The Remarkable Life of Vel Phillips
"A giant in our state" dies at 94; city to honor political pioneer with annual award.
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.”
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.
If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.