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Monday, August 06, 2007


Civil Rights Crusader

Monday, Aug 06, 2007 - 12:10 AM Updated: 09:43 AM


FULL COVERAGE: Oliver W. Hill 1907-2007

Oliver W. Hill Sr., a pivotal figure in the fight to desegregate schools in Virginia and across the nation, died Sunday morning at his Richmond home. He was 100.

Mr. Hill's son, Oliver Hill Jr., said Mr. Hill died while the family was eating breakfast together. "It was a very peaceful ending," he said.

Mr. Hill was a lawyer and a former Richmond city councilman, the first black person elected to that office in the 20th century.

During the segregation era, Mr. Hill's legal team filed more civil-rights suits in Virginia than were filed in any other state in the South. The team won landmark decisions involving voting rights, jury selection, access to school buses, employment protection and other matters.

He played a crucial role in the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that outlawed school segregation in the U.S.

"Few individuals in Virginia's rich history have worked as tirelessly as Oliver Hill to make life better for all of our citizens," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said in a statement. "His life's work was predicated on the simple truth that all men and women truly are created equal."

Former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb, D-Va., once described Mr. Hill as the "last lion of the civil-rights movement." As a senator, Robb nominated Mr. Hill for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, which Mr. Hill received in a 1999 White House ceremony.

In 2005, Mr. Hill received the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's highest honor, the Spingarn Medal. NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond called Mr. Hill "a giant in civil-rights law . . . risking life and limb to defend civil rights in hostile circumstances."
. . .
A founder of the state chapter of the NAACP in 1934, Mr. Hill played a key role on the legal team for the national organization in earning the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. That unanimous decision held that school segregation was unconstitutional.

Mr. Hill said later that Prince Edward County was not the battleground he would have chosen for that epic fight. He would have preferred a big-city courtroom, where he might be able to gain greater exposure and greater public support.

But after black students from the county's Robert R. Moton High School went on strike in 1951 to protest inadequate school facilities and wrote to him seeking legal help, he reluctantly agreed to meet with them -- in the basement of a Farmville church on his way to try another civil-rights case in Southwest Virginia.

At first, he urged the students to go back to school. "But we found them so well-organized we didn't have the heart to break their spirit," Mr. Hill said in 1979. "We told them if their parents were willing to support them, we would meet them again and talk about it, and that's why we got into it."

That case became one of the original cases in the Brown decision.

In June 1959, white officials in Prince Edward County closed the county's schools to avoid desegregation. The schools remained closed until September 1964.

At the height of the battle, Mr. Hill emphasized, "We are battling the segregationists, not the white race. We have no desire to take anything from any white person granted him under the law or our common Christian concepts. . . .

"We are now in a period of desegregation, and must remember that integration is a social process that is quite different, and which will come in time."
. . .
Speaking throughout his career to various groups, Mr. Hill hammered home his philosophy time and again: "The Negro must expand his thinking beyond the other side of the tracks where he often has lived. We must come to think of ourselves as members of the general public, and not as a group apart which need not concern itself with community functions."

In a 1991 interview, he recalled, "I never had a class with white folks, and I never believed Negro children had to go to school with white children in order to learn. But I fought for school integration because I believed that for the Negro to enjoy the full advantages of our culture, he needed to be associated with the people who run that culture."

Born Oliver White in Richmond, he was the son of a minister who deserted the family when Mr. Hill was an infant. Mr. Hill took the name of his stepfather early in life and became Oliver W. Hill. At age 6, he moved with his family to Roanoke, where he attended elementary school. He went to the old Dunbar High School in Washington because of the inadequacy of Roanoke's black schools.

In 1931, he graduated from Howard University, where he also earned a law degree in 1933. He was second in his law class, behind his best friend, Thurgood Marshall, who was to become a chief ally in the desegregation fight and who later was the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 1992 interview, Marshall said Mr. Hill "was well-educated, and he was a person you could rely upon. Those don't come often. I don't know anything I can say that's good enough for Oliver Hill."

Mr. Hill said his stepuncle influenced him to study law.

"He had a day job and practiced law at night, what we called a sundown practice," Mr. Hill said. "When he died, his widow gave me some of his law books to read, and that's when I figured out that segregation was for the birds. So I decided to become a lawyer and fight to change things."

During the 1930s, Mr. Hill was part of what was called a "family group" formed at Howard University by faculty and students to combat segregation. "We knew one day there would have to be a Brown decision. We began making plans to move forward legally working to change the status quo," he said in a 1981 interview.

Mr. Hill began practicing law in Roanoke but returned to Washington in 1936. Three years later, he moved to Richmond at the invitation of friends to join a law firm. Those plans fell through and he opened his own office. He later joined Martin A. Martin and Spottswood Robinson III to form the law firm of Hill, Martin & Robinson at 623 N. Third St. . . .

