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Vel Phillips

State government appointee Velvalea Hortense Rodgers Phillips was born on February 2, 1924 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Russell Lowell Rodgers and Thelma Etha Payne Rodger. Growing up on Milwaukee’s South Side, she attended Garfield Avenue Elementary School, Roosevelt Junior High School, and North Division High School. There, Phillips won a prize for outstanding oratory for her speech, “The Negro and the Constitution,” which she wrote for the Elks Lodge Competition. She subsequently won a scholarship to Howard University in 1942. She earned her B.A. degree from Howard in 1946. Phillips became the first black woman to earn an L.L.B. degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1952.

Phillips became active in the NAACP and supported a redistricting referendum in 1950. Phillips lost a close race for a seat on the Milwaukee Common Council in 1953, but came back to become the first woman to win a council seat in 1956. Frequently involved in civil rights activities, Phillips introduced Milwaukee’s first open housing ordinance in 1962. In 1967, resistance to civil rights agitation turned violent when the NAACP headquarters was firebombed and the non-violent Phillips was the only city official arrested at a rally the next day. Joined by Catholic Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council, Phillips led marches for fair housing in 1968, while riots swept the black community. Finally, that same year, Milwaukee’s open housing bill passed. In 1971, Phillips was appointed as the first woman to the Milwaukee County Judiciary, but lost the subsequent election to a white candidate. She then taught at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and became mentor to Black Student Union president and future member of the Common Council, Fred Gordon. In 1978, she became the first woman and first non-white to be elected as Wisconsin’s Secretary of State, making her the highest ranking female Wisconsin official in the 20th century. In 2002, Phillips was appointed “Distinguished Professor of Law” at Marquette University School of Law. She also chaired the successful congressional campaign of Gwen Moore in 2004 at age eighty. In 2006, Phillips founded the Vel Phillips Foundation which supports the work of people who are engaged in projects of social justice and change. She is also active on numerous civic boards in Milwaukee.

Phillips passed away on April 17, 2018.

Vel Phillips was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on December 2, 2007 and February 25, 2017.

Accession Number

A2007.338

Sex

Female

Interview Date

12/2/2007 |and| 2/25/2017

Last Name

Phillips

Maker Category
Schools

North Division High School

Garfield Avenue Elementary School

Roosevelt Creative Arts Middle School

North Division Virtual University High School

University of Wisconsin Law School

First Name

Vel

Birth City, State, Country

Milwaukee

HM ID

PHI03

Favorite Season

September

State

Wisconsin

Favorite Vacation Destination

Camping

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Wisconsin

Birth Date

2/18/1924

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Milwaukee

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Ice Cream

Death Date

4/17/2018

Short Description

State government appointee Vel Phillips (1924 - 2018 ) was the former Wisconsin Secretary of State, the first woman and first non-white to be elected to the position.

Employment

State of Wisconsin

Milwaukee Common Council

Milwaukee County Judiciary

Favorite Color

Fall Colors

Timing Pairs
0,0:1138,23:2084,75:14640,321:20660,453:45628,936:88656,1580:122300,1972$0,0:510,6:8925,197:22225,355:27830,457:34010,480:41570,584:42110,591:48230,723:86083,1141:87093,1250:118686,1614:123292,1710:123782,1717:125448,1899:127996,1942:128388,1968:166265,2318:167630,2332:185710,2577:186985,2611:190210,2682:196620,2744:210988,2971:213844,3015:216868,3079:230458,3273:245282,3536:260000,3762
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Vel Phillips' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Vel Phillips lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Vel Phillips describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Vel Phillips talks about her maternal grandparents, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Vel Phillips talks about her maternal grandparents, pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Vel Phillips describes how her mother was sent from Oklahoma to Wisconsin

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Vel Phillips describes her parents' restaurant, Clara's Restaurant

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Vel Phillips describes her mother's education

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Vel Phillips talks about her father's family background

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Vel Phillips describes her parents' marriage

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Vel Phillips remembers thinking her family was poor as a child, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Vel Phillips remembers thinking her family was poor as a child, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Vel Phillips talks about Gwendolynne Moore

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Vel Phillips describes her parents' personalities and who she takes after

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Vel Phillips recalls earning a scholarship to Howard University

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Vel Phillips describes her disciplinarian mother

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Vel Phillips remembers her sheltered upbringing

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Vel Phillips recalls competing in the Elks Oratorical Contest

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Vel Phillips recalls her mother's reluctance to allow her to attend Howard University

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Vel Phillips recalls her mother's rules for attending Howard University

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Vel Phillips remembers arriving on campus at Howard University in 1942

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Vel Phillips talks about her friendship with Mamie Hansberry

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Vel Phillips describes her orientation weekend at Howard University

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Vel Phillips describes her childhood education and activities

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Vel Phillips recalls serving as a mentor at Delta Theta Sigma Sorority

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Vel Phillips remembers honoring her third grade teacher, Margaret Borkowski

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Vel Phillips recalls being taught by Margaret Borkowski in the third grade

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Vel Phillips describes how her third grade teacher influenced her career, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Vel Phillips describes how her third grade teacher influenced her career, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Vel Phillips recalls being discouraged from the Elks Oratorical Contest

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Vel Phillips recalls composing her speech, The Negro and the Constitution

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Vel Phillips recalls being eliminated from the Elks Oratorical Contest

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Vel Phillips recalls a petition for her reentry to the Elks Oratorical Contest

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Vel Phillips remembers being readmitted to the Elks Oratorical Contest

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Vel Phillips remembers her winning performance in the Elks Oratorical Contest

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Slating of Vel Phillips' interview, session 2

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Vel Phillips recalls being ostracized by the members of the Milwaukee Common Council

