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Vel Phillips: Political Trailblazer From Milwaukee

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Vel Phillips visits St. Boniface Church, July 1967

Velvalea Rodgers was born on 18 February 1924 on Milwaukee's South Side. She attended North Division High School, graduating in 1942, then received a scholarship to attend Howard University. After graduation, she attended University of Wisconsin - Madison Law School. Upon her graduation in 1951, she was the first female African-American graduate of the law school. Known as "Vel," she and her husband, W. Dale Phillips, were the first husband-wife attorneys to be admitted to the federal bar in Milwaukee.

Mrs. Phillips first ran for political office in 1953, when she sought a seat on the school board. Though she lost the election, she was the first African-American candidate to make it past the primary. In 1956, Phillips ran as a candidate for alderman and won. Vel Phillips was the first woman and the first African-American alderperson in Milwaukee history.

She served on the Common Council for fifteen years, most notably introducing the Phillips Housing Ordinance, a strong citywide open housing program, four separate times between 1962 and 1967. This ordinance was finally passed in 1968 after the dramatic events of the summer of 1967, when massive civil rights protests engulfed Milwaukee. In addition to fair housing, Phillips also worked to end discriminatory practices in education and employment.

In 1971, Phillips stepped down as alderwoman. She was then appointed a Milwaukee County judge, achieving two more "firsts"; the first female judge in Milwaukee and the first African-American judge in Wisconsin. Though she lost her bid for re-election as judge, Phillips continued working as a lecturer and instructor at UW-Milwaukee, UW-Madison, and Carroll College. In 1978, she again made history as the first woman and African American elected Secretary of State in Wisconsin.

After leaving office, Phillips continued to remain active politically and professionally. She served on several boards, was appointed "Distinguished Professor of Law" at Marquette University School of Law in 2002, and she was the honorary chair of Gwen Moore's successful congressional campaign. To continue working for equality and opportunity, Phillips created the Vel Phillips Foundation in 2006, which works on behalf of minorities through social justice, education, equal housing opportunities, and jobs.

Vel Phillips has been honored as the recipient of the Robert and Belle Case La Follette Award for Distinction in Public Service, as a Wisconsin Historical Society "History Maker," and as the namesake for a UW-Madison residence hall.

Milwaukee Public Library has many materials that document the work of Vel Phillips. There is a small collection of images in the Local History Manuscript collection (finding aid available online in our Special Collections Finder database), images in the Historic Photo collection, Common Council records, and books such as Patrick D. Jones' Selma of the North : Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee that document her role in the civil rights movement in Milwaukee. Please contact the Humanities Department at 414-286-3061 to view these materials.

Submitted by Louise at Central.

Ruth Grotenrath: Renowned Local Artist

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'2010 Grand Canyon Celebration of Art 183' photo (c) 2012, Grand Canyon National Park - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Any visitor to the Art, Music and Recreation Department at the Central Library has walked by the colorful artwork of Ruth Grotenrath. The paintings were donated by her husband Schomer Lichtner, whose work also graces the entrance hallway.

Ruth Grotenrath was born in Milwaukee in 1912 and was interested in being an artist as early as her days at Riverside High School. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Milwaukee State Teachers College in 1933 where she was fortunate to be instructed by important Wisconsin artists Gustave Moeller, Robert von Neumann and Elsa Ulbricht. After Ruth and Schomer married in 1934 they became employed by the Works Progress Administration and as one of her assignments she painted 3 post office murals in the Midwest.

Over the years Ruth's style evolved from American Regionalist to more colorful and abstract work of still lifes, flowers and nature that was influenced by a trip she took to Japan in the 1960s. She taught at the Layton School of Art as well as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and even produced and sold her own designs of silkscreen printed drapery fabric at the Wisconsin State Fair. She was successful and unique in a profession that was often dominated by men during the mid 20th century.

If you are interested in learning more about Ruth Grotenrath and Schomer Lichtner, save the date of Saturday, October 18th for a program presented by Graeme Reid of the Museum of Wisconsin art from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Richard E. and Lucile Krug Rare Books Room. Paintings, drawings, artists books and other ephemera of their work will be displayed.

Pat @ Central

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Numerous paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe hang at the Milwaukee Art Museum which is not surprising as they are to be found in museums all around the world. Wisconsin, though, is her birthplace. Georgia O'Keeffe was born on a wheat farm just outside of Sun Prairie. She attended Town Hall School in Sun Prairie and by the age of ten was declaiming herself to be an artist. As for high school, she was sent first as a boarder to Sacred Heart Academy in nearby Madison. When her family moved to Virginia in 1902, Georgia O'Keeffe stayed behind to live with an aunt and continued for a time at a Madison public high school. She eventually followed her family east, but returned to the Midwest to study at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1905 to 1906. In 1907, she recovered from typhoid fever and then attended the Art Students League in New York from 1907 through 1908. Her piece Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot) won the League's William Merritt Chase still-life prize in 1908.

