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Editorial: The story behind Virginia's 23 missing historical markers

Editorial: The story behind Virginia's 23 missing historical markers

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Roanoke has long been deficient in recognizing its connection to one of the most important American figures of the 20th century, the pioneering civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill who grew up here and practiced his first law here before moving to Richmond.

It now has an opportunity to remedy that, for merely $1,945 and some donated labor.

What follows is a story that apparently no one in Roanoke knows, or the situation would surely have been fixed by now.

In 2008, the state Department of Historic Resources approved four historical markers related to Hill, whose best-known case was one of the five lawsuits that together formed Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down segregation.

A decade later, none of those have been erected.

One is slated for Richmond, likely near Hill’s former law office. One is for Norfolk, where in 1940 he won his first federal case that challenged Virginia’s system of paying black teachers less than white ones. Another is for Farmville, where Hill took on the case of the African-American students who in 1951 staged a historic walk-out from their school to protest poor conditions — a suit that later became part of the Brown decision. The fourth marker is supposed to mark Hill’s boyhood home at 401 Gilmer Avenue Northwest in Roanoke.

Why haven’t any of these been erected yet? Here’s we stumble onto a larger story that has statewide implications.

Between 2006 and 2013, the state Department of Historic Resources, which is in charge of historical markers, embarked on a mission to make up for lost time. Specifically, it set about approving a lot of markers of previously unrecognized figures and events in Virginia history, many of them related to women, African-Americans and Native Americans. The state had a federal grant to cover the markers, but Virginia had more history to be recognized than grant money available.

Hence, many of the markers that were approved never were erected. Here’s where things get a little more complicated. While the state may approve the markers, it’s not the one in charge of putting them up. That requires local cooperation — from local governments, property owners, historical groups, whoever else might have a stake. Sometimes, program manager Jennifer Loux tells us, there are local debates about who ought to be involved. Sometimes there’s not an obvious location to be marked, such as Hill’s Norfolk court case. Sometimes nobody takes the lead and nothing ever happens.

In any case, 11 of those markers were manufactured but have yet to be placed. One is those is Hill’s marker in Richmond, which gives an overview of his storied career. He was the first African-American elected to Richmond City Council in the 20th century; he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom; he and law partner Spotswood Robinson III are the subjects of a critically-acclaimed new book by Virginia journalist Margaret Edds, “We Face The Dawn.” Others in that batch of 11 included markers commemorating Robinson, the Richmond Bread Riots of 1863, and President Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Richmond just after the end of the Civil War.

Then there are 12 other markers that have been approved, but not actually manufactured yet because there wasn’t money to pay for them. Among those 12 are the other three Hill markers, including the one for Roanoke.

That marker, by the way, is the only one on this list that’s west of the Blue Ridge.

So what would it take to get this marker manufactured and erected? Not very much.

The state doesn’t pay for historical markers. It needs someone else to — either a local government, a historical group, or anyone willing to write a check. The cost of producing a marker? All of $1,770, plus $175 for the post, and whatever it costs for someone to put it up. There are some logistics to be worked out, such as where the marker actually goes. Hill’s boyhood home is now owned by the Richmond-based Oliver White Hill Foundation. Would the marker go up on the actual property, or on the city-owned sidewalk outside? Those are important details but, ultimately, details.

Here’s the thing we keep coming back to: This only costs $1,945 for both marker and post.

Surely someone in Roanoke can come up with that money. For that matter, you’d think somebody could come up with the $23,340 necessary to produce all 12 missing markers and their posts. Political candidates raise far more than that in any given campaign for the state legislature. If each of the 140 members of the General Assembly donated just $166.71 from their campaign funds, the amount would be covered just like that, and every single legislator would be able to rightly claim that he or she helped commemorate an important piece of state history, even national history. That would sure look mighty fine on a campaign brochure.

The details of getting those 12 markers and the 11 already manufactured actually erected, well, that’s a different matter for the reasons we cited above. We’re not going to get into zoning issues in Richmond. Still, for all the attention given to the controversy over whether to take down or move Confederate statues, you’d think there’d be a concurrent controversy over the fact that nobody has come forward to get these 23 missing markers in place. The likely reason is simply that nobody really knows about them. But now they do.

There’s more that Roanoke ought to be doing to honor Hill. His connection to Roanoke is a lot stronger than Woodrow Wilson’s is to Staunton; Wilson left there at age 2 and the city’s still managed to build part of its tourism industry around its brief connection to the eventual president. Hill, by contrast, had his boyhood and early adult years shaped by experiences in Roanoke. Roanoke could name the courthouse after him; at present, the building has no name other than the Roanoke City Courthouse. Roanoke could put up a statue. Those are more complicated procedures, of course. The very least we could do, though, would be to raise the $1,945 necessary to put up a historical marker that’s already been approved.

So who’s interested? Contact the state’s highway marker program director to find out how to make this happen.

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