions continue to grow quietly, always as a tribute to their parents and their bond with each other?
All four graduated from Custer High School when it was still predominantly white. John, 56, the oldest of the four, is a dapper, soft-spoken lawyer. Hattie, a cheerful educator and licensed family therapist, is two years younger. Valerie, an engaging but no-nonsense businesswoman, is seven years younger. Sedgwick, the bishop, a riveting speaker and a driving force for community development, is the youngest of the four, in his mid-40s.
In addition to the four who agreed to be interviewed for this story, there are three more Daniels brothers. The oldest, Roosevelt, has a Ph.D. and is a retired assistant superintendent for DeKalb County Schools outside of Atlanta. Alvin owns a retail jewelry and gift shop in Birmingham and Andrew is an educational assistant at Holy Redeemer and operates his own house-painting business. The youngest, Reginal, was killed by a hit-and-run driver shortly after graduating from college. He’d been preparing to start work in the family food business.
John lives in Mequon with wife Irma and a high school-age daughter. They also have an adult son. Hattie and husband Robert live in Milwaukee. They have an adult daughter. Valerie lives with a young son in Bayside. She was widowed in 1999 when her husband, Jeffrey, was killed while shoveling heavy snow from the roof of Hentzen Coatings, a small industrial firm where he worked. Sedgwick, who is single, lives in River Hills. He helped care for their mother, known reverently as Mother Daniels, during the final years of her life, when she lived with him. She died in 2000 at age 74.
Snow Mitchell has known the Daniels family for 40 years, ever since he and John were among a small minority of African-American students in Custer’s class of 1965. Later, Mitchell and Valerie worked together at First Wisconsin National Bank.
When Mitchell was recruited in 1989 to become president of North Milwaukee State Bank, established in 1971 as Wisconsin’s first African-American-owned financial institution, he asked both John and Valerie to serve on the board of directors.
Mitchell now works in Atlanta as southern regional vice president for Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by convicted Nixon Watergate aide Charles Colson. He says the Daniels’ devotion to family isn’t unusual among African Americans of their generation.
“The African-American family, as we knew it growing up, was always very strong,” says Mitchell. “It’s really just the last several years that it’s been torn apart by the influence of the drug culture. When we were growing up, there was always deep respect for parents and elders. I never heard a child talk back to their parents until I moved to a predominantly white neighborhood.”
The Daniels family roots are in Birmingham, Alabama, where their grandfather, the late Rev. G.T.Townsel, was pastor of the First Baptist Church West End for more than 40 years, including the formative years of the civil rights movement.
Kathryn Daniels and her husband, John, moved to Milwaukee from Birmingham in the mid-1950s. John worked for the U.S.Navy in Forest Park, Illinois, and they chose Milwaukee as a more family-friendly city than Chicago. The family’s ties to their grandparents and the civil rights struggle in Birmingham always remained strong.
“We traveled back to Birmingham every holiday, every family vacation during summer,” Hattie remembers. “We were very much aware of the civil rights movement. I think it gave us a lot of drive, wanting to reach heights, wanting to live what Dr. King talked about, wanting to take full advantage of the things so many people in those communities fought for, died for.”
When they traveled to the South, Sedgwick was aware of an aura of danger related to the times. “I was from a whole different environment by being here in Milwaukee,” he says. “There were things that I wasn’t used to, like always having to go to the back door of a white person’s house, all of that kind of stuff.”
But at least in the South, Sedgwick says, white people’s feelings were transparent. “In the North, they would tend to disguise it. There was a glass ceiling. Sometimes you didn’t see it until you were wondering why something had happened.”
Through these experiences, the children received one consistent message about facing adversity. “The perception of our family has always been not to look at what can’t happen,” says Sedgwick, “to know that the power of God and your ability with family and friends is stronger than your challenges. My mother was very optimistic. So were my grandfather and my grandmother.”
John, second eldest, began school in Birmingham about a year before moving to Milwaukee and remembers the substandard two- or three-room school for black children.
“I started school in a legally segregated Southern school and finished at Harvard Law,” he says. “That tells me people can change. You can’t judge people by where they were 10 or 20 years ago. People change, and you can make big changes in a community.”
It wasn’t just the family back inBirminghamthatwas on the edge of social change in the ’60s. For most of their childhood, the Daniels lived in a brick ranch home just north of 44th and Hampton.
The home, which a black architect built for his own family, had five big bedrooms, a living room, family room, dining room, den, rec room and two working fireplaces. Next door was a vacant wooded lot where the children played. They called it “the forest.”
