Vel Phillips LLB’51

Vel Phillips LLB'51, Photo Credit: Andy Manis

Vel Phillips is one of Wisconsin’s foremost advocates for civil rights and social justice. Throughout her career, which has included stints as a lawyer, politician, and judge, Phillips’s signature policy issue has been to combat discrimination against minorities looking to buy or rent property.

During her early law school days, Phillips and her husband, Dale ’47, LLB’50, commuted to campus from Badger Village, the Baraboo housing project designed for students on the G.I. Bill and their families. However, the pair decided to move after fellow residents circulated a petition against allowing other African-Americans to move into the village.

Phillips went on to become the first African-American woman to graduate from the UW Law School. In 1956, she became the first female and first African-American elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, and in the early 1960s, she introduced a fair-housing ordinance that sparked an almost decade-long legislative battle.

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For 200 days in 1967 and 1968, Phillips marched alongside the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council through white neighborhoods in protest of the city’s discriminatory housing practices. In an interview with the UW, Phillips said the marchers met with stiff resistance, and at the end of each day, she went home to wash her hair of the feces and eggs thrown at them.

Phillips’s ordinance passed in 1968, shortly after the national Fair Housing Act was signed into law. She continued to serve as an alder until 1971, when she joined the Milwaukee judiciary as the first female judge in the city and the first African-American judge ever appointed in Wisconsin. In 1978, Phillips became the secretary of state, making her the highest-ranking female elected in Wisconsin in the twentieth century.

More recently, Phillips has turned her attention toward philanthropy. She established the Vel Phillips Foundation in 2006 to provide scholarships, grants, and programs to help minorities participate in their communities and in the economy.

In 2011, Phillips’s impact on housing equality finally came full circle on the UW campus, when an undergraduate residence hall was renamed in her honor. That year, she offered a few words of wisdom to the students living in her legacy hall. “I believe you should have big dreams and set your goals really high,” she said. “As they say, if you shoot for the moon [and] you don’t get there, you might hit a star or two on the way out.”

– From On Wisconsin Magazine, Summer 2014

Vel Phillips, Then and Now

“I believe you should have big dreams.”

Most profiles about Phillips, who is one of Milwaukee’s foremost advocates for civil rights and social justice, focus on the number one. This is because her name is associated with a long list of firsts, including being the first African-American woman to graduate from the UW Law School.

Yet there are several other numbers just as important to understanding Phillips’s impact on fair housing in Milwaukee — and her legacy across the state.

35: The number of miles Phillips commuted to campus from Badger Village, the Baraboo-based housing project where she and her husband, Dale, lived during their early law-school days. Badger Village was designed for students on the G.I. Bill and their families. Shortly after they moved in, fellow residents circulated a petition against allowing other African-Americans to live at the village. The experience was so uncomfortable that the pair eventually found other accommodations.

15: The number of years that Phillips sat on the Milwaukee Common Council, starting in 1956, when she became the first female and first African-American elected to it. She remained an alder until 1971, when she joined the Milwaukee judiciary as the first female judge in the city and the first African-American judge ever appointed in Wisconsin. (View footage of the historic 1967 meeting of the Milwaukee Common Council where Alderwoman Phillips resubmitted her open housing legislation.)

200: The number of days in 1967 and 1968 when Phillips marched alongside the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council through white neighborhoods in protest of the city’s discriminatory housing practices. In a 2012 interview, Phillips says the marchers met with stiff resistance, and every day she went home to wash her hair of the feces and eggs thrown at them.

6: The number of years it took from the time Phillips first introduced a fair-housing ordinance to the Milwaukee Common Council in 1962 until the measure was passed in 1968, shortly after the national Fair Housing Act was signed into law.

4: The number of years Phillips served as Wisconsin’s secretary of state after winning the 1978 election, making her the highest ranking female elected in the state in the 20th century. For a brief time, Phillips became acting governor, though she has often joked that the governor and lieutenant governor both hurried back to town when they realized that they’d “left a woman in charge.”

8: The number of years since the Vel Phillips Foundation was founded in 2006 to provide scholarships, grants, programs and other opportunities for minorities to participate in their communities and in the economy.

142: The number of undergraduate residents living in Vel Phillips Hall, the UW residence hall renamed in her honor in 2011. That year, Phillips offered a few words of wisdom to those students: “I believe you should have big dreams and set your goals really high,” she says. “As they say, if you shoot for the moon [and] you don’t get there, you might hit a star or two on the way out.”

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