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Va. Lawyer Was at Fore of Attack on Segregation

He was born Oliver White in Richmond on May 1, 1907. After his parents divorced, he took the surname of his stepfather. The family settled in Washington, where, as Oliver Hill, he graduated from Dunbar.

Law became his chief interest after an uncle died and left him a copy of the Constitution. He said he saw himself as an activist early on and was determined to "correct the mistake made in 1896," meaning the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.

Hill was a 1931 graduate of Howard University and a 1933 graduate of its law school, where he finished second to Marshall in class rank.

It took many years for Hill to establish himself. An early law practice in Roanoke went under during the Depression, and he waited tables in Washington until opening a law office in Richmond in 1939.

One of his early victories was an equal-pay case involving black teachers in Norfolk. Hill also worked on segregation matters including voting rights and redlining, a discriminatory mortgage-lending practice.

After returning from Army service during World War II, Hill unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat in 1947 for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. His effort received national attention because, if he had won, he would have been the first black person in the General Assembly since 1889.

The next year, he won a seat on the Richmond City Council in large part because of a concerted effort by the city's black community to support him.

He lasted a term before losing reelection -- a loss attributed to different voting patterns in the black community. He was briefly considered a contender to replace a council member who resigned, but he was rejected by other members of the all-white council.

Hill sat on the national Democratic Party's Biracial Committee on Civil Rights in 1960, and the next year President John F. Kennedy named him to the Federal Housing Administration as an assistant to commissioner. During his five-year stint, Hill oversaw racial fairness policies in housing.

Afterward, he returned to his Richmond practice, whose partners included Henry L. Marsh III, who became the city's first black mayor and is now a Democratic state senator.

Hill continued to work until he went blind in the late 1990s and shortly afterward published a memoir, "The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond."

During his career, Hill won many awards from black legal and civic groups. In 1994, he received high honors from the American Bar Association and the NAACP. In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Among the Richmond buildings named for Hill is one he visited as a young lawyer because it housed the state Supreme Court of Appeals and a law library.

At a 2005 dedication, he was too frail to speak, but a family member read his statement: "Who would have thought back in 1939, given the racial climate at the time, that 66 years later that building would be named after me."

His wife, Beresenia Walker Hill, whom he married in 1934, died in 1993.

Survivors include a son, Oliver W. Hill Jr. of Richmond; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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