- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2007

RICHMOND (AP) — Fifty-three years ago, the doors to America’s segregated public schools were forced open for all children, regardless of color. Largely to thank for that was a Virginia lawyer named Oliver White Hill.

Today, a week after his death at age 100, Virginia and the country whose racial barriers he helped dismantle bid farewell to Mr. Hill in a memorial service.

Mr. Hill was at the front in the legal battle that resulted in the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Though the decision applied only to public schools, it profoundly and permanently altered life and society in the United States.

“Before Brown, it was a whole different outlook on life. I’m old enough to predate Brown. I can remember sitting on the back of the bus and watching our sisters get out of a seat so a white person could sit down,” said Henry L. Marsh, 73, a law partner of Mr. Hill’s and a 16-year state senator.

“Oliver changed all that almost single-handedly. He was the spirit and the soul behind the fight in Virginia, and Virginia is where the fight began,” he said.

But is the triumph won then at so great a cost still valued at the dawn of the 21st century? Mr. Hill pondered that question to the end of his life, said L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor and a longtime friend of Mr. Hill‘s.

Though the frailties of age confined Mr. Hill to a wheelchair in his last years and robbed him of his eyesight, he never lost his easy wit or his perceptive and agile mind, Mr. Hill’s friends said. He followed the news and lamented gang violence, high teen pregnancy, school dropout rates and low classroom achievement, particularly when it afflicted black children.

“He would say things like, ‘You know, some people don’t seem to get it,’ or ‘What will it take?’ ” said Mr. Wilder, now 76 and Richmond’s mayor.

“Here was a guy who put his life on the line for civil rights and equality in education and here we have a 47 percent graduation rate in Richmond,” Mr. Wilder said.

The landmark school desegregation case for Mr. Hill began in the spring of 1951 when students at the R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, Va., went on strike from classes to protest overcrowded and substandard conditions in their all-black school.

Mr. Hill was part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense team that took up the students’ cause. He argued that “separate but equal” segregated schools were nowhere close to equal and that equality could come only with the demise of segregation by educating black and white students side-by-side.

In a 1999 interview with the Virginia News Network, Mr. Hill recalled that he was driving in Richmond when he heard the Supreme Court was about to announce its decision.

“Boy, I turned the car around in the middle of the block and came flying back to the office, running up the steps yelling, ‘Turn on the radio! Turn on the radio!’ We did, and heard most of the opinion,” Mr. Hill said. “Of course, there was no more work done that day.”

Mr. Hill’s was a full and extraordinarily long life, Mr. Marsh said, one to be celebrated as much as mourned. While he was a legend to the many, he was a mean player of bridge and poker, a master joke teller, a patient listener and keeper of confidences, an eternal Washington Redskins fan and a loyal flesh-and-blood friend to Mr. Wilder, Mr. Marsh and others who have known the world before Mr. Hill changed it and since.

“The moment I got the news [of Mr. Hill’s death] it hit me real hard,” Mr. Marsh said, pausing a moment to collect his emotions. “But afterward, I said to myself, ‘He had a good life and a loving family, and you can’t do better than that.’ ”