Vel Phillips, a pioneering civil rights leader who became Wisconsin’s first black judge and first black secretary of state, died April 17. She was 94 years old.
Her son, Michael Phillips, told WISN that his mother died in hospice care. Republican Governor Scott Walker called her “a legend” and said, “It was an honor to get to know her when I was the (Milwaukee) county executive, and to be a part of naming the Vel Phillips Juvenile Justice Center in her honor nearly a decade ago.”
Mrs. Phillips was a daughter of Milwaukee from the start, according to The Wisconsin State Journal. She was born in the city as Velvalea Hortense Rodgers in 1924. Later, she won a scholarship to Howard University and returned to the University of Wisconsin in Madison for law school where she became the school’s first black woman graduate.
It was also where she met her husband and fellow law school student, Dale Phillips.
Mrs. Phillips took on housing discrimination in Milwaukee as early as the mid-1950s when she was elected to the city council. She participated in several local civil rights demonstrations over the years.
When she became the circuit judge of her county in 1971, she also became the first black judge in the state. Seven years later, she was elected to be the first black person and first woman to serve as Wisconsin's secretary of state. According to the Journal Sentinel, Mrs. Phillips remains the only black person to have held a statewide office in Wisconsin to this day.
She kept the spirit of the civil rights era roaring throughout her long career. State Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said of Mrs. Phillips, “She was a true pioneer and leader during the civil rights movement, and fought to improve social and economic justice for underrepresented communities.”
“As a young paper carrier reading about her, you could just sense her importance to the community and that never wavered,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “It grew decade by decade to the point where she was revered by everyone who cared about justice in our community.”
She died only hours after her hometown’s city council approved of an annual commemoration, the Vel Phillips Trailblazer Award, to be given to an outstanding local.