Issues Segregation and Vel Phillips Impact on Milwaukee

Introduction In the mid 20th century, the United States was in a state of racial turmoil and segregation. In particular, African Americans in Milwaukee, Wisconsin faced numerous disadvantages in their day to day lives. Segregation separated blacks from whites in the most public scenes. Areas in the public eye such as schools, restaurants, and bathrooms were kept separate from blacks and whites alike. Additionally, segregation had even made its way into the Milwaukee legislation. Unfair housing laws prevented blacks from moving outside of the northside neighborhoods as their community kept expanding. This kept African Americans in the North and whites in the South. Due to segregation in place, it was argued that both sides were separate but equal. This simply was not the case as it was evident that most whites held an inferior lifestyle and level of comfort compared to the African American community. According to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, “Implementation of fair housing practices would help ensure that all households have an opportunity to reside near their existing or potential workplace and near community facilities such as schools, health care centers, parks, and areas offering shopping and other services” (

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One may ask, how inconsiderate is it to separate people based on nothing but the pigment of their skin? This is a question that many struggle to find the answer to especially those who lived through it. Amidst the racial tension of Milwaukee, there was one of many unlikely heroes who stepped out of their comfort zone to make an enduring change to the city. Her name was Vel Phillips and her impact would last more than a lifetime and for generations to come. Early Life During a cold night on February 18th, 1924, Velvalea Hortense Rodgers was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was named after her aunt by her parents Russell and Thelma Rodgers. Vel was the middle child of 3 girls in a loving and supportive family. Growing up, Vel and her sisters’ mother, Thelma, had a major influence on them. Thelma would hold strict no-tolerance rules. These rules included things such as, no smoking, drinking, or speaking loudly to be “ladylike”. Vel was described as a well-spoken and simple child (Early, 2015). Her parents also were hard workers. Russell Rodgers owned a small restaurant and a garage unit to support the family. They resided in the upper East side of Milwaukee; about 2.5 miles away from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee campus. Vel grew up during a time when African Americans made up a little above 0.5% of Milwaukee’s population (Gurda, 2017).

She was well aware of the disadvantages of being a minority. Despite the hardships most African Americans faced, she described her lifestyle as “comfortable, but by no means rich” (Miner, 2018). Mr. and Mrs. Rodgers were friends with a man named James Dorsey. Dorsey was an African American lawyer who ran for Alderman in 1936 but unfortunately lost 3 consecutive times. Vel used to eavesdrop on his conversations with her parents. Hearing these conversations and experiencing her mom working the polls on election day sparked Vel’s interest in politics. In an interview with Milwaukee Magazine, Vel talks about how her mother once asked, “Your sister is going to be a dietician. What do you have in mind?” with which Vel replied she wanted to be a lawyer. Her mother was very supportive, but also warned her that it would be hard since there were not a lot of female lawyers. Instead of changing her mind, Vel let this obtainable goal motivate her. Education The Rodgers always encouraged their daughters to pursue an education. Vel attended North Division, a major public high school in Milwaukee. It was here that she entered a national speaking contest. Impressively, she won the contest and was awarded a scholarship to a university of her personal choice. In 1943, she chose to attend Howard University in Washington D.C. in pursuit for a Bachelor of Arts degree. After graduating from Howard University, she returned to Milwaukee and began to volunteer at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“Having a comfortable middle-class upbringing, Phillip’s volunteer work in the impoverished sections of the inner city was sobering and motivated her to work for change” (Cohen, 2015). Here, she grew an understanding of the oppressed conditions countless African Americans faced. One night, while attending a party, Vel met a man named Dale Phillips. He was a World War II veteran and according to a newspaper article, “He was impressed that, honoring her mother’s code, she refused to drink or smoke” (Hagerty, 2018). Vel and Dale quickly got married on September 12, 1948. They both attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison law school where they experienced racism at the student housing facilities. At their housing facility named Badger Village, students who lived near them created a petition to segregate black students from white. Vel and Dale were crushed by this unfair occurrence. This experience was a major motivation for Vel to keep fighting for equality. Finally, in 1951, Dale and Vel became the first African American couple to graduate from The University of Wisconsin – Madison Law School. Vel was also the first African American woman to graduate from here. Even though this was a major accomplishment, Vel knew that she had much more to achieve. Early Career After graduating from law school, Vel and Dale moved back to Milwaukee to start a family. There, they opened a law firm called Phillips and Phillips and began to work. They became “the first husband-wife attorney team admitted to the federal bar in Milwaukee” (Miner, 2018).

