Battles for equality fought long after war
Posted: January 26, 2013
The Civil War cannons had been silent for nearly 100 years when James M. Kilby and his siblings were conscripted into the front lines by their father.
The struggle to ensure that the nation kept its promise of equal rights raged on long after the war ended in 1865, descending in spirit to emerge as the desegregation movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
Kilby’s father, James W. Kilby of Front Royal, decided in 1958 that he could no longer tolerate the inequalities and inconveniences the family had already experienced in the educations being offered to his oldest sons, James, 16, and John, 15.
When it came time to think about his daughter Betty Ann, being bused more than an hour away to Berryville over icy roads, he decided to file suit so his children could attend closer schools.
His was one of the desegregation cases that built on the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.
Kilby’s lawsuit against the Warren County School Board opened the doors of white-only schools to black students in Warren County and across the state. It also overturned Virginia’s Massive Resistance to Integration effort.
“To be free”
This month, as the nation notes the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the South in 1863, the younger Kilby recalled the 1950s-era struggle for civil rights.
The elder Kilby died in 2003 at 85.
“My dad wanted us to be free in more than just name,” the younger Kilby said recently during an interview at his home in the Happy Creek area of Front Royal. “My granddaddy was a modern-day slave. He worked on a farm, ate at the big house, and my dad believed they had worked his mother to death. He didn’t want that for himself or for us.”
The elder Kilby, born in Peola Mills in Madison County, came to Front Royal in the 1940s to work at American Viscose, later known as Avtex, which manufactured rayon and nylon. His wife Catherine was from Flint Hill, Va.
Along with two other blacks from the area, Kilby purchased 200 acres in the Happy Creek area in the late ’40s — property still held by the descendants.
He built a house on the land, and the younger Kilby recalled living in the structure with only tarpaper on the exterior for one winter, before it was bricked over in the spring.
In addition to his factory job, Kilby had 11 cows, pigs, chickens and vegetable gardens.
The younger Kilby said his father, who had a fourth-grade education, followed the course of the civil rights movement by reading Jet magazine, which focused on issues affecting blacks.
When James, the oldest, graduated from Front Royal Colored School, he was sent at age 13 to the Manassas Industrial School, 55 miles away, for high school.
He said it was a “traumatic experience that made you hate school.” The school was too far from home for the students to come back each day, so they boarded there and families had to figure out how to get them home on weekends and other occasions.
The water pipes froze one winter, forcing them to drink only Coca-Cola for weeks. No doctors were on duty, and youths as young as 13 had to learn ways to fend for themselves when they were ill. The food supply was not adequate for growing teens, Kilby said, and some students resorted to stealing milk from the porch of the girls’ dormitory.
The facility had no high school sports and, certainly, no prom or social functions.
After this experience for James in 1955, the elder Kilby petitioned in 1956 for James and his younger brother John to attend Johnson-Williams High School, a school for black students in Berryville, 30 miles away.
The students were bused home to Front Royal each evening from Berryville, but one night the bus flipped into a ditch in icy weather. While unharmed, the boys didn’t get home until 8 p.m. after leaving the school at 3 p.m.
His father, Kilby recalled, was sick with worry by the time they returned. “That was in the days before cell phones, so they had no idea what had happened.”
“He knew the next year his daughter would go to that school, and he didn’t want that for her,” Kilby said.
So he petitioned the Warren County School Board for his daughter to attend the local high school. After being rebuffed, he contacted lawyers at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and filed suit on behalf of his daughter and 23 other black students.
Much of that summer was taken up with federal court action in Harrisonburg, which resulted in a court order requiring Warren County to open its schools to black students.
The immediate result: white students pulled out and were taught in various places, including churches, theaters and homes.
On Feb. 18, 1959, after a series of legal decisions, the black students finally entered the school, and were taught by a cadre of 12 white teachers.
“He wasn’t bitter”
It wasn’t until the next year that true integration of the high school took place, when black and white students attended together.
About half of the white students returned that year, Kilby said.
He said the family was terrorized that year by racist incidents, including the poisoning of their dairy herd.
He remembered seeing a cow with its swollen stomach from a distance, but his father wouldn’t allow the children near it.
“I consider my dad better than those who snuck onto his farm at night to poison his animals,” Kilby said. “He wasn’t bitter, and didn’t want us to hate or say anything mean.”
Another time, his father bid on a cow and calf at the stockyard, and the calf’s back leg rotted because it was bound with rubber bands. The animal had to be put down.
A bloody sheet was draped over the family’s mailbox one night, and gunshots were fired at their home.
“My dad wouldn’t walk down the street by himself,” Kilby said. “He figured if he had one of us with him, they wouldn’t dare target him.”
When Warren County High School reopened in the fall of 1959, Kilby entered the 11th grade there. He recalled threats by a group of white students in a restroom, and never entered it again without another black student.
Kilby said he was pursued by Front Royal police after he threw rocks at a car full of taunters who drove by his house after his high school graduation.
His father and the family’s pastor at the Colored Methodist Church (CME), the Rev. Herman Franks, stood up for him, telling authorities that they would have to jail all three of them if they jailed him, Kilby said.
He was subsequently found not guilty by a court.
A new generation
The younger Kilby, now semi-retired at age 70, went on to work in federal government positions as a messenger at the White House in the 1960s and early ’70s.
He is now interim pastor at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Bentonville and associate minister at First Baptist Church in Washington, Va.
He said he has been heartened by the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, but feels that the nation is still a long way from treating all races equally.
“No, it’s not as blatant, but it still exists,” he said. “My faith is in the younger generation of whites now, who I think see the world a little differently.”
Contact Maria Hileman firstname.lastname@example.org