Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Interview with Oliver W. Hill

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Interview with Oliver W. Hill

Article excerpt

Oliver W. Hill was one of a handful of attorneys whose legal prowess brought an end to the Jim Crow-era doctrine of "separate but equal." In more than six decades of civil rights litigation, Hill has won landmark cases for the equalization of salaries for public school personnel; the right to serve on grand and petit juries; inclusion in the program of free bus transportation for public school children; equalization of public school facilities; the right of participation in primary elections; the elimination of segregation on common carriers; and the use of public places in a nondiscriminatory and unsegregated fashion.

Born Oliver White in Richmond in 1907, Hill was still a baby when he was abandoned by his alcoholic father and sent to live with his grandmother. When she died, he went to live with his mother in Roanoke. She had remarried by then and Hill took his stepfather's name. The family later moved to Washington, D.C., where Hill graduated from Dunbar High School and later attended Howard University. he received both his undergraduate and law degrees there under the tutelage of Charles Hamilton Houston, graduating second in the class of 1933 behind his good friend Thurgood Marshall.

During the last years of segregation, Hill's law firm filed more civil rights suits in the Commonwealth of Virginia than were filed in any other Southern state-and won more important victories. But Hill will always be best known for his role in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1951, he remembers here, he received a phone call informing him that students at all-black R. R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, had staged a walk-out of their ramshackle school, demanding not only better facilities but "equal" facilities. The resulting desegregation lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, became one of the five cases decided under Brown v. Board of Education.

On August n, 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Hill with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his work in civil rights, and in February 2003, Hill was recognized as the Virginian of the Year.

Bond: How did you decide to go to law school?

Hill: I was one of those happy-go-lucky C students in college, but when I was a sophomore my stepfather's brother died. he had joined law school, worked in Washington in the government, and was developing a law practice when he had a stroke. His wife gave me, in 1924, an annotated Constitution of the United States. That's when I read the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and I couldn't understand why they didn't include segregation laws, so I went down to the Library of Congress and read the cases that were cited as being where the Supreme Court had abridged these amendments. I read and thought they lost their cotton-picking minds with their decisions. At that time the big issue for the NAACP was anti-lynching law; you couldn't even get a law through Congress making it a crime to lynch a Negro. So I decided the only thing for us to do was for somebody to carry a case back to the Supreme Court and convince them that they ought to reverse Jim Crow. Somebody had to do it so I didn't see why I shouldn't be that somebody.

Bond: You were a college sophomore?

Hill: Yeah.

Bond: it just seems remarkable to me that you had decided at that young age that you were going to law school so you could challenge Plessy v. Ferguson.

Hill: Later on, I was kind of surprised myself, but I hadn't thought about it at that time. I went to the registrar's office and checked my schedule. I found that while I was happy-go-lucky I had only taken subjects that led to graduation, so all I needed was one more quarter of foreign language and the necessary grade point, and after I finished my junior year I could go to law school and at the end of the first year in law school get my degree. So that's what I decided to do. And that's the way I got to law school in 1930. …

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