The Madison School Board plans to take up a committee recommendation to change the name of James Madison Memorial High School to Vel Phillips Memorial High School on Nov 22.
A committee of community members charged with the task of renaming the high school brought their suggestion before the board’s Operations Work Group on Monday after a five-month deliberation process. The committee whittled a list of 26 names to four, and finally settled on Phillips in a 10-1 vote last month.
“There’s something profound about a name like that, and someone with that history, that can be taught to not just one race but all races,” committee chair Julian Walters said during a September meeting. “That seems more unifying to me.”
Phillips was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School School, win a seat on the Milwaukee City Council, become a judge in Wisconsin and get elected to statewide office. She died in 2018 at the age of 95.
“We’ve been talking about this since we were in high school, too,” board vice president Savion Castro said of the name change during the Monday meeting. “The fact that we’re able to act on a proposal from a student at the time means a lot as well.”
The committee sought feedback from the public on four finalists prior to its decision: Vel Phillips Memorial High School, Darlene M. Hancock Memorial High School, Bruce Dahmen Memorial High School and Memorial High School.
A large number of written public comments were in favor of shortening the existing name to Memorial High School, but that name was ultimately defeated in a 5-6 committee vote, Walters said.
The name change is the latest of several decisions spurred by Black students pushing for a racial reckoning in Madison. Former Memorial student Mya Berry called on the board to rename the school in August 2020 because James Madison, the fourth U.S. president and the city’s namesake, was a slave owner.
“I have been really impressed with the analysis of our students and why it’s important to change this name, and the impact it has on young people to enter a school that’s named after a person that’s owned other human beings,” board president Ali Muldrow said.
A proposal to place a statue of Phillips on the Capitol grounds was approved last week.
The state Capitol and Executive Residence Board voted unanimously to erect a statue of Phillips at the South Hamilton Street entrance to the Capitol, up the street from the Dane County Courthouse.
Officials said when completed, it will be the first statue in the nation on a state Capitol’s grounds honoring an African American woman.