Oliver Hill's sharp legal mind helped shred the segregation-era
doctrine of “separate but equal.”
He is best known for his role in Brown v. Board of Education,
the landmark Supreme Court decision striking down segregated schools.
Hill was a constant thorn in the side of hypocrisy, in the battle
against segregation. His team of lawyers filed more civil rights
suits in Virginia than the total filed in all other Southern states
during the segregation era. At one point, the team had 75 cases
pending. The Washington Post once estimated that Hill's team was
responsible for winning more than $50 million in higher pay, new
buses and better schools for black teachers and students.
Threatening phone calls came to the Hill home so frequently in those
days that Hill and his wife, Berensenia Walker, did not allow their
son, Oliver Hill, Jr., to answer the telephone until he was a young
man. Hatemongers burned a cross in the family's front yard. Hill
Oliver W. Hill was born Oliver White in Richmond in 1907. His mother
remarried and Hill took his stepfather's last name. The Hill family
moved to Roanoke and then to Washington, D.C., where he graduated
from Dunbar High School.
Hill attended Howard University Law School with Thurgood Marshall,
the The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund's founder. They became fast friends.
Extremely talented, bright and ambitious, they raced neck-and-neck
toward excellence. When they graduated in 1933, Hill was second
in the class to Marshall. Remaining good friends, Hill became a
cooperating attorney with the Legal Defense Fund and joined Marshall
in filing one of the five suits that won the Brown case,
that ultimately dismantled legal segregation.
Hill's early years as a lawyer were inauspicious. At one point he
abandoned his practice and worked in Washington as a waiter. He
later moved to Richmond, and began to practice there in 1939. He
won his first civil rights case in 1940 in Norfolk. That decision
ordered the school system to provide equal pay for black teachers.
In April 1951, Hill and his partner, Spottswood W. Robinson III,
received word that students at all-black R.R. Moton High School
in Farmville had walked out of the leaky, poorly heated buildings
that served as their school. Hill was one of the trial lawyers in
the resulting desegregation lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board
of Prince Edward County which would be decided under Brown v.
the Board of Education.
Hill's involvement in his community went beyond the courtroom. In
1948, he won a seat on the Richmond City Council, becoming the first
African American elected to the City Council since Reconstruction
Days. After the Brown decision, Hill worked briefly for the
Federal Housing Administration, first as Assistant to the Federal
Housing Commissioner in 1961 and later, as Federal Housing Commissioner
in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. After leaving
his Federal Government post in 1966, Hill resumed his law practice
in Richmond, Virginia as a partner in the law firm of Hill, Tucker
Hill has served as an officer or member on the board of many national,
state and local organizations, including the National Legal Committee
of the NAACP, the National Bar Association, the Southern Conference
for Human Welfare, the National Association for Intergroup Relations
Officials, the Virginia State Bar Bench Bar Relations Committee
and the Old Dominion Bar Association, which he co-founded.
Hill's accomplishments as a civil rights advocate and litigator
have earned him many awards and citations including the “Lawyer
of the Year Award” from the National Bar Association in 1959,
the “Simple Justice Award” from the NAACP Legal Defense
and Educational Fund in 1986, the American Bar Association “Justice
Thurgood Marshall Award” in 1993 and the “Presidential
Medal of Freedom” in 1999. Most recently, he received the
American Bar Association Medal for 2000, the National Bar Association
&lbquo;Hero of the Law” award in August 2000, and in September
2000, he and other LDF lawyers were honored with the ”Harvard
Medal of Freedom“ for their role in the Brown v. Board
of Education decision.
Excerpted with permission from the NAACP
Legal Defense and Educational Fund, www.naacpldf.org