Former Wisconsin Secretary of State, Velvalea Hortense Rodgers Phillips, was born on February 18, 1924, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her maternal ancestors were an A.M.E. bishop and African missionaries. Her parents, Russell Lowell Rodgers and Thelma Etha Payne Rodgers raised her without corporal punishment. Growing up on Milwaukee’s South Side, she attended Garfield Avenue Elementary School, Roosevelt Junior High School, and the mostly white North Division High School. There, Phillips won a prize for outstanding oratory by speaking about “The Negro and the Constitution;” a speech she wrote for the Elks Lodge Competition from which she won a scholarship to Howard University in 1942. She married Dale Phillips in 1945 and earned her B.A. degree in 1946. Returning to Wisconsin, her husband graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1950 and Phillips became the first black woman to earn an L.L.B. degree from the University in 1952.
Phillips and her husband became active in the NAACP and supported a redistricting referendum in 1950. Phillips lost a close race for a seat on the Milwaukee Common Council in 1953, but came back to become the first woman to win a council seat in 1956. Frequently involved in civil rights activities, Phillips introduced Milwaukee’s first open housing ordinance in 1962. In 1967, resistance to civil rights agitation turned violent when the NAACP headquarters was firebombed and the non-violent Phillips was the only city official arrested at a rally the next day. Joined by Catholic Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council, in 1968, Phillips led marches for fair housing, while riots swept the black community. Finally that same year, Milwaukee’s open housing bill passed and Orville Pitts, another African American, is elected to the Common Council.
In 1971, Phillips was appointed as the first woman to the Milwaukee County Judiciary, but lost the subsequent election to a white candidate. Teaching at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Phillips became mentor to Black Student Union president and future member of the Common Council, Fred Gordon. In 1978, she became the first woman and first non-white to be elected Wisconsin’s Secretary of State; the highest ranking female Wisconsin official in the 20th century. In 2002, Phillips was appointed “Distinguished Professor of Law” at Marquette University School of Law. She also chaired the successful congressional campaign of Gwen Moore in 2004 at age eighty. In 2006, Phillips founded the Vel Phillips Foundation which supports the work of people who are engaged in projects of social justice and change. She is also active on numerous civic boards in Milwaukee.