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Vel Phillips statue receives final board approval to be installed on Wisconsin State Capitol grounds in June


Vel Phillips will become the first Black leader to be honored on Wisconsin State Capitol grounds after the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board (SCERB) granted final approval for the installation of a sculpture commemorating the life and legacy of Vel R. Phillips on Friday.

In 1951, Velvalea “Vel” Hortense Rodgers Phillips became the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, the first Black woman elected to the Democratic National Committee in 1958, and in 1978, Philips became the first woman and the first Black person to be elected to a statewide office in Wisconsin: the secretary of state.

Philips is also credited with being the first woman and first Black person on the Milwaukee Common Council. In 1971, she became the first female judge in Milwaukee County and the state’s first Black judge.

“Vel Phillips was a true treasure and Wisconsin icon who became the first of many before her, inspiring generations and defining the trajectory of our state. It is so important to me and to the countless Wisconsinites for whom she paved the way that she receives permanent recognition at the Wisconsin State Capitol,” said Gov. Tony Evers. “The People’s House should be a reflection of the Wisconsinites we serve, and no one is more deserving than Vel Phillips. Future generations of kids will be able to look up at Vel and see a leader who looks like they do—an everlasting example of her historic legacy. I’m grateful to SCERB, the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, Mike Phillips, and so many others for their partnership in making this a reality.”

Commissioned by the late artist Radcliffe Bailey, the sculpture is slated for unveiling on the Wisconsin State Capitol grounds in June 2024. This will be the first statue of a Black leader or any person of color featured on the grounds of the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Following bipartisan approval of the statue in November 2021, the Vel Phillips Legacy Initiative, started by Michael Johnson, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, with endorsement from Mike Phillips, Vel Phillips’ son, and backed by The Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, will have raised over $500,000 to commission and donate the sculpture to the State of Wisconsin.

“We are proud to see this day come to fruition. Vel Phillips’ legacy is a testament to the power of resilience and dedication,” said Johnson. “Through this sculpture, future generations will learn about and be inspired by her indomitable spirit and contributions to our society. We should thank our community, especially the youth, for bringing the issue of lack of representation to our attention.”