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Out of the Shadows



One was the patron saint of modern Richmond, a legendary civil-rights figure whose spirit and public stature swelled as his aging body shrank.
The other donned judicial robes at 47, cloistering himself for the latter part of his life in the secluded world of dockets and courtroom rulings. 
One was fun-loving, earthy, passionate, a towering presence engaging friend and foe alike.

The other was slender, pale, almost monastic in temperament, a warm friend, but a retiring man who cherished privacy and the artistry of the law.

One was a premier strategist, a student of human nature and the realm of possibility. The other wrote impeccable, footnote-saturated legal briefs, waging battle with his intellect and his pen.

Together, through Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County and scores of other cases, the pair prodded, pushed and pulled Virginia toward a more integrated society.

One, Oliver W. Hill, died last year at 100, celebrated and beloved by a community that outdid itself seeking ways to honor his legacy and preserve his memory.

Now, Hill's more reticent partner — Spottswood W. Robinson III, who rose to chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit before his death in 1998 — is emerging from the shadows as well.

Both Hill and Robinson took up permanent residence on the Capitol grounds earlier this year, preserved in sculpture in the long-awaited Civil Rights Memorial. And when the striking new federal courthouse at 701 E. Broad St. is dedicated Friday, Oct. 17 (see sidebar), Richmonders will gain a second permanent reminder of a quiet man whose life roared. 

The Spottswood W. Robinson III-Robert R. Merhige Jr. United States Courthouse honors two giants of the long legal struggle to move African-Americans beyond second-class citizenship.

Merhige, from a spot on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, issued orders integrating hundreds of state classrooms. At one point, he was considered the most hated — and courageous — white man in Richmond.  

Robinson, from the moment he graduated from Howard Law School in 1939, with what was reputed to be the highest grade point average ever accumulated at the school, was at the core of a tiny cadre of men who, during the next three decades, would do nothing less than transform the face and landscape of America.

Spot Robinson carries the briefcase.

From their perch at the southeast side of the Civil Rights Memorial, Hill and Robinson gaze impassively toward the Virginia Capitol where lawmakers once thundered and stomped against the notion of sending black and white children to school together. 

The attorneys' faces are almost expressionless, although Hill's hints at a faint smile.

“I tried to keep any political comment out of it,” says Stanley Bleifeld, the Connecticut sculptor hired to memorialize the 1951 walkout of students from the segregated Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville in Prince Edward County, speaking by phone from Italy.

The complaint that ensued, filed by Robinson with Hill as a lead attorney, eventually wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, combining with cases from Kansas, South Carolina, Delaware and Washington, D.C., to become Brown v. Board of Education. The 1954 ruling struck a death blow to the notion of separate-but-equal public schools.

Preparing for his sculpture, Bleifeld met with Hill and came away impressed, as most everyone was, with the clarity of his memory and the outsized force emanating from a man then in his nineties, confined to a wheelchair and dependent on a tangle of headphones and an amplifier to hear.

Robinson, already deceased, was a bit more of an enigma for the artist. “All the pictures of him, whether younger or older, were very similar in appearance,” Bleifeld says.

There was the receding hairline; the solemn, almost bland accountant's face; the plain, even homely glasses, and behind them, the dark, unflinching eyes.

 In Bleifeld's memorial, Hill and Robinson merge at the arm and shoulder. Several inches taller, Hill stands slightly to the fore. As befits the activist, his right hand is raised high, gripping a paper, probably the Supreme Court's Brown ruling. Robinson, the intellectual, bears the weight of a large briefcase while he stares pensively into the distance.

Neither man looks defiant or angry.

They do not need to be.

Their power, stronger than obstinate governors or backward lawmakers or fitful mobs, rests in their hands.

Every student of the civil-rights era reads “Simple Justice,” Richard Kluger's triumphant tome on the forces and people who shaped the Brown decision.

Scholars and laymen alike will recognize some of the players: Thurgood Marshall, Dr. William H. Hastie, Charles Hamilton Houston, Robert L. Carter, Jack Greenberg, James M. Nabrit Jr., George E. C. Hayes, Louis L. Redding, psychologist Kenneth Clark, Robinson and Hill.

From that august group, Spottswood Robinson merited high praise. His “balanced judgment, scrupulous care, clarity of expression, and remarkable recall made him Marshall's most valuable all-around associate,” Kluger wrote, describing the days leading up to argument before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Robinson participated directly in two of the cases that entwined in Brown. As the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's southeast regional counsel, he conducted the courtroom examination of the chairman of the school trustees in Clarendon County, S.C., the first of the Brown cases to be heard.

And as a native Richmonder practicing civil-rights law in the city, he was in on the ground floor of the Prince Edward case.  

That story, familiar as it has become, never tires in the retelling — how Barbara Rose Johns, a determined 16-year-old, hoodwinked school administrators and corralled fellow students for a walkout from Moton High on April 23, 1951; how Hill and Robinson first dismissed the case as an unlikely candidate for the NAACP's new strategy (replacing a campaign to equalize teacher pay and facilities in black and white schools with an out-and-out assault on school segregation); how the passion and commitment of the students themselves changed the lawyers' minds.
In the years leading up to the Prince Edward walkout, the pair filed scores of lawsuits against school districts across Virginia, protesting the grossly uneven distribution of resources between black and white schools. At one point, they had as many as 75 such cases pending, probably making them the most involved local attorneys in school equalization in the entire South.

