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Milwaukee kicks off a yearlong celebration honoring Vel Phillips’ legacy

todayJanuary 24, 2024

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Milwaukee kicks off yearlong celebration honoring Vel Phillips' legacy

The year 2024 marks a centennial celebration of the life and legacy of Vel R. Phillips, a trailblazing figure in civil rights and justice. Born in a time of racial segregation, Phillips rose through the ranks of a society riddled with systemic inequalities. She shattered racial and gender barriers in Milwaukee and Wisconsin, symbolizing resilience and change. Her commitment to justice and equality was a professional pursuit and a lifelong mission deeply rooted in her experiences and convictions. This centennial celebration, therefore, is more than just a series of events; it’s a profound acknowledgment of a life dedicated to transforming the American civil rights landscape.

Vel Phillips: A Life of Firsts

Vel Phillips was a pioneer in many aspects. She was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, the first to be elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council, and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. Her groundbreaking efforts extended to her role as Wisconsin’s first African-American Secretary of State.

Phillips’ Enduring Legacy

Phillips was instrumental in the fair housing movement, persistently advocating for civil rights and equality. Her legislative and legal pursuits significantly advanced the cause of racial and social justice.

Celebrating Phillips’ Legacy

Highlighting the year’s events, the Milwaukee Art Museum will host the official launch with an array of activities on February 18, with a free, full-day celebration including a documentary screening, a panel discussion, a resource gallery, kids activities, live music, and more. 

“The Milwaukee Art Museum is thrilled to kick off the Year of Vel Phillips with programming that brings our community together,” said Kantara Souffrant, Ph.D., Curator of Community Dialogue at the Museum. “Through discourse and artistic expression, we aim to inspire and ignite conversations that honor Vel Phillips’s legacy and her continued impact.”

In a historic move, the Vel Phillips Legacy Initiative, supported by The Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, will unveil a trailblazing sculpture at the State Capitol grounds in Madison. The late artist Radcliffe Bailey crafted this sculpture, the first to honor a Black woman jurist, politician, and civil rights leader in such a prominent outdoor public space. It symbolizes Vel Phillips’ monumental contributions and aims to inspire a wide audience to break new ground and continue the fight for justice and equality.

This summer, the City of Milwaukee will transform a downtown parking lot into the Vel R. Phillips Plaza, a new social space. Situated at West Wisconsin and Vel R. Phillips Avenues, the plaza will feature informative kiosks and a food vendor, enhancing the city’s urban landscape. Plans include installing a commissioned sculpture in the plaza later, further enriching this dedicated public area.

Milwaukee’s America’s Black Holocaust Museum will feature a permanent exhibit on Phillips’ role in civil rights, contributing to the year’s events. This, along with other community-focused activities, underscores the wide-reaching influence of Phillips’ legacy.

The Wisconsin Historical Society Press is finalizing a biography about Vel Phillips for young readers, anticipated for release in 2025. Titled “Valiant Vel: Vel Phillips and the Fight for Fair Housing,” the book is authored by Jerrianne Hayslett with illustrations by Aaron Boyd and includes an Afterword by Michael Phillips. Targeted at middle schoolers but suitable for ages ten and up, the book aims to educate and inspire a younger audience. The Woodland Pattern Book Center will also announce special programs celebrating Vel Phillips in the coming months.


Written by: Tarik Moody

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