By Evan Casey and Karen Stokes
Velvalea “Vel” Phillips, a Milwaukee legend, an advocate for civil rights who displayed courage under great pressure, died Tuesday. She was 94.
Civil rights activist Vel Phillips was the first woman to sit on the Milwaukee Common Council. She was the first woman to serve as a judge in Milwaukee County. She was the first woman and first African American to graduate from the University of Wisconsin law school. She was also the first woman and first African American elected to a statewide constitutional office, serving as the Secretary of State of Wisconsin from 1979-1983.
Born in Milwaukee on February 18, 1924, Phillips attended Garfield Avenue Elementary, Roosevelt Junior High, North Division High School and received a degree from Howard University.
In September 1948 she married W. Dale Phillips, a fellow UW Law School graduate.
Phillips was honored at a press conference at Milwaukee City Hall Wednesday afternoon. Those present included Alderwoman Milele Coggs and Chantia Lewis, two women who have looked to Phillips for inspiration over the years.
“She spent a lifetime trying to improve this community and this city,” said Ald. Coggs. “She was an example of what service truly means.”
“I’m really trying to pay homage to her with every thing that I do to break down barriers today,” said Ald. Lewis.
Phillips courage knew no bounds. At the 1960 Democratic Convention, one of very few Black voices at the convention, she took to task southern democratic segregationists who felt that the Democrats couldn’t win running on civil rights. Phillips told them, “Winning is not as important as doing the right thing.”
Phillips work has been recognized throughout the community. The Milwaukee County Children’s Court Center was renamed the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center.
“Her impact can never be understated,” said Mayor Tom Barrett. “She literally changed this city, often times as a lonely warrior… fighting for the rights of people who weren’t represented by the government.”
“She was an icon, I feel very strongly about the work she did,” said Senator Lena Taylor. “My parents got a chance to live on the side of town where they lived because of Vel Phillips. I get to live where I live because of Vel Phillips.”
Phillips introduced the Fair Housing Law in 1962. The law made it illegal for landlords not to rent homes to African Americans, something that was commonplace in Milwaukee at that time. Phillips led marches for 200 consecutive nights in 1967 and 1968 to draw attention to the law, and it was finally passed in 1968 after years of struggle.
Following retirement, Phillips decided to continue to work for progress in Milwaukee. She was active with the NAACP and America’s Black Holocaust Museum.
NAACP Milwaukee Branch president Fred Royal issued a statement online, “The NAACP Milwaukee branch mourns the passing of Velvalea “Vel” Phillips, a civil rights icon, who has continuously stood in the gap of justice to speak against the injustices of racism and inequality that have plagued our community for many years…Our condolences go out to the family.”
After retiring from politics in 2006, she founded the Vel Phillips Foundation. The foundation webpage states that the focus is to give scholarships to qualified minorities and grants to organizations that focus on social justice, educational initiatives, jobs, and equality in housing. The foundation will also fund cutting-edge initiatives, individual or collaborative, that will enhance harmony among people of different socio-economic levels, races, sects, and ethnicities.
In 2011, the University of Wisconsin-Madison renamed one of its residence halls for Phillips and the Wisconsin Alumni Association awarded Phillips its Distinguished Alumni Award.
Last Tuesday, the Milwaukee Common Council voted to create the Vel R. Phillips Trailblazer Award. The award will be given to individuals in Milwaukee who mirror the tenacity Phillips showed towards civil rights.
“The greatest thing about her was her fearlessness and her willingness to fight for the will of the people,” said Coggs. “To be such a small woman and wield such a big stick was phenomenal.”
“I thank God we were able to give her, her flowers while she was still alive and we could praise her for all the work she did,” said Taylor.
Phillips is survived by her son Michael. Her husband, W. Dale Phillips, and her son Dale preceded her in death.