The city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin is in mourning after news that the trailblazing Vel Phillips passed this past Tuesday (April 17). Among the several firsts she accomplished, Phillips was the first Black judge in Milwaukee, and the first Black Secretary of State for Wisconsin.
Born Velvalea Hortense Rodgers on February 18, 1923, she was raised in Milwaukee’s South Side neighborhood. After winning a scholarship, she attended and graduated from Howard University in 1946. She then entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, becoming the first Black woman to graduate from the school in 1951. It was there she met her husband, Dale Phillips, and the pair became the first husband and wife duo to be admitted to the Wisconsin bar.
Phillip’s foray into politics began in 1956 when she became a member of the city’s Common Council. She used the position to push for changes in Milwaukee, chiefly in the “Inner Core” district she presided over, which suffered from poor conditions and other issues. A hallmark of her time in politics was rallying against unfair housing practices and working with the NAACP on various issues.
In 1971, Phillips became the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the city’s first Black judge. In 1978, she made history once more after being named Secretary of the State. After leaving office, she remained politically and socially active, becoming a hero to many in the city of Milwaukee and the state.
Just hours before her passing, the Milwaukee Common Council approved the Vel Phillips Trailblazer Award that will be handed out annually. This adds to countless other honors, including a hall at UW-Madison dedicated to her in 2011, and in 2014, the Wisconsin Alumni Association gave Phillips its Distinguished Alumni Award.
Phillips was 95.
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