Dr. Oliver W. ‘Duke’ Hill Jr., retired VSU professor, administrator and researcher, dies at 70

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 7/16/2020, 6 p.m.
While his celebrated attorney father devoted his life to using the law to break down racial barriers, Dr. Oliver White ...
Dr. Hill

While his celebrated attorney father devoted his life to using the law to break down racial barriers, Dr. Oliver White Hill Jr. focused his attention on eliminating racial disparities in education.

Considered a thoughtful man and known for his mild man- ner, wry humor and positive outlook, Dr. Hill, called “Duke” or “Dukey” by friends and family, earned national attention for his research on school reform and on bias in testing during his nearly 40 years at Virginia State University.

Alarmed that math anxiety was leading too many African-American students to shy away from futures in science fields, the professor and longtime chairman of the VSU Department of Psychology sought to solve the problem.

Employing a mentoring approach, “he did lots of work on using meditation, reflection and mindfulness as a means of reducing student stress over tests and math,” said Dr. Kimberly P. Boyd, a VSU psychology professor and colleague of Dr. Hill.

Dr. Hill also partnered with VSU mathematics professor Dr. Dawit Haile to receive a National Science Foundation grant to bring to the campus the Algebra Project, a creation of educator and civil rights activist Robert P. “Bob” Moses to increase math learning among African-Americans.

They tested the project in Petersburg and used it in seeking to improve public school math instruction by working with middle and high school teachers. The ultimate goal was increased African- American student interest in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. The project has since spread to other cities, including Atlanta.

As the university put it in a statement, Dr. Hill “transformed lives. He dedicated a great deal of his research and his passion to creating a pathway to educational opportunities.” VSU also credited him with being “instrumental in creating the university’s first doctoral program,” a Ph.D. in health psychology.

He retired last year from VSU after briefly serving as interim dean of the College of Natural and Health Sciences.

Dr. Hill’s contributions are being remembered following his death Tuesday, July 7, 2020. Relatives said he died from cardiac arrest. He was 70.

A memorial service will be held 11 a.m. Saturday, July 18, at Scott’s Funeral Chapel, 116 E. Brookland Park Blvd, where the service will be livestreamed at www.scottsfuneralhome.com.

Dr. Hill lived long enough to witness the beginning of the removal of the Confederate statues, symbols of racial hatred in the city where he was born and against which he and his family had fought.

Dr. Hill was the son of the late noted civil rights attorney Oliver W. Hill Sr., a member of the legal team that helped win the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, and the late Richmond educator Beresenia Hill.

Growing up in Richmond, Dr. Hill talked about the crosses that were burned on the family’s lawn in North Side and the hate mail his father received from foes of integration as he and attorneys in his law firm battled to enforce the Brown decision declaring government-enforced segregation of classrooms unconstitutional.

As a young teen, Dr. Hill was among the students who desegregated Chandler Junior High in North Side.

Despite his father’s hopes he would become a lawyer, Dr. Hill found his niche in the study of the mind. After finishing John Marshall High School, he went on to earn his undergraduate degree in psychology from Howard University and later earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan.

But the most significant education he received came when he took a trip to India to spend time studying and learning transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who taught the art of avoiding distracting thoughts and gaining a state of relaxed awareness.

His education in meditation influenced his work as a professor.

“He focused on mindfulness and cognition,” Dr. Boyd said. “He believed with the right encouragement, students could develop a belief in their ability that would enable their brains to change to understand math concepts.”

Respected both personally and professionally, Dr. Hill was a “light spirit,” Dr. Boyd said. As department chair, he would “make time for meetings with colleagues to reflect on the goodness of the world and reaffirm the power of self.”

His son, Jamaa Bickley-King, a political data analyst and founder, president and chairman of the influential political organizing group New Virginia Majority, said Dr. Hill “always kept his cool. I can only remember two times in my life when I saw him get upset.”

“He was always willing to talk with anyone,” his son continued. “He volunteered at the jails to help people there learn meditation to deal with their anger issues. And I can remember him speaking with young men who were looking for some direction in their lives and needed someone to talk with.”

In addition to his son, Dr. Hill is survived by his wife of 39 years, Dr. Renee B. Hill, a retired VSU philosophy professor; two daughters, Jananda Hill and Maia H. King; and three grandchildren.