When the Daniels moved in, the neighborhood was predominantly white. Another black family lived across the street, and a girl in that family was the first black student to attend Custer, which was two blocks away. Her parents successfully fought the school administration’s initial attempt to refuse her admission.
In this atmosphere, the Daniels were very protective of their children, says Hattie. “But as kids, you would hear things. When people heard that this black family was moving in with all these kids, it was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ ”
Sedgwick found out that he didn’t have to be in the South of his grandparents to fear for his life from racism. He was playing with some white friends in the neighborhood where Holy Redeemer stands today. It was a warm day and one of the boys invited everyone inside for Kool-Aid.
“His little brother ran next door, saying he was going to tell his grandfather, ‘You have a “the N word” in the house!’ I was just a little kid and I had to go out an upstairs window and jump from the roof. The man had gotten a shotgun and he was coming to shoot me for being in the house with his grandchildren.”
Hattie was one of the few African Americans in 35th Street School when she started. “Kids were always curious about why you were different. Then you begin exploring yourself. Well, why am I different? My mother gave me the attitude that this was an opportunity to make friends and win people over.
“Racism never feels good. But I always took it as a challenge. Whatever I was involved in, I had to be better. It was a good thing because it really set the stage for my life. It made us want to say, ‘I can excel far more than what you can even imagine.’ ”
John considers dealing one on one with people of different races and classes one of life’s most valuable experiences.
“There’s nothing like having a really good personal relationship with somebody of a different background because it gives you something that really helps you for the rest of your life,” he says.
That didn’t mean there weren’t painful experiences. There was a tradition at Custer that the captain of the football team served as homecoming king. That tradition was abolished when John’s best friend, an African American, was team captain. Instead, the homecoming king and the rest of the court were elected school-wide and remained all white, as they had always been.
“Those kinds of things just happen,” says John. “My whole thing is you take that stuff, but you don’t let it define who you are.”
Their father, John, commuted every day to Illinois, returning home after 6 p.m. He also ran his own heating and air-conditioning repair business on weekends. Mother Daniels worked for the school district so she could be home when her children returned from school. For many years, she was parent coordinator for Project Head Start in Milwaukee.
“When my daddy walked in the house at night, every child would surge him,” says Hattie. “When we were away at college and a holiday was coming up, he would have a big calendar in the kitchen to check off the days until we would be home.”
Their mother read to them every night. “She had a thick Mother Goose [book],” says Hattie. “My mom would gather all of [us] every night. We would pray. Then mother would read us something from the Bible and then something from Mother Goose. All of us embraced a love for learning and reading at a very early age.”
While growing up in a large working-class family can be a financial struggle, the children don’t recall their childhood as particularly needy. “My dad really was into providing all the creature comforts,” says Hattie. “Things that didn’t cost money had a big impact on us: going to State Fair, camps, the Scouts, being involved with the Salvation Army. All of those positive things that really build character in children were very much a part of our lives.”
Sedgwick says he remembers as if it were yesterday April 25, 1973, the day their father, in his early 50s, died of a heart attack at home. Seven months earlier, their grandfather, the Rev. Townsel, had died and their grandmother came to live next door to them.
“When the two main male pillars in your family and in your life suddenly have earthly transition, it really impacts your family,” says Sedgwick. “The phenomenal strength of my mother and my grandmother was the glue that kept everything together.”
The expanding social services of Holy Redeemer today are really an extension of the clothing banks, food pantries, shelters and other Christian missions Mother Daniels was involved in.
One of the values the Danielsinstilled in their children was the desire for education. All eight went to college, remarkable for any working-class family in the ’60s and ’70s.
“Our parents made huge sacrifices for us,” says Valerie, who was a senior at Custer when their father died. She said her older brothers picked up the mentoring role of their father and also helped support the family.
“We all did whatever we needed to do, winning scholarships and working. When I got ready to go to college, my older brothers reached back and made sure our mother was able to provide us the kind of education they knew my father wanted for us.”
John excelled academically at Custer and was active in student government and debate. He finished near the top of his class, and Ivy League schools recruited him.
With enough credits to graduate early, John started mid-year at North Central, a small liberal arts college in Naperville, Illinois; he’d move on to a more prestigious Eastern school in fall. But he had such a good experience there that he remained for his undergraduate career. He now serves on the college’s board of trustees.
His two best friends there were an African American from the south side of Chicago and a white student from Neenah whose father was a top executive at a Wisconsin company.
“People talk about the value of diversity and inclusion, but they don’t really fully appreciate the perspective of the other person until they have a personal relationship,” says John. “That’s the biggest challenge in Milwaukee, in my opinion. There’s not enough real communication [between the races].”
