Vel Phillips

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Vel Phillips
Vel Phillips at March on Milwaukee - 2007.jpg
29th Secretary of State of Wisconsin
In office
January 3, 1979 – January 3, 1983
Governor Lee S. Dreyfus
Preceded by Douglas J. La Follette
Succeeded by Douglas J. La Follette
Personal details
Born Velvalea Rodgers
(1924-02-18) February 18, 1924 (age 93)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Political party Democratic
Alma mater Howard University
University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School

Velvalea Rodgers "Vel" Phillips (born February 18, 1924) is an American attorney who served as a local official and judge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and as Secretary of State of Wisconsin, often as the first woman and/or African-American in her position.

Early life and education[edit]

Born Velvalea Rodgers on Milwaukee's South Side, she won a national scholarship to attend Howard University, where she got her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1946. (She is a member of Delta Sigma Theta.) She returned to Wisconsin to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School, becoming the first black woman to graduate from that school (L.L.B, 1951). She and her husband (fellow UW Law graduate Dale Phillips) became the first husband-and-wife couple to be admitted to the Wisconsin bar.


In 1953, Phillips ran for a seat on the school board of the Milwaukee Public Schools, and was the first black candidate to make it past the non-partisan citywide primary election, though she lost the runoff. Both she and her husband became active locally in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in support of a city redistricting referendum (there were at that time no black members of Milwaukee's Common Council). In 1956, Phillips became the first woman and the first African-American member of the Common Council in Milwaukee; since Common Council members were called "Alderman," she was given the title "Madam Alderman" by local officials. She would remain the only woman and only black member of that body for many years to come. Phillips frequently participated in nonviolent civil rights protests against discrimination in housing, education, and employment during the 1960s. Phillips first proposed an ordinance in 1962 to outlaw housing discrimination. In 1968 the Milwaukee Common Council approved a desegregation law, only after a federal housing law was passed. She was arrested at a rally following the firebombing of an NAACP office, the only city official to be arrested during the "long hot summer" of 1967, bringing further national media attention to the city.

Phillips resigned from the Common Council in 1971, when appointed to the judiciary, the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. She lost her bid for reelection to the bench to a white candidate who made an issue of her involvement in protests and civil rights activities. She subsequently served as a lecturer at UW–Milwaukee and a visiting professor at Carroll College and UW–Madison Law School.

In 1978, Phillips made history as the first woman and first non-white elected Secretary of State in Wisconsin (although Glenn M. Wise had been appointed Secretary of State of Wisconsin 23 years earlier). Incumbent Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor and Phillips won the highly fractured nine-candidate Democratic primary with just 25.6%, though she did finish more than 10% ahead of the second-place candidate, Native American advocate and scholar Ada Deer.[1] In the general election, she defeated Republican Frederic A. Seefeldt with 50.4% of the vote. During the absence of both the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, under Wisconsin law she briefly served as Acting Governor (she later joked that "the men hurried back" when they realized they had left a woman in charge).[2] Although Phillips lost the Democratic primary in 1982 (to La Follette, who took 51.1% to Deer's 30.9% and Phillips' 12.4%[3]), she was the highest-ranking woman to win state office in Wisconsin in the 20th century. A lifelong Democrat, she was also the first black to be elected as a member of the National Committee of either of the major U.S. political parties.

Active retirement[edit]

Since leaving office, Phillips has remained active in the community, serving on the boards of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and America's Black Holocaust Museum. In 2002, Phillips was appointed "Distinguished Professor of Law" at the Marquette University School of Law, where she is also reported to be producing a first-person memoir of Milwaukee's civil rights movement [1]. She chaired the successful congressional campaign of Gwen Moore, Wisconsin's first African-American and Milwaukee's first female member of the United States House of Representatives. She also serves on the board of the Vel Phillips Foundation, a charitable foundation created in 2006, whose mission is "to help establish equality and opportunity for minorities through social justice, education, equal housing opportunities, and jobs."

In August 2011, the University of Wisconsin–Madison announced that it had renamed one of its residence halls for Phillips.[4]

In March 2014, the Wisconsin Alumni Association awarded Phillips its Distinguished Alumni Award.[5]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Interview by Genevieve G. McBride, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, March 1, 2003.
  3. ^
  4. ^ "University names residence hall after civil rights pioneer". UW-Madison. 24 August 2011. Retrieved 25 August 2011. 
  5. ^ "Wisconsin Alumni Association - 2013 DAA Honoree Vel Phillips". Wisconsin Alumni Association. 26 March 2014. Retrieved 26 March 2014. 

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Doug La Follette
Secretary of State of Wisconsin
Succeeded by
Doug La Follette