There I was, coming up on my sixty-second birthday. God had helped bring me to a good stage in my life. I’d retired from my career as an executive. I had raised four children and was helping raise two of my nine grandchildren. And I thought I’d made peace with the past.
Then I received an e-mail from a stranger:
My name is Phoebe Kilby, and I am white. My father grew up in Rappahannock County, Virginia, near where your father grew up. I have been doing some research on my family. I suspect that our families had some kind of relationship in the past.
What did that mean?
There was a follow-up e-mail too. Phoebe—whose last name was the same as my maiden name—said she had been doing genealogical research and discovered that her ancestors might have enslaved my ancestors.
White slave owners often fathered children with the African-American women they owned. It was possible that Phoebe and I were not just connected but related.
“I feel shame that my family once owned slaves and by that very fact traumatized and mistreated them,” she wrote. “Someone in the Kilby family needs to apologize for this injustice, and perhaps that person should be me.”
Those e-mails stirred the past up again, stirred up a storm of feelings inside me too.
Let me tell you my story. Maybe then you’ll understand why Phoebe’s words felt like a message from God.
Wind the clock back to 1958, the year my name appeared on a lawsuit filed by the NAACP against the school district of Warren County, Virginia. I was 13 years old and one of 22 African- American children seeking the right to attend the whites-only schools where I lived. At that time, Black students had to leave the county to get an education beyond seventh grade.
The school district and even the governor fought us. Finally a judge ordered the district to comply with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation.
The NAACP gave me and other students nonviolence training and told us we were soldiers in God’s army, fighting for justice. I was proud to be part of such a historic struggle for equality.
My faith began to erode in the face of vicious opposition from white students and their parents. Before we had even set foot in school, someone shot at the windows of my family’s house. The day we arrived, grown-ups lined the streets and threatened to kill us.
Other students called us despicable names. Threw spitballs at us. When I asked the teacher for help, I got in trouble.
My daddy, James Wilson Kilby, was a man of strong conviction and even stronger faith. He was a driving force behind the lawsuit. He also insisted that our family join hands and pray for our enemies each night before dinner. “Jesus commanded us to pray for those who persecute us,” he told us.
I made sure never to sit next to Daddy. If I wasn’t holding his hand, he wouldn’t know I wasn’t praying for those white students.
Everything culminated one day in 1963, my senior year, when I gambled on taking a shortcut to class by walking alone through the auditorium. We Black students had learned the hard way that it was always safer to travel in larger numbers.
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