Add a capitol statue of the first African American WI Secretary of State: Vel Phillips

Add a capitol statue of the first African American WI Secretary of State: Vel Phillips

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Open Letter from Michael Johnson, President & CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, to the State Capitol Executive Residency Board Regarding Proposed Statue of Vel Phillips, the first African American to be elected in America to a Statewide Office

June 29, 2020

Dear State Senator Fred A. Risser:

I understand the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board is responsible for maintaining state property, decorative furniture, and furnishings of the capitol and executive residence, including the statues that are outside of the Capitol. I would like to take this opportunity to propose a recommendation to the 16-member State Capitol and Executive Residence Board.

I am recommending that you consider constructing a statue of Vel Phillips which could be prominently displayed outside of the Capitol. I was informed by a group of young people and Capitol staff that there are no prominent pieces of art that reflect the contributions of African Americans in the Capitol building. 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.

As the state begins to repair the statues that were recently damaged I encourage you to think about our current environment, the achievements of African Americans in Wisconsin and I can’t think of a better person to recommend than Mrs. Vel Phillips.

Her life and legacy was 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. She was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison law school. She was the first woman to be elected to Milwaukee’s City Council, and was appointed the first African American judge in our state. Additionally, Mrs. Phillips was the first African American woman in the United States to be elected to a statewide office by becoming Wisconsin’s first African American Secretary of State. Mrs. Phillips did it all at a time when many African Americans were not allowed to exercise their civil rights. 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.

With the recent civil unrest that is happening in Wisconsin, and across the country, I’m encouraging you to honor her legacy by approving a statue to be placed at the Capitol building, thus recognizing her contributions as a representative of the African American community. The young people of Wisconsin and generations thereafter need to see that representation matters and they need to see heroes and leaders that reflect the ecosystem of our communities at large.

Please note, there is an abundance of documentaries and written materials about Mrs. Phillip’s contributions to Wisconsin. I hope you will consider passing a resolution to diversify the prominent figures outside of our state Capitol by adding an African American figure who was a beloved trailblazer, role model and a leader for thousands of people in our state.

Thank you for your leadership and for considering this request. I plan to call the Governor’s office immediately after submitting this letter to schedule a meeting with you so we can help begin the healing process and allow African Americans to be represented in prominent art displays around our state Capitol. Thanks again for your consideration!

With Warmest Regards,

Michael Johnson, President & CEO
Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County

C: Governor Tony Evers, Wisconsin State Legislature, Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus

For more information on Vel Phillips, please see this PBS WI documentary of her legacy: