Skip to main content

Interview With Oliver W. Hill


ISSUE:  Winter 2004
Oliver Hill and Gov. Tim Kaine
On February 5, 2003, Oliver W. Hill was honored as Virginian of the Year. At the ceremony Hill (in wheelchair) received a standing ovation from Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (second from right) and members of the State Senate at the capitol in Richmond. (By Steve Helber)

Oliver W. Hill was one of a handful of attorneys whose legal prowess brought an end to the Jim Crow-era doctrine of “separate but equal.” In more than six decades of civil rights litigation, Hill has won landmark cases for the equalization of salaries for public school personnel; the right to serve on grand and petit juries; inclusion in the program of free bus transportation for public school children; equalization of public school facilities; the right of participation in primary elections; the elimination of segregation on common carriers; and the use of public places in a nondiscriminatory and unsegregated fashion.

Born Oliver White in Richmond in 1907, Hill was still a baby when he was abandoned by his alcoholic father and sent to live with his grandmother. When she died, he went to live with his mother in Roanoke. She had remarried by then and Hill took his stepfather’s name. The family later moved to Washington, D.C., where Hill graduated from Dunbar High School and later attended Howard University. He received both his undergraduate and law degrees there under the tutelage of Charles Hamilton Houston, graduating second in the class of 1933 behind his good friend Thurgood Marshall.

During the last years of segregation, Hill’s law firm filed more civil rights suits in the Commonwealth of Virginia than were filed in any other Southern state—and won more important victories. But Hill will always be best known for his role in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1951, he remembers here, he received a phone call informing him that students at all-black R. R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, had staged a walk-out of their ramshackle school, demanding not only better facilities but “equal” facilities. The resulting desegregation lawsuit, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, became one of the five cases decided under Brown v. Board of Education.

On August 11, 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Hill with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his work in civil rights, and in February 2003, Hill was recognized as the Virginian of the Year.

Bond
How did you decide to go to law school?
Hill
I was one of those happy-go-lucky C students in college, but when I was a sophomore my stepfather’s brother died. He had joined law school, worked in Washington in the government, and was developing a law practice when he had a stroke. His wife gave me, in 1924, an annotated Constitution of the United States. That’s when I read the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t include segregation laws, so I went down to the Library of Congress and read the cases that were cited as being where the Supreme Court had abridged these amendments. I read and thought they lost their cotton-picking minds with their decisions. At that time the big issue for the NAACP was anti-lynching law; you couldn’t even get a law through Congress making it a crime to lynch a Negro. So I decided the only thing for us to do was for somebody to carry a case back to the Supreme Court and convince them that they ought to reverse Jim Crow. Somebody had to do it so I didn’t see why I shouldn’t be that somebody.
Bond
You were a college sophomore?
Hill
Yeah.
Bond
It just seems remarkable to me that you had decided at that young age that you were going to law school so you could challenge Plessy v. Ferguson.
Hill
Later on, I was kind of surprised myself, but I hadn’t thought about it at that time. I went to the registrar’s office and checked my schedule. I found that while I was happy-go-lucky I had only taken subjects that led to graduation, so all I needed was one more quarter of foreign language and the necessary grade point, and after I finished my junior year I could go to law school and at the end of the first year in law school get my degree. So that’s what I decided to do. And that’s the way I got to law school in 1930. In the meantime Thurgood [Marshall] had applied for Maryland’s law school and had been denied but they paid his tuition to go over to Howard so that’s what he did. Thurgood had finished Lincoln [University in Baltimore] with honors so a lot of people thought it was a competition between us, but there never was any competition so far as I was concerned.
Bond
Do you remember when you first met him?
Hill
I first met him at assembly. Charlie [Charles Hamilton] Houston lectured to us. “Look at the person on your left, look at the person on the right, ‘cause one of you is not going to be here next year.” That attitude.
Bond
Tell me about Houston. What effect did he have on you?
Hill
I had a job waiting tables at a hotel, and Thurgood would take the train and go back to Baltimore. We’d come back to study over the afternoon, so we were in the library all of the afternoon. Naturally, Charlie would see us from time to time, and we became his proteges. He significantly influenced us, and of course we looked up to him. We used to call him “Ironpants,” but other than that Charlie was a strict disciplinarian, but he also definitely told us when we first met that we were going to work hard and we were going to get approved by the Bar Association and we were going to get approved by Association of Law Schools. In about a year and a half we got approved by both groups, but he had us going to classes five days a week, and on Saturdays we would do field work, St. Elizabeth Hospital, the prison, the FBI we went around everywhere getting experience. Charlie planned out the strategy that we followed from that time until we first started to file suits [in civil rights cases].
Bond
Even in law school Houston was talking about these possibilities?
Hill
We started from the get-go, from our first year. Thurgood and I would look up things in addition to regular class work. We would think in terms of how we were going to tackle Plessy right on through law school.
Bond
How did you get involved in the Brown case?
Hill
I was at our firm—Hill, Martin, and Robertson in those days—sitting back in the library working on a motion for further relief in a case known as Corbin v. Pulaski, and the telephone rang about five o’clock in the afternoon. Barbara Johns is on the other end saying that she had gone out on strike, and she described what had happened that day. I congratulated her and told her what a fine thing they had done, and now that they had made their point to go on back to school. She said, no—they wanted to make a real point, they wanted to stay out, they wanted us to come up and represent them. I said, “Well, you know, we just filed a suit down in Clarendon County, South Carolina, and we don’t need but one suit to prove a point.” But she was so persistent, so I said, “All right, we’re going to Christiansburg on Wednesday morning. We’ll leave a little early and stop by church. You be at Reverend Griffin’s Church, and we’ll stop by and talk about it.”

