Archives of Vel Phillips to be Made Available

February 19, 2015 Wisconsin Public Television Leave a Comment

Written by Michael Edmonds, Deputy Director of the Library-Archives Division of the Wisconsin Historical Society, which hosts a free discussion on Milwaukee’s Civil Rights Struggle Tuesday, Feb. 24.

Judge Vel Phillips – WHS Image ID 28115

As you probably saw from Monday night’s documentary, Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams, Milwaukee’s Vel Phillips has led a remarkable life – activist, Common Council member, judge, Wisconsin Secretary of State, and much more. The records of her career recently came to the Wisconsin Historical Society, where a team of archivists has begun to prepare them for use by researchers.

An old maxim claims that newspapers are the first draft of history, but in fact there’s an even earlier draft: the notes, scraps, manuscripts, and other documents that people preserve in file cabinets or toss into boxes under the bed. Phillips was an enthusiastic saver of such records, and over the decades she carefully preserved enough papers to fill two storage units. She and her family recently donated them to the Wisconsin Historical Society where, thanks to a generous gift from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, they are being properly arranged and described. Archivist Emil Hoelter is in charge of the project.

Cataloging the large quantity of documents is no simple task. The first step was to repack the papers from hundreds of miscellaneous containers into 116 acid-free boxes and ship them to Madison. Hoelter and his staff are currently making a first pass through those boxes to make a rough inventory of the collection and write a professional appraisal report and processing plan. Over the next year, the project team will implement that plan by arranging records according to their dates or topics, noting those that need special conservation treatment, and selecting the most interesting and important ones to be digitized and share on the Web. Digitization is being supported by a gift from retired UW history professors Allan Bogue and Margaret Beattie Bogue.

Watch Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams online.

It’s too early to say what documents may be published on the Web, but the 116 cartons thoroughly document all aspects of Phillips’ life and public career. When the collection is made available to researchers early in 2016, it will surely shed much new light on the history of Milwaukee’s African-American community, the city’s civil rights struggle, and Phillips’ own illustrious career.

Hoelter will talk about the papers on the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 24th, at the Wisconsin Historical Society headquarters in Madison. Dr. Patrick Jones, author of the award-winning book “Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee,” will introduce the program, which also includes selections from Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams and a conversation with James Steinbach, director of Wisconsin Public Television, about the documentary project.

More information on the Tuesday night program is at

Michael Edmonds is the Deputy Director of the Library-Archives Division of the Wisconsin Historical Society and curator of the Society’s online collection of more than 25,000 pages documenting Freedom Summer. He is editor of the Society Press’s book highlighting that collection Risking Everything: A Freedom Summer Reader.

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