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Oliver W. Hill, 100; lawyer fought segregation battles

August 06, 2007|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Oliver W. Hill, a Virginia lawyer who helped overturn legal segregation in his native state and was one of the country's foremost civil rights defenders during a six-decade career, died of a heart ailment Sunday at his home in Richmond, Va. He was 100.

Hill was an instrumental member of an NAACP-affiliated legal team that persistently attacked segregation.

He also was a lead lawyer on a Virginia case later incorporated into Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 case that resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring segregated schools unlawful.

He lacked the recognition of his Howard University Law School classmate Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice, but at one time, Hill had 75 civil rights cases pending.

He was estimated to have won $50 million in better pay and infrastructure needs for Virginia's black teachers and students during his career.

Hill, who was raised in Washington, D.C., spent his public life in Richmond, where in 1948 he was the first black person elected to the City Council in 50 years.

Although his term in office was short, his civil rights legacy proved far more enduring because of his role as a lead lawyer in Davis vs. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., one of the five cases the U.S. Supreme Court combined into its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.

Marshall was the lead lawyer in the high court case.

Hill's involvement in the Davis case began through his affiliation with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

He worked closely with a team that included Marshall; Howard Law School Dean Charles Hamilton Houston, a mentor to Marshall and Hill; and Spottswood W. Robinson III, a future Howard dean and chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Their goal was to challenge more than the existing "separate but equal" system of public facilities that had been created with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson.

In 1951, Hill and Robinson took up the cause of students at an all-black high school in Farmville, Va., who had gone on a two-week strike to protest the leaky roof and other substandard conditions of the tarpaper building. This became the Davis case.

During and after the Brown decision, Hill remained an instrumental force in developing legal strategies during Virginia's "massive resistance" to desegregation, in which many public schools closed rather than admit blacks.

He filed many suits in the state to compel change in such areas as voting rights, jury selection, access to school buses and employment protection.

Hill's activism came at a price.

A cross was burned on his lawn in 1955, and his family received so many threats that his wife installed floodlights at home.

At the time, Hill said officials in Richmond "had the ambulance, the fire department and the undertaker all sent to my house in about 15 minutes of each other" to intimidate him.

He was born Oliver White in Richmond on May 1, 1907.

After his parents divorced, he took the surname of his stepfather. The family settled in Washington, where, as Oliver Hill, he graduated from high school.

Hill was a 1931 graduate of Howard University and a 1933 graduate of its law school, where he finished second to Marshall in class rank.

It took many years for Hill to establish himself.

An early law practice in Roanoke, Va., went under during the Depression, and he was forced to wait tables in Washington until opening a law office in Richmond in 1939.

After returning from Army service during World War II, Hill unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat in 1947 for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. The next year, he won a seat on the Richmond City Council but lost a reelection bid after one term. Hill sat on the national Democratic Party's Biracial Committee on Civil Rights in 1960, and the next year President Kennedy named him to the Federal Housing Administration as an assistant to the commissioner. During his five-year stint, Hill oversaw racial-fairness policies in housing.

Afterward, he returned to his Richmond practice and continued to work until he went blind in the late 1990s. Shortly afterward, he published a memoir, "The Big Bang: Brown vs. Board of Education and Beyond."

In 1999, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Survivors include a son, Oliver W. Hill Jr. of Richmond; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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