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 his former partner, Martin A. Martin as the first African-American member of the Department of Justice's Trial Bureau
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]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 was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which U.S. President Bill Clinton awarded him in 1999.

Childhood, education and family life[edit]

Oliver White (later nicknamed "Peanut") was born in Richmond, Virginia on May 1, 1907.[2] His father, William Henry White Jr., abandoned his mother Olivia Lewis White Hill (1888-1980) shortly after the boy's birth, although W.H. White Jr. briefly returned six months later before leaving Richmond permanently. Though uncommon and difficult to obtain at the time, his mother thus obtained a divorce in 1911. When Oliver was 9 years old, after the deaths of his maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather, W.H. White Jr. returned briefly to Richmond and asked his son if he wanted to live with him in New York City (Oliver declined the offer).[3]

Because Olivia Hill worked at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia during the spring and fall seasons, and a related resort in Bermuda during the winter, Oliver was raised by her grandmother and grandaunt in a small house on St. James Street in a predominantly African American section of Richmond. When Oliver was six years old, his mother Olivia Hill returned to Richmond for her mother's funeral, and introduced Oliver to her new husband, Joseph Cartwright Hill, who worked as a bellman at the Homestead resort. Oliver's maternal grandmother had moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania but returned to Richmond shortly before her death. His paternal grandfather William Henry White Sr. had founded Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Richmond, which the family attended and where Oliver attended Sunday school, but Rev. White died on August 13, 1913, not long after grandmother Lewis. His paternal grandmother, Kate Garnet White, was reputedly part Native American, but had little to do with Oliver and his mother. Ancestors of both families had come from Chesterfield County, and at least some were likely enslaved before the American Civil War.[4] Young Oliver got along very well with Joseph Hill, and eventually changed his birth certificate to reflect Hill's surname.

Joseph Hill moved his wife and Oliver to Roanoke, where he operated a pool hall until Prohibition made that uneconomic, so Joseph and soon Olivia Hill resumed their hospitality industry careers. The Hill family lived in the same house as Bradford Pentecost and his wife Lelia (d. 1943), who had no children, but often took in boarders who worked on the Norfolk and Southern Railroad like Mr. Pentecost (a cook). Hot Springs had no schools for black children, so Oliver remained in Roanoke, where he attended segregated schools until the eighth grade (the last offered to blacks in the city at the time). He also obtained his first jobs--at a local ice cream parlor (until the local police cited it for violating child labor laws), as well as delivering newspapers and ice, finding more strenuous and well-paying work as he grew stronger. During this time, the Pentecost family bought a larger house, 401 Gilmer Avenue. Hill came to consider Roanoke his childhood home. He later specifically remembered not minding serving food to strikebreakers during the Railroad Strike of 1922, because the striking unions were all-white, and sought to limit Negro employees to hard labor. Mrs. Pentecost tried to keep Oliver from working on the railroad, because her brother dropped out of college to work, and never returned, although many of her boarders were taking a year off working to pay for college.[5]

In 1916, the Hills moved to Washington, D.C., where Joseph Hill worked at the Navy Yard during the First World War. Oliver was in the sixth grade, but he did not like the D.C. elementary school he attended for a semester, and so was allowed to return to Roanoke and his foster parents, the Pentecosts. In 1923, further education being unavailable to him in Roanoke, Hill moved to Washington D.C. to attend (and graduate from) Dunbar High School, which at the time may have offered the best education available to black children in the country. At first Oliver was behind a semester academically, and also lacked scholarly seriousness. He also played various sports-especially tennis in Roanoke, but baseball, football and basketball at Dunbar (which didn't have a tennis team).[6]

Joseph Hill's brother Samuel worked for the post office in Washington, D.C., and in his off-hours worked as a lawyer handling mostly wills and real estate transactions. Samuel Hill died of a cerebral hemorrhage when Oliver was a college sophomore, and his widow gave Oliver his law books, which piqued his interest in law school. Upon learning that the Supreme Court had taken away many rights of African Americans, and that in the 1920s Congress could not even pass legislation outlawing lynching Negroes a crime, Oliver White Hill determined to go to law school and reverse the Plessy v. Fergusen decision issued slightly before his birth.[7] Hill performed various part-time jobs in D.C. during his college years at Howard University and later the Howard University School of Law. He spent summers earning money for his education at various resorts in the Mid-Atlantic region, including Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and Oswegatchie, Connecticut, as well as for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. After earning his undergraduate degree in 1930, Oliver attended Howard law school. There, Hill was a classmate and close friend of future Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall, although they were leaders of the rival Omega Psi Phi and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternities.[8] Both studied under Charles Hamilton Houston, the chief architect in challenging Jim Crow laws through legal means.[9] Marshall graduated first in his law school class in 1933, and Oliver White Hill second.[10]

