Long before civil rights pioneer Vel Phillips would go on to achieve a long list of historic breakthroughs – as the nation’s first African American woman elected statewide to an executive office, among many unprecedented honors – she faced multiple challenges in her youth, such as overcoming the racially discriminatory treatment that could have thwarted her path in high school. She described one event as pivotal, changing the course of her life: when fellow students appealed for the reversal of an unfair elimination from competition at a local round in an Elks League oratorical contest, which Philips eventually won on the merits of her essay, “The Negro and the Constitution,” leading to a full college scholarship to HBCU Howard University.
Velvalea Hortense Rodgers "Vel" Phillips was born in Milwaukee on February 18, 1924. Her family moved to the Bronzeville neighborhood when she was a child, and in the 1940s her parents Thelma and Russell Rodgers moved their family to 1740 North 7th Street in the heart of Bronzeville. She attended Garfield Avenue Elementary School, Roosevelt Junior High School, and North Division High School, the latter whose population at the time was mostly white. As a high school senior, Phillips was initially disqualified from the Elks Oratorical Contest due to the racial discrimination of a judge, who was one of her teachers at North Division. Several of her fellow students protested the unfair treatment and launched a petition to have the disqualification overturned. Phillips was asked to meet with the school principal, who decided to allow her to compete based upon the merits of the speech she had written, “The Negro and the Constitution.” Phillips won the Elks Oratorical Contest, earning a full scholarship in 1942 to attend the HBCU Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Returning to Wisconsin, she became the first African American woman to graduate from the law school of the University of Wisconsin Madison in 1951. Moving back to her hometown with her husband and fellow attorney W. Dale Phillips, they became the first husband and wife admitted to the federal bar in Milwaukee, opening a law firm in Bronzeville. Although these feats alone would make an outstanding career, Vel Phillips did not stop there. Having active engagement with redistricting efforts of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Phillips became Milwaukee’s first woman and first African American member of the city’s Common Council in 1956. In 1958 Phillips won a state committee woman post, becoming the first African American elected to the Democratic Party’s national committee, and then the first minority to lead a standing committee in 1960.
In 1962, she introduced the Phillips Housing Ordinance to the Common Council and advocated for the bill, which sought to outlaw housing discrimination. The bill was defeated 18-1 with only her vote in favor, but Phillips remained determined to forward her open housing proposals, reintroducing the fair housing bill three times between the years of 1963 and 1967, only to have it defeated each time. She participated in sit-ins and marches for civil rights laws on the state and local level, later being joined by Father James Groppi. After the 1968 federal law known as the Fair Housing Act was passed, Milwaukee finally saw Vel Phillips local housing law passed.
In 1971 she was appointed the first African American in the Wisconsin Judiciary and the first woman judge of Milwaukee County. In 1978 she became the nation’s first African American woman elected statewide to an executive office. After retirement, Phillips remained active in the community serving on boards, remaining an officer of the NAACP, continuing the push for activism in Milwaukee, while being a mentor for many individuals locally and nationally. In 2002, Phillips was appointed "Distinguished Professor of Law" at the Marquette University School of Law. Four months after her passing, on August 7, 2018, North 4th Street from St. Paul Avenue to Capitol Drive was renamed Vel R. Phillips Avenue in her honor. This street runs through parts of the historic Bronzeville neighborhood, where Phillips once lived. Congresswoman Gwen Moore introduced a bill to name a Post Office building in her honor the same year.
At the conclusion of Bronzeville Week 2019, a mural honoring Vel Phillips was installed on the exterior of the Bronzeville Collective building at 339 W. North Ave. Artist Jasmine Wyatt created the mural with the help of four volunteers in a project commissioned by Artists Working in Education. State lawmakers approved the commissioning of a statue of Phillips, which is expected to be in place on the Capitol grounds in Madison at the corner of West Main Street and South Carroll Street in late 2022 or early 2023.