Oliver Hill

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For the architect, see Oliver Hill (architect). For the baseball player, see Oliver Hill (baseball).
Oliver W. Hill, Sr.
Oliver Hill.jpg
Oliver Hill oversees the swearing in of the first African-American member of the Trial Bureau of the Department of Justice
Born (1907-05-01)May 1, 1907
Richmond, Virginia, United States
Died August 5, 2007 (aged 101)
Richmond, Virginia
Occupation Civil rights attorney

Oliver White Hill, Sr. (May 1, 1907 – August 5, 2007) was a civil rights attorney from Richmond, Virginia.[1][2] His work against racial discrimination helped end the doctrine of "separate but equal." He also helped win landmark legal decisions involving equality in pay for black teachers, access to school buses, voting rights, jury selection, and employment protection. He retired in 1998 after practicing law for almost 60 years. Among his numerous awards is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President of the United States Bill Clinton at the time in 1999

Childhood, education and family life[edit]

Hill was born as Charles B. White in Richmond, Virginia, on May 1, 1907.[3] His father William Tyler White (b. July 2, 1880) abandoned his mother Olivia Lewis White Hill (1888-1980) while Oliver was a baby, and initially Oliver was raised by his mother and her parents. Olivia remarried Joseph Cartwright Hill, who cared for young Oliver, who eventually changed his birth certificate to reflect Hill's surname. Both Olivia and Joseph Hill worked in the hospitality industry, spring and fall in Virginia and winters in Bermuda, which meant that Oliver was left with his grandparents, or later with the Pentecost family.

The Hill family moved to Roanoke where Joseph Hill operated a pool hall until Prohibition made that uneconomic, so he resumed his hospitality industry career. The young family roomed with the Pentecost family, which included Mr. Pentecost who was a cook on various Norfolk Southern trains, as well as several other family members in the railroad service. Hill attended segregated schools in Norfolk, which did not offer schooling beyond the eighth grade to black children. The family moved to Washington, D.C., where he attended and graduated from Dunbar High School.

Oliver White Hill spent summers earning money for college (and later law school) at various resorts in the Mid-Atlantic region as well as Canada, but continued his schooling in Washington, D.C., intending to return to Roanoke. He earned his undergraduate degree from Howard University and entered Howard University School of Law in 1930. He studied under the tutelage of Charles Hamilton Houston, the chief architect in challenging Jim Crow laws through legal means.[4] In law school, Hill was a classmate and close friend of future Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall. He graduated second in his class after Marshall in 1933.[2]

After moving back to Virginia, Hill courted and married Beresenia Ann Walker (Apr 8, 1911 -Sep 27, 1993) of Richmond, although the ceremony occurred in Washington D.C. on September 5, 1934. She was the daughter of Andrew J. Walker and Yetta Lee Brown, and niece of Maggie Lena Walker. Their son, Oliver White Hill Jr., was born on September 19, 1949 in Richmond, after Hill returned from his World War II service.[5]


Hill began practicing law in Richmond in 1939. In 1940, working with fellow attorneys Thurgood Marshall, William H. Hastie, and Leon A. Ransom, Hill won his first civil rights case.[2] The decision in Alston v. School Board of Norfolk, Va., gained pay equity for black teachers.

In 1943, although Hill was 36 years old, somehow he was drafted during World War II, and chose to join the United States Army, rather than the United States Navy which he thought at the time only allowed black sailors to perform mess-hall duties. Like his partner Samuel W. Tucker and other African-Americans, Hill experienced racial discrimination during his military service, particularly by white officers. Unlike Tucker, Hill was not allowed to enlist in Officer Candidate School, but instead served in a unit of black engineers, and performed mostly support duties as a Staff Sargent. He credited the unprofessional racist comments of the unit's white chaplain (who tried to stop white English people from fraternizing with the black soldiers) with saving him and his unit from near-certain death during the D-Day Normandy invasion. He served in the European Theatre of World War II until V-E Day, when his unit was shipped to the Pacific, where he was ultimately discharged.

Returning to his law practice in Richmond, Hill won the right for equal transportation for school children in the Virginia Supreme Court. This era also marked his only attempts to be elected to public office. He first ran for the City Council of Richmond, which had changed its system to nine members elected at-large rather than by districts as before the war. He came in 10th in his first attempt in 1947. However, in 1949, Hill became the first African American on the City Council of Richmond since Reconstruction.[6] Hill did not win re-election in the next election (1951), for the controversy over his legal work discussed below had begun, and he also supported a highway project which was unpopular.

In the early 1950s, Hill was co-counsel with Spottswood W. Robinson III in dozens of civil rights lawsuits around Virginia. In 1951, he took up the cause of the African-American students at the segregated R.R. Moton High School in Farmville who had walked out of their dilapidated school. The subsequent lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, later became one of the five cases decided under Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954.[2]

During the 1940s and 1950s, the safety of Hill's life and family were threatened by his legal work. Crank calls (many with threats) came all through the day and night until the family learned to take their telephone off the hook at night-time (much to the telephone company's displeasure, but then it also refused to trace the crank and threatening calls which had provoked that self-help).[7] Hill's young son was not allowed to answer the telephone, and at one point a cross was burned on the Hills' lawn.[6]

Nonetheless, Hill and his clients continued their legal battles. After Brown decision, Virginia under the Byrd Organization followed a policy known as massive resistance to avoid desegregation, enacting a legislative package known as the Stanley plan, which included tuition grant support of segregation academies set up to avoid the extant public schools.[8] In 1959, after public schools had been closed in several localities, notably Prince Edward Public Schools, Norfolk Public Schools and Warren County Public Schools, the Virginia Supreme Court and a federal 3-judge panel on January 19, 1959, finally ruled most of the Stanley plan and Virginia's law prohibiting integrated public schools unconstitutional. Not long after, "Massive Resistance" as an official state policy was abruptly dropped by Virginia Governor James Lindsay Almond, Jr. and the schools in Farmville, Norfolk, and Front Royal reopened.