Hill courted and married Beresenia Ann Walker (Apr 8, 1911 -Sep 27, 1993) of Richmond on September 5, 1934. She taught school in Washington during his early years of practice in Roanoke, and he soon moved back to Washington.[11] 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.[12]


Early years[edit]

Hill began practicing law in Roanoke during the Great Depression, sharing an office with J. Henry Clayer (a lawyer who once worked in the district attorney's office in Chicago), and a dentist and a physician. It was a general practice and also involved criminal work in surrounding counties, where blacks encountered prejudice. Howard Law School had received funds to challenge segregation of Negroes, but that endowment was nearly wiped out during the 1929 stock market crash. In 1935, Hill helped organize the Virginia State Conference of NAACP branches, with the help of his friend Leon A. Ransom. Printer W.P. Milner of the Norfolk Journal and Guide newspaper was the first President and Dr. Jesse M. Tinsley (a Richmond dentist and president of the Richmond branch) was the Vice-President. When Milner was fired from his job for union activities, Tinsely became the state conference's President (and remained so for 30 years).

However, the new general practice did not thrive in Roanoke, and he missed his wife, so Hill returned to Washington D.C. in June 1936. He and his college friend William T. Whitehead frequently took jobs as waiters, and also tried organizing waiters and cooks for the Congress of Industrial Organizations because the American Federation of Labor unions were white or segregated.[13] After some meetings at Howard, Hill returned to Virginia in 1939, thinking to establish a law firm with J. Byron Hopkins (a class above Hill at Howard Law) and J. Thomas Hewin Jr. (whose father had an established practice in Richmond). Hill also traveled with Jesse Tinsley on NAACP errands and speaking assignments, and served the Virginia Teachers Association (because the Virginia Education Association only represented white teachers).[14] He also met and worked some cases in outlying communities with Martin A. Martin of Danville. In 1942, Martin became the first African American lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice's Trial Division, but he did not like his assignments and resigned a year later to work in Richmond with Spottswood W. Robinson III.[15]

In 1940, working with fellow attorneys Thurgood Marshall, William H. Hastie, and Leon A. Ransom, Hill won his first civil rights case.[10] The decision in Alston v. School Board of Norfolk, Va., gained pay equity for black teachers.

Wartime service[edit]

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.[16] 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.

Civil rights pioneer[edit]

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.[10]

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).[17] Hill's young son was not allowed to answer the telephone, and at one point a cross was burned on the Hills' lawn.[16]

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.[18] 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.[19] The firm closed in late 2015 as Henry Marsh III decided to focus on his duties in the General Assembly.[20]

Death and legacy[edit]

Oliver Hill outlived his beloved wife Bernie by more than a decade, and also outlived many of his contemporaries from civil rights struggles. He mourned his partner and former Richmond mayor, Henry Marsh Sr., gunned down in 1997 while stopped at a traffic light a half mile from the courthouse that would soon bear his name by a tenant behind in rent and facing eviction.[21] Hill spent some of his final years working on his autobiography with Professor Jonathan K. Stubbs.The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education, The Autobiography of Oliver W. Hill, Sr. It was published in 2000 and reprinted in 2007. Hill also gave an oral history interview to Virginia Comonwealth University scholars in 2002.[22]

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

On Sunday, August 5, 2007, Oliver Hill died peacefully during breakfast at his home in Richmond of natural causes at the age of 100 years. Later that day, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine ordered flags to be flown at half mast to honor Hill and issued a statement:

"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." [23]

More than 1200 people viewed his body as it rested in the Executive Mansion before his funeral at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, near where his law office had stood for decades. He is survived by his son, Oliver Hill Jr., professor of psychology at Virginia State University and executive director of its research foundation. He is buried in Richmond's Forest Lawn cemetery.[24]

Lifetime honors[edit]