While in New York she attended an exhibit in New York City at the gallery, 291, owned by Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer she would later marry after meeting again many years later. Georgia O'Keefe actually stopped painting for years because she felt constrained by the traditions that she had up to then been taught. Attending various other art colleges, she finally began to encounter art innovators. After marrying Stieglitz, O'Keeffe came to know the many early American modernists known as the Stieglitz's Circle artists. O'Keeffe, like so many others, became sick during the 1918 flu epidemic and nearly died. She survived, thrived, and eventually became known as the Mother of American Modernism. She was a woman in what was for a long time a man's world. Just a hundred years ago women were barely allowed into the best art schools, could not look at the nude models often used in the study of art, and were not included at social gatherings where heady subjects such as art were discussed by men. Then came O'Keeffe and other women whose talents could not be squelched nor denied. Like Mary Cassatt, she raised the awareness of the American public to the fact that a woman could be the equal or better of any man in any chosen field- art or any other.

O'Keeffe created imagery that expressed what she called "the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it." She "...found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say in any other way- things I had no words for." For seven decades before her death, Georgia O'Keeffe was a major figure in American art. Remarkably, she remained independent from art trends, staying true to her own vision- finding the essential in abstract forms in nature. Perhaps a statement she made can best describe her quixotic quest to be who she was, and do what she did: "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life - and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

Kathleen @ Central

Louise Bethune Blgd.jpgLouise Blanchard Bethune (July 21, 1856 - December 18, 1913) was the first woman known to have worked as a professional architect in the United States. Born Jennie Louise Blanchard in Waterloo, New York, she had two educated parents (her father was a school principal; her mother a teacher) and as was common at the time, was herself educated at home. Her parents eventually moved to Buffalo for better jobs and Jennie Louise Blanchard then attended Buffalo High School, where she early on expressed an interest in architecture. After graduating high school in 1874, she prepared for several years to enter the newly opened architecture school at Cornell University, but instead decided to become an apprentice- the more standard way to enter the field. She signed on with the prominent Buffalo architectural firm, R.A. Waite. At 25, she was ready to open her own office, and took with her Robert Bethune, a colleague from the firm, who she married a few months later. She opened her firm as Buffalo was enjoying its most prosperous era. Every architectural firm in the city had work, particularly the ones with great reputations like Bethune's. Renowned architects- among them Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan- championed her, helping her to become a fellow in the American Institute of Architects. In 1888, Louise Blanchard Bethune became the first woman to be voted a member of the AIA. Working almost always in Buffalo, New York, she designed the extraordinary Hotel Lafayette (which in 2012 underwent a $35,000,000 renovation). However, she was most known as an early designer of factory buildings- much needed in then boomtown Buffalo. Many of her industrial buildings still stand today and have remained in fairly recent use: e.g., the Iroquois Door Plant Company and the Buffalo Weaving and Belting Company, to name a few. Additionally, she set standards for modern urban public school buildings- some which remain today in the building of schools. A music store in Buffalo designed by Bethune was one of the first structures in the country with a steel frame and poured concrete slabs. Her contributions to architecture cannot be overstated. As evidence, in 1971, the University at Buffalo named the first home of its School of Architecture Bethune Hall. At a speech given in 1891 before the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, she foresaw the growth of women in architecture, prophesying, "The future of woman in the architectural profession is what she herself sees fit to make it."

Kathleen @ Central

Ruth_Elizabeth_Harkness_and_Su_Lin.jpgAmerican fashion designer Ruth Harkness (1900-1947) stunned the world when she brought a live baby panda to the United States in 1936. Harkness, considered a party girl, accomplished something other experienced explorers and hunters tried and failed to do for almost one hundred years.

Born in 1900 and raised in Philadelphia by a family that struggled to make ends meet, Ruth tried a variety of careers and educational pursuits before moving to New York City and becoming a fashion designer. She lived a cosmopolitan lifestyle for a woman of her time, drinking, partying, smoking, and living with before eventually marrying wealthy heir William Harvest Harkness.

William was one of the many explorers who tried, and failed, in the quest to transport a live panda out of China. After his untimely death to throat cancer in 1935, Ruth took on his expedition, vowing to succeed where he nd so many others failed.

Told she had a million to one chance in succeeding, Ruth nonetheless travelled thousands of miles to a foreign country, organized and led an expedition into one of the most remote corners of the world, and came home with a tiny, fragile baby panda.

