How Two Women Found Healing from Their Family's Difficult Legacy of Slavery

The pair—one Black, the other white—became friends while dealing with their family’s painful history.

by
Posted in , Jul 29, 2021

Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin (left) and Phoebe Kilby; photo by James Kegley

Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin
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.

A group of boys found me. They grabbed me, pinned me down and raped me.

I couldn’t tell Daddy because he’d go to the authorities, and then it would be the testimony of one Black girl versus a group of white boys. Our family would be destroyed.

I became cripplingly depressed. I stopped eating. I wound up in the hospital.

An orderly who went to our church came to offer comfort. I told him I wanted to die. He asked how long un­til I graduated. A few months, I said.

“God gave you a big job,” he said. “You did good. It’s almost over. The best part of your life is just ahead of you.”

For decades after that, my spiritual life ricocheted between those two ex­tremes: resisting Daddy’s prayer for the people who oppressed us and hold­ing on to those words spoken by that orderly, who was like an angel to me.

I graduated, went to college and found work in corporate America. I rose to become an executive at Ameri­can Airlines. I did everything with a determination to prove that I was bet­ter than the hateful names I had been called in school.

I wrote a book about my family’s civil rights struggle, entitled Wit, Will & Walls. I gave talks at schools and historical societies. My book was made into a short documentary.

Phoebe’s e-mail took me right back to my childhood dinner table. Here was a hand held out by a white per­son apologizing for injustice against people like me.

All my life, I believed God had helped me overcome challenges, succeed and become a voice speaking out against racism. Was I prepared to take this outstretched hand?

“I hope to hear that you are inter­ested in conversing with me,” Phoebe wrote.

Something told me I had to say yes.

Phoebe Kilby
My childhood was the opposite of Betty’s. I grew up in Baltimore. My father was a doctor, and our family was financially comfortable.

There is no other way to say this: My father was a racist. He had sepa­rate waiting rooms for whites and nonwhites, and he made frequent dis­paraging remarks about Black people. His mother said similar things. My mother’s side of the family was not like that, thank goodness. But my mother did not challenge my father’s attitudes. I didn’t either. I assumed what my father said was true.

Baltimore City public schools inte­grated in 1954, so when I was ready to go to school, my parents enrolled me in an all-white private school. That backfired because the teachers were broadminded and sympathetic to the civil rights movement. They assigned books by Black authors, which I had to hide at home to avoid trouble.

By the time I graduated, I knew my father’s attitudes and a lot of things were wrong. For a long time, I thought knowing that was enough.

I married, and my husband and I moved to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, near where ancestors on my father’s side had lived. I got a job at a small Christian college called Eastern Mennonite University. EMU had a program called Coming to the Table, which encourages descendants of en­slaved people and descendants of en­slavers to connect.

The program was started by a man named Will Hairston, whose ances­tors had been one of the largest slave-owning families in Virginia.

Inspired by Coming to the Table, I researched local archives and census records. I learned not only that my ancestors had owned slaves near War­ren County but that descendants of those enslaved people still lived in the area. That’s how I found Betty. Were she and I connected—maybe even re­lated—through the horrors of slavery?

“There’s only one way to find out,” Will Hairston said. “You are going to have to contact her.”

I wasn’t ready for that! I wrestled with my reluctance. Finally I ran out of excuses. On January 15, 2007—Martin Luther King Jr. Day—I e-mailed Betty.

There was no reply.

You’ve offended her, I told myself. Why would she want to talk to you?

With Will’s encouragement, I sent a follow-up e-mail explaining more about myself and my reasons for reaching out.

Betty’s reply came a few hours later. The subject line of her e-mail: “Hello Cousin.”

Betty I had been having computer trouble. By the time I saw Phoebe’s first e-mail, the second one was in my in-box too. I did not hesitate to reply.

The timing “could have only been God,” I wrote. “We are the key to healing. Meeting you today is so awe­some…. I have always known that my family were descendants of slaves, but I couldn’t open that door.”

My words expressed more certainty than I felt. I think God was guiding my fingers as I typed. In fact, opening that door—taking Phoebe’s outstretched hand—felt scary. Was I ready to con­front this issue I had worked so hard to put behind me?

I lived in Texas, but I was coming to Virginia for a screening of the docu­mentary about my book. I invited Phoebe to meet. “I thank God for bringing you into my life,” I wrote.

Phoebe Betty and I met at a restaurant in Front Royal, Virginia. Any fears I had evaporated when I met Betty. She is a positive, can-do person. She gave me a hug. She introduced me to other mem­bers of her family at the restaurant, in­cluding her two grown daughters.

At the documentary screening the next day at a church, Betty introduced me to the mostly African-American au­dience and quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that one day “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

The audience erupted in applause.

Encouraged, I invited Betty to a Coming to the Table workshop, where we could deepen our friendship and learn more about how our families were connected.

Betty Many of my fears also melted away when I met Phoebe. She had done her homework. She listened as much as she talked.

I agreed to attend the Coming to the Table workshop. Phoebe and I were among 15 participants. We learned about restorative justice and dis­cussed how it might overcome trauma and achieve reconciliation.

There was an activity called Break­ing Cycles of Violence—a series of steps designed to help people talk about traumatic incidents and move toward healing.

The minute the activity started, I knew I was in trouble. I had to talk about the horrible things that had happened to me as a child. Feelings I had spent a lifetime burying rose up and overwhelmed me. Suddenly I was weeping uncontrollably.

The Black members of our group surrounded me and held me. For a long time, I couldn’t stop crying.

At last, the room fell silent. I can’t say I miraculously gained a spirit of forgive­ness and reconciliation. But something inside me shifted. I knew God was with me, even in my worst experiences. I could take Phoebe’s hand and trust that God would be with both of us.

Phoebe Seeing Betty break down made me realize there is a difference between learning and experiencing. No amount of knowledge could take the place of Betty’s lived experience of racism.

I had benefited from racism. My father inherited wealth generated in part by the labor of enslaved people. He inherited racist attitudes that he passed on to me. I went to a school that excluded Black children and ben­efited from social networks and ad­vantages Betty never had.

It was up to me to turn my knowl­edge and feelings into action.

Betty and I committed to helping Coming to the Table expand its reach. I used some of my inheritance to set up a college scholarship fund for peo­ple like Betty, whose families had been scarred by slavery.

Though we live hundreds of miles apart, Betty and I talk on the phone, ap­pear together at events and try to meet as often as we can. We wrote a book together, published this year, entitled Cousins: Connected Through Slavery. Pro­ceeds go to the scholarship fund. I know the truth about myself and my family. Truth is the starting point for healing.

Betty I also grew up with hateful feel­ings in my heart, though for different reasons. Racism wounds everyone, perpetrators and victims.

I believe God brought Phoebe and me together. He knew the healing each of us needed. He knew that to­gether we could help others heal. That’s why we’re sharing our story.

For more inspiring stories, subscribe to Guideposts magazine.

View Comments