*Patrick Larsen reported this story for VPM.
Dr. Oliver Hill Jr. died this month at the age of 70. He was a professor of psychology at Virginia State University and an advocate of a high quality education for all children. He was known among friends as brilliant and down to earth in equal measure.
Hill never strayed far from the principles his parents taught him. He was born into the Civil Rights Movement – his father was the iconic NAACP lawyer Oliver Hill Sr., who helped lead the years-long effort to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Brown v. Board of Educationdecision.
“We, as a result, would have a lot of threats coming in over the telephone, and so I wasn’t allowed to answer the phone for a long time in the evenings. We even had a cross burned on our yard one time,” Hill said in a 2013 Library of Congress historical interview.
He did not end up following his father into legal work – but the influence of his upbringing was clear. Hill saw a quality education as a civil right.
Dr. Reginald Hopkins, a longtime colleague of Hill’s, described him as “transcendent, calm, knowledgeable and intelligent.”
Hopkins worked with Hill in the VSU psychology department, where Hill researched teaching and learning strategies for math curriculum. His work was often inspired by his lifelong meditation and mindfulness practices – after college, Dr. Hill spent six months in Spain studying Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who also taught The Beatles and the Beach Boys.
“I could say that he had a very unique or uncommon striving. A striving to pursue social justice at all levels of behavior,” Hopkins said.
Striving for Justice
Hill pursued that by working to bring the Algebra Project to Petersburg. The nationwide program uses math literacy as an organizing tool to improve overall public education.
“The program began in 2007 and by 2010, all but one of the schools were accredited,” said Dave Dennis, director of the Southern Initiative Algebra Project and longtime Civil Rights activist.
Dennis says implementing the program was long, difficult work — but Hill never gave up. “I watched him get knocked down and he would get back up and smile and say, ‘Maybe next time,’” Dennis said.
Hopkins says one of his most cherished memories is when Hill asked him to help lead the Petersburg project.
“Because it gives us the opportunity to continue his vision,” Hopkins said.
“They would dance, and they would laugh, and they would have fun and they would tip the drag queens, and they were a full part of the community.” – Ted Lewis
Another colleague, Ted Lewis, recalls the first time they met Hill. “I think that I had an image of who this man was. But he came in and he shook my hand and said “Hi, I’m Duke, it’s nice to meet you,” And he just made me feel at home,” Lewis said.
Lewis heads Side by Side, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting LGBTQ Virginia youth. Hill was a board member. The two worked together to foster a safe environment for LGBTQ VSU students.
“He was very much a visible ally. And that makes a huge difference when you’re trying to make change and it makes a huge difference when you’re trying to build allyship,” Lewis said.
In 2013, VSU students started an annual Pride Ball. Lewis says Hill and his wife, Renee Hill, were there every year. “They would dance, and they would laugh, and they would have fun and they would tip the drag queens, and they were a full part of the community,” Lewis said.
An Early “STEAM” Supporter
Hill didn’t just work to expand sciences and math education, but also served as a board member for Virginia Humanities, formerly the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, an organization that highlights Virginia culture and history.
“I don’t think you can have good science without connections to the humanities,” Hill said. He said his “sense of self” was changed by learning more about African-American and African history: “You need to have those kinds of broader perspectives.”
Sarah McConnell produces “With Good Reason,” a syndicated radio show from Virginia Humanities. Hill appeared on her show many times to discuss his life and work.
“Oliver said we’re creating pools of poverty and hopelessness in all of our cities and that somehow in the mid ‘60s the idea went from these are children who are discriminated against, to these kids are disadvantaged – with the connotation that they are not able to function,” McConnell said.
She says Hill was dismayed after walking through the halls of a mostly Black Richmond public school.
“He said it was nearly silent with police resource officers patrolling the halls. By contrast, when he walked the halls of a mostly white affluent public school in the Richmond suburbs, he heard the happy laughter and noise of a great learning environment,” McConnell said.
She said Hill saw the American education system as outdated – something that needs to change for all students. He believed that change could be made.
“He had such faith in the powerful minds of young Black children. He said they just needed to believe that what they already have inside their head outshines any computer,” McConnell said.
“Everybody is starting to get what Black people have been talking about for ages.” – Oliver Hill Jr.
Hill on Black Lives Matter
Shortly before his own death, Hill recorded a meditation to help people with the stresses of racist violence and COVID-19, inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests over the police killing of George Floyd. The goal was, “Not to remove justified anger and pain, but as a way to hold and honor those emotions,” he says in the video.
In an interview with the Richmond Times Dispatch, Hill said he was heartened by the size and diversity of the protests. “Everybody is starting to get what Black people have been talking about for ages,” Hill said.
He also applauded demonstrators for asking questions about policing, power structures and systemic racism. He said he was hopeful that removing confederate monuments is just the start of systemic change. “And I think those kinds of moments are turning points in history,” Hill said.
That image – of a man making a difference – was one friends and colleagues kept coming back to in their remembrances of Hill “I think Dr. Hill lived into that legacy of the Hill name,” Lewis said.
Friends and family plan to memorialize Hill at Scott’s Funeral Home. The service will be streamed online.