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Vel Phillips talks about her experiences on the Common Council of Milwaukee, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Vel Phillips talks about her experiences on the Common Council of Milwaukee, pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Vel Phillips remembers the support from the community during her tenure on the Common Council of Milwaukee

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Vel Phillips talks about Lloyd Barbee and Father James Groppi

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Vel Phillips talks about the racial discrimination in the television and film industries

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Vel Phillips reflects upon her political career, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Vel Phillips recalls the employment discrimination at the Common Council of Milwaukee office

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Vel Phillips talks about the governorship of Scott Walker

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Vel Phillips talks about her sons

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Vel Phillips reflects upon her political career, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Vel Phillips remembers her mother's advice on life

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Vel Phillips reflects upon her life

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$3

DAStory

9$6

DATitle
Vel Phillips recalls earning a scholarship to Howard University
Vel Phillips remembers arriving on campus at Howard University in 1942
Transcript
When I wanted to go to Howard [Howard University, Washington, D.C.] and my mother [Thelma Payne Rodgers] had promised me, she had said, "You can't go, we can't afford it," and all like that. Then when she said--this is something that sort of shaped my life when, when I said, "Well suppose I win a scholarship?" I said that to my mother and she said, "Oh, if you win a scholarship, well of course if you don't, if I don't have to pay and say we can't afford--." So then I did, I won, I entered an Elk oratorical contest, and I won and John Daniels [HistoryMaker John W. Daniels, Jr.], who you interviewed--once when we were at a law, black lawyers [Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers] meeting, their fundraiser was named after my husband, it was--their fundraiser was the W. Dale Phillips scholarship--they, you only had fundraiser a year. Two years ago they changed it; it's now called VelanDale Scholarship dinner, which is my husband's name and my name combined. But anyway, John got up and said, "You know I entered the Elk oratorical contest and I wanted to win to get a scholarship," he said, "but I didn't win," he was younger than me, "I didn't win," he said, "but I want you to know that [HistoryMaker] Vel Phillips who will be giving," I give the scholarship every year, "won the very scholarship that I did not win." So when I won this scholarship I said, I said, now can, oh, I, I was just fancying around the kitchen, we had a huge kitchen. I was going to be going to Howard. My mother said, "You're not going to Howard, you're, you're," and I said, "But you promised." Well she didn't care anything about rules like, if you promise a child--I mean Dr. Spock [Benjamin Spock] I guess hadn't even written a book--that you don't disappoint and change your mind. She thought she could change your mind, she was very strong willed and she said, I said well, "Why?" And she said, "Because I said so. It's too far away and this and that."$And I remember, we went to, all the--Truth Hall [Howard University, Washington, D.C.] was this, was the dorm for, for the freshman; and my mother [Thelma Payne Rodgers] took me to college and I'll never forget when we, we--she said, "We do not have enough money to fly, we're going on the train," and she had always told us that when the train stopped in Chicago [Illinois] that I just thought Chicago had, I felt, I actually thought that if you got off in Chicago there'd be men standing there with guns, you know. It was just (laughter) it was: "Do not get off the train ever. If you're going, if you take the train somewhere, don't get off in Chicago because you will be accosted and people will--they're ju- terrible people, a lot of gangsters live in Chicago," and stuff. So I, so we were on the train and this, the train stopped in Chicago and a lot of freshman with (gesture) 1946 Howard [Howard University, Washington, D.C.], 1946, which was--would be our graduating year 'cause this was '42 [1942]; and there were about oh, a bunch of them--five, six of them or so you know and they were just laughing and, and just being, being their age, but they were--Mother said that she saw a bottle being passed around and she said to me, "You see that, that's not--they're going to Howard and you're going to Howard. Just because they're going to Howard doesn't mean that they're not trash; they're trash because they're carousing, they're loud, they're drinking, probably smoking and you do not associate with any of those people who are on that, that." And I remember having to go to the bathroom and had to pass by this group. "Hey!" they said, said, said, "You with your momma, huh?" That's the first time I knew it wasn't so good to be with your momma (laughter). "I see you got your momma with you," you know. "You got big eyes, but you got your momma with you," and so I was just, boy that made me feel pretty good you know, is that I had, they had said that I had big eyes or something; and, but I then thought, oh gee, it wasn't cool to have your momma with you, and so I said, "Does everyone's parents take them to college?" I thought everyone's parents--she said, "But they probably don't have any parents if, some of them are probably drunk or in the tavern," you know (laughter). And I got to be friends, real close to all of them especially Mamie Hansberry, because Mamie Hansberry was--oh, oh when we were, the last day my mother said, "Well we're gonna move--," all the other parents, "and we're gonna visit the rooms." Now she had no pencil or paper with her, and we started from the third floor and the second--all, all the floors and we're going--and I remember Mamie Hansberry because she had on a little, she was smoking a cigarette and when we got back to our room, my mother said, "Now in," and then she named the numbers, "in 214 there was a girl, a young lady there, she was smoking a cigarette; do not associate with her. And such and such a person, the young lady that was from Ohio her name was Zoe Crumpler [ph.]," and the reason my mother said, "do not associate with her," and the reason was, think of this reason, because Zoe--her mother was still there, like my mother was still there, and Zoe, who I loved, from Youngstown, Ohio called her mother by her first name. "Oh, Bernice [ph.] would you hand me such and such," or whatever her name was. My mother--oh! So she was on the list because she called her mother by her first name and her mother said, "Oh, okay baby," you know. That was, that was their little thing. Her mother maybe said, "You can call me Bernice," or whatever her name was, and, and so she called her mother by her first name. My mother thought that was outrageous, and so she was on the list.