Velvalea Rodgers “Vel” Phillips, one of Milwaukee’s pioneering civil rights icons, has passed away.
She was 94.
Born in Milwaukee on February 18, 1924, Phillips spent her life fighting for social justice and civil rights in Wisconsin. In a 1955 speech, Phillips argued, “America is not the land of opportunity it is purported to be—not while discrimination and segregation exist, and where those belonging to the Negro race can secure only second class citizenship with definite limitations.”
A graduate of Howard University and an active member of Delta Sigma Theta and the NAACP, Phillips was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School. She went on to rack up even more historic feats when she became the first woman and the first African-American person elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council in 1956, where she would advocate against segregation and the mistreatment of the city’s Black residents.
In 1971 Phillips resigned from the Common Council when she was appointed to the bench, making her the first female judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American judge in the state of Wisconsin. Though she lost her re-election campaign to a white candidate who used her participation in peaceful anti-racism protests against her, Phillips continued to press on. After teaching at UW–Milwaukee, Phillips returned to politics in 1978 when she became the first woman to be elected as Wisconsin’s Secretary of State.
After retiring from politics, Phillips spent her life working on several causes, including supporting America’s Black Holocaust Museum in her hometown. In 2005, Phillips served as the chairperson of Gwen Moore’s congressional campaign. Under Phillips’ guidance, Moore would go on to become both Wisconsin’s first female and first African-American member of Congress.
After hearing of her passing, Moore praised Phillips’ “unbreakable spirit” and unwavering support.
“She cheered me on through every victory in my life & taught me to always keep the faith,” Moore wrote on Twitter. “In these times of division, I draw strength from her unshakable spirit. Vel will live on forever in my heart & her beloved city, Milwaukee.”
In 2015, Wisconsin Public Television produced a documentary about Phillips’ amazing life, titled, “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams,” ensuring her life and legacy will live on forever.