Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

4th Street Rededicated Vel R. Phillips Ave.

A who's who ceremony of politicians and candidates turns out to honor legacy of Vel Phillips.

By - Aug 7th, 2018 03:03 pm
N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Sign-by-sign, N. 4th St. will be erased. The city formally unveiled new street signs Tuesday afternoon renaming the street N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. after the Wisconsin political pioneer. The renaming runs from W. St. Paul Ave. near the Milwaukee Intermodal Station to W. Capitol Dr.

Phillips passed away in April at the age of 94. The political giant was the first woman and first African-American elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, Wisconsin’s first black judge and the only African-American to ever hold a statewide public office.

Her son, attorney Michael Phillips, spoke at the ceremony held at the intersection of N. Phillips Ave. and W. North Ave. “It’s interesting we are naming a street after my mother because she was not the best driver,” said Phillips. The rest of the ceremony, including Michael Phillips’ remaining remarks, were filled with praise for political pioneer.

Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs, who considered Vel Phillips a friend and mentor, pushed for N. 4th St. to be named after Phillips. “Naming this street is just one small piece of a thank you,” said Coggs.

Coggs noted the significance of Phillips breaking the glass ceiling of the Common Council. “In the history of this city there have been over 1,000 men that have served on the council, there have been only 15 women, do you hear me? There have been only 15 women,” said Coggs. Phillips was elected at the age of 32 in 1956, with Coggs being the 14th woman elected at the age of 30 in 2008.

N. 4th St. wasn’t chosen at random said Coggs. Phillips, who had requested a street be named in her honor, is well connected to N. 4th St. She went to elementary school at the former Garfield Street School, now an apartment building, which is located on 4th St., she attended church at St. Marks and was later married in the church when it was on N. 4th St. She also represented a portion of the street during her time on the Common Council. Phillips, who was a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coggs said had told her that she wanted her street to be close to his.

Phillips’ street will be longer than King’s, which becomes N. Old World Third St. when it enters Downtown. “This city did Martin Luther King an injustice by not allowing his street to go all the way through,” said Coggs.

“She had it all. She never suffered fools. You always knew what she wanted,” said Mayor Tom Barrett in a brief speech praising Phillips.

Jasmine Johnson, the first recipient of the Vel Phillips Trailblazer Award, said Phillips always pushed her to be better by asking her “Are you doing what you are supposed to do? Are you doing your part?

Well Attended Ceremony

The ceremony drew a couple hundred people to the new Phillips Ave. as part of Bronzeville Week. Beyond the mayor, Congresswoman Gwen Moore headlined a list of elected officials in attendance.

Joining Moore, Barrett and Coggs were Common Council members Russell W. Stamper, II and Mark Borkowski.

State Assembly Representatives David Bowen and Fred Kessler were in attendance, as well as Senator Lena Taylor.

Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judges Carl Ashley, Pedro Colon, Joe Donald, Hannah Dugan, Carolina Stark, Maxine White and Kashoua Yang were joined by Municipal Judges Valarie Hill and Derek Mosley. Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler was also in attendance.

A number of candidates were present as well with Milwaukee County Sheriff candidate Earnell Lucas, Democratic Lieutenant Governor candidate Mandela Barnes, Democrat Governor candidate Mike McCabe. County Supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde and Kalan Haywood II were also on hand. The two are running for the open assembly seat that would represent much of Bronzeville.

It wasn’t just politicians and judges in attendance. The non-profit sector was well represented as well with Deshea Agee, Frank CumberbatchCecelia Gore, Paula Penebaker, Leo Ries, Willie Wade and MacArthur Weddle all on hand.

As part of the Bronzeville Week programming, Milwaukee Bucks vice president Alex Lasry paid for bus tours of the renamed street for attendees.

Brad Pruitt, who serves as interim executive director of America’s Black Holocaust Museum was also spotted in the crowd. The museum is scheduled to reopen in October and will have an exhibit honoring Phillips.

About Vel Phillips

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 the first African American appointed to the national committee of either major political party. She was, for a brief period, the acting Governor of Wisconsin, the first woman and first African American to do so.

An hour-long documentary, Vel Phillips Dream Big Dreams, that first aired on PBS in 2015 is available for streaming online.

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