“We are all human Earthlings, and we need to constantly work to overcome the artificial barriers that have been erected to create separation among groups of our fellow humans.”
Oliver White Hill, Sr.
Born Oliver White on May 1, 1907, Oliver Hill came into a world in which bigotry and hatred molded the rules of law. Raised in Virginia Cities, Richmond, and Roanoke, Hill learned as a boy that there was a racial divide in America which often treated the poor, minorities and the disenfranchised as unequal citizens.
When he was less than a year old, his father abandoned the family and his mother found family and friends to help her raise her young son. His mother eventually married Joseph Hill, who shared his last name with young Oliver.
Socially adept and quick-witted, Oliver became popular within his neighborhood and often the apple of his de facto stepmother’s eye. He was even cast in an Oscar Micheaux film, House Behind the Cedars. By age sixteen, his mother and stepfather moved from Roanoke to Washington, D.C. in order for Hill to attend Dunbar High School, a public college preparatory school for African Americans.
College had always been an expectation for Oliver Hill. So, by 1930, he was enrolled into Howard University. Working odd jobs during the summers, he funded his education and earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1931. Having been given a copy of the Constitution in his youth and having been inspired to change America through the law, Hill earned his L.L.B degree from Howard University’s School of Law- second in his class only to Thurgood Marshall.
Soon after graduating from Howard, Hill married Beresenia Ann “Bernie” Walker and he began his career in social justice. He served on the nominating committee at the Virginia State Conference for the NAACP and began his practice of law in Roanoke. Eventually, Hill returned to Richmond and established a practice with an eye on social justice. In 1940, he successfully earned equal pay for teachers and that unequal pay is discrimination and violates the 14th Amendment (Alston v. School Board of City of Norfolk). The NAACP grew under his leadership in Richmond and he established his partnership with Spottswood W. Robinson III, another Howard law graduate. The same year, he and other Virginia lawyers after a fellow was denied service at the Virginia Supreme Court Library formed the Old Dominion Bar Association in 1942.
With war brewing in Europe, at the age of 34, Hill was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. Earning the rank of Staff Sargent in an Engineering unit, he provided logistical support following the D-Day invasion. Once the war was over, Hill returned to his cases.
By 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Morgan v. Virginia, a case handled by Hill’s firm. The Court found rules that discrimination in interstate commercial travel was constitutionally impermissible. And, in 1948, Hill successful ran for the city council of Richmond, becoming the first African American to do so since Reconstruction. Hill’s effort to build a strong Virginia NAACP continued as he also grew his family. In 1949, his son Oliver, Jr. was born in 1949.
Despite constant death threats and even a cross burning in his yard, Hill continued his work. In 1951, Hill and his partners took on segregated schools in Prince Edward County (Davis, et.al. v. County School Board of Prince Education County, Virginia). Not soon afterward, President Harry S. Truman appointed Hill to the Committee on Government Contract Compliance, which monitored compliance with anti-discrimination clauses in federal government contracts. But, the road to Brown was still open.
Within days after Hill’s 47th birthday, on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional (Brown I, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas). The Era of Massive Resistance followed in Virginia. By May 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court outlined how desegregation was to be implemented. (Brown II). Read a brief history of Brown and Hill’s role in it on Howard University School of Law’s website here.
As Hill fought Massive Resistance laws in Virginia, he also continued to make strides in his legal career. By 1960, Hill was appointed to the National Democratic Party’s Biracial Committee on Civil Rights that would help propose Civil Rights Policy for the party’s National Convention. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Hill as an assistant for intergroup relations to the commission of the Federal Housing Administration, there Hill pushed for inclusion for other minority groups including Native Americans.
As court victories continued, the establishment made attacks on the ability of the NAACP and its attorney’s ability to practice law. Eventually, the Courts ruled in favor of Hill, his colleagues, and the NAACP. Hill, after serving in his various government posts, returned to the practice of law in 1966 but continued to serve on various commissions, including Governor Mills Godwin’s Virginia Constitutional Revision Commission which authored the Virginia Constitution in 1971.
Hill’s successes continued despite personal tragedy. He beloved Bernie passed away in 1993. And, Hill eventually lost his eyesight. In 1998, he retired from his legal practice. The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond, Mr. Hill’s autobiography, was published in 2000. Still, he remained a force in Virginia until his death in 2007 at the age of 100. His body laid in state in the Virginia Capitol, an honor granted to few Virginians.
Hill was the recipient of numerous awards over his lifetime. Across the Commonwealth, law schools hold annual programs and events named for the Civil Rights legend. Bronze busts and portraits grace courthouses and institutions as well as a Richmond street and two buildings, including a courthouse. In August 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded Oliver W. Hill the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Mr. Hill’s legacy continues through the Oliver White Hill Foundation and the various institutions which believe in his mission.