Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of Pivotal Moments

BOND: Now, look back over your life and career, are there some key moments, key things that happened that had an impact on you that made you turn in this direction, or that direction, or take this choice and not that choice?

HILL: Well, in minor things. I don't know of anything of a major nature. I was always busy, and as I say -- I just don't know. I never --

BOND: Well, the gift of that Constitution turned you in one direction.

HILL: Yeah.

BOND: The annotated Constitution --

HILL: Yeah, that's right.

BOND: Any other things like that?

HILL: Well, could have. I remember riding on the train, going to Washington, when I was going up to Dunbar. I was talking with a man about what I was going to do, and I told him I was going to study Spanish 'cause I may go to South America. And I did. I started taking Spanish, and I stopped Spanish after a couple of years because I just disliked the instructor, and took up German. And when I was in high school, I remember also after I started taking German I remember writing an essay for a guy named – remember guy named Hill that used to teach it at Lincoln?

BOND: Yeah, J. Newton Hill. Yes.

HILL: Yeah, well, he was at Dunbar at that time.

BOND: Really?

HILL: And I wrote this paper, and I thought I'd written a pretty nice paper. And then I ended up with "das man will, das man kan," and instead of giving me credit for trying, he scratched on my paper, "Don't try to be so philosophical." And I say now, I've often thought that if he had taken the proper attitude and encouraged me I might've been a philosopher. I might have turned out to be a scholar, I don't know. But anyway I took his advice...

BOND: And you turned out to be a Oliver Hill, the lawyer?

HILL: I turned out to be Oliver Hill, C student.

BOND: Well, you've done pretty well for a C student, Mr. Hill.

HILL: Another thing, another thought about along those lines. I remember, we had a big ol' dictionary, I mean, Bible – it was large print. And I started reading this thing, and somebody – I don't remember now who it was one of the adults in the house, said, "What you doing, Oliver?" I said, "I'm going to read the Bible through." They said, "You going to read the Bible through?" I said, "Yeah." They said, "That'll take you a lifetime!" When I thought about it, I said, "Damn, this probably will take me a hell of a long time because I was a slow reader, all the time." So that, I gave up on Genesis before I got through Genesis. Now maybe if they had said, "Well, that's a great ambition, keep on going," I might have turned out to been a theologian. I don't know. My grandfather was a founder of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church. He was one of these fire and brimstone preachers, but --

BOND: Well, we're glad --

HILL: -- lot of things of that nature could have happened.

BOND: Yes, well we're glad you didn't go to South America, you didn't become a preacher, somebody gave you that Constitution. We're very happy with the way your life has turned out and --

HILL: So am I.

BOND: -- we want to thank you for doing this.

HILL: So am I. 'Cause also – you didn't ask me about my family but I, when I was about eleven years old, I -- there was a young lady who – Miss Mauldin, who was a student at Howard in the musical department, and she was there in Roanoke. They didn't have a piano where she lived – she used to come by our house, to practice on the piano, had a beautiful natural voice and used to sit and when she come up there I'd sit there and listen to her practice and sing. And then when she got through she'd always let me join on her the bench, and then she'd say "Now we're going to sing our song." She was a long, tall brown-skinned woman, and our song was "A long tall brown-skinned gal make a preacher lay his Bible down."

BOND: All right.

HILL: And the sheet music had a song called "Brown-Skin Gal" [illustration of a woman] moving off and the preacher trying to chase after her and throwing his Bible over on the table and that was my ambition, vision. And I married a long tall brown-skinned gal who was a wonderful helpmate and we lived – she died about three weeks after our 59th wedding anniversary – and we had wonderful years together. We had a fine son. He teaches experimental psychology at Virginia State University. He has one daughter and she's graduated from MIT and does, with that Lucent – one of the spin-offs from AT&T --

BOND: Lucent Technologies?

HILL: Lucent Technologies. In an experimental unit. They just sent her to the Netherlands to work over there for awhile.

BOND: Well, as I said earlier, we could talk for hours and hours and hours and hours, but we don't want to tire you out.

HILL: Okay. But all I'm saying is -- he divorced that wife and married another girl, and she teaches philosophy at Virginia State and they had two children, she had two children, so he had two stepchildren as well as his own daughter. And so, we've had a wonderful time. I've lived to be ninety-three. Not too bad.

BOND: No, not bad at all.

HILL: My vision is try to make it to twenty-seven [2007]. That'll give me a hundred years.

BOND: Good for you. I hope I'm around to come to the birthday party.

HILL: Okay.

BOND: Thank you again, Mr. Hill.

HILL: Okay, thank you.