Friday, March 7, 2014

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. Phoebe Kilby

A Story of Racial Healing

Phoebe Kilby began her work in racial reconciliation in 2007, when she first contacted Betty Kilby Fisher (Baldwin) on Martin Luther King Day.  Phoebe’s ancestors were enslavers in the United States prior to 1865; Betty is descended from the persons that Phoebe’s family once enslaved.  Since that time Phoebe has become a leader in the Coming to the Table organization, which seeks to fulfil Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream “that the sons of former slave owners and sons of former slaves will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”  Coming to the Table (CTTT) is profiled at:

Phoebe and Betty have told their story and lead workshops and dialogues on racial reconciliation across the United States. They continue to assist others interested in improving race relations in their communities.

Yago: Phoebe, you are welcome to this blog called “Breathing Forgiveness. Embracing the Giant Wound in the Naked Now.” I am very much impressed by your life story, your honesty facing your past. You are a very courageous woman and a witness to anyone who wants to heal historical harms and its legacies. This interview is going to be a great contribution to this blog. But first of all, could you introduce yourself and the movement called Coming to the Table?

Phoebe: Thank you, Yago, for inviting me to share my witness and information about our Coming to the Table movement in your blog. I am Phoebe Kilby. I work for Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) as the fundraiser for the Center of Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP), but another passion is this movement called Coming to the Table which was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. 

Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech
In this speech he says: “I have a dream… that the sons of former slaves and former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Coming to the Table (CTTT) is a group that was started by descendants of slaves and slave owners. We are talking about the enslavement of Africans here in the United States prior to the end of the Civil War. So CTTT brings together these “connected descendants” to work on racial reconciliation. However, anyone can join CTTT; not everyone in our group is directly connected to slavery, but most of us are in some way. It has been a wonderful experience. I am the President of Coming to the Table, which is affiliated with CJP. We have our own board, we are on our own, but we are still connected to the University.

Members of Coming to the Table at the 50th anniversary
of the March on Washington

Yago: Could you share with us your personal story. What made you to be so interested in this project?

Phoebe: I think that there are several factors that led me to pursue this racial reconciliation work. Some of it started when I was younger. I grew up in the City of Baltimore, Maryland, a city that kept African Americans and European Americans quite separated and where African Americans were oppressed and discriminated against. My father did not have very positive racial attitudes. He often spoke disparagingly of African Americans. I grew up in this atmosphere. We lived in a kind of separate white world, even though quite a few African Americans lived in the city. Everything that I experienced was segregated. But, when I was a teenager, the civil rights movement here the United States began to grow. People were speaking out against segregation and the injustices. I became aware of the movement, but was rather ignorant of what it meant. 

Luckily, I had wonderful teachers in high school who assigned us books to read that were eye-opening, books like the “The Autobiography of Malcolm-X,” “Black Like Me” and “Soul on Ice.” These books exposed these injustices to me in graphic ways and touched my heart. I felt very much that I was pulling away from my family and my parents in terms of my racial attitudes and I continued on that path in college, especially in the papers I chose to write. But then I was also very drawn to the environmental movement. I chose to go to graduate school and pursue a career in that field.

In 2003 I discovered the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU. I was called to study here because I was very much against the Iraq war. I had participated in protest marches in Washington, DC, but I felt that nobody was listening to us. Here was a school where I could actually study peacebuilding. Back in the early 1970s when I was going to college, there were no such courses of study. I obtained a graduate certificate in conflict transformation in 2004, though I was not sure what I would do with it. While many graduates end up working abroad, I realized that there was plenty of work to be done in the United States and subsequently took a job with CJP as its fundraiser.

Will Hairston in a CTTT "sharing stories" activity

Soon after, I met Will Hairston, who is on the EMU staff and is a descendant of a large slave-holding family. He had recently worked with CJP to found Coming to the Table. Given my father’s attitudes and the fact that his family came from Virginia, I wondered if my family had been slaveholders at some point. My father never talked about it. But Will Hairston and CJP inspired me to look at this history. So, I started doing the research, and it was very easy to find out that my family owned slaves. I selected the US Census for 1840, and there was my great-great-grandfather shown as owning two slaves. But as I did more and more research, it became a mission to figure this out. Who had owned slaves, how many, and what could I find out about these slaves? It was difficult to find information about the slaves themselves, particularly their names, because they were not considered people back then, just property. However, I was able to find some records, like wills, estate inventories, court cases, and other documents, that provided names for some slaves.

