Hundreds gathered at Milwaukee’s oldest African American church, St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church, on Saturday, May 5, 2018, to celebrate the life of Vel Phillips, the pioneering civil rights leader who smashed racial and gender barriers as a lawyer, city council woman and Wisconsin secretary of state.
“These pinnacles were not what made Vel’s story Vel’s story,” said U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI), who eulogized Phillips at a memorial service at St. Mark — itself a central player in Milwaukee’s civil rights history.
Outside the church walls, flags were flown at half-staff in Phillips’ honor across Wisconsin on Saturday, by order of Gov. Scott Walker.
Phillips died April 17, 2018 at the age of 95.
Her life was one of many firsts: The first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School; and the first woman and African American to sit on Milwaukee’s Common Council, serve as a Milwaukee County judge and be elected Wisconsin secretary of state. She also served on the Democratic National Committee, the first African American named to the national committee of a major political party.
As a civil rights activist, she helped lead Milwaukee’s open housing marches alongside Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council.
On Tuesday, May 8, 2018, the Milwaukee Common Council voted to rename a stretch of North 4th Street as Vel R. Phillips Avenue. The street will be renamed from West St. Paul Avenue to West Capitol Avenue, a nearly 3.5-mile span that runs past the new Milwaukee Bucks’ arena.