Recently, like many from our community, I paid my respects to Velvalea Rodgers “Vel” Phillips. As I sat and listened to the many descriptions, stories and accomplishments that described the pint-sized warrior that lay beneath a spray of flowers, I couldn’t help but feel a profound sense of loss. Vel represented our connection to battles fought, wars won, and the fierceness that helped African Americans secure many of the civil rights gains of our past.
I’ve often heard my contemporaries talk about what they would have done if they had lived during slavery, reconstruction, or the Jim Crow era of the 19th century. Strongly and boastfully, they often say what they wouldn’t have tolerated or endured. Sometimes, I remind them that there were many people of that period, who did just that. Whether in uprisings, marches, boycotts, or a push for a change in the laws, people did fight back. Vel Phillips was one of those fighters. When put in perspective, you appreciate the courage of her actions, because death was a price paid by many who took up similar battles of the day.
Yet this tiny woman, who weighed less than 100 pounds, challenged historic institutional racism on a monumental scale. First arming herself with the needed education to wage battle, Vel Phillips was able to attend college via a scholarship she won in an oratorical contest at North Division High School. It was interesting to learn at her funeral, that school administrators didn’t want her to win. The predominantly white student body protested to ensure she was awarded her prize. That victory took her to Howard University and culminated with her becoming the first black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School in 1951.
In the years that followed, Vel Phillips ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 1953 and later in 1956 became the first woman and the first African-American elected to serve on the Milwaukee Common Council. Vel participated in civil rights protests and proposed her first ordinance in 1962 to outlaw housing discrimination. Ironically, Milwaukee remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation today.
She would go on to become the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African-American judge in state history. In winning her election for Secretary of State, Vel Phillips remains the only black person ever elected to statewide office in Wisconsin. For this remarkable woman, there were many more “firsts.” However, you knew that these accomplishments couldn’t have been easy. I am thankful for the support that she had in her equally impressive husband, Dale Phillips. I am heartened to know that many in the community had her back.
I appreciate her legislative legacy and the fact that she shouldered a heavy load so that modern-day black legislators and women could serve. I value that she brought so many of us into the political fold. And therefore, the words “Rest In Peace” Vel Phillips, are more meaningful than ever.