“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
Roanoke, Virginia — The American South (Mid-Atlantic)

Civil Rights Trailblazers

Civil Rights Trailblazers Marker image. Click for full size.
By Cosmos Mariner, October 3, 2019
1. Civil Rights Trailblazers Marker
Inscription.  Some of the most significant contributions made by Northeast and Northwest residents were in the advancement of civil rights.

A. J. Oliver was a 19th century pioneer in law and the first black attorney in Roanoke. Born during the Civil War, he began his legal career in West Virginia as one of the first black attorneys in the state, passing the bar in 1887. After relocating to Roanoke in 1889, he quickly established himself as a community leader, often preaching at St. Paul Methodist Church and joining the Freemasons and Odd Fellows. Oliver spent his life advancing civil rights in Virginia. In 1900, he was a delegate to the Virginia Conference of Colored Men convention in Charlottesville that met to petition the white men of the state for racial equality and justice, especially in education. Two years later, he led a group of black Roanoke citizens objecting to the school board's use of only white teachers in black schools.

Born in 1901 and raised in Northeast Roanoke, Belford Lawson, Jr. was a key national civil rights attorney. As a lawyer in Washington, DC, he cofounded the New Negro Alliance, which actively challenged discrimination
Marker detail: A.J. Oliver, first black lawyer in Roanoke image. Click for full size.
2. Marker detail: A.J. Oliver, first black lawyer in Roanoke
Click or scan to see
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by organizing protests against retail stores to demand employment for black workers. In the 1938 case New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Company, Lawson was the first African-American to argue and win a case before the US Supreme Court, securing the right of the Alliance to picket. He later served on the defense team in a second Supreme Court case, Henderson v. Southern Railway Company, which successfully challenged discriminatory seating policies. In his later life, Lawson served on the NAACP Executive Board and as General President of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. He was also the first black man to address the Democratic National Convention in 1956.

Attorney Reuben Lawson was a decisive legal figure in Virginia's civil rights landscape. He argued the case Ingram v. Virginia in 1946, which addressed the exclusion of blacks as jurors in state cases. He served as an attorney for the NAACP, arguing several school desegregation cases in Southwest Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s. He built the Lawson Law Building, which remains on Gilmer Avenue.

Oliver White Hill was an eminent civil rights lawyer, whose early home at 401 Gilmer Avenue still stands. During his career, he fought the "separate but equal" policies of the segregated South and argued more than 75 segregation cases in the State of Virginia. In the 1940s, his legal accomplishments
Marker detail: Belford Lawson, Jr., civil rights lawyer (<i>left</i>) image. Click for full size.
Scurlock Studio Collection, National Museum of American History
3. Marker detail: Belford Lawson, Jr., civil rights lawyer (left)
Members of the New Negro Alliance protest hiring discrimination at Peoples Drug Stores in the Washington, DC, area. (right)
included successful court cases ordering equal pay for teachers. In 1954, he served as the trial lawyer for Davis v. Prince Edward County School Board, one of five U.S. Supreme Court cases included in Brown v. Board of Education, ending segregation in public schools. He also represented Rufus Edwards, a Gilmer neighbor, in a Supreme Court case that required white union officials to represent black union members as part of their bargaining unit. He was active in civil rights as an attorney until his death at 100 years of age.

Edward R. Dudley was the son of Roanoke's first black dentist and grew up at 405 Gilmer Avenue. After achieving his law degree in 1941, he served as assistant Attorney General in New York. In 1943, he joined the legal staff of the NAACP fighting for blacks to be admitted to Southern universities, equal pay for black teachers, and an end to discrimination in public transportation. In 1948, President Truman appointed him as America's first black ambassador, to the country of Liberia. Later, he was a justice on the Domestic Relations Court for New York City, president of the Manhattan Borough, and a member of the New York City Council, before becoming a justice on the New York State Supreme Court.

