Vel Phillips: Wisconsin Civil Rights Trailblazer and the March on Milwaukee

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

Originally written for UW-Madison course: Gandhi, King, Mandela: Non-violence in the World

By Cindy Barbosa

Black and white image of a woman sitting at a desk.
Vel Phillips: First Woman on the Milwaukee Common Council. Photo from 1970.[1]

According to Vel Phillips, it is hard to describe the wonder of the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C. to those who haven’t seen them because nothing compares. On a jubilant, sunny Sunday afternoon with her friend, a classmate at Howard University, Velvalea “Vel” Phillips had her breath taken away by the blossoms’ beauty; “you just feel ethereal, just magical” she says, “close to God.”[2] Having felt such a spiritual experience, the two friends decided to go to church. As they entered, the minister, mid-sentence, stopped and told the ushers to escort them out. Looking back now, Phillips recognizes this occurrence as a defining moment in her life in which she felt the true injustice of segregation.[3] The inequality of not having the freedom to exist in a space lit a burning determination for change in her.

Black and white image of the UW Law class of 1951.
Phillips (bottom row) in the UW-Madison Law School Yearbook, 1951.[5]

Vel Phillips was a prominent figure in the political arena during the Civil Rights Era and was a trailblazer, not only for Wisconsin, but for all of the United States. Born in Milwaukee, on February 18, 1924, she continued on to Howard University and then returned to Wisconsin to become the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School.[4] However, these feats did not come without adversity. Phillips and her husband were assigned to university housing in Badger Village, originally designated for students on the G.I. Bill and their families. Not soon after the news had spread that an African-American couple had moved into the housing project, residents began a petition to remove them from the grounds.[6] Her husband, Dale Phillips, who recognized the imminent threat in the rejection of the community, decided it would be safest if they moved to new housing more welcoming to African-Americans. This was a “shattering experience” for Phillips and foreshadowed the lengths she would have to go to in the future to contort and find a place within a white dominated country.[7] Despite the constant obstacle of being an African American woman and demoralization from her opposition, the impact of Vel’s vehement tenacity remained. Her widespread legacy deserves a greater spot in the American Civil Rights narrative because of her unrelenting perseverance and unforgiving courage.

Black and white image of Vel Phillips.
Vel Phillips, 1953.[10]

After completing her education, Philips moved back to Milwaukee with her husband and joined the League of Women Voters, going door to door to register families to vote. One neighborhood she found herself in was Bronzeville, the sixth district of the city of Milwaukee. Phillips describes having “never seen that kind of poverty” before, and she wanted to make a legislative difference to help the people suffering in her city.[8] When a new ward was created in Milwaukee as a result of an influx in the population of African-Americans, Phillips saw this as an opportunity to fight against the hardships facing the black community in Milwaukee. She decided to commit to running for alderman in her first campaign in 1956.[9] Although her district included a community of African-Americans, it was still predominantly white, so she had to seek out the white vote. Her solution was to keep her identity somewhat anonymous while campaigning in white neighborhoods. Leonard Zubrensky, a white retired lawyer who assisted in her campaign, recalls her method humorously: “her district was half white and half black, I was given the white district and her little card had her name and her background, but in the black district, the cards had her picture.”[11] All of her campaigning materials used her androgynous nickname ‘Vel’ and rarely included photos so no one knew she was black or a woman.

Sample ballot.
Sample Ballot published in Milwaukee Journal April 2, 1956 names Phillips as a nominee in the Second Ward.[12]