Vel still knew that she wanted to make a bigger difference in the city, though. She thought that the best way to cultivate change for Milwaukee was in an elected position. She then decided to run for a seat on the school board in 1953. She was the first black woman to win the primary election but ultimately lost. Thankfully, this did not deter Vel from continuing her political career. In 1956, a new Ward district was opening up in Milwaukee. Vel decided to run for the Alderman position for this district. In the 2nd Ward, there were both black and white neighborhoods. This meant that it was necessary to obtain white votes as well as black ones. Strategically, Vel ran under the name “Vel Phillips” to hide the fact that she was a woman. Additionally, when campaigning in the district, she would hand out personalized cards with her information on it. The cards that were handed out in the black community would have a picture of her face on them, while the cards handed out in the white community did not. She needed every vote she could possibly get in this election.

On April 3rd, 1956, it was announced that Vel Phillips had won the election and was granted a position on the Milwaukee Common Council. She was officially named “Madam Alderman” and officially the first African American and woman to be elected on the all-white all male council. While in office, Vel was treated very poorly by her fellow aldermen. She experienced racism, segregation, and none of the Milwaukee aldermen wanted to share an office with her. This was very hard on Vel, but she kept pushing through. She spoke up when she knew she had to and got her points across even when it seemed as if the rest of the council was against her. It was also during this time that the black population was steadily growing, but it had nowhere to grow to. According to Cohen, “Post World War II migrants seeking jobs in Milwaukee’s booming industries contributed to a sharp rise in the city’s African American population, from 13,000 in 1945 to 21,772 in 1950” (2015). The unfair housing laws in Milwaukee were prohibiting the black community from residing outside of the Inner Core and prohibited them from buying homes in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. Vel continuously fought for the equal rights in the public eye as the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing.

In 1962, Vel first proposed a fair housing law to resist Milwaukee’s segregation policies even though she knew it was highly unlikely to be passed. The ordinance stated, “It is to be the policy of the city of Milwaukee to assure equal opportunity to all persons to live in decent housing facilities regardless of race, color, or national origin” (Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams, 2015). This ordinance was rejected unanimously four times in a 20 to 1 vote in a span of five years. Marching with Father Groppi In August 1967, racial tensions were at an all-time high. Over 200 NAACP activists marched across the 16th Street viaduct in Milwaukee to peacefully protest the unfair housing laws. When the marchers crossed the bridge, they were met by over 2,000 angry white supremacists. This resulted in mass chaos and violence. The following day, Milwaukee mayor, Henry Maier installed a 30-day ban on the marches to reconstruct order. One day later, the marchers were ready to march again led by Father Groppi and Vel Phillips.

Groppi was a Catholic Priest who fought alongside Vel for the equal rights of African Americans. Being in an elected position, Vel was hesitant to march. Despite the possible outcomes, she decided to march as a prominent leader of Milwaukee’s Civil Rights Movement. During the march, Vel was immediately arrested. She was released the next morning and marched again at night. This choice truly shows us who Vel Phillips was. She knew that what she believed in was right and she would do anything in her power to make a change. At this time, the nation’s eyes were on Milwaukee and it was an embarrassment for the city to have an Alderman arrested. A news article once stated that “Ms. Phillips told the city council: ‘You are aware, gentlemen, that the eyes of the nation, indeed the eyes of the world, are on Milwaukee’ (Hagerty, 2018).

Open housing activists continued to march, though. For 200 nights consecutively, they marched. Vel Phillips remained on the council and aggressively fought for open housing. With this brought mass amounts of media attention. Vel would often receive letters filled with hate and racial slurs. She also obtained numerous anonymous phone calls threatening her and her family’s safety. One night, someone fired a gun through the front window of her house. Luckily, the bullet hit anyone inside. It was at this moment that Vel decided to send her two sons to California to live with her mother, Thelma. Late Career Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon Johnson and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This Act included legislation that outlawed housing segregation in all of the United States. Due to this historical feat, Milwaukee had finally passed a city-wide open housing ordinance.

