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Oliver Hill : biography

01 May 1907 - 05 August 2007

Oliver White Hill, Sr. (May 1, 1907 – August 5, 2007) was a civil rights attorney from Richmond, Virginia. His work against racial discrimination helped end the doctrine of "separate but equal." He also helped win landmark legal decisions involving equality in pay for black teachers, access to school buses, voting rights, jury selection, and employment protection. He retired in 1998 after practicing law for almost 60 years. Among his numerous awards is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Bill Clinton in 1999.


Hill began practicing law in Richmond in 1939. In 1940, working with fellow attorneys Thurgood Marshall, William H. Hastie, and Leon A. Ranson, Hill won his first civil rights case. The decision in Alston v. School Board of Norfolk, Va., gained pay equity for black teachers. In 1943, Hill joined the United States Army, and served in the European Theatre of World War II.

Returning to his law practice at the end of World War II, he won the right for equal transportation for school children in the Virginia Supreme Court. In 1949, he became the first African American on the City Council of Richmond since Reconstruction in the late 19th century.

In the early 1950s, Hill was co-counsel with Spottswood W. Robinson III in dozens of civil rights lawsuits around Virginia. In 1951, he took up the cause of the African American students at the segregated R.R. Moton High School in Farmville who had walked out of their dilapidated school. The subsequent lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County later became one of the five cases decided under Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the safety of Hill's life and family were threatened by his work. Due to the barrage of telephoned threats, Hill's young son was not allowed to answer the telephone, and at one point a cross was burned on the Hills' lawn. However, Hill and his clients continued to wage legal battles. After Brown decision, Virginia under the Byrd Organization followed a policy known as massive resistance to avoid desegregation, enacting a legislative package known as the Stanley plan which included tuition grant support of segregation academies set up to avoid the extant public schools. In 1959, after public schools had been closed in several localities, notably Prince Edward Public Schools, Norfolk Public Schools and Warren County Public Schools, the Virginia Supreme Court finally ruled Virginia's law prohibiting integrated public schools was unconstitutional. Following that ruling, "Massive Resistance" as an official state policy was abruptly dropped by Virginia Governor James Lindsay Almond, Jr. and the schools in Farmville, Norfolk, and Front Royal were reopened.

However, it was to be more than ten more years before many school districts in Virginia were significantly integrated, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision against freedom of choice plans in the Green v. School Board of New Kent County case of 1968, in which his law partner Samuel W. Tucker was lead counsel, supported by a young lawyer Hill had recruited, Henry L. Marsh, III.

He was long a partner of Hill, Tucker and Marsh law firm in Richmond and continued civil rights litigation until he retired in 1998.

Childhood, education

Hill was born as Oliver White in Richmond, Virginia in 1907. His parents separated while he was still a baby, and he took on his stepfather's last name. The Hill family moved to Roanoke and then to Washington, D.C., where he graduated from Dunbar High School.

Oliver White Hill earned his undergraduate degree from Howard University and entered Howard University School of Law in 1930. He studied under the tutelage of Charles Hamilton Houston, the chief architect in challenging Jim Crow laws through legal means. In law school, Hill was a classmate and close friend of future Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall. He graduated second in his class after Marshall in 1933.

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