John says Harvard opened up the world of possibilities to him. “There were any number of guys with very similar backgrounds to mine who went on to become mayors or CEOs. There was no reason I couldn’t do it. …I didn’t walk away thinking, ‘Hey, I can’t play with these guys.’ I walked away thinking, ‘Hey, I can play. This isn’t that hard.’ ”
Harvard also provided John with a network of African-American leaders and other prime movers across the country, including Doyle. “If you want to talk about doing economic development in your community, I can pick up the phone and talk to guys in Cincinnati or Pittsburgh who have actually done it,” says John. “I came away with a sense of the possibilities, that you can make stuff happen and that I ought to try.”
Unlike John, his three siblings attended historically black colleges. Hattie and Valerie graduated from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. At the close of the Civil War in 1866, the 62nd United States Colored Infantry founded the college to educate freed African Americans.
“I had basically grown up in a community that was European,” says Hattie. “And it was just intriguing to go to a traditional African-American school. I never had the opportunity to go to school with what I considered my peers and have African-American teachers and administrators.”
That was near the end of the ’60s, and Hattie has pictures from those days when she wore “a really big Afro.” She remembers the excitement of civil rights marches and rallies. “Growing up the way we grew up prepared me for that life,” she says.
Valerie says her parents, as part of their Southern heritage, always promoted historically black colleges in the family. Yet she had another reason to attend Lincoln. She won a full athletic scholarship and played women’s basketball for four years.
If women’s sports had been more popular, Valerie may have accepted the offer she received to play for the Milwaukee Does, a local professional team that operated from 1978 to ’81. Instead, she joined the management trainee program at First Wisconsin National Bank. She later earned an MBAfrom Cardinal Stritch College.
Sedgwick attended Morris Brown College and Morehouse College in Atlanta, both historically black colleges, as well as Atlanta University and Georgia State.
“The joy of a predominantly black school,” he says, “is that for once in your life, you are no longer a minority. In a very real sense, it’s a fair playing field. It’s based on your capacity to achieve, and race is not a factor.”
T. Michael Bolger, president/CEOof the Medical College of Wisconsin, was a partner at Quarles & Brady when he recruited John Daniels in 1974 as the firm’s first African-American attorney. He later asked John to serve on the MCW board. A friend in Minneapolis met John at Harvard and introduced him to Bolger.
At the time, John was getting offers from around the country. As most of his friends looked to New York, Washington or Los Angeles, John thought about home.
“I didn’t have any desire to be a public-type person,” he says. “But I knew I wanted to do something more than practice law. I wanted to have an impact on the community. My eyes had been opened at Harvard as to what could happen. I felt very comfortable that in Milwaukee, I could make some of those things happen.”
When John started at Quarles & Brady, Bolger recalls that the partners assigned him to equal employment cases and other race-related issues. Says Bolger: “I went to one of the senior partners and said, ‘Look, John really wants to be a real estate lawyer, so let’s make him one.’ John became one of the best real estate lawyers in the country.”
Colleagues describe him as soft-spoken but an extremely tough, “take no prisoners” negotiator. “He’s a very low-key guy, but you know that he has authority,” says attorney Franklyn Gimbel, who serves with John on the board of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. “He just exudes that.”
John’s interest in real estate development began at Harvard when he took a class taught by business professor Mort Zuckerman, who made a fortune in real estate and later became publisher of U.S.News & World Report and chairman of the New York Daily News,among other media properties.
“There were not a whole lot of minority role models when I started,” says John. “I give credit to a few guys who were national leaders in the real estate industry outside of Milwaukee who sort of took me under their wing and promoted my career.”
John was the second lawyer at Quarles & Brady assigned to the Grand Avenue project when the Downtown mall was being developed in the early 1980s. That gave him an opportunity to work with a top Baltimore lawyer who was national president of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers. John became national president in 1999.
“You do something for somebody, and the next time there’s a project, he says, ‘Hey, that guy out in Milwaukee’s pretty good. Give him a call.’ ”
Besides Grand Avenue, John worked on the Milwaukee Center and the downtown redevelopment of St. Louis, as well as other major urban projects around the country.
Besides supporting the community development projects around Holy Redeemer, John tapped into the culture of his law colleagues in 2001 by founding the Fellowship Golf Open, which raises about $100,000 a year for children’s service organizations.
Valerie Daniels-Carter’s entrepreneurial spirit emerged when she was a child. “When I was in elementary school, I would walk other children to school and their parents would pay me every week to make sure their children got to school safe,” says Valerie.
