Civil rights icon and Wisconsin’s former secretary of State Velvalea “Vel” Phillips passed on April 17, 2018. She was 95.
Known for her commitment towards fighting for the rights of African Americans in Wisconsin, Vel was a woman of many firsts. She was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1951.
She was the first woman alderman elected to the Common Council of Milwaukee in 1956. She was the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American to serve in Wisconsin’s judiciary in 1971.
In 1978, she was elected secretary of state of Wisconsin, making her the first woman and first African American to be elected to the statewide office of the secretary of state. Besides these official positions, Vel was also the first woman at City Hall to wear a pants suit to work in 1970.
Vel tirelessly worked to ensure open housing and ever pushed for open housing in Milwaukee in 1962. While it was met with opposition and was the cause of violent protests in Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Common Council finally passed citywide open housing ordinance after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.