Oliver Hill’s haunting thoughts on landmark court case, by Carol A.O. Wolf

5/16/2024, 6 p.m.
As we approach the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court …

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court outlawing segregation in public schools, I remain haunted, and yet hopeful, by the words the late Oliver W. Hill, one of the lawyers who helped bring the case to our nation’s highest court, shared with me one afternoon at his North Side home.

I met Mr. Hill when his grand-daughter and my daughter were in elementary school together.

After my husband, also a lawyer, told me about Mr. Hill’s renown as a civil rights litigator and his role in bringing the Brown case to the Supreme Court, I wrote a profile him for Style Weekly in 1984. But it wasn’t until I started reading to him two to three afternoons a week after he went blind that I truly got to know him.

During one of our reading sessions around the time of the 50th anniversary of the court’s decision, I asked him where he was when he first heard the Supreme Court had ruled on the case. Mr. Hill recalled that he was driving to his office when he heard the news on the radio.

“I couldn’t believe it! I floored it to get to the office as fast as I could. As soon as I hit the door I started shouting that we needed to turn the radio on.

Everyone gathered around the radio in utter disbelief. Some people cried, others broke out the cigars. We were all overjoyed, to put it mildly.”

The joy and exultation did not last. A year later, the court issued another order requiring U.S. schools desegregate “with all deliberate speed” a phrase Mr. Hill said came to mean “somewhere between now and all eternity.” He noted the decision helped open the doors to higher education, but that K-12 public education continues to suffer from segregated schools, the only real difference being that “we have moved from de jure to de facto segregation.”

At age 97, Mr. Hill admitted it pained him to accept that he had “little hope” that our nation’s K-12 public education system would be desegregated in his lifetime.

It was his contention that nowhere in this country were the negative effects of segregation as vivid and ingrained as they were in Richmond, the former Capitol of the Confederacy and birthplace of Massive Resistance. Mr. Hill had harsh words for local newspapers and for the business leaders and elected officials who bounce from one civic boondoggle to another, all the while promising that proceeds from the projects will be used to help improve Richmond’s public schools.

“Never happens,” he said, adding that, “If the members of the clergy who give cover to the greed of the business leaders would only decide to demand legislators make our city school facilities models of excellence, our city would benefit financially and morally.”

He believed in accountability and responsibility. “Were the citizens of the city and the parents — Black and white — to unite and demand the politicians stop giving excuses and instead give our children the schools they deserve,” he said, “there would be no need to throw tax abatements at companies to get them to come here. We would have an educated population of young people who could go to any college they wanted to, a

population that could not only take jobs in those companies, but create new businesses and new jobs.”

So, 70 years after the landmark decision and 20 years after the afternoon Mr. Hill talked about his disappointment that the Brown decision had not really done much to improve our nation’s K-12 schools, where are we?

“The fight for equality and equity must continue long after I and the others who led the charge are long gone. If you get tired of the fight — and you will — you must remember to take the long view and understand that eventually, evolution will take care of this ...”

“Evolution, Mr. Hill?!”, I interjected. “Evolution?!”

He answered, “Yes ... it does tend to be so damn slow, now don’t it?”