“I’ve worked all my life. There was not a time when I was of age to have a work permit that I didn’t have one.”
Today, Valerie is president and chief executive officer of V & JHolding Companies, whose corporate headquarters is at 6933 W. Brown Deer Rd. The nation’s largest minority-owned food franchise company, with 66 Pizza Huts and 36 Burger Kings in four states, employs 3,500 employees and has annual sales of more than $90 million.
V & Jactually consists of 14 different companies. Most of them are related to the core food service business and include restaurant equipment, purchasing, real estate, training and a mentoring company that works specifically to help emerging African-American entrepreneurs.
Valerie says she’s on the road every week, with workdays that frequently start at 5 a.m. and go until 10 p.m. Her intense schedule and direct, hands-on approach is based on her belief that a person who leads a company can’t be afraid to do any job.
“You can walk in a restaurant somewhere and see me right there with the manager serving fries. Or you could see me on another day on a private jet with the president of a major corporation.”
Driven by this entrepreneurial spirit, she walked away from a financial career at First Wisconsin and then MGIC.In 1984, she and John invested in one Burger King at Appleton and Lisbon. They used the profits to add another a year later, then bought a group of four in 1987 and just kept going.
She considered it a challenge to succeed in a tough business in a town that did not have a reputation for encouraging African-American businesses. “Milwaukee certainly does not have the number of African Americans in business that a city of our size should,” she says. “Women-owned businesses also have a difficult time in Milwaukee, so I fall into two categories. In other states, they are very aggressive in terms of trying to get our company to move our corporate headquarters, offering things Milwaukee just does not.”
Does that mean V & J, with its community ties, might actually consider moving?
“You never look a gift horse in the mouth,” Valerie says. “But at this time, we’re not going to move our corporate headquarters. But we certainly look at what they’re offering just to understand what opportunities might exist in other marketplaces.”
Valerie also serves on the board of U.S.Bank. Locally, her most visible civic involvement for many years was as chair of the Summerfest board, as a staunch supporter of former Executive Director Bo Black.
Bill Christofferson, Norquist’s former chief of staff representing the mayor on the board, was often at odds with the pro-Bo majority. He remembers getting a taste of the Daniels family solidarity.
“Sedgwick came to see me,” Norquist says. “He said, ‘You are really into it with my sister and we’re not happy about it. Some people are starting to think maybe it’s racial. I’d hate to have to say that publicly, but maybe I will if this doesn’t stop.’ ”
Christofferson responded that the fight wasn’t personal, that the two of them were simply on different sides.
“It was a nose-to-nose situation,” says Christofferson. “The message was clear. They’re not a group you want to take on.”
Norquist says he never took Valerie’s disagreement personally. “I never felt any personal hostility from her,” says Norquist. “She was just part of Bo’s team. But that was a minor part of her life. She was [also] adding all these Burger Kings in Wisconsin and Michigan. She’s just a really good businessperson.”
No matter where she is, Valerie always tries to return for the Sunday service at Holy Redeemer, where she serves as minister of music, and for dinner with the family.
“We have certain foundation principles in our company,” says Valerie. “The church is part of the fiber of our mission. I believe that’s where my strength initiates from. It gives me the knowledge, energy and insight for my business [and] my community.”
The Sunday service at Holy redeemer, which draws hundreds every week, is a high-spirited celebration of oratory and music. Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, a large man, sways and even dances gracefully to the music. The stage behind him is crowded with a large choir and musicians on keyboards, electric guitars and saxophones.
The music, arranged by Valerie, is intertwined with the bishop’s rhythmic preaching. Short choral bursts, organ rifts or wailing sax notes punctuate his every line, and the crowd responds, “Tell it, Bishop!”
This morning, Sedgwick is speaking simply about “issues.”
“I got issues! You got issues! All God’s children, we got issues! But there’s good news for the issues! There’s a name that can act on every issue! Things happen! Situations occur! Storms come! I cannot do anything about the external forces that come at me! But I can do something about the internal force that is within me! Greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world! I’m stronger than my problem!”
Sedgwick’s voice grows louder and more rapid. The bursts of music come more quickly. The message is simple. The presentation is a blend of spoken word poetry and music building to an emotional crescendo. It’s finely tuned performance art.
Gimbel says he first got an inkling of what a remarkable community venue Holy Redeemer was when he spoke at the funeral of Bernice Edwards, a former client who had gone to prison in a national scandal involving the president of the national Baptist Convention USA,who was convicted of stealing more than $4 million from the church.
