Campus News

UW-Madison graduate, civil rights leader dies at 94

Vel Phillips Residence Hall is named after the late activist.

Image By: Jacob Schellpfeffer

UW-Madison graduate and pioneering civil rights leader Vel Phillips passed away Tuesday at age 94, the university announced Wednesday.

Phillips was the first black woman to earn a degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School back in 1951. She would go on to break boundaries by being the first black woman to hold a variety of respected government positions in Wisconsin, like secretary of state.

Inspired by the housing discrimination she witnessed as a UW-Madison law student, Phillips made it her mission to fight for fair and equal housing across Wisconsin, according to the release. She realized this vision when she was the first woman elected to the Milwaukee Common Council in 1956, supporting legislation to outlaw racial discrimination in city housing.

Nationally recognized for her work on the council, Phillips was appointed as Milwaukee’s first female judge, as well as Wisconsin’s first African-American judge. She broke boundaries again in 1978, fulfilling the role of the first woman and African-American Wisconsin secretary of state.

During her life, Phillips discovered that it was her gender, not her race, that posed the biggest obstacle to her success. “Once you’re there, [white people] will realize you’re just like everybody else, but the men never forget that you are a woman. Never, ever, ever,” she said.

In a tweet, Chancellor Rebecca Blank reflected on Phillips’ “remarkable, courageous and inspiring example of leadership.”

“As we mourn her loss, we should also celebrate the enduring changes she helped bring about at our university and in Wisconsin,” Blank said in the release.

Her legacy lives on through the Vel Phillips Foundation, which continues her mission of promoting opportunities for minorities through equal education and housing.

A tribute to Phillips is located at the new Alumni Park, where a sculpture commemorating her arrest in pursuit of equal housing in Milwaukee.

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