That Wednesday morning we stopped by the church. The kids were all there, and they had such high morale. We still intended to tell them go on back to school, but they were so, I don’t know they. . . were just so persuasive that we told them if they could get their parents to agree, we would no longer file suits charging inequality, that we were going to challenge segregation per se from then on. And, if their parents would back them, we would file suit for them. We told them we’d be coming back through there on our way back to Richmond on Thursday night and to have their parents there and we’d discuss it. Thursday night, the parents were there, and the parents were willing to support the children. But somebody suggested that this would affect the whole county, that we ought to have a county meeting. So we agreed to hold a county meeting on Friday a week after. And on that Friday, the church was standing room only. They discussed it going and coming, and the vote overwhelmingly was for supporting the children. So we accepted the case and proceeded to file the suit against Prince Edward County.
Bond
Even though you thought the Clarendon County case was stronger?
Hill
No, it was just first. They had got ahead of us on the issue. The suit had been filed. We all participated in it. We were awaiting trial. That was all. Nobody had thought about filing a suit at that time challenging segregation per se. We still had a whole lot of suits pending which we were out trying under the separate-but-equal doctrine.
Bond
So you went from trying to make “separate” equal to trying to do away with “separate.” Was that considered a big jump?
Hill
Well, no. You know about the young man Charles Garland giving the NAACP a large sum of money to fight segregation. In the early thirties, Charlie [Houston] got one of his classmates, I forget his name right this second, to make a study to recommend the best use for it. He came back and suggested that we challenge education, that we file suits all over the South simultaneously. Charlie said that was more like a stunt than something serious, plus we didn’t have the manpower to do it anyway. This was all at the time that Thurgood and I first entered law school. To make a long story short, Charlie suggested that what we ought to do is challenge “separate but equal” at its weakest point—and that was the inequality. Everything was separate but nothing was equal.
Bond
But by the time the Prince Edward County suit came along and the Clarendon County suit came along, you were ready to challenge segregation head-on?
Hill
At first the suits were all filed charging inequality under the 14th Amendment but the Clarendon County case was filed in sort of a dual capacity. Thurgood was a little uneasy about it but Judge Warren recognized it as being a challenge of the constitutionality of the statute and he convened the three-judge court.
In the meantime, Bob Carter had tried a suit in Topeka, Kansas, and Jack Greenberg and Louis Redding in Wilmington, Delaware (in that case, the lower court ruled with the plaintiffs), and George Hayes and Jim Nabrit tried the Bolling v. Sharpe case. That suit was filed under the 5th Amendment. The 4th Amendment didn’t apply to D.C., because it was not a state. The Clarendon County case went up to the Supreme Court. For some reason I’ve forgotten now, some technicality, they sent it back. And by the time it got back these four other cases were all up there, and the court consolidated them. They do it alphabetically, and Brown happened to be the lead name. The case was no different from the rest of them. We had filed our case as Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, but if we’d given the thing any serious thought we would have filed a suit under the name of Barbara Johns because she was the leading spirit of Prince Edward County. All the rest of the kids followed her.
Bond
So the Supreme Court consolidated these cases—and you argued them twice, didn’t you?
Hill
We argued the cases, but then Vincent stepped down as Chief Justice. They didn’t want to risk a split decision. I don’t think they wanted to hold firm, but on the other hand, they didn’t want to overrule. So Justice Frankfurter suggested all these historical questions that they gave us to answer. “What was the thinking of the Congress at the time that they passed the 14th Amendment?”—because at the time they passed the 14th Amendment, they set up a segregated school in the District of Columbia. They gave us questions and we assembled all these historians. Woodward was the chief historian. . .
Bond
C. Vann Woodward, yes.
Hill