However, it was to be more than ten more years before many school districts in Virginia were significantly integrated, following implementation of U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare regulations, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court decision against freedom of choice plans in the Green v. School Board of New Kent County case of 1968, in which his law partner Samuel W. Tucker was lead counsel, supported by a young lawyer Hill had recruited, Henry L. Marsh, III.

He was long a partner of Hill, Tucker and Marsh law firm in Richmond and continued civil rights litigation until he retired in 1998. One of the last partners he brought into the firm, Clarence Dunnaville had worked with him in his youth on the school desegregation cases and continued his work through the Oliver Hill Foundation, which seeks to reuse Hill's former home in Roanoke to provide legal services to the poor through third year students at the Washington and Lee School of Law.[9] The firm closed in late 2015 as Henry Marsh III decided to focus on his duties in the General Assembly.[10]

Awards and honors[edit]

Hill's accomplishments have earned many awards and citations including the 1959 Lawyer of the Year Award from the National Bar Association, the 1980 William Robert Ming Advocacy Award from the NAACP,[11] the Simple Justice Award from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1986[12] and the American Bar Association Justice Thurgood Marshall Award in 1993. President Bill awarded Hill the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999.[2][13] Students at the University of Virginia also honored Hill when they founded the Oliver W. Hill Black Pre-Law Association.

In the year of 2000, he received the American Bar Association Medal, and the National Bar Association Hero of the Law award. In September 2000, he and other NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers were honored with the Harvard Medal of Freedom for their role in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 2005 he was awarded the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP's highest honor.[2] He's also a renowned member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

In Richmond, a bronze bust of him is visible at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. The city's Oliver Hill Courts Building was named for him.

Plaque on Virginia Capitol grounds commemorating Oliver Hill's part in the integration Virginia schools

Each year since 2002, the Virginia State Bar has awarded the Oliver White Hill Law School Pro Bono Award to one law student who demonstrates an exceptional commitment to public or community service.[14]

In October 2005, Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner dedicated a newly renovated building in Virginia's Capitol Square in Hill's honor. The Oliver W. Hill Building is the first state-owned building as well as the first in Virginia's Capitol Square to be named for an African American. "Oliver W. Hill has worked tirelessly to end the injustice of segregation, and today we honor his lifetime of contributions to our commonwealth and our nation" said Governor Warner. "It's my hope that the generations of Virginians and Americans who come after us and visit this Square will think that the history we reflect in our monuments is as rich and diverse as our people, and that the heroes that this generation has chosen to honor bring new and vital lessons."

Also in Capitol Square, a Civil Rights Memorial was commissioned and dedicated in July 2008. The memorial, which includes an image of Hill, honors the roles Virginians have played in the nation's struggle for civil rights for all.

Oliver Hill's autobiography: The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education, The Autobiography of Oliver W. Hill, Sr. edited by Professor Jonathan K. Stubbs, was published in 2000 and reprinted in 2007.

On Sunday, August 5, 2007, Oliver Hill died peacefully during breakfast at his home in Richmond, Virginia of natural causes at the age of 100 years. Later that day, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine issued a statement, saying:

"As a pioneer for civil rights, an accomplished attorney, and a war veteran, Mr. Hill's dedication to serving the Commonwealth and the country never failed. And, despite all of the accolades and honors he received, Mr. Hill always believed his true legacy was working to challenge the conscience of our Commonwealth and our country." [15]


  1. ^ Ellen Robertson,; Michael Paul Williams anr Lindsay Kastner (August 6, 2007). "Civil Rights Crusader". Richmond Times Dispatch. Retrieved August 6, 2007.  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)[dead link]
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Oliver White Hill Bio- Oliver W. Hill Sr.". Richmond Times Dispatch. August 6, 2007. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved August 6, 2007. 
  3. ^ Check? His legal birth name was Charles B. White Virginia Birth Certificate # 24910 Legally Changed his name on October 1, 1942 to Oliver White Hill. His mother would always refer to him as Oliver even though his birth name was Charles
  4. ^ Hill, Sr., Oliver W. (2007). The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond. GrantHouse Publishers. p. ix. ISBN 978-1-885066-62-6. 
  5. ^ Bernstein, Adam (August 6, 2007). "Oliver W. Hill, 1907–2007". Washington Post. Retrieved August 9, 2007. 
  6. ^ a b "Oliver W. Hill". The HistoryMakers. November 2003. Retrieved August 8, 2007. 
  7. ^ Autobiography
  8. ^ Glasrud, Bruce; Ely, James W. (May 1977). "The Crisis of Conservative Virginia: The Byrd Organization and the Politics of Massive Resistance (book review)". The Journal of Southern History. 43 (2): 324–325. doi:10.2307/2207385. JSTOR 2207385. 
  9. ^ http://clarencedunnaville.com/home/
  10. ^ http://triceedneywire.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1220:historic-civil-rights-law-firm-closes
  11. ^ "NAACP Legal Department Awards". NAACP. Retrieved July 4, 2010. 
  12. ^ "Oliver Hill Timeline". NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Retrieved October 22, 2009. 
  13. ^ Robert C. Scott (May 1, 2007). "A Tribute to Oliver White Hill In the U.S. House of Representatives May 1, 2007". Retrieved August 11, 2007. 
  14. ^ "Oliver White Hill Law Student Pro Bono Award", Virginia State Bar.
  15. ^ Official Site of the Governor of Virginia - Tim Kaine

External links[edit]