Oliver Hill Jr. on Racial Segregation

April 29, 2019
Oliver Hill Jr. joins an Osher Institute program on racial segregation and poverty in Richmond

By Morgan Geyer, ’19

Earlier this semester, members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute gathered in Ukrop Auditorium to engage in a lecture titled “Racial Segregation: Then and Now” led by Margaret Edds, author and former political journalist, and John Moeser, senior fellow of the University of Richmond Bonner Center for Civic Engagement

Edds began the lecture by presenting material from her recently published book, We Face the Dawn. We Face the Dawn tells the story of Oliver Hill Sr. and Spotswood Robinson, two Virginia lawyers who helped dismantle racial segregation and Jim Crow laws by arguing one of the cases that contributed to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. 

Edds shared personal backgrounds on Hill and Robinson and then discussed their careers and accomplishments, noting the toll that this work took on their health and finances. “Hill was the face and soul of the Civil Rights movement here in Virginia,” Edds told the audience. “He had a belief in his own self-worth and a passion for justice.”

Among the members of the audience sat special guest, Oliver Hill Jr., son of Oliver Hill Sr. Edds invited Hill onto the stage to reflect on his father’s achievements and discuss his own experience of living in Richmond when racial segregation was still widely practiced. 

Standing before a projected picture of his father, Hill recalled growing up in the 1950s, when his life was completely circumscribed within the few-block radius of the black community. Of his father’s career, Hill remembered the lawyers who would stay at their house when he was a boy because they were not permitted at the hotels in downtown Richmond. 

In 1961, Hill was one of the first students to integrate into Richmond schools, seven years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Hill recalled sitting in his middle school Virginia History class and feeling surprised that the history in his textbook was much different than the history he had learned from the black community. 

Hill emphasized the importance of acknowledging all of history, because doing so allows students to develop a social consciousness and the ability to see the common humanity within others. “It’s not black history, it’s our history,” Hill stressed. 

Hill also acknowledged that what used to be strictly racial issues have very quickly become mixed with class, and that these issues are still prevalent in Richmond today. 

After Hill spoke, Moeser took the podium to discuss the racial implications of Brown v. Board of Education on poverty and housing. Poverty levels within Richmond City have exploded so that one quarter of the Richmond population lives below the poverty line. 

Moeser displayed maps that showed the poverty disparity between different parts of Richmond. Most striking was a graphic (displayed above) that showed how different the life expectancy was between affluent and impoverished parts of Richmond, where the distance of approximately three miles could affect an individual’s life expectancy by 33 years. 

After Moeser concluded his presentation, the three speakers convened on stage for a question and answer panel discussion. All three fielded questions from the audience regarding ways to fix the broken system that is enabling the housing and poverty inequality in Richmond to flourish. 

Both Edds and Moeser emphasized that Richmond needs committed leaders to establish reconstruction that will endure. Hill encouraged those in the audience to mobilize students, noting that his father always wanted to talk to young people. “Quality education for all students is a civil right,” Hill concluded. “Classes like this one which tell the lesser known stories are extremely important for the next generation.” 

“Racial Segregation: Then and Now” was a free event sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and organized by Edds and Moeser.