The Women Who Have Built Milwaukee County
March is Women’s History Month, and we’re proud to celebrate the women who have built our county, nation and world. As we work toward equity and justice in our community, it’s important to recognize these influential women.
Women hold a growing number of leadership positions throughout our organization. Seven members of our County Board of Supervisors are women, including our First and Second Vice County Board Chairs. Half of our County department heads are female, as is our Chief Judge. I’m honored to work alongside these leaders, and I’m humbled by the female leaders of our County’s past.
We celebrate the many women who have shaped our past so that we can create a future that’s full of opportunity for the next generation. This means more choice, less bias, equal access and fair pay. And it’s more than women having a seat at the table — it’s women having a seat at the head of the table.
Check back each Friday this month for a new feature, and follow Women’s History Month updates on Instagram and Facebook. I’m proud to recognize these leaders’ contributions to our history as we build an equitable and just Milwaukee County.
Bernice K. Rose
Bernice K. Rose, known as a political and civil rights activist, was the first black woman elected to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. She dedicated her life to service and community. Bernice Rose was elected a County Board Supervisor after the death of her husband, Clinton, in 1977 and served in a distinguished manner until her retirement in 1992. She passed away Feb. 4, 2000.
Prior to her death, she designated a fund at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to support African American students who want to attend historically black colleges and universities. The Bernice K. Rose Memorial Scholarship Fund provides opportunities for local students to attend such higher educational institutions as Florida A&M and Howard University.
In addition to the memorial scholarship fund, there’s Rose Park — a 9.1-acre site located on the north side of the City of Milwaukee.
Milwaukee County first renamed the park in the late 1970s in honor of Bernice’s husband, who served as a County Supervisor from 1968 until his death in 1977 and acted as a Park Commissioner between 1972 and 1976. The senior center constructed in the park in 1982 was also named in his honor.
In an effort to recognize Ms. Rose’s contributions to the County Board and in, general, the community, the Milwaukee County Board renamed the park and senior center to Clinton E. and Bernice K. Rose Park and Clinton E. and Bernice K. Rose Senior Center.
Vel R. Phillips
Velvalea (Vel) R. Phillips lived in Bronzeville, a majority African American neighborhood in Milwaukee, the place she started her political career. As an attorney, politician, jurist and Civil Rights leader, Vel accomplished many “firsts” in life, while building a critical connection, across racial divides for influence in Milwaukee County. In a 2002 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she said, “Whenever I was the first black, I was also usually the first woman, and there were certain things you just couldn’t do. You certainly had to bite your lip. And you couldn’t show a tear because that, or course, would be too female.”
- 1951 – First black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. Vel and her husband, Dale Phillips, were the first husband and wife couple admitted to the Wisconsin bar.
- 1953 – First black candidate to make it past the non-partisan citywide primary election (Milwaukee Board of School Directors).
- 1956 – First woman and first African American member of the Milwaukee Common Council, where she served for 15 years. Beginning in 1962 she began introducing a fair housing ordinance that was defeated by the council 18-1, each time she brought it up, until the federal fair housing law passed in April 1968.
- 1960 – First black person to be elected as a member of the Democratic National Committee.
- 1971 – First woman Children’s Court judge in Milwaukee County and the first African American judge in Wisconsin, she was appointed by Gov. Patrick J. Lucey.
- 1978 – First woman and first African American person elected to a statewide office, Wisconsin’s Secretary of State.
Her advocacy and legacy spanned her time in public office. Vel remained committed to public service, continuing to speak to school groups and serve on the boards of the Wisconsin Conservatory and America’s Black Holocaust Museum. Vel died on April 17, 2018, at the age of 95 — exactly 50 years after the passage of the federal fair housing legislation.
Across Milwaukee, there are several reminders of her legacy. North 4th Street from Bronzeville to downtown is named in her honor, the Milwaukee County’s Children’s Court facility is named the Vel R. Phillips Youth & Family Justice Center, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison named a residence hall for her. In 2018, former Gov. Scott Walker recommended in the capital budget that the future state office building in Milwaukee be named in her honor. The State Building Commission and Legislature will consider this in 2019.