Preliminary approval clears next hurdle for Vel Phillips statue project on State Capitol grounds


The Wisconsin Capitol grounds are set to display a statue of Vel Phillips, longtime Wisconsin civil rights advocate after a subcommittee voted on a preliminary proposal on July 13.

Phillips was a lifelong political trailblazer, achieving many firsts, from being the first black woman to graduate from University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School to becoming the first black woman and person elected. to a statewide post when she won a race for secretary of state in 1978. She died in 2018 at the age of 94.

The proposal for a statue of Phillips received preliminary approval from a subcommittee of the State Capitol and Executive Residence Board. Phillips’ son Michael Phillips said it was difficult to sum up his mother’s life in one citation for an accompanying plaque. The idea to include a citation on the plaque came during the subcommittee meeting.

“I called her and maybe 20 minutes later I got the answer to the question, ‘Mom, did you see the game? “,” Michael Phillips said on July 13. “She was telling a story, so putting it together in a sentence or two is something I’m going to have to think about.”

Michael Phillips spearheaded efforts to make the statue a reality. He said he wanted the statue to raise awareness of who his mother was.

“We hope it’s going to be here for a few hundred years,” he said. “Hopefully a hundred years from now it won’t be a strange thing to have a person of color in the governor’s office. … These things won’t, they won’t seem so far-fetched.

Dave Endres, a member of the Vel Phillips Statue Task Force, said the breadth of his accomplishments created a challenge in deciding how to handle an accompanying plaque.

“The difficulty with Vel, of course, is that she has so many firsts,” Endres said. “If we were to list, try to list all the firsts and all the accomplishments she’s had, we would need more than the plate space allows. “

The statue was first offered amid last year’s protests against racial injustice and police brutality. The new statue would join two others damaged during these protests. The statue is slated to be sculpted by Radcliffe Bailey, a black artist from Atlanta whose works can be found in museums across the country.

Marilu Knode, another member of the task force, described Bailey as “the perfect guy” to understand Phillips and “make her really good”.

“Bailey is a black artist who hacks into western art history and somehow makes it alive and relevant to a new community,” Knode said.

Knode said the committee responsible for the statue aimed to find “an artist who could represent the world we live in now.”

“Sometimes you want an artist to reflect something more conceptual, sometimes something more figurative, and Radcliffe has that ability,” Knode said.

Michael Phillips said the task force is preparing the statue as much as possible with the hope that Bailey will take the statue next year or 2023. While the proposal will now be transferred to the entire State Capitol and Executive Residence Board , the proposal will come back to the subcommittee for further consideration once some details regarding the statue are finalized.


Julio V. Miller

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