With that information I was able to get close to figuring out who the descendants of my family slaves might have been. It appeared that after the Civil War, some took Kilby as their last name, which is my family name. I knew that there were present-day African American Kilbys living in a town near me, Front Royal, Virginia, and I suspected that they might be descendants of the people my family enslaved. So, on Martin Luther King Day 2007, I decided to make the first contact. I sent an email to a woman, Betty Kilby Fisher (now Baldwin), and surprisingly, she was willing to communicate with me. That was the beginning of my journey in this work.

I think for a long, long time I have known in my heart that the way many European American people in the United States have treated African Americans is wrong and that there remains a great deal of injustice and unequal treatment of African Americans. I and my family have had a personal role in this oppression. So it made so much sense to me that I was being called to do this kind of peace and justice work, not work abroad, but work right here in the United States to reduce racial oppression and racial harms in a personal way.

Yago: In 2007 you began this journey of racial healing. What are you discovering about yourself in all this process?

Phoebe Kilby with Betty Kilby Fisher and James Kilby
On the Day They First Met
Phoebe: After I made the first contact with Betty and she was willing to connect with me, I met her and others in her family in person the next month. Betty was extremely welcoming to me and called me “cousin” from the beginning. Other family members were not quite sure what to make of me. I knew I had to prove myself to them. But, here at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, we learn in class about how to reach out to others across lines of division, how to work on reconciliation between parties that have been divided by conflict and other harms. I learned much about this from John Paul Lederach and his writings. In one of his early books, he writes about working in Central America, bringing groups together that were in conflict. In meetings, participants referred to Psalm 85, verse 10, where it says: “Truth and mercy have met together; peace and justice have kissed.” They talked about this being the place of reconciliation. To be reconciled, we must tell the truth, show mercy, work for peace and address injustice. CJP helped Coming to the Table develop a model for racial reconciliation work that takes those elements of truth, mercy, peace and justice, and translates them into different terms. Telling the truth became facing history. Showing mercy became making connections across the divisions. Peace became working towards healing. And justice became taking action to address the injustices.

I began to meet through Coming to the Table other descendants of enslavers, like Will Hairston and the Hairston family, and descendants of well-known persons in United States history, descendants of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. We talked about how to share our family stories, share the truth about what they did. And I began to see that it should involve looking back, not just at my family’s role in slavery, but at everything that has happened since then, that my family may have been involved in, and I myself may have been involved in.

Winning family of a Fitter Family contest stand outside
of the Eugenics Building (where contestants register)
 at the Kansas Free Fair, in Topeka, KS (Source: Wikipedia)
So, for example, I spent some time learning about “eugenics,” a scientific theory developed in the early 20th century that posited that African Americans were lesser forms of human beings biologically than European Americans. Devotees of this theory believed in promoting the breeding of a better human race by promoting birth rates in humans with desirable traits and limiting births in lesser humans. Some African Americans were sterilized as a result. The University of Virginia Medical School was a center for the study of eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s, when my father was a medical student there. So my father’s racial attitudes were actually confirmed by the “science” that he was taught in medical school. Think about it, you are studying here at CJP. You are in class with professors and you tend to think that they are telling you the truth. My father did the same with his medical school professors. By looking at this history, it helped me to understand my father and to explain why he was the way he was. For example, when I was young and he was practicing medicine in Baltimore, he treated African Americans as well as whites as patients, but they had separate waiting rooms. The blacks were in one waiting room, very small and bare, and the whites were in a nicely decorated beautiful room to wait for their appointments. When I visited his office as a child, I noticed these things and heard my father speak disparagingly about blacks. So I picked up this racism as a child.

