Civil rights champion Julia Hill steps down at the NAACP

Julia Hill, a Kansas City civil rights pioneer and an influential school board member during the height of its desegregation case, is stepping down as an executive board member of the local branch of the NAACP.

For nearly six decades, Hill devoted her life to social causes that ranged from integrating department stores to improving schools.

During her tenure as president from 1971 to 1980, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People remained on the forefront in the battle to advance African-American interests in business, education and housing.

Hill, 90, said she tendered her resignation, effective Dec. 31, because it was time for others to serve.

“I feel that 60-plus years is long enough to be with anything,” said Hill, who in the late 1950s organized picket lines at downtown department stores.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver described Hill as a tireless champion whose work in civil rights would have a lasting effect.

“The reason Dr. Hill was so effective in her leadership role was her bravery,” Cleaver said. “She, more than anyone I know, was not afraid of anyone or anything. Those who opposed her were uneasy because there is nothing that causes more fear and trembling than dealing with someone who is fearless.

“Kansas City is a better place because Dr. Hill was willing to fight the dragons of racial exclusion. With her stepping down, some young person should borrow her sword.”

These days, Hill spends her free time playing bridge with friends and attending church and community functions. Hill has lived in the same home she and her husband, Quincy, built in the Sheraton Estates neighborhood in southeast Kansas City 50 years ago.

The walls in the spacious home’s sitting room are adorned with awards, plaques, resolutions, framed newspaper articles and other mementos that are a testament to Hill’s life.

Yellow sticky notes are attached to most of the items. The initials BAMA are scribbled on the notes, indicating which items Hill plans to donate the items to the Black Archives of Mid-America.

Growing up in a segregated community and experiencing the pelting sting of racism each day helped prepare her for civic engagement decades later, the Kansas City native said.

“I guess it was always in me,” Hill said. “I don’t like injustice and tried to do everything I could to do something about it.”

Hill was an elementary school teacher when she became involved in civil rights.

In September 1958, Hill heard that a fellow teacher, Gladys Twine, had been refused service at a department store lunch counter because she was black.

That led to the formation of the Community Committee for Social Action, or CCSA. The group included representatives from social clubs, churches and other organizations.

Hill, a member of the P.M. Interludes women’s social club, was chosen as vice president, responsible for picketing. The CCSA drew its inspiration from the successful 1955-56 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.

Picketing began during the 1958 Christmas shopping season. It lasted through February 1959. By the following May, restaurants in the five stores had relented and agreed to no longer discriminate.

The CCSA and the NAACP continued to work together to secure jobs for blacks at major downtown stores and as public bus drivers. In 1971, Hill became the first woman elected president of the local NAACP.

Under her leadership, the group fought to ensure that major local corporations and the school district hired and promoted blacks. The branch received numerous national awards in those years for activism and recruitment.

“Dr. Hill is an NAACP hero,” said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington, D.C., bureau and a St. Louis native. “She is one who exemplifies that steady courage and commitment. No one can second-guess or question her commitment, the time, energy and resources she has given the NAACP.”

Hill was elected to the Kansas City Board of Education in 1984 and quickly gained a reputation for being feisty and outspoken. Hill once said that she was forced to disrupt meetings by talking loudly or interrupting others because the administration was not being responsive to board concerns.

“What I like most about Dr. Hill is her candor,” said Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. “I can always depend on her to speak the truth as she sees it, regardless of whether you like it or not.”

In 1990, Hill was named president of the Kansas City school board and presided during a tumultuous period.

A federal court had ordered Kansas City to implement one of the nation’s most ambitious, expensive desegregation plans. As a result, the school board spent millions on new schools and educational programs.

But those big-ticket items yielded mixed results. They failed to stop the flight of white students from the district and did not dramatically improve scholastic achievement.

Yet Hill said she is proud of her tenure on the board and her decades of work in the community.

“I think I have accomplished my mission on this earth,” she said. “I just hope now that the man up above agrees with me.”