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Oliver Hill

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Oliver Hill

Oliver White Hill, Sr.
Oliver Hill oversees the swearing in of the first African-American member of the Trial Bureau of the Department of Justice
Born (1907-05-01)May 1, 1907
Richmond, Virginia, United States
Died August 5, 2007 (aged 100)
Richmond, Virginia
Occupation Civil rights attorney

Oliver White Hill, Sr. (May 1, 1907 – August 5, 2007) was a civil rights attorney from Richmond, Virginia.[1][2] His work against racial discrimination helped end the doctrine of "separate but equal." He also helped win landmark legal decisions involving equality in pay for black teachers, access to school buses, voting rights, jury selection, and employment protection. He retired in 1998 after practicing law for almost 60 years. Among his numerous awards is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Bill Clinton in 1999.

Childhood, education

Hill was born as Oliver White in Richmond, Virginia, in 1907. His parents separated while he was still a baby, and he took on his stepfather's last name. The Hill family moved to Roanoke and then to Washington, D.C., where he graduated from Dunbar High School.[3]

Oliver White Hill earned his undergraduate degree from Howard University and entered Howard University School of Law in 1930. He studied under the tutelage of Charles Hamilton Houston, the chief architect in challenging Jim Crow laws through legal means.[4] In law school, Hill was a classmate and close friend of future Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall. He graduated second in his class after Marshall in 1933.[2]


Hill began practicing law in Richmond in 1939. In 1940, working with fellow attorneys Thurgood Marshall, William H. Hastie, and Leon A. Ranson, Hill won his first civil rights case.[2] The decision in Alston v. School Board of Norfolk, Va., gained pay equity for black teachers. In 1943, Hill joined the United States Army, and served in the European Theatre of World War II.

Returning to his law practice at the end of World War II, he won the right for equal transportation for school children in the Virginia Supreme Court. In 1949, he became the first African American on the City Council of Richmond since Reconstruction in the late 19th century.[5]

In the early 1950s, Hill was co-counsel with Spottswood W. Robinson III in dozens of civil rights lawsuits around Virginia. In 1951, he took up the cause of the African-American students at the segregated R.R. Moton High School in Farmville who had walked out of their dilapidated school. The subsequent lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, later became one of the five cases decided under Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954.[2]

During the 1940s and 1950s, the safety of Hill's life and family were threatened by his work. Due to the barrage of telephoned threats, Hill's young son was not allowed to answer the telephone, and at one point a massive resistance to avoid desegregation, enacting a legislative package known as the Stanley plan, which included tuition grant support of segregation academies set up to avoid the extant public schools.[6] In 1959, after public schools had been closed in several localities, notably Prince Edward Public Schools, Norfolk Public Schools and Warren County Public Schools, the Virginia Supreme Court finally ruled Virginia's law prohibiting integrated public schools was unconstitutional. Following that ruling, "Massive Resistance" as an official state policy was abruptly dropped by Virginia Governor James Lindsay Almond, Jr. and the schools in Farmville, Norfolk, and Front Royal were reopened.

However, it was to be more than ten more years before many school districts in Virginia were significantly integrated, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision against freedom of choice plans in the Green v. School Board of New Kent County case of 1968, in which his law partner Samuel W. Tucker was lead counsel, supported by a young lawyer Hill had recruited, Henry L. Marsh, III.

He was long a partner of Hill, Tucker and Marsh law firm in Richmond and continued civil rights litigation until he retired in 1998.

Awards and honors

Hill's accomplishments have earned many awards and citations including the 1959 Lawyer of the Year Award from the National Bar Association, the 1980 William Robert Ming Advocacy Award from the NAACP,[7] the Equal Justice Award from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1986[8] and the American Bar Association Justice Thurgood Marshall Award in 1993. President of the United States Bill Clinton awarded Hill the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999.[2][9] Students at the University of Virginia also honored Hill when they founded the Oliver W. Hill Black Pre-Law Association.

In the year of 2000, he received the American Bar Association Medal, and the National Bar Association Hero of the Law award. In September 2000, he and other NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers were honored with the Harvard Medal of Freedom for their role in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 2005 he was awarded the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP's highest honor.[2] He's also a renowned member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

In Richmond, a bronze bust of him is visible at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. The city's Oliver Hill Courts Building was named for him.

Plaque on Virginia Capitol grounds commemorating Oliver Hill's part in the integration Virginia schools

Each year since 2002, the Virginia State Bar has awarded the Oliver White Hill Law School Pro Bono Award to one law student who demonstrates an exceptional commitment to public or community service.[10]

In October 2005, Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner dedicated a newly renovated building in Virginia's Capitol Square in Hill's honor. The Oliver W. Hill Building is the first state-owned building as well as the first in Virginia's Capitol Square to be named for an African American. "Oliver W. Hill has worked tirelessly to end the injustice of segregation, and today we honor his lifetime of contributions to our commonwealth and our nation" said Governor Warner. "It's my hope that the generations of Virginians and Americans who come after us and visit this Square will think that the history we reflect in our monuments is as rich and diverse as our people, and that the heroes that this generation has chosen to honor bring new and vital lessons."

Also in Capitol Square, a Civil Rights Memorial was commissioned and dedicated in July 2008. The memorial, which includes an image of Hill, honors the roles Virginians have played in the nation's struggle for civil rights for all.

Oliver Hill's autobiography: The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education, The Autobiography of Oliver W. Hill, Sr. edited by Professor Jonathan K. Stubbs, was published in 2000 and reprinted in 2007.

On Sunday, August 5, 2007, Oliver Hill died peacefully during breakfast at his home in Richmond, Virginia of natural causes at the age of 100 years. Later that day, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine issued a statement, saying:

"As a pioneer for civil rights, an accomplished attorney, and a war veteran, Mr. Hill's dedication to serving the Commonwealth and the country never failed. And, despite all of the accolades and honors he received, Mr. Hill always believed his true legacy was working to challenge the conscience of our Commonwealth and our country." [11]


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  2. ^ a b c d e f
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  5. ^ a b
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  10. ^ "Oliver White Hill Law Student Pro Bono Award", Virginia State Bar.
  11. ^ Official Site of the Governor of Virginia - Tim Kaine

External links

  • Virginia Historical Society; Oliver Hill webpage
  • Howard University School of Law, Brown at 50 bios, Oliver Hill webpage
  • "Civil Rights Lawyer Oliver Hill Dies at 100", NPR, August 6, 2007
  • "Oliver Hill statue pictures to be unveiled 2008 Richmond Virginia" website
  • "The Ground Beneath Our Feet" website
  • and timeline
  • VA Historical Society
  • History of busing in Richmond
  • Library of Virginia
  • "They Closed Our Schools," the story of Massive Resistance and the closing of the Prince Edward County, Virginia public schools
  • Bond, Julian, Interview with Oliver W. Hill, Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2004.
  • Oliver Hill's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
  • Oliver Hill 2002 oral history video from the Voices of Freedom Collection of the VCU Libraries
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