When two State Capitol statues were removed by protesters of police brutality this summer, a new statue was proposed–one of trailblazer Vel Phillips. Phillips broke barrier after barrier during her life. Now, she is poised to be the first statue of a person of color on capitol grounds.
Vel Phillips was the first African American woman to graduate from UW-Madison School of Law. She was the first woman to sit on Milwaukee’s Common Council. When she became a judge in the 1970’s, she was the first woman judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. Later she was elected Wisconsin’s Secretary of State–again, she was the first woman and first African American elected to a statewide office.
The statue honoring Philips would be managed by the state’s Department of Administration (DOA)–specifically, the 16-person State Capitol and Executive Residence Board (SCERB). Last month, SCERB created a sub-committee to consider the Vel Phillips Statue proposal. They met Tuesday.
SCERB Secretary Paula Veltum says a 1995 a rule states no new monuments can be placed on the exterior unless another is removed. A similar rule was created in 2007, but this time for inside the capitol. Therefore, an exception will need to be made for a new statue on Capitol grounds. Veltum says that previous exceptions have in regards to additions for existing monuments.
Technically the sub-committee did not vote on where to place the statue or vote to create an exception for the Vel Phillip’s statue but they collectively favor the exterior.
The group also discussed the statue’s design. She will be 6 foot and have a similar base as other statues on the capitol square. She will be modeled on a picture that Michael Phillips says reflects his mother’s grace and stature. A bronze plaque will be attached to the base. Phillips is working on the transcription. His current draft includes the Norman Vincent Peale quote, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
Sub-committee member and architect Arlan Kay says he would like the design criteria to allow the artist some artistic freedom. “I would hate to have this dictated and not be able to reach for the stars,” says Kay.
The sub-committee will meet again in May to finalize location, the plaque, and guidelines for the artist selected for the statue. The full SCERB board will then have a chance to review the sub-committee’s decisions.
Boys and Girls Club of Dane County President Michael Johnson has been working on the statue effort since the summer. Johnson envisions the statue to stand facing East Hamilton Street and reflect Phillips from the middle of her career. “I think we have a chance to do something epic here in our state, and show the rest of the country that you can celebrate Black people,” Johnson explains. “This will be a great way to honor the feedback that I got from those young people at the capitol, but also honor the legacy of a phenomenal woman who has done so much for our state.”
Johnson has put together a task force of community members that presented the statue proposal to SCERB and they are now focused on fundraising. You can find their fundraising campaign here. SCERB estimates the cost of the statue to be $241,000. Any additional funds raised by the task force will be used to create an endowment fund for youth education opportunities.
Image used with permission from Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-28115