Some of the most significant contributions made by Northeast and Northwest residents were in the advancement of civil rights.
A. J. Oliver was a 19th century pioneer in law and the first black attorney in Roanoke. Born during the Civil War, he began his legal career in West Virginia as one of the first black attorneys in the state, passing the bar in 1887. After relocating to Roanoke in 1889, he quickly established himself as a community leader, often preaching at St. Paul Methodist Church and joining the Freemasons and Odd Fellows. Oliver spent his life advancing civil rights in Virginia. In 1900, he was a delegate to the Virginia Conference of Colored Men convention in Charlottesville that met to petition the white men of the state for racial equality and justice, especially in education. Two years later, he led a group of black Roanoke citizens objecting to the school board's use of only white teachers in black schools.
Born in 1901 and raised in Northeast Roanoke, Belford Lawson, Jr. was a key national civil rights attorney. As a lawyer in Washington, DC, he cofounded the New Negro Alliance, which actively challenged discrimination by organizing protests against retail stores to demand employment for black workers. In the 1938 case New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Company, Lawson was the first African-American
to argue and win a case before the US Supreme Court, securing the right of the Alliance to picket. He later served on the defense team in a second Supreme Court case, Henderson v. Southern Railway Company, which successfully challenged discriminatory seating policies. In his later life, Lawson served on the NAACP Executive Board and as General President of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. He was also the first black man to address the Democratic National Convention in 1956.
Attorney Reuben Lawson was a decisive legal figure in Virginia's civil rights landscape. He argued the case Ingram v. Virginia in 1946, which addressed the exclusion of blacks as jurors in state cases. He served as an attorney for the NAACP, arguing several school desegregation cases in Southwest Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s. He built the Lawson Law Building, which remains on Gilmer Avenue.
Oliver White Hill was an eminent civil rights lawyer, whose early home at 401 Gilmer Avenue still stands. During his career, he fought the "separate but equal" policies of the segregated South and argued more than 75 segregation cases in the State of Virginia. In the 1940s, his legal accomplishments included successful court cases ordering equal pay for teachers. In 1954, he served as the trial lawyer for Davis v. Prince Edward County School Board, one of five U.S. Supreme Court cases
included in Brown v. Board of Education, ending segregation in public schools. He also represented Rufus Edwards, a Gilmer neighbor, in a Supreme Court case that required white union officials to represent black union members as part of their bargaining unit. He was active in civil rights as an attorney until his death at 100 years of age.
Edward R. Dudley was the son of Roanoke's first black dentist and grew up at 405 Gilmer Avenue. After achieving his law degree in 1941, he served as assistant Attorney General in New York. In 1943, he joined the legal staff of the NAACP fighting for blacks to be admitted to Southern universities, equal pay for black teachers, and an end to discrimination in public transportation. In 1948, President Truman appointed him as America's first black ambassador, to the country of Liberia. Later, he was a justice on the Domestic Relations Court for New York City, president of the Manhattan Borough, and a member of the New York City Council, before becoming a justice on the New York State Supreme Court.
The neighborhood also produced four pilots of the "Tuskegee Airmen," a distinguished group of black airmen during World War II. Before the 1940s, black service members were banned from skilled training and service as pilots. Civil rights groups and the black press pushed for changes, leading to the War Department training a select
group of nearly 1,000 black men at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. The men joined four all-black squadrons, becoming the first African-Americans to fly combat aircraft. During the War, the Tuskegee Airmen, also known as the "Red Tails," achieved one of the lowest loss records in escorting bombers and won more than 850 medals. LeRoi Williams, his brother Eugene Williams, Ralph Claytor and Theodore Wilson were pilots with the Tuskegee Airmen, proving themselves to be as skilled and brave as their white counterparts. Though the Airmen proved their worth as military pilots, they were still forced to operate in segregated units and did not fight alongside their white countrymen.