HILL, DAVID (1928/9? - 2001) was a Black nationalist, religious leader, civil rights advocate, self-avowed rabbi of the HOUSE OF ISRAEL organization/sect, and eccentric. His controversial career has led him to be characterized as anything from a cult leader, to a radical, to a conman, but his role in the 1969 MCDONALD'S BOYCOTT, makes him an important figure of Cleveland’s Civil Rights movement.

Hill first rose to prominence in the 1960s as the leader of the House of Israel sect, an AFRICAN AMERICAN politico-religious organization possibly founded in 1961, akin to the Nation of Islam. Then apparently known as “Bishop”, Hill was already controversial, with a record of arrests and convictions. He argued for an ‘Afro-centric’ conception of the church, wherein Ancient Israelites like were Black, that would be used as an axis of socio-political organization and activism. 

In 1969, Hill got involved in efforts to found a Black-owned McDonald’s restaurant in Cleveland, which would strengthen Black business in a rapidly-growing industry. The first entrepreneur he became involved with was ERNEST HILLIARD, a self-declared prophet who said he got the idea in a dream. They met with McDonald’s officials on March 21, who showed interest. Hill tried to expand his scheme, putting notice in the papers that anyone else interested should contact him: for a $2,500 fee, he would process their applications and help negotiate with McDonald’s. Though Hill opened 4 negotiations through this plan, he soon ran into problems: Hilliard, his first associate, did not have the money to start a franchise, and was shot dead on July 4; Hill became infamous for his antics, like going to meetings with armed guards, shouting at McDonald’s executives, and suddenly leaving; and McDonald’s became more interested in opening a franchise with Charles Johnson, an African American unassociated with Hill. Hill took his grievances to OPERATION BLACK UNITY (OBU), a local Black-Nationalist organization, which sent McDonald’s an ultimatum: re-open Hill’s negotiations, or get boycotted. This began the 1969 McDonald's Boycott, for which Hill served as the OBU’s chief ‘negotiator’. Though the boycott only lasted a few months, it deprived McDonald’s of very lucrative business and thus forced them to negotiate. Results were mixed: the company agreed to remove their de-facto prohibition on Black ownership, which was probably illegal anyway in light of the earlier Civil Rights Movement; the company sold two of its franchises to the HOUGH AREA DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION, and one to Charles Johnson, soon after.

Hill’s actions during the boycott put him under heavy fire: he allegedly swindled a woman out of $30,000 with false promises of a franchise, and was afterwards found guilty of blackmail by an all-White jury. Allegedly, he said, among other things, that “there might be fires and other things occurring to the [McDonald’s] franchises” during the boycott. Hill was sentenced to 4-25 years in prison before transferal to Chicago for more charges. None of this seems to have bothered him, though: confident he would be out soon, Hill managed to negotiate an appeal on the McDonald’s case, reduced his $150,000 bail to a manageable amount, paid it off. Now free, Hill failed to appear in court, and instead fled the country. With help from some friends, he ended up in Guyana, a newly independent South American country just north of Brazil.

Hill arrived in Guyana under the pretenses of being a “clay brick expert”, who, like some other African American expats, could bring expertise to the developing country, then under the Black-Nationalist government of Forbes Burnham. But Hill’s venture was not successful, and he seems to have instead turned to using his American accent (prestigious in a Caribbean nation) to scam people. Allegedly, he targeted Indo-Guyanese women (of South-Asian descent, and mostly rural), convincing them he would give American visas for a fee. As he was a felon, these visas never came. Hill also re-established his sect: he now called followers his “flock”, over whom he was “king”; his partner, ‘Lulu’, “queen”, and his lieutenants “princes”. They wore Black, Red, and Green, Black nationalist colors used by Burnham’s Political Party (the PNC), and generated funds by selling peanuts and chips in the capital. By 1975, the government allegedly was using Hill to bolster rallies, suppress opposition, and, in 1978, commit voter fraud. Now favored by the government, Hill was given a plot of land, 100-150 acres, to produce cash crops. By 1979, Hill purportedly had 8,000 followers on his farm, harvesting goods to fund his organization. The Jonestown mass-suicide of 1979, also in Guyana, stoked fears that Hill’s sect would self-destruct, but these did not materialize; with the collapse of Burnham’s government in 1985, Hill lost his sway. He was found guilty in the death of James Maion, a former sect-member, but only served 7 years before release. Somehow, he made his way back to America, and died in New Jersey in 2001.

Justin Evans

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