Vel Phillips

Click the image to learn more. Renowned for her civil rights activism and historical status as Milwaukee's first alderwoman and African American on the city's Common Council, a younger Vel Phillips sits behind her desk.

Vel Phillips (1924-2018), Milwaukee’s first alderwoman and the first African American on its Common Council, was born Velvalea Rodgers on the South Side of Milwaukee. While she was a child, her family moved to Bronzeville, where she later established her political career.[1] She graduated from Howard University in 1946, returned to Wisconsin to attend law school in Madison,[2] and became the first African American alumna of the University of Wisconsin Law School.[3] There she met and married fellow student and her future campaign strategist W. Dale Phillips.[4] They returned to Milwaukee, opened a Bronzeville law firm, became active in the NAACP, and launched her political career in 1952 by announcing a bid to be the first African American on the city’s school board.[5] She lost in 1953 but worked in League of Women Voters’ registration drives, networking for her next political run,[6] pending redistricting after the census. The increase in Milwaukee’s African American population added an aldermanic seat with no incumbent. In 1955 Phillips announced her candidacy.[7] She won her Common Council seat in 1956. She served on the Council until 1971. She and her husband Dale raised two sons, the first born shortly after she won her first council election.[8]

Milwaukee major media focused more on gender than race[9] in coverage of her campaign and early career. She met both sexism and racism from aldermen[10] but bided her time in her first terms to build support beyond the city. In 1958, again using women’s networks, Phillips addressed thousands of Democratic women in the capital[11] and won a state committeewoman post, the first African American elected to the party’s national committee.[12] Democrats needed women voters,[13] the “Negro vote,”[14] and Wisconsin. With the first presidential primary in 1960, the Democratic party named her to the platform committee and as rules committee co-chair, the first minority to lead a standing committee.[15] Her early support for and campaigning with John F. Kennedy[16] were considered crucial in his first primary win, in Wisconsin, on the way to the White House.[17] She returned to City Hall and to her civil rights agenda for the city, she repeatedly introduced a proposal for open housing that other aldermen repeatedly rejected. From 1961 forward, Phillips participated in state Capitol sit-ins and local marches for her law,[18] later joined by Father James Groppi.[19] In 1967, their arrests[20] caused national media to call Milwaukee “the Selma of the North,”[21] one of few major cities without an open housing ordinance, owing to obduracy by Mayor Henry W. Maier. He called her into his office to give her a “hard time” and called for her husband to give her “a whipping.”[22] In 1968, after passage of a federal open housing law, he finally acceded to her local law.[23]

By 1970 she no longer was the lone minority member of the Common Council,[24] though the council reverted to all-male status in 1971, when Phillips was appointed the first African American in the state judiciary and Milwaukee County’s first woman judge.[25] She lost a 1972 election to retain her seat on the bench[26] but remained active in antiwar and women’s movements,[27] returned to run for Secretary of State in 1978, and became the nation’s first African American woman elected statewide to executive office. As Wisconsin Secretary of State from 1979 to 1983[28]—and acting governor “for a few days” in the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s absence, “until the men found out and hurried back”[29]—she lost party favor and retired from politics. Nonetheless, she remained, in her nineties, an NAACP officer, local activist for civil rights, and inspiration for younger generations of women and minority political aspirants.[30] She died on April 17, 2018, almost exactly fifty years after the passage of the Milwaukee law she championed.[31]

