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‘A giant’: Late Wisconsin civil rights leader Vel Phillips honored at Milwaukee ceremony  

Phillips is known as a trailblazer, being the first Black person elected to statewide office in Wisconsin

In this Jan. 16, 1968, file photo, Milwaukee alderman Vel Phillips, right, is greeted on her arrival to participate in a protest march in Washington by Jeanette Rankin, former Montana congresswoman and leader of the protest march. Phillips, a civil rights pioneer who helped lead open housing marches in Milwaukee in the 1960s and was the first black person elected to statewide office in Wisconsin, died earlier this year, in hospice care. She is featured in exhibits at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum. AP Photo/Henry Burroughs, File

Local and state leaders gathered in Milwaukee Friday to honor the legacy of Vel Phillips, one of the most iconic civil rights activists in Wisconsin history. 

Phillips broke barriers in politics, becoming the first woman and the first Black person elected to the Milwaukee Common Council in 1956 and the first Black woman elected to the Democratic National Committee in 1958. When Phillips won her 1978 race for secretary of state, she became the first Black person to win statewide office in Wisconsin.

Phillips was also a trailblazer in the world of law. She was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1951 and the first female judge in Milwaukee County.  

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The civil rights pioneer died in 2018. Her birthday is Feb. 18. Phillips referred to her birth year as 1924, but her obituary lists it as 1923. 

During a ceremony at the Milwaukee County Courthouse Friday, County Executive David Crowley — who also made history in 2020 as the first Black person elected as county executive in Milwaukee — said Phillips’ legacy impacted his life in many ways.

“She was simply a giant in Milwaukee’s African-American community and in this entire state,” Crowley said. “From marching against racial discrimination and housing, to giving a voice to the civil rights movement right here within Milwaukee County, Vel taught us to not only serve with dignity, but to serve with intention and passion.”

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley hands a proclamation to the family of Vel Phillips. Evan Casey/WPR

As a Milwaukee Common Council member, Phillips pushed city leaders to recognize the inequalities facing minorities in the city, including housing discrimination. She worked to promote fair housing laws and combat racial discrimination among landlords and real estate agents in the city, according to a statement from Milwaukee County. 

She marched across the city in 1967 with the Milwaukee NAACP youth council to promote a bill she introduced that sought to outlaw discriminatory housing practices. 

“I just thought that I would have a chance to really make a difference,” Phillips told Wisconsin Public Television in its documentary, “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams.”

“My mother would always tell us, ‘If you really want it, don’t dream small dreams, dream big dreams,’” Phillips also said.

Vel Phillips, Marquette University (CC-BY-NC-SA)
Vel Phillips, the first woman and African-American elected to the Milwaukee Common Council and Wisconsin’s first African-American judge, received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Marquette University in May 2007. Photo: Marquette University (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Crowley said Phillips’ “positive example” left an impact on many residents of the state. 

“Because of Vel’s tenacity, because of her dedication to fighting for what is right, her words and her values spread throughout this state and throughout this nation,” Crowley said. 

Vel Phillips
Feb. 7, 1953, portrait of Vel Phillips. Image courtesy the Wisconsin Historical Society

At the ceremony Friday,  Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski said she first learned about Phillips in her middle school history class. She did a research paper on her.

“Vel was out there fighting for what’s right and despite people telling her no she couldn’t do it, she showed them. Whether it was for fair housing or running for elected office, when people said she couldn’t do it, she said, ‘Watch me,’” Godlewski said. “It’s something that I think about every single day.” 

Milwaukee County Board Chair Marcelia Nicholson said it’s special that Phillips’ birthday is in Black History Month. 

“We stand on the shoulders of the great ones, and that is who Vel Phillips is — the great one,” she said. “The first Black judge in Wisconsin, that’s ‘GOAT’ status. She is the greatest of all time.” 

In 2021, the state Capitol and Executive Residence Board voted to erect a statue of Phillips at the capitol. Planning for the statute  is still in the works.

Proclamations were handed out to her surviving family members Friday.