School board votes to change James Madison Memorial High School name to honor Vel Phillips

The board voted 7-0 to support the change.
Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 7:09 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 22, 2021 at 10:36 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to adopt the name change of James Madison Memorial High School to Vel Phillips Memorial High School.

The board voted 7-0 to support the change.

The board discussed the name change, with board member Nicki Vander Meulen proposing to put Memorial High School back on the table as a potential name. Ultimately, all voted in favor of honoring Vel Phillips with the change.

The district’s Ad Hoc Citizens’ Renaming Committee voted 10-1 in October to propose the name “Vel Phillips Memorial High School” to the MMSD Board of Education.

In a letter addressed to MMSD Superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins, Mya Berry pitched naming the school in honor of Phillips and argued in March that the school should not be named for former President James Madison because of his ownership of over 100 slaves and his support for the Three-Fifths Compromise.

“Madison was a person that benefited off of the exploitation of Black bodies, and those who embarked in such acts of racism should have no influence in today’s culture,” she argued. “Expecting Black students to attend a school named after a slave owner is antiBlack.”

Berry also pointed to experiences of Black students, parents, alumni, and community members whom she said suffered discrimination as well as academic disparities within the high school.

Other names that were considered included Darlene M. Hancock Memorial High School, Memorial High School and Bruce Dahmen Memorial High School.

Vel Phillips was the first Black woman to graduate from the UW–Madison law school, become the Secretary of State of Wisconsin and to become a Wisconsin judge.

Her son, Michael Phillips, described her as “small but mighty” in her work, which included activism for social justice and fair housing.

“She just worked tirelessly for this issue, I can remember marches starting at our front door, and I heard my mom on the bullhorn, somewhere in the middle of them,” said Michael Phillips.

The name will take effect at the start of the 2022-23 school year.

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