Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Big Crowd--Mostly White--Hears About Civil Rights Lawyer

Historian John Kern addresses a large crowd, speaking about civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill, who grew up in Roanoke.^

Crowd eagerly awaits the start of John Kern/s talk this evening.^

Kern and the Historical Society's George Kegley chat before the talk.^

Recently retired Virginia state historian John Kern, an expert on African-American history (and one of my closest pals), shared some of that knowledge this evening at Christ Lutheran Church in Raleigh Court with a packed house gathered to hear about local hero Oliver Hill.

Hill was a member of the eight-lawyer team that won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, the case that opened schools to segregation and was a significant point in the movement to make African-Americans equal to the white population of America.

Hill was a Howard University-educated lawyer who grew up in the home of railroad worker Bradford Pentecost and his family, which gave Hill a great deal of love and support. Hill, says Kern, was an indifferent student until he discovered the law and then finished first in his class at Howard (future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was later one of Hill's associates in the Brown v. Board case, was second).

Kern's talk was revealing on several levels, especially in that Gilmer Ave. in the Gainsboro section, produced three notable Virginians in Hill, former Liberian Ambassador and New York Supreme Court Justice Edward Dudley and Dr. G.H. Roberts, founder of Gill Memorial and owner of a pharmacy in Gainsboro. Oscar Micheaux, the "race films" director who was nationally known, also lived in the area in the 1920s.

Fascinating stuff for Black History Month and the only negative of the entire evening was that only four African American Roanokers showed up. The rest of the crowd was white.

I observed the same lack of participation from the Black community when former Gov. Linwood Holton, who certainly qualifies as a hero of the Civil Rights era (even though he's white), spoke to an all-white audience last year. Holton was discussing his book, a significant portion of which dealt with the Civil Rights Era, in which he played a major role. More's the pity.

As I asked Mayor David Bowers (a favorite in the Black community) tonight, "When in the hell are we going to get together?" He shook his head.

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