Days after protesters toppled two statues outside the state Capitol, Boys and Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson has suggested erecting a new one, honoring former Wisconsin Secretary of State Vel Phillips.
In a letter to State Senator Fred Risser, who represents the district where the Capitol is located and who sits on the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board, Johnson noted that “there are no prominent pieces of art that reflect the contributions of African Americans in the Capitol building. African Americans have provided leadership in our state for more than 150 years and it’s time to ensure the Capitol celebrates that leadership and display the diversity that our state has to offer.”
Phillips, who died in 2018 at the age of 95, was the first African American woman elected to statewide office in Wisconsin history.
She was also the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1951 and ran for Milwaukee School Board in 1953. In 1956, Phillips became the first woman and the first Black member of the Common Council in Milwaukee. She was elected Secretary of State in 1978, and was even acting governor very briefly — when both Governor Lee Dreyfus and Lt. Gov. Russell Olson were out of state at the same time, she was in charge under state law.
“As the state begins to repair the statues that were recently damaged I encourage you to think about our current environment, the achievements of African Americans in Wisconsin and I can’t think of a better person to recommend than Mrs. Vel Phillips,” Johnson wrote. “With the recent civil unrest that is happening in Wisconsin, and across the country, I’m encouraging you to honor her legacy by approving a statue to be placed at the Capitol building, thus recognizing her contributions as a representative of the African American community. The young people of Wisconsin and generations thereafter need to see that representation matters and they need to see heroes and leaders that reflect the ecosystem of our communities at large.”
Johnson wrote that he intended to call Gov. Tony Evers to offer the suggestion of a Vel Phillips statue and to schedule a meeting to discuss the idea.