From the DPI ConnectEd newsletter
New curriculum and an educator-oriented site will help teachers (especially at the high school level) use a documentary about a remarkable Milwaukee woman and the struggles she undertook to build a better community. Vel Phillips became Milwaukee’s first African-American and first female city council member. She rose to prominence as one of Wisconsin’s great civil rights activists, as a judge, and as Wisconsin Secretary of State (in which office she learned a hard lesson regarding ethics rules).
Phillips ran for the city’s Common Council in 1953, motivated by incredible poverty she saw in the lives of many Milwaukee residents who were African-American.
“Vel didn’t have that artificial barrier in her head about between blacks and whites,” says Ruth Zubrensky, a former member of the League of Women Voters who remembers Phillips in the documentary.
But not everyone felt the same – so Phillips left her photograph off of campaign literature distributed in the white section of her district.
Adding to her challenges, she became pregnant in the middle of her campaign.
But she went on to win, and later to become the first African-American female to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, and the first African-American judge in Wisconsin.
As Wisconsin Secretary of State, she was the only African-American woman to hold a statewide elected office anywhere in America. One video segment narrates how she lost her re-election bid after unwittingly breaking ethics rules related to honoraria from speaking engagements.
“She accepted the results with great sadness. She just pulled into herself,” recalls her son, Michael Phillips, in the documentary.
The full documentary, episodic segments, and lesson plans for students in grades 9-12, were produced by Wisconsin Public Television and are provided at no cost on the Wisconsin Media Lab website. The lesson plans make the connection to Wisconsin’s social studies and English language arts standards. The producers also sent a USB flash drive containing Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams curriculum to Wisconsin schools. Educators who did not receive one should feel free to request a copy from Becky.Marburger@wpt.org.