In Memoriam: Velvalea N. Rogers Phillips, 1923-2018

Vel Phillips, a civil rights leader who was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, died on April 17. She was 95 years old.

A native of Milwaukee, Phillips graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then returned to Wisconsin to enroll in law school. However, she and her husband were not permitted to live alongside White students at the school.

After graduation from law school Phillips continued to accomplish a number of “firsts.” She was the first woman and the first African American on the Milwaukee Common Council. In 1971, she was the first woman and the first African American to serve as a judge in Milwaukee County. In 1978, she was the first woman and the first African American elected secretary of state of Wisconsin.

In an interview with Milwaukee magazine, Phillips remarked that her gender was more of an obstacle to her success than her race: “Once you’re there, White people will realize you’re just like everybody else,” Phillips said. “But the men never forget that you are a woman. Never, ever, ever.”

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