NewsWomen's History Month


The legacy of Vel Phillips continues to inspire generations of women leaders

Vel R. Phillips was a pioneer and trailblazer who cracked glass ceilings across the city, county, and state
Posted: 6:10 PM, Mar 29, 2024
Updated: 2024-03-29 19:22:38-04

MILWAUKEE — The late Vel Phillips was a trailblazer and pioneer. Her accomplishments continue to inspire women both young and old. As a radio personality, TMJ4's Andrea Williams, sat down with the Honorable Vel Phillips to discuss her journey and her legacy. Andrea shares part of that interview to give you an insight into Vel's triumphs and challenges in her own words.

A Glimpse into her Remarkable Journey

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The Honorable Vel Phillips.

"Vel is short for a much longer name, which was a family name, Velvalea. And if I were doing it today, I wouldn't have a last name. I'd just call myself my whole name. I'd be Velvalea, and when I come back in this world because I do want to come back a Black Panther. I'll be Valvalea, the Black Panther (laughter)," said Phillips.

The late Vel Phillips was a North Division High School and Howard University grad. She made history when she became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School.

"First of all, I didn't consider it major at the time, it was sort of accidental, " she said.

She and her husband Dale Phillips became the first husband and wife legal team admitted to the federal bar in Wisconsin. In 1956, she joined the Milwaukee Common Council.

Overcoming Gender Bias and Discrimination in Politics

"I was the first woman on city council and first Black and it made it kind of hard because the aldermen they were very...they just didn't know what to think, they'd never had a woman you know. They didn't want me to use the bathroom."

Coverage of her campaign and early career focused more on gender than race.

"On top of that to really let 'em (sic) know that I was a woman, I was pregnant...five months pregnant," she laughed.

No one knew of her pregnancy except her family, and she had no intention of letting that stop her.

"I'm here, get used to it, baby. I'm not going anywhere!"

Championing Fair Housing and Civil Rights

In 1962 she introduced a bill outlawing housing discrimination.

"Five years later, I've just continued to introduce it, continue to be turned down, but never gave up," said Phillips.

Her collaboration with Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council made fair housing a reality.

In 1971, she became Wisconsin's first African American judge and in 1978, she once again made history when she became the first African American elected as Secretary of State. It's that tenacity that continues to inspire today's female elected officials like Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs.

Inspiring Today's Elected Officials

Milwaukee 6th District Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs

"Mrs. Phillips was a mentor to me. Those stories have helped guide me through the challenges that I face each and every day," said Coggs.

Alderwoman Coggs is just one of 20 alderwomen who have served at Milwaukee's City Hall and she, like Vel Phillips, now paves the way for other young women with her Girls Day at City Hall.

"It lets us women feel like if this person can do something special and great, which it makes us feel like we can do something special like in the world," said 13-year-old Dianelis.

Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa was the first Latina elected to the State Assembly and Milwaukee Common Council. She's also the first openly LGBTQ member on the Council.

Milwaukee 8th District Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa

"I had the honor of meeting Vel Phillips personally and I treasure those memories. And I also have the great honor of being able to say my first office...I know it was also Vel Phillips first office here in City Hall and the tiniest office, but I loved it, because I know that it was Vel's."

The People Who Guided Her Path

There were also people who inspired Vel.

"Mrs. Halyard who started Columbia Savings and Loan, she was my godmother. She would send me packages when I was at Howard," said Phillips.

Millie Coby is the goddaughter of Vel Phillips and serves as the Vice Chair of the Community Brainstorming organization founded by Mrs. Phillips.

Millie Coby, goddaughter of Vel Phillips

"I am so honored to not only be her goddaughter and to have to carry the legacy to have been able to walk close with her, but also to be able to carry the torch and serve," said Coby.

From the street naming to the Juvenile Justice Center, there are many reminders of the great contributions that Vel Phillips made to our city, county, and state.

"God is good and he put people in my path that could make things possible for me," said Phillips.

Vel Phillips died at age 95 on April 17, 2018. That same year, North 4th Street from St. Paul Avenue to Capitol Drive was renamed Vel R. Phillips Avenue in her honor, which includes Fiserv Forum.

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