News & Features » News and Features

Hill's Battlefield



On the first day of school in 1948, Oliver Hill and some of his colleagues inspected several high schools. That April, a judge had ordered King George County to bring educational facilities at the black schools up to par with the white schools.

It would be another six years before the lawyers won their historic Brown v. Board decision that eventually forced schools to desegregate, but they'd achieved a smaller victory earlier that summer and wanted to see the results of their work.

In an attempt to comply, school officials had installed a new "library." It was actually a small wooden shack that also housed the principal's office, writes Larissa Smith, an associate professor of history at Longwood University. It was crammed with roughly 2,000 books, including "Love Letters of Worldly Women," the 1937 Technical Journal of the Bell Telephone System, and several books written in German -- never mind that the language was not part of the school's curriculum.

For his eventual successes and landmark achievements in civil rights, the road to success for Hill and his colleagues was filled with potholes.

Indeed, two of the legal changes that affected Richmonders most directly came to an end at almost the same time did Hill's life. It was Hill, who died Aug. 5 at the age of 100, who helped establish the city manager form of government in 1948. That structure was undone in 2003 when the referendum allowing a popularly elected mayor was approved by city voters — eventually ushering in Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. On a national scale, decisions handed down this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court are poised to seriously erode Brown v. Board.

Perhaps Hill's lasting legacy will be the legal strategies he employed to get Brown v. Board on the books.

"Their strategy ended up being the road map for achieving justice," says Robert Grey, a Hill family friend, attorney with Hunton & Williams and past president of the American Bar Association.

"It changed the nation," Grey says. "Brown v. Board was probably the most influential court case in our history, because it was the end of an era in America where we saw and treated people differently specifically because of their color."

Rather than go after segregation wholesale, the team started small and built a framework of initial wins on related issues such as equality in teacher pay, equality in white and black school facilities, and equality of access for black students to graduate programs.

"You can't just go into court and say segregation is unconstitutional, because [Plessy v. Fergusson, the decision that set up the "separate but equal" standard in 1896] stands in the way," says Smith, the Longwood historian. Instead, she says, they used a gradual strategy, targeting the most obvious, concrete, inequalities first — ones that could be documented.

Noting the success of Hill and his team, Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel for the NAACP who was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, "chose Virginia in November 1947 as the site of an intensive campaign to equalize school facilities," Smith writes.

It was one of those early wins that brought Hill and his colleagues to inspect the King George school as part of a county-by-county equalization campaign in Virginia.

Shortly after the visit, a judge threatened to hold King George school officials in contempt for not heeding the court's order. King George rebutted by reducing the number of courses offered at the white high school to equalize the curricula, infuriating white parents. Finally, the county put a $150,000 bond on the ballot to construct a new school for African-American children.

"Most people think the civil rights movement began in the '60s," says Richmond Assistant City Attorney Ramona L. Taylor, "but the civil rights movement was really a legal movement before that."

"Attorneys such as Hill were social engineers using the courts and the law as a way of redefining America," says Taylor, who helped edit Hill's autobiography as a law student at the University of Richmond and who, on most days, practices law at the Oliver Hill courts building downtown.

"Mr. Hill was promoting civil rights in the '30s, in the '40s, in the '50s — and then there's Brown," she says. "Brown is like the culmination that ushered in our modern civil rights movement. It gave us the groundwork to actually progress on integration, equality in the workplace, equality in other public accommodations like restaurants and hotels."

With the success of the equalization campaign and the 1954 success of Brown, it became clear that Hill's strategies were powerful. A little too powerful for some. Famously, a cross was burned on Hill's lawn, but that was not the only threat to Hill's work. At the time, Virginia's state government was bent on keeping schools segregated. The state legislature gave the governor the power to keep schools closed, rather than integrate them, but also launched a legislative attack aimed at Hill and the NAACP.

Five laws in particular were aimed at stopping Hill by attempting to require the NAACP to register the names of all the members with the state and to make other records public.

"In Farmville," Smith says, "they had the NAACP membership list hidden [in a black dentist's office] because they knew if white people got a hold of it you could fire them, you could call in their loans, you could harass them."

The Virginia legislature passed laws that made it a crime for one person to pay another person's legal expenses, the modern-day cornerstone of civil rights organizations, from the ACLU on the left to the Institute for Justice on the right. The legislature then formed committees to investigate ways the NAACP may have violated the new laws. The U.S. Supreme Court wiped the laws off the books by the mid-1960s.

In the years after Brown, Hill stayed in Richmond, working for clients instead of angling for a judgeship or higher office.

Hunton & Williams' Grey kept in touch with Hill, speaking with him by phone at least once a week. He says he didn't get a chance to speak with Hill about the recent Supreme Court decisions that threaten the legacy of Brown, but he suspects that Hill was not overly troubled by them.

"Oliver took the position that the law could do but so much," Grey says. "Once you straighten things out, then it required people of goodwill and courage to make the changes in the law come to life." S

  • Click here for more News and Features
  • Add a comment