RICHMOND – Oliver W. Hill Sr. was the energetic driving force in fighting for African-Americans’ civil rights while Spottswood W. Robinson III was the meticulous craftsman who designed detailed legal arguments. Together, the two Richmond lawyers paved the way to end racial segregation not only in Virginia but throughout the United States.
The legal fight led by Hill and Robinson is chronicled in a new book, “We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the Legal Team that Dismantled Jim Crow,” by Richmond journalist and author Margaret Edds. About 100 people gathered at the Library of Virginia last week to celebrate the book’s release by the University of Virginia Press.
In their legal work, Hill and Robinson fought for equality in voting, education, housing, transportation and pay. Their most famous case was Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. It went on to be one of the five pivotal cases in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare school segregation unconstitutional in 1954.
For five years, Edds (pronounced EEDS) conducted research for her book, perusing archival documents and interviewing people who knew Hill and Robinson. She hopes that by looking into the influence of these legal giants, we can better understand how far our nation has come and how much further we still need to go.
“These lawyers have never been recognized as they should’ve been and should be,” said former Gov. Douglas Wilder. “It’s a part of history that’s not taught but should be taught. There’s no excuse for this to not be taught in schools.”
Wilder, who attended Thursday’s book launch, knew Hill and Robinson. He said he hopes Edds’ book will make people more aware of the work the two men accomplished.
The first African-American to be elected governor in the U.S., Wilder said he wants people to understand that the only way to make real change is to act. Wilder recalled learning a lot from Hill and Robinson and their passion for justice.
“You stick to it, you perfect it, you don’t do just ‘good enough to get by,’” Wilder said. “You make it so it’s unassailable, and so when you walk into a courtroom, you believe that you are indeed in charge of your case and your client.”
Edds’ book isn’t the first about Hill, who died in 2007 at age 100. In fact, Hill wrote an autobiography, “The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond,” which was published in 2000.
Ramona Taylor said she knew nothing about Hill or Robinson until she was in law school at the University of Richmond and was asked to be a student editor for Hill’s book.
She was fascinated by the legendary lawyer’s story and is now the president of the Oliver White Hill Foundation, which is dedicated to continuing his fight for social justice.
“Beyond that he was a brilliant litigator, beyond that he was a humble man, I want people to recognize that he was one of the first true social engineers of our time. What I mean by social engineer is someone who actually changed the social landscape,” said Taylor, who is legal counsel for Virginia State University.
Hill stopped practicing law at age 91 in 1998, the same year Robinson died. A year later, Hill was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.
Edds was a reporter and editor for 34 years for The Virginian-Pilot. She has written four other books, including “Free at Last: What Really Happened When Civil Rights Came to Southern Politics.”
Edds will hold a book reading and signing at Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary St. in Richmond, at 6 p.m. Monday. She said her latest book is just a conversation starter about the legacy of Hill and Robinson.
“They faced up to Jim Crow segregation; they created a legal basis for change. They did not solve racial inequities for all time, as we sadly know – not even close – but they advanced the cause,” Edds said. “The challenge they pose to us is to do the same with equal resolve in our time.”
By Sarah Danial
Capital News Service