Unexpectedly, in the midst of her campaign, Phillips received the news that she was pregnant. In the context of the 1950s, running as an African-American and a woman was difficult enough, but being a mother in addition could cost her the election, so she decided to conceal her state.[13] On election day, Phillips and her husband were offering car rides to the polls for people who had transportation difficulty. They asked one white couple who they had come across who they planned on voting for, “the woman said, ‘we’re voting for Vel Phillips’ and the man said, ‘yes, we think he’s very qualified.’”[14] Phillips’ husband responded that they too thought he was a great candidate. It is clear from the way Phillips recalls this incident, she still finds joy in past moments like these, even when they stem from injustice. It had taken Wisconsin 110 years to finally have its first African-American and its first woman seated at the common council.[15] When she won the election, a reporter asked how she felt to be the council’s first woman. Phillips took this as an opportunity to announce her pregnancy, proclaiming “they won’t just get a woman, they’ll get a woman and a half.”[16]

Newspaper announcing Vel Phillips' win.
Vel Phillips elected to city council appeared in the Milwaukee Journal, April 4, 1956.[17]

As expected, her celebration was short-lived, and she soon had to face the maltreatment by the men around her. They didn’t respect her and “treated her like a dog.”[18] Each office was shared by two aldermen except hers because they had all refused to share a space with her resulting in many nights where she cried herself to sleep.[19] Nevertheless, she persevered, which brought her recognition by national leaders and in 1958 she was elected to the Democratic National Committee, a position never before held by an African American woman.[20] Earlier in 1960, protester sit-ins at lunch counters were making headlines as America watched peaceful activists being beaten and arrested.[21] The spotlight was on civil rights and the Democratic Party was on the brink of including them into their foundational values. Meanwhile, John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency and sought out Phillips to be a face of the campaign for the African-American vote at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.[22] Democrats were concerned about leaning too far towards civil rights and risk losing the election. Phillips came out with a salient statement, “winning isn’t nearly as important as doing the right thing.”[23] Two days later, the party endorsed its strongest stance yet fully dedicated towards civil rights.

Black and white image of people sitting at desks.
Phillips (far left) with her colleagues in the Common Council chambers, 1956.[24]
Black and white image of aldermen
Phillips (bottom row) pictured with the other newly elected aldermen.[25]

After the success of the presidential election, Phillips directed her full efforts towards housing segregation in her city. Milwaukee, at the time – and still to this day – was one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Philips’ feat was no small undertaking as she battled with her co-alderman to try to make change. De Jure segregation, government-enacted law, ruled Milwaukee’s neighborhoods as African Americans were denied from buying homes in all white areas that were almost always more prosperous, opportunity-rich, and safer.[26] In 1962, Phillips submitted a landmark ordinance to the Milwaukee common council stating, “it is policy of the City of Milwaukee to assure equal opportunity to all persons to live in decent housing facilities regardless of race, color, or national origin.”[27] After the introduction of the fair housing law she received one vote, hers. She continued to submit it another four times in a row over the next five years never receiving more than just her vote.[28] While the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing there were many other issues being fought for, voting rights, education rights, employment and rights to services, yet the right to open housing was always the top priority in Milwaukee.

Black and white image of people protesting for free housing.
Milwaukee NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) member at demonstration for fair housing, 1967.[30]

In 1967, the issue started gaining the most traction and Civil Rights activists decided to change their strategy. They began to protest. In August of 1967, 200 people marched across the 16th Street Bridge in Milwaukee to protest for open and fair housing. A huge, angry white mob waited for them on the other side of the bridge, throwing firecrackers, rocks, racial slurs, and spitting at the peaceful protestors.[29] The protest escalated viciously, and the violence that ensued was detrimental. Mary Arms, a young woman who participated in the March on Milwaukee, recalled the terror: “I mean I was just shaking you know like, ‘Are we going to make it out of this alive?’… I didn’t think we would make it back…the other big, great fear I felt was when we got back to the Freedom House and the police burned that down. I was in there that night.”[31] Protestors had been in the Freedom House when Milwaukee Police shot tear gas into it, engulfing it in flames.[32]

Images of police fighting protesters
Left Photo from the March on Milwaukee, Right Photo Freedom House in flames.[33]

