On November 25, 1978, the Cleveland Call and Post declared prominently on the front page “In Wisconsin Black Woman Elected Secretary of State.” Just one week prior to the declaration, Velvalea Rodgers Phillips became the first African American to win the office and the first African-American woman to win a statewide election in Wisconsin. Somewhat overshadowed by the defeat of Governor Martin Schreiber’s reelection bid, the Call and Post announced that Phillips concurrently became the “top elected democrat in the state.”
Silent on Phillips’ victory, the New York Times twice covered Schreiber’s defeat on November 8 and 9.158 According to the Washington Post, “blacks barely [broke] even in the election” nationally, noting several losses before papering over Phillips’ victory.159 Unlike the other outlets, after discussing the racial statistics of the election in a separate column, the Call and Post chose to devote a whole segment to Phillips’ historic win.
A powerhouse at a young age, Phillips earned a scholarship to Howard University and then went on to be the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. In 1956 she won election to the Milwaukee city council where she served until her appointment as a county judge. As the first African-American judge in the state and the first black woman judge in the county, Phillips had already broken many barriers prior to her 1978 bid for the secretary of state.
As a community activist, Phillips was an active participant in the civil rights movement, all the while raising two sons. After her tenure on the bench, she went on to teach law at the University of Wisconsin before taking office as secretary. Her long history of public service and political engagement remains inspiring to this day.