Active in the women's movement and the civil rights movement, Vel Phillips built a career full of "firsts" as both a woman and an African American in Wisconsin. Born Velvalea Rodgers on Milwaukee's South Side on February 18, 1924, she was the second of three daughters in a family she described as comfortable but by no means rich (her father owned a garage and a restaurant at various times). After graduating from North Division High School in 1942, Phillips won a national scholarship to attend Howard University. She then studied law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, where in 1951 she became the first African-American woman to graduate from the law school. She and her husband, W. Dale Phillips, became the first husband-wife attorney team admitted to the federal bar in Milwaukee. They also raised two sons.
In 1953 Phillips ran for a seat on the school board, and although she lost the final election, she was first black candidate to make it past the primary. Both she and her husband became active locally in the NAACP in support of a city redistricting referendum to increase black political representation. In 1956 Phillips became the first woman and the first African-American alder in Milwaukee and was given the title "Madam Alderman" by local officials.
Throughout the 1960s Phillips participated in nonviolent protests against discrimination in housing, education, and employment that culminated in the violent summer of 1967. Arrested at a rally following the firebombing of an NAACP youth center, Phillips, as the only arrested city official, brought national media attention to the city, which had earned the nickname, "Selma of the North." The following year, Milwaukee aldermen finally approved the Fair Housing Law that Phillips had proposed six years earlier, pushed toward acceptance only by the passage of a federal open housing law the week prior.
After 15 years as alderman, Phillips resigned in 1971 and was appointed to the Milwaukee County judiciary, the first woman in Milwaukee and the first African-American judge in Wisconsin. She lost her bid for re-election to the bench. In 1978 Phillips made national history as the first woman and first African American elected secretary of state in Wisconsin. During the absence of both the governor and lieutenant governor, Phillips served as acting governor, though only briefly, she noted, as "the men hurried back" when they realized they had left a woman in charge. Although Phillips lost the next election, she remained the highest-ranking woman to win state office in the 20th century.
Since leaving office, Phillips has remained active in the community. In 2002 Phillips was awarded a distinguished professor chair at the Marquette School of Law, charged with producing a first-person memoir of Milwaukee's civil rights struggle. She also chaired the ultimately successful congressional campaign of Gwendolynne Moore, Wisconsin's first African-American and second female Congressional representative.
The Wisconsin Historical Society celebrated the lifetime achievements of Vel Phillips, along with four other individuals with Wisconsin ties, during its first annual History Makers Gala in Milwaukee on May 23, 2006. Phillips was the recipient of The Robert and Belle Case La Follette Award for Distinction in Public Service.
[Note: We are indebted to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
professor Genni McBride's research on Vel Phillips
for portions of this essay.]