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The Gainsboro History Project

Oliver Hill (1907-2007)

Oliver White Hill was born in Richmond, Virginia, and moved to Roanoke with his mother and step-father when he was six years old. They lived with the Pentecost family at two locations in Gainsboro, initially at 39 Gilmer Avenue and later at 401 Gilmer Avenue. He grew up on the block with neighbors Edward Dudley, Rufus Edwards, and the family of Dr. John H. Roberts. In the 1920s he was in a film produced by Oscar Micheaux, House Behind the Cedars, which was filmed at the Pentecost home.

  • Hill attended Gregory School and Harrison School. Since Harrison School only provided an education to the eighth grade, he moved to Washington, DC, in 1922 to continue his education. Hill graduated from Howard University Law School with Thurgood Marshall, who was a close friend and legal collaborator.
  • From 1934-1936, Oliver Hill had a criminal law practice at 40 Centre Avenue, at the corner of Henry Street. While in Roanoke, he helped to organize the Virginia State Conference of NAACP Branches. His law practice was almost entirely pro bono, representing Negro workers who challenged wages, debts, and social injustice. In 1936 Hill decided to discontinue his practice in Roanoke and moved to Washington, DC, followed by a move to Richmond, Virginia, in 1939.
  • In 1940, he won his first Virginia Supreme Court case for the Joint Committee of the NAACP Virginia State Conference and Virginia Teachers Association. Alston v. School Board of Norfolk, Virginia challenged unequal pay for Black and White teachers. The legal team included Oliver Hill, William Hastie, Leon Andrew Ransom, and Thurgood Marshall, a law school classmate.
  • In 1942, Hill helped to establish the Old Dominion Bar Association, a state-wide organization for African American attorneys, and served as the first President.
  • From 1940-43, he partnered frequently with the NAACP State Conference Legal Staff to provide services in Virginia on racial inequity and injustice matters. During the 1940s and 50s, the Virginia Conference was one of the strongest and most active in the country. In Roanoke, Hill worked with Reuben Lawson.
  • From 1943-45, Hill served in a segregated U.S. Army in World War II in a black engineer regiment assigned to Great Britain, France, and the Philippines.
  • In 1945, he returned to Richmond to practice law with partners Martin A. Martin and Spottswood W. Robinson III. Later, in 1985 he practiced with Henry S. Marsh III and Samuel W. Tucker.
  • In 1947, Oliver Hll entered the Democratic Primary for the Virginia House of Delegates. He lost the run for the state office, but in 1948 he was elected to Richmond City Council, serving as its first Black member.
  • In 1951, Hill represented African American students in Prince Edward County challenging the constitutionality of “separate but equal” segregation in public schools. Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County was one of five cases consolidated and heard as the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which found that the separate but equal doctrine violated the Constitution, ultimately ending segregation in public schools.
  • Hill served under two presidents fighting racial discrimination. In 1951 he was appointed by President Harry S. Truman to the President’s Committee on Government Contracts Compliance. In 1961 he was appointed by President John F. Kennedy as Assistant to the Commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration. In 1971 Virginia Governor Mills Godwin appointed Oliver Hill to the Virginia Constitutional Revision Commission.
Photo of Oliver Hill in a suit
Oliver Hill, 1950. Photo Credit: Oliver White Hill Foundation.

In 1991, President Bill Clinton awarded Oliver Hill the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his civil rights advocacy and landmark casework in school desegregation.

Oliver Hill shaking President Bill Clinton's hand
Oliver Hill with President Bill Clinton. Photo Credit: Oliver White Hill Foundation.

In 2005, Oliver Hill was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal for his key role in Brown v. Board of Education and for his determined, quiet, and persistent pursuit of justice.

Hill’s childhood home at 401 Gilmer Avenue has been preserved by the Oliver White Hill Foundation. A Virginia Historic Marker stands in front of the residence. A local historic marker also stands at his office location on Centre Avenue.

Oliver Hill standing in a dapper suit and hat in front of his childhood home, with white paint and red shutters, in Gainsboro
Oliver Hill at his childhood home at 401 Gilmer Avenue. Courtesy of Roanoke Public Libraries.

“The faster we break down notions of racial segregation, the more rapidly we build bulwards to strengthen democracy.”

Oliver White Hill, (Edds, p. 314)

See Also


Hill, O. W., Sr. (2007 reprint) Edited by Stubbs, Jonathan K. (2007 Reprint). The big bang Brown v. Board of Education and beyond: The autobiography of Oliver W. Hill Sr. 100th birthday edition. (J.K. Stubbs, Ed.). GrantHouse Publishers.

Edds, M. (2018). We face the dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the legal team that dismantled Jim Crow. University of Virginia Press.

Montagne, R. & Williams, J. (2007, Aug.6). Civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill dies at 100.