Vel Phillips, civil rights and community pioneer, demonstrated by example that justice could be achieved through gracious persistence and personal integrity. Establishing firsts in her long political career gave others hope for a brighter future. Her Foundation will embody her spirit and continue her devotion to improving the community and the world in which she lived.
Vel attended North Division High School in Milwaukee and won a national oratory scholarship sponsored by the Black Elks before attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. She was the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Madison law school in 1951, and moved to Milwaukee with her husband and fellow attorney W. Dale Phillips. Together they became the first husband-wife team of any race admitted to the federal bar in Milwaukee.
Vel began her march for justice in 1956 when she was elected the first woman ever to sit on Milwaukee’s Common Council. During her tenure on the Common Council, Vel made strides - large and small - for women and minorities. In 1962, she introduced the city’s first open-housing ordinance. In 1967, Vel joined Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council in leading marches for fair housing, enduring the city’s race riots, hostility and violence. She finally saw Milwaukee’s open housing bill passed two weeks after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.
A supporter and friend of Dr. King, Vel also distinguished herself on a national level in the civil rights era. She was the first African American in the United States elected to the National Committee of either of the two major political parties, and knew three presidents on a first-name basis: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter.
In the 1970s she became the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American to serve in Wisconsin’s judiciary. And in 1978 she was the first woman and African American elected to a statewide constitutional office as Secretary of State. Throughout her career she devoted her free time to helping people and causes that supported the greatest needs in the community.
Today, though long retired from her law practice, Vel fills her life with advocacy and charitable work. She is active with America’s Black Holocaust Museum and the NAACP, and is working on the committee assigned to the Joshua Glover statue in Jackson Square. She is active on the boards of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, Community Shares, and the Haggerty Museum. She also is an active and vocal participant in the grass-roots leadership work of the Community Brainstorming Conference.
A recent unexpected pleasure for Vel is the creation of the Vel Phillips Foundation, which will carry on the march for justice and equality by embracing the values and aspirations that Vel demonstrated throughout her life. Her legacy will live on.