Locals recall landmarks of integration

The Rev. James Kilby points out his father, James W. Kilby, in a photograph that depicts students and parents involved in the 1958 Betty Ann Kilby v. Warren County Board of Education court case in front of the Warren County Courthouse. Rachel Mahoney/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Today marks the 57th anniversary of integration reaching Warren County schools – a time of trial that the Rev. James Kilby remembers well.

Out of 23 black students that started at Warren County High School on Feb. 18, 1959, Kilby said he’s one of very few – if any – who are still around in the area to recount his experiences.

“You don’t see the people on this side – it was a couple hundred white protestors calling you names,” he said, pointing to a photograph taken of him on his first day at Warren County High School. “That’s my sister behind me. She was only 13 years old, and you can see the stress on her face.”

“The real reason why you only see two or three students going up at a time … I guess it was for security because we couldn’t ride the bus, they had to bring us in separate cars.”

His sister Betty Kilby, now Betty Kilby Baldwin and living in Texas, started her eighth grade year at Warren County High School just after integration. Betty Ann Kilby v. Warren County Board of Education came to the U.S. Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit in September of 1958. Baldwin said having her name attached to the court case painted a target on her back.

“Not every girl faced what I faced because my name was synonymous with the movement – I was the only girl that carried the Kilby name, so it was much tougher for me,” she said. “What it made for was an incredibly tough woman.”

Although he ended up graduating from Warren County High School in 1961, James Kilby lost credit after jumping from school to school and missing a few months of education, and Baldwin said she attended summer school every year to keep up with curriculum.

When Warren County High School was still for whites only, Kilby attended boarding school in Manassas and went to Johnson-Williams High School in Berryville. After Massive Resistance shut schools down, the siblings were out of school until December, when they began attending integrated D.C.-area schools.

Kilby said his father was the one to approach late attorney Oliver Hill to pursue the case after deciding he was fed up with his children’s struggle to continue with their education. While working at American Visco, his father witnessed donations and signatures passed around the company in support of a private white school.

“My father only had about a third or fourth grade education, but he was brilliant,” Kilby said. “He was a guy ahead of his time and he always knew how to present himself.”

“One of my father’s complaints, too, was that he was paying taxes and his kids couldn’t go to public school.”

But leading the lawsuit and making those waves meant plenty of trials, tribulations and threats for the Kilbys for years on end – Kilby said his father lived in fear of death threats for up to around 10 years after the court case.

“They were using terrorist tactics – they shot around the house, they burned a cross in the front yard, they poisoned the family dog,” he said.

Baldwin said that she had to use a buddy system at school with other black students to help prevent them from becoming victims, especially after her brothers graduated and left.

“Death would have been more humane than having to go to that school system for five years,” she said.

Although Kilby said he moved to the D.C. metro area soon after graduation, he heard tell from his brothers that black students didn’t begin signing up at Warren County schools in earnest until later in the ’60s.

Programs at Shenandoah County and Winchester libraries will tell their own histories of integration in the area during Black History Month. At Handley Library, Nancy Finley Barbour will be “Telling Our Story” from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Shenandoah County Library Archivist Zach Hottel will present about segregation and integration in Shenandoah schools on Feb. 23. He echoed Baldwin’s sentiment that Warren’s turbulent journey through segregation and integration set the tone for the rest of Virginia at the time.

“The people in Shenandoah County saw what happened in Warren County with Massive Resistance … and I don’t think they were trying to fight a fight that had already been lost,” he said.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com