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Standing on the Shoulders of Legacy: Oliver White Hill, Sr.

I’m Just Sayin’ Dr. T’s column 02/23/22

Born in Richmond, Virginia, Oliver Hill was a civil rights attorney, author, activist, and an historic contributor to the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality for Black people. His tireless work against racial discrimination helped to end the long-standing segregationist doctrine of “separate but equal.” His most famous work surrounded the groundbreaking case that transformed public education forever. He was on the legal team with Thurgood Marshall that argued Brown v. The Board of Education before the Supreme Court. Oliver Hill argued many cases preceding the Brown case that led to landmark legal decisions involving equality in pay for Black teachers, access to school buses, voting rights, jury selection, and protections in employment for Black people. Hill’s legal career was dedicated to organizing African American people to challenge segregation and demand their legal and God-given right to first class citizenship.

Oliver White Hill, Sr was a graduate of Howard University and lifelong resident of Richmond, Virginia, although he also lived in Roanoke for a time and Washington, DC while he was growing up. His parents were divorced when he was nine years old, and his mother became the family’s sole provider. She worked at a resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, and a related resort in Bermuda during the winter months. Because his mother’s work necessitated her being away for many months at a time, Oliver White (Hill) was raised by his maternal grandmother and great Aunt in a small modest house on James Street the predominantly Black neighborhood of Jackson Ward. When his mother remarried her new husband’s name was Joseph Cartwright Hill. Oliver got along quite well with his stepfather, and eventually changed his name on his birth certificate to reflect Hill as his surname. Samuel Hill was Oliver’s uncle and worked for the DC post office and had an interest in law. Upon his death Samuel’s wife passed many of his uncle’s law books on to Oliver which piqued his interest in the study of law. When Oliver Hill learned that the US Supreme Court had taken away many rights for African American people and that the US Congress was unwilling to even pass legislation to outlaw the lynching of Negroes, he was determined to go to law school and work to reverse the Plessey v. Ferguson decision that was issued just before his birth. Plessey v. Ferguson was a landmark decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation laws Did NOT violate the US Constitution if facilities for each race were equal in quality, a doctrine that became known as the “separate but equal” doctrine. This decision and this doctrine are ones which Black people have struggled to change for decades upon decades and “The Struggle Continues.” This decision has infected our culture for generations. It “legitimized” the many state laws re-establishing racial segregation and discrimination that were passed in the American South after the end of the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) and also the “new” voter suppression laws and gerrymandering that is occurring in the current political discourse of today.

Oliver Hill died in 2007. He outlived many of his contemporaries from the civil rights era by many years. In his final years, he worked on his autobiography with Professor Jonathan K. Stubbs. The Big Bang: The Autobiography of Oliver W. Hill, Sr. was published in 2000 and reprinted for his 100th birthday in 2007. Oliver Hill also gave an oral history interview to Virginia Commonwealth University scholars in 2002. In 2004, he was a featured panelist during Howard University’s celebration of the lawyers who contributed to the Brown v. Board of Education decision on its 50th anniversary. Oliver White Hill, Sr. died peacefully at the age of 100 in his Richmond home. His legacy lives on and we ALL stand on his shoulders as we continue to fight for Justice, Equality and Freedom.

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