Lester Banks, former executive secretary of the Virginia branch of the NAACP, told Kluger that he and Robinson logged 30,000 miles on a school fact-finding mission launched in 1948. His assessment of Robinson, honed during those long hours together, illuminates the talents and mindset that made him so valuable.

“He is the most thorough, most methodical man in the world,” Banks said. “If he was going to cut a board ten inches long, he'd measure it fifteen times to make sure it was just right. He'd think nothing of sitting up to three or four in the morning to search out a point of law he needed. … He was a terrific worker with a wonderful mind.”

Robinson's painstaking exactitude was never better rewarded than when the combined cases reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The plaintiffs' legal team assigned him the critical task of researching the drafting and ratification of the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection of the law to citizens.

The claim that school segregation violated the amendment was the heart of four of the five Brown cases.

The NAACP thought it made sense to allot the premier research role to Robinson because “he was the most prodigious worker on their staff,” observed Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter, a former Robinson law clerk. 

Speaking at a May 1999 memorial ceremony following Robinson's death, Carter recounted how Justin Moore, a prestigious Main Street lawyer and scion of Old Virginia representing Prince Edward County before the U.S. Supreme Court, discounted the claim that segregation was at odds with the 14th Amendment.

Moore argued that Virginia's school segregation honored societal norms, possibly avoiding violence. The authors of Virginia's constitution always wanted comparable education for black and white children, he said.

Not so, Robinson countered, citing chapter and verse. He drew on Carter Glass, a future U.S. senator and delegate to the 1901—1902 state constitutional convention, who proclaimed: “Discrimination! Why that is precisely what we propose; that, exactly, is what this convention was elected for — to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations of the federal constitution.”

No special act of Congress was needed to activate the protections of the 14th Amendment in relation to segregated schools, Robinson continued. He pointed to the regulation of state railway shipping rates and other instances when the language was held to be self-activating.
In their historic ruling, the justices agreed. Separate schools were inherently unequal. The 14th Amendment speaks for itself.


The signboard straddling the divide on Brook Road as it heads north past the campus of Virginia Union University and the post office reads “Hammond Place, Oak Ridge, 1914.”

But for many years, the square block defined by Brook and Overbrook roads and Dubois and Langston avenues was known to its residents by another name: Douglass Court.

The label stemmed from Frederick Douglass, the fiery 19th-century abolitionist, just as Dubois Avenue honored civil rights activist and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Avenue celebrated poet Langston Hughes. Such titles were merited because the neighborhood was an intellectual gold coast of African-American life in Richmond. 

Driving slowly down the streets, retired businessman and chemist Robert Turpin points out the highlights.

Here was the home of Mrs. Ethel Thompson Overby, one of Richmond's early black principals. There is where James E. Jackson Jr. and Alice Jackson Stuart grew up. Children of a prominent pharmacist, James went on to become a leader in the international labor and socialist movements; Alice's rejected 1935 application to the University of Virginia led to the state policy of paying qualified black applicants to attend out-of-state universities.

Here also were the homes of a former dean at Virginia Union; insurance executives; a funeral home owner; the director of a renowned chorale; the principal of Maggie Walker High School; a noted lawyer; a dentist; the stern headmaster of the so-called “Gaskins University,” a class of public school incorrigibles, on and on.

“These people really believed in a village raising a child,” Turpin says. “You belonged to all of 'em.” Turpin grew up at the corner of Brook and Overbrook roads, just across the street from the 1950s modern, split-level brick house that Spottswood Robinson designed for his wife and two children.   

Actually, there were two Robinson addresses in the neighborhood — the Overbrook Road house that served as a Richmond base during the years that Judge Robinson traveled back and forth from Washington, D.C., anchored to the capital as a federal district court judge beginning in 1964 and then an appeals court judge from 1966 to 1992, and his parents' home on Dubois Avenue.

For much of her childhood, recalls Robinson's daughter, Nina Robinson Govan, she, her brother and parents lived with her paternal grandfather — a successful real estate agent — both grandmothers, an aunt and a cousin at the Dubois Avenue address. “I always think of my grandfather's house as home,” she says.

To that secure setting, her father's work brought intrusions from a harsher, more dangerous world. “We used to get obscene telephone calls all the time,” says Govan, a former schoolteacher living in Maryland. “We were taught to hang up.”

Once, someone threw a rock with a note attached through a window. Govan has no idea what the note conveyed. “They wouldn't let us see it,” she says.

A perfectionist and a workaholic, Spot Robinson took no vacations and was rarely even home for dinner. “He was very gentle, very quiet,” Govan says. Her father found release in day-long, often solitary fishing trips and in woodworking so skilled that he was able to craft a fishing boat without nails. 

