Milwaukee’s African American Trailblazers (Week 3)

February 25, 2021

This week, we have two additional trailblazers whom we are honored to celebrate, the late Vel Phillips and Jeannetta Simpson-Robinson.

Velvalea Hortense
Rodgers “Vel” Phillips
February 18, 1923 – April 17, 2018

Vel dedicated her life to building and empowering the African American Community. Her drive, devotion and never-ending commitment to equality were unsurpassed. Active in the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, Vel Phillips built a career of Wisconsin “firsts” both as a woman and as an African American. In 1951, Vel graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School, the first African American woman to earn a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. After 15 years of serving on the Milwaukee Common Council— both the first woman and African American to do so—Vel resigned in 1971 and was appointed to the Milwaukee County judiciary; thus, becoming the first woman judge in Milwaukee and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. In 1978, Vel made national history as the first woman and first African American elected as the Secretary of State in Wisconsin. She was the first African American in the country elected to the National Committee of a major political party, and knew three presidents on a firstname basis: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. Vel was a loving and devoted wife, mother and grandmother. We salute Vel Phillips as truly one of Milwaukee’s trailblazers having celebrated five extraordinary “firsts.”

Jeannetta Simpson-Robinson
Date of Death: October 9, 2008

Community leader, woman of God, founder and chief executive officer of Career Youth Development, Commissioner Jeannetta Simpson- Robinson served our communities most in need of poor youth and families for more than four decades. She was well known to our community and was the host for the multi-award winning, Jeannetta Robinson television show on MATA community media for more than twenty-four years. Jeannetta Simpson-Robinson was the longest serving commissioner in state Juvenile Justice for more than 30 years.

After extensive collaboration between community leaders, elected officials, and the Simpson-Robinson family, Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor announced the sign installation, unveiling, and dedication of the Jeannetta Simpson-Robinson Memorial Highway. During the dedication, Senator Taylor commented, “This week we watched the signs go up. Erected along I-43, between North Avenue and the Keefe/Atkinson Avenue exits, we had a front row seat to Wisconsin history. This highway sign would mark the first time, in the state’s history, that a woman of color would have her name placed on a highway road sign.” The Jeannetta Simpson-Robinson Memorial Highway Sign Unveiling and Dedication was held on Thursday, September 17, 2020.

Vel Phillips – OnWisconsin, Molly Snyder, 2/1/19
Jeanetta Simpson Robinson – Published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from Oct. 23 to Oct. 24, 2008

Next Week: Conclusion

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