Vel Phillips, Housing Rights Champion in the ′60s, Dies at 95
Posted April 25, 2018 3:20 p.m. EDT
Vel Phillips, a barrier-breaking African-American lawmaker from Milwaukee who became an influential voice in the national movement for fair housing during the 1960s, died April 17 in Mequon, Wisconsin. She was 95.
Her son Michael confirmed the death.
Phillips — the first African-American to serve on the city’s Common Council and the first woman elected to it — began introducing open-housing bills in 1962, two years after championing civil rights at the Democratic National Convention that nominated Sen. John F. Kennedy for president.
The city legislation’s aim was to end practices by landlords and real estate agents that had made it nearly impossible for blacks to find housing beyond Milwaukee’s so-called inner core, a rundown section where nearly all the city’s black population lived.
But she faced repeated opposition from the other members of the council, all of them white and male. Several times her bills were defeated, 18-1.
“I can only say one thing,” Phillips said at a council hearing after the bill was rejected in June 1967. “That either you don’t read, and you are not sufficiently knowledgeable to speak to the subject, and that could well be — or you’re just afraid to speak, or you lack the courage to speak.”
Her frustration was mirrored by protesters who marched in the city for 200 consecutive nights beginning in late August 1967. The Rev. James Groppi, a Roman Catholic priest who organized the protests with the NAACP youth council, became the fiery ally Phillips needed to keep the housing issue alive.
Although initially hesitant to join the marchers — she had earlier refused to picket other aldermen’s homes — she believed she had to fight for her law.
“We intend to march, all of us, until we get some of the basic freedoms that are ours,” she told the council that September.
But the council barely budged. It passed a watered-down law in November, which she opposed.
“Thanks for nothing,” she said to her colleagues. “You are very much too late and very much too little.”
The demonstrations eventually ended, but national events began to move the housing debate in Milwaukee in Phillips’s direction. The assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, was followed six days later by congressional passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Later that month, the Common Council, with several new members, including a second African-American, passed, by a 15-4 vote, a housing discrimination bill that had been strengthened by an amendment by Phillips.
“I think it’s a pretty great day for the city,” she said afterward.
Patrick Jones, author of “The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee” (2009), said Phillips’ decision to join the protests was important to the housing fight because of her prominence as a lawyer, legislator and member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“That was significant symbolically, and no doubt ensured support for those demonstrations by a broad array of Milwaukee’s African-American middle class,” Jones said in a telephone interview.
Velvalea Hortense Rodgers was born in Milwaukee on Feb. 18, 1923. Her father, Russell, was a restaurant owner and mechanic. Her mother, Thelma Payne Rodgers, was a homemaker who also helped out at the restaurant.
Velvalea, who was named for one of her aunts, won a scholarship to Howard University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. She then became the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison.
While in Madison, she and her husband, W. Dale Phillips, also a law student, moved out of their housing in protest after white residents circulated a petition against allowing other African-Americans to move in.
“That was quite a shattering experience, and it spoiled it for me,” she said in “Dream Big Dreams,” a documentary about her produced by Robert Trondson in 2015 for Wisconsin Public Television.
In 2011, the university renamed a dormitory in her honor.
After graduation, the Phillipses opened a law firm in Milwaukee.
Vel Phillips lost her first political bid, for a seat on the Milwaukee school board, in 1953. She ran for the Common Council three years later. Needing money to campaign, she found out that her husband had saved up $3,600 to buy her a mink coat.
“So I said to him, ‘Dale, I’d rather run than have a mink coat,'” she told Milwaukee magazine in 2005. “'And if it’s for me, I should do what I want with it.'”
She won the race but was not welcomed by her colleagues. No one wanted to share an office with her. She was not invited to join them in the backroom dealing that was typical of the era. She was urged to join the aldermen’s wives club.
“Many nights — I wouldn’t let my husband know — I’d cry myself to sleep,” she said in “Dream Big Dreams.”
Her party activism led to her election as a national committeewoman for the Democratic Party in 1958. Re-elected two years later, she was placed on the Democrats’ platform committee. A few days after the party had nominated Kennedy in Los Angeles, Phillips resisted an appeal by Sen. Spessard L. Holland of Florida to weaken the party’s proposed civil rights plank, which Southern delegations vigorously opposed as “government-enforced social equality.”
As recounted by The Associated Press, she asked Holland, “How, Senator, can you expect the nations of the world to respect us if we take a weak position on enforcing equality for all our citizens?”
Holland insisted that the party could not win the presidential election if its civil rights position flouted Southern customs.
“Winning isn’t nearly so important as doing the right thing,” she responded.
The party, resisting the objections of Southern segregationists, went on to adopt the strongest civil rights platform it ever had.
Phillips stayed on the Milwaukee Common Council until 1971, when Gov. Patrick Lucey of Wisconsin, a Democrat, made her the state’s first black judge, appointing her to the children’s court for Milwaukee County. She served only briefly before losing an election to the position the next year.
Phillips then taught and practiced law until she was elected secretary of state in 1978, the first black candidate to win statewide office in Wisconsin.
In 1981, she was reprimanded by the state ethics board for taking fees for speeches and had to repay $8,000. When she sought re-election in 1982, she was defeated in the Democratic primary. “I never felt I did anything wrong,” she told Milwaukee magazine.
In addition to her son Michael, she is survived by four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Her son Dale died in 2005. Her husband died in 1988.
In recent years, Phillips started a foundation that provides scholarships for minority students, joined a grass-roots organization called the Community Brainstorming Conference and mentored politicians, among them Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis.
Moore, in a telephone interview, recounted the time in 2004 when Phillips called her to encourage her to run for a newly vacated congressional seat.
“'Oh, my God, Gwen, we’re going to have so much fun!'” Moore recalled Phillips telling her. Phillips became chairwoman of her campaign.
“Maybe,” Moore said, “this is what that meant to me in retrospect: Vel was not a poor African-American. She was middle class and engaged with the poorest people in the community around a cause, open housing, that was extremely important to us. And she was the first person to say to me, ‘Girl, go for it.’ She was the one on my side who wasn’t scared.”