In the 1940s and 50s, a very small but very committed band of highly trained NAACP lawyers launched a war in the nation’s courts to end legal apartheid in American education. Their leader was the brilliant Charles Hamilton Houston, who unlike his partner Thurgood Marshall, is one the unsung heroes of that crusade. Another key member of this team was Oliver W. Hill, who died on August 5th at the age of 100.
Hill was part of an elite group of attorneys trained and mentored by Houston, who had headed Howard University Law School since 1929. Marshall and Hill graduated first and second in the law school’s 1933 graduating class. Together with other members of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund legal team, they were to make history with their victory in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.
Brown actually encompassed five major cases challenging school segregation around the country. One of those cases was Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, in which Oliver Hill was the plaintiff’s lead attorney. In April 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns organized a student strike protesting the deplorable conditions at segregated, all-Black Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. The school had no gymnasium, cafeteria, infirmary or teachers’ restrooms. Because of the overcrowded conditions, some students had to be taught in a school bus and in three buildings covered with tarpaper. During the two-week protest, involving 450 students, Johns requested legal assistance from the NAACP branch office in Richmond.
In May 1951, Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, another member of the Marshall legal team, filed a lawsuit on behalf of 117 students calling for Virginia’s school segregation laws to be struck down. A three-judge federal district court panel unanimously rejected the suit, upholding Virginia’s “separate but equal” policy while ordering the state to “equalize” conditions at the school. The Supreme Court overturned the decision as part of its Brown ruling.
Oliver Hill knew what the Supreme Court was eventually to assert in its Brown decision — that segregated schools were inherently unequal. Most southern states deliberately administered systems of education in which schools that Black students attended were inferior by design. For example, in Virginia in the first part of 20th century, the only way a Black student could receive a high school diploma was too attend a private high school, usually operated by a religious denomination — Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal or Presbyterian. Many Black Virginia county schools offered classes only up to the eighth grade.
Raised in Washington, D.C., Oliver Hill spent most of his professional life in Virginia. He became interested in a legal career when an uncle died and left him a copy of the U.S. Constitution. He dreamed of working to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” ruling.
His stellar six-decade career as a civil rights attorney began in 1940 when he won his first case in Norfolk, Virginia, gaining equal pay for Black teachers. Over time, he fought for and won $50 million in better pay and improved schools for Black people in Virginia. He took the antidiscrimination struggle to the areas of voting rights, jury selection and worker protections.
Hill was a man of indomitable courage who triumphed over adversity throughout his life. When his law practice in Roanoke failed during the Great Depression, he had to wait tables in Washington, D.C., until he could open a law office in Richmond in 1939. He continued his crusade for racial equality in the face of cross burnings on his lawn and other threats to his life and that of his family. It is reported that municipal officials in Richmond sent ambulances, fire trucks and hearses to his home at 15 minute intervals to frighten him. He lost what would have been a historic election to the Virginia General Assembly in 1947. But in 1948, he was elected to Richmond’s City Council, the first African American to do so since Reconstruction. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy named him to the Federal Housing Administration as an assistant to the Commissioner.
We are all standing on the shoulders of Oliver Hill. He helped established the legal foundation for many civil rights gains after Brown, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Because of the tireless strivings of Oliver Hill and the courageous band of civil rights lawyers of which he was a member, the major underpinnings of de jure discrimination, now virtually unknown to a whole generation, were destroyed, paving the way for more integrated education and the elimination of racial bias in all areas of our social, economic and political life.
President Bill Clinton awarded Oliver Hill the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor. Today this good man and stalwart champion of equality deserves our grateful farewell.