William Ferguson “Fergie” Reid, a retired surgeon and the first black member of the Virginia legislature after Reconstruction, recalled his awe, as a boy, at a working model of the Spirit of St. Louis airplane Robinson had constructed from paper and wood.

“The plans were in Popular Mechanics magazine,” says the 83-year-old Henrico County resident. “Nothing was pre-cut. He had to make it from scratch.” Later, when designing his home, Robinson took a bricklaying course at Maggie Walker High School to better understand that aspect of building.

“Anything he went into, he went into methodically,” Reid says.

Virginia State University psychology professor Oliver Hill Jr., Robinson's godson, concurs: “In many ways he was a craftsman. … an artisan. He got a lot of satisfaction out of his constructions,” whether a sentence that went on for nearly a page or the wooden underlay for a train track that Robinson spent all of one Christmas Eve building for Hill.

Robinson's foray into the world of civil-rights law began with his entrance to Howard University Law School in 1936 at age 20. By the time he graduated three years later, he was considered both an expert on property law and an obvious candidate, given his intellect, to join the team of attorneys contemplating legal strategies for dismantling segregation.

Commuting from Richmond, he taught law school courses at Howard for several years, and he set up a fledgling law practice back home — although its start was delayed by anxiety about taking the Virginia bar.

“He had a crisis in confidence,” Hill says, recalling stories heard from his father. “Even though he had glowing [academic] honors, he was reluctant to take the Virginia bar because of some nervousness.”

That trait may have undergirded Robinson's lifelong determination to avoid mistakes. “He had no tolerance for mediocrity,” says state Sen. Henry Marsh, who worked with Robinson on civil-rights cases as a young lawyer.

Returning to Howard as law school dean in 1960, Robinson was operating primarily out of the nation's capital when President Kennedy nominated him in 1963 to become the first African-American on the U.S. District Court there. Several months later, facing Senate inaction on the nomination, President Lyndon Johnson made a recess appointment of Robinson to the court.

Virginia Sens. Harry F. Byrd and A. Willis Robertson refused to sign off on confirmation until Robinson agreed to treat his D.C. address, rather than his Richmond home, as his primary residence.

Two years later, he was elevated to the D.C. federal appeals court, considered by many to rank just behind the Supreme Court as the nation's most significant court. He served as chief judge from May 1981 to July 1986, becoming the second African-American to head a federal circuit court. His partiality to long opinions and voluminous footnotes was legend.

After taking senior status in 1989, Robinson retired from the court in 1992, in part to care for his ailing wife. In failing health himself, he died six years later.

At a memorial service, speakers including U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited honesty, kindness and lack of pretension as their colleague's defining qualities. “Few judges I have ever known were as unaffected by their lofty position, and no judge I have encountered was more meticulous,” Ginsberg said.

An acquaintance had once noted in a profile of Robinson that he was too low-key and too serious to spawn good anecdotes. But at the ceremony, former law clerk Stephen Carter proved otherwise.

Carter recalled leaving the D.C. courthouse with Robinson late one night headed for the Metro stop. The streets were deserted, and Carter decided to jaywalk. Halfway across the street, he realized that the judge was not behind him.

“Not only had he not crossed the street in the middle, he was walking to the corner to wait for the walk sign at 11 at night with the street deserted. … He had spent his career as a litigator persuading dissenting segregationists that they had to obey the law whether they liked it or not and whether it was convenient or not.”

No man, in Robinson's opinion, himself included, was above the law.

Being a child of history proves a burden to some, a privilege to others.

Oliver Hill Jr., among the latter group, fondly recalls driving his father and Robinson from Richmond to Washington a few years before the judge's death. The aging lions of the civil-rights movement both were being recognized by the District of Columbia law school.
Ever the gentleman, Robinson insisted on sitting in the back. 

Hill remembers the easy banter as the retired judge teased his old law partner about failure to adapt to the world of computers, and the senior Hill joshed back.

“Spot was not a partygoer or big social butterfly. My father was very social,” Hill says, describing the differences in the pair. Even so, they retained a close friendship for many years.

“My father just greatly respected him — his integrity, his intelligence. … He was kind of an Everyman, not snobbish in any way.”

As a boy, Hill looked on as groups of lawyers, passing through town, gathered around his family's dining-room table on the North Side, not far from Douglass Court. “I didn't know what they were doing, but I knew it was important,” Hill says. “There was kind of a buzz, an excitement in the air.”

A juvenile courts building and a building on Capitol Square, both named for Oliver Hill Sr., already bear tribute to those days. Now, the second of the two Virginians who contributed most to the desegregation of the nation's schools will have his edifice as well.

Robinson would be pleased, but not prideful about the statue that bears his image and the building that carries his name, numerous acquaintances agree.

For Richmond, a city saturated with Civil War monuments, the newer additions will serve as permanent reminders of a more uplifting and more honorable fading world. S

Richmond resident Margaret Edds is a former staff writer for The Virginian-Pilot, first covering state government and politics and then switching to editorial writing before retiring in 2007. She is the author of three books, including “An Expendable Man: The Near-Execution of Earl Washington, Jr.” (NYU Press, 2003).