In the meantime, Kenneth Clark got together psychological information [showing the effects of segregation on African American children], and the next time, after Warren was appointed Chief Justice, was a very quick trial because we were presenting the same evidence.
Bond
Then the decision finally came. . .
Hill
The decision finally came in 1954, but instead of issuing a mandate—like they normally would have done when they declared an act unconstitutional—they held the case under advisement and ordered us to come back for argument as to the remedy. That was when Frankfurter came up with the idea of “deliberate speed.”
Bond
What remedy did you argue for?
Hill
We were arguing for immediate, at the most five years.
Bond
So when they said “all deliberate speed,” what did you think that meant, or would mean, to the plaintiffs in these cases?
Hill
I remember discussing the matter with Harold Boulware, one of the attorneys on the Clarendon case. Jim Nabrit and I were saying we ought to go for five years, that would be time enough to get adjusted, and he thought that was terrible. We said, “What’s your idea? What do you think the time ought to be?” He said, “Twenty.”
Bond
You mean twenty years?
Hill
He meant twenty years from now, that was his idea. He was nearer right than we were . . . [laughs].
Bond
Indeed, indeed. There must have been times after when people said, “Gee, this isn’t working out the way we thought it would after the ‘54 decision, after the ‘all deliberate speed’ decision came down.” There must have been times when people said, “This didn’t turn out the way we thought it was going to turn out.” How did you deal with people who said that?
Hill
To be perfectly frank with you, I never wasted my time worrying with them. There were a whole lot of people who criticized us at the time, talking about, “We had Negro restaurants, we had Negro businesses, Negro this and that.” A lot of things were disrupted, and we didn’t do a lot of things right, but we never had a chance to work on how to bring about desegregation. We always had to fight to keep the movement going against “massive resistance,” then the Congressional Manifesto, telling people to use every legal means to violate the law. How are you going to violate the law by some legal means? There never was a time, right to the present day, when there has been an enthusiastic effort to bring about desegregation. They used to put one Negro into the school and talk about integration. That was nonsense. I told them that at the time. As a matter of fact, when we were arguing under the separate-but-equal doctrine, I went before the circuit court and told them if you build from the same plan, build one school for whites, one school for Negroes, side by side, equip them the same, put equally qualified teachers in the same, you still would have inequality, because there are certain things you get from a community that you can’t get unless you’re part of the community.
Bond
At the same time, there’s a sentiment in black America that says the losses—the losses of black teachers, the losses of black businesses—have been too great, that this was a terrible, terrible mistake, that it never should have happened.
Hill
In 1950, the gross product in the Negro community was about 50 million dollars. Today, the gross product is somewhere in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars. We have improved. It’s nonsense to say that we haven’t improved. The problem is, the improvement has been, both in whites and blacks, among upper-class people and not among the masses. The system has some defects—the economic system has defects, educational system has many defects. They talk about improving education, but when they talk about improving education, what are they talking about? They talk about vouchers and charter schools, instead of saving public schools, putting some more money in them, having a decent environment.
Bond
When people think about Oliver Hill, some people say, “Oliver Hill is a great black lawyer, and Oliver Hill was great at fighting for black people.” Is that what you want people to say about Oliver Hill?
Hill
No, all I want them to say is, “Oliver Hill was interested in people, in human beings, and people having opportunities.” Our Declaration of Independence says we are all created with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I agree with the life and the liberty. The pursuit of happiness ought to include the right to be taught and trained, to be able to do something constructive, to move toward a civilized society. That’s what I believe in. I’m an advocate for social change.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading