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Vel Phillips, Lawyer, Judge, Secretary of State of Wisconsin

Born Velvalea "Vel" Rodgers, February 18, 1924.

 

She is a retired Wisconsin 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

 

Born on Milwaukee's South Side in 1924. She graduated from North Division High School. Vel 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.

 

Career

 

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 city-wide 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. 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 and was appointed to the Milwaukee County judiciary, the first woman judge in Milwaukee 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.

 

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). Although Phillips lost the next election (to a white candidate), 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

 

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."

  

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Uploaded on March 21, 2008