Mr. Hill and Robinson toured Virginia seeking civil-rights cases. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, their target was equalization of teachers' pay, school facilities and bus transportation for black pupils.

Mr. Hill was drafted into the Army in 1943 and served as a staff sergeant in an engineering outfit that landed on Omaha Beach in France on D-Day.

In 1947, two years after his military discharge, he was defeated in the Democratic primary election for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates by fewer than 200 votes.

A year later, when the city's population was 30 percent black, he was the first black person to be elected to the Richmond City Council in the 20th century. He said at the time that he believed his election would give black Richmonders a greater feeling of the responsibility of citizenship and that his presence on council might help remove prejudices against blacks.

He was given the Chicago Defender Merit Award for courage in entering politics in a Southern state.

Mr. Hill was defeated in a re-election bid for the City Council by 44 votes in 1950. That year, he also participated in the first suit brought in North Carolina to force equalization of school facilities for children of all races.

Mr. Hill and Robinson continued at the forefront of the civil-rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, bringing lawsuits challenging segregated schools.

Kaine's statement yesterday said, "With righteous determination, a sense of honor, and at considerable personal risk, Mr. Hill methodically and skillfully worked within the legal system to win landmark cases in voting rights, equal pay, better schools, and fair housing."

In 1952, President Harry S. Truman named Mr. Hill to his newly-created Committee on Government Contract Compliance, set up to help enforce the anti-discrimination clauses written into government contracts with private firms.

In 1960, Mr. Hill was named to the national Democratic Party's Biracial Committee on Civil Rights. The committee, headed by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, was to propose a civil-rights plank for the party's convention that year.

The Richmond City Democratic Convention voted to censure the national Democratic Party chairman for appointing Mr. Hill.

Mr. Hill served as chief counsel for the Virginia Branch of the NAACP until 1961, when he became assistant for intergroup relations to the commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration. The job involved broadening housing opportunities for all Americans. At the time, he also withdrew as NAACP counsel in the Prince Edward County school desegregation case.

He quit his federal job in 1966 to return to private law practice as a partner of the law firm of Hill, Tucker and Marsh at 509 N. Third St. Two years later, he was appointed by Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. to the Virginia Constitutional Revision Commission, which drafted the state's 1971 constitution.

In 1980, Mr. Hill argued for the appointment of James E. Sheffield as the first black federal judge in Virginia. Speaking in behalf of Sheffield, Mr. Hill told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "In my generation, everybody who was really ambitious politically left Virginia."
In his later years, Mr. Hill commented on how segregation dominated his career path. "I would have loved to have gone to Congress . . . if we had lived in a free society. But we had more important things to do."

He was a charter member of the Richmond Civic Council, which encouraged blacks to take part in city government. He was twice president of the Old Dominion Bar Association and was a member of local, state and national bars.

He was a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers, an honorary organization that seeks to improve the standards of trial practice, the administration of justice and ethics of the trial branch. Its membership is limited to a maximum of 1 percent of the lawyers practicing in a state.

In 1992, Mr. Hill was named a charter member of the Civil Rights Hall of Fame of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP. In 1989, the Richmond Bar Association's established its Hill-Tucker Public Service Award, named for it first recipients.

Mr. Hill was among four leaders in the fight for civil rights in Virginia who received the National Bar Association's annual Wiley A. Branton Award in 1993. That same year, he received the prestigious American Bar Association's highest award for public service, the Pro Bono Publico Award, for his contributions to free legal service to the poor.

In March 1994, Mr. Hill and Lewis F. Powell Jr., a retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, were the first recipients of the annual Distinguished Citizen Awards from the Richmond City Council.
An Oliver W. Hill Scholarship Fund was set up for Virginia students attending Howard University Law School. And in 1996, the city's new juvenile courts building was named in his honor.

The Oliver W. Hill Freedom Fighter Award was created in 1999 "to honor those who would dare to fight for a just world, even at the risk of losing physical comfort, security and safety."
In October 2005, in a move that represented the full-circle of Mr. Hill's career and Virginia history, the state renamed its renovated Finance Building, once a pillar of segregation-era politics and patronage, as the Oliver W. Hill Sr. Building.

Mr. Hill celebrated his 100th birthday in May, at the inaugural fundraiser for the Oliver White Hill Foundation, created to honor his legacy. With help from the city of Roanoke, the foundation purchased Mr. Hill's boyhood home, which it is restoring for use as a center where law students can provide pro bono assistance to area residents.

Mr. Hill's wife, Beresenia Walker Hill, died in 1993. Among his survivors are a son, Oliver W. Hill Jr. of Richmond, and three grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.


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