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'Representation matters': Boys & Girls Club CEO proposes statue to honor Vel Phillips

'Representation matters': Boys & Girls Club CEO proposes statue to honor Vel Phillips

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Michael Johnson, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, is calling on state leaders to erect a statue at the Capitol honoring Vel Phillips, an African American activist and politician who marked many firsts for Wisconsin and the nation.

Last week, protesters against racial injustice toppled statues on the Capitol Square of “Forward,” which has come to represent the state’s motto, progress and women’s rights, and Hans Christian Heg, an immigrant Union Civil War colonel who died fighting to end slavery. Protesters said the statues had whitewashed the state’s poor record addressing economic, educational and criminal justice system racial inequality.

On Tuesday, Johnson sent his request in a letter to state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, chairman of the State Capitol Executive Residence Board, a bipartisan committee responsible for the maintenance and decoration of Capitol grounds.

In his proposal, Johnson outlined some of Phillips’ many achievements, describing her as a trailblazer and leader for thousands in the state.

“Her life and legacy were a series of firsts in our state and we should honor, celebrate and acknowledge her contributions to Wisconsin and to the United States of America,” Johnson wrote.

Phillips, who died in 2018, was the first Black woman to graduate from the UW–Madison law school, the first woman to be elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. When she was elected secretary of state in 1978, she became the nation’s first Black woman elected to a statewide office.

Referencing the current political climate and civil unrest happening throughout the state and the nation, Johnson encouraged the Executive Residence Board to consider the achievements of Black Wisconsinites as it begins to repair the fallen statues and work toward a “healing process.”

Johnson also noted that no artwork from African American artists is currently displayed in the Capitol building.

“The young people of Wisconsin and generations thereafter need to see that representation matters,” Johnson said in the proposal. “They need to see heroes and leaders that reflect the ecosystem of our communities at large.”

According to a state statute, no installation of fixtures in Capitol buildings or on the grounds is allowed until voted on by the 16-person Executive Residence Board.

Johnson urged Risser and other members of the board to pass a resolution that would showcase statues of diverse figures outside of the Capitol building.

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

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