Many otherwise informed Richmonders would have a tough time pinpointing why there are statues of Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill on Capital Square.
Margaret Edds isn't one of them. A former statehouse reporter and editorial writer, the retired Norfolk Virginian-Pilot journalist explains that she covered a lot of race-related issues because it was impossible to cover politics in the South without getting into racism.
Her recently published book, "We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the Legal Team that Dismantled Jim Crow," was a six-and-a-half year effort to research and share the two men's stories. She dug into the archives at the Library of Congress to read through the papers of the NAACP and at Virginia State University to read Hill's papers.
She interviewed people who'd known both men, acknowledging that it was a dwindling group with each passing year.
"I went through all the local African-American newspapers from the '40s and '50s to see what was happening from a black perspective," she recalls. The biggest challenge turned out to be the imbalance of information on the two legendary figures.
Hill was an active presence in Richmond, moving effortlessly in a variety of social circles. While running for state legislature, he sat with white voters to have a beer, prompting Edds to write that his "refusal to accept that he did not belong was perhaps even more ground-breaking than his candidacy."
Robinson, she discovered, was a much quieter, more private man. Yet both men were equally influential and models of citizenship.
"What they persevered through was huge and they kept going without bitterness," she marvels. "They fought relentlessly for the cause without losing faith in humanity or hating the work."
The groundbreaking work that Hill and Robinson accomplished for equal educational opportunities was hatched at Howard University Law School. There Hill joined his friend, Thurgood Marshall, as part of a group of up-and-coming black lawyers and faculty members trained by legendary Vice Dean Charles Hamilton Houston to reshape America using legal challenges to racially biased laws.
Marshall tasked Robinson with going county-to-county through Virginia, first to investigate inequalities in schools, then to prepare lawsuits. Robinson, a workaholic, took on the project energetically and meticulously.
"Learning who they were and what they did was a revelation," Edds says. "The extent of the resistance they faced — a commission was formed to discredit and disbar them — was nothing compared to how determined they were to defy them. They endured a lot."
A year-long investigation of the disparities in white and black schools led to lawsuits by the two exposing how the ludicrous notion of separate but equal played out in the Commonwealth. Edds says these cases were the key underpinning for the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Once the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Marshall not only asked Robinson to fine-tune the pleadings but to argue the case in court with him.
Having learned the key roles the two men played in American history, Edds would like to see both Hill and Robinson taught as part of the Virginia Standards of Learning.
"Their story feels very timely right now as events like Charlottesville remind us that racism is a thing again and schools are being re-segregated," she says. "I see them as inspiration and role models for a new generation to pick up the torch of racial and human progress and move it forward." S
"We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the Legal Team that Dismantled Jim Crow" book release is held Feb. 8 at 5:30 p.m. at Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St. The author speaks Feb. 12 at 6 p.m. at Chop Suey, 2913 W. Cary St. and Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m.