Sunday, March 30, 2014

Civil Rights Heroine Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin and "Wit, Will, & Walls"

Christal Cooper – 1,576 Words

Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin:
For The Sake Of The Children

“Just like there was no room for Baby Jesus in Bethlehem,
these folks are saying there is no room for our children
in the white Warren County School system”
James Wilson Kilby

“You put one foot in front of the other and you take one day at a time
and everyday you vow it is not going to destroy you. 
And you can not allow them to win.
  Only God can have dominion over my life. “
Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin

            On July 19, 1958, Betty Kilby Fisher with her two older brothers James and John, were three of twenty-two children named in the lawsuit Betty Ann Kilby et als, Plaintiffs vs The County School Board of Warren County.

Betty’s father James Wilson Kilby insisted she and her brothers attend the “white school” instead of sending them outside the county to a segregated school. 

Federal Judge John Paul Jr agreed with her father, and on September 4, 1958, told Warren County School Board officials that they could not deny Negroes admission to the county’s only high school because of race.  Judge Paul demanded the attorneys to have an order readey for his signature on Monday, September 8, 1958, to have the twenty two high school students admitted to the Warren County High School. 

On September 11, 1958 Chief Judge Simon E Sobeloff of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Paul. 

The fighting intensified when, the next day, Betty’s segregated white-only-school , Warren County High School, became the first school to close at the behest of The Warren County Board of Education.  

Virginia Governor James Lindsay Almond Junior , siting the Massive Resisancse Laws as his reasoning, demanded that all schools enrolling any Negro student immendiatley be closed.   

Thus set the motion for James Kilby’s response to the Governor Almond and state of Virginia’s refusal to abide by the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Oliver Brown et al vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

On September 15, 1959 a photographer from Life Magazine visited the Kilby farm to take a photograph of Betty, her two brothers, and her father.   That same photograph, zoomed in on Betty and her father, became the cover of Betty’s memoir Wit, Will, and Walls. 

“I remember the day we took the photograph.  My father told us to get dressed because they were going to take our pictures. He told us this was serious business.  We werent’ supposed to smile or giggle.  I put on my Sunday School dress.”

         James Kilby informed his three older children of the importance of what their stand would mean:  that they as individuals were guaranteed the political process just as their fellow white citizens; the importance of them being registered and responsible voters; and to vote for the proper people because the laws they made affected their lives.

 Her father and the school counselors explained to the children that they we were soldiers of God’s army, marching to get an education for all of God’s children.  The children were told to never giggle, laugh, and to always stand proud and strong.  This didn’t seem too difficult for Betty, considering being raised in the racial south as a black sharecropper’s daughter.

       “We never played in our Sunday School clothes.  As farmers we didn’t play we worked.”
That work consisted of going to school Monday through Friday, doing homework, and then doing chores:  checking the mailbox, caring for the family calf, milking the cows, cutting the heads off chickens, working in the fields, housework, and constantly being on her guard. 

       Even though the family did not have KKK as neighbors, the Night Riders felt the need to visit the family farm on numerous occasions:  to mutilate and kill their calf; kill their pet dog Tylo; shoot gunshots during the family’s dinner; burn crosses in the family’s yard; place a hangman’s noose on the family’s front porch; and place bloody stained white sheets over the mailbox.  It soon became common practice to view “checking the mailbox” as a frightening chore. 

 “One day I heard something scratching in the mailbox.  I imagined a big cobra.  We got Mama and a stick, and we opened the mailbox, going around behind it to see what it was.  It was just a turtle.”    

On February 18, 1959, Betty (now in the 8th grade and four days shy of her 14th birthday) and her brothers were finally able to attend Warren County High School with their white classmates.  Not a single white student enrolled for classes until September 1959. 

The September 1959 school year was not a nurturing environment for Betty, but rather a breeding ground for battle.   She had to constantly look over her shoulder and make sure she was never alone.  One day, she crossed to the auditorium by herself only to be raped by three young white male classmates.  Betty passed out during the rape.  When she recovered consciousness, she stood up, rearranged her clothes, went home, placed her clothes in the hamper, and cooked the family meal, not telling anyone. 

       The thought of writing her own memoir did not occur utnil 1989, but was soon pushed to the side until September 11, 2001 when she was laid off after a successful career in management at Rubbermaid and American  Airlines.

       Betty was now in new territorty all over again –her experience of writing was a small one:  she wrote the traditional Christmas play for her church at the age of sixteen; and a 30-page booklet “Freedom Road” about the history of Warren County from 1836 to 1986, which was publsihed in the Shenandoah Valley Historical review.    

         Betty, at age 61, purchased a new computer and a book on writing and delved into the unknown.  The writing, though painful at times, seemed to go smoothly until she came to the chapter of the rape. 

       “It was a very painful experience.  I took my laptop to the closet and wrote the chapter in its entirety from the closet.”
Nine months later the book was complete and ready to be sent to the publisher for print.  The Life Magazine photograph of her fahter, herself, and two brothers had to be decreased by 30% in order for her to use the copyright and make it the jacket cover.

