Desegregation Blues: How the Warren County School Board Left 20 Black Children Out in the Cold

I’m strolling down Luray Avenue, walking with other Warren County Democrats in the Festival of Leaves parade, when my friend Kelli points it out.

“That’s it?” I say, “that little bitty street?”

“Yup,” she says. “Right across from where that first group of kids walked up to the school.”

“There’s like one house on that street,” I observe, looking down the street and then at the sign that says “James W. Kilby Lane.”

“Uh, huh,” she says without looking, “it’s actually just part of a street.” Holding my Deeds sign and trying not to lag behind the group, I’m dumbfounded—that tiny strip of asphalt is how we honor one of Front Royal’s most important civil rights heroes?

A few feet ahead, we stroll by the spot where, in 1959, 20 black students, including Mr. Kilby’s children, soldiered up a long curving driveway past a crowd of hecklers to integrate what was then Warren County High School.

On this crisp and bright fall day, how many Front Royal residents will glide past that spot without pause, surrounded by floats, horses, pick-up trucks, kids, bands, and beauty queens, throwing candy to the crowd and waving at friends, not noticing Mr. Kilby’s street?

I try to picture the scene on that day in 1959—the cars are different, the clothes are different but everything else is pretty much the same—the sloping front lawn, the towering trees, the blue-tinged mountains in the distance, and the influence of citizens who don’t like change.

The black students I picture walking up the hill are just ordinary kids. No supporters or bands cheer them on even though what they do is deeply American and completely extraordinary.

I can only begin to imagine the emotions they felt 50 years ago as they asserted their right to attend the same school as white students—were they angry, scared, proud, sad, or all of that?

Mr. Kilby is the reason those children were able to integrate the school. A local janitor and farmer, he filed a law suit that forced the high school to admit black students at a time when Warren County was at the vanguard of the “Massive Resistance” movement, a movement that urged Virginia schools to close rather than integrate.

This past June, the Warren County School Board received a proposal to name the school—soon to be re-opened as a middle school—for Mr. Kilby, who passed away in 2003. In other words, they were handed a wonderful chance to ensure that a critical period of Virginia history is not forgotten. The proposal was submitted by Mr. Kilby’s son, James M. Kilby, who has been trying since 1995 to have the school named for his father. After much debate by the entire Front Royal community, the proposal failed when the school board voted no.

As the parade progresses from Luray Avenue onto Royal, I think about the members of the school board who voted against the proposal. Clearly, they have less courage in their entire bodies than in a single pinky toe of one of those original 20 students.

The Warren County School Board chose to keep the name Warren County Middle School because it was the safe thing to do. According to a Washington Post article of June 11, one school board member said that “choosing one name over another…just leads to too much bad taste.” The folks in his district, “prefer something that will just go with the flow better.”

In other words, they didn’t want to upset any constituents by reminding them about an ugly part of their own past. God forbid we disturb our citizens’ delicate sensibilities.

That’s the same attitude copped by several county school principals who decided not to show President Obama’s education speech to their students. Rather than respect the man we elected to lead us by having our children listen to his words, these administrators chose to avoid the wrath of a few overly vocal conservative parents. I can’t help thinking that if Obama were white, the decision would have been different. I don’t remember the Bushes ever being dissed like that. No one would have dared.

I wish the school board had dared to permanently link Mr. Kilby’s name to the new middle school. I wish they had had the guts. That connection would have served many purposes in our mostly homogenous little town.

In the most constructive way possible, it would have helped keep racial equality and justice at the forefront of our consciousness, where it needs to be. It also would have served as the perfect opening to a lesson about civil rights by teachers within the school. To the students it would have given a sense of pride in what their predecessors accomplished and a sense of what they too can accomplish. But, perhaps most importantly, it would have provided a reminder about the fallibility of our own government and public institutions.

These are lessons I want my daughter to hear about and hear about often because we, as individuals and as a country, are always in danger of repeating our mistakes.

Just a few weeks after the Festival of Leaves, a new and shocking story about race popped up in Louisiana. Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple because he believes the children of such unions have awful lives and that such marriages can’t last.

