Podcast | Making Wisconsin: The Legacy of Vel Phillips

Vel Phillips statue approved for Wisconsin Capitol
Vel Phillips statue approved for Wisconsin Capitol
Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 7:32 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Vel Phillips -- known as a civil rights pioneer and woman of many firsts -- is becoming a ubiquitous name in Madison.

Officials voted to erect a Vel Phillips statue outside of the Capitol Building at the beginning of November, a monumental move that comes alongside another recognition. The Madison Board of Education voted Monday to rename James Madison Memorial High School after Phillips.

“I love the fact that there’s going to be high school kids who play football for Vel Phillip Memorial High School,” Vel’s son Mike Phillips said. “I mean having a high school named after you is a great thing and I’m hoping to be involved in that inaugural when it actually happens.”

Phillips represents many firsts for Wisconsin, including being the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin- Madison Law School and to be elected to a statewide office in Wisconsin and the entire nation. She also served as the first female and African American elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, as well as the first African American judge in the state of Wisconsin.

One of Phillips’ most notable moments was in her fight for fair housing. Despite her Common Council colleagues sometimes refusing to debate the topic, Phillips fought relentlessly for six years in the 1960s to establish a fair housing law in the city.

Phillips stood by and stood up for Black and marginalized Wisconsinites, paving the way for a more just system in the state.

Vel passed away in 2018, but her legacy -- emboldened on Milwaukee street signs, a UW-Madison dorm, and now a Madison high school and Capitol lawn -- lives on.

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