Civil rights activist, former Secretary of State Vel Phillips dies

April 18, 2018 GMT

Milwaukee native and UW Law School graduate Vel Phillips, who broke racial barriers by becoming the first African-American judge in Milwaukee and the first African-American secretary of state of Wisconsin, has died. She was 94.

Phillips died Tuesday night, hours after the Milwaukee Common Council unanimously approved the Vel Phillips Trailblazer Award to be awarded every year.

“Wisconsin has lost a beloved, iconic, tenacious trailblazer whose leadership and career of firsts in our state opened doors through which so many African Americans, Democrats and women are proud to have followed,” said Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Martha Laning.

“Her spirit is with all of us, in Wisconsin and the nation, as we proudly continue the fight she took to the streets — despite horrific abuse — for civil rights, equality and justice. Her legacy and strength in the face of hatred and injustice stays with us now as we continue her march,” Laning said.

Democratic candidates for governor, Mahlon Mitchell and Matt Flynn, also praised the work of Phillips in statements issued upon her passing.

“Vel Phillips forged relationships for the betterment of all Wisconsinites and truly fought to leave no one behind,” Mitchell said. “While she will be sorely missed, she leaves behind a legacy we can all be proud of and hope to build upon.”

Flynn said “Vel was a friend of Mary and mine. I admired what she accomplished, and this state has lost a great civil rights pioneer. Vel was a kind & good person, she will be missed. It’s important that we all continue Vel’s legacy in fighting for justice & equality.“Born Velvalea Rodgers in Milwaukee in 1924, Phillips went to Howard University for her bachelor of arts degree, then to UW-Madison Law School, becoming the first African-American woman to graduate from the UW Law School, in 1951. Her husband Dale Phillips also graduated from UW-Madison Law School.

In 2011 UW-Madison renamed Friedrick Residence Hall to Vel Phillips Hall in honor of her being the first African-American woman to graduate from the law school.

Phillips ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Milwaukee School Board in 1953, but had a successful run for the Common Council in 1956, working to end discrimination in housing in Milwaukee as well as taking part in civil rights protests in the city, marching with Father James Groppi during the 1960s.

She was appointed circuit judge in Milwaukee County in 1971, the first woman judge in the county and the first African-American judge in the state.

In 1978 she was elected Wisconsin’s secretary of state, the first black woman in that office. She served for four years, her election bracketed by current Secretary of State Douglas La Follette, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor the year Phillips was elected.

“She had a wonderful and distinguished life,” La Follette said. “Just think of all the things she accomplished.”

She also was the first African American to be elected a member of the Democratic National Committee.

Funeral arrangements for Phillips were not announced as of Wednesday morning.