Born Velvalea Rodgers on Milwaukee’s South Side, Vel Phillips is a legend who has built a career full of “firsts.” The second of three daughters, Phillips graduated from North Division High School in 1942 and won a national scholarship to attend Howard University.
After graduating, she studied law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, where she became the first Black woman to graduate from the law school.
She and husband, W. Dale Phillips, were the first husband-wife attorney team admitted to the federal bar in Milwaukee.
In 1953 Phillips ran for a seat on the school board, and although she lost the final election, she was first Black candidate to make it past the primary.
Both she and her husband became active locally in the NAACP in support of a city redistricting referendum to increase black political representation. In 1956 Phillips became the first woman and the first Black alderman in Milwaukee and was given the title “Madam Alderman” by local officials.
During the 1960s Phillips participated in nonviolent protests against discrimination in housing, education, and employment that culminated in the violent summer of 1967. Arrested at a rally following the firebombing of an NAACP youth center, Phillips, as the only arrested city official, brought national media attention to the city.
The following year, Milwaukee aldermen finally approved the Fair Housing Law that Phillips had proposed six years earlier, pushed toward acceptance only by the passage of a federal open housing law the week prior.
After 15 years as alderman, Phillips resigned in 1971 and was appointed to the Milwaukee County judiciary. She was the first woman in Milwaukee and the first Black judge in Wisconsin. She lost her bid for re-election to the bench. In 1978 Phillips made national history as the first woman and first Black elected Secretary of State in Wisconsin.
Although Phillips lost the next election, she remained the highest-ranking woman to win state office in the 20th century.
Since leaving office, Phillips has remained active in the community. In 2002 she was awarded a distinguished professor chair at the Marquette School of Law, charged with producing a first person memoir of Milwaukee’s civil rights struggle.
She also chaired the successful congressional campaign of Gwendolynne Moore,Wisconsin’s first African-American and second female Congressional representative.
The Wisconsin Historical Society celebrated the lifetime achievements of Vel Phillips, along with four other individuals with Wisconsin ties, during its first annual History Makers Gala in Milwaukee on May 23, 2006. Phillips was the recipient of The Robert and Belle Case La Follette Award for Distinction in Public Service.