“In my 60-plus years on this good earth, I can’t say that I’ve ever been to a funeral like it,” says Gimbel. “I was awed by the facility first, which I didn’t even know existed in my city. And I was just overwhelmed by the energy. The place was permeated with music. I was awed by the interaction between the congregation and the bishop. Everybody was alternating between dancing and crying.”
In the early 1980s, Sedgwick served as associate minister of the church in which he grew up, the West Side Church of God in Christ, under the Rev. Willie Hines Sr., the late father of the current president of the Milwaukee Common Council. In 1986, in his late 20s, Sedgwick founded Holy Redeemer with eight families. Today, the church has 6,000 members.
Hattie recalls that almost from the beginning, Sedgwick thought it was important for the church to start moving into education if it was going to serve families.
“We opened the first African-American Christian school in the city, Holy Redeemer Christian Academy,” she says. “At that time, there was no choice, no charter, no money. The commitment to education wasn’t because there was a dollar behind it. It was what we needed to do.”
Hattie says it wasn’t until President Bush publicly visited Holy Redeemer in 2002, at the urging of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, that private foundation money and government partnerships really began to open up.
Shortly after that presidential visit, an opportunity also opened up for Hattie. She had worked with a White House advance team for weeks as the local contact. After the visit, she got a message on her answering machine from the White House personnel office.
“The initial message was the president was very impressed with you and said he’d like you to come to work for him,” says Hattie. “Whatever it takes, he didn’t care. You know I kept that on tape, right? I’m like, wow.”
Admittedly excited, her immediate response was to talk with her family. The ultimate decision was not to leave Holy Redeemer but to be open to a part-time position. Which is what led to Hattie’s appointment to the Commission on Presidential Scholars, which honors two top graduating seniors from each state and helps select the teacher of the year.
Hattie believes it was the president’s attention that first alerted the mainstream white media and many of Milwaukee’s movers and shakers to the growing role Holy Redeemer was playing in reclaiming a part of Milwaukee that powerful people in the community rarely saw.
Over the past two years, Holy Redeemer has received nearly $1.5 million in federal funds under the president’s faith-based initiative for its programs and to distribute to other community programs. The conservative Bradley Foundation and PAVE(Partners in Advancing Values in Education), the group promoting vouchers for private schools, also discovered Holy Redeemer.
Until then, the expanding education and social services were financed almost entirely by fundraisers and weekly contributions from poor, working-class and middle-class African Americans in the central city.
While much of the current complex grew up out of sight of the media and the powerbrokers, the next phase, which is even bolder, should get plenty of public attention. If successful, it would confirm the family assessment of Sedgwick as a visionary.
Holy Redeemer and the Daniels family are part of a development group that has acquired some five acres of land on the south side of Hampton Avenue between 32nd and 36th streets for a mostly private development project known as Bishop’s Creek.
The site includes decaying buildings from an abandoned tannery. It’s been ravaged by fires in recent years and requires environmental cleanup, which is being closely monitored by the DNR.
In short, it’s the kind of poisoned, abandoned industrial property that is a blight on the central city. And what the Bishop’s Creek Community Development Corp. is proposing for the area would be absolutely unprecedented for the black community.
Although the details haven’t all been released, preliminary plans include the kind of high-end development white developers never consider for the central city, including residential condominiums and lofts, a hotel, water park, restaurants, retail shops, a cultural center and even a fitness center.
A project developer has been working with the Bishop’s Creek group. An advisory committee is being assembled that will include some well-known local developers. There also have been discussions with possible financial partners. John, in providing some of the background on the project, declines to give an overall financial price tag, saying, “The number would take on more reality than it deserves at this point.”
The developers describe Bishop’s Creek as the largest urban revitalization project in Milwaukee ever undertaken indigenously, arising from the community itself: a 250,000- to 300,000-square-foot development creating 300 to 500 jobs.
The development phases over five or six years would be the condos; the African-American cultural center (with possible public involvement); the commercial, office and restaurant space; and finally the hotel.
John, who calls the project “the Bishop’s baby,” knows very well the practical problems associated with urban development.
“If my brother can pull that off, it won’t just be a tribute to him. You’ve got to remember the people who started the development around Holy Redeemer. It was the average guy who comes in and puts down $5 and says, ‘I know I can’t do this, but Bishop, I believe if you say you are going to build a youth center, you can do it.’ ”
This could be a project where the Daniels – four successful members from one family in the neighborhood – truly change the way Milwaukee operates.
“The key to political leadership and vision,” says John, “is to see what is possible in a community, to be willing to take some risks to move it forward and to be tough enough to say to some people who might not like it that we’re not going to do things the same way we always have.”
Joel McNally’s last feature focused on the downfall of Gary George.