Hill was born Oliver White in Richmond on May 1, 1907, the son of Olivia Lewis White and William Henry White Jr. His father abandoned the family while Hill was an infant. To provide for herself and her young son, Hill’s mother worked at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, leaving Hill to be cared for by his great-grandmother. While at the Homestead, Olivia White met and married Joseph C. Hill. Oliver Hill took his stepfather’s name. When Hill was six, his family moved to Roanoke, where his stepfather operated a pool hall for a time before returning to the Homestead to work. Hill lived with family friends while his parents worked out of town. By 1920, his parents had moved to Washington, D.C., and in 1923, Hill joined them to attend Dunbar High School, a public college preparatory school for African Americans. Hill graduated and entered Howard University. During his sophomore year at Howard, his step-uncle, who had been a lawyer, died, and Hill inherited his law books. Reading them, Hill learned about the Supreme Court’s often-troubling role in the history of African American civil rights and decided to use the law to right these wrongs. In 1930, while still an undergraduate, he entered Howard University School of Law, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1931 and an LLB in 1933.
Hill’s time at Howard was transformative. While at the law school, he came under the tutelage of vice dean Charles Hamilton Houston, who inspired his students to take a lead in organizing Black communities to demand full equality before the law. Hill also forged a deep and lifelong friendship with classmate and future Supreme Court associate justice Thurgood Marshall. Hill also met his wife while at Howard. Beresenia Ann “Bernie” Walker, a native of Richmond, attended Miner Normal School (located across the street from Howard University) and became a public school teacher in Washington, D.C. Walker and Hill married on September 5, 1934, and had twin sons, one of whom was stillborn, in 1949. They named their surviving son Oliver W. Hill Jr.
Hill returned to Roanoke to practice law, but business was poor, perhaps as a result of the. In 1936 he returned to Washington, where his wife continued to teach. For a time he worked as a waiter, partly in the hope of organizing local waiters and cooks into a union that would be accepted as an affiliate group of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Early NAACP Work
In Roanoke, Hill had crossed paths again with Houston, who had taken an extended leave of absence and then resigned from his position as dean of Howard University School of Law to become special legal counsel for the national office of the NAACP. The civil rights organization had committed to challenging segregation in education, and as special counsel, Houston conceived of the group’s legal strategy. Knowing that in the short term it would be futile to challenge the constitutionality of segregation, Houston sought to force southern states to create equal public education facilities for Black children. If the financial burden of creating and maintaining separate but equal facilities did not force integration, then the NAACP, through its various legal actions, at least would have established a series of precedents making a direct challenge to the constitutionality of segregation possible. Houston started where the inequalities were most obvious—in graduate education and in teachers’ salaries—but he also investigated elementary and secondary education. Hill assisted by photographing one-room schools in the counties around Roanoke and auditing their conditions.
Hill joined the Roanoke branch of the NAACP and became involved with the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP when it was organized in the winter of 1934–1935. The Virginia State Conference, headquartered in Richmond, supported local branches of the NAACP and coordinated statewide voter registration campaigns and challenges to discrimination, particularly in education. The board of directors of the State Conference soon requested that the national office assist in mounting a legal challenge targeting inequalities in Virginia teachers’ salaries.
In 1939 Hill moved to Richmond, where he intended to establish a law practice with two other attorneys. When those plans fell through, Hill practiced law but soon became deeply involved in legal work with the NAACP state conference. By late in the 1930s, Virginia’s NAACP had joined forces with the Virginia State Teachers Association, the professional organization of Black teachers, to form the Joint Committee on the Equalization of Teachers’ Salaries. As attorney for the Joint Committee, Hill began working with teachers in the city of Norfolk, where Black teachers such as Melvin O. Alston andwere paid less than white teachers who had similar credentials. Hill also coordinated his work with Marshall, who had taken over Houston’s work as special counsel in the NAACP’s national office in New York City and who had successfully challenged teacher-salary inequalities in his home state of Maryland.
Together, Hill and Marshall launched a case in federal district court arguing that the Norfolk school board discriminated against African American teachers. Alston v. School Board of City of Norfolk was the first federal court case in which Hill was involved, and he worked closely with Marshall and William Hastie, the dean of Howard School of Law, to prepare the briefs, file motions, and argue the case. They lost in federal district court but on June 18, 1940, won a favorable ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The court ruled that the pay scale was clearly discriminatory and in violation of the. The city of Norfolk appealed to the Supreme Court, but the court declined to hear the case. Over the next three years, Hill continued to represent the teachers as they negotiated a settlement with the school board to equalize teacher pay.
