Vel R. Phillips (1924-2018) was a woman of many “firsts.” The Milwaukee native was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. She was the first woman and the first Black member of the Milwaukee Common Council. She was the first Black judge in the state of Wisconsin. She was the first Black woman to be elected to a statewide office (Secretary of State) in Wisconsin and the entire country. The Milwaukee civil rights leader also enjoyed birdwatching on the Horicon Marsh!
Milwaukee honored Phillips months after her death in 2018 by renaming a stretch of 4th Street in her honor, and the downtown Vel R. Phillips Plaza is currently under construction. But the city—and the entire state—will go all out in 2024. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Phillips’ birth, 2024 will be known as the “Year of Vel Phillips.”
“My mother’s commitment to justice and equality laid the foundation for transformative change in our state and beyond,” says Atty. Michael Phillips, son of Vel Phillips, in a press release. “This year-long celebration is an honor and a call to action for our community to continue the hard work required to create a more just and equitable society.”
Numerous events and initiatives honoring Phillips are planned for the year. Via the press release, they include:
• “Among the first events aligning with The Year of Vel Phillips is the opening of Dynamic Range: Photographs by Bill Tennessen at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art. This exhibition, featuring 50 photographs that capture Milwaukee’s Black community from the 1980s to the early 2000s – including Vel Phillips – opened January 18 and will be on view through May 12.”
• “The official launch of the Year of Vel Phillips will take place at the Milwaukee Art Museum on Phillips’ birthday, February 18, with a free, full-day celebration including a documentary screening, a panel discussion, a resource gallery, kids activities, live music, and more.”
• “Significantly, two permanent tributes to Vel Phillips will be unveiled this summer. First, the Vel Phillips Legacy Initiative with support from The Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County will place the first sculpture of a Black woman jurist, politician, and civil rights leader outdoors on any State Capitol grounds in Madison. The sculpture, commissioned by the late artist Radcliffe Bailey, is intended to inspire individuals from all walks of life to shatter barriers, achieve new heights, and champion justice, equality, and progress in the spirit of Vel Phillips.”
• “America’s Black Holocaust Museum hosts a standing exhibit of civil rights history in Milwaukee, featuring Vel Phillips. The museum is also a contributing partner to the Year of Vel Phillips. Its Executive Director, Brad Pruitt, is a Task Force member and is planning special programming to be announced later this year.”
• “The Wisconsin Historical Society Press will finalize a new Vel Phillips biography for young readers this year. Tentatively titled Valiant Vel: Vel Phillips and the Fight for Fair Housing, the book is written by Jerrianne Hayslett and features illustrations by Aaron Boyd. It also includes an Afterword by Michael Phillips. The book is aimed at middle school readers but is appropriate for ages 10 and up. The book is slated for publication in 2025.”
• “Woodland Pattern Book Center is also celebrating Vel Phillips with programming that will be announced in the coming months.”
For more information on the Madison sculpture, click HERE.