Vel Phillips, 2015. Photo by Wisconsin Public Television, used by permission.
April 25, 2018 – Each time she walks into her office, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Chief Judge Maxine White sees the portrait on the wall: Vel Phillips, in 1971, seated on the bench in a judicial robe as a Milwaukee County Court judge.
“She is one whose shoulders I stand on, to try to do a little bit of good in this world,” Judge White said.
At age 48, Phillips was the first African-American to serve in Wisconsin’s judiciary, and the first female judge in Milwaukee County. She passed away April 17, 2018.
Just a few years after that portrait was taken, Judge White met Phillips for the first time. Not yet a lawyer, Judge White attended an event where Phillips spoke. “She spoke about how important it is to press forward in your own space and to make the world a better place – not just for yourself, but for everyone,” Judge White said.
Now, more than 40 years later, Judge White still clearly recalls those words, and she counts Phillips as a longtime friend and mentor. “She remains a great pillar of strength that I can draw upon daily,” Judge White said.
Phillips life, work, and legacy is a reminder and challenge for us to do better, Judge White said. “She emboldens us to believe that each of us – together and individually – can make life more just and fair for those around us.”
Milwaukee County Circuit Court Chief Judge Maxine White stands near the portrait of Vel Phillips, taken at the time she served as judge in Milwaukee County Court, that hangs in White’s office. Phillips was the first African-American to serve in Wisconsin’s judiciary, 1971-72.
Showing the Path
It is a daunting task to describe the whole of Phillips’ accomplishments during her life of many firsts. She is a pioneer and trailblazer in city and state government, for civil rights, as a lawyer and judge. She and her husband, Dale, and later with their son Michael – also Wisconsin lawyers – worked together through the years for many organizations, including the NAACP.
This list of accomplishments – as monumental as it is – still isn’t complete: Phillips leaves a legacy of momentum – inspiring those after her to become involved, to step forward where they are, and make change for the better.
Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.
She campaigned and pushed for equal housing rights, for voting rights, for education, for the rights of women and minorities. She supported many who ran for a local or state political office, a judicial position, or who sought leadership in community organizations. She mentored lawyers and civic leaders and community members.
Phillips broke barriers by moving past the silos, interacting across cultures in the community. “She was always moving beyond boundaries and moving to bring people together,” said Milwaukee civil rights attorney James Hall Jr.
“She had a fundamental sense of fairness, justice, and equality,” Hall said, “and she felt strongly enough to make that her life’s work.”
Phillips was emphatically devoted to African-American culture and people, because she recognized the systemic disadvantages that prevented a lot of us from achieving her goals,” Judge White said.
“All of our lives would be very different” without Vel Phillips, Hall said.
She is one whose shoulders I stand on, to try to do a little bit of good in this world.
– Chief Judge Maxine White
Phillips also showed that, even with very little support or assets or resources, a lot can be delivered, Judge White said. “It’s the old-fashioned axiom: Do the right thing for the right reasons, don’t give up, and you’ll have success.”
Phillips demonstrated how to achieve that success: arrive prepared, be educated and prepared. “That’s the biggest thing she did for us,” Judge White said. “She inspired us to stay on the path.”
Vel Phillips "had a fundamental sense of fairness, justice, and equality," says Milwaukee civil rights attorney James Hall Jr.
An Immeasurable Impact
Those who met Phillips – who learned of her story, her accomplishments, and witnessed her fire – was highly influenced by her, Judge White said. “She took time to get to know you, to listen, and offer advice.”
“Her friendship, counsel, and advice over the years has been extremely valuable,” Hall said.
“A lot of how Milwaukee looks today – its community, including its legal community – is because of the work that Phillips and her husband, Dale Phillips, accomplished, said Steven DeVougas, past president of the Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers (WAAL).
Makda Fessahaye, a 2014 graduate of Marquette Law School now with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and on the board of directors for WAAL, first heard the name Vel Phillips at college, when a friend learned she wanted to become a lawyer. “A classmate told me if I was going to be a lawyer in Wisconsin, I needed to research who Vel Phillips was,” she said. In law school, Fessahaye learned more about Phillips.
“She was the first African-American woman to serve as Secretary of State. As a woman working in government, I understand – that’s a great weight to bear,” Fessahaye said. “She opened a lot of doors for a lot of people – in city and state government, on the bench, in the legal profession.”
“She challenged us to push more on diversity and inclusion, both inside and outside the legal community,” Fessahaye said. “Her impact on Wisconsin and the legal community is immeasurable.”
Into her 90s, Phillips continued to make a difference in many lives.
“If there was an issue related to housing, jobs, women’s rights, or education, she would be there,” Hall said. “She would be up front and prepared to speak to it, to move the agenda forward. She would let her voice be heard.”
“She loaned her name to causes, knowing just her name would give fire to it,” Judge White said.
Her legacy includes the scholarship for the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers; the Milwaukee chapter of The Links, Incorporated, with Phillips as a charter member; the City of Milwaukee’s new Vel R. Phillips Trailblazer Award; the Vel Phillips Foundation, and more.
Vel Phillips stands in front of the residence hall on the U.W.-Madison campus named in her honor. Photo: Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association
The Bright Light
Phillips not only led, but showed how to lead: by practicing civility amid persistence.
“She always remained civil, even while being tough and unbending,” Judge White said. “She showed that personal passions can be explored, without ignoring the humanity of other people. Those are qualities I work very hard to emulate.”
If there was an issue related to housing, jobs, women’s rights, or education, she would be there.
- James Hall Jr.
When needed, Phillips “got fiery and shot back,” while conducting herself with dignity, class, and professionalism in the face of adversity, Hall said. “All of that contributes to her being a role model for leadership that we should emulate.”
Phillips was also engaging, funny, and personable, Hall said. “And at the podium, she let her personality shine through.”
Passing conversations with her might end up taking two hours. “She was interested in you as a person,” Hall said.
“When she comes into a room, there’s a light she would bring to the setting,” Hall said.
“I think everyone will miss that bright light,” he said.
Vel Phillips: Life and Legacy
“Vel Phillips leaves a legacy of accomplishment that has benefited the people of Wisconsin. Her commitment and unflagging devotion to Wisconsin were remarkable. She led in so many ways. And, as she prevailed, her leadership made a difference; it lifted us all. Her graceful leadership will be missed.”
- Chief Justice Patience Drake Roggensack, Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Lawyer and civil rights leader Vel Phillips died April 17, 2018, at age 94. Phillips leaves a legacy that shaped the civil and legal communities in Wisconsin. Among her accomplishments:
- First African-American woman to graduate from U.W. Law School, 1951
- First African-American and first woman elected to Milwaukee Common Council, serving 1956-71
- First African-American in the U.S. to be elected to the national committee of a major political party, 1960
- Proposed and campaigned to outlaw housing discrimination in Milwaukee, 1962-68
- First African-American to serve in Wisconsin’s judiciary, 1971
- First female judge in Milwaukee County, 1971
- First African-American and woman elected to a statewide constitutional office as Secretary of State, 1978
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