Unequal access to education is a legacy of slavery. Most slave owners barred their slaves from being educated because they thought education could lead to insurrection. After the Civil War, this reluctance to provide a proper education to African Americans continued. Many U.S. communities offered schooling to African Americans but in separate facilities with inferior resources.
This is exactly the situation that the descendents of my family’s slaves experienced. Betty and James Kilby attended segregated schools in Warren County, Virginia. After 8th grade, there was no local high school for them. Their father, James W. Kilby, sought the help of the NAACP in filing suit to open the local high school to his children. This was 1958, four years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.
When the courts ruled in the Kilbys’ favor, the Governor of Virginia closed Warren County High School to prevent its integration. The Kilbys received nightly death threats on the phone. Their house was shot at and their farm animals poisoned. I cannot imagine the fear this created. Eventually the Federal court ordered the school reopened. Betty and James Kilby and 21 other African American children entered the school for the first time on February 18, 1959.
....My cousin James Kilby has formed a group called the Historical Education Movement (HEM) to honor his father’s work to integrate the local high school. He welcomed me to join and I worked by his side to petition the current school board to name the former high school after his father. We were not successful in that effort but we were able to convince the school system to allow us to host a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of the school in February 2009.
Through these actions, I believe some healing has begun. James, Betty, and I have shared our family histories. We have worked together to honor their father and their family’s bravery during school desegregation. We have reached across the racial divide, inviting others to join in dialogue. And we have become friends. In that, I see progress towards racial healing and reconciliation in our families and in the community.