The Alston case cemented Hill’s position as the lead NAACP lawyer in Virginia. In other southern states, Marshall often litigated the cases himself, but in Virginia, he relied on Hill to wage the NAACP’s campaign. Both Hill and Marshall were carrying out Houston’s vision of using the NAACP’s litigation campaign as a way to organize African Americans to challenge segregation and demand their right to first-class citizenship. The Alston case emboldened Black teachers in at least fourteen other Virginia localities to challenge discriminatory salary scales. Hill, often accompanied by Virginia State Conference president J. M. Tinsley, traveled to these communities to meet with plaintiffs, negotiate with school boards, and organize NAACP branches. Soon the legal campaign broadened beyond teachers’ salaries, as parents began to demand that counties provide their children with bus transportation or with high school facilities. Hill took on all these challenges. His work contributed to the NAACP’s growth in Virginia: by 1941, the Virginia State Conference consisted of thirty-nine branches, the most of any state.
Early in the 1940s, Hill expanded the NAACP’s legal campaign beyond education, challenging discrimination in all areas of southern life: the workplace, public facilities, transportation, voting rights, and the criminal justice system. As the legal campaign gained momentum, Hill recruited other attorneys to join the fight. Fellow Howard Law graduates Martin A. Martin and Robert H. Cooley Jr.operated out of Danville and Petersburg, respectively.
By 1942, Hill confronted the possibility of being drafted into World War II. He persuaded, a Richmond native and a 1939 graduate of Howard School of Law, to open a law office with him, thinking that Robinson could sustain his legal work if he, Hill, were pressed into service. Soon after, Martin joined them to form the firm Hill, Martin, and Robinson.
Hill was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, just weeks after his thirty-sixth birthday. He wrote in his autobiography, The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond (2000), that he believed state authorities had arranged for him to be drafted in order to thwart his civil rights work, and that he was under regular surveillance by the army’s intelligence branch. Hill was a staff sergeant in an engineering unit that landed in France three weeks after the D-Day invasion in June 1944 and provided logistical support for the remainder of the European campaign. After the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Hill and his unit were transferred to the Philippines, but by the time they arrived, Japan, too, had surrendered. A few weeks later, Hill was discharged and returned to Richmond.
After the war Hill and his colleagues, with support from the national office of the NAACP, intensified their assault on legalized segregation. In 1947 Marshall selected the Virginia NAACP to launch a county-by-county campaign to eliminate inequalities between Black and white schools. By 1948, legal challenges were under way in more than half of the state’s 125 school divisions and the organization had won key cases in King George, Gloucester, Chesterfield, and Surry counties. But the campaign proved labor-intensive and expensive for the Virginia NAACP, as county officials sought to evade court orders to eliminate inequalities between segregated schools. Moreover, the attorneys realized that their legal efforts most often resulted in newer segregated schools for Black children, rather than the dismantling of segregation altogether. By 1950, the NAACP decided to abandon the county-by-county campaign and seek a direct attack on the constitutionality of segregation.
Brown and Massive Resistance
Hill did not go looking for the case that could directly challenge segregation; the case found him. On the afternoon of April 23, 1951, Hill received a call at his law office from two teenage girls in Farmville, Prince Edward County, who were students at Robert Russa Moton High School. They told him they hadthat morning in protest of the school’s inadequate and unequal facilities, and they asked Hill for his help. Hill and Robinson met with the Moton students on April 25 and were swayed by their determination. The attorneys agreed to take the case if the students and their parents agreed to challenge the constitutionality of segregation directly. On May 3, Farmville’s Black community held a meeting at First Baptist Church to vote on whether the NAACP should represent them. After vigorous debate, the community agreed to the legal challenge. On May 23, Robinson filed the case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward in federal district court, asking the court to prevent the county from discriminating against Black students and to declare segregation unconstitutional.
