Two Virginia women—one Black, one White—working on their family histories made a serendipitous discovery and the connection that developed between them was much stronger than this 21st century mutual interest. Betty Kilby Baldwin’s ancestors were enslaved by the Kilby family, and Phoebe Kilby’s ancestors were the enslavers. How they met, how they came to terms with the past, and even more important, how they have become a model of racial reconciliation is an inspiring story. They told it in the book they wrote together, Cousins, subject of a discussion sponsored by the Library of Virginia earlier this week.
The power of their story arises in part from what remarkable individuals they are. Together, they’re even more so. Betty grew up outside Front Royal, Virginia. In 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court mandated school integration in Brown vs. Board of Education, little changed at the schools in Warren County. The local school for Black children ended after the seventh grade. After that, they could attend a regional high school established for Blacks that was an hour away. Betty’s older brother was sent there and boarded during the week. After a year of that commute, her father found a closer school—only a half-hour away—for his two oldest sons, but the dilapidated bus the district provided meant service was erratic.
All the while, of course, there was a White high school in the county. Betty and her family made history, along with the families of more than twenty other Black eighth graders by insisting their children be allowed to attend the local Warren County High School. Betty became the lead plaintiff in a court case. Next came bureaucratic foot-dragging, then threats. But they persevered.
The commonwealth of Virginia retaliated against their efforts, in Warren County and elsewhere, with the Massive Resistance Laws and began closing schools rather than integrating them. As a result, 12,700 Virginia children, Black and White, were locked out of a public education. Eventually, of course, Virginia had to comply with federal law. Betty got her education, became a business executive, wrote an autobiography, and received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Shenandoah University.
Phoebe’s journey was quite different. Growing up in a White Baltimore neighborhood with professional parents, she had a career as a consultant on urban and environmental planning. After 9/11, she began to question the wisdom of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Waiting for business meeting with an official of Eastern Mennonite University, she learned the school offered courses in Peacebuilding, Conflict Transformation, and Restorative Justice. Maybe these courses could teach her to be a more effective advocate for peace. This educational process took Phoebe on a long and meaningful journey. When it came to understanding her family’s slave-owning past, she had skills in reconciliation.
Because of their experiences and education and their compassionate approach to the difficult issue of enslavement, after Betty and Phoebe met, they gradually developed a close bond. They work together in the Coming to the Table project, a nationwide initiative with many local affiliates attempting to create a more just and truthful society.
As Betty said, “We’re about the future, not the past.” Pretending slavery didn’t exist isn’t the answer; it only papers over a wound that, without light and air, cannot heal. As Betty wrote in Cousins, “We can’t change the past. All we can do is learn from it and make sure the mistakes of the past aren’t repeated.”
In need of an inspiring story? This is one.