An initiative to erect a statue in honor of Vel Phillips — a prominent civil rights activist and the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School — at the Wisconsin State Capitol is more than halfway past its fundraising goal.
Following $50,000 donations from both the Madison Community Foundation and the Oscar Rennebohm Foundation, in addition to a $25,000 contribution from the State Bar of Wisconsin, the Vel Phillips Statue Task Force announced during a press conference that they have now raised upwards of of $187,317 toward their goal of $250,000 to build the statue.
Several members of the Vel Phillips Task Force voiced their hope that a statue to commemorate Philips at the capitol would cement her legacy and serve to inspire modern Black activists. If constructed, Phillips will be the first person of color to be commemorated with a statue at the Wisconsin State Capitol.
An endowment fund in Phillips’ name will additionally be created with any additional funds raised beyond the $250,000 required for the statue, according to the head of the Vel Phillips Task Force and and CEO of the Dane County Boys & Girls Club, Michael Johnson.
Phillips, who would have turned 97 on the day of the announcement, graduated from the UW-Madison Law School in 1951. In 1956, Philips became both the first woman and the first Black citizen to serve on the Milwaukee City Council in 1956. In 1971, she was appointed the first woman and the first Black judge of Milwaukee County. In 1978, she was elected Wisconsin’s secretary of state, making her the first woman and first Black person to hold a statewide office, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“A statue and an endowment would continue the legacy of Vel Phillips by keeping an example in front of our citizens as someone who rose above discrimination and hate and led by strength, education and love,” task force member Dr. Patrick McBride said during the press conference.
The decision to erect a statue memorializing Phillips follows the protest of this past summer, when anti-racist activists protested systemic discrimination and the lack of representation of Black people in response to the murder of George Floyd.
During a press conference about the project, Johnson stated that these events motivated him to try to bring to light the historical contributions made by Black Wisconsinites.
“I remember about a dozen young people coming up to me at the state capitol and saying there’s no representation of people of color at the Capitol,” Johnson said during the press conference.
The Department of Administration will vote on the final approval for the project in March, while a national request for proposals will be sent out to artists in the spring. The statue is expected to be completed this year and installed in early 2022, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Phillips’ goddaughter, Millie Coby, reflected on the decision to create the statue during the press conference.
“We’re hoping that as you consider giving and as you consider the possibility of this statue, it’s not just so we can add another first to her name, but it’s because some young person, some older person that didn’t have opportunity will drive by it and say, ‘Who is that?’” Coby said. “And they will hear the story and be imparted with hope and opportunity and (optimism) about their life.”