The children, mostly white with a sprinkling of African Americans and others, listened as Sloane, who is black, told them how it used to be.
“I never had an opportunity to ride a school bus, even though a bus came every day to pick up the white students who lived on my lane,” she said. “There was a spring nearby, a reservoir or water hole where someone used to go every morning to bring a bucket, and that was our drinking water.”
Her story may have sounded like ancient times to the students, but it resonated for several special guests: James Kilby, Suetta Freeman, Joyce Banks and Ann Baltimore. They were among the original 23 students who integrated the Warren County public schools 60 years ago this week.
In 1958, Kilby’s father, James Wilson Kilby, a farmer and janitor with a sixth-grade education, led a group of black families in filing a lawsuit that forced Warren County High School to admit blacks. It was the first challenge to Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” laws defying attempts at public school desegregation, particularly after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. The most dramatic of these battles would come in 1959, when Prince Edward County chose to close all of its public schools for five years rather than integrate.
Before the forced integration of Warren County High, Warren County had never had a high school for African Americans. They had to attend black high schools in neighboring counties such as Prince William or Culpeper, often living as boarders because the schools were too far away to commute to each day.
“This is where we live at, why can’t our children be educated here?” Freeman, 74, recalls her parents saying.
After a bitter battle, on Feb. 18, 1959, 21 black students walked up a grassy hill to the school, past hecklers and policemen.
Warren County, whose population is about 5 percent black, is still largely rural but has added subdivisions and residents, growing from 14,000 residents in the 1950s to nearly 40,000 now. To make room for new students, three schools have been built in the past 15 years.
After his father died in 2003, Kilby fought unsuccessfully to get one of the new schools named after him. He calls the elder Kilby a hero. (The drive heading up to the son’s former high school, now Skyline Middle School, was named after his father.)
But walking up that hill as a 14-year-old that February day, Freeman didn’t necessarily feel heroic.
“It was a long hill to walk up, and it was very cold, and we were met by some hostile people,” she said. “We were nervous but we didn’t act like it. . . . Dad always told us to keep your mouth shut and keep walking.”
It was a lonely school year. Aside from the black students who integrated Warren County High, not one student attended the school that semester. All the white students found alternatives. Even after they started to trickle back in the following year, there was little camaraderie across the racial divide.
“If we joined a club, other kids were sitting over there and you were sitting by yourself,” Freeman said. “I never went to a sporting event; if they had sporting events, they didn’t tell us. . . . They still owe me a prom. I don’t know if they had a prom; if they did, they didn’t let us know.”
Standing with her former classmate after the ceremony, Baltimore, 77, laughed wryly. “I need the prom, the graduation, I need the whole nine yards.”
Looking at pictures from 60 years ago, they recalled the scowling white faces lining their path to the school that day.
“They’ve all got that grim look — ‘You all ain’t going nowhere,’ ” Freeman said.
Kilby, 76, said, “They were angry.”
Baltimore said, “The way they called us names, going up that hill.”
The former students who were at the event Friday still live in Front Royal, and still see people from that time. And the bad feelings haven’t all gone away.
“Even now when I go to my class reunions, there’s still some to this day that will not come because I’m there,” Freeman said.
Banks, 77, started to chime in, then hesitated. “Since the president is in office — I’ll say it — it’s worse,” she said. “He brought out so much, people being prejudiced. It hasn’t gone away; it’s just hurting. His thing about making America great again, he is talking about the ’60s, ’50s, ’40s, ’30s — because that’s when things were very hard on black people. He wants that to come back. . . . We have been through this before, but we thought it was almost gone. ”
Regarding her own state governor, Ralph Northam (D), who is embroiled in controversy over wearing blackface, Banks was more forgiving. “I think he was a young man, but I think he’s been doing all right by black people.”
As students filed out after the ceremony, Principal Amy Gubler asked Freeman and the others what message they had for her student body, which is 82 percent white, 2 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic.
“They need to know more about why they might need to take a stand like we did,” Freeman said.
Banks nodded. “If they were going through some of the stuff that we went through, they wouldn’t want to go to school — but we went through all that stuff just to go to school.”
Zachary Logan, a history teacher at the school who put the ceremony together, said he had heard some stories about integration while growing up in Warren County in the ’80s and ’90s, but it was not part of the school curriculum then.
“As a middle school and high school student, I had heard about civil rights events on a national level, and then I started working at the local heritage society and started learning about things that happened here,” said Logan, who is white.
Logan said it’s important for his students to understand their local history. “Virginia curriculum for students discusses the civil rights era as one of the things that define what brings our country into the modern era,” he said.
Ayaana Vashista, 11, a sixth-grader who attended the ceremony, said Sloane’s story was inspiring. “She came such a long way in her life, it’s like she was trying to set an example for us,” she said.
CORRECTION: Vashista’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this report. This version has been corrected.