On Friday, Roanoke gets to claim some moral superiority over Richmond and Norfolk.
Some might have thought we had it all along, but here’s the more immediate rationale: On Friday at 1 p.m., Roanoke will dedicate a historical marker to Oliver Hill, the famed civil rights lawyer who grew up here and practiced law here for a few years before moving to the state capital.
Here’s some context: In 2008, the state Department of Historic Resources approved four historical markers related to Hill, whose best-known case was one of the five lawsuits that together formed Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down segregation.
One was for Richmond, where Hill practiced law for most of his career.
One was for Norfolk, where in 1940 he won a key federal case that challenged Virginia’s system of paying black teachers less than white ones.
Another was for Farmville, where Hill — along with law partner Spottswood Robinson — took on the case of the African-American students who in 1951 staged a historic walk-out from their school to protest poor conditions. That suit later became part of the multi-case Brown decision.
The fourth marker was for Roanoke, to mark Hill’s boyhood home at 401 Gilmer Avenue Northwest.
In August, we reported a rather remarkable discovery: Ten years after their approval, not a single one of these markers had been erected. In fact, there were a total of 23 historical markers across the state that had been approved but never put up. Most of those deal with African-Americans, Native Americans and women —all people who have tended to get written out of Virginia history. Between 2006 and 2013, the state Department of Historic Resources sought to make up for that by approving a lot of new historical markers. However, 23 of those new markers never got put up. Why not? Here’s the catch: While the state may approve the markers, it’s not the one in charge of paying for them or putting them up. That’s up to, well, whoever wants to take charge locally. The cost of a historical marker is a relative pittance — $1,945 for the marker and pole, plus whatever labor it takes to install it. But there are probably 23 different reasons why those 23 markers hadn’t been put up. Sometimes there are local debates about who ought to be involved — putting up a marker sometimes involves local governments, property owners and historical groups working together, which seems easy but often isn’t. Sometimes there’s not an obvious location to be marked. Sometimes nobody takes the lead and nothing ever happens. That was the case in Roanoke, where apparently nobody knew the city was entitled to a marker.
On Aug. 6, we published an editorial pointing out how Roanoke had yet to put up its Oliver Hill marker. At 9:35 a.m., we received an e-mail from Nelson Harris, a former mayor, current pastor and longtime local historian. He said he intended to spearhead a campaign to raise the money and had just made arrangements with the Foundation for Roanoke Valley to receive the funds. By 12:31 p.m., he’d raised half of the required amount. By 3:33 p.m. the same day, he’d received pledges for all of it.
The money has since been collected and the marker ordered from the foundry. On Friday, there will be a brief ceremony on Gilmer Avenue to unveil it.
When that happens, Roanoke will become the first community in the state to have a historical marker dedicated to one of the nation’s foremost civil rights champions.
Richmond, Norfolk and Farmville still don’t have their Hill markers up. The Richmond marker was manufactured a long time ago, but is sitting in storage. When we published our original editorial, nothing had happened in Norfolk and Farmville. Since then they have followed Roanoke’s lead and mounted fund-raising campaigns. Those markers have now been ordered, and Farmville’s will go up Feb. 2. But there’s still no word on the ones in Richmond and Norfolk. Roanokers should feel proud that their city will beat all those others, although we shouldn’t feel too smug. Roanoke remains deficient in honoring a lot of historical figures from its past — white, black, men, women. Roanoke is not a city with a lot of statues, although we could be. And there are lots of others ways besides statues to honor people and events from the past. Roanoke made moves in that direction when it created Holton Plaza downtown named after former Gov. Linwood Holton and renamed Stonewall Jackson Middle School after an actual Roanoker; it’s now John P. Fishwick Middle School. There’s a long list of others, though, who still deserve recognition.
Roanoke should be proud of its new historical marker to Hill but might also want to ask if this is a sufficient honor. Is there more we should do? Should we, for instance, name the city courthouse after him? Or some other public building or place? If you want to know more about Hill and why he deserves such honor, then we recommend you read the book “We Face The Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson And the Legal Team That Dismantled Jim Crow,” by Virginia journalist Margaret Edds.
Meanwhile, we remain amazed that there hasn’t been more controversy about all the other historical markers that haven’t been put up. They’re mostly in the Richmond-to-Norfolk corridor. Some deal with well-known people or events, such as —Abraham Lincoln’s post-war visit to the former Confederate capital. Others deal with lesser-known but still important figures, such as Ora Brown Stokes, an influential Richmond educator, probation officer and civic activist. One of the missing markers is to Hill’s law partner, Robinson, who worked many of the same cases that Hill did and went on to become a federal judge of some note.
The absence of these markers seems, well, an embarrassment, especially given how much Virginia obsesses over its history. As a society, we’re going through a sometimes-wrenching debate over whether we should have certain statues. But there’s no debate about whether these historical figures deserve recognition. On the other hand, there’s seems no action toward doing anything about getting these markers put up, either.
In Roanoke this wek, we give a shout-out to Harris, who stepped forward and made the Hill marker happen here. But why has no one stepped forward in other communities to get these other markers put up? Those aren’t our cities, but this is our state. And, well, we wonder.