The first black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School returned to campus on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Wednesday, where she was presented with the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
Ninety-year-old Velvalea “Vel” Phillips was the keynote speaker at “A Nation under Construction,” a UW spring diversity event focused on the past, present and future of civil rights.
Phillips graduated in 1951. She was the first woman ever elected to serve on Milwaukee’s City Council in 1956. She became the first female judge in Milwaukee County as well as the first black person to serve in Wisconsin’s judicial system.
Kate Dixon, a WAA spokesperson, noted Phillips contributions to the civil rights movement.
“Her contributions to the civil rights movement in Wisconsin and nationally were absolutely incredible and the bravery that she had and continues to show to every day … is just so notable,” she said.
On a national level, Phillips was the first black person voted onto the National Committee of either political party. She personally knew Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. In 1978, she became the first woman and black person elected to a statewide constitutional office as Secretary of State.
Phillips’ accomplishments were not met without significant obstacles.
“When I was here, I didn’t get to eat in the Rathskeller,” she said. “It was very different.”
Phillips said her desire for a college education started at a young age, as well as her dream to become a lawyer.
When she attended UW’s law school, 12 other women were enrolled. Phillips expressed her pride in the progress schools have made in increasing enrollment of women to include almost half.
One of the biggest challenges of her life was making it through the first four years of her tenure as a city alder in Milwaukee, Phillips said.
“When I decided to run for the City Council, I had no idea it [would be] one of the hardest things I’ve endured,” she said. “To say to an alderman ‘Good morning’ and not have them say it back to you, it was hard.”
When Carter visited Milwaukee, Phillips said she was asked to introduce him because she was the highest-ranking Democrat in the Executive Branch as Secretary of State. To her surprise, she said even members of her own political party became her opposition.
“My own Democrats were calling the White House saying, ‘Why is Vel Phillips introducing the president? She’s not important. We’ve got a lot more important people than her,’ and that was very disgracing,” Phillips said.
Despite these experiences, Phillips said she made strong connections with many national leaders.
Looking back, Phillips said she remains optimistic for the future and wishes she would have saved more of the positive notes or letters she received from people who helped her along the way.