A statue of the first Black woman to become secretary of state in Wisconsin could go up in front of the state Capitol building as early as next summer.
The statue, honoring Vel Phillips, will be placed in a similar position to the other statues around the building, facing South Hamilton Street, said Michael Johnson, the CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County and a member of a committee selected to work out the details of the statue.
The advisory committee was set by Gov. Tony Evers in early December, in response to Johnson’s research on placing a statue that showed the diversity of the state.
“When all the protests were happening downtown, a group of young people met with me and asked if I realized there was no representation of people of color around the state Capitol,” he said. “I walked around and witnessed it myself, and called the Governor’s office, and they confirmed it.”
Johnson started to reach out to members of different communities to form a committee dedicated to making sure there was more representation, including representation from across the state. They selected to memorialize Phillips, who contributed so much to the state during her lifetime.
In his announcement of the committee, Evers said he was looking forward to making the Capitol grounds a “more accurate reflection” of the state’s diversity and history.
The statue is expected to cost about $250,000, said Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison, who is a part of the committee. The group anticipates being able to raise money for the memorial through private industries and charitable donations.
Johnson said that memorializing Phillips in such a prominent position in Wisconsin’s capital city is an important step to honoring the diversity of the state.
“Representation matters,” he said. “I think it’s good for the white kids and kids of color to see that the fabric of our community represented at the state capitol.”
Stubbs said the statue is much needed on the Capitol grounds.
“Representation of Black success within our Capitol building is long overdue. Our Capitol building is the people’s house, and it needs to show the true makeup of our great state,” she said in an email to the Journal Sentinel.
“Vel Phillips was an extraordinary figure who inspired a whole generation. She blazed a trail for Black women to become political leaders. There is no better person to display the success that can be achieved by people of color in our state.”
Vel Phillips’ career
In 1951, Velvalea Phillips became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and in 1956 she became the first woman and first African American on the Milwaukee Common Council.
During her time on the Common Council, she fought for an open-housing ordinance to bar discrimination in rental and home sales, only to see it voted down year after year. Finally, in 1986, the measure passed, after a year of open-housing marches through Milwaukee
Her career didn’t stop there. Phillips went on to become the first African American woman to become a judge in Wisconsin. And later, made history as the first African American woman elected as secretary of state in Wisconsin, where she continued her work for civil rights and women’s equality.
Phillips died in April 2018. In Milwaukee, parts of North Fourth Street have been renamed Vel R. Phillips Avenue. A University of Wisconsin-Madison residence hall is named after her.
Michael Phillips, Vel’s son and member of the statue committee, said the process to get the statue up may be long but it’s worth it to see her legacy live on.
“My mom fought for civil rights, the rights of all people. Because when one minority is liberated, it frees all people,” he said. “If her image can bring some measure of inspiration to anyone, children or anyone who visits the Capitol, that’s the point of it.”
After she spent her life blazing trails for others, Michael Phillips said he thinks she would have loved the statue.
“She would be overjoyed,” he said. “There’s no doubt.”
Johnson said the committee so far has met twice to discuss the statue, and they’ve seen a rendering of the design. He’s hoping a Wisconsin artist will be able to create it, but the decision will likely come from a bid process, he said.
The statue will be formally proposed at the next meeting of the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board, which is expected to take place sometime in January. If approved, the committee will be able to move forward with selecting a sculptor and fundraising for the statue.
In addition to the statue of Vel Phillips, the statues of Col. Hans Christian Heg and the “Forward” statues are being restored after they were damaged during a summer of protests. In early December, Evers announced $60,000 in grants that would help fund the restoration of the two statues.
The statues are expected to be reinstalled next summer.
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.