Another first for Wisconsin civil rights leader Vel Phillips: Statue in capitol | Opinion (2024)

I grew up in Wisconsin and like all kids learned about state history in fourth grade. Yet I did not learn about Vel R. Phillips was until I was well into my 30s. It was during Black History Month in 2021 when I was seeking out people and stories for a video series I was doing titled, "Wisconsin Black History I'm just learning now." that I came across Phillips and all she had accomplished in her life. Let me tell you, that list is not short.

She's been referred to as one of the most iconic civil rights activists in Wisconsin history. Alongside Father James E. Groppi, she played a major role in the relentless decades-long fight to bar discrimination in housing in Milwaukee. Even until her death in 2018, she was advocating for social justice, education and equal opportunities for minority populations in Milwaukee.

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She has the distinction of being the first to do a lot of things. In 1951, she became the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. In 1956, she became the first woman and first Black member of the Milwaukee Common Council. In 1958, she was the first Black woman elected to the Democratic National Committee. Phillips went on to become the first Black woman to become a judge in Wisconsin. Then in 1978, she was the first Black person to win statewide office in Wisconsin. With that election, she also became the first Black woman to be elected to statewide executive office in any state.

There is now another first she gets to add posthumously to that long list: the first Black woman politician, jurist, and civil rights leader represented on any State Capitol grounds in the country. It will be placed on the South Hamilton corner of the state Capitol grounds.

Numerous public spaces, schools and streets named in her honor

On April 12, after four years of fundraising half a million dollars and campaigning from elected officials, community leaders and her family, Gov. Tony Evers announced that the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board had granted final approval for the installation of a sculpture honoring the life and legacy of Vel R. Phillips.

Learn more about Wisconsin civil rights leader: Celebrating the life of Vel R. Phillips

This not the first time a public place or space has been renamed in her honor. In Milwaukee, parts of North Fourth Street have been renamed Vel R. Phillips Avenue and there will soon be a plaza just south of the Baird Center. UW-Madison renamed a residence hall after her and James Madison Memorial High School in Madison was also renamed after Vel Phillips.There's a middle school named after her in Oshkosh. Even 2024 has been proclaimed The Year of Vel Phillips to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her birth.

But a public monument on State Capitol grounds is a very big deal.

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First, there aren't a lot of statues that portray real women in this country. According to research by Sierra Rooney, an assistant professor of Art History at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, only about 6 percent of all public monuments are of actual women from history. According to one survey from 2021, there are actually more statues of mermaids than historical women. Many of the women we think of when we think of statues are symbols or allegories rather than real women who impacted our history. Think of the woman who currently sits at the Wisconsin State Capitol, "Lady Forward."

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Second, this is a big deal because it received overwhelming bipartisan support in Madison. Not only did the state Capitol and Executive Residence Board vote unanimously to recommend the placement of a statue of Phillips on the Capitol grounds, they even agreed to grant a one-time exception to its rule barring the addition of any monuments, plaques or memorials without the removal of an existing one. That might be another first she can claim: "the first person from the grave who can get Wisconsin politicians to unanimously agree on anything."

Finally, this is a big deal because, no matter what the anti-woke folks say, representation does matter. Not just the representation of a Black person or of a woman but also the representation of being a dedicated civil servant who overcomes obstacles. With this sculpture, it now means every child who takes their field trip to the Capitol, will learn about the impact Vel R Phillips had on our state instead of stumbling across that history decades later.

Kristin Brey is the "My Take" columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Another first for Wisconsin civil rights leader Vel Phillips: Statue in capitol | Opinion (2024)
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