Vel R. Phillips

Throughout her life, Velvalea “Vel” Hortense Rodgers Phillips broke countless barriers. She became the state's first African American judge in 1971 and the first African American woman elected to statewide office as the Secretary of State of Wisconsin in 1978. Her work throughout our city and state has left an indelible mark on our community, helping move our city toward a brighter tomorrow.

Phillips, a defining figure in the city’s fight for fair housing and a civil servant throughout her life, was born on February 18, 1924. She attended North Division High School in Milwaukee before continuing her educational career in Washington, D.C., at Howard University. Returning to her home state, Phillips became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Law School in 1951. Five years later, she was the African American and first woman elected to the Milwaukee Common Council.

In 1970, Phillips was the first African American judge in Wisconsin and the first woman judge in Milwaukee County. Finally, in 1979, she was the first person of color elected Secretary of State of Wisconsin.

Throughout her career, she was a vocal civil rights advocate, authoring the Phillips Housing Ordinance, which was designed to outlaw housing discrimination throughout the city. In the late '60s, Phillips also worked to promote legislation that ensured fair employment and educational practices and advocated for the enforcement of Brown v. Board of Education in the Milwaukee area. In 1967, Phillips, along with local activist Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council, marched the streets of Milwaukee, rallying support for fair housing. Vel R. Phillips was a transformational figure in Milwaukee’s civil rights movement in the 1960s and a barrier-breaking leader in the community. Her impact on the city and the state has moved Milwaukee forward.


If you’ve driven past Baird Center recently, you’ll have noticed that, amongst the many construction sites around town, the crew building more on the convention center’s $456 million expansion, the orange construction barrels, and the new traffic patterns, a site across the street also bears the marks of progress. Later this summer, the construction site at the intersection of Vel R. Phillips Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue will become one of downtown’s newest public spaces: Vel R. Phillips Plaza. Named for Vel R. Phillips, a dedicated civil rights leader in Milwaukee who was instrumental in passing fair housing legislation. To mark what would've been Vel R. Phillips' 100th birthday, the City of Milwaukee is dedicating this incredible $16 million, 30,000 sq. ft. plaza, featuring an immaculately manicured garden, event space, an informational kiosk for visitors, a future streetcar stop and a 2,900 sq. ft. café.  Located next to the newly expanded Baird Center, Vel R. Phillips Plaza is expected to be completed by mid-summer 2024. Once completed, in 2025, the plaza will unveil a major public art installation commissioned by the City of Milwaukee's Department of City Development in honor of Phillips' life and legacy.

The plaza will be situated alongside Vel R. Phillips Avenue, which was named for her in 2018. This thoroughfare cuts through the heart of the city’s convention and entertainment districts from the Historic Third Ward to the Bronzeville neighborhood. Along the street are cultural landmarks like the first African American-built church and America’s Black Holocaust Museum; educational institutions such as Golda Meir School and Milwaukee Youth Arts Center; and gathering places including Baird Center, UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, Turner Hall Ballroom and Deer District, where 65,000 people from all around the city gathered to celebrate Milwaukee’s first NBA championship in 50 years. Vel R. Phillips Ave. is a tribute to Phillips’ civic leadership and a testament to a life well led.



How to Celebrate Vel R. Phillips’ Birthday

As construction continues on Vel R. Phillips Plaza, the state of Wisconsin has declared 2024 the “Year of Vel R. Phillips,” with activities, events and releases planned throughout the next 365 days.

  • Now through May 12: Dynamic Range: Photographs by Bill Tennessen at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art
    • This gallery is a celebration of the self-taught local photographer's career. Tennessen began contributing photos to the state's largest African American newspaper in 1981 and has had an incredible career documenting Milwaukee’s Black community from the 1980s through the early 2000s. The gallery features everything from the Ernest Lacy demonstrations to Juneteenth Day Celebrations, important cultural and political personalities–Including Vel R. Phillips–and so much more.
  • Ongoing: America’s Black Holocaust Museum
    • As a key activist and civic leader, Vel R. Phillips is featured heavily in the museum’s standing exhibit on civil rights history in Milwaukee.
  • Vel R. Phillips sculpture in Madison, Wisc.
    • To illustrate her impact on the entire state, the Vel Phillips Legacy Initiative and The Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County will unveil a sculpture of Phillips on the State Capitol grounds in Madison, the first statue of a Black woman jurist, politician and civil rights leader on any state capitol in the country. The commissioned work by late artist Radcliffe Bailey is designed to move visitors from all walks of life to break barriers and champion justice and equality in the spirit of Vel Phillips.
  • 2025: Valiant Vel: Vel Phillips and the Fight for Fair Housing
    • Coming next year, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press is finalizing a biography for ages 10 and up. The book, written by Jerrianne Hayslett, with illustrations by Aaron Boyd, tells the story of Vel R. Phillips and her fight for fair housing for all.
  • Coming soon: Woodland Pattern Book Center Announcement
    • Riverwest-based Woodland Pattern Book Center will soon announce special programming to celebrate Phillips’ centennial birthday.
  • VISIT Vel R. Phillips Plaza
    • Opening in July 2024!

Learn more about Vel R. Phillips or explore the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dance County's website.