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Posted June 9, 2011 | comments Leave a comment

New historical sign marks Warren County's road to integration

By M.K. Luther -- mkluther@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- Warren County came together Wednesday to commemorate, heal and memorialize its place in the history of public school desegregation.

A Virginia Department of Historic Resources roadside marker was officially unveiled at Warren County Middle School on Luray Avenue.

The building was the site of a pivotal struggle during the civil rights movement in 1958, when the all-white Warren County High School closed to prevent integration.

The closure had a devastating effect on the community, leveling the economy and dividing families as many children were sent out of the county to continue their education.

When the school reopened in 1959, 23 enrolled black students walked up the hill to the entrance, marking the end of segregated education in the county, said Patrick Farris, executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.

The historic marker will bear witness to the struggle of the students and their families, Farris said.

"The sacrifices of those that came before use were not in vain," Farris said. "We can be grateful to those that came before us that this is history, that it is not staring us in the face every day."

The building, a Work Projects Administration effort, was built in the 1930s to bring the community -- then on the brink of an economic boom thanks to the American Viscose factory -- a modern high school, Farris said.

"In and of itself, this community can be proud of this building," Farris said.

Some of the original 23 black students and members of the "Lost Class of '59" were reunited at the unveiling ceremony Wednesday as the community honored the students' struggle.

James M. Kilby, who was among the 23 students who enrolled at the school in 1959, said the "rocky" road was worth the final destination -- the pupils achieved their final goal of graduation, as well as accomplishing the mission of integrating the schools.

"This is the end of the road to integration," Kilby said. "We now have the success of being included in the rich history of Warren County.

June Jeffrey, vice president of Warren County High School class of 1959, said classmates eventually formed a bond over the decades.

Many classmates have found ways to come together, to learn from one another and find ways to teach against prejudice, Jeffrey said.

"It is my job to stop prejudice," Jeffrey said. "It is the job of everyone here -- your neighbors, your churches and your schools."

Betty Kilby Baldwin, one of the first 23 black students, linked arms with former classmates Wednesday and led the procession up the hill to the entrance of the school.

"On this day, we want to walk up with unity," Baldwin said.

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