“Make a Life:” Remembering Vel Phillips

“Make a Life:” Remembering Vel Phillips

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Vel Phillips was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Wisconsin Alumni Association on March 26, 2014. (Photo by A. David Dahmer)

To people in Wisconsin, Vel Phillips is known as a civil rights pioneer and community leader. But who was she to those who knew her best? Millie Coby, a close friend of the Phillips family, told me she met Vel as a teenager. She said that from the moment she met her, she was an inspiration.

“She always said to me, Millie, don’t take no for an answer!” says Coby. “She was a very disciplined woman.”

This certainly described Phillips, a woman who fought day and night to break barriers others had not yet been able to cross. From becoming the first black person and woman to serve in the Wisconsin Judiciary, to the first black person and woman to be elected to a Wisconsin constitutional office as the Secretary of State, she refused to give in to those who would deny her progress socially or in her career.

Every step in Vel’s life was a groundbreaking accomplishment. She graduated the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School in 1951, and was the first black woman to do so. She then went on to be the first woman to sit on the Milwaukee Common Council, introduced the first open housing ordinance in Milwaukee, and fought for it for six years until it was finally passed.

Vel accomplished all of this before she made those leaps to the judiciary and state office, where she continued fighting day and night for the community.

However, Vel Phillips was more than just her career. Ms. Coby talked to me about how she knew Vel Phillips the woman, and not just the civil rights leader.

“We know how she fought for equality, but she did that on a personal note too,” says Ms. Coby. “She had a mother’s heart, she never stopped being human. I think that was key to everything.”

Ms. Coby told me that the reason Vel Phillips was so successful was because of that humanity. “We have a lot of people who, politically, are on top shaking hands and kissing babies and all of that. Then, after that, they are not approachable for the people and that’s why people lose confidence.”

“People never lost confidence in Vel Phillips to the day that she transitioned to glory because she built that rapport,” Coby says. “She really cared.”

Vel absolutely cared. Coby went on to tell me, “I would drive her to court because she was doing stuff pro bono for people. I mean, no matter what it was. She was never too busy for a crisis.”

On top of doing work to help those who needed it in the courtroom, she also cared deeply for her friends, the community, and the children. Ms. Coby recounted one story about her son and his classmates interacting with Vel.

“My son, Quintin, she took a wonderful interest in him,” Coby says. “He was in sixth grade and they were doing something for black history. They went to the museum in Madison. They got in there, he kept telling everybody, ‘I know her!’ They didn’t believe him so I got her on the phone and put her on speaker and she talked to all the kids at the museum. This is how she cared about the kids, she told them ‘I’m going to come to your school and talk to your group’.”

“So I talked to the teacher and we got a date, and she came to the library and talked to the kids about her life, about being successful, and how they could make it. She had Quintin sit up front. It was important to her that she made him feel special.”

Ms. Coby went on to tell me a few stories like this, all describing how Vel went out of her way to connect with her, the community, the children, and Quintin (who is now 22).

“She was down to earth. We laughed together, we cried together,” Coby said while talking about how she and Vel would support each other. “She told me no matter how old you get, you don’t stop dreaming, don’t stop thinking.”

Ms. Coby continued with a wistful tone in her voice, “she said to me, and I didn’t understand it at the time but I did later, just because you’re old and you have things happen to your body, that doesn’t mean your mind’s not working. Things like that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

Vel took her own advice to heart too. Milwaukee Magazine recounted how, every fourth Saturday of the month, Saint Matthews CME holds an event called the Community Brainstorming Conference. Milwaukee Magazien described it as “the black community’s monthly get-together to debate, socialize, see and be seen.” Vel Phillips attended and often led this event herself as the vice chair, and did so well after many people may have slowed down as they got older. But, as Vel told Coby, age did not stop her from continuing to think and act in the interest of the community.

This drive took Vel to places many considered impossible for a black person or a woman at the time. From courtrooms full of white people to meetings run solely by white men, Vel worked her way into them all. However, although she may have been alone in these rooms, she knew that the communities and people she constantly met with were there in spirit.

Ms. Coby had pride in her voice when she told me, “Whenever we would go for her to receive an award, she would say ‘I feel so bad!’ And I would say ‘Why?’ Vel’d say ‘Because I didn’t do this by myself.’ How many people do you hear say that?”

The pride in her voice deepens as she says, “She kept that humility. She knew no man was an island.”

Despite all her accomplishments, all the personal awards and accolades, Vel Phillips kept in mind that what she was doing was spearheading the culmination of years of effort on the part of a large community. Because she never lost that touch, she knew this community would continue to support the work she was doing for equal housing and political equality.

“She made a life out of what she loved,” continued Ms. Coby. “She always quoted this, she’d say, ‘Millie, you make a living by what you earn, but you make a life by what you give.’ She’d say ‘Millie, make a life.’”

This quote, often attributed to Winston Churchill, encapsulates the way Vel lived her life. She fought every day for the people and the community she loved, always giving her time and efforts to those around her. In return she always had the support she needed to continue growing and succeeding.

Vel Phillips had many accomplishments. She was the first black woman to graduate from the UW Madison Law School. She was the first woman to sit on the Milwaukee Common Council. While there, she fought and made significant ground for equal housing in Milwaukee, passing the first equal housing ordinance. She was the first woman or black person to sit on the bench in Wisconsin as a judge, and the first woman or black person to be elected to a Wisconsin constitutional office as Secretary of State. This does not even begin to scratch the surface of her everyday successes.

However, Vel’s greatest accomplishment is with those who knew and looked up to her. Vel Phillips inspired an entire community with her actions, her words, and her unrelenting drive. She showed that, if you work hard enough, no barrier can stop you from changing a system you see as unjust.

Though she may be resting now, her care for people and her drive has inspired an entire community that will continue to work for equality in Wisconsin and across the United States. She will not be forgotten. Instead, she will stand with the greats of civil equality, inspiring the next generation of leaders from Wisconsin.

Written by Andrew Madison

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