The Virginia General Assembly has the final decision on the statue that will forever be a reflection of Virginia in our U.S. Capitol.
Gen. Robert E. Lee’s statue resided in the Capitol for more than a century and its removal, while demonstrative, should be followed by that of a person who shared his substance, contribution, lifelong dedication, commitment and pride in the state of Virginia.
While Barbara Rose Johns has been identified as a student leader and activist who initiated a rebellion against the dilapidated school facilities and material inequities at Moton High School, her efforts that resulted in the lawsuit Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County could not have been achieved without attorneys Oliver W. Hill Sr. and Spottswood Robinson III. They took the case and planned the legal strategy that led to the lawsuit. They were the civil rights attorney-warriors that did the work and fought the hard fight to incorporate the Davis case into the five that resulted in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the doctrine of “separate but equal” and finding racial segregation in public education unconstitutional.
I submit that Oliver W. Hill is the hero here, and his entire career has been documented over the years, time and time again, resulting in being honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Spingarn Medal. He was inducted post- humously into the 2020 Virginia Lawyers Hall of Fame by Virginia Lawyers Weekly.
There are those who believe Barbara Johns is still worthy of this honor independently. I believe that Barbara Johns and Oliver W. Hill Sr. should be honored together as the team that contributed to change America’s education divisiveness. However, the U.S. Capitol statue criteria will permit only one person. And in this case, the Virginia General Assembly should welcome and honor Oliver W. Hill exclusively as the Virginian who dedicated and devoted his life and career to betterment of all people of our state.
If the commission’s vote stands and Barbara Johns is honored, her story must be told every day to all who view her statue, and the public must be educated about her passion, bravery and determination to influence change irrespective of the consequences.
Many have taken the road she chose to pursue without ever being acknowledged and/or rewarded for their independent stand for justice and truth. She deserves to be recognized for “standing up, saying something and doing something.”
But the real question is whether the U.S. Capitol is the right place.
J. MAURICE HOPKINS
The writer is president of the Oliver White Hill Foundation.