Lady of Firsts

Digital Medium • 5000 x 8000 PX

Printing and Framing by Greenwood Park Gallery, Milwaukee


This piece is one of an 11 canvas installation called "Portrait of Milwaukee Progress" commissioned by the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).

Vel Phillips



Vel Phillips’ life was a series of firsts. She was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison law school and the first to win a seat on Milwaukee’s City Council. She was the first African American woman to become Secretary of State of Wisconsin, and also the first to become a judge. And she did it all at a time when many African Americans were not allowed to exercise their civil rights. In 1962, Velvalea Hortense Rodgers “Vel” Phillips proposed a Fair Housing Law, and she participated in nonviolent protests against discrimination along with Father Groppi. They led people on an historic 200 nights of marching. Riots broke out in 1967, four people were killed and Ms Phillips was arrested at a rally. Finally, in 1968, the Fair Housing Law that Vel had written six years earlier passed the city council. Throughout her life, Vel Philips remained a steadfast leader in our society as law professor and lecturer, and an active philanthropist. She also worked to elevate other leaders. Vel Philips chaired the campaign of US Rep. Gwen Moore, who became Wisconsin’s first African American in the US House of Representatives. After Vel Philip’s passing in 2018, at the City of Milwaukee honored her significant contributions by renaming a section of 4th Street after her.

About this piece

Vel Phillips stood out as a good subject to include in the “Portrait of Milwaukee Progress” installation because in a time when it was very difficult to succeed in politics as a person of color or as a woman - she was both and made her way forth with poise and steadiness through decades of public service. Vel Phillips is Milwaukee at its best. In the painting, I focused on an image of Ms Phillips from her youth - fresh faced and energetic. In the background I have incorporated two images - the background is Ms Phillips speaking to the court and in the midground a scene from the fair housing protests she supported and led with Father Groppi.


The following 11 pieces comprise the installation, "Portrait of Milwaukee Progress", commissioned by Milwaukee Area Technical College. 

The Founding Mother of Milwaukee

Pioneer for LGBTQ Rights

Fighting for Worker's Rights

Lady of Firsts

Anti Segregation Leader

The Priest Leading the Protest for Fair Housing

Milwaukee's Golda

The Chinese Rockefeller of Milwaukee

Feminist of the 19th Century

Wisconsin's First Female Doctor

Men's Suffrage Leader