To have a statue of the late civil rights legend and political trailblazer Vel Phillips, Wisconsin’s first Black secretary of state, outside of the state Capitol building in downtown Madison would mean so much to so many people, including State Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) who would see it every day at her work.
“Vel Phillips was an incredible trailblazer and I am honored to have met her many times in my life,” says Stubbs, who fondly remembers encountering Phillips over the years, specifically at NAACP meetings and Delta Sigma Theta functions. “She was a very powerful and impressive woman and every time I would see her she would tell great stories about what it was like to be secretary of state or meeting President John F. Kennedy.
“We cannot forget about those who have been so impactful for us in our history. It’s important to keep her legacy alive and a statue outside of the Capitol building is a beautiful way to do that,” Stubbs adds. “I will hold onto her legacy every moment I’m in the Capitol and I walk through the corridor. I salute the trailblazer that Vel Phillips was and so many Black elected officials that were there before me.”
Stubbs is a part of the advisory committee that has proposed a monument in honor of Phillips to the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board (SCERB), which is in charge of the decoration at the Capitol. The SCERB unanimously approved the creation of a subcommittee on Jan. 25 that will finalize the design and location of the statue. Later, they will return to the board with a recommendation.
In 1951, Phillips became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and in 1956 she became the first woman and first African American on the Milwaukee Common Council. Phillips was the first Black woman elected to the Democratic National Committee in 1958 and the first female judge in Milwaukee County — and the first Black judge in Wisconsin — in 1971. In 1978, she became the first female and the first Black person elected to a statewide office — secretary of state — in Wisconsin.
“I just think it would be amazing to honor somebody with so many incredible firsts in the legal community. She did so many things. She was such an incredible pioneer,” Cheryl Daniels, State Bar of Wisconsin president-elect, tells Madison365. “All of these incredible accomplishments come out of her deep love for public service and a deep belief that we need to make our state fairer for all of its citizens … and the law is the way to do that. She always used the law to fight for what she thought was the fairness that needed to be reflected in our laws, in our community and in our state as a whole.”
In a letter of endorsement to the State Capitol & Executive Residence Board, the State Bar and the Law Foundation announced it was pledging a combined $25,000 contribution to jumpstart a statewide fundraising effort to raise the estimated $250,000 to place the statue.
“We thought that putting a leading gift of approximately 10 percent of what needs to be raised right upfront might give them the incentive to know that there are folks out there that are very interested. We wholeheartedly support the idea of the Vel Phillips statue,” Daniels says. “We believe that this is a long-overdue recognition and that as we think about our history, we need to think about all the diverse people who have done wonderful things in this state. We think this [$25,000 contribution] is a good start and we hope that it will be a catalyst for more lawyers and law firms to contribute.”
The Vel Phillips statue could be placed at the South Hamilton Street entrance to the Capitol building or inside the Capitol. There is one more hurdle to get through: The approval would require an exemption from a policy that prohibits additional statues on Capitol grounds.
Boys and Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson helped get the ball rolling last summer when he called on leaders to erect a statue at the Capitol honoring Vel Phillips, who died in 2018 at the age of 95.
“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 at the time. “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.”
The statue would be the first on Capitol Square to recognize a person of color.
“You would know that she is a woman of influence because people would come around her; people would gravitate towards her. She was a kind and cordial lady who was modest in her behavior and inclusive in her conversation,” Stubbs says. “She was also an incredible advocate and activist for so many key issues.”
This story has been updated to correct Ms Phillips’ age at her time of passing.