Betty had copies printed for her husband, children, and grandchildren.  The rape still remained a secret that she shared only with Elsa.  Wit, Will, & Walls was published in December 2002, but Betty did not have a copy printed for her mother and father.  Her father passed in May of 2003 and she never told her mother, who has also since passed.  Wit, Will & Walls has sold over 20,000 copies.

Soon she was asked to give speeches of her experiences and was even invited by Virginia Delegate Viola Baskerville to attend a meeting in the Virginia capital.  Unfortunately, an ice storm hit the area so she was not able to drive nor was a taxi able to take her to the airport. 

“I took off walking.  A black girl in a SUV gave me a ride.  When I offered her money she said no.  I gave her an autographed copy of my book.  She e-mailed me and said the same thing (the rape) that happened to you happened to me. And my life was blessed by your story.” 

   Now Betty doesn’t hesitate to tell all of her experiences.  And people are paying attention, including documentary filmmaker Paulette Moore of Moore Films, who produced and directed a documentary on Betty Kilby Fisher.  Betty suggested to Moore that she hire her granddaughter Tanesia Fisher to portray her in the film.

“My granddaguhter had read the book four times and each time she has had to do some kind of paper.  She asked some really good quesitons.  She had a really good understanding – in dance, music, very poised and very mature.   Paulette said she still wanted  a profesional actress but that she would talk to Tanesia.  After she talked to Tanesia, she called me and said, “You were absolutely right.’” 

The film debued in February of 2007; but the film was only half of the debue – Betty Kilber Fisher Baldwin stood next to Phoebe Kilby, a white woman who read Bertty’s book and realized that her white family once owned Betty’s family. Phoebe contacted Betty the previous month on Martin Luther King Jr Day in 2007.

“I was able to say I was not only celebrating Marin Luther King Jr Day that one day sons and daughters of former slaves and former slave holders will come to the table of brotherhood; I was (also) able to say that I was celebratring that my family and my slave owning family are sitting at the table of brotherhood. It was very emotional and very impactful.”

Betty and Phoebe consider each other cousins and now travel throughout the country, telling their story to whomever is willing to listen.

         “We tell the story of the little black girl who struggled to get an education and the story of the little white girl who was born into privilege.  And now we come together to sit at the table so we invite others to come to the table as a way of healing our nation; because we believe that if we can all sit down and just lay everything out on the table that we can truly make this world a better place.”

Photo 1
Warren County Court Hall in September 1958.
Photo made available by Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin.

Photo 2
Busing for African American Students from Warren County all the way to Clarke County.
Photo made available by Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin.

Photo 3
Federal Judge John Paul Jr. 
Public Domain.

Photo 4
Chief Judge Simon E. Sobeloff. 
Public Domain

Photo 5
James Kilby and three older children

Photo 5
Virginia Governor James Lindsay Almond Jr. 
Public Domain

Photo 6
September 222, 1958 issue of Time Magazine featuring Virginia Governor James Lindsay Almond Jr on its cover.

Photo 7
On May 17, 1954, these men, members of the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.  Photo taken on December 14, 1953
The members of the Warren Court, taken in 1953. Back row (left to right): Tom Clark, Robert H. Jackson, Harold Burton, and Sherman Minton. Front row (left to right): Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Stanley Reed, and William O. Douglas
Public Domain

Photo 8
Jacket cover of Witt, Will, & Walls.

Photo 9
Betty in her Sunday School dress on September 15, 1958.

Photo 10a
Police guard protecting the 23 students at Warren County High School in 1959.
Photo made available by Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin.

Photo 10b
In “Wit, Will and Walls,” a tearful Betty Kilby Fisher recalls her father, played by Theodore Snead, praying outside, asking for divine guidance after losing a court battle to retain land he had been promised by a landlord. That loss compelled Kilby to seek a better education for his children than he felt he had received.
Copyright granted by Paulette Moore.

Photo 11

Photo 12
Betty and James Kilby on September 15, 1958 at their farm.

Photo 13
KKK burning crosses in Denver, Colorado 1921.  Public Domain.

Photo 14
Some of the 23 students walking to Warren County High School.
Photo made available by Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin.

Photo 15
Warren County High School. 
Public Domain

Photo 16
Tanesia Fisher portraying her grandmother Betty Kilby Fishher Baldwin in the documentary by Paulette Moore.
Copyright granted by Paulette Moore.

Photo 17
Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin. 
Copyright granted by Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin.

Photo 18
Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin.
Copyright granted by Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin.

Photo 19
Tanesia Fisher portraying her grandmother Betty Kilby Fishher Baldwin in the documentary by Paulette Moore.
Copyright granted by Paulette Moore.

Photo 21
Jacket cover of Wit, Will & Walls

Photo 22
Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin in 2002.
Copyright granted by Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin.

Photo 23
Virginia Delegate Viola Baskerville
Public Domain

Photo 24
Paulette Moore Films website logo and contact info

Photo 25
Paulette Moore.
Copyright granted by Paulette Moore

Photo 26
Tanesia Fisher portraying her grandmother Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin in the documentary by Paulette Moore.
Copyright granted by Paulette Moore.

Photo 27
Betty, Phoebe, James on the day they first met.
Copyright granted by Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin.

Photo 28.
Betty and Phoebe Kilby.
Copyright granted by Betty Kilby Fisher Baldwin.

Photo 29
Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have A Dream” speech.
Public Domain. 

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