Black History Month: Judge Solomon Oliver

7:41 PM, Feb 4, 2011   |    comments
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"Things were very segregated," Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr. says of his youth in Bessemer, Alabama, about eight miles southwest of Birmingham.

"In most places, there was a side for blacks, or coloreds as they said at that time, and there was a side for whites. On the buses of course, blacks were to sit in the back of the bus if they rode the bus. Most of us tried to avoid riding the bus so you didn't have to suffer that kind of indignity."

Oliver, now 63, says the disparities extended to schools and other aspects of daily life in the Deep South in the 1950's. 

"For example, the school I attended didn't have any heating other than by coal stove," he recalls. "So we were required, at some point during the day, to go out and get the coal from the bin, bring it in, and put it in the stove."

"That's the kind of environment I grew up in," says the now Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for Northern Ohio. "There were very few black professionals, teachers, and ministers, but most of the jobs we considered to be professional jobs, blacks really couldn't compete for those jobs. So there were restrictions everywhere in that regard."

"That's the South in the 50's," Judge Oliver continued, "and of course things started to change in the 60's. But there was a lot of turmoil as you know going on. I was in eleventh grade when the girls were bombed in the 16th Street Baptist Church."

That church in Birmingham was bombed on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, and was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.

Four girls were killed and 22 other people injured in the bombing. Two members of the Ku Klux Klan were convicted of murder years later.

"That impacted my life, my spirit, the spirit of other African Americans," Judge Oliver reflected. "During that period of time, we started to think that perhaps even in our lifetime we would have opportunities that had been closed."

While his early life was marked by events which would themselves become part of history, Solomon Oliver, Jr., always found solid guidance and values in his family.

"Despite the negative things I have talked about, it was still a fun place to live in our community," he told WKYC. "We had a lot of support from family and friends. Our teachers taught us that we could achieve, and in my own personal case, my parents taught all of us, all ten of us, and there were ten, that one day we would have opportunities that were denied to us because of our skin color."

"They were confident of that despite the fact that they did not have those opportunities, and I always felt that if given a chance I could compete. And I think there were a lot of other African Americans who thought the same way."

Oliver says his interest in law began as a child through his Uncle Walter, who always thought about someday going to law school.

"But he went to the war instead," Oliver says, "and when he came back, he took correspondence courses and had a lot of law books in his house."

The atmosphere added to young Solomon's dreams.

"When I was growing up, I just had the sense that I wanted to do something that I thought was important. And I couldn't define what important was. It could have been a lawyer. It could have been a PhD, a professor."

His move to Northeast Ohio took place in 1966 when a teacher at Miles College in Alabama, where Oliver had begun undergraduate work, told him of an exchange program with the College of Wooster.

After earning a degree at Wooster in 1969, he went on to pursue a master's and a law degree.

Oliver worked in private practice, as a teacher, and as an assistant U.S. Attorney before being sworn in as a federal judge in 1994. He became Chief Judge in 2010.

The judge is aware that, by circumstance or design, his life has intersected with people, places, and events which are now part of American history.

"I would like young people to understand that there are many of us out there rooting for them, fighting for them, trying to make sure that they have equal opportunities so they can get some of these wonderful, quality experiences," Judge Oliver told WKYC. 

"I know there are a lot of us, not just African Americans, who are devoted to seeing that young people today get cream-of-the-crop opportunities, to work in public service, to work as law clerks for federal judges," Oliver continued.

"I know it's not where we want it to be, certainly not at this time, but I would encourage them to forge on like Hastie did and like I did when I came along, and certainly we'll be pulling for them and we'll try to make the playing field even."

Solomon Oliver once again reflects back on his strong family as the foundation for his career, success, and outlook. 

"I have tried to be, to live out in my life, principles of equality and respect and fairness, and these are all principles that I learned from my parents."

He concludes with encouragement and optimism for young African Americans.

"Everything is possible," he says. "There may be obstacles, but just try to look to find examples of people who have overcome the odds, and who have achieved, and they can certainly do the same."

















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