Dr. King’s Legacy Series: Vel Phillips

Most people recognize the names Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Malala Yousafzai, but few people know of Velvelea Phillips. Phillips has blazed a trail in Wisconsin history with all of the firsts in her life. Those firsts have opened many doors for both women and African Americans. Phillips wanted to help minority groups in Milwaukee, and that is exactly what she did.

Phillips was born in Milwaukee on Feb. 18, 1924. She is now 94 years old, but Phillips started her journey of breaking the ‘norm’ when she was just 27 years old. Phillips graduated from North Division High School in 1942 and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree at Howard University in 1946. After receiving her undergraduate degree, Phillips went to the University of Wisconsin Law School. She was the first African-American woman to graduate from Madison’s law school and this was just the first of many barriers that Phillips broke down.

After graduating with her Bachelor of Law, Phillips went back home to Milwaukee with her husband, Dale. Within five years of moving back, Phillips was elected to be the alderman of the Common Council of Milwaukee. She was the first woman to be elected for this position. Phillips advocated and fought hard for fair housing policies that would protect minority groups from discrimination when buying and renting homes.

In 1971, Phillips was appointed to be the first woman judge in the Milwaukee County and the first African-American to serve in Wisconsin’s judiciary system. Shortly after, in 1978, Phillips became the second woman, but first African-American woman, to be elected as Wisconsin’s Secretary of State.

Phillips said that her gender seemed to pose a bigger hurdle than her race when it came to accomplishing her goals and dreams.

In a Milwaukee Magazine interview, Phillips said that “once you’re there, [white people] will realize you’re just like everybody else … [b]ut the men never forget that you are a woman. Never, ever, ever.”

According to the Wisconsin Women Making History website, Phillips wanted to push more African-Americans to exercise their civil rights. Phillips was an active member in both the League of Women Voters as well as the NAACP, where she worked closely with Father James Groppi, the advisor for the NAACP Youth Council, to bring national attention to Milwaukee’s civil rights movement. Together, they organized a 200-day support demonstration to fight for the fair housing Phillips was so passionate about. They endured race riots, hostility and violence, but in the end, Phillips never gave up.

The Vel Phillips Foundation wrote that Phillips was the first African-American woman to be elected for the National Committee, and she was also on a first-name basis with of the three presidents: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.

Phillips was a friend and follower of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and two weeks after King’s unfortunate assassination in 1968, Phillips saw Milwaukee’s open housing bill pass, which helped lead to equal housing.

Vel Phillips left a mark on Wisconsin’s history for both women and African-Americans. Her contributions to activism have helped to shape policies and regulations that are now in place for Wisconsin.