Richmond area artist memorializes civil rights icon
When the Virginia Museum of History and Culture completes its renovations next year, it will display a significant new work in the collection: a portrait of Oliver Hill — a Richmonder who was a trailblazer in the civil rights movement.
“The portrait of Hill fills a major gap in the VMHC collection,” William Rasmussen, senior museum collections curator and Lora M. Robins Curator of Art, said in a statement.
Midlothian artist Elaine Bankston, 70, donated the work to the museum in November.
“[Hill] allowed Elaine to sit down with him, make portrait studies, and get to know him. Thus, she could produce what art historians call a ‘life portrait’ — a portrait that carries us as close to the sitter as we will ever get,” Rasmussen said.
Oliver White Hill’s name is likely familiar to locals; it is seen on a Richmond courthouse and street, and his statue stands on North Third Street.
Born in Richmond in 1907, Hill was a lead attorney on one of the cases that led to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, which found racially segregating public schools to be unconstitutional.
For his work in the civil rights movement, Hill was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999 and the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 2005, two years before he died.
Passionate and fearless
Hill was born on St. James Street in Jackson Ward, but his family later moved to Roanoke. Because Black students were not allowed to attend Virginia schools after eighth grade, Hill moved to Washington, D.C., eventually graduating from Dunbar High School, Howard University and Howard Law School.
“I went to law school so I could go out and fight segregation,” Hill once said.
After practicing law for 10 years, he was drafted at age 36 into the U.S. Army and served in Europe during WWII. Once he returned home, Hill became the first African American on the City Council of Richmond since Reconstruction. In the 1950s, Hill began his fight against segregation in earnest.
“He was part of a small brotherhood out of Howard Law School that really planned and executed the strategies that led to the demise of Jim Crow segregation,” explained Margaret Edds, Richmond author of the 2018 book We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson and the Legal Team that Dismantled Jim Crow.
“He was the face and soul of the civil rights movement in Virginia for many years. He had a fearlessness — he had great passion about him. He also was very pragmatic in his decisions, and he had a real generosity and lightness of spirit.”
Edds met Hill in person in 1994, the 40th anniversary of the Brown decision, when he was 87 years old.
“We went down to the courthouse on Main Street in Richmond and sat in the courtroom” where he had argued his case, one of five desegregation cases that were consolidated and decided under Brown, Edds remembered.
“It was, for me, a very powerful moment to be with this icon of the civil rights movement and just to hear his memories.”
The artist’s story
Artist Elaine Bankston met Oliver Hill in 2003, when the University of Richmond commissioned her to paint an official oil portrait of him, now displayed in the Governor’s Mansion. Hill’s family later commissioned a second portrait and invited her to his centennial birthday celebration in 2007, just three months before he died.
“At his 100th birthday party he was cracking jokes, and everybody was laughing. It was exciting and humbling” to be among the famous guests at the “grand affair,” she said.
Bankston grew up on a Missouri farm and became interested in art in elementary school. A trip to the Louvre in Paris when she was in her 20s inspired her to pursue art.
“It wasn’t until I stood in front of the ‘Mona Lisa’ that I decided to take it more seriously and started studying — and more or less teaching myself,” she said.
As a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines, Bankston traveled the world, visiting 60 countries. Now retired, for the past 10 years she has taught art classes on cruise ships, including the Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. She also teaches art to female inmates at the Pocahontas State Correctional Center in Pocahontas, Virginia.
All told, Bankston has been commissioned to do 2,000 portraits of judges, politicians and other Virginians, including three of Hill. She also paints landscapes, still lifes and plein air (outdoor) paintings.
Last July, when Bankston heard that Oliver Hill’s son had died, she revisited her files, unearthing letters from the Hill family. Their words inspired her to paint a fourth portrait of Hill, basing it on the original portrait as well as her photos.
Bankston completed the work in two months and donated it to VMHC, with approval by curator Rasmussen and its board of trustees.
“It is certainly a milestone in my life,” Bankston said. “He was a hero and a warrior.”