It took me a while before I began to think for myself, starting in my teen years, and began to reject this racism. I tried to purge it from my thoughts, but I don’t know if I will ever get rid of it completely. You can tell yourself intellectually that racism is wrong, but sometimes snap judgements occur in your head and you think “wait a minute,” that is racism and is coming from inside me. It is important to acknowledge this, but it took me some time to get to the point where I could share this honestly with my African Americans cousins. Recently, I have admitted more about myself, of how I grew up and what I have said and done. You would think that they would be angry about it, but what I have found so far is that they appreciate when I tell the truth. So many European Americans in the United States do not ever tell the truth about any racist thoughts they might harbor  They are embarrassed about it and hide it. African Americans perceive that there are these prejudices, but they cannot put a finger on it because it is not as overt as it used to be. So, the sharing of these stories, my stories, it is really powerful, and the connection is on a very deep level. I have seen so many others in Coming to the Table doing the same thing.

Yago: Last month, we had the privilege to participate in the activities of the 20th anniversary of the Richmond slave trail walk, 20 years of healing the heart of America. Rev. Sylvester “Tee” Turner talked about the importance of becoming aware of how we use language and how language can perpetuate things or change things. 

Sylvester "Tee" Turner talking on the 20th Anniversary
Walk on the Historic Richmond Slave Trail
He said: “one of the things that I constantly try to do is to encourage people to remove the word slaves from their mentality and use the word enslaved, because when you are enslaved you are forced into a situation, when you use the term slave you dehumanize individuals (…) Subconsciously when we talk about people as being slaves we really perpetuate the dehumanization of that person or that group.” What would you say about the importance of language in the racial healing process? 

Phoebe: We have many discussions about language. Some people say, you should say “slave-owner” because that is saying what it was; that is being honest. Others say “no, you cannot own a person you can only be a slaveholder.” Others say “I don't like slaveholder either; I think we should use enslaver.” Many of us agree with Tee Turner that we should use the terms “enslaved and enslavers.” We also tend to use “African American and European American” more than “black and white.” We are constantly having these discussions, and people have many different opinions about the best terms to use.

Yago: Tee Turner also talked about the importance of breaking the cycles of legacy. He said: “reconciliation is also about breaking cycles and we have to break the cycle of living out the legacies of the slave trade. All of us are victims and benefactors of those legacies and we have to break that cycle.” We carry the history of our ancestors, but still we cannot be blamed constantly because of what they have done.

Phoebe: Yes, exactly! I believe reconciliation is a process, something we have to work on constantly. In order to transform the harms, the legacies of slavery, we need to pursue all four elements of the CTTT approach: facing history, making connections, working toward healing and taking action to end the injustices.  It is not just about being honest about our history; we have to connect across racial lines. We have to find meaningful ways to heal. STAR training has been particularly helpful for the healing process. And we have to take action. We have a working group addressing actions that we can pursue. We are looking at how to end the mass incarceration of African Americans and are talking about approaches to reparations, that is, actions to repair the harms in a restorative way.

"Facing History" Ritual on the 20th Anniversary
Walk on the Historic Richmond Slave Trail
Yago: When you talk about “facing history,” it is about learning, understanding what actually happened. It is a vital step in dealing with the eradication of what has happened. How is it done in practical terms?

Phoebe: I think there are several ways. We have people to help with genealogical research, to help people figure out who their ancestors were and their involvement in slavery. One of our members has her own website called Our Black Ancestry. She helps African Americans find their ancestors. Some of us from white families have been willing to put our names on the website as resources, because often it is our white family records that hold the key information that African Americans need to find their family members. 
Some of our members have written or are writing books about their family history, such as Tom DeWolf’s “Inheriting the Trade” about the DeWolf family, who were slave traders out of Rhode Island. And another member of our group, Karen Branan, will soon have her book published about her family’s participation in a lynching.  Betty has published a book about her life and her work in civil rights: “Wit, Will and Walls.”  We also share a great deal of information about the history of enslavement and its legacies and aftermaths on our Facebook page. There are many postings daily. All this helps us to have a better understanding of and face our history.

Yago: It looks to me that through the legacy of the slavery trade, we are imprisoned by what our ancestors have done, because it is not only the way I look at myself, but also the way people look at me. If I want to be healed from my past, but still people look at me as the one carrying the legacies, that will keep perpetuating our common past. You already talked about how your childhood deeply affected you; how from time to time you discover yourself with racist thoughts still engrained in your subconscious.

