On Sunday civil rights attorney Oliver Hill died at 100. From the Washington Post:
Mr. Hill was born May 1, 1907, in Richmond, but he was raised here in the District. He graduated from Dunbar High School and earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree at Howard University. Thurgood Marshall, who would later be the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court, was a classmate, colleague and friend. Mr. Hill went back to Richmond and became the first black person elected to the City Council since 1898. But it was the gnawing unfairness of the court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld separate but equal public facilities as constitutional, that fed Mr. Hill’s passion for using the law to correct injustice.
Mr. Hill was the lead lawyer in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., which challenged "separate but equal" as applied to public schools. Yearning for a roof that didn’t leak and a better learning environment helped change America; Davis was one of five cases that the Supreme Court combined in 1954 when it ruled, in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, that segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. Mr. Hill’s legacy as a Virginia lawyer is a raft of lawsuits that expanded everything from voting rights to employment protections. Like so many in the civil rights movement, he endured threats to his safety and to his family. And like so many in the civil rights movement, Mr. Hill was undeterred.
I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Hill back in April at the annual meeting of the Virginia Social Science Association where I thanked him for his service to the nation. There is already discussion regarding the proper way to remember and commemorate Hill’s service to the Commonwealth and the nation. A statue of Hill will be 1 of 17 to be placed on a monument to Virginia’s civil rights leaders on Capitol Square in Richmond; however, Ray Mcallister of the Richmond Times-Dispatch is already asking whether a statue of Hill ought to be placed on Monument Avenue.
I think it is a wonderful idea given that Monument Avenue is where Richmonders place their heroes. Of course, not everyone is happy and any article about the changing profile of this historic avenue will attract the attention of the SCV as if they have some special claim to this location.
But Henry Kidd, a former national officer of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said yesterday: "Oliver Hill does not belong on Monument Avenue. . . . Monument Avenue was dedicated to Civil War generals, and I believe it should stay that." He and others had objected to the inclusion of Ashe, a tennis legend and humanitarian. Kidd, of Colonial Heights, said the issue is not Hill but the location. "I have no problem with Mr. Hill having a statue [somewhere else]."
There is a slight semantic obscurity that often accompanies such arguments. It is true that Monument Avenue was used as a place to dedicate monuments to Civil War leaders, but does that imply that it must? Does anybody know if there was anything ever written that this particular street must be used indefinitely only for Confederate officers?
I agree that the SCV has the right to voice its concerns regarding the changing historic landscapes in their communities, and I agree that serious debate and discussion ought to precede such changes. That said, I am tired of having to consider their views as if they have some special claim to this street. It belongs to all Richmonders and its citizens have the right to decide what it should look like. The fact that the avenue had been used specifically as a site for Confederate monuments (up until the dedication of the Ashe statue in 1996) reflects a past defined by white political control and nothing close to a consensus view. More importantly, such a proposal would involve altering, removing, or destroying not one statue already on Monument Avenue.
Regardless of whether a statue of Hill is placed on Capitol Square or Monument Avenue it will at least give Richmonders an opportunity to think about who really dedicated his life to freedom and equality.