"You make a living by what you earn, but you make a life by what you give. Make a life.”
Armed with a tenacious spirit and an iron-will, Vel Phillips carved a new path in the state of Wisconsin for women and people of color. Born in Milwaukee, she would dedicate her life to improving the lives of people in her hometown. For this reason, she is our first Hometown Heroine.
Being the Change She Wanted to See in The World
She led a life of many firsts: first black woman to graduate from University of Wisconsin’s law school, first to win a seat on Milwaukee’s Common Council, first to become Secretary of State of Wisconsin, and the first Black judge in Wisconsin. She was even the first woman to wear a pantsuit to City Hall in 1970.
Philips in front of the Wisconsin Capital. Photo from the Shepherd Express
The Fight for Fairness
These feats are impressive on their own, but what made Vel Phillips particularly remarkable was her dedication to fighting on behalf of her Milwaukee community against racist policies. She fought for fairness. She fought for justice. She fought for the African American families of Milwaukee to have access to housing outside of red lined areas that had been unfunded and neglected.
She wrote Wisconsin’s Fair Housing Law that would eliminate discrimination based on race, color, disability, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin. She proposed it over and over again, but was consistently denied. She did not shy away. Instead, she doubled down her efforts and participated in protests and marches alongside members of the Youth Council and NAACP in order to bring these issues into full view.
Vel Phillips being held up by members of the Youth Council and the NAACP. Photo from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
In 1968, the law finally passed through the Milwaukee City Council. This came just a few weeks after the Fair Housing Act was passed federally, which obliged states to incorporate the law. She added in an amendment that made the bill stronger in Milwaukee. Her persistence and insistence to raise awareness over the six years preceding laid the foundation for the movement to gain ground in Washington.
Leaving a Legacy of Doing the Right Thing
Throughout her career she continued to advocate for voting rights, education, women and minorities in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin. She used her position to lift up more people from her community that desired to follow similar paths and has inspired countless others to pursue the same as her: the right thing.'
About the design:
With this design we wanted to pay homage to Vel's Milwaukeean roots and all the work she did to bridge gaps between communities in this city in particular. We drew depictions of iconic and ordinary architecture from different Milwaukee neighborhoods like East Town, Walker's Point, Harambe, Mitchell Park, Story Hill, Menomonee Valley, Bay View, and Franklin Heights.
The outlines of these are overlaid on the Milwaukee flag, symbolizing the unity and equality Vel Phillips strove for. The phrase "Dream Big Dreams" is one that Vel's mother encouraged her with and that she used to encourage others. A mural in Milwaukee made in her honor uses this phrase and a PBS documentary about her life is titled as such, as well.