How are you breaking the cycles of legacy in your life? How is your healing journey being processed? We have to deal with the past and at the same time, paradoxically; we have to break with the past.

Phoebe: Absolutely! We have to break free! I think that it requires constant self-examination, looking at where I may have blinders to my own prejudices, and discussing that openly with my African American cousins and encouraging them to point things out to me if they see something in me, in what I do or say.

I do not have any children and neither does my sister have any children, so we have an opportunity to end the racism that passed down from my father. But, I do have some grandchildren through marriage, my husband’s grandchildren. By demonstrating to them a different way of thinking, I surely hope that I will never pass something like this on to them. Their parents feel that way too. Hopefully, we can be constantly vigilant to see where these prejudices are and try to keep that racism from manifesting itself. And then, if you do that, it lessens any racism that will be in subsequent generations, or at least I hope so. And also, my African American cousins introduced me to their children and grandchildren. Even now they are inviting me to family events like birthday and anniversary parties. I was just invited to Betty’s mother’s 91st birthday party. Only her family was there, and I walked in. It was all African Americans and me, a single white woman. So, it is also for them to show their grand children that they are welcoming me to these kinds of important events. It is creating a connection that perhaps will reduce any racism on their part. Because African Americans also have prejudices against European Americans, because of how they have been treated. If we get to that point where we are looking at each other as human beings and not judging based on the colour of skin, we will have achieved quite a bit toward transforming the harms and breaking the cycle of the legacies of slavery.

Yago: It is very interesting, because as we are talking about the importance of language in this process of reconciliation, you look to me very intentional taking African Americans “cousins”. What do you mean by that?

Phoebe: Good question. When I made my first email contact with Betty in 2007, I received an email back, and the title Betty put on it was, “Hello Cousin.” She started calling me cousin from the very beginning, before she even knew me well. Using the word “cousin” means to me “we are family.” So they call me cousin, and I started calling them cousin too. That seems to work for us. It makes us feel like we are acknowledging our connections and possible blood relations. We have not done any DNA testing. But when I mentioned DNA testing to Betty’s brother, James, he said “I don’t think we need DNA testing, I already feel like you’re family.”  That comment was precious to me.

Yago: As you say they are very welcoming to you, they have a warm attitude towards you. What are the values you are getting from the African American community now? What are you discovering in all this reconciliation process? In which way they are helping you to be more human?

Phoebe: I think that they are showing a lot of mercy, forgiveness and love to me. Considering what they have gone through in their own lives, the oppression they have felt, and the fact that they have this legacy of slavery, they could have felt great anger toward me. But they have not, and what this gives me is hope that we can change things. They have only shown me love and forgiveness. And if I can show them love and really work to make amends for what my family did, what I have done, then we are making progress. I see possibilities for the human race, that even when major harms have been committed, historical or current, we can work through those and get to the point of reconnecting again at a human level. We can bridge the divide between those who have been traumatized and those who have created trauma. Reconciliation can happen if we embrace truth, mercy, justice and peace.

Yago: Tee Turner also said that the first step in reconciliation is acknowledgement; the second one is forgiveness from the victim, the third repentance of the perpetrator…

Phoebe: … and apology.

Yago: Do you differentiate between repentance and apology?

Phoebe: Repentance perhaps encompasses a bigger dimension. I think it would include internal recognition of the harms committed and perhaps also apology to the persons harmed.

Yago: And he kept saying that the fourth step in the reconciliation process must be accountability. And that goes together with the most difficult stage in reconciliation, because we can acknowledge the past and repent… but accountability is also bringing equality to the relationship in all the dimensions, even the material one… We are talking of reconciliation, not only institutionally but starting at the one to one basis. We have inherited a lot of privileges that we have to acknowledge.

Phoebe: Absolutely! Yes, I agree.

Yago: We are encouraged to differentiate ourselves from the system we have inherited, a system that is giving me a privilege that keeps undermining others. What is the role of accountability in your life and in Coming to the Table?

