I first met Vel Phillips when I was 15 years old. I was attending a community picnic, and Phillips was running for Wisconsin secretary of state, a race she would win and add to an already remarkable list of “firsts.” I remember shaking her hand and being impressed that she took the time to talk with me, even though I was too young to vote.
I had the honor of meeting Phillips several more times over the years. As I got older, I grew to understand and appreciate her impact as a true trailblazer and history maker.
Phillips was the first African-American woman to graduate from the U.W. Law School. She was the first African-American woman elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council. She introduced a fair housing ordinance to the 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. Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucey appointed Phillips 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. She then went on to become the first African-American elected as Wisconsin’s secretary of state, as well as the first African-American woman to be elected to statewide office in the country. She was the first African-American in the United States to be elected to the national committee of a major political party.
Phillips’ real distinction was not simply being the “first” in so many areas but that she substantively accomplished so much with each earned opportunity. She was a pioneer and trailblazer in city and state government, fighting – and winning – battles for fair and open housing, civil rights, racial equality, and equal justice. She was a mentor and friend to hundreds, and she used her knowledge and skills as a lawyer to make a fundamental difference in the lives of thousands. Hers is a legacy that all Wisconsinites can take pride in.
It is only fitting, then, that there is a movement to honor her legacy. The state of Wisconsin is considering a proposal to site a statue honoring Phillips on the State Capitol grounds. The statue, if approved, will be the first on the Capitol Square to recognize a person of color. I cannot think of a better first step toward recognizing and celebrating the contributions of countless leaders of diverse backgrounds who have helped shape who we are and what we have become as a people. It will allow visitors to the Wisconsin Capitol an opportunity to learn of the contributions of a great civil rights leader, lawyer, and judge.
I am proud to say that the State Bar of Wisconsin and our charitable arm, the Wisconsin Law Foundation, strongly support the proposal to honor one of our own. Our early and vocal support for this endeavor includes a lead commitment, pledging $25,000 on behalf of the State Bar’s 25,000 members to help kick off a statewide fundraising campaign to raise the estimated $250,000 to place the statue, once approved.
Fifty years from now, as crowds of people walk on the Capitol Square on a sunny fall weekend, a young child may look up and ask her parents, “Who is that?” It will be a moment for child and parents to learn together, of a legacy and life dedicated to justice, equality, and the betterment of the human condition. I cannot think of a more fitting tribute.
Dig deeper into the life and legacy of attorney Vel Phillips. The PBS Wisconsin documentary, Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams, chronicles the story of this remarkable woman and the struggles she undertook to build a better community. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society ID 118900
» Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 9 (March 2021).