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Proposal would add statue of Vel Phillips at Wisconsin Capitol

Proposal would add statue of Vel Phillips at Wisconsin Capitol

Vel Phillips

Vel Phillips was the first African American woman to graduate from the UW-Madison School of Law in 1951. She became a leader in the civil rights movement and Wisconsin’s first African American secretary of state.

After the chaotic events last week that included protesters toppling two statues outside the state Capitol, Boys & Girls Club president and CEO Michael Johnson has proposed including a statue of the African American trailblazer Vel Phillips to the statuary.

“I am recommending that you consider constructing a statue of Vel Phillips which could be prominently displayed outside of the Capitol,” Johnson wrote Tuesday in an open letter to state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison.

Michael Phillips, Vel Phillips' son, said the family wholeheartedly supports the proposal.

"I believe the times within which we live are asking for this, almost mandating it," he said from his home in Milwaukee. "It seems to me that many of the young people who are finding some disaffection with the times have been asking for this." 

Johnson said that the Capitol is devoid of artworks that reflect the contributions African Americans have made to the state.

“African Americans have provided leadership in our state for more than 150 years and it’s time to ensure the Capitol celebrates that leadership and display the diversity that our state has to offer,” he wrote. 

People enraged by the Capitol Square arrest of a protester last week toppled a replica of the iconic “Forward,” a classical depiction of a women beckoning the future with her hand, and decapitating a statue of Hans Christian Heg before dumping the abolitionist and Civil War casualty into Lake Monona.

That placed “Forward” and Heg among the pantheon of statues toppled or defaced nationwide as racial equity protesters turned their attention to the historical legacy Black people have been largely denied, despite centuries of hardship, achievement and heroism. Many of the statues, particularly in the South, have had ties to slavery or white supremacy. Some have decried the hostility toward "Forward" and Heg, which have no such connotations, as misdirected. 

In his letter, Johnson points to Phillips extensive list of “firsts” that make her a natural fit for the Capitol grounds.

Phillips died two years ago at 94 after a lifetime of breaking barriers. In 1979 she won the race for Wisconsin secretary of state, making her the first Black woman in the nation to be elected to a statewide office. She was the first black woman to graduate from the UW Law School, the first woman and the first Black person elected to the Milwaukee City Council, and the state’s first Black judge.

“Mrs. Phillips did it all at a time when many African Americans were not allowed to exercise their civil rights,” Johnson writes. “She was intelligent, courageous, bold, fearless and worked with legislators and community organizers to pass ordinances and legislation that would improve the lives of Wisconsinites during very difficult times.”

Brandi Grayson, a prominent local activist who has taken a lead role in the recent protests, called the proposal "a wonderful idea."

"She was a die-hard civil rights activist," Grayson said in an email. "She is the epitome of Black womanhood; I think a statue of Vel Phillips would be amazingly amazing in the heart of our city. As a symbol of the Movement of Black Lives and the new era that's upon us — which is the re-defining of our human-beingness."

Risser, chairman of the State Capitol Executive Residence Board, said the board has a policy against new statues on the Capitol grounds, so a statue of Phillips would be an exception. 

"They wanted to stress the two statues that were there, 'Forward' and Heg," he said. "People are always wanting statues on the Capitol. When they made that policy they had a situation where they didn't want to fill the Capitol Square with statues." 

He said the board could vote on an exception, or the Legislature could step in and override the policy. 

Risser, the Legislature's longest-serving lawmaker, said he was serving in the Assembly when Philliips was elected secretary of state. He called her an "icon."

"Honoring Vel would be a great idea," he said. 

State Rep. Shelia Stubbs, Dane County's first African American lawmaker, said that the Capitol needs more images of African Americans.

"There aren't even any photos of African Americans on the wall," she said. 

She sees Phillips as someone whose legacy merits the honor.

"People have always regarded her highly," Stubbs said. "She's done a lot for the state of Wisconsin."

She added that the process would likely be long and expensive, requiring approval by both legislative chambers, which are currently controlled by Republicans, and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. 

"You definitely would need it to be bipartisan legislation," she said. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Republican members of the State Capitol Executive Residence Board did not return messages for comment. 

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.

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