Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People

BOND: Let me take you back to your earlier life. Who -- what kind of figures in your life were influences on you? You mentioned Charles Houston a couple of times, and Thurgood Marshall a couple of times, but even before that, what about school teachers? What figures in your life helped to shape and develop you?

HILL: Well, my shaping and development came from two women. Of course now, as I told you, but I didn't discuss earlier -- but my father had deserted us and my mother left me with my great-grandmother. And she going up to Hot Springs to the Homestead Hotel to work, dipping water for guests. And so I didn't really have too much of a recollection before I was about four years old. But anyway, when I was six my grandmother who would be living up in Scranton, Pennsylvania died -- well, she was very sick, she came back to Richmond and shortly thereafter died -- and course, that's the first time my mother, that I recognized her. She had divorced my father and married again by that time, and my stepfather, her husband, Joseph Hill, came to Richmond for the funeral. And he carried me back to Roanoke with them when they left. And so I left Richmond around six, and went to Roanoke.

Now, living with my parents, that's the first time I really ever had any family situation 'cause my great-grandmother and great-aunt who I was living with, I don't remember too much about any home activities 'cause they were domestics, and the domestics in those days weren't making any money. They spent all the time working. They'd come home in the evening, and so far as I can remember wasn't never too much activity. I don't remember ever seeing a newspaper or magazine, anything like that 'til I went to Roanoke.

BOND: But that changed when you went to Roanoke?

HILL: But when I went to Roanoke, we shared a home, a house, with a family name Pentecost -- Bradford and Lelia Pentecost. Mr. Pentecost, was a chef/cook on the Norfolk & Western Railroad. He had been recruited by the Norfolk & Western to come to improve their dining car service. So he was upper-middle class as far as economics were concerned. And he would gather up all the papers, he'd gather up a lot of papers off the trains on Sunday, and when he was out on Sunday, and so he took a great interest, he'd read the papers to me. But anyway, I'm getting ahead of my story. Two years I lived with my mother and my stepfather in the same house with the Pentecosts.

The Pentecosts decided to buy a home -- this was 39 Gilmer Avenue -- they bought a house, 401 Gilmer Avenue, and were renovating it that summer. Now, Virginia went dry that summer, and my stepfather was operating a pool room at that time. As a matter of fact, by the time I was eight years old he had decided to build a stool and began to teach me how to shoot billiards and pool. And if Virginia hadn't gone dry maybe I might have been Virginia Fats!

BOND: Yes, indeed.

HILL: But anyway that killed the neighborhood where his pool room was, so he decided to go back to Homestead and work, and my mother was going to stay in Richmond to -- for school. But I was so comfortable with the Pentecosts -- we'd go up there and look at the renovations taking place, and I assumed -- they were living together in 39 [Gilmer], I assumed we all going to live up there. I didn't know anything about what was happening so far as the state was concerned. And I was just eight years old that time. Since I was so comfortable, my mother decided she was going to Homestead, too, and work, and let me stay with the Pentecosts. So from the time I was eight until I was fifteen, I was with the Pentecosts.

And Mrs. Pentecost was very -- a person with great personal esteem. And you know, back in those days, you had a lot of people [who were] traveling salesmen. You see, they sell everything, come to your house, you know. And what they would do in Negro neighborhood, is they would find out the name of the people next door, and they'd come in with a key to the house or, if they ask for Lillian -- "Is Lillian here for you?" -- [She'd] close the door in their face. So, they soon learned if they wanted to sell everything at the Pentecost house, they had to come and ask for Mrs. Pentecost, and also when they'd come in the house, they had to take off their hats and show their wares like they would anybody else. And so, as I say, I was known as the Pentecost kid, and was taught to have good personal esteem and not low -- low ego.

BOND: Now you said another woman -- two women influenced you? Mrs. Pentecost, and who else?

HILL: My mother.

BOND: Your mother?

HILL: I went to live with -- I actually lived with my parents in Washington. See, I left Roanoke after the eighth grade. For the schools. Unfortunately, the class ahead of me was a small class of about ten pupils. They tried to get Mrs. Pentecost to let me skip the third grade and let me go to that class, but she thought you ought to take every class as you go along. And the class I was in was about thirty kids. Well, teachers couldn't give too much attention to any one kid and another. I was one of these devilish kids, always talking or taking himself --

And there was another other boy in the class, a little older than I was, who was a street-wise -- had street smarts. And I kind of looked up to him, named Piggy Wilson -- his name was Charlie Wilson, but we called him Piggy -- and I looked up to Piggy. Between Piggy and me, we were always could think of a whole lot of devilment. For example, I remember by the time we got to about the fifth grade or sixth grade, or something, I had a suit that had been cut down -- from a man's coat, you know -- and [it had] little a watch pocket, little change pocket inside the coat?

BOND: Right.

HILL: I got hold of one of those little crickets and I'd put it in there, and I'd press it, and, of course -- determine the sound came from my direction, but by the time it got to me I'd have pulled all my pockets out and everything, you know, and hold my hands up, and teacher pat me all down, couldn't find anything. It never occurred to her about this little watch pocket, you see. I mean, the change pocket. And all that kind of devilment. I mean, just annoyance, that's all. I mean, I got my lessons. The other thing about this big class -- it was a big class, but they had false sense of loyalty, too. Nobody ever squealed on anybody about doing anything, and so as a consequence, we were sent from Gainsboro School in northwest, down to a school down in northeast under a woman named Sarah Brown. Well, Mrs. Brown -- Miss Brown -- was a good teacher, we all liked her, and she did very well with us, but she still couldn't catch up with me and my cricket. And Charlie, in the meantime -- that was during the period we Rudolph Valentino was a big star in the movies.

BOND: The Sheik.

HILL: The Sheik, yeah. In the sixth and seventh grade I remember, particularly, we wore sashes around our faces and think we were sheiks.