By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 18, 2018 at 2:29 PM

Milwaukee civil rights icon Vel Phillips – whose list of remarkable and groundbreaking accomplishments includes serving as the first woman and first African-American on the Milwaukee Common Council, the first female judge in Milwaukee County, the first African-American judge in the state and so many more – passed away Tuesday at the age of 94. 

The Milwaukee Common Council today paid tribute to the civil rights icon and ceiling-shattering crusader for social justice with a press conference held at City Hall at noon. Mayor Tom Barrett as well as Ald. Milele Coggs spoke at the conference, speaking on her vital role moving Milwaukee and Wisconsin forward throughout her entire life, as well as holding a moment of silence for Phillips. 

In sad twist, just hours before her death was announced on Tuesday, the Milwaukee Common Council unanimously approved the establishment of the Vel R. Phillips Trailblazer Award, an annual award created to recognize Milwaukee residents exemplifying Phillips' legacy and ceiling-shattering work. As a part of today's City Hall tribute, Mayor Barrett signed the file, officially creating the award in Phillips' name and honoring those who follow in her footsteps today. 

The committee-determined award will be handed out annually during the Girls' Day event at City Hall. 

Several Common Council members additionally released statements today on Phillips' passing and impact on the community. 

Ald. Jim Bohl:

I have fond memories of interactions over the years with Ms. Vel Phillips, and with her passing my condolences go out to her loved ones and friends.

Ms. Phillips possessed the determination and will to never budge from her goals and her principles, and she arrived on Milwaukee’s political and civic scene at the right moment in history. She was a true pioneer and Milwaukeeans will always owe her a debt of gratitude for her work on the Fair Housing Ordinance and on many other issues.

Her example of active and forthright public service – as well as her legacy of achievement – will live on for generations.

Ald. Cavalier "Chevy" Johnson: 

This week, when some Wisconsinites talk about historic snowfall not seen in generations, I say we reflect on the life of a woman that in its own right was a force of nature.

Wisconsin has lost a champion with the passing of Vel Phillips. She made history with many "firsts" as a person of color and as a woman. She was the first woman judge in Milwaukee County – and first African-American judge in Wisconsin – and would become the first African-American elected into statewide office. 

Her work not only inspired generations of African-Americans to believe they too can succeed, but also opened doors that still affect our everyday lives. In my case, I graduated from UW-Madison the same institution where Vel went to law school, the first African-American woman to graduate from there. And a reason my family and I live north of Capitol Drive is because of the work that Vel did fighting for fair housing alongside Father Groppi those many years ago.

I had known Vel for years, and she and I served on the Milwaukee Community Brainstorming Executive Board together. When I ran for Common Council, Vel Phillips’ endorsement landed on the front page of the Milwaukee Community Journal, certifying me a serious candidate. Today, I have the pleasure of writing this in the very office that Vel Phillips christened as Milwaukee’s first African-American Alderperson.

For African-American elected leaders in Wisconsin, Vel Phillips continues to be that North Star as she remains the only African-American elected statewide in Wisconsin’s history. This community and this state will never forget the impact that Vel Phillips has made here.

Ald. Milele Coggs:

Just yesterday my colleagues and I passed the Vel R. Phillips Trailblazer Award and Selection Committee as a tribute to the special woman who has given so much to the City Of Milwaukee and its residents. I pushed to create the Trailblazer Award now because I believe in giving people their flowers (although Ms. Phillips preferred plants) while they are living. It was cruel irony to get the notice last evening of her passing but I am glad we had the chance to honor this trailblazing woman and hopefully the award will become just one of many small ways of keeping her legacy alive.

I have had the pleasure of knowing Ms. Phillips my entire life and she has always been an inspiring role model. I will forever reflect on the stories of challenge and triumph that she shared, and in fact there is no better time than now to stand with the same fearlessness and zeal like she did through the years to change society. Her tireless and groundbreaking efforts in fair housing will continue to be a beacon of light as we navigate through the (too often dark) political landscape of today.  

Out of the many conversations we had, there is one that I regret we never was about her desire to have a street permanently named in her honor. I am committing myself to working diligently with my colleagues to make her request a reality. Another small tribute to a woman on whose shoulders many of us now stand.

I will eternally miss her welcoming face at community meetings, her quick retort to smart or snarky comments, her strategic mind and the stories of past struggles laced with the chronology of our people and this community. I am proud to now call her an ancestor and to have had the honor and pleasure of knowing her. Vel Phillips truly was one of the most impactful people I have ever known and she will be sorely missed.

My deep condolences to the family.

Ald. Khalif Rainey:

My condolences go out to the family of Vel Phillips, a woman who transcended the challenges she faced, paving the way for many African-Americans, including myself, to be elected into office.

Vel Phillips was an inspiration. I had the good fortune of meeting Ms. Phillips while serving on the Milwaukee Community Brainstorming Executive Board. Like countless others, for the time I knew her I learned from her. Like countless others, I was inspired by her actions going back to my earliest childhood. 

Vel Phillips was a titan in the community. From law school to being elected into statewide office, virtually every chapter in her life involved being the first woman, the first person of color, or in some instances both, to occupy those institutions.  

Vel Phillips was the most powerful African-American that Wisconsin has ever seen. One can only be inspired when looking at photographs of her standing alongside Father Groppi or John F. Kennedy. Let us use that inspiration as we continue to make change while honoring her legacy.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.