Family reunited after more than 150 years

The Rev. William P. Kilby, left, of Liberia, stands with his cousin, the Rev. James M. Kilby, of Front Royal, on the lawn of Warren County Middle School in Front Royal. The Kilbys recently met for the first time and have been visiting area landmarks recalling efforts in the 1950s to integrate students in public schools. The school was formerly Warren County High School, and James Kilby was one of the first black students to attend it in 1959. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – A long lost representative of Rev. James Kilby’s family history arrived in town last week.

The newcomer, Rev. William P. Kilby, stepped out of the past and greeted James Kilby, reuniting two branches of their family that were separated more than 150 years ago. They had a lot of catching up to do.

William Kilby, like his cousin, is a clergyman, so the Liberian pastor slid easily into a spot as guest speaker during a service at James Kilby’s First Baptist Church in Washington, Virginia.

“It’s been my pleasure to get to know him,” James Kilby said.

The Kilbys didn’t learn about each other until a chance meeting in 2009 when William Kilby met another clergyman who was trying to raise donations to help victims of a civil war that had ravaged Liberia a few years earlier.

The Rev. James Kilby, left, of Front Royal, and his cousin Rev. William P. Kilby, of Liberia, walk across the Warren County Middle School lawn after observing the sign marking Warren County High School and Virginia's Massive Resistance policy, adopted in 1956 in an effort to resist integrating public schools. Rich Cooley/Daily

The clergyman told Kilby he knew many people in Liberia with the same last name and helped obtain William Kilby’s contact information. Not long after, James and William Kilby talked on the telephone and discovered they shared a great-grandfather who left the United States for Liberia sometime in the 19th century before the American Civil War.

The specific circumstances of his departure are unknown, but the part of West Africa now known as Liberia was a destination at the time for freed blacks who were caught up in a movement to resettle them outside the United States. The fear was that blacks and whites could never live together peacefully in the United States. The right answer, in the view of some whites, was to return the former slaves to a specially designated African colony before their population grew too large.

The colonization movement’s influential white supporters included President James Madison, President James Monroe, former President Thomas Jefferson and future President Abraham Lincoln.

Several other members of the American Kilbys greeted William Kilby, 51, during the service at First Baptist.

“It was an amazing moment for me to see so many Kilbys, to see a white Kilby, dark skinned Kilbys,” William Kilby said.

The Rev. James Kilby, left, of Front Royal, and his cousin, the Rev. William P. Kilby, of Liberia, observe a sign marking the original Warren County High School and Virginia's Massive Resistance policy. Rich Cooley/Daily

He said he was gratified by the help Liberia received from the United States during the outbreak of the Ebola virus in 2014. The Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization counted 10,678 confirmed, probable or suspected cases that year and 4,810 deaths during the same time.

Willam Kilby wrote a letter to President Obama thanking him for deploying up to 3,000 American military members who helped build medical clinics, train medical workers and conduct tests for the virus.

“People would die in the streets,” William Kilby said. “That’s how deadly it was.”

Although the virus had begun to fade by the time the U.S. was ramping up its mission, William Kilby said he was still grateful for the support.

“It’s the kind of disease that kills within the shortest possible time,” he said. “Fourteen days, and you’re done.”

The Kilbys took a tour of Front Royal on Monday and visited several historic sites. The stops including the Warren County Middle School that James Kilby helped integrate in the face of threats, intimidation and harassment sparked by Virginia’s Massive Resistance movement, which began in 1956 and attempted to thwart court orders banning segregated schools.

James Kilby said he hopes to visit William Kilby in Liberia someday, especially after finding they have more in common than just a last name.

“We like each other,” James Kilby said. “We have the same concept of loving people.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com