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More hands needed in push to immortalize Vel Phillips at the Capitol

Three side-by-side photos of the same woman at three different points in her life: a black-and-white photo of her in a striped dress, one of her smiling while posing for an official photo, and one of her at an advanced age holding a photo in a frame.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County / Wisconsin Historical Society
Vel Phillips at various stages of her remarkable life.

Vel Phillips’ life was peppered with events that can all be described as overdue:

  • The first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison law school in 1951.
  • The first woman and first Black Milwaukeean elected to the city’s common council in 1956.
  • The first female judge in Milwaukee County and Wisconsin’s first Black judge in 1971.
  • The first woman and first Black individual elected as Wisconsin’s secretary of state in 1978.
  • The first Black woman chief executive of any state (she served as acting governor for a weekend in March 1979).

Phillips died in 2018, but even today her legacy runs into challenges that delay proper recognition both for her accomplishments and the painfully slow march toward equality. The latest example is the statue of Phillips slated for the Wisconsin State Capitol grounds.

In November 2021, the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board officially approved the statue, which at the time was expected to stand at the corner of West Main Street and South Carroll Street by late 2022 or early 2023. We’re more than halfway through the year, and that corner remains empty.

“My mom’s legacy lives on,” said Mike Phillips, Vel’s son. “But there is more work to be done. We must honor her legacy by investing in our kids. We must help kids find their own ‘firsts.’ Together, we can support our future leaders.”

With that focus on youth, it’s only appropriate that the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County is leading a campaign to address one of the challenges faced by the project: funding.

The statue is being commissioned and then donated to the state, but that comes at a cost. The campaign currently sits about two-thirds of the way to its goal of $560,000, and organizers have redoubled their efforts to cover the rest of the ground needed for Phillips to take her well-deserved place at the State Capitol.

Those efforts include getting the word out in Milwaukee — the city where Phillips first made her mark as a public servant.

“This sculpture isn't just for the folks who live in or visit Madison; it's for our country,” said Cory Ampe, who’s helping the campaign spread its message to Milwaukee and other parts of the state. “The effort to commission and place the artwork is something the state of Wisconsin should be proud of. In Vel's spirit, we're creating another first: the first sculpture of its kind of a Black woman to be placed on state capitol grounds in the U.S.

“This is a symbol of a Milwaukee story that grew to affect and impact our entire state, especially when Vel was appointed secretary of state. The sculpture signifies how Vel broke barriers and positively changed the course of the city of Milwaukee.”

If you’d like to contribute to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County’s Vel R. Phillips Sculpture Campaign, visit the project’s website and look for the “Donate Now” button.