- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2007

RICHMOND (AP) — Oliver W. Hill, a civil rights lawyer who was at the front of the legal effort that desegregated public schools, has died at age 100, a family friend said.

Mr. Hill died peacefully yesterday at his home during breakfast, said Joseph Morrissey, a friend of the Hill family.

In 1954, Mr. Hill was part of a series of lawsuits against racially segregated public schools that became the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which changed American society by setting the foundation for integrated education.

“He was among the vanguard in seeking equal opportunity for all individuals, and he was steadfast in his commitment to effect change. He will be missed,” said L. Douglas Wilder, who in 1989 became the nation’s first elected black governor and was a confidant of Mr. Hill‘s. Mr. Wilder, a Democrat, is now Richmond’s mayor.

In 1940, Mr. Hill won his first civil rights case in Virginia, one that required equal pay for black and white teachers. Eight years later, he was the first black elected to Richmond’s City Council since Reconstruction.

A lawsuit argued by Mr. Hill in 1951 on behalf of students protesting deplorable conditions at their high school for blacks in Farmville, Va., became one of five cases decided under Brown.

Those battles to end the Jim Crow era were dangerous for Mr. Hill and other civil rights leaders. Mr. Hill once received so many threats that he and his wife, Berensenia, would not allow their son to answer the telephone.

Nor did his battle for civil rights bring him wealth.

“We got very few fees for any of this,” he said in a 1992 interview in the Richmond News Leader.

Mr. Hill was born May 1, 1907, and his father left when Mr. Hill was an infant. His mother remarried, and Mr. Hill took the name of his stepfather. He moved with his family to Roanoke, where he spent much of his childhood.

Later, his family moved to the District, where he graduated from high school and graduated second in his class from Howard University’s law school in 1933. The top law graduate that year was his friend Thurgood Marshall.

Mr. Marshall and Mr. Hill were part of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund team that fought the desegregation case to the Supreme Court. They remained close friends after Mr. Marshall became the court’s first black justice.

He recalled that when he started his law career, the court clerks in the building that housed the state Supreme Court of Appeals and law library allowed him to review legal books over weekends with the understanding that he would return them Monday mornings — “quite a gesture for those days,” Mr. Hill said.

Two years ago, that building — now a century old and renovated — was renamed in Mr. Hill’s honor. Though frail, he attended the 2005 dedication. Also in 2005, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People honored Mr. Hill with its Spingarn Award for distinguished achievement.

Though blind and in a wheelchair in recent years, Mr. Hill remained active in social and civil rights causes. In 1999, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Clinton.

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