How did Ruth, a Manhattan party girl, manage where so many others failed? Luck, perserverance, and by packing two all-important items - a glass baby bottle and powdered formula. Her expedition arrived in the wild mountains of China during the birthing season (unbeknownst to them) and managed to locate a tiny infant left by its mother in a tree. The fact the panda Ruth found was an infant made all of the difference. Transporting a 5 pound baby who could drink powdered formula was far easier than an adult specimen weighing 300-plus pounds and only able to eat China's native bamboo.

Breaking the odds and exceeding even her own wildest expectations, Ruth triumphantly returned to America with her baby panda, named Su Lin. The newspapers and media of the time went wild, and baby Su Lin was the darling of the nation.

Besides bringing home the first live panda, Ruth's expedition also pioneered modern conservation. Little Su-Lin so entranced the American public that the old "huntin'" and "shootin" methods of other expeditions began to seem distasteful. With Su-Lin cradled in her arms, not caged or leashed, Ruth showed the world Su-Lin was an individual with her own unique personality. Did this not then mean other animals also deserved respect and humane treatment?

Su-Lin went on to live at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois and Ruth successfully brought a second panda back to the United States, among many other excellent adventures.

Despite her lack of experience, Ruth's character, courage, and commitment led her to take on the adventure of a lifetime. Ruth and her panda Su Lin made history, but more importantly they also gave light to a nation in the midst of the Great Depression and helped bring awareness to a gentle and mysterious species fighting for its existence.
To learn more about Ruth Harkness, read Baby Giant Panda , her travelogue about her expedition to find Su-Lin. Also read Vicki Constantine Croke's most excellent biography, The Lady and the Panda.

Beth @ East

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Photograph of MATC building by Royalbroil.


Ruth K. (Dunham) Cortell was a social studies and history teacher for Milwaukee School of Vocational and Adult Education, also known as Milwaukee Vocational and Adult Schools (MVAS), and today known as Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). Mrs. Cortell was born 31 January 1902. She graduated from University of Wisconsin - Madison in 1933. She taught at MVAS/MATC from 1933 to at least 1963. She was elected vice-president of the Wisconsin Association for Vocational and Adult Education in 1953. Mrs. Cortell wrote numerous articles in national education about her unique teaching and educational ideas. She was a strong proponent of teaching civics, history, and social studies not only in elementary and secondary schools, but in post-secondary and adult education.

Milwaukee Public Library has a small manuscript collection of Mrs. Cortell's theses, articles, and other teaching materials. This collection of research and preparation materials demonstrates Mrs. Cortell's dedication to her work as a teacher and provides a unique window on teacher preparation, continuing education for instructors, and the vocational school experience. Read the finding aid online in our Special Collections Finder database. Please contact the Humanities Department at 414-286-3061 to view these materials.

Submitted by Louise at Central.

In 1966, Roberta (Bobbi) Gibb did what no woman had ever done before: She ran the Boston Marathon, which men had been running every year since 1897. It was the first race she'd ever run, and she ran it again 1967 and 1968, winning both times, although women were not allowed to enter the race officially until 1972. Gibb received no official recognition for her wins until 1996.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, many physicians believed that strenuous physical activities were harmful to women and girls, and in 1961 the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) banned women from competing in most U.S. road races. Most people assumed women were physically incapable of running 26.2 miles, which is what Will Cloney, the race director, told Gibb when he refused her application in 1966.
The day of the race, Gibb dressed in a pair of Bermuda shorts and a hooded sweatshirt, and she hid in the bushes until she was able to blend in with a group of male runners on their way to the starting line. Less than a minute after she started running, her fellow runners realized they were running with a woman, and it didn't take much longer for the media and spectators to figure it out as well. They cheered her on to a 3:21 finish, and the next day she was all over the headlines.
The following year, Gibb wasn't the only woman who ran the Boston Marathon. Kathrine Switzer became the first registered woman to run the race, although she registered under the name "K.V. Switzer." When race officials discovered her, one of them, Jock Semple, tried to physically force her off the course and rip her number off. Her boyfriend pushed him away, though, and Switzer finished the race.
Since then, women's distance running has exploded in popularity; in 1980, women were 11% of all marathon finishers, and by 2012, they were at 42%. In 1972, the AAU finally allowed women to register for marathons, and women were able to compete in the Olympic marathon in 1984.
If you're interested in reading more about the history of women's distance running, check out Kathrine Switzer's book, Marathon Woman: Running the Race To Revolutionize Women's Sports. If you're ready to train for and run in a marathon yourself, take a look at runner Kara Goucher's book, Kara Goucher's Running for Women: From First Steps to Marathons, and if you want to read about another woman's experiences with long-distance running, you should definitely check out Rachel Toor's book, Personal Record: A Love Affair with Running.

Elisabeth @ Central

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