The Madison Metropolitan School District will soon have a Vel Phillips Memorial High School.
Monday, School Board members unanimously approved renaming James Madison Memorial High School in honor of one of Wisconsin’s most accomplished Black women. The change will be effective at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.
The process of renaming began in March, a few months after former Memorial student Mya Berry submitted a proposal to change the name to honor Phillips instead of Madison, a former president and slaveholder.
"To have a high school named after Vel Phillips would feel like a step in the right direction for the community," Berry wrote in the email to the Cap Times in March. "Instead of honoring historical figures that oppressed and enslaved Black Americans, we will have a school respecting the life of a woman who worked toward bridging racial gaps right here in Wisconsin.
"I also think it is significant to credit a Wisconsin leader as the new name, to demonstrate the possibilities that exist to Black and Brown students specifically."
Phillips, who died in 2018, has a University of Wisconsin-Madison dorm named after her and could soon have a statue outside the state Capitol building. She has a long list of “firsts” on her resume, as the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, the first female and first Black person elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, the first female judge in Milwaukee County, and the first female and first Black person elected to a statewide office in Wisconsin, becoming the secretary of state.
The district formed an ad hoc committee per its school renaming policy. The group discussed 24 initial proposals from community members, including Phillips, late U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis.
The list of possible names was trimmed through a series of rankings and voting by committee members, who eventually narrowed it to four options: Phillips; former Memorial High School principal Bruce Dahmen; the first Black female principal in MMSD, Darlene Hancock; and foregoing a person's name, instead calling it simply Memorial High School.
Committee members nearly recommended the Memorial High School option, as it fell one vote short of a majority at the group’s final meeting last month. After that failed, they voted 10 to 1 to recommend Vel Phillips Memorial High School.
The board had the final decision on the school’s name, with options included keeping it as James Madison Memorial High School or renaming it and choosing the new name. Board members expressed support for honor Phillips.
“When we acknowledge the history that Vel Phillips carved for our state in terms of allowing women of color to see themselves in positions of leadership that they had never been in before, I hope that the students of Memorial who maybe look at the roles that have not been available to someone like them in the past and continue to not be available to someone like them are inspired to change that and see the name of their school as evidence that it only takes one person to shift the way we as a society work and who gets to be at the table,” board president Ali Muldrow said.
Board member Christina Gomez Schmidt said she hopes the district can consider how to ensure students inside Vel Phillips Memorial know about her life.
“Simply changing the name won’t teach students about who Vel Phillips was and her role in state government,” Gomez Schmidt said. “This change also provides us with an opportunity as a district to redefine how we teach our high school students about civics, about how local and state government works and why active participation as a citizen is important.”
Over the months-long process, the variety of public comments showed people feel passionately about school names and who they honor.
Many questioned why the district was focused on renaming the school at all, saying that concerns over Madison’s slave ownership were overshadowing his contributions to the founding of the country.
Others who were more open to the name change expressed support for lots of options, with Dahmen the most popular among public comments, according to a school district analysis. Dahmen was the school’s principal from 2005 until his death in February 2014.
The proposal received more than 2,000 signatures on a petition. Known for his motto, “make good decisions,” he was by far the most mentioned of the new names in the more-than 750 comments left on the district’s website, with nearly 250 mentions, according to an infographic from the district.
James Madison and simply Madison Memorial or Memorial were the only others with more than 150.
At Monday’s meeting, there were speakers and written comments in support of going with just Memorial High School. Board members said they understood the attractiveness of that idea, but ultimately wanted to honor someone when they had the opportunity.
“If we just call it ‘Memorial High School,’ what is being memorialized?” board member Ananda Mirilli said.
Other comments expressed concerns about the cost of the name change, including signage and sports uniforms. Board member Cris Carusi said that regardless of if it changed to Memorial or Vel Phillips Memorial, there would need to be new signage and some new uniforms, while uniforms that just say “Memorial” can continue to be used.
“The most important decision that the committee made was to keep the word Memorial in the name of the school,” Carusi said. “Whatever name we put before Memorial, this school will continue to be Memorial.”
Carusi and Gomez Schmidt also requested the board take another look at its renaming policy to add clarity and transparency, with some members of the public questioning the process that the renaming went through.