Oliver White Hill's decision to become a civil rights lawyer in the late 1920s was shaped by the lawbooks a favorite uncle had left him. As the young Howard University student read, he began to wonder why the U.S. Constitution did not seem to protect him and other blacks. He wondered why they were regarded, he said, as "fourth-class citizens."
Julian Dugas received his career inspiration during World War II, he said, when he realized that "the business of segregation" ruled the U.S. Navy.
"I wasn't raising a ruckus about it," he said, "but I got curious about the law."
Both men found a way to right those inequities. As private lawyers working with the NAACP on Brown v. Board of Education, they helped steer one of the most dramatic eras of social change in American history, succeeding in removing barriers to desegregation in public schools and breaking down the old divisions of black and white.
Many of the key players from that time are gone. But as the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's May 17, 1954, decision in Brown is observed across the country, Hill, 97, and Dugas, 85, are being feted as two of the surviving legal titans from the era. Wherever they go, they receive standing ovations and special thanks from younger people who benefited from their work.
Patricia Banks, a circuit court judge in Cook County, Ill., recently expressed her gratitude. "I never thought that I, as a young girl, 5 years old, in the state of Arkansas, attending a segregated one-room schoolhouse, would be here today and have the opportunity to thank those who have worked tirelessly and unselfishly to make the promise a reality," Banks said, addressing Hill and Dugas at a commemorative event last month at Howard's School of Law.
On Monday, to mark the anniversary of the ruling, Hill and Dugas will be honored along with other civil rights pioneers at a reception at Constitution Hall, sponsored by the NAACP, Howard University and the Legal Defense Fund.
Hill, a distinguished-looking gentleman who retired from his Richmond law practice at 92 , can no longer see well enough to read and uses a wheelchair to attend events with son Oliver Hill Jr. But his memory was still sharp and his voice spirited as he exhorted the recent Howard crowd to "gather up the youth" and continue with the work he and others began.
Hill already was a veteran of several successful legal battles against discrimination when, in 1951, he became involved in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, a case that would become part of the Brown litigation that originated in Topeka, Kan. Asked to represent black students in rural Farmville, Va., who were striking to protest inferior schools, he and his partners were at first reluctant to take the case, he said. They had filed a lawsuit in Clarendon County, S.C., challenging the constitutionality of separate schools there, he said, and one such case seemed enough.
"But [the students'] morale was so high, we just didn't have the heart to tell them to break [the strike] up," Hill said, telling a story he has been asked to repeat many times of late.
Dugas has yet to retire; he still teaches law classes at Howard. He tends to play down his role as the youngest member of the legal team involved in the District case -- Bolling v. Sharpe -- that would be a companion suit to Brown. Dugas went on to become the District's first city administrator and founding director of the Neighborhood Legal Services Project.
Both men, like many of the lawyers involved in civil rights work, were products of Howard University School of Law. Hill belonged to the Class of 1933, ranking second only to his good friend Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who led the Brown legal team and later became the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice. Dugas entered law school after serving in World War II.
"There was no way for you to avoid civil rights if you came to Howard in 1946," he said. "Everybody was involved in that particular area of the law."
Both Hill and Dugas had grown up in a world ruled by the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that set the doctrine of "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites. Growing up in a business family in Augusta, Ga., Dugas said, he was "fairly sheltered." But the military was an eye-opener. There were no black officers, and black troops, while in some cases better trained, he noticed, were given lesser responsibilities.
Hill, who grew up in Roanoke, remembers wondering as a child why the white school had a modern gymnasium, while athletes at the black school had none and were forced to borrow other facilities at odd hours. One summer, one of his jobs was to deliver a hot lunch from home to a black barber in town; it dawned on Hill that the man was not allowed to eat at any of the city's restaurants.
But he decided early on that he would not become bitter about the inequities, he would fight them. "I always figured it was just as stupid for me to hate white folks because they were white as it was for white folks to hate me because I wasn't white," he said.
As early as 1940, Hill and his partners had filed a suit that would end up equalizing the salaries of black and white teachers in Virginia. Another suit pushed the rights of blacks to serve on juries. "We were constantly in court," he said, "challenging segregation any way we could find it."
There was a price to be paid for such determination. For 20 years, from the 1940s through the 1960s, Hill and his family received threatening telephone calls. "For all those years, we'd get ready to go to bed and we'd take the phone off the hook and put it in the trash can," he said. A cross was burned on the front lawn of his home.
The case that became known as Brown involved appeals from rulings in four separate lawsuits -- from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina and Virginia -- that the Supreme Court consolidated, with Bolling, into one massive case. After the unanimous 1954 ruling declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, Hill said he knew that many parts of the country would take their sweet time complying with the Supreme Court order to act "in all deliberate speed."
"Boys in the South decided that meant to go as slow as you can," he said recently.
Dugas, who modestly describes his contribution as "research," was a newly minted lawyer working for D.C. lawyer and activist George E.C. Hayes when Bolling v. Sharpe was joined to Brown. Based on a different part of the Constitution because the District was not a state -- the Fifth Amendment due process clause rather than the 14th Amendment equal protection clause -- Bolling argued that denying blacks the freedom to attend nonsegregated schools was unconstitutional.
"The idea was whether or not a school board or anybody could treat you differently because of your race," Dugas said.
But now, both Dugas and Hill say that their time in the legal spotlight is past and that other, younger lawyers must take up the cause.
"I think we need a new definition of what 'civil rights' really means now," Dugas said. "I'm letting them decide -- they're young people. They can choose the direction. We're passing the torch to them."
Hill agreed. But sometimes, he said, he still cannot help but ponder why all the work was necessary, why the world developed the way it did. "All this nonsense about skin color," he said, shaking his head. "And we are all human earthlings."