Julia Hill, educator and longtime Kansas City civil rights champion, dies at 93


Julia Hill, a civil rights activist and former Kansas City school board president, has died at age 93.
Julia Hill, a civil rights activist and former Kansas City school board president, has died at age 93.

Julia Hill, a civil rights activist and former Kansas City school board president, died Thursday evening. She was 93.

She had experienced declining health in recent weeks, niece Demetria Thurman said. Funeral arrangements are pending.

For nearly six decades, she devoted her life to social causes that ranged from integrating department stores to improving schools. She stepped down three years ago as an executive board member of the local branch of the NAACP.

During her tenure as president of the local NAACP from 1971 to 1980, the chapter was on the forefront in the battle to advance African-American interests in business, education and housing. It received national NAACP awards for its activism and recruitment.

“Julia Hill was a model of grace, dignity, and integrity,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said in a written statement. “And she was utterly fearless as she faced down segregation, racism, and injustice. She spent her life in the trenches fighting for equality. Her place in the history of Kansas City is secure.”

Hill was a lifelong resident of Kansas City. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a railway mail clerk.

She grew up in an all-black neighborhood near 28th Street and Highland Avenue and attended all-black schools. She graduated from Lincoln High School in 1939.

Later, she would comment that growing up in that segregated environment was strong motivation for her civil rights activism.

“I guess it was always in me,” Hill told The Star in 2013. “I don’t like injustice and tried to do everything I could to do something about it.”

Hill earned a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University in Jefferson City in 1943. She later received a master’s degree in administration and supervision from the University of California-Los Angeles in 1954. In 1982, she completed a doctoral program in education at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

She became active in the civil rights movement in the 1950s.

“Julia Hill was ahead of her time in that she was clearly a leader of men and with men,” U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, said in a written statement. “If a hungry lion walked into a meeting led by Dr. Hill she would be the first person to confront him and explain that she was in charge, at the same time, she would offer him a plate. That’s why I thought she wore quite well the title of tough and tender.”

“Great leaders prepare others who are committed to a cause and almost all of the African Americans I know in leadership in Kansas City, in one way or another, was a student of Julia Hill’s,” Cleaver said.

In 1958, she helped plan a protest of downtown businesses, which until that time had prohibited African-Americans from using the restrooms or dining in most of their restaurants. To head off bad publicity, merchants agreed to open the public accommodations to black people.

Hill was active until 1962 with the Community Committee for Social Action, which helped promote voter registration and the hiring of blacks in banks, bakeries and department stores. The group prompted the hiring of the first black bus drivers in Kansas City.

Soon after that campaign, Hill became involved with the NAACP. While she was chapter president in the 1970s, the chapter pursued more aggressive hiring and promotion of blacks at the Kansas City Power & Light Co. and at the school district.

“She was a civil rights icon and a giant in the community,” said Anita Russell, current NAACP branch president. “It is a great loss.”

Hill’s association with the school district began in 1943, when she taught fifth grade at Booker T. Washington Elementary School. She was known as an exacting, demanding teacher. She taught grades four through seven in three elementary schools for more than a decade before being promoted to an administrative position.

In 1966, she took a job coordinating the district’s Title I program, training teacher aides to work with disadvantaged youth. She was a school principal in 1975 and 1976.

She then took an administrative job at Metropolitan Community Colleges. In 1979, she lost her job in a reorganization, but in 1980, she was rehired to coordinate job training and adult education programs. She later served as coordinator of college relations at the Pioneer campus of Penn Valley Community College, helping to promote the school and recruiting high school students to attend Pioneer.

In 1984, Hill was elected to the school board, where she developed a reputation for fiercely defending the interests of black schoolchildren. She was board president from 1990 to 1996.

“I think I have accomplished my mission on this earth,” Hill said in 2013. “I just hope now that the man up above agrees with me.”

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

Glenn E. Rice: 816-234-4341, @GRicekcstar