Airing in February on Wisconsin Public Television — Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams

On Monday, February 16 at 8 p.m., the story of one remarkable woman and the struggles she undertook to build a better community will debut in a new documentary from Wisconsin Public Television. The documentary will air throughout the month of February (see dates below) as Vel Phillips is formally inducted into a permanent seat in Wisconsin’s Black History.

When Vel Phillips was a young girl her mother always told her, “If you really want it, don’t dream small dreams, dream BIG dreams.”

Vel Phillips button-4Discover how Vel Phillips rose to prominence as one of Wisconsin’s great civil rights activists, achieving an impressive list of “firsts” as part of her legacy, including the first African American judge in Wisconsin and the first woman, and African American, in the nation elected to executive office in state government. More than a documentary, Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams is a statewide engagement project that will bring the community together for screenings and conversations about equity and civil rights in the 21st century.

Air Times

Monday, February 16:  8 pm on WPT

Tuesday, February 17: 2 am on WPT

Thursday, February 19: 7 pm on The Wisconsin Channel

Thursday, February 19: 11 pm on The Wisconsin Channel

Sunday, February 22: (noon) 12 pm on WPT

Monday, February 23: 3 am on The Wisconsin Channel

Thursday, February 26: 10 pm on WPT

Saturday, February 28: 5 pm on The Wisconsin Channel

Sunday, March 1: 2 am on The Wisconsin Channel

Wednesday, March 11: 7:30 pm on WPT

Portraits in Wisconsin Black History: Vel Phillips

A UW-Madison residence hall is named in Phillip’s honor.
A UW-Madison residence hall is named in Phillip’s honor.

Vel Phillips, a native of Milwaukee, was the first African-American woman to graduate from the Wisconsin Law School, (L.L.B ‘51) and serve as Wisconsin Secretary of State. The Wisconsin Alumni Association will honor Phillips with the prestigious Distinguished Alumni Award at this event. Phillips attended North Division High School in Milwaukee and won a national oratory scholarship sponsored by the Black Elks before attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. She moved to Milwaukee with her husband and fellow attorney W. Dale Phillips in 1951 and together they became the first husband-wife team of any race admitted to the federal bar in Milwaukee.  Phillips recently celebrated her 90th birthday.

In 1956, she was elected the first woman ever to sit on Milwaukee’s Common Council. During her tenure on the Common Council, she introduced the city’s first open-housing ordinance 1962. In 1967, Vel joined Father James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council in leading marches for fair housing, enduring the city’s race riots, hostility and violence. She finally saw Milwaukee’s open housing bill passed two weeks after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. 

Phillips also distinguished herself on a national level in the civil rights era, becoming the first African American in the United States elected to the National Committee of either of the two major political parties, and knew three presidents on a first-name basis: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. In the 1970s she became the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American to serve in Wisconsin’s judiciary. And in 1978 she was the first woman and African American elected to a statewide constitutional office as Secretary of State. She received a 2013 Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Wisconsin Alumni Association this past spring.

The creation of the Vel Phillips Foundation, which will carry on the march for justice and equality by embracing the values and aspirations that Vel demonstrated throughout her life. Her legacy will live on.