Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Education: Law School

BOND: So, you finished Dunbar and then college is next?

HILL: Yeah. Well, I well finished Dunbar in the mid-term. I'd never been away to school much of my life. I never went through the spring prom business in school. I finished Dunbar. I was one of those happy-go-lucky C students. But I discovered that – well, what happened was my stepfather had a brother who worked in Washington. He worked in the government but he was going to law school, and he was developing a law practice, but he had a stroke and died. And his wife gave me a 1924 -- she gave me 1924 annotated Constitution of the United States, and that's when I read the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. I couldn't understand why they didn't – segregation laws didn't violate them, so I went down to Congressional Library and read the cases that were cited as being where the Supreme Court had interpreted these amendments. And I read about Plessy, and I just thought they lost their cotton-picking minds with their decision, so – at that time, you couldn't – the big issue for the NAACP was anti-lynching law and you couldn't get a law through Congress making it a crime to lynch a Negro. So I decided the only thing for us to do was for somebody to carry a case back to the Supreme Court and convince them that they ought to reverse Plessy, and somebody ought to do it, so I didn't see why I shouldn't be the somebody.

BOND: Now how did you decide -- you're a college sophomore.

HILL: Yeah.

BOND: -- and you're reading the Constitution, and you go down to the Library of Congress, and you read these cases -- that just seems remarkable to me that you had decided, at that young age, that you were going to, many years later, challenge Plessy.

HILL: No, no, I didn't decide to do it that way. I decided I was going to go to law school to be trained to be a lawyer to do that.

BOND: Yes, I understand the progression, but just seems to be remarkable that you would say, as a college sophomore, that "I'm going to go to law school -- "

HILL: Well, later on I kind of was surprised myself. I hadn't thought about it at that time. Well, I went on to the registrar's office and checked my schedule and found that while I was happy-go-lucky, I had only taken subjects that led to graduation. I had no [inaudible] and all I needed was one more quarter of foreign language, and of course, necessary for the grade points. And then if wanted to finish my junior year, I could go to law school at the end of the first year in law school to get my degree. So that's what I decided to do. And that's the way I got to law school in 1930. In the meantime, Thurgood had applied for Maryland's law school and had been denied, but they paid his tuition to go over to Howard, and so that's what he did. But Thurgood had finished Lincoln with honors, so a lot of people thought it was a competition between us, but there wasn't any competition so far as I was concerned.

BOND: Do you remember when you first met him?

HILL: Yeah, I first met him at the first class we had. They had the assembly, you know, and Charlie [Charles Hamilton Houston] lectured to us, "Look at the person on your left, look at the person on the right, 'cause one of you not going to be here next year." And that attitude -- but what happened was, the competition between Thurgood and me was over fraternities. Thurgood was Alpha, I was Omega. And the class had about an equal number of students, and so somebody – half of them were Alphas and the rest of them were either Omegas or Kappas or Phi Betas or non-fraternal – and one of the boys heard one of the Alphas say, "Oh, we're going to run this class," and he told me that, so I organized the non-Alphas into one group. So I lead the non-Alphas and Thurgood was leader of the Alphas. Anything Thurgood and I couldn't agree to – if it happened we couldn't agree --

BOND: It didn't happen.

HILL: The beauty of it was we got out of class about 11:30 everyday, and Thurgood and I would go to Father Divine's – a place down on D Street – and, where you know, you put up your hands -- "Peace is truly wonderful!"

BOND: Yes, and they passed the food.

HILL: And go ahead and get a fine lunch for a quarter. And sometimes Thurgood got the 35 cent lunch, the deluxe. He ate more than I did.

BOND: We've got to move on. Tell me about Charles Hamilton Houston -- what effect did he have on you?

HILL: Charlie -- Thurgood and I, we'd come back to study over the afternoon and I'd go -- I had a job waiting tables at hotel, and Thurgood would catch the train and go back to Baltimore. So, we were in the library all of the afternoon. Well, naturally Charlie see us from time to time, and we became his protégés. And he had significant influence. We looked up to him and we used to call him "iron pants." But other than that we'd -- Charlie was a strictest disciplinarian, but what he also definitely -- he told us when we first met that we were going to work hard, and we were going to get approved by the American Bar Association, and we were going to get approved by Association of American Law Schools. And in about a year and a half, we got the approval of both groups. But he had us going to classes five days a week and on Saturdays we would do field work. Because most of us had had no previous experience with anything like the courts and hospitals – St. Elizabeth Hospital, the Lorton prison, the FBI -- we went around everywhere getting experience.