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Celebrating Velvalea “Vel” Hortense Rodgers Phillips: Monumental Leader, Activist, and Jurist

Each February, we recognize and celebrate the contributions and achievements of Black Americans to the fabric of our national story cloth. The tapestry of American history, its challenges and progress are interwoven with Black history and its resilience and triumphs. As we honor the legacies of current and past Black Americans in the law, this year, we remember and celebrate a monumental leader, activist, and jurist, Velvalea Vel” Hortense Rodgers Phillips (19242018).

Vel Phillips was born on the South side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She led a career full of historic firsts and served in all three branches of government: judicial, executive, and legislative. In 1951, Phillips was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School. She later became the first woman and first person of color on the Milwaukee Common Council, the first African American woman to serve as a judge, the first African American woman to be elected to the Democratic National Committee, and the first woman, and first African American person to be elected to a statewide office as Secretary of State. 

Phillips tirelessly fought against housing discrimination early on in her career when she introduced a fair-housing ordinance in 1962. She joined the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council to rally for the passing of an open housing bill. She participated in marches in protest of the city’s discriminatory housing practices and often encountered harsh resistance. In 1968, after the federal Fair Housing Act was signed into law, Milwaukee passed Phillips’ Open Housing Ordinance. Phillips remained an avid civil rights activist advocating for women’s equality and anti-discrimination throughout her life. 

Phillips’ trailblazing legacy continues as she becomes the first person of color to be commemorated on State Capitol grounds in the nation. On November 1, 2021, the Capitol and Executive Residence Board unanimously voted to erect the statue of Vel Phillips at the South entrance to the Capitol. The initiative was proposed by Michael Johnson, Dane County Boys & Girls Club president and CEO, following protests and demonstrations in 2020 against police brutality and social injustice. The statue will provide representation of the diversity of Wisconsin leaders and changemakers. The statue will also serve as a beacon of hope and progress for generations to come. Phillips’ dedication to serving the state of Wisconsin and her extraordinary impact will be eternally memorialized when the project is completed later this year or early 2023

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