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From Double Letterman to Civil Rights Activist, Trailblazer Herman E. Hill ’31 Lived a Life of Service

From Double Letterman to Civil Rights Activist, Trailblazer Herman E. Hill ’31 Lived a Life of Service

The advocacy of USC’s first African American basketball player helped integrate the NFL and MLB.

Male student in 1928 playing basketball for USC

Herman Hill ’31 playing basketball for the USC Trojans, circa 1928 [Photo courtesy of USC Archives]

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Herman E. Hill ’31 stood tall among the “Greatest Generation.” Not just for being USC’s first African American basketball player, but for the man he would become. Hill graduated in 1931, with a degree in business administration in the early years before the Marshall School of Business became an official school at USC; yet he embodied its mission of preparing leaders to take on the societal and ethical challenges of business. Hill was a writer, publicist, business owner, and mentor who used his knowledge, integrity, and “fight on” spirit to make positive changes in society.

A dedicated Trojan, Hill won a national championship in track and field and was a member of Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity and the SKULL AND DAGGER honor society. As a devoted alum eager to support the Trojan Network, he received the USC Alumni Service Award in 1977 and was elected to the Alumni Association’s Board of Governors in 1981.

“Dad was always very quiet and he had to be prompted to take credit,” shared Sherman Hill, one of Herman’s twin sons. “He wasn’t a bragger, he wasn’t a boastful person [because] it wasn’t about him.”

While Hill was the first African American basketball player at USC, the second wouldn’t become a Trojan for another 27 years. In 1958, USC was recruiting VERNE ASHBY ’62, a local All-City Basketball player from Manual Arts High School, right around the corner from the university. Knowing the transition for Ashby would also be tough, Hill invited the young academic and athletic scholarship recruit to dinner.

“Basically he was giving me an indication of his thoughts on what USC was like and what would happen when I got there,” Ashby recalls. “He was really cordial, giving me support to go there because he knew … not everyone would have an open arm to me. I was pretty much a leader of my high school, but [at USC] I would probably not be able to join any organizations or groups for a while. And that turned out to be true.”

You’re out there and you see discrimination and injustice, and you have no choice but to use your talent and your influence to correct those wrongs. 

— Herman E. Hill ’31

Hill supported Ashby throughout his USC career, attending basketball games, checking in on him, and reminding him to focus on his academics as much as athletics to prepare for life after graduation. Success for Ashby would come on and off the court. Hill was his shining example.

“I thought, you know, what a wonderful thing that he had done in the [early] thirties,” Ashby recalls. “It had to be a very interesting and somewhat difficult time to go to school at USC. I don’t think it was simple and easy. I looked up to him and thought he had just really handled it in a great way.”

Hill’s journey from double letterman to civil rights activist may be his greatest legacy. From 1938 to 1951, Hill used the power of the pen to expose inequity and prejudice as the West Coast editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American weekly newspaper with a national distribution reaching millions of readers. Writing under the byline “HillSide,” he penned more than 300 articles covering the daily lives, contributions, and achievements of the community. He saw it as a calling to change the narrative and promote a positive and more accurate view of African Americans.

Newspapers with African American writers and editors were vitally important, serving as the “most detailed record of African American life in existence,” according to the award-winning PBS documentary “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords.” Sherman Hill agrees, reminiscing his father was considered a celebrity “because they were so involved in all these different things. Anytime you wanted to say something to the Black community, you’d go to the newspaper men.”

Herman Hill set up his office in the famous DUNBAR HOTEL, a key landmark in the hub of Central Avenue. Hill mingled and told the stories of Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole (Sherman’s godfather), Louis Jordan, Joe Louis, and other notable African Americans in sports, Hollywood, and jazz.

He also importantly chronicled the injustices facing people of color in entertainment, labor relations, civil society, and everyday life. The mainstream press often completely ignored topics that didn’t include stereotypical depictions of African Americans. Hill, however, covered it all. “Remember [Disney’s] Song of the South with Uncle Remus and ‘Zippity Doo Dah’?” Sherman Hill asked. “There was a lot of controversy about that because of the way they portrayed Uncle Remus. So the Courier wrote a series of articles.”

Continuing to highlight racism in society, Hill went on to draft features describing the Los Angeles Red Car’s refusal to hire African American operators and the defense industry’s dismissal of African American workers, despite Roosevelt’s call to the nation to support the war effort. The articles and editorials gave African Americans a voice to demand equal opportunity for all Americans. In the 1940s and 50s, the African American press, including Hill, helped set the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement.

According to his LOS ANGELES TIMES obituary, Hill was quoted as saying, “You’re out there and you see discrimination and injustice, and you have no choice but to use your talent and your influence to correct those wrongs. As African American journalists, we often make news — good news — happen for our people.”

Among his other notable accomplishments was Hill’s continuous advocacy for African American professional athletes. In 1942, Hill arranged for JACKIE ROBINSON to tryout with the Chicago White Sox in Pasadena during spring training, years before he signed with the Dodgers. Five years later, Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hill developed a lifelong friendship with the future Hall of Famer, having served as a de facto mentor during his collegiate career at UCLA.

This led to a big scoop for Hill, as the Courier reported Robinson’s leap to the big leagues before any other paper, according to Sherman Hill. “Jackie promised my dad that if he ever got an opportunity, he would call my dad first before he did anything,” he shared. “[Jackie] was in the office with Branch Rickey and all the owners of the Dodgers [when he called]. So then my dad called the Pittsburgh office and they didn’t believe him. Wendell Smith [gets] all of [the credit]. But that’s not the way it happened.”

In 1946, Hill, along with two other African American sports writers in Los Angeles (Abie Robinson and Halley Harding, who became the trio’s spokesperson) appeared at an LA County Commission meeting where the Cleveland Rams’ owners were making their case to move to Los Angeles and play at the publicly-funded Memorial Coliseum. The three writers stood up to ask if the Rams would hire African American players. Within two weeks and a wave of publicity, the Rams INTEGRATED THE NFL by signing Kenny Washington Jr. and Woody Strode to their roster; Washington and Strode both were at UCLA with Robinson.

“Most people don’t know that it was a USC-trained individual who integrated baseball and football,” Sherman Hill shared. “In this day of technology, we have forgotten the ‘power of the written press’ and how important newspapers once were.”

Hill’s advocacy in sports, film, music, politics, and civil rights issues continued as he moved on to start his own PR firm representing Martin Luther King, Jr. and later as the first African American to be a sales executive at a major air carrier. Working for Western Airlines, Hill promoted the airline to the African American community, recognizing it as another opportunity to change the narrative and advance representation.

“He was not really a religious person, but he had his faith and he believed in God and he believed that one day [life] was going to be the way it should be,” Sherman Hill added. “I’m really proud of my dad.”