Vel Phillips, Local Civil Rights Icon and Trailblazer, Passes Away

Apr 18, 2018

Milwaukee civil rights icon Vel Phillips has passed away. Phillips was the first African American woman on the Common Council, where she pushed -- for years -- to end housing discrimination.

Milwaukee Alderwoman Vel R. Phillips, the only black alderperson in Milwaukee in 1967 visits St. Boniface Church. Phillips was a proponent for open housing and kept proposing ordinances in the common council despite being defeated every time
Credit COURTESY OF THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL

Her fellow aldermen continually rejected her efforts. Phillips eventually succeeded, with the help of the late Fr. James Groppi, and the NAACP Youth Council. They led 200 consecutive days of open housing marches, starting in 1967. Sometimes they encountered hostile – even violent – reactions from white residents. Phillips says it was a scary but also exciting time. Housing discrimination finally became illegal in Milwaukee exactly 50 years ago, shortly after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Vel Phillips also was a pioneer in a number of other areas, including as Wisconsin's first black secretary of state. On Tuesday, Milwaukee’s Common Council unanimously approved establishing the Vel R. Phillips Trailblazer award in honor of her work for the city and on the Common Council.

July 1967: In the spring and summer of 1967, the NAACP Youth Council organized several demonstrations in support of Alderwoman Vel Phillips' open housing bill. She had first introduced the bill in 1962, but it was not passed until 1968.
Credit COURTESY OF THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL

On Tuesday, UW-Madison issued a statement about Phillips' passing. Here it is, in part:

As the first woman and first African American to ascend to major political posts in Wisconsin, Phillips said she found that her gender presented more roadblocks than her race. “But once you’re there, [white people] will realize you’re just like everybody else,” Phillips explained to Milwaukee Magazine. “But the men never forget that you are a woman. Never, ever, ever.”

Returning home to Milwaukee after her 1946 graduation from Howard University, she married the love of her life, (Warren) Dale Phillips, and joined him to attend the University of Wisconsin Law School. She earned her law degree — an LLB — in 1951.

“I was the first black woman to graduate from the law school,” Phillips recalled in Dream Big Dreams, a 2015 documentary about her life. “I just thought that was the biggest thing that could happen to me.” As law students, the Phillipses were assigned to housing where neighboring students soon petitioned to bar future black residents. The couple found another UW community that was more welcoming to them and their two sons, but Vel remained deeply affected by the experience.

Inspired by advice from U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall to use her profession to make the world better, she would go on to win a historic fight for fair housing and social justice. Elected in 1956 as the first female and first African American on the Milwaukee Common Council, Phillips sponsored legislation to outlaw racial discrimination in city housing ordinances.

Success took six years of political tumult and 200 days of marches and nonviolent community protests, but she was eventually recognized nationally for her leadership. In 1971, Phillips left her role as “Madam Alderman” when she was appointed to the Milwaukee County Judiciary. She was Milwaukee’s first female judge, as well as Wisconsin’s first African American judge. In 1978, she was the first woman and first African American to be elected as Wisconsin’s secretary of state.

Today her voice is amplified through the Vel Phillips Foundation, and UW–Madison lakeshore residents celebrate her legacy in Phillips Hall — an honor the namesake said she couldn’t think about too often. “I just try not to think of it as anything special,” she said, “because I couldn’t have done it alone.” A special tribute to Phillips is located in the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Alumni Park, which opened on October 6, 2017. 

State Representative David Crowley issued the following statement:

I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of great Milwaukeean Vel Phillips. Ms. Phillips was truly a pioneer in all aspects of her life: the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, the first woman and African American elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, the first African American judge in Wisconsin, and the first and only African American to win a state wide race in the State of Wisconsin.

Not only was she a dedicated and trailblazing public servant, she also spent her career as a tireless advocate for civil rights. She was instrumental in passing an open housing ordinance in Milwaukee, and would regularly lead marches in the streets of Milwaukee.

The city of Milwaukee has lost one of its truly great citizens, but her accomplishments will never be forgotten. Without Ms. Phillips, I would not be where I am today. Although we will carry on the work she began many decades ago, her presence will be sorely missed. 

Alderwoman Milele Coggs had this to say:

Just yesterday my colleagues and I passed the Vel R. Phillips Trailblazer Award and Selection Committee as a tribute to the special woman who has given so much to the City Of Milwaukee and its residents. I pushed to create the Trailblazer Award now because I believe in giving people their flowers (although Ms. Phillips preferred plants) while they are living.

It was cruel irony to get the notice last evening of her passing but I am glad we had the chance to honor this trailblazing woman and hopefully the award will become just one of many small ways of keeping her legacy alive. I have had the pleasure of knowing Ms. Phillips my entire life and she has always been an inspiring role model. I will forever reflect on the stories of challenge and triumph that she shared, and in fact there is no better time than now to stand with the same fearlessness and zeal like she did through the years to change society.

Her tireless and groundbreaking efforts in fair housing will continue to be a beacon of light as we navigate through the (too often dark) political landscape of today. Out of the many conversations we had, there is one that I regret we never finished...it was about her desire to have a street permanently named in her honor. I am committing myself to working diligently with my colleagues to make her request a reality. Another small tribute to a woman on whose shoulders many of us now stand.

I will eternally miss her welcoming face at community meetings, her quick retort to smart or snarky comments, her strategic mind and the stories of past struggles laced with the chronology of our people and this community. I am proud to now call her an ancestor and to have had the honor and pleasure of knowing her. Vel Phillips truly was one of the most impactful people I have ever known and she will be sorely missed.

My deep condolences to the family.

Milwaukee County DA John Chisholm tweeted last night:

"Saddened to learn that Vel Phillips, Wisconsin's first African-American judge and statewide official, passed away this evening. My deepest condolences to her family, including my colleague Assistant District Attorney Mike Phillips, who continues his mother's work for justice."

Statement of Alderman Khalif Rainey, in part: 

Vel Phillips was a titan in the community. From law school to being elected into statewide office, virtually every chapter in her life involved being the first woman, the first person of color, or in some instances both, to occupy those institutions.

Vel Phillips was the most powerful African-American that Wisconsin has ever seen. One can only be inspired when looking at photographs of her standing alongside Father Groppi or John F. Kennedy. Let us use that inspiration as we continue to make change while honoring her legacy.