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Interview with Vel Phillips, Milwaukee, March 1, 2003. Also an alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), after graduating from college in 1946, Phillips was a YMCA field worker and took coursework at a UWM predecessor institution, Milwaukee State Teachers College, prior to going to law school in 1947.
  2. ^ Jessie Opoien, “Civil Rights Leader Vel Phillips Reflects on Politics of Past, Present,” (Madison) Capital Times, March 26, 2014.
  3. ^ Doris Weatherford, Women in American Politics: History and Milestones (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012), 75.
  4. ^ He died in 1989; see “Dale W. [sic] Phillips,” Milwaukee Journal, April 15, 1989.
  5. ^ “Three Enter School Race,” Milwaukee Journal, December 24, 1952. A first African American school board member, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee founding faculty member and administrator Dr. Cornelius Golightly (also with many “firsts” of his own and later Detroit’s school board president) ran in 1959 and lost. He did win in 1961 and served one term but lost a re-election bid in 1967. The next was Harold Jackson, who was appointed in 1970, ran on his own and won in 1971, and resigned in 1972; see Marta Bender, “Golightly Completing Mission Here,” Milwaukee Sentinel, July 14, 1969; Jet, May 4, 1961 and April 8, 1976; Jack Dougherty, More than One Struggle: The Evolution of Black School Reform in Milwaukee (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), 154.
  6. ^ Edwin R. Bayley, “1955 Political Activity Expected to Be Slow, Only One Nonpartisan Election Scheduled, but Parties Will Be Building for 1956,” Milwaukee Journal, January 13, 1955.
  7. ^ “Negro Woman Enters Race,” Milwaukee Journal, October 3, 1955.
  8. ^ Ellen Gibson, “‘Councilman’ Phillips Now ‘Twice Blessed,’” Milwaukee Journal, April 4, 1956. The couple had two sons.
  9. ^ Gibson, “‘Councilman’ Phillips Now ‘Twice Blessed.’” The Journal noted that “Milwaukee never has had a woman alderman,” although seven women–all white–had tried and failed to win. It also noted, lower in the story, that her neighborhood had the sole state legislator of color–but not that the city never had an alderman of color. Mainstream media’s focus on fashion continued throughout Phillips’s career, whether she wore a “women’s lib button” or “pants suit,” or even when she represented the president overseas; see, for example, “Mother, Lawyer, Politician,” Milwaukee Journal, February 9, 1958; Rosa Tusa, “What to Wear in Ouagadougou, Milwaukee Sentinel, December 7, 1961; “Pants Suit 1st at City Hall,” Milwaukee Sentinel, October 9, 1970.
  10. ^ “First Councilwoman Is ‘Madam Alderman’/Eighteen Males Get Tips on Etiquette,” Milwaukee Journal, April 25, 1956; Marian B. McBride, “Women Run for City Father Roles,” Milwaukee Sentinel, February 25, 1964.
  11. ^ Laurence C. Eklund, “Victory at Polls Sensed by Democratic Women/2,000, including 25 from State, Are in Capital for Campaign Conference” Milwaukee Journal, April 21, 1958.
  12. ^ Laurence C. Eklund, “Applaud Vel Phillips Starting on New Job,” Milwaukee Journal, December 7,1958, 34, accessed December 27, 2017. Another African American, a congressman, came on the national committee at the same time but as an appointee. On Phillips’s campaign for state committeewoman, so internally divisive for local Democrats that observers called it more contested than her Common Council campaigns, see (former state party vice-chair) Marian B. McBride, “Negro Emerges in Politics,” Milwaukee Sentinel, November 26, 1964, and (the ironically titled) Edward T. Clayton, The Negro Politician: His Success and Failure (Chicago, IL: Johnson Publishing, 1964), 133-37.
  13. ^ Frances Lewine, “Women Play Leading Role at National Convention,” Charleston (WV) Mail, July 7, 1960. Featuring Phillips and on new party rules on representation of women, the Associated Press story ran nationwide.
  14. ^ “Black Was Beautiful for JFK’s Spin Doctors,” Milwaukee Sentinel, December 30, 1993.
  15. ^ “Like It or Not, Vel Phillips Keeps Falling into Spotlight,” Milwaukee Journal, July 10, 1960; “Our Girl Vel,” Milwaukee Gazette, July 16, 1960.
