MADISON, WI (April 18, 2018) — The Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association is mourning the loss of UW–Madison alumna and civil-rights leader Vel Phillips. She passed away Tuesday at the age of 95.
As the first woman and first African American to ascend to major political posts in Wisconsin, Phillips said she found that her gender presented more roadblocks than her race.
“But once you’re there, [white people] will realize you’re just like everybody else,” Phillips explained to Milwaukee Magazine. “But the men never forget that you are a woman. Never, ever, ever.”
Returning home to Milwaukee after her 1946 graduation from Howard University, she married the love of her life, (Warren) Dale Phillips, and joined him to attend the University of Wisconsin Law School. She earned her law degree — an LLB — in 1951.
“I was the first black woman to graduate from the law school,” Phillips recalled in Dream Big Dreams, a 2015 documentary about her life. “I just thought that was the biggest thing that could happen to me.”
As law students, the Phillipses were assigned to housing where neighboring students soon petitioned to bar future black residents. The couple found another UW community that was more welcoming to them and their two sons, but Vel remained deeply affected by the experience. Inspired by advice from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to use her profession to make the world better, she would go on to win a historic fight for fair housing and social justice.
Elected in 1956 as the first female and first African American on the Milwaukee Common Council, Phillips sponsored legislation to outlaw racial discrimination in city housing ordinances. Success took six years of political tumult and 200 days of marches and nonviolent community protests, but she was eventually recognized nationally for her leadership.
In 1971, Phillips left her role as “Madam Alderman” when she was appointed to the Milwaukee County Judiciary. She was Milwaukee’s first female judge, as well as Wisconsin’s first African American judge. In 1978, she was the first woman and first African American to be elected as Wisconsin’s secretary of state.
Today her voice is amplified through the Vel Phillips Foundation, and UW–Madison lakeshore residents celebrate her legacy in Phillips Hall — an honor the namesake said she couldn’t think about too often.
“I just try not to think of it as anything special,” she said, “because I couldn’t have done it alone.”
A special tribute to Phillips is located in the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Alumni Park, which opened on October 6, 2017. A sculpture of a megaphone with the front page of the Milwaukee Sentinel commemorates the arrest of Phillips during a rally to support an open-housing ordinance in the city. For more information, please visit alumnipark.com.
Contact: Tod Pritchard, firstname.lastname@example.org, 608-609-5217, @WisAlumni