Vel Phillips

First in Fighting for Social Justice

The first woman and first African American to ascend to major political posts in Wisconsin, Vel Phillips LLB1951 says that she found her gender presented more roadblocks than her race.

“But once you’re there, [white people] will realize you’re just like everybody else,” Phillips explained to Milwaukee Magazine. “But the men never forget that you are a woman. Never, ever, ever.”

Returning home to Milwaukee after her 1946 graduation from Howard University, she married the love of her life, (Warren) Dale Phillips BA1947, LLB1950, and joined him to attend the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Vel Phillips being carried on the shoulders of Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council members.

Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, #118395.

“I was the first black woman to graduate from the law school,” Phillips recalled in Dream Big Dreams, a 2015 documentary about her life. “I just thought that was the biggest thing that could happen to me.”

As law students, the Phillipses were assigned to housing where students soon petitioned to bar more black residents. The couple found another UW community more welcoming to them and their two sons, but Vel remained deeply affected by the experience.

Inspired by advice from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to use her profession to make the world better, Phillips would go on to win a historic fight for fair housing and social justice.

Elected in 1956 as the first female and first African American on the Milwaukee Common Council, she sponsored legislation to outlaw racial discrimination in city housing ordinances. Success took six years of political tumult and 200 days of marches and nonviolent community protests; Phillips was nationally recognized for her leadership.

In 1971, Phillips left her role as “Madam Alderman” and was appointed to the Milwaukee County Judiciary. She was Milwaukee’s first female judge, and Wisconsin’s first African American judge. In 1978, she was the first woman and first African American elected as Wisconsin’s secretary of state. Lauded as one of the most important civil rights figures in Wisconsin’s history, Phillips passed away in 2018 at the age of 94.

Today, her voice is amplified through the Vel Phillips Foundation. And UW lakeshore residents celebrate her legacy in Phillips Hall — an honor the namesake can’t think about too often.

“I just try not to think of it as anything special,” she said, “because I couldn’t have done it alone.”