Standing at the podium at the announcement of the approval of the Vel Phillips statue is Phillips' son, Michael Phillips, with Phillips' goddaughter, Millie Coby.
Nov. 1, 2021 – Plans for a statue of the Hon. Vel Phillips, one of Wisconsin’s most prominent and influential attorneys over the last 100 years, moved a step closer to reality today with a combined $25,000 donation from the State Bar of Wisconsin and the
Wisconsin Law Foundation.
The State Capitol and Executive Residence Board today officially approved the statue and siting on the Capitol grounds, which now allows the board to engage a sculptor to create the statue to be erected at the corner of West Main and South Carroll streets.
The State Bar of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Law Foundation, the State Bar’s charitable arm, early on pledged a combined $25,000 for a statue honoring Phillips, a trailblazer for civil rights in city and state government, as well as a lawyer and judge.
“Wisconsin’s legal community is proud that the contributions of one of our outstanding members will be recognized and honored by the people of Wisconsin,” said State Bar of Wisconsin Executive Director Larry Martin.
Martin participated in a press conference at the Capitol today regarding the statue, alongside state Reps. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton), Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), as well as Michael Phillips, Vel Phillips’ son, and Michael Johnson, president of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, which have been involved in the effort.
“Vel Phillips was a true trail blazer and history-maker, who used her knowledge of the law to advance the cause of justice for all Wisconsinites,” Martin said.
Martin noted that Phillips used her knowledge and skills as a lawyer to make a fundamental difference in the lives of thousands. “She was a pioneer in city and state government, fighting – and winning – for fair and open housing; for civil rights; racial equality and equal justice. It is a legacy that all Wisconsinites can take pride in,” he said.
A cardboard concept of a statue of Vel Phillips stands on the Capitol Square in Madison prior to the announcement of the statue's approval.
A Pioneer, Trailblazer
In 1951, Phillips became the first African-American woman to graduate from the U.W. Law School, and in 1956 became the first African-American woman elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council, serving until 1971.
She introduced a fair housing ordinance to the Milwaukee Common Council four times, and each time, it was voted down. But she persevered. Finally, in April 1968, the Common Council enacted an ordinance crafted by the mayor’s office that contained an amendment by Phillips.
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 Wisconsin Secretary of State.
“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,” said Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Carl Ashley, former 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. The statue is expected to cost about $250,000.