It was a violent clash and Phillips watched the moment unfold on the news, stunned. Milwaukee mayor, Henry Maier, denounced the marches and ordered for a 30-day ban. In the face of this prohibition, Phillips marched the next day with the protestors in complete defiance of the law and the mayor’s order.[34] They made it six blocks until they were confronted by police. Phillips was the first to be arrested. After her release the next day she marched again that night. At this point, Milwaukee had gained national attention, putting immense pressure on the common council. It was an embarrassment for the city, yet when she submitted the ordinance again and again and gained no votes but her own, she was fed up. After announcing the fifth failure she addressed the council saying, “it’s quite apparent that the members of this honorable body, to put it in the terms of my Commando friends, these cats are just too dumb, too dumb to know when they have something going for them. It’s bad enough to deal with a bigot, but when you got a dumb bigot- [cheers by civilian audience].”[35]

Unsurprisingly, with the heightened media exposure, Phillips began receiving innumerable threatening phone calls and letters. A man would call her constantly and say, “I’m watching you. I think that black people like yourself should go back to Africa where you came from.”[36] Phillips recalls a letter reading, “‘P.S. If you see brown streaks that’s because I used this for toilet paper before I sent it to you’ and I [Phillips] had it in my hand, and I just dropped it.”[27] The worst of them happened one day when a shot was fired through her kitchen window, hitting the middle of her oven door. This resulted in her being forced to make the painful decision of sending her children to live with her mother in California temporarily because her and her family’s safety were in danger. Patrick D. Jones, a Historian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, describes her situation clearly: “You could become a crusading leader and be willing to die for the cause and nothing will deter you, but if they say we’re going to go kill your kids. That’s an act of terror that happened there.”[28] This event brought the danger to another level. However, Phillips did not back down. She continued to reproach the common council members and their ignorance. In September of 1967, Phillips told a newspaper reporter, “Every time you lose you gain a little… I’m going to make them [the other aldermen] face up to their bigoted, head in the sand attitude toward civil rights.”[39]

Black and white image of a crowd of people
Vel Phillips on hood of a bus next to Father Groppi surrounded by Milwaukee NAACP Protests.[40]

After the March on Milwaukee, the open housing protests persisted ceaselessly for another 200 days into early 1968, “they’d come everyday like clockwork, like it was a job for over 200 days.”[41] Phillips recalls an anecdote of an interaction she had with “a little white man.” He was confused and asked her what ‘you people’ want, she responded, “just say America is a big pie. We want a piece of the pie. We want a piece of America.” He asked if that was all, and she said that, “that’s a great deal if you don’t have it.”[42] Phillips was the voice of reason in a lot of the panic and hostility simmering in Milwaukee during this time. Not long after Dr. King was assassinated, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This included legislation outlawing housing segregation. At long last, Milwaukee’s common council finally approved open housing. It had been six years since Phillips’ had first introduced her ordinance, and, six years later, she had finally won. She described the out-of-body experience as, “mind boggling and wonderful.”[43] As an epicenter of fair housing protest, Milwaukee was a critically important factor in the passing of the Fair Housing Act in the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota cited Milwaukee to Congress as a significant circumstance on how bad of an issue fair housing was and the dire necessity for the immediate approval of the act.[44]

After fifteen years of service, Vel Phillips left her seat and her legacy at the Milwaukee Common Council. She moved on to become the first African American judge in Wisconsin as a children’s court judge and, a decade later on November 7th, 1978, she became the first African American elected to office in Wisconsin and the first African American woman to be elected to any statewide executive office in the history of the United States.[45] On one special occasion, the governor and the lieutenant governor took an out-of-state trip, and, since she was in succession to fill in as governor, she had a moment when she realized, giggling, she was “acting governor.”[46] An article recognizing Phillips’ historical three days was published and soon after it had begun to gain traction, “the men came rushing back.”[47] Nevertheless, those few days were significant to both the women and the African American community of Wisconsin.

