There is a little white house on School Road that many people have probably wondered about over the past decade or so as they have driven by. There are almost always several folding tables in the driveway, piled with bread, fruit and vegetables. Cars stop by and people get off the Metro bus to fill a bag or two. Children and adults from the surrounding neighborhood come and go through the front door, some coming away with clothes, some with a little something to eat, some with advice. There is usually something cooking on the stove. A blue van carries people to the grocery store, to doctor’s appointments, or speeds off to meetings. The van makes the rounds of several businesses every week to keep the driveway tables stocked.
People don’t call long-time Northside community leader Darlene Horner “Big Mama” for nothing. Before there was a Vera Court Neighborhood Center, Darlene’s little white house was the neighborhood center in Vera Court.
Darlene has been a one-woman force for good in the Northside community since she moved here from Chicago in 1985. Darlene initially moved into the Vera Court apartment complex, where she found a neighborhood in turmoil. Vera Court in those days was poorly maintained and managed, with many apartments overcrowded with more than one family. Open air drug dealing and violence was frequent. These were conditions that Darlene had left Chicago to escape, but instead of moving right back out, she dug in and started to fight for her new neighborhood, a fight she continued as she moved across the street from the Vera Court complex in 1990.
Darlene is credited by many people for providing the grassroots leadership necessary to turn Vera Court around from a trouble spot to stable neighborhood. Darlene organized residents into a neighborhood association, worked with police to crack down on crime and worked with then-Mayor Paul Soglin and other City and County Madison officials to assign a neighborhood officer, social worker and public health nurse to Vera Court. Her leadership and advocacy helped convince the Future Madison organization to purchase the complex in the early 1990’s, and she worked with Future Madison and residents to design regulations that both residents and management could live with. Darlene also worked with City officials and other Northside residents to push for City funding to build a neighborhood center in Vera Court, which was completed in 1995. Darlene served as president of both the Vera Court neighborhood association and the neighborhood center for many years. Darlene’s efforts have pushed Vera Court to become, in her oft-repeated words, a neighborhood where people “can thrive, not merely survive.”
Darlene’s leadership, and especially her tireless concern for the welfare of others, has extended far beyond her own neighborhood, however. Darlene was one of the founding members of the Northside Planning Council in 1993 and is one of four Northsiders to have served continuously on NPC ever since. She was an early advocate for building Warner Park Community Recreation Center and was one of the founding members of the Center’s Advisory Committee. She has served on numerous City, County and community boards and committees, and has volunteered in many community initiatives. Darlene’s work and dedicated service to the greater Madison community has been recognized through over thirty awards over the past 15 years by organizations like the United Way, the Urban League, UMOJA, the Community Action Coalition, the Madison Community Foundation, Mothers of Simpson Street, the City of Madison and many others.
Darlene’s selfless service to others in the community is even more remarkable given the circumstances of her own life. Born in rural Mississippi over seven decades ago, Darlene’s mother passed away when she was 2, and her stepmother when she was about 10. Her father left the family at that time, leaving her, as the oldest girl, to raise her 3 brothers – one a baby still in diapers – in very difficult circumstances. The little family lived five miles from the nearest gravel road, and Darlene carried the baby with her as she walked to and from school. The children lived off whatever they could catch or earn picking peas and doing other field work, and what little others could spare. “People these days don’t know what hard living is,” she reminisces. “No running water, a wood stove, a one room cabin with a kitchen lean-to. We were so hungry a lot of the time that once when one of the snakes that lived under our cabin floor crawled up and ate one of the eggs we had, we caught that snake, killed it, cut it open and pulled the egg out whole. That snake wasn’t eatin’ one of our eggs! “
After moving to Chicago as an adult with her own family, Darlene worked for a number of years with the Chicago Police Department, becoming an officer and studying to specialize in homicide investigation before she resigned after seeing one too many homicide victims in her community treated as just another inevitable fact of life, not as a case to be solved. She was very active in her church in Chicago, serving in a variety of volunteer roles over a nearly 30-year period. At various points in her adult life she has also helped support her family as a nurse’s assistant, seamstress, painter and mechanic. “I just loved to get my hands dirty, “ she says.
In addition to raising her own five children, Darlene has helped to raise 21 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and 7 great-great-grandchildren. Even more remarkably, she has been a foster parent for over 60 children, some of who stayed with her for several years, and she has cared for many others both as a child care provider and unofficially as a “Big Mama “ to whatever child needed some attention. She is frequently heard to exclaim “all of these children out here in this neighborhood are my babies,” and she has always taken that responsibility seriously.
Just as important as her own leadership role, Darlene has been an inspiration and a mentor to many who have tried to follow in her footsteps in community work, as well as to her many “children.” This writer considers himself both. Like any good mother, she can be tough on you when you have failed to live up to the standards she has set for serving others — sometimes expressed as “you understand what I’m saying to you?” But on those occasions when a tongue-lashing is handed out, a hug usually follows (and sometimes a piece of her world-famous sweet potato pie to boot!).
Decades of hard work, recurring health problems, and some devastating losses within her own family have slowed Darlene down in the last couple years from the daunting schedule of activity she once kept. But she continues to contribute to our community whenever and wherever she can, in between taking a little more time than before to enjoy her long-time love of ceramics and her ever-growing family. “I wish I knew some of the things I’ve learned about my role in the community back 10 or 15 years ago,” Darlene says wistfully, “I would have been a real terror then.” There is a poem that comes to Darlene’s mind as she takes a short break from whatever smells so good cooking on the stove. She says it talks about a little house by the road, where all who pass by would find a friend inside “. “That is what I’ve tried to be,” she concludes.
Some say “it takes a village to raise a child “, but every village needs a “Big Mama “ like Darlene Horner. Our “Northside village” certainly has, and we thank her for all she has done for so many in a long life of service to others.