Reflecting on Vel Phillips and Her Many Firsts

What did you do today that was good Vel Phillips quote

As a young girl, I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Vel Phillips. My grandmother worked at the Vel Phillips YWCA, located on North Teutonia Avenue, just ½ block south of Capitol Drive. My Grandmother introduced Mrs. Vel Phillips as the first black female judge in Wisconsin. This was instrumental for me as a little girl who thought I wanted to be an attorney, or a school teacher, or a nurse; it just depended on the day!

I remember thinking Vel Phillips was someone great and that she was this amazing person, mostly because she had a building named after her – and, she could tell people what to do because she was a judge.

“What did you do today that was good?”

Penny Liddell
Penny Liddell

So, as a little black girl, my hope and ambition was to take the advice of my grandmother and Vel Phillips to be successful in school, go to college and aspire to be whatever I wanted as long as it was productive and made a difference. Vel Phillips was known for supporting the aspirations of all, so long as you could answer the question: “What did you do that was good today?”

I was the first in my family to attend college, earn a Master’s Degree, and have a professional career (my family had historically worked in factory or other manual-labor jobs).

Never did I think I would end up in child welfare. Yet, many years later, here I am. As part of my SaintA career, I have made many trips in and out of the Vel R. Phillips Justice Center (also known as Children’s Court.) It’s where life-altering decisions are made for children and families every day.

I believe SaintA can add to Vel Phillips’ legacy by continuing to serve our youth, families and communities in ways that honor her fight for equality and justice. We should always be able to answer the question, “What did you do today that was good?”

In addition to working in family services, I am very involved in SaintA committees and workgroups, which strive to create many “firsts” just as Vel Phillips did (I’ve listed many of her firsts below). I’m proud to be part of the Diversity Committee, Equity Council and the Aspiring Women of Color Affinity Group.

Many Firsts and Many Lasting Impressions

In her 94 years of life, Velvelea (Vel) Phillips was one of the first civil rights and women’s movement pioneers. She was known to move a crowd. Vel Phillips established a lot of firsts in her long life and political career. Here are some of the most meaningful in my mind:

Mrs. Vel Phillips attended Garfield Elementary and North Division High School on the North side of Milwaukee. She won a national oratory scholarship and attended Howard University in Washington, DC. She also was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School in 1951. After law school, she moved to Milwaukee with her husband and fellow attorney, Dale Phillips. Together they became the first husband and wife legal team to be admitted to the federal bar in Milwaukee.

In 1956, she became the first female Alderwoman and first woman ever to sit on Milwaukee’s Common Council. She made her fight for equality and justice visible and often faced hostility for fair and open housing in Milwaukee in the 1960s as she led and participated in marches and peaceful rallies.

Two years later in 1958, Vel became the first African American woman to be elected to the Democratic National Committee. She considered herself a supporter and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and distinguished herself on a national level in the Civil Rights Era.

She also knew three United States Presidents on a first name basis: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. She stated that she was not as close to President Obama, but he knew who she was, as she has corresponded with him as well.

In 1971, Vel became the first woman to serve as a Judge in Wisconsin and the first African American woman to serve in the Wisconsin Judiciary. Several years later, in 1978, she became the first woman and first African American to be elected to a statewide constitutional office as Secretary of State.

Vel Phillips had many firsts in her long career and on the front lines of the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements. She led and participated in many marches for equality and justice. After retirement, she remained active as she filled her life with advocacy and charitable work.

At the age of 94, she was still active with America’s Black Holocaust Museum, NAACP, Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, Community Shares, and the Haggerty Museum, just to name a few. Judicial centers, community centers and college halls bear her name.

The Vel Phillips Foundation continues to fight for justice and equality with the same unwavering determination as Vel herself. Her legacy includes many accomplishments and firsts, but also hope and kindness.

I personally will remember Vel Phillips as someone who helped many people who had less achieve more than they had ever dreamed. I hope you will also remember her as you remember to ask yourself: “What did you do today that was good?”


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