As we kick-off Women’s History Month, Acts Housing celebrates and recognizes Vel R. Phillips, considered a “leader of leaders”, a true champion and advocate for the citizens of Milwaukee.
Velvalea Hortense Rodgers, “Vel” Phillips – a lawyer, judge, politician, Civil Rights activist and lifelong Milwaukeean was one of the greatest champions for housing equality. Esteemed for her masterful negotiation and articulation of racial and gender issues, Ms. Phillips earned the trust and confidence of three Presidents: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter.
Phillips was born in Milwaukee on February 18, 1924. She graduated from Milwaukee’s North Division High School and then from Howard University in Washington D.C. She returned to Wisconsin to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and received her law degree in 1951. In 1956, at the age of 32, she became the first African American and first woman elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council.
In 1962, she introduced the Phillips Housing Ordinance–a bill that outlawed housing discrimination–to her peers in the Common Council. The bill, however, was defeated 18-1 with only her vote in favor. Between the years of 1963 and 1967, Phillips would reintroduce the fair housing bill three additional times, only to have it defeated each time. In 1967, she and the Milwaukee NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Youth Council joined forces in an effort to rally for the passing of an open housing bill. In an effort to dramatize the open housing issue, the Youth Council staged marches on 200 consecutive days across the 16th Street bridge to the South Side of the city.
Although she favored legal action over direct action, Phillips made it a priority to march along with the Youth Council on the second day of the open housing marches. She was arrested a few days later for allegedly violating Mayor Maier‘s 30-day ban on marches and demonstrations. A few years later, in 1971, Governor Patrick Lucey appointed Phillips to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, making her Wisconsin’s first African American judge. In 1978, she once again made history when she became the first African American to be elected as secretary of state.
Phillips died on April 17, 2018 in Milwaukee at the age of 95. Later in the year, Milwaukee renamed North 4th Street, from St. Paul Avenue to Capitol Drive, “Vel R. Phillips Avenue” in her honor.
“The street’s renaming will serve as a memorial to Vel R. Phillips’ advocacy for social justice, fair housing and civil rights,” said Ald. Milele Coggs in a statement at the time.
There’s so much to learn about Phillips’ life and legacy, but here are just some of her “firsts” that positively impacted Milwaukee forever.
- Vel Phillips was the FIRST WOMAN to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison law school.
- Vel Phillips was the FIRST WOMAN Secretary of State in Wisconsin.
- Vel Phillips was the FIRST WOMAN Circuit Court Judge in Milwaukee County.
- Vel Phillips was the FIRST WOMAN alderperson elected to the Milwaukee Common Council.