On April 17, 2018, Velvalea “Vel” Rodgers Phillips transitioned from this life at the age of 95. Although petite in stature, she was a juggernaut in the Wisconsin legal community. I had the pleasure of meeting her on multiple occasions, through my involvement with the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers (WAAL), which for almost 30 years has awarded two scholarships to law students of color in Vel’s and her husband Dale’s names.
Judge Phillips was a living legend, with her well-known list of firsts being almost too large to recount: first woman and African-American secretary of state (1979-83), which also made her the only African-American to win statewide office in Wisconsin; first African-American woman to graduate from U.W. Law School (1951); first woman and African-American elected to the Milwaukee Common Council (1956); first woman and African-American appointed to the Wisconsin judiciary (1971).
At 60 years my senior, Judge Phillips lived in a time that seems foreign to me. A number of legal protections that we currently take for granted, such as civil rights, fair employment, and housing laws, were nonexistent when she started her career. I have often thought what it must have been like for Judge Phillips and her husband to be African-American attorneys when they were not even seen as equal in the eyes of the law. I can only imagine the weight of the responsibility she carried to represent those who were marginalized and disenfranchised. Despite this hostile climate, Judge Phillips embodied what a Wisconsin lawyer can, and should, be. For Phillips, her legal training was a tool to effect change in her community and in the state of Wisconsin. At every turn, she was challenged, questioned, and undermined, but she was unwavering and she persisted. Judge Phillips could have chosen the path of least resistance, accepting the limited roles assigned to women and African-Americans in the 1950s and 60s, but she decided to blaze her own path.
Judge Phillips was so intimately involved in having a fair housing ordinance passed in the city of Milwaukee, she was arrested in 1967 during a protest regarding the same and she introduced the ordinance every 90 days for seven years until it was finally passed in 1968, one month after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It was her tenacity, conviction, and courage under fire that made Judge Phillips a rare breed. We, as attorneys, are currently facing a number of challenges locally and nationally. However, Judge Phillips’ spirit beckons to every Wisconsin lawyer to boldly lead and serve, to do more and become more. Through her example, Judge Phillips inspired generations of lawyers to not only fight hard, but to also love harder.
Called to serve her community, Judge Phillips did not let the fact that she was a woman nor that she was African-American deter her. Phillips did not use her youth or lack of experience as an excuse. During her lengthy and impactful career, she never rested on her laurels, for she knew there was more work to be done. At times, she was alone. The unspoken burden that comes with being the “first” is that often, you are the only. However, I would like to think that she lived her life with no regrets. Hopefully, when we look back at our own lives, we will be able to say we were never afraid to stand alone, that we upheld the truth, while standing against injustice.
Rest in peace.
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What inspired you to be an attorney?
I was raised to be a man for others. Throughout my career, I was driven to serve my community. Growing up, I did not know any attorneys. So I always strived to be the example that I did not see. I always considered it an honor and a privilege to work in the city that I was born and raised in.
Steven M. DeVougas, DeVougas Law Group LLC, Milwaukee.
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