In honor of Black History Month, The Badger Herald is highlighting distinguished Black University of Wisconsin alumni. More than 300 individuals are recognized by the Wisconsin Alumni Association, 30 of which are Black. These alumni are lauded today for their contributions.
As the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, Vel Phillips left an indelible mark in Wisconsin’s political sphere as a key figure in the Milwaukee Civil Rights Movement.
A Milwaukee native born in 1924, Phillips attended Howard University in 1946 after winning a scholarship. Phillips went on to attend the UW Law School in 1951 — the first African American woman to do so.
Phillips then became the Wisconsin secretary of state and a judge — again, as the first Black woman to do either.
After Phillips was elected a Milwaukee alder, she further committed herself to the fight for civil rights, particularly in the district she represented.
The heart of Phillips’ district was known as the Inner Core, one of Milwaukee’s most impoverished areas. White landlords did not rent homes to Black people outside of the Inner Core, so Black families were often cornered into this area of the city, which lacked curcial resources.
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Frustrated by the inaction and indifference of Milwaukee leaders, Phillips proposed her own Fair Housing Law in 1962. The law would have made it illegal to refuse to rent to Black residents, but it was rejected at that time.
Phillips then participated in protests against such discrimination. She was arrested at a rally after riots broke out in Milwaukee in 1967, but the uproar gave her greater prominence in Milwaukee and abroad.
Phillips eventually joined forces with notable Milwaukee civil rights activist Father James Groppi. They organized 200 nights of marching across the Inner Core and beyond.
When their marches ended in South Milwaukee, Phillips and fellow protesters faced verbal and physical abuse from angry white residents.
But after years of intense labor and dedication, Phillips’ Fair Housing Law was finally passed by the city council in 1968 — six years after she initially introduced it, and six years after the same council rejected it.
In honor of Phillips rigorous commitment to the Civil Rights Movement, the Vel Phillips Foundation now works to establish equality and opportunity for minorities by providing scholarships, volunteer opportunities and other types of programming.
Phillips died in April of last year, but her legacy lives on — from the UW Law School, where she honed her craft, to Milwaukee and beyond, which look to her as a model for the continued fight for civil rights.