After 6 long years of introducing this open housing ordinance, Vel Phillips had earned what she was fighting for. After serving 15 respectful years on the Common Council of Milwaukee, Vel decided to leave her position. Even though she had won this battle, there was much more war to fight. In 1971, Governor Patrick Lucy appointed Vel Milwaukee County Children’s Court Judge. In a PBS interview, Vel said, “I just thought I would have a chance to help shape someone’s life to really make a difference” (Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams, 2015). She became the first African American Judge to serve in Wisconsin history. Here, Vel was able to help in particular, African American families who were often disproportionately represented in court. In 1978, Vel Phillips decided to run for the Wisconsin Secretary of State.

On November 7th, she won the election as the Democratic nomination. She was the first African American to be elected to a statewide office position in Wisconsin and the first African American woman to be elected to a statewide executive office in American history. In this position, she was able to public speak in front of large crowds and began to inspire and influence people all around Wisconsin and the United States. She lost the following election in 1982. Impact in Retirement In 1988, Vel was considering running for Congress, but when she received the news that her husband, Dale, had passed away due to an unexpected heart attack, she decided to retire from elected offices. This did not change the fact that she was a woman of justice and social change. Vel realized the magnitude of her accomplishments and used her status and influence in the community to continue to fight for equality in her later years.

Organizations in the community and across the state of Wisconsin asked Vel to speak or attend functions they were hosting in order to create buzz with their campaigns. Certain leaders claimed that merely attaching Vel’s name to an organization or event was enough to get people’s attention and help get the movement off the ground. Vel contributed and aligned with organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers (WAAL), Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, and the American Black Holocaust Museum. Her work specifically with the WAAL provided scholarships to young African Americans pursuing careers as lawyers. This offering was incredibly substantial to many of the students due to the fact that many of them chose a career in law based on Vel’s accomplishments and success. Vel was all about fighting for the underdog and using her platform to provide a voice for the voiceless and disenfranchised.

When it came to education, housing, job opportunities, or social justice reform, one could be assured that Vel would be there to lead the way. She believed it was not enough for her to be an example of black excellence in the community, but to also be one of the leaders helping lift up others along the way. Vel was eventually able to establish the Vel Phillips Foundation in 2006. Her foundation is responsible for a multitude of scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial support for minorities. Its mission is, “To help establish equality and opportunity for minorities through social justice, education, equal housing opportunities, and jobs”. The foundation also makes an effort to bring together all races and ethnicities for a greater sense of community. Vel was recognized and honored for her breakthroughs and community impact by having her name put on buildings from community centers, to judicial centers and college halls. In 2011, The University of Wisconsin – Madison named a hall in her name.

Vel Phillips continued to fight for what she believed in until the age of 95 years old. Impact After Death On April 17, 2018, Vel Phillips passed away in Mequon, Wisconsin. Even though she is gone, her accomplishments will last forever. Milwaukee North 4th Street was named Vel Phillips Avenue after her death to commemorate her efforts to provide equal opportunities to African Americans in Milwaukee. Students all across the country learn about her journey. It is important to remember who Vel Phillips was even though her feats were so immense. Vel was a daughter, a sister, a mother, and a wife. All she ever wanted was to make a small difference in the world and she did just that. Even in our current state of racial turmoil, any of us can be influenced by Vel’s courage and step up as a leader to cultivate change. It is one notion to recognize what is right and what is wrong, but it is a completely different mission to take action towards an impactful change.

Conclusion In conclusion, Vel Phillips created an everlasting change in the city of Milwaukee. Without her humble upbringings through struggle and hardships of being an African American woman, she would not have left the impact that she did. She gave younger minority generations hope that anything can be possible if you put your mind to it. If you truly believe in your heart that it is right, it is possible for one person to make that step towards change. It is inspiring to learn about Vel’s journey. She easily could have quit when others told her no. She stuck true to her guns and pressed on. From winning a national scholarship to becoming the first African American woman to be elected to a statewide executive office in American history, Vel has influenced a countless number of people. Without her, Milwaukee would not have become the city it is today. Even though it is still segregated, she took the first steps towards equality for all minorities alike.

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Issues Segregation and Vel Phillips Impact on Milwaukee. (2022, Oct 05). Retrieved January 30, 2023 , from

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