On Tuesday, Milwaukee civil rights pioneer and political trailblazer, Velvalea Rodgers “Vel” Phillips, passed away at the age of 94.
In a Wisconsin Public Television produced documentary about her life, Phillips said: “My mother would always tell us if you really want it, don’t dream small dreams, dream big dreams.” And that’s exactly how she lived – dreaming big, despite gender and racial barriers placed in front of her.
She won a national scholarship to attend Howard University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1946. Then five years later, in 1951, she became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School.
“She embraced many ‘firsts,’ was focused on important issues, and had to push back against a lot of resistance and disappointment. That meant she had to be tough,” said University of Wisconsin Law School Dean Margaret Raymond.
“She was, nonetheless, a warm, funny, and insightful leader and mentor, with tremendous persistence, who did not give up. I will take away from the privilege of knowing Vel an enduring admiration for her wonderful combination of strong, approachable and indomitable.”
Photo via: PBS
Phillips also blazed a trail as, the first woman and the first African American elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, the first African American woman elected to the Democratic National Committee, the first female and the first African American elected to a statewide office in Wisconsin, and the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American judge in the state of Wisconsin.
Using her platform to lead open housing marches and advocate for fair housing for Milwaukee’s Black residents, Phillips dedicated her life to public service and inspiring the next generation. In fact, she mentored Representative Gwen Moore, who under her counsel became Wisconsin’s first woman and first African American member of Congress.
Moore said of Phillips’ passing: “Vel Phillips was my friend and champion. She cheered me on through every victory in my life and taught me to always keep the faith.
Ms. Phillips, thank you for blazing a trial and leaving behind a legacy that will continue to inspire us all.