In the segregated South of the 1950s, James Kilby's two sons had to attend a state-run high school for blacks 65 miles away, although the all-white Warren County High School was a few miles from their home. When it was time for his third child, daughter Betty, to enter high school, Kilby was determined that she would not leave home.
"I just told my wife, 'We're not going to send her,' " he recalled recently from his house just outside of Front Royal. "We had a right to all the privileges as white people."
With that decision, James W. Kilby, a janitor with a sixth grade education, earned a place in civil rights history 27 years ago by filing a suit against the Warren County School Board that won the right for black children to attend the local high school. His parental indignation sparked a movement in Front Royal, a small town at the foot of the Luray Caverns 60 miles outside of Washington, that mirrored efforts nationwide to dismantle segregation.
Today, at age 68, Kilby is no less a local champion of civil rights. He serves on school committees and job training boards and is involved in a number of programs aimed at improving conditions for youths and low-income and minority residents, such as a local home weatherization program he developed.
"I think if you say James Kilby in Warren County, everybody knows who you're talking about," according to Robert Long, principal of Warren County High, where 75 of the more than 800 students are black. "He's been very active for many years."
Since retiring in 1984 from a janitorial position at an industrial plant, Kilby fills his time working on new causes.
Last month, he protested the Town Council's auction of property acquired from several black families for municipal use. The property was not used, and Kilby testified that the families could not afford to buy back the land at auction.
"In this country, there's still a lot of injustice that hasn't been uncovered," he said in a recent interview.
Kilby and his wife Catherine live in a new brick house in the rural Happy Creek district, just outside of Front Royal. The house, next to the one where the couple raised their five children, provides many memories of Kilby's initial involvement in civil rights work 35 years ago, when being a black activist was not a popular -- or even a safe -- thing to do.
"The first thing that happened after we filed the suit was a bloody sheet was put on the mailbox," Kilby said, seated in the spacious kitchen before a mound of newspaper clippings and other records of the time.
As one of the local leaders of a movement defying Virginia's separate-but-equal tradition, Kilby awoke many mornings to find his livestock mutilated and poisoned and went to bed at night wondering if men he dubbed "nightriders" would fire shots through his house.
"It was rough," he said, crediting the lack of real physical harm to his family to his belief in God.
"It was hell," according to Crofton, Md., resident James M. Kilby, eldest of the Kilby children. In 1962, he made local history by becoming one of the first two black students to graduate from Warren County High.
He and his brother John and sister Betty were among 19 black students who enrolled at the school on Feb. 18, 1959, after a federal judge ordered their admittance. They were the only students in a building that had housed 1,000. White parents refused to send their children to the school that semester, according to the yellowed newspaper clippings Kilby keeps in a thick scrapbook.
In 1961, the town's elementary schools were integrated as well, and Kilby turned his efforts elsewhere.
He led pickets of the Safeway and A&P grocery stores, Tastee-Freez diner and McCrory's Five and Dime in order to get them to hire black women. According to Kilby, who as a child worked with his parents as servants for a wealthy white family in Rappahanock County, Va., the fight for employment was important because the only jobs available to black women were as domestics.
While many of his recollections are bitter, others are tinged with humor. "I had a little fun out there," he said of the time a group of blacks launched a lunch counter sit-in at the Belle Boyd restaurant. "The cops run me home three times," he laughed.
A decade later, he organized a nonprofit company that built 20 brick houses for black families, and he spoke against discrimination in state government and school hiring. It was at that time, in 1972, that he found a cross burning in his front yard.
Since then, he said recently, racial relations in the county have come "a long, long way." But "there are still some problems that need to be straightened out."
He promotes working on causes that benefit all people. "We need coalitions in rural areas. Now's the time to work with people, regardless of race, creed or color," he said.
In addition to his civic activities, he spends much of his time collecting the mementos and putting in writing his memories of those more turbulent times.
A grandfather of 11, four of whom graduated from or attend Warren County High, he is motivated now by pride.
"I just want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know I existed," he said.