The Vel Phillips Task Force held a press conference at Milwaukee City Hall Thursday to announce $100,000 in donations to help fund a statue of Phillips at the Wisconsin state capitol in downtown Madison.
The donations announced were $50,000 each from the Madison Community Foundation and Oscar Rennebohm Foundation. The six-figure contribution put the task force of the Wisconsin civil rights hero at just over $125,000, 50 percent of their goal. The State Bar of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Law Foundation served as lead donors to the fundraising campaign by donating a combined $25,000.
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.
Feb. 18 would have been Phillips’s birthday. The proposed monument would make Phillips the first person of color to be memorialized on the grounds of the state capitol.
Boys & Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson opened the press conference thanking the Committee for all of their work over the past few months “to make this a reality.”
“We have been meeting with leaders all over the state, listening to young people, and most importantly, raising the necessary resources to bring this to reality,” Johnson said.
Following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, Governor Evers appointed an advisory committee to study the possibility of creating and installing a sculpture honoring Phillips at the capitol. Johnson and Dave Endres, corporate legal counsel for American Family Insurance, are co-chairs of that committee.
“I remember about a dozen people coming up to me at the state Capitol [during the protests] and saying that there is no representation of people of color at the state Capitol,” Johnson remembers. “So, I immediately started talking to people in Milwaukee and Madison. I started talking to business and civic leaders. I also started talking to grassroots community leaders. They all thought Vel Phillips was the person we should honor.”
Michael Phillips, son of Vel Phillips and a member of the Task Force, said that if his mom was here today “she would be excited as I’ve ever seen her.”
“This is something that we’ve talked about. Fourth Street is Vel Phillips Avenue, and I was there when we inaugurated that day. She wasn’t around. One of the reasons she wasn’t around is because she passed away, as you know,” he said. “Today is her birthday. I want to take this morning to wish my mother a happy birthday.
“There was always an urgency about what she was doing and it was contagious,” he added. “She fought for everyone. She fought for equality.”