Roanoke un­veils Oliver Hill’s marker, plans to name court­house for civil rights at­tor­ney

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - SUNDAY IN VIRGINIA - BY MATT CHITTUM

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.

HEATHER ROUSSEAU/THE ROANOKE TIMES

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.

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