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The Soul Force of Oliver Hill and Legal Genius of Spottswood Robinson

Spottswood W. Robinson III and Oliver Hill represented George Leakes and Elaine Bowen
Spottswood W. Robinson III and Oliver Hill represented George Leakes and Elaine Bowen in one of the many cases they litigated across Virginia. The two are the focus of Margarget Edds new book We Face the Dawn. (Courtesy: NAACP Papers, Library of Congress)

Two key figures in the legal movement to fight racism called Richmond home. But how much do you know about Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson? A new book chronicles their lives, influences and legal prowess. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find details about Margaret Edds’s book We Face the Dawn. Listen to Oliver Hill's speech at the 1993 Pro Bono Publico awards and the 2001 panel discussion at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Learn more about Charles Hamilton Houston, Sam Tucker and retired Judge James Benton.


Margaret Edds wrote We Face the Dawn because she wanted people to really get to know Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson. She calls Hill fearless, passionate and pragmatic, with a buoyancy of spirit.

Margaret Edds: And I think the best I've come up with is that it's what Martin Luther King, Jr. called soul force. He really just had a presence and a charisma and a depth of character that you see in people like a Nelson Mandela, people who were really major moral leaders as well as political leaders.

(Archival tape, Oliver Hill) I’m one of those fortunate persons who have had the love, affection and concerned care of my mother Olivia Lewis White Hill...

Hill’s paternal father was absent but his mother, step father and a couple who helped raise him Roanoke had a big influence, as he shares at the 1993 Pro Bono Publico Awards.

(Archival tape, Oliver Hill) They instilled in me a sense of self-esteem and respect for my own human dignity and respect for human dignity of all over persons irrespective of their economic or social status.

Hill even changed his name from Charles, to Oliver - after his mother. Spottswood Robinson, says Edds, was a bit younger than Hill. He was a skilled craftsman, building a boat without nails and shelves angled so precisely that dust wouldn’t land on the books. He was introverted and private, warm and gracious. And be became Thurgood Marshall’s “most valuable all around associate.”

Edds: When they were doing the Brown hearings, there were two of them in 1952 and 1953, the final task of perfecting those briefs went to Spottswood Robinson and he was the one who actually argued the Virginia portion of the case. He was just a perfectionist, he was meticulous, and he was so careful that he really balanced Thurgood, Marshall's personality.

Both worked tirelessly. Robinson juggled teaching at Howard with a law practice and family real estate business. Hill began his practice in Roanoke, where money was scarce. In one month of 1935, he only made $10 while a monthly bill for legal books was twice that. His spouse Bernie stayed in DC to teach, playing an important role in keeping the family afloat.

Edds: So they spent the first years of their marriage apart, and she was extremely supportive of his work.

Edds is a retired journalist with the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. In this latest book, she brings in intimate details about the lives of these pioneering legal geniuses. She says when Hill and Bernie were apart, he would sign letters using the acronym SASAYA

Edds: Stay as sweet as you are, it was based on a hit song from that era.

(Music: Stay As Sweet As You Are, Jimmie Grier)

Edds includes details that show the lawyers’ sense of humor and love for their colleagues. Hill’s nickname was “Peanuts” and he called Thurgood Marshall “Turkey.” They were part of the what Edds calls an “intimate brotherhood,” from Howard and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Through long days and late nights, they developed a long game strategy to dismantle Jim Crow laws. They tackled restrictive covenants, segregated transportation and equal pay for teachers.

Edds: It was not unusual for localities to have their highest paid black teachers receiving less pay than their lowest paid white teachers and so the NAACP Legal Defense Fund brought this case in Norfolk and they received a positive outcome to that and after that moment Hill was head of the legal team in Virginia from there on out. He was recognized as the legal head for the state.

Edds says at one time, Hill and Robinson had legal actions pending in 75 Virginia school districts. These cases laid the groundwork for the eventual victory in Brown versus Board of Education. But finding plaintiffs could be a challenge. Speaking out could cost your career.

Edds: I'm not sure people realize how many teachers and principals lost their jobs because of their support for desegregation during the 1940s and 50s. And sometimes it would be really the most prominent principals and teachers. It was like nobody was safe. And Virginians like to think that we were better than many of the states in the South and indeed there were not the number of lynchings here, that there were elsewhere, but what I recognized was that we may not have broken bodies to the same extent, but Virginians were very good at breaking spirits, and they were perfectly willing to go after people's livelihoods, the things that held them together.

Following Brown versus Board of Education, white politicians in Virginia led the campaign known as “Massive Resistance,” shutting down schools rather than integrating them. They also tried to end the careers of Hill, Robinson and other civil rights lawyers. Edds says they spent years fighting anti-NAACP legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly.

Edds: The legislature had created two commissions to really try to destroy them and they had passed a series of laws requiring that the donor list and the membership list be turned over to the state, and they had passed a series of laws questioning the ethics of the lawyers. Because by these logs to recruit anyone for a legal case was illegal and of course the NAACP was encouraging people to join in filing these lawsuits to protect their constitutional rights.

The civil rights lawyers were ready for the fight. They filed suits that went to the US Supreme Court. Edds says it took six years, but once again, they won.

Edds: They never did disclose their membership and donor lists. They did not lose their law licenses although there were people who were trying to see that that would happen. And so during this whole period, they were having to fight that rearguard action just to protect their livelihoods. At the same time they were pressing for schools to actually desegregate which eventually happened.

The title of the book We Face the Dawn comes a poem Hill loved by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Edds: He in fact quoted from it, misquoted just a little bit, in  talking to the General Assembly 1956 at the beginning of Massive Resistance. He said “Gentlemen face the dawn, a new day is being born.”
And he often went back to these words including at that 1992 awards ceremony.

(Archival tape, Oliver Hill) I close with a quote from the illustrious American African poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, We must and will face the dawn and not the setting sun.

Robinson was nominated to the US Court of Appeals in 1966, the first Black judge on the DC Circuit.  He made history again in the 1980s as that court’s first black chief judge. Hill continued a law practice in Richmond with Sam Tucker and Henry Marsh. In 1999, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In this stage of life, Edds says Hill was talking about the artificial constructs of race, nationality and class; at one point he proposed creating a “Universal Society for the Advancement of Human Earthlings.

Edds: He would say change is inevitable, progress is not and that every generation really has to pick up the torch and has to carry it. I mean they did their part for their time. They clearly advanced the country, they advanced humanity really but it’s not once and done. Every generation has to pick up that torch and find their own way to move it forward.

James Benton: I had a history with Oliver Hill.

Retired judge James Benton first came in contact with Hill as a teen. 

Benton: I was a high school student in Norfolk when the governor closed the schools rather than allow black and white students to go to school together. Oliver Hill was a lawyer in the case and he was an attorney for the Legal Defense Fund so we did some picketing and sit-ons.

Then, when Benton was a senior in law school, Hill offered him a job on the spot.

Benton: And I worked with him for 15 years before I became a judge.

At the We Face the Dawn book release at the Library of Virginia, Benton said Hill taught him a lot about humanity.

Benton: Almost every Friday when Oliver Hill left the office to go home, he’d stop at the Library of Virginia to get some books to read on the weekend. And it wasn’t law, it was a whole variety of things generally involving humans and humanity. In addition to the legal things, I felt I learned more from Oliver about trying to be a good human being.

Hill died at age 100 in 2007. Robinson passed in 1998, age 82. Back in 2001 at the Virginia Festival of the Book, Hill was asked why Black students fall behind in SOL scores. Mr. Hill said racism still plays a role.

(Archival tape, Oliver Hill) You must remember, that negroes have never yet been openly embraced by mainstream American white folks, we’ve always had a large segment of white folks who are opposed to us.

I asked Edds, what would Hill and Robinson think of today’s state of schools and continuing inequities.

Edds: I think they'd be dismayed and disappointed. They had great faith in American institutions, so I would like to think that they would not have given up  on the law and public policy as a way to address these things, but I think clearly they would have been disappointed. I think even in their own time they expected the progress would come somewhat more quickly, and Hill said that before integration occurred, progressive whites would say to him “It's really the laws that are holding us back” but then the laws were changed and he sort of came to recognize that it wasn't just the laws, it was that many white people really considered black people to be inferior and that was something that would have to be dealt with over a long period of time.

Edds says many know the prominent names of the civil rights movement, like Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks. But there were so many more contributing to the greater good, and they are documented in this book too. Charles Hamilton Houston was a mentor to Hill and Robinson, he built Howard’s law school and designed the legal strategy used across the South. Another key figure was Sam Tucker, who was writing deeds at age 14 and passed the bar at the same time as Hill - without going to law school. And there were countless teachers and students who stood up to unequal pay and crumbling facilities. That she says can serve as inspiration.

Edds: It's just stunning how many people played tiny roles in creating change in this country, and I think we have to take that now, at a time when our politics is so fraught and so discouraging to know that millions of people can make tiny differences and that eventuallycan take us to a better place. 

For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.