Strengthening Milwaukee’s African-American community, one scholarship at a time


Growing up in Milwaukee in the 1950s and 1960s, Shelia Payton remembers how important education was to her family, yet how elusive it was for her neighbors.

Her parents, Gertrude and Mack Payton, both graduated from Alcorn State University, the country’s first state-supported college for African Americans. Both later earned master’s degrees in educational psychology and social work, respectively.

In Shelia’s northwest side neighborhood, her parents were the only ones who had earned that distinction. Through the Payton-Price Family Fund, a scholarship fund created in 2002 that provides scholarships to African-American students enrolled in historically black colleges and universities, the Paytons hope that will no longer be the case.

"Looking out for others has always been part of our family’s way of doing things," said Shelia, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Syracuse University and a master’s degree in urban affairs at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "When we looked at everybody who needed help, we saw too many African Americans near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder."

"People at the Foundation really seem to care about your fund, no matter the size."

Although her parents had established a scholarship at their alma mater, the family also wanted to help Milwaukee students. Shelia initially pushed for a private foundation, but after discovering the time and administrative costs they could save by working with a community foundation, Payton and her parents were convinced otherwise.

"There are other places to put your money, but you often lose control over what happens," said Shelia, who worked in public relations at Miller Brewing and later ran UWM’s Minority Entrepreneurship Program. "People at the Foundation really seem to care about your fund, no matter the size."

The Paytons rely on a scholarship committee at Milwaukee’s St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church to select recipients. While many scholarships target students in the top 10 percent, the Paytons look for students with potential for greatness.

"Many times students considered as average know they have to sacrifice and work a little harder to succeed," said Gertrude, a retired guidance counselor. Mack, a retired probation officer supervisor at Children’s Court, passed away in 2007.

Both women have added money annually to build the fund, and Shelia said a portion of her estate will go toward it. Ultimately the family hopes to focus on other issues affecting African Americans including economic self-sufficiency, arts and culture, health education and medical research.

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