Hill was one of the lead trial lawyers in the Davis case at the federal district court level and appeared on the briefs as the case went forward to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court bundled Davis with four other segregation cases from South Carolina, Delaware, Kansas, and Washington, D.C., all under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public education was unconstitutional and violated the Fourteenth Amendment; however, the justices did not order desegregation. Instead, the court asked the lawyers to present arguments on how desegregation might proceed. In a subsequent ruling on May 31, 1955, often referred to as Brown II, the Supreme Court ruled thatshould proceed “with all deliberate speed” and remanded the cases to the federal district court level to oversee the process of desegregation. The yearlong delay between the Brown and Brown II decisions, combined with the court’s ambiguous order, provided southern states with the opportunity to stall and evade the court’s mandate. Virginia emerged as a leader in forestalling public school desegregation.
In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, Hill was an outspoken advocate of desegregation and a persistent and outspoken opponent of the General Assembly‘s so-calledprogram. He met with the , testified before committees of the General Assembly, and spoke publicly at community meetings and on the television and radio, consistently championing the Supreme Court’s decision and encouraging Virginians to abandon segregation. As he told the Gray Commission, a group appointed by the governor to recommend a response to Brown, on November 15, 1954, “Gentlemen, face the dawn and not the setting sun. A new day is being born.”
Hill and his colleagues on the NAACP legal staff—which numbered thirteen by the mid-1950s—worked with local communities to desegregate public schools. Cases were filed in Norfolk, Charlottesville, Warren County, and Arlington. At the same time, Hill and his colleagues continued to press the federal district court to set a date for the desegregation of public schools in Prince Edward County. It took four years, but in May 1959, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered Prince Edward County schools to desegregate that September. In response, county officials closed all public schools. As part of Massive Resistance, the General Assembly also passed laws targeting the Virginia NAACP. These laws required the organization to register with the state and make its membership lists public, expanded the definition of “unprofessional conduct” by attorneys, and created two legislative committees—the Committee on Law Reform and Racial Activities and the Joint Committee on Offenses Against the Administration of Justice—to investigate the NAACP’s activities.
The Virginia State Conference challenged the constitutionality of these new laws, which made it difficult to file new desegregation cases, caused membership to plummet, and drained the organization’s treasury. Hill found himself on the witness stand defending his work in Davis and other civil rights cases. He also defended his colleague Samuel Wilbert Tucker from disbarment proceedings. On January 14, 1963, after a six-year court fight, the Supreme Court ruled in NAACP v. Button that the Virginia State Conference’s activities were “modes of expression and association” protected by the First and Fourteenth amendments. This case proved significant in protecting the rights of civil rights protestors during the 1960s.
Hill believed that litigation was only one way to challenge segregation and discrimination; African Americans also had to exercise their right to vote. Hill ran for political office repeatedly as a way to encourage African Americans to pay their, register, and vote. In 1947, he ran in the primary to represent the city of Richmond in the House of Delegates. To broaden his support, he also campaigned among white progressive citizens and labor union members. Hill placed eighth out of eighteen candidates in the primary race and missed being on the ballot in November by 190 votes.
The next year, in 1948, Hill again appealed both to Black and white voters in his campaign for a seat on the Richmond city council and this time succeeded—the first African American in Richmond to do so since Henry J. Moore, who served from 1892 to 1898. Two years later, though, Hill lost his reelection campaign by only forty-four votes. In 1955, Hill ran in the Democratic primary for the House of Delegates; he was the only Black candidate and the only candidate who urged compliance with the Brown decision. He failed to make the ballot.
In 1961, Hill joined the administration of President John F. Kennedy as the assistant for intergroup relations to the commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration, where he promoted fair housing practices. In 1966, Hill returned to private legal practice as a partner in the firm Hill, Tucker, and Marsh in Richmond. (Tucker had been a classmate of Hill’s at Howard; Hill and Henry L. Marsh III met when both men testified before the General Assembly in opposition to Massive Resistance.) In 1968, Governorappointed Hill to the Virginia Commission on Constitutional Revision, which authored the . He retired from his law firm in 1998.
In 1999, Hill was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2005, he received the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP’s highest honor. In 2003, he was named Virginian of the Year by the General Assembly. In Richmond in 1996, the new Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court building was named for Hill. Hill is also the only African American to have a state building named after him. In 2005, the renovated Finance Building, the third most historically significant building on Capitol Square in Richmond, was renamed the Oliver W. Hill Sr. Building.
Hill died at home surrounded by his family on August 5, 2007, only a few months after he celebrated his 100th birthday.