Thursday, October 12, 2006

Wit, Will and Walls in Loudon Times-Mirror

Speaking your mind
By Betsy Allen

Put yourself in Betty Kilby Fisher's place: a teenager living in Virginia 50 years ago -- trying to do well in school, make friends, fit in.

Now, imagine you are thrown into a situation where your mere presence drives students from the school's doors. Picture yourself as a source of turmoil and target for some of the worst kinds of ugliness human beings can conjure.

Could you endure?Tanesia Fisher, 16, a junior at Stone Bridge High School, doesn't think so."I probably wouldn't have been as strong as her. I couldn't have handled it."

Tanesia is the granddaughter of Betty Kilby Fisher. And this was the situation Fisher found herself in during the late 1950s, when she was a 13-year-old living in Warren County.Dismayed by widespread segregation practices, Betty's father, James Kilby, decided to draw the line with his own daughter.

He filed a case in Betty's name to force the integration of Warren County High School. Ordered by federal courts to end segregation, Virginia balked; instead, the governor ordered the closing of that school, along with others in the state, as part of a policy of Massive Resistance.

Eventually, Virginia's Supreme Court ruled that policy unconstitutional and the schools reopened, but the white students stayed away. For months, Betty and a handful of other black teenagers walked the quiet halls at Warren County High School.Over time, white students returned - some with a vengeance. Betty was emotionally, verbally and physically abused, and resulting trauma has stayed with her throughout her life.

People may not "understand the price that we paid to get an education," said Betty, 61, who now lives in Euless, Texas.

"That's the way you take someone's power away," said Paulette Moore, a documentary film director associated with Shenandoah University in Winchester. Moore is producing a film about Betty and the events of 50 years ago.

"[Betty] didn't tell anyone what happened," said Moore. "If young girls told their families, they would have to go and defend their honor. People could get killed."

In 2002, Betty shared her experiences in a book, "Wit, Will and Walls.""When I first wrote my book, I had an image of young people reading the book," said Betty. "There were things I didn't want to put in. But if I cut and pasted pieces, it wouldn't be a real story. I thought, if I am going to touch people, it will be with the raw truth."

Moore found Betty's story deeply compelling, and an ideal subject for a documentary film. When it came to casting the film, Betty felt strongly that her granddaughter Tanesia could play an important role - that of Betty herself.

Tanesia is thoughtful and direct when asked about her grandmother's experiences and her decision to be part of the film.

"I've always been really close to my grandmother. I knew some of the story," said Tanesia. "But I didn't know all the stuff she had to go through. When I read the book, I was surprised. I was kind of hesitant about the whole acting thing ... showing so much emotion, but I didn't want to disappoint my grandmother. It means a lot to her."

A four-day shoot in mid-August took the film production crew and cast to locations around Clarke and Warren counties to re-enact key events in the story. Moore now is seeking additional funding to undertake a second phase of the documentary production. She has a target completion date of 2008, 50 years after the original case was filed.

The director is constructing the historically based film in a way that young people today can relate to, with limited black-and-white footage - "the events took place in vivid color" - and contemporary music instead of gospel or march songs.

She feels there is an important message here.

"You don't have to be Betty Kilby Fisher to make a change. It's not alchemy," said Moore. "It starts with just speaking your mind."

That's something Tanesia does well. She realizes there are people who honor the legacy of her grandmother - and those who don't.

"You can't force people to appreciate it," said Tanesia. "No one changes just because of one decision someone makes. Racism is still everywhere. It's still in school. Most people are in denial." But she adds, "If you reach out to the younger kids, they'll realize that what they have now is something to be grateful for."

What Tanesia has now are some specific goals. She wants to go to college, earn a business degree and open a seaside resort hotel in her mother's native country, the Philippines.A grand dream, perhaps, for any high schooler - but one that seems in reach. And for that we can thank, in large part, people like Betty Kilby Fisher, who gained their own beachheads in Virginia's civil rights movement half a century ago.

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