Vel Phillips, born Velvalea Rodgers, grew up on Milwaukee’s south side and graduated from North Division High School. She received a national scholarship to attend Howard University, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree. In 1951, she was the first Black woman to graduate from UW-Madison Law School. Five years later, Phillips became the first woman alderman elected to the Common Council of Milwaukee. She fought tirelessly for fair housing policies to protect minorities from discrimination when buying or renting homes. She was active in the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, and she participated in many non-violent demonstrations for civil rights. With Father James Groppi, the advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, she brought national attention to Milwaukee’s civil rights movement when she organized community members to demonstrate for more than 200 days in support of fair housing legislation.
In 1971, Phillips resigned as an alderperson when Governor Patrick J. Lucey appointed her as the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American to serve in Wisconsin’s judiciary. She achieved another first in 1978 when she was elected secretary of state of Wisconsin. One other woman, Glenn Wise, had held that seat previously, but Wise had been appointed rather than elected. Although Phillips was not re-elected in 1982, she secured a prominent place in Wisconsin history, and her fight as a community organizer for civil rights in Milwaukee continued into the 21st century.
Vel Phillips passed away on April 17, 2018, at the age of 95.
“The Life Of Vel Phillips.” Wisconsin Public Radio, March 5, 2015. http://www.wpr.org/shows/life-vel-phillips.
“Vel Phillips & James Groppi: The Fight for Fair Housing.” PBS Wisconsin Education. http://pbswisconsineducation.org/biographies/phillipsandgroppi.html.
“A Life of Firsts: A Brief Biography of Vel Phillips.” Wisconsin Historical Society. http://wihist.org/1EoJtqt.
“Vel Phillips Biography: Interview Date 12/2/2007.” The History Makers. http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/vel-phillips-41.
Call, Leah. “Vel Phillips: A Life Well Led.” Capitol Report Wisconsin (Fall 2007).
Sandomir, Richard. “Vel Phillips, Housing Rights Champion in the ’60’s, Is Dead at 95.” The New York Times, April 25, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/25/obituaries/vel-phillips-housing-rights-champion-in-the-60s-dies-at-95.html?emc=edit_th_180426&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=790592360426.
Stingl, Jim. “Stingl: We were lucky to have Vel Phillips in Milwaukee, and for a year longer than we thought.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 23, 2018. https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/columnists/jim-stingl/2018/04/20/stingl-we-were-lucky-have-vel-phillips-milwaukee-and-year-longer-than-we-thought/534222002/.
Photo courtesy of PBS Wisconsin/James Gill.