Cover photo for Mildred Madison's Obituary
Mildred Madison Profile Photo

Mildred Madison

d. August 16, 2023

Mildred R. Madison lived and led by example a life of purpose and service. Practical, direct, courageous, focused and grounded, she knew the value of sacrifice and what it took to get things done. Straddling the broad shoulders of her ancestors - The Perry’s and The Thomas’, Mildred’s foundation for her unrelenting civic convictions provided just grounding to her innate sense of justice, value of education and pride of family. The ordinary life of this extraordinary woman who distinctly understood that advocacy for a just world begins locally stayed the course and over time impacted the political outlook in both Cleveland, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan.

The second of four daughters, Mildred Renetta Thomas was born on 5 June 1926 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to parents Edgar Thomas and Anna Perry Thomas. Mildred’s siblings – Lois, Winnie and Connie all - grew up in a household in which Mildred described her father as ‘fun’ and her mother as ‘brilliant’. Her parents – Edgar, a physician, pharmacist, business owner and civic leader – Anna, a musician, poet, playwright, business leader and a recognized authority on pre- school education - both instilled and demonstrated the importance of education.

Mildred graduated from Howard University with a degree in marketing and accounting. She greatly enjoyed her college days, singing in the Howard University Choir and joining the AKA sorority - a connection she cherished throughout her life. It was at Howard that Mildred met her future husband Julian C. Madison, an engineering student and later co-founder of Madison-Madison International.

Mildred and Jay (as she called Julian) settled in his hometown Cleveland, Ohio, where their four children - Julian Jr, Sharon, Carol, and Roberta were born. Determined to redress the lack of educational opportunities for the children in the black community she became president of the PTA and from there moved on to local, state, and national positions in politics and education. She served on the Ohio State Board of Education, the Cleveland City Council and the Cleveland Board of Education of which she became the first woman president. She loved children and enjoyed supporting young people. As a Cleveland Board member, she delighted in her duty to attend high school graduations. Mildred was a firm advocate for paths to success for all young people including those with no interest in college. At the state level she was very proud of her achievement in maintaining (and visiting) vocational schools where young people received top level training in a variety of professions such commercial baking preparing them for careers as business owners.

Mildred was a delegate to two Democratic National Conventions serving as a Whip and a member of the Rules and Platform Committees. Her political activities in the 1960s, 70s and 80s put her at the sharp end of the challenges faced by facing women, black people and black women seeking to lead political change. This was a time when men openly told women candidates they belonged in the kitchen. She used to quip that her campaign headquarters was probably the only one in Cleveland where women were doing more than making the coffee! At one point when she was poised to run as the incumbent, the Democratic Party told her to step aside for a male candidate. She did so, then presented herself to voters as an independent and was easily returned to office by her constituents who trusted her as a determined, incorruptible public servant who delivered results. In order to encourage more black women to consider a life in public office Mildred founded (with her friend Doris Rankin) the Ohio Black Women’s Leadership Caucus. She continued to encourage and mentor black women interested in running for elected positions well into her 90s.

Throughout her political career, during which she was also raising four children, Mildred committed herself to civic and volunteer work in many other areas. She led fundraising workshops for volunteers from the United Way, the YWCA and the March of Dimes of which she was Cleveland president. She was asked to serve on dozens of committees including the Ohio Advisory Committee for the United States Civil Rights Commission, the Women’s Committee for the PBS Cleveland affiliate WVIZ and a committee for the State of Ohio studying the prison system.

Following her career as an elected official, Madison took on the challenge of breathing new life into the Cleveland League of Women Voters. She was so successful in this endeavor, the National League of Women Voters (who at the time organized and sponsored the national presidential debates) selected Cleveland as the venue for the presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The realization of this effort highlighted another cause dear to her heart - supporting the City of Cleveland in its time of need. To accomplish this mission she happily worked with the republican mayor demonstrating her political mantra “No permanent enemies, no permanent friends, just permanent goals.”

There is something to be said when one leads a ballot initiative to affect the way city council members are elected. Mildred took it on and won this challenge in both Cleveland and Detroit.

In 1989 Mildred tragically lost her husband Julian and moved to Detroit where her daughter Sharon was living. In Detroit, she began a second activist career as President of the Detroit League of Women Voters. She was by this time in her 80s and gave herself the task of identifying and encouraging younger women who might take her place. In Michigan she became a major figure in the area of voting rights and voter engagement. She spoke out against barriers to voting in particular for senior citizens but also against efforts to discourage Detroit voters from exercising their political rights. As a vote challenger for the league in 2003 she learned of intimidation at polling places and witnessed the harassment of the election staff. Mildred continued to warn of the dangers to democracy of voter suppression and intimidation and backed initiatives for voter education and registration for high school students.

Mildred was a tireless, lifelong advocate for participation in the political process and especially the civic duty to vote. At 94, the account of her 600 mile round trip (driven by her son Julian) to vote in the presidential primary went viral internationally. She was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey who had arranged for then Democratic Candidate Joe Biden to appear. Mildred told the future president that her support for him was based on his experience and compassion but also on his selection of her AKA soror and fellow Howard University alumna, Kamala Harris as his running mate.

Mildred R. Madison passed away on August 16, 2023 in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 97.

She was a devoted wife and a loving mother and grandmother. She is survived by her children: Dr Julian C Madison Jr. and his wife Riezl of Zion, Illinois, Sharon Madison and her husband Michael Steinback of Detroit, Michigan and Carol and her husband George Graham of London, England. Her youngest child Roberta predeceased her. She is also survived by her grandchildren: Robert J. Madison, Maria Madison and her husband Thomas Zengel, Julian C Madison III, Philip Madison, John Graham, Julian Graham, Shammara Pope, her husband Michael Pope and children, Selah and Savannah Pope, Cameron Steinback, brother in law Robert P Madison, nieces, nephews and many friends and colleagues.

“The only worthwhile thing I can leave my children and grandchildren is a proud heritage.”

-Mildred R. Madison
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