Margaret Edds column: Recognition of two legal titans is long overdue

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By Margaret Edds, Feb 1, 2020

The campaign to reclaim Richmond’s full history leaps forward Thursday, Feb. 6., with the unveiling of historic markers honoring Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson III, African American lawyers whose work helped transform 20th century America.

The ceremony — scheduled for 2:30 p.m. outside the federal courthouse at 1100 Bank St. — comes in the wake of Gov. Ralph Northam’s pledge to put money and muscle behind telling the stories “of people and places that for too long have been neglected or marginalized” in the commonwealth.

Signs celebrating pivotal events and prominent Virginians reflect the imbalance. Of about 2,430 markers currently standing on Virginia roadsides, just 324 focus on African Americans. Now there will be two more — and not just any two.

The quality and impact of Hill and Robinson’s lives place them in the highest echelon of deserving Virginians. Their addition, years in the planning, is long overdue.

Both men were born into segregated Richmond. Both earned law degrees at Howard University. And both became pivotal members of the small band of lawyers, connected largely through Howard Law and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), who conceived and executed the legal strategies that led to the demise of Jim Crow segregation.

They were, according to numerous observers, the most critical team of grassroots lawyers fighting discrimination in the South during the 1940s and ’50s.

Born in 1907, Hill was the energetic, driving force behind the civil rights movement in Virginia for many years. A commanding 6-foot-2, he seemed fearless as he marched black children into segregated schools to demand their admission, faced down hostile lawmakers plotting his disbarment, and advocated for an end to legal distinctions in transportation, voting, housing and schooling based on race.

In 1948, he became the first black person elected to Richmond City Council in the 20th century, a distinction that brought him national attention in the post-war South. A few years later, he quipped, “I couldn’t have been elected dogcatcher” due to his role in integrating schools.

Robinson, slender and cerebral, nine years Hill’s junior, was an intellectual giant who wrote exquisite briefs and bolstered LDF chief counsel Thurgood Marshall with his calm demeanor and penetrating analysis. Historian-journalist Richard Kluger, who chronicled the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling striking down segregated schools, described Robinson as Marshall’s “most valuable, all-around associate.”

The junior partner argued the Virginia portion of the Brown case in three separate hearings before the U.S. Supreme Court between 1952 and 1954. Named dean of the Howard University School of Law, he was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in January 1964 and to the D.C. federal appeals court two years later. The first of his race to serve on either, he achieved a similar distinction in becoming chief judge of the appellate court from 1981 to 1986.

Markers to Robinson and Hill might have fit in numerous spots around Richmond, perhaps most obviously in Jackson Ward, the site of their law offices and the hub of African American life in the city during their era. But the decision by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to locate them outside the Main Street courthouse speaks to the universality of their legacies.

It pays tribute also to the historic case that they argued there over five days in February 1952. Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County had been born of a student strike in Virginia’s rural Southside the previous year. Tired of crammed, substandard facilities at the R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, the daring youth walked out of their classrooms, vowing not to return without the promise of a new school.

Robinson and Hill agreed to file a legal challenge on their behalf, so long as students and parents switched the focus from improved schools to desegregated ones. The previous year, the NAACP had decreed that it would no longer accept any pretense of school parity that segregated black children.

The courtroom drama that unfolded in Richmond pitted Robinson, Hill and LDF deputy counsel Robert Carter against a phalanx of prominent Virginians led by Justin Moore, a native Louisianan whose sharp-tongued intellect and dogged work ethic had propelled him into the city’s legal aristocracy.

Of the five cases that eventually combined into the Brown decision, Virginia’s was the last to go to trial. Due to the acumen of Hill and Robinson, it was the one in which local lawyers played the largest role. And it was perhaps the one which best showcased the clash of aspirations and traditions at the heart of the seismic school struggle.

Viewed through a 21st century lens, the amount of open racism evident in the trial astounds. When Kenneth Clark, a New York psychologist whose work pointed to an inferiority complex among black children, took the stand, Moore highlighted Clark’s skin tone. “I mean are you half-white, or half-colored and half Panamanian, or what?” he asked.

Similarly, he pressed social scientist Isidor Chein: “What kind of name is that? What sort of racial background does that indicate? . . . Are you 100% Jewish?”

When the court broke for lunch, the black lawyers were forced to ask for a time extension. No restaurant between Main Street and Jackson Ward would serve them. And when the state’s premier witness, Dr. Henry Garrett, chair of the psychology department at Columbia University, opined that he would like to see black children build up their talents in music and athletics, Hill exploded into one of the most passionate speeches of his career.

“Athletics, that is all right. Music, fine — all Negroes are supposed to be able to sing,” he railed. “But we want an opportunity along with everybody else … to develop our talents, whatever they may be, in whatever fields of endeavor there are existing in this country.”

To no one’s surprise, the state prevailed, but that was not the final word. Two years later, on May 17, 1954, the nation’s highest court vindicated the black lawyers, declaring that “segregated educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The world turned.

Today, much unfinished business remains. Richmond’s Confederate statues need removing or explaining. The Shockoe Bottom slave markets need exposing in all their shame. Housing and schools that in many cases are no more integrated than in Hill and Robinson’s day need reconstructing.

As Richmond confronts those imperatives, the Hill-Robinson markers will stand as a challenge, testament to how far we have come and how far we need to go.

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