Oliver White Hill Sr.
Oliver W. Hill is an African–American attorney who was instrumental in the CIVIL RIGHTS struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.
Oliver White Hill Sr. was born May 1, 1907, in Richmond, Virginia. He received his bachelor of art degree from Howard University in 1931, then continued at Howard and received his doctor of JURISPRUDENCE degree in 1933. The following year, he opened a law practice in Roanoke, Virginia, which he later moved to Richmond. He became active in such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League as well as the local faction of the DEMOCRATIC PARTY. Hill served a two-year stint in the military from 1943 to 1945, then returned to private practice.
In August 1947, Hill ran for the Virginia House of Delegates. He lost that election by a mere 190 votes, missing an opportunity to become the first African American to occupy a seat in Virginia's general assembly since 1890. He returned to politics the following year, and on June 10, 1948, he was elected to a seat on Richmond's city council. With that victory, he became the first African American elected to office in Richmond since Reconstruction.
Hill's election was significant because at least two thousand of the nine thousand voters who backed him were white. Such racial crossover voting was unprecedented at the time, but Hill had made an effort to appeal to voters from all races. He shrewdly realized that many whites, some motivated by moral conviction and others by simple pragmatism, understood that change was imminent in the South. The treatment of African–American soldiers during WORLD WAR II had forced harsh scrutiny on a system that was coming to an end. "There is rising in the South a large body of white citizens who recognize the importance of extending constitutional guarantees to Negroes in order to strengthen their own economic and political security," he said.
During his stint on the Richmond council, Hill was voted the second-most-effective member of the nine-member body. But his triumph was short-lived: in 1950, he lost his bid for reelection. Later, he was a popular contender for appointment to a vacancy on the council, but because of his uncompromising position on civil rights, he was denied the appointment. African–American leaders in Richmond were angered by the rejection, and much of the racial tension that had characterized Richmond before Hill's 1948 victory was rekindled.
Hill returned to his law practice and joined the ranks of the pioneers in the fight for civil rights. During a career that has spanned six decades, he has been involved in many of the landmark cases that secured constitutional rights for minorities in housing, education, and employment. As a member of the Richmond Democratic Committee, he worked diligently to secure minority VOTING RIGHTS and to encourage involvement in political activity. From 1940 to 1961, Hill served as chairman of the Virginia Legal Commission of the NAACP and participated in such celebrated legal battles as BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), abolishing segregated public schools, and Quarles v. Philip Morris, 279 F. Supp. 505 (ED. Va.), a 1968 case establishing the right of minorities to equal employment opportunities. In August 1955, because of his participation in Brown, a fiery
cross, the symbol of the KU KLUX KLAN, was burned on the front lawn of his home.
In 1952, President HARRY S. TRUMAN named Hill to the Committee on Government Contract Compliance. This organization was charged with policing the enforcement of federal contract clauses barring racial or religious discrimination in employment. Hill also served, under President JOHN F. KENNEDY, as assistant to the commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration. He returned to his law practice after Kennedy's death.
Hill has received numerous awards and recognitions during his long and distinguished career, including the Howard University Alumni Award (1950), National Bar Association Lawyer of the Year Award (1959), Washington Bar Association Charles H. Houston Medallion of Merit (1976), NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Award (1976), NAACP William Ming Advocacy Award (1980), National Council of Christians and Jews Brotherhood Citation (1982), American Bar Association's Thurgood Marshall Award (1993), and Urban League of Richmond Lifetime Achievement Award (1994).
In 1999, Hill received the highest civilian award awarded in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President BILL CLINTON said of Hill, "Throughout his long and rich life, he has challenged the laws of our land and the conscience of our country. He has stood up for equal pay, better schools, fair housing—for everything that is necessary to make America truly, one, indivisible and equal."
Hill retired from the full-time PRACTICE OF LAW in 1998, at the age of 91. In an interview with Virginia Lawyer in 1998, he said, "Most of the time you get your satisfaction when you find that people need your help and you voluntarily help them. We never turned down any cases. Even when we were supposed to get paid, and sometimes we didn't."
Hill and his late wife, Beresenia A. Walker Hill, have one son, Oliver W. Hill Jr., and three grandchildren.
Dalpino, Laura E. 1999. "Virginia Leader and Legend Honored by the President." Virginia Lawyer (October).