Roanoke unveils Oliver Hill’s marker, plans to name courthouse for civil rights attorney
ROANOKE — The city of Roanoke firmly staked its claim to legendary civil rights attorney Oliver Hill on Friday.
City officials unveiled a state historical marker in front of Hill’s childhood home in the historic Gainsboro neighborhood, but Mayor Sherman Lea also announced that the city will rename its courthouse for Hill.
Roanoke is one of four Virginia localities associated with Hill, who is most famous for his role in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., case that struck down school segregation in the United States.
Markers also are approved in Richmond, where Hill, who died in 2007 at age 100, practiced for most of his career; in Farmville; and in Norfolk, where he won a key federal case that challenged Virginia’s system of paying black teachers less than white ones.
But Roanoke, where Hill lived as a child and where he later practiced law, is the first to erect a historical marker approved by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
After the dedication of the marker, Lea said that was “not enough to recognize a man of Mr. Hill’s stature.” He said he will introduce a measure to rename the courthouse in January, with a formal ceremony to follow in the spring.
“I’m glad that we can do this for him, and those that walk through those halls will understand his spirit is with them as they fight for those who are disadvantaged and underrepresented,” said Ramona Taylor, president of the Oliver White Hill Foundation.
The marker alone was something of a feat. Its language and placement were approved in 2008, but the historic resources agency has not funded the manufacture and placement of the signs since the 1970s.
After learning via a Roanoke Times editorial by Editorial Page Editor Dwayne Yancey that the only thing blocking erection of the sign was about $2,000, Nelson Harris, a pastor and former Roanoke mayor, set out to raise the money. It took all of six hours to raise that and more, Harris said Friday. He called Hill a “great Roanoker and a great American.”
The marker notes that Hill, born in 1907, moved to the house behind it at age 6 and lived there for 10 years. He finished his high school and college education in Washington, D.C., and returned to Roanoke in 1934 to practice law.
The marker describes how he took on the case of the black students in Farmville who walked out of the Robert Russa Moton High School to protest poor conditions there. On their behalf, he filed the lawsuit Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County, which became one of the five cases that were part of the 1954 Brown decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hill’s childhood house at 401 Gilmer Ave. NW is now home to the Oliver Hill Mentoring Program, a cooperative effort of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia and Roanoke City Public Schools.
“This house was a home that impacted an individual that transformed America,” Taylor said.
The Roanoke City Courthouse was built after Hill moved his law practice from the city, but Lea and Councilman Bill Bestpitch thought renaming it for him was fitting.
Oliver Hill Jr., who was on hand for Friday’s ceremony, said the courthouse renaming was a surprise, but a pleasant one.
He said his father “wasn’t much for hoopla” but that he would be pleased the courthouse will be named for him.
“He would be happy about that in terms of inspiring a new generation of lawyers maybe to take up the mantle of civil rights,” he said.
In 1996, Richmond named its new juvenile and domestic relations courts building the Oliver Hill Courts Building. It’s located at 1600 Oliver Hill Way.
Ramona Taylor (left), president of the Oliver White Hill Foundation; Oliver Hill Jr. (far right), son of the famed civil rights attorney; and Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea (back right) were among those attending the unveiling of the state historical marker on Friday.