Credit: PBS Wisconsin Image/James Gill, Photographer
Jan. 18, 2021 – A statue of the Hon. Vel Phillips, one of Wisconsin’s most prominent and influential attorneys over the last 100 years, could be placed on the state Capitol grounds later this year, should the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board approve a proposal at its Jan. 25 meeting.
The statue of Phillips will be the first on the Capitol Square to honor a person of color.
The State Bar of Wisconsin and its charitable arm, the Wisconsin Law Foundation, strongly support the siting of a statue honoring Hon. Vel Phillips, states Kathy Brost, State Bar president.
In a letter of endorsement to the State Capitol & Executive Residence Board, as an early sign of support, the State Bar and the Law Foundation pledge a combined $25,000 contribution to kick off a fundraising effort, should the proposal move forward.
Gov. Tony Evers appointed an advisory committee last month to work out the details of the statue after numerous voices from across the state began calling for a statue of Phillips on the Capitol grounds that celebrates the diversity of leadership in our state.
A Pioneer, Trailblazer
“Vel Phillips was a pioneer and a trailblazer in city and state government, for civil rights, and as a lawyer and judge, said Brost. “She not only led, but showed how to lead by practicing civility amid persistence.”
“Vel Phillips is one of our own,” said Peggy Herlitzka, Wisconsin Law Foundation president. “She was a woman of many firsts, and her legacy inspires us to be involved, to step forward and to make change for the better.”
In 1951 she became the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, and in 1956 became the first African-American woman elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council, serving until 1971. In 1962 she wrote Milwaukee’s Fair Housing ordinance, and introduced the ordinance every 90 days at council meetings before it passed in 1968.
In 1971 Gov. Patrick Lucey appointed Phillips, at age 46, to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, making her the first African American to serve in Wisconsin’s judiciary and the first female judge in Milwaukee. In 1978 she became the first African American elected Secretary of State of Wisconsin.
“I am pleased that the leadership of the State Bar of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Law Foundation will serve as a lead sponsor for this effort,” states Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Carl Ashley, chair of the State Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Committee. “A statue of the Honorable Vel Phillips is long overdue, and it will serve as a visual reminder that people of color contributed significantly to the leadership of this great state.”
The State Bar will contribute $20,000, and the Wisconsin Law Foundation will donate $5,000 from its Fund to Promote Diversity.
“We are excited to make this donation on behalf of our 25,000 members,” Brost said.
Board approval later this month will allow an advisory committee to select a sculptor and begin fundraising. The statue is expected to cost about $250,000.
Vel Phillips: Life and Legacy
Lawyer and civil rights leader Vel 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
For more information on Vel Phillips, see: