“The power of knowing history”

Dr. Oliver Hill Jr. to visit Christopher Newport University to talk about civil rights

Dr. Oliver Hill Jr., son of famous lawyer Oliver Hill, knows the power that history has on modern day society. While many people today think of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement as things of the past, events to study and reflect on, Hill has a unique perspective on how these issues are still potently relevant in today’s conversations. 

Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark case that ruled that segregation within the public school system was unconstitutional, is the court case everyone studies in school to learn about racial inequalities within education. But this court ruling, while extremely significant, would not have come about if it weren’t for a lesser known court case: Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. In 1951, students staged a walkout that began a two-week protest in response to terrible conditions within the school. 

Fed up with the lack of funding and inequality in the school district, student Barbara Johns organized the walkout and began the battle for desegregation within Virginia schools. This is where Oliver Hill Sr. entered the scene. Although he originally was not going to involve himself in Johns’ lawsuit against the school district, he was “inspired by her courage and intellect,” according to Hill Jr. Two years later, Hill Sr. was successful in his lawsuit in 1954, and this case became one of the five cases decided under Brown v. Board of Education. 

Given successes in the Civil Rights Movement such as the one earned by Johns and Hill Sr., it would be tempting to conclude that these issues of inequality were solved. Hill Jr., however, does not believe that to be true. 

“[There are] lots of echoes of the 60’s still now, more subtle,” said Hill Jr. in a phone interview with The Captain’s Log. “What used to be black voter suppression in the 60’s is still a trend in the form of discouraging black voters today.”

Hill Jr. explained that social class issues are a reflection and a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s. For example, once suburban areas and historically all-white neighborhoods were mandated to desegregate, successful black families living in all-black communities were able to move to new homes and neighborhoods. 

However, they left behind people who did not have the means to move, and these communities became even poorer over the decades as they continued to lose their high-tax paying residents. Instead of improving the school systems in this area, it actually exacerbated the issues, according to Hill, where the solution became to move out (if you could) and attend a better school system rather than to fix the ones that need more resources. 

It is complicated issues like these that are the reason why Hill Jr. loves history. “You can see these threads that have roots in events over 150 years ago that are still relevant today, still affecting key issues today,” he said.  

While history might not be an area of study that interests everybody, Hill Jr. maintains that everyone should at least have an understanding of history, especially in regards to the history of our own country and state. 

“Everyone needs to know the history if we ever want to begin to heal the racial divide that is present in our country. We have Black History Month. It’s time to expand that vision. It isn’t just Black history, it’s history. It’s listening to different viewpoint to create a larger story.”

Despite these heavy topics, Hill Jr. has a positive outlook. “I’m a real believer in the power of knowing history, and we need to have an honest dialogue to heal differences.”

If you want to hear more from Dr. Oliver Hill Jr., he will be speaking at Christopher Newport University on Oct. 7, from 4 -5:15 p.m. in the Trible Library Theater. 

In addition to talking further about the 65th anniversary of that important Prince Edward County case won by his father, Hill Jr. will discuss more his views of the state of civil rights in our modern society and how to continue the dialogue surrounding our complicated history.

~Matthew Scherger, Editor-in-Chief~

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