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Trailblazing politician Vel Phillips to be honored with statue at Wisconsin State Capitol

Wisconsin politician Vel R. Phillips was the first Black woman to be elected to a statewide office in the U.S.
Courtesy of Michael Phillips
Vel R. Phillips
"My mom worked for everyone ... She was an individual who elevated equality in all things."

- Michael Phillips, son of Vel Phillips.

A new statue will soon be added to the Wisconsin State Capitol, honoring a Milwaukeean who changed the state and U.S. politics forever.

Vel Phillips was the first Black woman to be elected to a statewide office in the U.S., and the first Black person to win a statewide race in Wisconsin. She was the first woman and Black person to be elected to the Milwaukee Common Council and was the driving force behind the nation’s first fair housing law. Phillips is even credited with pushing the Democratic Party and then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy toward the cause of civil rights — causing southern Dixiecrats to flee to the Republican Party — forever changing American politics.

Despite her many achievements, there are few memorials to this devoted politician. Her son Michael Phillips has been a part of an effort to change that by installing a statue in her honor at the Wisconsin State Capitol. The statue is scheduled to be installed next year, and Phillips was featured in an article talking about it in this month's Milwaukee Magazine.

According to her son, Vel Phillips was someone who strived to connect with people. "My mother was first and foremost a listening person. She was an individual who had, I think, some of the best human radar for interacting with people — doing her best to step into their shoes, to understand them. To listen to their story and to connect with them," says Michael.

The discussion that led to this statue began during the protests of 2020 when people noticed a lack of representation at the Wisconsin State Capitol. A committee was formed and ultimately identified Vel Phillips as the person they wanted to honor. In a space where bipartisan movements are rare, the idea of honoring Vel Phillips was a unifying force. Micheal explains, "This effort is the first one that I have ever seen that was a bipartisan movement. We have not had one contrary voice to this effort."

Once the statue was approved, an artist began rendering concepts. The initial thought was to depict Phillips standing. But after thinking it over, the decision was made to depict her sitting instead.

"That's the way my mom engaged people. She wasn't a stand in your face person ... She was very much a person who would sit with folks and listened to them. And the seated piece it just embodied exactly the way that she engaged."

Phillips hopes that this statue of his mother in the state's highest seat of government will spark people to research who his mother was and have a similar impact on their community as she did. "If they can search that out and figure that out for themselves, [then] they might be able to see that they themselves can do something for others. I think that's important," he says.


Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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