The neighborhood also produced four pilots of the "Tuskegee Airmen," a distinguished group of black airmen during World War II. Before
Marker detail: Reuben Lawson (<i>center</i>) image. Click for full size.
from WSLS news footage, courtesy of the University of Virginia Library
4. Marker detail: Reuben Lawson (center)
Reuben Lawson leads group to US District Court in Roanoke in 1959 for hearing on desegregation of Floyd County Schools.
the 1940s, black service members were banned from skilled training and service as pilots. Civil rights groups and the black press pushed for changes, leading to the War Department training a select group of nearly 1,000 black men at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. The men joined four all-black squadrons, becoming the first African-Americans to fly combat aircraft. During the War, the Tuskegee Airmen, also known as the "Red Tails," achieved one of the lowest loss records in escorting bombers and won more than 850 medals. LeRoi Williams, his brother Eugene Williams, Ralph Claytor and Theodore Wilson were pilots with the Tuskegee Airmen, proving themselves to be as skilled and brave as their white counterparts. Though the Airmen proved their worth as military pilots, they were still forced to operate in segregated units and did not fight alongside their white countrymen.
Topics and series. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: African AmericansCivil RightsEducationWar, World II. In addition, it is included in the Former U.S. Presidents: #33 Harry S. Truman, and the Tuskegee Airmen series lists.
Location. 37° 16.535′ N, 79° 56.376′ W. Marker is in Roanoke, Virginia. Marker is on Wells Avenue Northeast east of North Jefferson Street
Marker detail: Oliver White Hill and President Bill Clinton image. Click for full size.
5. Marker detail: Oliver White Hill and President Bill Clinton
"Throughout his long and rich life, he has challenged the laws of our land and the conscience of our country. He has stood up for equal pay, better schools, fair housing, for everything that is necessary to make America truly one, indivisible and equal."
—President Bill Clinton in 1999,
awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Oliver White Hill,
famous civil rights attorney
, on the left when traveling east. Marker is located in a small sidewalk plaza on the north side of Wells Avenue. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Roanoke VA 24016, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Health Care and Medicine (here, next to this marker); Milestones in Education (here, next to this marker); From Frontier to Urban Community... A Gainsboro Prelude (here, next to this marker); Evolution of a Neighborhood Name (here, next to this marker); Social and Cultural Life (here, next to this marker); A Once-Vibrant African American Community (here, next to this marker); The Influence of Churches in Gainsboro (a few steps from this marker); Hotel Roanoke (about 500 feet away, measured in a direct line). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Roanoke.
Related markers. Click here for a list of markers that are related to this marker. Gainesborough • Big Lick • Roanoke
Also see . . .
1. Belford Lawson Jr. (Wikipedia). Belford Vance Lawson Jr. was an American attorney and civil rights activist who made at least eight appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was the first African-American man to win a case before the Supreme Court and the first African-American president of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). (Submitted on December 1, 2019, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.) 

2. Oliver White Hill. Recipient of the Presidential
Marker detail: Edward R. Dudley image. Click for full size.
6. Marker detail: Edward R. Dudley
Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, attorney Oliver W. Hill spent more than 60 years in a practice devoted to civil rights causes. He was in the forefront of the legal effort to desegregate public schools. With law partner Spotswood W. Robinson, Hill led a team of lawyers who filed more civil rights cases in Virginia than were filed in the segregation era in all other Southern states combined, with as many as 75 cases pending at a time. (Submitted on December 1, 2019, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.) 

3. Dudley, Edward R. Few career opportunities presented themselves to a young black college graduate in the Depression-era South. For two years Dudley taught first through seventh grades in a one-room schoolhouse for $60 per month, earning an additional $10 for driving the school bus. Through the early 1930s Dudley took odd jobs as a waiter and a bellhop. He also became involved with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Theater project, which aimed to provide work for unemployed actors, playwrights, directors, stage designers, and other theater professionals. Dudley served as stage manager for director Orson Welles, who was then at the beginning of his career. Though Dudley enjoyed the theater, he decided to follow a different career path after the WPA project ended
Marker detail: Gainsboro’s Four Tuskegee Airmen pilots image. Click for full size.
7. Marker detail: Gainsboro’s Four Tuskegee Airmen pilots
(from left to right)
• 2nd Lt. LeRoi Williams,
• 2nd Lt. Eugene Williams,
• 2nd Lt. Ralph Claytor, and
• Lt. Col. Theodore Wilson
in 1938, and enrolled in law school in Jamaica, New York. (Submitted on December 1, 2019, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.) 
Civil Rights Trailblazers Marker • <i>wide view<br>(marker visible right of center)</i> image. Click for full size.
By Cosmos Mariner, October 3, 2019
8. Civil Rights Trailblazers Marker • wide view
(marker visible right of center)
Credits. This page was last revised on April 28, 2021. It was originally submitted on November 27, 2019, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida. This page has been viewed 137 times since then and 45 times this year. Photos:   1. submitted on November 28, 2019, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.   2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. submitted on December 1, 2019, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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Sep. 21, 2021