In 1959 the National Bar Association named Hill its Lawyer of the Year.
In 1980 the NAACP awarded Hill its William Robert Ming Advocacy Award.[25]
In 1986 the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund accorded Hill its Simple Justice Award.[26]
In 1989, the Richmond Bar Association established the Hill-Tucker Public Service Award[27]
In 1993 the American Bar Association gave Hill its Justice Thurgood Marshall Award.
In 1996, Richmond's Oliver Hill Courts Building, housing the Juvenile and Domestic Relations courtrooms, was named for him, and each September remembers Hill.
In 1999 President Bill awarded Hill the Presidential Medal of Freedom.[28]
In 2000, Hill received the American Bar Association Medal and the National Bar Association Hero of the Law award. That September (2000), Hill and other NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers received the Harvard Medal of Freedom for their role in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
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.[29]
In 2003, a bronze bust of Hill was unvailed outside the Greater Richmond Convention Center.[30] The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia also has another bust.
In 2005 Hill received the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP's highest honor. That October (2005), Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner dedicated the newly renovated Virginia Finance building in Virginia's Capitol Square in Hill's honor. The Oliver W. Hill Building became the first state-owned building as well as the first in Virginia's Capitol Square to be named for an African American.[10]

Posthumous honors[edit]

In July 2008 the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial was commissioned and dedicated in Capitol Square, honoring the legacy of Hill, his fellow attorneys and clients.
The following year, the state's Department of Historic Resources approved four plaques that honor Hill and his legacy: by the Greater Richmond Convention Center marks the former location of his law office. The memorial in Norfolk recalls his first important legal victory, Alston v. School Board of Norfolk (1940), as well as Beckett v. Norfolk School Board (1957). The Prince Edward County marker commemorates his victory in Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County. The Roanoke marker commemorates Hill's early years in the city and early law practice.[31]

A street in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom (a former slave trading neighborhood) named "Oliver Hill Way" is now one of the proposed boundaries of a redevelopment project.[32]


  1. ^ Ellen Robertson, Michael Paul Williams and Lindsay Kastner (August 6, 2007). "Civil Rights Crusader". Richmond Times Dispatch. Retrieved August 6, 2007. [dead link]
  2. ^ Check? According to his Virginia Lawyers Weekly obituary, Oliver was always his first name. His autobiography does not mention the "Charles B. White" added by someone to this wikipedia entry, who also mentioned Virginia Birth Certificate # 24910 issued on October 1, 1942 legally changed it to Oliver White Hill.
  3. ^ Hill, Sr., Oliver W. (2007). The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond. GrantHouse Publishers. p. viii-ix. ISBN 978-1-885066-62-6.  pp. xxix, 3
  4. ^ "Autobiography" pp. 3-12
  5. ^ Autobiography pp. 14-15
  6. ^ Autobiography p.36-46
  7. ^ Autobiography pp. viii, 73
  8. ^ Autobiography pp. 75-87
  9. ^ Autobiography pp. viii-ix
  10. ^ a b c d "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. 
  11. ^ Autobiography pp. ix, 93
  12. ^ Bernstein, Adam (August 6, 2007). "Oliver W. Hill, 1907–2007". Washington Post. Retrieved August 9, 2007. 
  13. ^ Autobiography pp. 102-103
  14. ^ Autobiography pp. 103-107
  15. ^ Autobiography pp. 109-111
  16. ^ a b "Oliver W. Hill". The HistoryMakers. November 2003. Retrieved August 8, 2007. 
  17. ^ Autobiography
  18. ^ 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. 
  19. ^ http://clarencedunnaville.com/home/
  20. ^ http://triceedneywire.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1220:historic-civil-rights-law-firm-closes
  21. ^ Richmond Times Dispatch May 21, 2016 p. 1A
  22. ^ http://dig.library.vcu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/voices/id/5/
  23. ^ Official Site of the Governor of Virginia - Tim Kaine
  24. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=20841462
  25. ^ "NA ACP Legal Department Awards". NAACP. Retrieved July 4, 2010. 
  26. ^ "Oliver Hill Timeline". NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Retrieved October 22, 2009. 
  27. ^ Alan Cooper, "Oliver Hill: Civil Rights attorney," Virginia Lawyers Weekly (August 13, 2007)
  28. ^ "A Tribute to Oliver White Hill". 
  29. ^ "Oliver White Hill Law Student Pro Bono Award", Virginia State Bar.
  30. ^ Richmond Times Dispatch August 23, 2003 p. B-8
  31. ^ Richmond Times dispatch (January 1, 2009) p.B-3
  32. ^ "Richmond Times Dispatch May 28, 2014 p. A-7

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