Betty Kilby was nine years old when the Supreme Court handed down the Brown versus Board of Education decision that declared segregation in schools illegal in 1954. Four years later, her father and the NAACP filed suit against the school board of Warren County, Virginia to allow Betty and other black plaintiffs the right to attend Warren County High School in their home town of Front Royal. At the time, WCHS was the only high school in the county. Only white children were allowed to attend. When a federal judge ordered the school board to comply with federal law, they responded by closing the school. Under Virginia law at that time, “the assignment or enrollment of any Negro pupil to a white school automatically forces that school to close.” Warren County High was the first of Virginia’s public schools to close during the “Massive Resistance” era.
While white students continued to receive their education in churches and other locations, Negro children involved in the lawsuit began their 1958-59 academic year in December. They lived with volunteers, family or friends while attending integrated schools in Washington, D.C., some seventy miles from home.
Phoebe Kilby was an adult when she learned that her family had once been slaveholders. Her curiosity led her to learn about the black people that lived near the farm where her father grew up in Virginia. They shared her surname — Kilby. After reading the book Wit, Will, and Walls by Betty Kilby Fisher, she was convinced that there was a connection. She continued researching and confirmed a family relationship. Phoebe’s ancestors had enslaved Bettie’s ancestors on a farm in Rappahannock County. Phoebe wrote Betty a letter introducing herself. They met in person for the first time over dinner in 2007. Since then, they have become friends, colleagues, and spokespersons for Coming to the Table.
Phoebe told us, “I went through most of my life without having any interaction on a deep level with African American people. This isn’t everyone’s experience, but it is for many of us in a ‘white’ world in our schools, churches, and neighborhoods. Such isolation results in people like me not having understanding or appreciation for other people’s experiences in life.
“Finding the personal connection to the harms from slavery and its legacy—I really keyed into the legacy because it applies to me with my ancestors being enslavers—made me want to reach out to the people my family had harmed.”
In 2009, Phoebe, Betty, and Betty’s older brother James worked with several others in Front Royal to have the school they integrated named after their father, James Wilson Kilby. Even half a century later, the effort was daunting. A few local people proposed that the school be named after the superintendent from 1958, a man who sought to prevent integration. The school board voted to retain the name “Warren County” for the school, though the Town of Front Royal renamed the street fronting it Kilby Drive.
But a street name did not heal the wounds inflicted long ago. As James Kilby said, “My father did not integrate a street, he integrated a school.”
So James, Betty, Phoebe and other organizers invited a diverse group of people – including those involved in the school integration controversy, community leaders, natives and newcomers – to participate in a series of group conversations focused on confronting racial conflicts that persist in Front Royal today.
The biggest challenge they faced was getting people to participate. Somehow, they managed to get a group together and begin the conversation. The historic wounds suffered in Front Royal and Warren County during the Massive Resistance era continues to reverberate. Not surprisingly, many people choose to avoid talking about the past and its implications in the present. Fear, resentment, anger, jealousies and other wounds survive. Several participants acceded that historic events had been buried. One young, white woman said she had never learned about the historic events when she attended WCHS. The story was first introduced into the history curriculum in 2009. She learned the history of her community in a college history course. She was “embarrassed and upset” that she hadn’t learned it in her own school.
Other participants – who included two assistant superintendents of schools – generally found the experience to be positive. Feelings of gratitude were expressed for the opportunity to discuss issues that rarely find their way into community dialogue. It became clear that bringing black and white people together to discuss ways to heal from the historical damage of racism is often uncomfortable and hard work.
Though people often played it safe and were reserved in their comments, there were also moments when their protective walls came down. After one heated discussion about the issue of an “apology,” a black woman honed in on a white man who was resistant and visibly upset. As Betty Kilby describes, “She pleads for understanding and unity as she stands up, crosses that circle and offers her hand to him saying, ‘It is time to put down the rocks and hold hands.’ He accepts her hand and she returns to her seat. The white man softens a little. He says the discussion is helping him to see things he can support like erasing ‘history amnesia’…”
At its last meeting, the dialogue group was able to develop a list of projects intended to start a community healing process with the first project being the erection of a Virginia Department of Historic Resources historic highway marker near the school to memorialize the events of 1958-59. Because school administrators were involved in the dialogue, the School Board agreed to pay for the marker, though there were conflicts with the African American community over the wording of the marker. But in the end, the wording was agreed to by all involved. The marker tells the story of integration and honors James’ father as the leader of the integration movement.
James now periodically takes his grandchildren to see the marker so that they know what he and their great grandfather did.
Much healing work remains to be done in Front Royal. James Kilby, who continues to live there, visits local classrooms to tell the story of school integration. He shares his own story of working at the White House during the Johnson Administration, where he watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. walk in to witness the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. James has a commemorative pen from that signing. He also attended the 1963 March on Washington and heard the “I have a dream” speech in person.
Phoebe says, “This has become an incredible window to reaching out to many people of color, African Americans in particular. Coming to the Table has given me a reason to reach out and makes me wonder why I hadn’t done so before. How can I go through life with only white people? The whole process of connecting has led to healing. Working with Betty, James, and James’s daughter, Rocky, and helping to organize the community dialogue in Front Royal, has allowed people to talk about relationships, history and the impact on all of us. It is slowly leading, perhaps, to healing in that community.”
Connecting Through Genealogy
The story of Betty and Phoebe Kilby is but one example of how important genealogy is. Beyond her work with Our Black Ancestry, Sharon has collaborated with a descendant of the Hairston family. Will Hairston is one of the founders of Coming to the Table. His ancestors were some of the largest slaveholders in American history. An estimated ten thousand people were enslaved on their 42 plantations in Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi. Diana Roman is Will’s cousin. Diana and Sharon are building a project that will result in an online portal for the descendants of enslaved people to link to documents proving their ancestry.
An Evolving Movement
Members of Coming to the Table live and work throughout the United States. In our various capacities, we share the message of our healing model in the hope that others will study history, make connections, work toward healing, and take action in their own communities. We lead workshops, write books, work with teachers on school curricula, make movies, speak at colleges, churches, and other gatherings, research our genealogy and help others to do the same. We believe that, through our collective efforts, we will make a positive difference in the world.
This Bittersweet article is extracted from a “bonus chapter” of the book Gather at the Table by Sharon Leslie Morgan and Thomas Norman DeWolf. The authors are active members of the Coming to the Table community that is “taking America beyond the legacy of enslavement.” The stories here are reprinted with permission of the subjects.