Phoebe: So, I can tell you what I am exploring personally right now. And the word I use is reparations - something to repair the harms. I have talked about this with my African American cousins. After apologizing, I said to them that I needed to do something to make amends for my family’s role in their oppression. And their reaction was… “You don't need to do anything Phoebe… you didn’t enslave anybody.” And I said: “Yes, but it was my family who did. If I do not make amends, then who will? How will the harm ever be repaired?” So, I thought about it and after some time, I came up with an idea. I said to them: “It seems that your family is very interested in education and you want your children and their children to have a good education. So what if I could do something to set up a scholarship endowment that could benefit your grandchildren, and great grandchildren?” They thought that this was a very good idea. So I am talking right now to a foundation about how to do this. By setting up a scholarship endowment, I am taking money that I have inherited and putting it to the benefit of their children.

I should also mention that prior to this most recent work on monetary reparations, I took action to repair harms done to African American Kilbys by working with them in their community of Front Royal, Virginia, to gain recognition of their work on school desegregation during the civil rights era.  Rather than recount that work here, I refer you to an article I wrote about it on the Coming to the Table website
(see link).

Yago: This is a personal level. How do you envision it at institutional level? Is there any action that has been taking by Coming to the Table? Advocacy perhaps?

Phoebe: Yes! Advocacy! We have a group that is interested in justice issues. They have spoken out with regard to the Travon Martin situation, saying that we need to address the targeting of black males by law enforcement. We are also interested in addressing the problem of mass incarceration of the African American men in the US. We hope to partner with other groups working on these issues. And we are having a conference call later this month exploring the issue of reparations. So, this work is not just facing the history and making the connections and working towards healing. We have to act.

Yago: Very often a prophetic voice is not welcome. And this can happen with the “white community” that does not want to deal with the task of transforming historical harms. It has probably not been easy for you to work as president of “Coming to the Table.” Do you feel supported in your work, personally and as organization? How are you dealing with the demands of your work?

Phoebe: There was an article about me and my cousin Betty on in 2010 (see link). We spoke honestly about our history. Some of the comments we got on the story were very negative and unpleasant. Of course, some were positive as well.

Yago: What was the main content of the article?

Betty and Phoebe Kilby first met in 2007.
They are linked by a slave past.
Phoebe: The article tells our story and how we connected. I spoke about my family and wanting to make amends. There were comments taking me to task for doing this. Some said I shouldn’t be saying these things; that white people don’t owe black people anything. Some even were making comments about the words we used, what we looked like, you name it, all kinds of nasty comments. Unfortunately I think this is how things work in the world these days. There were more than 2700 comments, so I did not read them all. I did not worry too much about them. I have been fortunate that members of my European American family have been very supportive of my connecting with my African American cousins and my work with Coming to the Table. Some others in Coming to the Table have family members who do not like what they are doing and criticize them quite strongly for the work of Coming to the Table. So there is backlash to some extent.

This Coming to the Table work is very much a journey, a process, a relatively new movement.  Those of us who have joined the movement are pursuing reconciliation between African American and European Americans in some way.  We have not focused very much on talking to people who do not think like us. There are many people who have ancestors who fought in the American Civil War for the Confederacy. They may be very proud of that, and some say that the war was not about slavery, but about the states’ rights. Many people do not like to think about slavery and how their family might have been involved in it. I think that at some point I and others in Coming to the Table should engage more with people who do not think like us, to see if there is a way of influencing them to recognize the legacies of slavery.

Yago:  The Coming to the Table vision for the United States is of a just and truthful society that acknowledges and seeks to heal from the racial wounds of the past, from slavery and the many forms of racism it spawned. Is there any attempt in Coming to the Table of including the voice of the indigenous peoples of the States?

Phoebe: We have talked about that. There are members of Coming to the Table who have indigenous roots and are interested in that. But it is not a central part of our work.  There is so much work to do regarding African American and European American issues that we so far have not chosen to branch out into other areas. The indigenous peoples of the United States were subjected to many indignities and injustices, but in different ways than the African Americans. Generally, indigenous peoples were not enslaved. They had their land taken away, were forced into reservations, but it is a different kind of legacy, not to diminish it, it is just different. Coming to the Table has a lot on its plate already and has limited funding, and there are other groups that are addressing legacy of mistreatment of Native Americans.

Yago: What about Coming to the Table addressing the current situation of Latino immigrants in the States?

Phoebe: We are not doing anything in that regard for the same reasons as stated for indigenous peoples.

Yago: Is it there any kind of networking with other organizations working for the Indigenous people and Latino rights?

Phoebe: We are not doing this kind of networking. Maybe we should, but we are not right now.

Yago: How many are you currently? How do you connect?

Phoebe: So Coming to the Table now has around 850 members across the United States. And there are many ways in which we are connecting, many of us on-line, on Facebook. We have a blog called Bittersweet, a website, and monthly conference calls where we discuss a topic of interest to this work. Our next conference call is about the movie “12 years a Slave,” about how people feel about it and whether it is an honest portrayal of slavery. We have also organized five local gathering groups that meet in person. They are located in areas of the United States where we have a concentration of members in close enough proximity that they can come together and do the same kind of sharing that Betty Kilby and I are doing.

Yago: How often do you meet?

Phoebe: We meet as an entire community once every two years. The next meeting, our National Gathering, will be May 23-25, 2014, during CJP’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute on the EMU campus, Harrisonburg, Virginia. Our local gathering groups in Seattle, Washington, San Francisco Bay area, California, Pasadena, California, Richmond, Virginia, and New York, New Jersey meet monthly or several times per year.

Dedication of a Historic Marker Honoringthe Kilbys Work on School Desegregation

Yago: The next question is about your vision of the future of Coming to the Table. You have already talked about the lack of enough funding and also of so many things to be done. What are the measurable areas of growth in Coming to the Table, things that realistically can happen?

Phoebe: I think that Coming to the Table can definitely expand its membership to well over a thousand members. And I would like to see more local gatherings groups. We have five very active groups that meet in Seattle, WA, San Francisco Bay Area, CA, Pasadena, CA, Richmond, VA, and New York / New Jersey. I would like to see local groups in many areas where we have a concentration of members. We hope to start groups in Washington DC, and Baltimore, MD, and we need to have some in the Deep South. Because our 850 members are spread out across the US, it is difficult for members to connect face-to-face. You can talk on the phone or communicate by email or Facebook, but it is not like sitting across the table from somebody. So, we would like to have gatherings groups in all areas of the country, including the Mid-West. And then there are a number of us who would like to initiate more work in the area of reparations. We have done a lot of work to face the difficult history, to connect across racial lines, and to work for healing the feelings of trauma.  We should now be at the point where we can focus on taking action to repair the harms, such as addressing the mass incarceration of African American men and the targeting of African American youth by police and other groups. Some European Americans are also considering ways to personally make amends to our African American “cousins.”

Yago: To end the interview I would like to talk briefly about the inspiring manual called ‘Transforming Historical Harms.” This is a wonderful resource, isn’t it?

Phoebe: Yes, the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding really gave us a gift. It is a wonderful resource, not only for our movement, but also for the STAR program and others. It is practical manual that describes in detail an approach to facing history, making connections, working toward healing and taking action. For example, last month, Betty and I, were speaking at the University of Virginia. They had a conference on Virginia Universities and their Race Histories (See link). It was very helpful to have a manual to show them how they might approach this work in their own context. So, it has been a real gift to us that will be helpful to others embarking on this journey. 

Yago: Do you have other groups who are taking this manual as a guideline for their processing racial healing?

Phoebe: All our local gathering groups are using the manual.

Yago: What about other educational institutions?

Phoebe: Not yet, as far as I know. This was the first conference like this in Virginia. So, we were there to bring this message. I think that we still have a way to go. Most universities in Virginia seem to be focusing more on the slavery period and not on what has happened since. They did not speak much about the legacies of slavery. The Transforming Historical Harms Manual would be a good guide for other universities and institutions to work on racial reconciliation more comprehensively.

Yago: Phoebe, thanks a lot for your sharing. Your life example is a wonderful witness for many of us who are trying to find creative ways to transform historical harms, its legacy and aftermath.

Phoebe: Many thanks to you, Yago. Thanks for your wonderful work!