Bill Phillips, first black city council member, remembered

Bill Phillips, a pioneer in Elkhart politics who became the first African American to be elected to city council, died Saturday.
Posted on Oct. 30, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

ELKHART — Bill Phillips, a pioneer in Elkhart politics who became the first African-American to be elected to the city council, died Saturday.

He was 87 and died Saturday afternoon at Elkhart General Hospital after a brief illness, according to a family member.

Phillips was elected to the Elkhart City Council in 1963.

Mayor Dick Moore called Phillips “a great community contributor” and “advocate for the city.”

Phillips wrote a brief history about his life that included an explanation about his venture into politics and the reason he ran as a Republican even though many African-Americans aligned themselves with the Democrat party.

Phillips wrote that he was concerned with the lack of African-American representation in city government and had gathered together leaders of the black community in hopes of drafting a candidate. Soon afterward, faced with an apparent lack of other choices, Phillips decided to run himself.

Even though he had been actively involved in the Democratic Party and supported local union efforts, he chose to run on the Republican ticket against three-term Democrat John Murphy for the 5th District seat.

Knowing he had no chance against Murphy in the primary, Phillips approached the Republican county chairman and asked simply that the party let him run without interference.

Despite some criticism from within the black community, Phillips said he felt running as a Republican in the primary was his only option to make sure the African-Americans had “true representation.”

“He was very broad-minded, very opened-minded about things,” Moore said. “Bill recognized when somebody was doing a job — and doing it well— regardless of their politics.”

“He was one of those guys they’d like to have in Washington today (who could) come to the middle of the road and talk to anybody,” Moore said.

Kerry Phillips, one of three surviving children, echoed the same theme, saying that while his father was interested in representing and supporting the black community, he often looked beyond skin color.

“My father was receptive to people based on just their character, and to that extent, he didn’t care about race,” Kerry Phillips said.

He remembered his father as a great ambassador for the city and said he often talked about Elkhart when visiting elsewhere.

“I was always amazed at how much my father really loved this community,” he said.

Phillips was re-elected in 1967 and then stepped aside two years later when he accepted the job as manager of the Elkhart Municipal Airport.

While on the city council, he successfully pushed for the city to establish a civil rights commission and sponsored city ordinances that were voted into law prohibiting housing and employment discrimination in the city prior to passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Phillips was at the helm of the Elkhart Municipal Airport during a very pivotal time in the airport’s history, according to Andy Jones, manager of the airport.

Phillips helped oversee the construction of the passenger terminal, negotiated contracts for passenger and freight services, land acquisitions, and much more including the eventual closing of Edwardsburg road and the construction of the first air traffic control tower.

Through his negotiating skills, vision, and hard work, Jones said Phillips was able to build a firm foundation that set the stage for one of the finest general aviation airports in the country.

Phillips had a varied work career that included 23 years at Excel Corp., where he became quality control manager.

At the age of 50, he joined St. Joseph Valley Bank and within five years, rose to the position of vice president. He eventually started the small business commercial loan department.

Phillips served on numerous boards and agencies, including the Elkhart Housing Authority, Elkhart County Community Foundation and the Elkhart General Hospital board of directors.

He was a member of the Elkhart Jaycees, an organization Phillips credited with providing him leadership skills that helped him later in life.

Phillips won numerous awards including the Arthur J. Decio Award for Volunteer of the Year in 2005, the Labor Humanitarian Award and the Ben Barnes Community Service Award.

In 1978, Gov. Otis Bowen appointed him to the Indiana Statewide Health Coordinating Council and he was reappointed later by Gov. Robert Orr.

Phillips was still on the board of directors for the Elkhart Housing Authority when he died.

“I was always proud of him, how he carried himself and the concern he showed for the community and his willingness and eagerness to work in the community in so many capacities geared toward making Elkhart a better place,” said Kerry Phillips.

In addition to three children, he is survived by his wife of 55 years, Loretha.

Arrangements are pending at Hartzler-Gutermuth-Inman Funeral Home.

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