Hill, Leslie Pickney 1880–1960
Leslie Pickney Hill 1880–1960
Dr. Leslie Pinckney Hill earned his reputation as an educator, but he also excelled as a dramatist, poet, lecturer, choir director, and public servant. He spent the majority of his career as the head executive of Cheyney Training School, overseeing its development from a small establishment to one of Pennsylvania’s most important African-American educational institutions. Hill authored a book of poems titled Wings of Oppression in 1921 and the play Toussaint L’Ouverture, A Dramatic History in 1928. Besides his educational and literary endeavors, he helped found Camp Hope in Delaware County, a site for underprivileged children, and received the Seltzer Award for public service.
Leslie Pinckney Hill was born on May 14, 1880, in Lynchburg, Virginia, the son of Samuel H. and Sarah E. (Brown) Hill. Hill attended Lynchburg public schools and organized the Virginia Seminary Band while he was still in elementary school. He moved with his family to Orange, New Jersey, where he excelled in high school, leading his teachers to recommend him to Harvard University. Hill graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in 1903, and was named class orator. These achievements were even more impressive considering the long hours he worked as a waiter at the college dining hall. Hill earned his master’s degree from Harvard in 1904.
After graduation, Hill served as the director of the English Department at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1904 to 1907. He met and married Jane Ethel Clark in 1907 at Tuskegee, and would later express his love for her in the poem, “Christmas at Melrose.” Hill then moved to Manassas, Virginia, where he worked to restructure the financial development of Industrial Institute between 1907 and 1913.
In 1913 Hill accepted a principal’s position at the Institute for Colored Youth (renamed Cheyney Training School for Teachers in 1914) in Cheyney, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1837 by Quaker philanthropist Richard Humphreys, the school was the oldest African-American intuition of higher learning in the United States. During Hill’s tenure, the small school grew into a respectable state accredited college. When he first accepted the position of principal, the institution consisted of six buildings and 20 students; when he retired
Born on May 14, 1880, in Lynchburg, VA; died on February 15, 1960, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Samuel H. and Sarah E. (Brown) Hill; married Jane Ethel Clark, 1907; six children. Education: Harvard University, BA, 1903, MA, 1904.
Career: Department of Education, Tuskegee Institute, AL, director, 1904-07; Manassas Institute, VA, financial officer, 1907-13; Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheyney Training School for Teachers), PA, principal-president, 1913-51; writer, 1921 -44.
Memberships: Association of Pennsylvania Teachers; National Education Association Commission on the Defense of Democracy through Education; West Chester Community Center; Delaware County Board of Assistance.
Awards: Seltzer Award for distinguished service.
in 1951, the school was an accredited teacher’s college with 16 buildings and 89 graduating students. Hill worked tirelessly to update the school’s curriculum and publicize the institution to the outside world by featuring prominent speakers from the African-American community including W. E. B. DuBois and Langston Hughes. Following his retirement in 1951, he was named president emeritus.
Throughout 38 years of service at Cheyney, Hill worked tirelessly to gather funds for the school, build goodwill and interracial harmony with local communities, and visit other colleges as a lecturer. He worked closely with the neighboring Quaker population and, because of his extensive experience as a musician, directed the Cheyney Chorus as it toured colleges throughout the United States. Hill lectured at the Claremont College in California for two summers, and served as administrator for the Mercy-Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia for several years. Hill also wrote for a number of educational journals.
In 1921 Hill published The Wings of Oppression, a book of poems exploring race, current events, and inspiration. “The Teacher,” which remains his most popular and frequently translated poem, is an educator’s prayer to God as he attempts to bestow knowledge and a love for humankind on his pupils. Another lesser-known Hill poem, “So Quietly,” is based on an actual lynching of an African-American in Smithville, Georgia, in 1919. The victim had been traveling when his attackers kidnapped him from the train without the knowledge of those around him: “So quietly they stole upon their prey // And dragged him out to death, so without flaw // Their black design, that they to whom the law // Gave him in keeping, in the broad, bright day // Were not aware when he was snatched away; // And when the people, with a shrinking awe, // The horror of that mangled body saw, // ‘By unknown hands!’ was all that they could say.”
“The poem,” wrote Melvin G. Williams in Black American Literature Forum, “turns out to be about something more than just that single vicious act, however.” Indeed, it speaks to the condition of African Americans in general.
In 1928 Hill wrote a narrative drama titled Toussaint L’Ouverture: A Dramatic History. The five-part, 35-scene play mixes blank verse and lyricism to cover the revolution in Haiti in 1791. “It was in Hayti [sic] that the greatest of Negroes rose up to strike the shackles of slavery from the limbs and minds of his race forever….” Hill wrote in the play’s introduction. He also wrote the biblical drama Jethro, a play performed for the first time in 1931.
In 1944 Hill wrote a hard-hitting article titled “What the Negro Wants and How to Get It,” published in What the Negro Wants, a collection of essays edited by Rayford W. Logan. Hill stated bluntly that African Americans wanted the same freedoms available to all citizens who lived in democracies. This message had a special poignancy during World War II, for even though African-American soldiers participated in the war, troops remained segregated and Jim Crow laws remained prevalent in the South. Hill believed that African Americans deserved equal protection under the law, a right to vote, equal education and healthcare, and equal pay for equal work. “In every emergency,” Hill wrote, “the Negro race in America must give to the nation its unreserved allegiance. Wrongs will remain, but increasing opportunities and obligations will surpass them. Our democracy is not yet a satisfying reality, but Negroes are still free to live, strive and die to make it come in God’s unhurried time. All else by comparison is trivial.”
Hill served on a number of boards and received several honorary degrees. He served as founder to the Pennsylvania State Negro Council and the Association of Pennsylvania Teachers. He also helped found the West Chester Community Center and was a member of the Delaware County Board of Assistance and the National Education Association Commission on the Defense of Democracy through Education. Hill held honorary degrees from the Rhode Island College of Education, Lincoln University, Haver ford College, and Morgan State College. Hill died on February 15, 1960, at Mercy-Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia, and was buried beside his wife in Kennett Square, Philadelphia. The library at Cheyney University was named in Hill’s honor.
Wings of Oppression (poems), Stratford, 1921.
Toussaint L’Ouverture, A Dramatic History, Christopher, 1928.
“What the Negro Wants and How to Get It,” in What the Negro Wants, Rayford W. Logan, ed., University of North Carolina Press, 1944; reprinted, University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.
Logan, Rayford W., and Winston, Michael R., eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography, W.W. Norton, 1982.
Logan, Rayford W., ed., What the Negro Wants, University of North Carolina Press, 1944, p. 77.
Black American Literature Forum, Autumn 1977, pp. 104-108.
New York Times, February 16, 1960, p. 40.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the privately printed booklet, “Dr. Leslie Pinckney Hill: A Remembrance.”
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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