Velvalea Hortense Rodgers “Vel” Phillips was an attorney who served as a local official and judge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and as Secretary of State of Wisconsin. She is recognized as the first woman and African-American in her position.
Phillips was born on Milwaukee’s South Side to Russell and Thelma (Payne) Rodgers, she won a national scholarship to attend Howard University, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1946.
After graduating from Howard, she returned to Wisconsin to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School, becoming the first black woman to graduate from that school (L.L.B, 1951). She and her husband (fellow UW Law graduate Dale Phillips) became the first husband-and-wife couple to be admitted to the Wisconsin bar.
Phillips along with her husband got involved with the NAACP. She later ran for a seat on the school board of the Milwaukee Public Schools in 1953.
In 1956, Phillips became the first woman and the first African-American member of the Common Council in Milwaukee; since Common Council members were called “Alderman,” she was given the title “Madam Alderman” by local officials. She would remain the only woman and only black member of that body for several years .
She was arrested at a rally following the firebombing of an NAACP office, the only city official to be arrested during the “long hot summer” of 1967, bringing further national media attention to the city. Phillips resigned from the Common Council in 1971, when appointed to the judiciary, the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. She lost her bid for reelection to the bench to a white candidate who made an issue of her involvement in protests and civil rights activities.
In 1978, Phillips made history as the first woman and first non-white elected Secretary of State in Wisconsin. Vel Phillips died in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 17, 2018.