The Milwaukee Art Museum Rings In The Year Celebrating Vel R. Phillips Day With Public Free Day And Memorial Of Wisconsin Champion

Vel R. Phillips Day in Milwaukee

Velvalea Rodgers Phillips continues to make Milwaukee history even six years after her passing. On what would have been her 100th birthday, Mayor Cavalier Johnson proclaimed February 18 in the city of Milwaukee as Vel R. Phillips Day. 

The Vel Phillips Legacy Initiative said 2024 is the Year of Vel and the kick-off celebration was held at the Milwaukee Art Museum on February 18, 2024. The campaign is a year-long, state-wide initiative to immortalize Philips in state and national history.

Planting Seeds

Community members and leaders gathered to celebrate the announcement of Vel R. Phillips Day in Milwaukee.
Community members and leaders gathered to celebrate the announcement of Vel R. Phillips Day in Milwaukee. (Picture by Maria Peralta-Arellano/Carvd N Stone)

Phillips was a woman who impacted much of Milwaukee’s politics and politicians, many of whom are still active in the city’s political circuit. 

“You have eternal life when you sow a seed in the next generation,” said Congresswoman Gwen Moore. “When you lean into that next chapter of your life, she did that with me. She tapped Mandela Barnes [and] we are still waiting to see what he’s going to be, but he’s going to be something great.”

The celebration was a day-long event with various family-friendly opportunities to learn about Phillips’s life, career, and legacy. The activities included live music by DJ LoLo, a film screening of the PBS documentary “Vel Phillips: Dreaming Big Dreams”, a panel conversation about Philips, and a community engagement fair that presented opportunities to meet community leaders and organizers of the city. 

“We have all been shaped by her efforts, her tireless pursuits of equity, justice, and freedom,” said Kantara Souffrant, the curator of community dialogue at the Milwaukee Art Museum. “We are here to amplify Vel Phillips’ life, while also signaling how artists and community members [can] continue these pursuits today.”

A Woman of Many Firsts

Philips was a woman of many firsts. She was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. She was the first Black woman to be elected to the Milwaukee Common Council. The first Black woman judge in the State of Wisconsin and she was the first Black woman to be elected to a statewide office in Wisconsin and the entire nation. 

“Even after her body left the physical earth, we can feel her spirit with us here today. She faced some really incredible odds, almost  insurmountable odds, I say almost insurmountable odds because she was, after all, Vel. R. Phillips.” 

– Mayor Cavalier Johnson

The legacy of Vel Phillips continues strong in the Milwaukee community and her legacy will continue to grow within the Year of Vel. 

Maria Peralta-Arellano is a Milwaukee-native journalist who focuses on sharing news from her local communities. She dedicates her work to accessibility and producing bilingual coverage focused on arts, culture, and politics. She looks to explore her community through a journalistic and creative lens.

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