Oliver W. Hill, 1907-2007

Va. Lawyer Was at Fore of Attack on Segregation

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 6, 2007

Oliver W. Hill, 100, a Virginia lawyer who helped overturn legal segregation in his native state and was one of the country's foremost civil rights defenders during a six-decade career, died yesterday at his home in Richmond. He had a heart ailment.

Hill was an instrumental member of an NAACP-affiliated legal team that persistently attacked segregation. He also was a lead lawyer on a Virginia case later incorporated into Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unlawful.

He lacked the renown of his Howard University Law School classmate Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice, but at one time, Hill had 75 civil rights cases pending. He is estimated to have won $50 million in better pay and infrastructure needs for the state's black teachers and students during his career.

Hill, who was raised in Washington and graduated from Dunbar High School, spent his public life in Richmond, where he first won widespread attention in 1948 as the first black person elected to the City Council in 50 years. Although his term in office was short, his civil rights legacy proved far more enduring because of his role as a lead lawyer in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., one of the five cases the U.S. Supreme Court combined into its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Marshall was the lead lawyer in the high court case.

Hill's involvement in the Davis case began through his affiliation with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and he worked closely with a team that included Marshall; Howard Law School Dean Charles Hamilton Houston, who had been a mentor to Marshall and Hill; and Spottswood W. Robinson III, a future Howard law dean and chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Their goal was to challenge more than the existing "separate but equal" system of public facilities that had been created with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.

In 1951, Hill and Robinson took up the cause of students at an all-black high school in Farmville, Va., who had gone on a two-week strike to protest the leaky roof and other substandard conditions of the tar-paper building. This became the Davis case.

During and after the Brown decision, Hill remained an instrumental force in developing legal strategies during Virginia's "massive resistance" to desegregation, in which many public schools closed rather than admit blacks.

He filed countless suits in the state to compel change in such areas as voting rights, jury selection, access to school buses and employment protection.

Hill's activism came at a price. A cross was burned on his lawn in 1955, and his family received so many threats that his wife installed floodlights.

At the time, Hill said officials in Richmond "had the ambulance, the fire department and the undertaker all sent to my house in about 15 minutes of each other" to intimidate him.

He told the publication Human Rights in 1994: "I can't understand why Americans are willing to send their children -- black and white -- to foreign lands to fight, and sometimes die, to preserve the American concepts of freedom, democracy and civil rights, when at the same time these same Americans are unwilling to undergo an occasional inconvenience or suffer a slight financial loss to help break down racial barriers and racial discrimination in this country."

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