For the state of Wisconsin, characterized by its lack of diversity and menial inclusion efforts, to have had such a powerful black woman trailblazer fighting for open housing, directly contributing to the success of the Civil Rights Movement, is monumental and inspiring. And yet, a majority of Wisconsinites have never heard of Vel Phillips, including students at an esteemed university such as Madison, and many from the Milwaukee area. Phillips was a true civil rights hero who has largely fallen victim to erasure at the hands of discriminatory recorded history. Her impact and the profound magnitude her actions had on United States history deserves a permanent spot in American textbooks nationwide.

Black and white image of Vel Phillips.
Vel Phillips 2013. [48]

[1] University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Phillips, Vel | March on Milwaukee – Libraries Digital Collection.” Phillips, Vel | March on Milwaukee – Libraries Digital Collection, 2010.

[2] Robert Trondson, “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams,” PBS LearningMedia, 2019.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Phillips, Vel | March on Milwaukee – Libraries Digital Collection.”

[5] “We Fell For Vel,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 99, no. 2 (2015): pg. 46.

[6] Sandra Knisley, “Vel Phillips LLB’51,” Wisconsin Alumni Association, March 5, 2014.

[7] Trondson, “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kevin D. Smith, “From Socialism to Racism: The Politics of Class and Identity in Postwar Milwaukee,” Michigan Historical Review 29, no. 1 (2003): pg. 87.

[10] “We Fell For Vel,” pg. 48.

[11] Trondson, “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] “We Fell For Vel,” pg. 50-52.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. pg. 51.

[16] Ibid. pg. 52.

[17] Ibid. pg. 49.

[18] Trondson, “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams.”

[19] Ibid.

[20] Wisconsin Public Radio, “Wisconsin Civil Rights Leader Vel Phillips Dies at Age 94,” Wisconsin Public Radio, May 7, 2018.

[21] Cynthia Griggs Fleming, “White Lunch Counters and Black Consciousness: The Story of the Knoxville Sit-Ins,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 49, no. 1 (1990): 40–52.

[22] “Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Presidential Campaign Files, 1960,” State delegations | JFK Library, National Archives, 1960. Pg. 28.

[23] Richard Sandomir, “Vel Phillips, Housing Rights Champion in the ′60s, Is Dead at 95,” The New York Times, April 25, 2018.

[24] “We Fell For Vel,” pg. 50.

[25] Ibid. pg. 51.

[26] United States. Federal Home Loan Bank Board., Division of Research and Statistics, “Milwaukee County, Wisconsin 1938,” UWM Libraries, United States National Archive, 1938.

[27] “Honoring Velvalea ‘Vel’ Phillips for a Life of Public Service,” H.Res.863 – 115th Congress (2017-2018), Library of Congress, 2018.

[28] Carol Cohen, “Vel Phillips: Making History in Milwaukee,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 99, no. 2 (2015): 42–49.

[29] Amanda Wynn. “Oral History Interview with Mary Arms, July 29, 2007,” Oral History Interviews of the March on Milwaukee Oral History Project, 2007-2008, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, 2007.

[30] University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Phillips, Vel | March on Milwaukee – Libraries Digital Collection.”

[31] Ibid.

[32] “Freedom House Burning: Photograph,” Wisconsin Historical Society, James Groppi papers, 1956-1989, December 28, 2007.

[33] Ibid.

[34] “Phillips, Vel,” March on Milwaukee Libraries Digital Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2022.

[35] Trondson, “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams.”

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] “Vel Phillips Papers, Correspondence – Opposition Mail, March 1967,” March on Milwaukee Libraries Digital Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2022.

[40] University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Phillips, Vel | March on Milwaukee – Libraries Digital Collection.”

[41] Trondson, “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams.”

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] “University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,” March on Milwaukee Libraries Digital Collection, 2022.

[45] Trondson, “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dream.”

[46] Genevieve G. McBride, “Vel Phillips,” Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, September 23, 2021.

[47] Ibid.

[48] “We Fell For Vel.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 99, no. 2 (2015): pg. 55.