The University of Wisconsin community is mourning the passing of alumna and civil rights leader Vel Phillips.
Phillips passed away Tuesday at the age of 94, leaving a legacy in activism and law behind.
Phillips was the first woman and first African American to pursue a major political career in Wisconsin, according to a statement the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association issued.
Following her graduation from Howard University in 1946, Phillips joined her husband Warren Dale Phillips at the UW Law School to earn her law degree and L.L.B. in 1951.
“I was the first black woman to graduate from the law school. I thought that was the biggest thing that could happen to me,” Phillips said in “Dream Big Dreams,” a 2015 documentary about her life.
As law students at UW, the couple experienced discrimination and complaints from neighboring students who soon petitioned to ban future black students from housing, the statement said. Though the couple was able to find another, more welcoming UW community, the experience severely affected Phillips and prompted her historic fight for fair housing and social justice.
In 1965, Phillips was elected as the first female and first African American on the Milwaukee Common Council. Inspired by US Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall’s advice to use her law profession to make the world a better place, Phillip sponsored legislation that outlawed racial discrimination in city housing ordinance.
Six years and 200 days of marches and protests later, Phillips won the historic fight and was eventually recognized nationally for her leadership and activism.
In 1971, Phillips was appointed to the Milwaukee County Judiciary as Milwaukee’s first female judge and Wisconsin’s first African American judge. Seven years later, she became Wisconsin’s first woman and African American to be elected as secretary of state.
Phillips’s impact and mission is still felt through the Vel Phillips Foundation and Phillips Hall, located in the lakeshore neighborhood at UW.
Phillips is also honored at the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Alumni Park, which opened this past October. A sculpture of a megaphone with the front page of the Milwaukee Sentinel commemorates Phillips’s arrest during a rally to support an open-housing ordinance in the city.