When the story broke, Bardwell claimed he is not a racist but defended his beliefs just the same. I’d love to have seen the expression on President Obama’s face as he heard about this one. Our bi-racial president is 1,000 times better adjusted than this guy, and sadly, I’m sure he’s encountered Bardwell’s attitude before.

At first hearing, the Bardwell story seems unbelievable. In 2009, how could anyone believe what Bardwell believes? But then you start to wonder how many other Americans, especially those in positions of power, harbor similar feelings.

Oddly enough, the news out of Louisiana made me think of a poem, one written by my first college English professor, Eric Trethewey.

In 1965, he and his fiancé traveled from Mississippi to Ohio to marry. He was white and she was black. Such a marriage was illegal in Mississippi then, just as it was in Virginia. Soon after, they had a daughter. In an excerpt from a poem called “Her Swing,” the father describes his “crossbreed” daughter:

             At my child’s “Daddy, help me fix it,”
             I recall what is buried in these hours,
             and broach another lesson in her special art,
             the dance of the dialectic, which she has begun
             to practice everywhere in public:
             I show her how to set the board
             to slice a clean arc in the air
             dead-center between the supports
             and half-expect to see my rhetoric of balance
             settle down in her blood, in her flesh.

             And later still, as she pumps up high
             on the edge of a perfect arc,
             a brave girl learning how to use
             what ties her to earth,
             her mother comes silently from the house
             to stand at the swing’s other side,
             watching this lithe child slung in chains
             wheel fiercely under the crossbar
             and out into space, into time,
             into longing halfway between us.

             —from the book Dreaming of Rivers

I’m tempted to send this poem to Keith Bardwell, along with the latest book of poems written by Natasha Trethewey, the girl portrayed in “Her Swing,” who grew up to win the Pulitzer Prize for her own delicate and powerful poems.

Wouldn’t Bardwell see how the girl, “crossbreed” that she is, “pumps up high/on the edge of a perfect arc,” how she is a “brave girl” who wheels “fiercely under the crossbar.” This is a girl whose swinging between one light and one dark parent slices “a clean arc in the air.” She is not a victim; the swinging is her art and a source of strength.

Keith Bardwell and others like him are just one more reason Warren County Middle School should be renamed for Mr. Kilby—we cannot be complacent when it comes to our racist past or to the bigotry that festers right here and now.

I’d really like to think that my bi-racial daughter might someday attend a school where Mr. Kilby’s name appears above the front door, or where a portrait of him hangs in the hallway for every student to contemplate.

Even if the school board never sees fit to do the right thing and honor this hero, my husband and I will make sure our daughter knows what happened just a few generations ago on a pretty stretch of road in a pretty little town called Front Royal, and why it matters.

-Heather Davis


3 responses to “Desegregation Blues: How the Warren County School Board Left 20 Black Children Out in the Cold

  1. Thank you so much, Heather.

    Maybe we should publish a small volume on this topic for the town to deal with. You’ve certainly provided a few beautiful potential pages here.

  2. Hi,
    My sister in Cape Town, SA, Erna, wrote to you yesterday expressing her interest in your writings. I am thinking of settling in Bassett Virginia (well, one way to get out of Africa and I need the adventure) and its scaring her to death. My kids are mixed race, I’m a die hard hippie, outspoken on every possible subject and we are city dwellers. Is Bassett like Front Royal or worse or, in the words of a famous song “Should I stay or should I go”. Your writing is screamingly funny but also scary. I don’t attend any church and my kids have (oh Gosh!), olive skin. Some guidance please.

  3. Just to throw in my 2 cents. I can’t be reassuring about Bassett. Front Royal is relatively close to Washington DC, and, while Heather is an accurate reporter, there are a fair number of people here like her (and me) who have moved to the area around Front Royal from the DC area, and we do make some difference, as do local folks who have lived in the DC area and come back, or who even commute to DC.

    Bassett is much farther south, in an area with a much worse economy, and much less outside/liberal influence. I have not lived in that area, but I know the state of Virginia pretty well, and I think most of what Heather finds hard about Front Royal would be tougher there.

    Henry Co. is best known for furniture manufacture, now on the decline, and the Martinsville auto speedway. The county has a website.

    Of course, so much depends on your support system and why you are going there. In my experience, that is the most critical thing, no matter where you are.

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