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Committee To Consider Statue of Vel Phillips, Wisconsin's First Black Secretary Of State

Then-Milwaukee Alderwoman Vel R. Phillips (center), the only black alderperson in Milwaukee in 1967, visits St. Boniface Church.

The board in charge of decorations at the state Capitol voted Monday to create a subcommittee to study the prospect of placing a statue of Wisconsin's first Black secretary of state on the building's grounds.

The State Capitol and Executive Residence Board voted unanimously to create the subcommittee. The panel will work with a community advisory committee and the state Department of Administration on a proposal to build a $241,000 statue of Vel Phillips.

The subcommittee will finalize details and develop a recommendation on whether the statue should be placed outside or inside. The panel also will recommend whether to make an exception to SCERB policies prohibiting the addition of any internal or external plaques or monuments without an existing one being removed.

Republican state Sen. Amy Loudenbeck, SCERB’s vice-chairwoman, wouldn't let the panel vote on whether to approve the statue outright, saying members need more information and the subcommittee approach is the best way to obtain it.

Phillips was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1951. She went on to become the first Black member of the Milwaukee Common Council and the state’s first Black judge. She won election in 1978 as the state’s first female and first non-white secretary of state.

The late Vel Phillips on the UW-Madison campus.

Michael Johnson, CEO of Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County, started pushing for the statue this summer in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests over police brutality. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers created an advisory committee in December to work on the idea.

David Endres, an attorney leading the advisory committee, and Phillips' son, Michael, told the board Monday that a statue of Phillips would inspire Black and brown children.

“Her presence in Milwaukee was ubiquitous,” Michael Phillips, said. “She was a star here. I believe her star shone statewide as well.”

DOA officials told the board that restoration work on two Capitol statues — one of abolitionist Hans Christian Heg, the other of a woman symbolizing Wisconsin's “Forward” motto — that protesters tore down during the demonstrations should be done by July. The repairs are expected to cos a combined total of about $81,600, DOA Assistant Bureau Director Jason Rittel said.

The state has received $60,000 in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts to help cover the costs. A Wisconsin Historical Society fundraising effort has netted another $13,000. The work should be completed by July, Rittel said, with reinstallation coming sometime after that.

Excluding the two statues, anti-police protests this summer caused a total of nearly $50,000 in damage to the Capitol and a law enforcement memorial on its grounds, Rittel said. Those costs have been submitted to state insurers.

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