Black History Month: A Wisconsin Perspective

Jennifer Graham, Librarian

Black History Month is celebrated nationally every year during the month of February. 

Carter G. Woodson, who founded what is now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), organized the first program for African Americans of all ages and walks of life. What started as a weeklong celebration in 1926 has become an important remembrance of the contributions of African Americans in history. 

Today, countless celebrations are held during the month to memorialize and celebrate Black Lives in America. A different theme is chosen every year by the ASALH to bring attention to developments that merit emphasis. This year’s theme is “Black Resistance” which explores how African Americans have pushed back against oppression in the States throughout history.  

Black Resistance is embodied in the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power Movements and past and ongoing social justice movements, including Black Lives Matter (BLM). When we think of these historical movements, many names come to mind such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. Then there are names that may not readily come to mind like Ezekial Gillespie, Vel Phillips and Lloyd Barbee who made contributions to Wisconsin’s Black Resistance. 

Notably, Vel Phillips’ refusal to stand down in the face of adversity makes her an important figure in African American and Wisconsin history. Velvalea Hortense Rodgers Phillips (1923-2018) was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After graduating from Howard University, she attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and graduated with her law degree in 1951. She was the first African American woman to get her law degree from the university, one of many firsts throughout her life. In 1956 Vel Phillips became the first African American and first woman elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council. During her tenure on the Common Council, she suffered many slights and faced racism and sexism daily. 

In 1962, Vel Phillips introduced the Phillips Housing Ordinance – a bill to outlaw housing discrimination in Milwaukee – which was defeated 18 to 1, with hers being the only vote in favor of the ordinance. Yet she persisted and introduced the bill three more times. Unfortunately, the bill was not passed despite her efforts. Thus in 1967, she joined forces with the Milwaukee NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Youth Council in their organized march to bring awareness to the issue of fair and open housing for Milwaukee’s Black population. 

It wasn’t until later in 1968 after the federal government passed an open housing law that the Milwaukee Common Council passed its own city-wide open housing ordinance. Vel Phillips’ resistance along with many other individuals in Milwaukee set the stage for the continued push for equal and civil rights in housing and beyond. 

There are many resources at the Madison College library that exemplify Black Resistance including the Wisconsin PBS documentary titled “Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams” (2015), Truax location number: 323.092 V432 DVD. More resources can be found through the library’s research guide on African American History