Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

The Remarkable Life of Vel Phillips

"A giant in our state" dies at 94; city to honor political pioneer with annual award.

By - Apr 18th, 2018 02:25 pm

Vel Phillips. Photo by Voces de la Frontera from Milwaukee, USA (Vel Phillips at March on Milwaukee - 2007) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Vel Phillips. Photo by Voces de la Frontera from Milwaukee, USA (Vel Phillips at March on Milwaukee – 2007) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Milwaukee lost one of its best yesterday.

Vel Phillips passed away in hospice care at the age of 94 Tuesday. She was a pioneer in Milwaukee and Wisconsin government.

Phillips was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School. With her husband W. Dale Phillips, they became the first husband-and-wife team admitted to the federal bar. In 1956, she became both the first woman and first African American elected to the Common Council. She resigned from the council in 1971 when she was appointed to Milwaukee County Circuit Court, becoming the first female judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. In 1978 Phillips became the first woman elected to the office of Secretary of State. She is the only African American to ever win a statewide election. She was for a brief period, the acting Governor of Wisconsin, the first woman and first African American to do so.

Phillips is perhaps best known for her advocacy for fair housing. She was an active participant in the 200 nights of opening house marches that started in 1967. After introducing fair housing legislation every 90 days for seven years, the measure finally passed in 1968 just weeks after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Speaking at a Wednesday afternoon ceremony, Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs said: “the greatest thing about her was her fearlessness and willingness to fight for what she thought was right.” The alderwoman, who represents the district Phillips herself did, added: “she was an example of what service truly means.” Coggs told those in attendance that she was fortunate to consider Phillips both a friend and mentor. Coggs intends to advance a street renaming for Phillips, which would join the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center as one of the many things named after the civil rights icon.

Mayor Tom Barrett signed a council resolution at the ceremony creating the Vel Phillips Trailblazer Award. The Common Council unanimously approved the awards’ creation Tuesday morning. The award will be handed out at Girls Day at City Hall, which happens annually in March.

“Her impact on this community cannot be overstated, she literally changed this community,” said Barrett. The mayor called Phillips “a giant in our community, a giant in our state, a giant in our nation.”

Even after she had long retired from office, Phillips was a force in Milwaukee politics. Her endorsement was routinely sought by political candidates.

Joining Coggs and Barrett at the ceremony were council members Robert Bauman, Jim Bohl, Mark Borkowski, Ashanti Hamilton, Chantia Lewis, Nik Kovac, Michael Murphy, Jose G. Perez, Khalif Rainey, Russell W. Stamper, II and Tony Zielinski. The connections on the council to Phillips go beyond Coggs. Stamper’s father practiced law with Phillips’ husband. Chantia Lewis’ mother marched with Phillips in 1967.

She was praised by Coggs and Barrett for fighting for social justice until her last days. In 2007, she told Milwaukee Magazine “I’ve had a pretty good ride, wouldn’t you agree? I think I’ll just die with my boots on.”

Phillips, who was born February 18th, 1924 as Velvalea Rodgers, was a graduate of Milwaukee Public Schools‘ North Division High School. Prior to attending law school, she graduated from Howard University in Washington D.C.

The Vel Phillips Foundation was created in 2006.

Phillips was preceded in death by her husband (1988) and son Dale. Her son Michael Phillips works in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office as an Assistant District Attorney.

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Categories: City Hall, Politics

4 thoughts on “City Hall: The Remarkable Life of Vel Phillips”

  1. Ann Stokman says:

    Sorry to hear of the loss

  2. frank schneiger says:

    There is an impact that Vel Phillips – and a number of others – had that does not get a great deal of mention. In the years before the civil rights decade, for a group of white kids, growing up in a rigidly segregated city, her great intelligence, and even more important, her exceptional sense of dignity opened our minds and began the process of getting beyond all of the racial stereotypes that we were growing up with. In that respect, and many others, Ms. Phillips was an extraordinary force for good.

  3. Terry says:

    An amazing woman with an amazing legacy. Tjat said I am sure she knew, Wisconsin has ALOT of work today.

  4. LenaTaylorNeedsToResign says:

    Great piece, I had no idea she had been Acting Governor of Wisconsin. A fitting tribute to an amazing woman whose place in history will be assured for generations to come.

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