'That doesn’t happen without Vel Phillips': City leaders and family celebrate a Milwaukee icon

NOW: ’That doesn’t happen without Vel Phillips’: City leaders and family celebrate a Milwaukee icon

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Vel R. Phillips broke barriers as an African American woman. From Milwaukee's City Hall to the Capitol in Madison, many are grateful for her contributions.

"I don’t think there's a level of government that you can speak about that Vel doesn’t have her fingerprint on," said 6th District Alderwoman Milele Coggs. "As a first year at Madison Law School, they have an area in the law library that has the pages of the headshots of folks who were in previous classes. It was so powerful to look in my first year and see her face as one the first African Americans ever to be on those pages and pages of folks who didn’t look like me."

By the time Phillips was elected to Milwaukee's Common Council in 1956, she had already made history. She was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School.

"I could not be the youngest woman elected to the Milwaukee Common Council had there not been a Vel Phillips," said Coggs.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson worked with Phillips. He said it was a privilege and honor to know her.

"I'm sitting here in this office, as mayor of the city of Milwaukee, the first African American to be elected to the position. That doesn’t happen without Vel Phillips," said Johnson. "The doesn’t happen without the work that she did, literally for decades in this community."

Michael Phillips, Vel's son, recalls how his mom shook things up at City Hall. Vel, who was pregnant at the time, refused to walk flights of stairs because of the lack of restrooms for women.

"She couldn't be walking up and down stairs to go the bathroom, because pregnant women often have to go the bathroom quickly. She said you're either going to have to create another women's bathroom on the floor with me or I'm going to start using the men's bathroom, and she started to do that," said Michael Phillips.

Michael says the bathroom battle caused a big uproar. It wouldn't be the last time.

"It made the papers when she decided to wear a pantsuit to work rather than a skirt. A pantsuit, it made the papers," said Michael Phillips.

Vel became the first female judge in Milwaukee County, the first African American judge in Wisconsin, and the first female elected secretary of state of Wisconsin.

"We like to talk about others that have broke barriers at the national level. We've got one right here in Wisconsin and in the city of Milwaukee," said Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers. "Kids have to understand that they can do it. They can do it too."

Vel Phillips would have turned 100 this year. She passed away in April of 2018, but not before leaving behind a legacy that's seen and heard across Wisconsin.

Even after her passing, she has one more barrier still to break, when her statue is eventually erected outside the state Capitol.

It will be the first statue of an African American woman outside a state Capitol in the United States.

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