Written by Natalie Kugler
Velvalea Hortense Rodgers “Vel” Phillips was a fierce champion for civil rights who helped change the course of Milwaukee’s housing history. Phillips grew up on Milwaukee’s South Side and attended North Division High School before receiving a scholarship to Howard University. After receiving her Bachelor’s Degree, she returned to Wisconsin to become the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School.
In 1956, Phillips became the first woman elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council, the legislative branch of the City of Milwaukee’s government. The Council was criticized for its lack of legislation regarding racial discrimination among landlords and real estate agents, which made it nearly impossible for people of color to find housing. In response to this, Vel introduced the Phillips Housing Ordinance in 1962 which would outlaw these discriminatory practices. This bill was defeated each time it was proposed.
In 1967, Phillips marched across the city with the Milwaukee NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Youth Council who would continue to march for 200 consecutive nights. The marchers were met with counter-protesters who held derogatory signs and threw eggs and rocks. Phillips was arrested due to the 30 day ban on marches implemented by Mayor Maier, who was not an advocate of the Civil Rights Movement.
Six days after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., U.S. Congress passed the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Milwaukee Common Council finally followed this example and passed an open housing ordinance on April 30, 1968.
In 1971 Phillips became Wisconsin’s first African American judge and in 1978 she became the first African American elected secretary of state. In 2002, she was invited to serve as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at Marquette Law School. Phillips also has a residence hall named after her at UW-Madison and a tribute to her in the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Alumni Park.
After Phillips passed away at the age of 95 in 2018, N. 4th St. was renamed “Vel R. Phillips Ave.” This street was where she attended school and church and runs through the council district she represented. Her legacy lives on through The Vel Phillips Foundation, which seeks “equality and opportunity for minorities through social justice, education, equal housing opportunities, and jobs.” The Milwaukee community is grateful for Phillips and her constituents, without which housing would not be what it is today.
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