  16. ^Mrs. Phillips for Kennedy,” Milwaukee Journal, December 21, 1959, accessed December 27, 2017; Kenneth E. Fry, “Wisconsin Is Termed Challenge to Kennedy,” Milwaukee Journal, January 3, 1960; “It’s Definite Kennedy in the Race/Wisconsin’s Primary Will Be His First,” Milwaukee Journal, January 21, 1960.
  17. ^ “Victory Shake,” Jet, March 31, 1960; Ira Kapenstein and William R. Bechtel, “Major Factors Sifted in Victory of Kennedy,” Milwaukee Journal, April 6, 1960.
  18. ^ Carl Eifert, “Support Bills to End Negro Housing Plight,” Milwaukee Journal, June 14, 1961; “Sit-ins Quit, Say Effort Not Wasted,” Milwaukee Sentinel, August 14, 1961; see also, for example, Earl D. Calvin, “Jailing King Sparks Milwaukee Pickets to Act Locally,” Milwaukee Star, April 27, 1963; “Milwaukeeans in Protest of Birmingham Inhumanity,” Milwaukee Star, May 18, 1963; “NAACP to Hold Mammoth Memorial Rally for Slain Medgar Evers,” Milwaukee Star, June 15, 1963; “Cross Burning Amended by Tree Planting,” Milwaukee Star, June 22, 1963; “Milwaukeeans Rally to Rights Call in D.C.,” Milwaukee Star, August 31, 1963; “C.O.R.E. Sit-ins Rock Milwaukee Courthouse,” Milwaukee Star, September 7, 1963; “March Supporting Selma Negroes Planned Here,” Milwaukee Star, March 13, 1965; “Negro Ministers Here Won’t Go South to Protest/Rev. Champion in Selma for Protest March,” Milwaukee Star, March 20, 1965; “Rally Seeks Unity in Civil Rights Fight,” Milwaukee Star, April 3, 1965.
  19. ^ “Local Priest Returns from Selma Wall,” Milwaukee Courier, March 27, 1965. Also from the South Side, Groppi was assigned to St. Boniface Parish in the “inner city” in 1963; see also Rodgers Worthington, “Mayor’s Veto Rips Open Wounds from ‘60s Civil Rights War,” Chicago Tribune, January 5, 1988.
  20. ^ “Like Nothing I’ve Ever Seen; Ald. Phillips,” Milwaukee Courier, September 2, 1967; Carole Malone, “Marchers Attacked by White Mob/Claim Police Burned Freedom House,” Milwaukee Courier, September 2, 1967. Phillips and Groppi were among 137 arrested at the NAACP Youth Council’s center.
  21. ^ John McCullough, manuscript, WTMJ-TV and radio broadcast, September 26 and 27, 1967, Milwaukee Journal Stations Papers, Archives Department, Golda Meir Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
  22. ^ Leonard Sykes, Jr., “Price of the Ticket,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 5, 2002.
  23. ^ “Open Housing Ordinance Passed,” Milwaukee Courier, May 4, 1968.
  24. ^ “Black Candidates Show Strength,” Milwaukee Courier, March 9, 1968.
  25. ^ “Vel Phillips Named Children’s Judge,” Milwaukee Journal, August 3, 1971; “Vel Phillips Gains Dual Distinction,” Milwaukee Sentinel, August 4, 1971.
  26. ^ “Judge Vel Phillips…With Every One, You Really Try,” Milwaukee Courier, March 4, 1972; “Vel Phillips Campaigns Hard,” Milwaukee Courier, April 1, 1972.
  27. ^ Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 136.
  28. ^ “Role as Political Pioneer Still Excites Vel Phillips,” Milwaukee Sentinel, November 9, 1978; see also Spencer Rich, “Blacks Barely Break Even in Election,” Washington (DC) Post, November 29, 1978. The only other African American woman candidate for statewide elective office, in California for attorney general, lost her campaign. In state legislative races, 47 women among 285 African Americans won office. However, their total numbers had not increased since redistricting, years earlier in the decade.
  29. ^ Interview, March 1, 2003.
  30. ^ “Making an Impact at NAACP,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 3, 2011; see also Jim Stingl, “Vel Phillips Celebrates 90 Years and Many Firsts in Civil Rights, Women’s Movements,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 15, 2014.
  31. ^Pioneering Civil Rights Leader Vel Phillips Dies,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 18, 2018, last accessed April 18, 2018.

For Further Reading

Aukofer, Frank A. City with a Chance. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1968. Reprint, Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2007.

Clayton, Edward T. The Negro Politician: His Success and Failure. Chicago, IL: Johnson Publishing, 1964.

Cohen, Carol. “Vel Phillips: Making History in Wisconsin.” Wisconsin Magazine of History 99 no. 2 (Winter 2015-2016): 42-53.

Weatherford, Doris. Women in American Politics: History and Milestones. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012.


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