Mighty Trailblazer’s Legacy Reshaped the State’s Civil, Legal Landscape Forever
The State Capitol and Executive Residence Board is poised to add another first behind Vel Phillips’ name.
The board is scheduled to soon vote on a proposal to install a statue of Phillips—the first woman and first African American member of the Milwaukee Common Council, the first female African American judge in Wisconsin, and the first woman and first African American to hold statewide elected office—outside the state capitol. The statue of Phillips would make Wisconsin’s capitol the first one in the United States to include a statue of a Black woman.
Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, told UMOJA Magazine that the idea was born amid the protests on the Capitol Square that followed the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.
Johnson went to the Square one night, to show his support for the protestors. Dawn was nearing as the tear gas dispersed and the last of the protestors drifted off into the darkness.
“I was one of the last people to leave at 4 a.m.,” Johnson said. “A group of young people came up to me and said, ‘There’s no representation at the state capitol for people of color, especially Black people.’”
Johnson found that hard to believe. But when he called the governor’s office the next day, the staffer he spoke to confirmed it.
Johnson set out to change that. After consulting with community members, Johnson wrote a letter to the board proposing that a statue of Phillips be installed at the capitol. He also put together a task force to shepherd the proposal and raise money for the statue. To date, the task force has raised $308,000 for the statue.
Johnson said it’s about time a Black person is represented at the capitol. The other two statues installed outside the capitol depict Col. Hans Christian Heg, a Norwegian-American abolitionist and Wisconsinite killed at the Battle of Chickamauga during the Civil War, and a robed woman with her right arm raised. The latter statue is known as “Forward” and represents a Eurocentric embodiment of the state’s motto.
“Given everything that’s going on in America, I think this is long overdue,” Johnson said. “African Americans and people of color have been in this country for hundreds and hundreds of years and the fact there’s representation says a lot. White kids need to see people of color and vice versa.”
The outpouring of donations to the task force proves that others share Johnson’s sentiment.
“Hundreds of people have contributed online,” Johnson said. “We’ve got donations as small as 15 cents up to the former county executive in Milwaukee who contributed $53,000.”
Michael Phillips said the statue would mean the world to his mother, who died in 2018 at the age of 95.
“She’d be absolutely overjoyed. She would be there and I’d be pushing her in a wheelchair and she’d be giving every interview she could.”
Phillips said installation of the statue would be a testament to his mother’s commitment to bipartisanship, something that’s increasingly rare in the Wisconsin capitol and other statehouses across the country.
“She worked across the aisle like nobody’s business. She was a Democrat but she worked with Scott Walker, she worked with Tommy Thompson, she worked with every Republican who ever came into her sphere.”
Phillips said the biggest hurdle to the statue proposal hasn’t been politics so much as bureaucracy, in the form of a 70-year-old board policy against any new statuary on the capitol grounds.
“It has to be something of note to get through the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board,” Phillips said. “And I think this is it.”
A board subcommittee approved the proposal on July 13. If the board blesses the proposal, Phillips, who lives in Milwaukee, said he plans to be at the capitol for the unveiling of his mother’s statue.
“I’ve got some folks coming up from Atlanta, I’ve got my sons and I’ve got all my friends and we will be there and we throw a party and pat a few folks on the back for helping get this done.”
Johnson said he’s optimistic the statue will happen.
“’I’ve spoken to the governor about this, I’ve spoken to Republican legislators about this, I’ve spoken to state officials across the board and I gotta believe collectively that they’re all going to do the right thing.”