Bio of Hill

Oliver White Hill was for many years the face and soul of the civil rights movement in Virginia.  He was born in Richmond in 1907, raised in Roanoke and Washington, and educated at Howard University and Howard Law School. Hill joined close friend Thurgood Marshall in the vanguard of law students trained by legendary Howard vice-dean Charles Hamilton Houston to transform America through legal challenges to racial apartheid.


Hill earned his stripes with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., by playing a critical role in Alston v. School Board of Norfolk, a 1940 decision insisting on equal pay for black schoolteachers. For the next two decades (except for a stint in the US Army during World War II), Hill headed the legal committee of the Virginia NAACP, often extolled as the most active conference in the nation.  In that role, he aggressively challenged school districts across Virginia to give black children equal educational opportunities, tested Jim Crow seating in public transportation, and spearheaded the resistance when lawmakers tried to cripple the NAACP and thwart the Supreme Court’s school desegregation order in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.


Political activism led to Hill’s 1948 election to the Richmond City Council, making him the city’s and one of the south’s first twentieth-century black councilmen.  His fearlessness, pragmatism, and charisma earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1999.  He died over breakfast at home in Richmond in 2007 at age 100.

“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.”


–President Bill Clinton, presenting the presidential medal of freedom

Elaine Jones, former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, greets Hill at the celebration of his 100th birthday in May 2007. (Jerome Reid/Richmond Free Press)

Oliver and Bernie Hill early in their marriage. (Oliver Hill Collection, Virginia State University) 

Hill entering the Alexandria, Virginia, courthouse in 1958. (DC Public Library, Star Collection, Washington Post

© 2019 by Margaret Edds