How a former enslaved youth from Charles Town became WV’s first black attorney

John H. Hill was born enslaved in Charles Town, Virginia on July 4th, 1852.  Over the course of his life, he would rise to be the first African American attorney admitted to the bar in West Virginia, an educator, a soldier, a school administrator, and a politician.  

At the time of his birth, Hill’s family was enslaved to William Alexander.  Prior generations of the family had worked in George Washington’s home.  Around the age of 13, Hill ran away and was detained by Major J.H. Whitmore, who took him to Maine.  Whitmore’s father, Samuel, unofficially adopted him and began to provide him a traditional education.  Eventually, he entered Litchfield Academy, where he received courses in mathematics, literature, and Latin.  From there he entered Bowdoin College, but didn’t graduate.

Hill began to teach at various schools and then transitioned to office work at a law firm in Maine.  While there, he began to apprentice and, on April 11, 1879, he was admitted to the bar, becoming Maine’s second African American attorney.

Two years later Hill returned to Jefferson County (now West Virginia) and was admitted to practice law in that state, too.  He became the first African American attorney in West Virginia.  His practice in the area would be short lived, as one year later he enlisted in the United States Army and was assigned to the 10th Cavalry Regiment.  His military service lasted six years, when he was honorably discharged with the rank of quartermaster sergeant.

Hill returned to Jefferson County and was hired as a teacher in Shepherdstown at Shadyside School, which provided area African Americans with an education.  He shortly rose to the position of principal, where he toiled tirelessly to increase enrollment and improve the quality of education offered to students.  He remained at Shadyside until the 1893 school year.
While in Jefferson County, Hill met Etta Lovett, the organist at Storer College.  On New Year’s Day of 1889, they were wed in Harpers Ferry.

His next position was as an English professor and assistant principal at the West Virginia Colored Institute (present day West Virginia State University).  The school had been opened only two years prior and Jefferson County’s  member of the state House of Delegates had lobbied very hard to secure Hill a position at the institution.
In 1894, the principal, James Edwin Campbell, resigned and Hill was appointed to fill out his term.  At the next Board of Regents meeting, he was hired as the second principal of the school.  Under his leadership, African American students were offered courses in natural science, mathematics, literature, history, mechanics, mechanical drawing, music, art, Latin, and sewing.  Hill taught mathematics and his wife taught music and Latin.

Hill once again left academia to enter military service, when in 1898 he was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the 8th United States Infantry Volunteer Immunes.  In June of 1899 he returned to the school and taught mathematics and acted as Commandant of Cadets.

In 1900, Hill entered elective politics, when he announced his intention to run for the West Virginia House of Delegates for a seat from Kanawha County. He lost a very close Republican primary.

Hill remained at “the Institute,” until 1903 when he decided to travel across the United States to tour the West Coast and Mexico.  He then settled in Oklahoma, before returning to West Virginia a decade later.  Following the outbreak of World War I, Hill arrived in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia to serve as a welfare worker.  He then transitioned to the West Virginia Workmen’s Department of Compensation and retired in 1929.

Although he was retired and experiencing poor health, Hill returned to the Institute to offer an occasional lecture or special program, including a presentation about his time spent traveling through Mexico.

At the age of 81, he released his first novel, Princess Malah.  The novel follows an enslaved person at Samuel Washington’s plantation.  Princess Malah is the daughter of Lawrence Washington and as such should be the rightful heiress to Mount Vernon.  His book also examines the relationship between enslaved individuals and the landowners they served.

As an acknowledgement of his long standing service to the state’s educational system, the West Virginia Board of Education appointed him president emeritus of West Virginia State College.

On October 13, 1936, John Hill died of sepsis at his home.  He was interred in the cemetery at West Virginia State and one of the dormitories was named in his honor. 

A copy of Hill’s novel is part of the Locked Room Collection at the Old Charles Town Library.

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