Roy Hill, first Black director of corporate relations at UVM, reflects on racism in America

Roy Hill in Battery Park on July 9, 2020.

Roy Hill is lean, walks with a cane, and wears a straw fedora with a black band. His eyes are still young. He speaks through a mask during a conversation about race on a hot afternoon at Burlington’s Battery Park.

Hill, 77, carries a thick study Bible with him everywhere he goes, in a black zippered case. The Bible is extensively annotated.

“I was born into a Bible-believing, God-fearing family,” Hill said. “God has always been my guide. I was instilled with acquiring an education so I could help others, and not be dependent myself on others.”

Hill came to Vermont in 1987, recruited by the University of Vermont (UVM) to become the first African-American director of corporate and foundation relations — fundraiser — in the school’s history.

When he joined UVM, Hill already had a long career working in executive positions at prestigious universities, starting with Washington University in St. Louis, where he was the assistant director of financial aid and admissions, and continuing in administration at Dartmouth and Brown universities.

Prior to accepting UVM’s offer, which included the opportunity to receive a doctoral degree at the university’s expense, Hill was development director for the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education — “The Voice for Blacks in Higher Education.” 

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit was formed to champion the interests of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Predominantly Black Institutions. Hill himself graduated from an HBCU — Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama, ranked 37th among HBCUs by U.S. News and World Report, in a tie with Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University in Normal, Alabama. 

Hill spent two years working for UVM. He did not receive the Ph.D in higher education he had been promised because the program ran out of money. He thought about borrowing money to finish the degree, but didn’t want to put that burden of debt on his wife, he said.

Hill calls his hiring in 1987 as the first Black director of corporate and foundation relations for UVM a “sad statement.” Hill said the development profession in higher education was not noted at the time for hiring either people of color or women.

When he was a development officer at Brown University, there was only one other male African-American working in development in the Ivy League. 

Sending a message

Hill was born on his grandfather’s farm in Haywood County, Tennessee. As a young boy in 1954, he learned that Black lives hung in the balance.

That year, the U.S. Supreme court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public school violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Black students would no longer be forced to attend Black schools, which were chronically under-funded.

Roy Hill carries a study Bible with him everywhere he goes. Seen on July 9, 2020.

After the Supreme Court ruling, a group of local members of the Ku Klux Klan planned to kill Hill’s grandfather.

“They wanted to send a message, they didn’t want any Black kids going to school with any White kids,” Hill said.

Why did the Klan single out Hill’s grandfather for death?

“Because he was an outstanding citizen,” Hill said. “He had character. People respected him. He had wisdom. They would come to him for that, both Black and white folks would come to him for various things.”

More:Contending with racial justice in Vermont goes back years. So does the backlash.

Hill’s grandfather was also a landowner at a time when, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, sharecropping kept most Blacks enslaved, Hill said.

“Other white folk and Black folk in Haywood County, Tennessee, got together, met the vigilantes and said, ‘Hey, leave George alone,'” Hill said. 

Hill’s grandfather was spared. But the dean of his mother’s boarding school in rural Tennessee was not so lucky. Hill’s mother and her classmates watched as the local city fathers, including the pharmacist, came at midnight and pulled the dean out of the residence hall.

“A few weeks later his body surfaced in a local river,” Hill said.

Roy Hill checks for a passage in his study bible on July 9, 2020, in Battery Park in Burlington.

Black people who worked locally learned from their white employers that the dean was killed because there was a rumor going around that a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was going to be established in Brownsville, the county seat of Haywood County, according to Hill.

The city fathers wanted to send a message that no NAACP branch would coming to Haywood County.

“This brother was the only African-American male with a college degree,” Hill said. “Their logic was that he would be the president (of the branch). So if they killed him, that would send a message to the Black community: Keep the NAACP out of here.”

Get an education

Roy Hill was the first of eight children, born into a family that placed a priority on education.

“The route that opened up to me was that of going to college,” he said. “I knew we did not have money. My parents couldn’t send me, so I worked, and I saved and I studied.”

Hill was on the honor role at South Bend Central High School in Indiana, where his family had moved. South Bend was a “phenomenal” school across town from Notre Dame University, he said. Hill lettered in three sports: football, basketball and track. In the summer, he played baseball on a corporate-sponsored team because he wasn’t able to play on the high school team.

“There was an unwritten rule at my high school, which was one Black on the baseball team, and that quota was filled by the catcher,” Hill said.

Hill was planning to pursue an athletic scholarship, but instead he was offered an academic scholarship at Talladega College, starting him on the path of working in higher education.

Despite his age, Hill still works as an advisor to a number of nonprofits, including ones that advocate for HBCUs. He is still active as a lay minister in the faith community and has served as president of the Vermont Ecumenical Council and Bible Society.

“I think once God gives you a gift, you work until you cannot serve any more,” Hill said.

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Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 660-1841 or ddambrosio@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanDambrosioVT. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription.