Cover Story

Desegregation pioneer Betty Kilby Fisher brought to life the history of Brown v. Board of Education at the 2004 Biennial Convention of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues by relating her role in the desegregation of a high school in Front Royal, Va.

As a 13-year-old in rural Warren County, Va., in the 1950s, Kilby was a plaintiff in the case of Betty Ann Kilby v. Warren County Board of Education, one of many desegregation cases that followed the landmark Brown case. Despite the Brown ruling, many states protested the controversial ruling and kept their schools segregated in the 1950s.

One of those schools was Warren County High School, which barred Kilby from attending, even though it was close by. Instead, black students in Front Royal were required to travel more than an hour to attend a separate black high school, Kilby explained. She described how her father--appalled by the distance his children traveled for their education--heard about the Brown decision and chose to fight to desegregate the local Warren County High School.

"He said, 'Nothing in life has ever been easy for me, and if my kids don't get an education, nothing will be easy for them either,'" recalled Kilby.

Her father sought the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and well-known African-American attorneys Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood W. Robinson III, who had been lead counsel in the Virginia desegregation case of Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, which was ultimately consolidated with Brown at the Supreme Court level.

A Virginia judge ruled in Kilby's favor to desegregate Warren County High School in 1958, but the state closed the school for six months under its Massive Resistance laws--Virginia's attempt to delay school integration. During that time, Kilby recalls, her family received abusive phone calls and shots were fired at their house.

In January 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court struck down the state's Massive Resistance laws and ordered Warren County High School opened and integrated. White students boycotted public education the rest of the school year, while Kilby and 20 other black students attended school by themselves. The school was finally desegregated the following September when the white students returned. However, Kilby explained, white students ignored, teased and discouraged her and other black students from playing sports or attending the prom. Kilby graduated from Warren County High School in 1963.

Kilby ended her conference talk by describing her more recent challenges and encounters with racism as a minority woman working her way up the corporate ladder in companies such as Rubbermaid and American Airlines. She eventually took it upon herself to help make workplaces become more culturally sensitive by founding Cultural Innovations Inc., which provides businesses, organizations and schools with diversity training materials and other cultural education services.

She urged conference participants to reflect on the historical significance of Brown and to parlay it into proactively promoting diversity in their lives.

"You are either part of the problem or part of the solution," Kilby said.