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Honoring the Memory of Vel Phillips; A 'Giant' in the Civil Rights Movement

Milwaukee Alderwoman Vel R. Phillips, the only black alderperson in Milwaukee in 1967 visits St. Boniface Church. Phillips was a proponent for open housing and kept proposing ordinances in the common council despite being defeated every time.

The Milwaukee community is remembering the late civil rights leader Vel Phillips who passed away Tuesday. She was 94 years old.

Phillips broke a number of barriers in her lifetime, including as the first black secretary of state, and the first African American – and woman – to serve on Milwaukee’s Common Council.

In 2008, she told WUWM – in an interview about black leaders -- that she got a lot of press coverage in that role.

Phillips said as a result, she developed a special connection with many black residents: “Because there was no other African American on the council, everyone – no matter if they lived on Capitol Drive, which was out of my area, they thought that I was their alderman.”

As alderwoman, Phillips was instrumental in the fight to end housing discrimination.

"A giant." That’s how Mayor Tom Barrett described Vel Phillips; a giant in the Milwaukee community, Wisconsin, and in the nation.

“I consider it an honor, as I know my fellow elected officials do to even have met Vel Phillips. Her impact on this community can never be understated. She literally changed this city. Often times as a lonely warrior fighting for the rights of people that were not represented in government,” he said.

Mayor Barrett acknowledged many of the firsts Phillips accomplished throughout her life, from being the first African-American woman to graduate from the UW-Madison law school, to being the first African-American and first woman to hold the position of the 13th District Children's Court judge.

In addition to honoring Phillips and her accomplishments on Wednesday, Barrett also signed the Vel R. Phillips Trailblazer Award and Selection Committee into law. The Common Council voted to create the award just this past Tuesday.

Alderwoman Milele Coggs championed the effort. She said it is  a way to give “Phillips her flowers while she was still living.”

Coggs added that the award also will help keep Phillips’ legacy alive: “With all of the accolades and all that Ms. Phillips was able to achieve, the greatest thing about her was of course her fearlessness and her willingness to fight for what she believed was right for the people, but in addition to that her willingness to share those experiences, the challenges, the struggles and how she was able to overcome them. The secret to her sauce if you will. To be such a small woman and wield such a big stick was phenomenal and she was so willing to share the secret."

Alderwoman Coggs said all members of the council have somehow been impacted by the life of Vel Phillips – and that each of them have fond memories of the times they were able to share with her.

She said the greatest thing people can do in Phillips’ honor is to fight for the change they want to see.

Vel Phillips spoke on WUWM's "At 10" in 2002.

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