Friday, June 10, 2011

Oliver Hill - One of America's Greatest Civil Rights Heroes

Posted by Bruce Miller
One of the several things I love about my job is the variety. The late, great Oliver Hill, one of Virginia’s most renowned civil rights heroes, will be added to Virginia’s Standards of Learning next school year, and Theatre IV is creating a new play to help teachers introduce Mr. Hill to their upper elementary and middle school students.

I began my research this week. The 55-minute, touring instructional program will open with a gala performance in the historic Empire Theatre in January 2012. Along with My Fair Lady, the as-yet-unnamed Oliver Hill project will be a cornerstone of the Empire’s Centennial Celebration. The Empire first opened its doors on Christmas Day, 1911.

Oliver Hill was born in Richmond 4 ½ years earlier, on May 1, 1907. As a child, he moved with his family to Roanoke, and later Washington, D. C., where he graduated from Dunbar High School. He earned his undergraduate degree from Howard University and entered the School of Law there in 1930, studying under Charles Hamilton Houston, the chief architect of national efforts to challenge Jim Crow laws through the legal system. In law school, Hill was a classmate and friend of future Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall. Hill graduated second in the Class of 1933; Marshall was first.

After serving in WWII, Hill set up his law office in Richmond, and from here he worked on several important cases of the civil rights movement. He helped to win equal pay for African American teachers, access to school buses for black students, voting rights, inclusion of blacks on juries, and employment protection against racial discrimination. His work on behalf of the students of Moton High School in Farmville became part of the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education that helped to end the national policy of "separate but equal."

Oliver Hill retired in 1998 after 60 years of exemplary work. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1999. He died at age 100 in Richmond on August 5, 2007.

I'm extremely honored to have the opportunity to write this play, and to interview so many great civil rights heroes who worked along side Oliver Hill, including Hill's longtime law partner, Sen. Henry Marsh, pictured above. I'm proud that Theatre IV continues to be the nation's leading producer of theatrically based, African American history programs for schools. We regularly tour these instructional programs to every school district in Virginia, and throughout 32 neighboring states.

--Bruce Miller

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