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Ernest Hill was born in Oak Grove, Louisiana, the fourth of ten children. Raised by very progressive parents, Hill was taught the value of honesty, hard work, and education. He was also taught to dream of a life beyond the narrow confines of the small town into which he had been born. 
As a young boy, Ernest grew up amid strict segregation. Outhouses, unpaved streets, and tin roof shanties, were still a way of life in the small rural Louisiana town. As a result, his formal education began at Combs McIntyre, a small, understaffed, segregated black school. By the beginning of his fourth year of school, profound political and social changes swept through the south. The struggle for desegregation was won and the equal opportunities that everyone thought would accompany the victory were now a reality. 
In 1970, Hill and many of his peers from Combs McIntyre entered the previously all white Oak Grove Elementary and High School system. In spite of the constant bomb threats, fights, and racial altercations, Hill quickly won over his classmates and teachers with his exceptional athletic abilities, which not only made his transition a smooth one but eventually earned him a football scholarship to Northeast Louisiana University where he played for the former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Fame inductee, John David Crow.  Hill remained at NLU until injuries ended his football career. In 1981, at the suggestion of his older brother (a recent Yale grad who played for the Oakland Raiders), Hill transferred to the University of California, Berkeley.