Velvalea Hortense Rodgers “Vel” Phillips was an American lawmaker and politician who was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School. She is also the first African American and first woman elected to the Milwaukee Common Council. Due to her wit and knowledge of the law, Vel Phillips is also credited with being the first woman to serve as a jurist in Wisconsin.
Vel Phillips was born on February 18, 1924, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She had two siblings. Phillips’s father was an owner of a restaurant and a cook. Growing up learning, Phillips was bright and intelligent. It was these features that led her to emerge as the winner of a speaking contest, winning the prize of a scholarship of her choice. As a result, she opted for Howard University in Washington D.C. There was a major moment of symbolism that influenced the thoughts of Vel Phillips. One Sunday Morning, she was escorted from church by ushers who felt she shouldn’t sit by her white friends. Washington had enforced segregation laws and people were not allowed to worship there. In future interviews, she said, “this lit a fire within her.” She thought it was wrong to be treated that way and “it is not as it should be.”
After graduating from Howard University, Phillips returned to her hometown and began volunteering at a branch of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was at this time she met her husband Dale Phillips. Once married, they moved to Madison and attended law school together. Once graduated, they became the First African American couple to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School. After graduation, they established their law firm Phillip and Phillip s in Milwaukee.
Vel and her husband were actively involved with the NAACP. In 1956, Phillips became the first woman and the first African-American member of the Common Council Milwaukee. Since Common Council members were called “Alderman,” she was given the title “Madam Alderman.” She was the only woman and black member of that body for years to come. In the 1960s, Phillips actively participated in nonviolent civil rights protests against discrimination in housing, education, and employment. She was arrested at a rally in 1967. Vel resigned from the Common Council in 1971 when she became the first female judge in Milwaukee Country and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. She was also a lecturer at the University of Milwaukee. 1978 was a landmark day for Phillips after becoming the first woman and first non-white elected Secretary of State in Wisconsin.
Vel Phillips died in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 17, 2018.
In August 2011, the University of Wisconsin–Madison announced that it had renamed one of its residence halls for Phillips. On November 22, 2021, the Madison Metropolitan School District’s Board of Education voted unanimously to rename what was James Madison Memorial to Vel Phillips Memorial High School as of the start of the 2022-23 school year.