“Folks are ready to change, it’s to what extent that we’re discussing tonight,” board president Ali Muldrow said.
A committee of community members charged with the task of renaming the high school brought their suggestion before a board committee at the beginning of November after a five-month deliberation process. The committee whittled a list of 26 names to four, and finally settled on Phillips in a 10-1 vote last month.
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 proposalsfrom 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.
The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”
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