Was in the local grocery store the other day. When the woman at the counter saw my last name, she chuckled – that’s my last name too. We could be cousins. I told her, if you are from a certain part of Virginia, we probably are. Stunned by my frankness she asked about the family. I told her some of the background, and how the family had spread all the way down the Shenandoah Valley into Kentucky. I explained to her the origin of the family name being an Irishman who had settled in the Valley in the 1830s and worked as a coal miner. I explained that the family was fairly large, and the last time anyone had done a reunion – they had counted up several thousand relatives.
Visibly shaken, she said the town which she was from. I explained to her my grandfather had been born in that Town, but didn’t explain the circumstances. I’ve got to go by the store to pick up a prescription tomorrow… Should be an interesting discussion.
Betty Kilby was gripped with apprehension. Descendants of the white family that enslaved her kin were coming to dinner.
She scrolled through a mental Rolodex of relatives who might flip out. Her brothers had already asked her: Why would you want to meet the family of those who held our loved ones in bondage?
“When they ask that question,” she says, “you kind of scratch your head. It makes sense. Why would you want to do that?”
As the dinner neared, she thought of her grandparents, who had toiled in the fields of rural Rappahannock County, Virginia. “Out of all the crazy things I’ve done,” she thought, “this has got to be the craziest.”
Betty had faced down racism, and white people, before. She was one of the first African-Americans to attend a desegregated school in Virginia. She’d even written a book about it.
But this dinner, though weeks in the making, would test her in a new way.
‘Knew we were connected’
It was a surprise for Phoebe Kilby to learn that her family owned slaves. It wasn’t something her father ever mentioned.
But Phoebe had read newspaper articles about African-American Kilbys living in Virginia, near the farm where her father grew up. Her curiosity sent her on a search of old courthouse records — deeds, wills, census documents.
She soon learned her family owned five slaves.
And when she read Betty Kilby’s book, the puzzle fell together.
“I just knew we were connected,” Phoebe said.
But how does the descendant of a slave owner reach out?
“It’s a hard thing to do out of the blue,” Phoebe said. “What do you say to somebody? And how are they going to react to you? Are they going to be angry? Are they going to say, ‘I never want to talk to somebody like you?’ ”
On January 15, 2007, she sat down at her computer and fired off an e-mail to Betty. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“My name is Phoebe Kilby, and I am white,” the note began.
“Martin Luther King had ‘a dream that … the sons of former slaves and slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of Brotherhood.’ Perhaps, we as daughters can contribute to fulfilling that dream.”
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Days went by. No response.
“At first, I thought she doesn’t want to talk to me.”
It turned out a computer glitch meant Betty never received the e-mail. Two weeks after she sent the first note, Phoebe tried again.
“Hello, cousin,” Betty responded.
The two spoke briefly by phone and made a plan to meet.
Betty was mega-busy on a book tour, giving speeches about love and brotherhood. At schools, black children would ask, “How come you don’t hate white people?”
“I tell them hate is like taking poison. The only person you hurt is yourself.”
Without much thought, Betty invited Phoebe to the family dinner. “I thought, what kind of hypocrite would I be if I could not sit down at the table of brotherhood with Phoebe?”
Still, she and others in her family couldn’t help but wonder about Phoebe’s motives. Were the descendants of the slave master coming to steal from them one last time?…