Mixed-race couple shows how their love helped overcome hardships - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Mixed-race couple shows how their love helped overcome hardships, change Md. law

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John and Shirley Billy John and Shirley Billy
BALTIMORE -

February is the month we celebrate black history and the month we also celebrate love. We are combining them here with a love story that helped change history in the state of Maryland.

It was a warm September night in 1954. John Billy and his group, "The Honey Boys," were performing at a private teenage social club in east Baltimore.

"This kid came over to me and brought me a note,” he said. “I looked at it and it said, ‘I'd like to dance with you.’ I asked him who sent it and he pointed over to these two girls over there in the corner in a black dress. I just walked right over there. The first one I came to, I reached my hand out."

"I thought, ‘Why is he asking me to dance?’” said Shirley Billy.

"While I'm dancing with her, I say, 'I got your note,'” said John. “And she says, ‘Well, I didn't send a note. My girlfriend sent the note.’”

By that time, it didn't matter. Shirley, who is white, and John, who is black, were instantly attracted.

Neither was thinking about the obvious differences that would snap them back to reality hours later on their walk home.

“Before I got home, people had called my mother and said I was walking down the street with a black man,” said Shirley.

Shirley's mother told her to stay away from John. But the young couple continued to see each other when they could.

"It was alright until the time when Shirley got pregnant and that's when it hit the fan,” said John.

Shirley was 20 years old when she delivered their first child -- a baby boy at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

“I thought this was going to be the happiest day of my life,” she said. “The next day, these people came into my room and said your child was taken from the hospital overnight and taken to St. Elizabeths orphanage."

This backed by a 241-year-old state law that said it was crime for a white woman to allow herself to get pregnant by a colored man or mulatto. It was a crime that could have sent Shirley to prison for up to five years.

"I said, ‘What? For having a baby?’ I just couldn't believe it,” Shirley said. “I thought I was in a nightmare or something. I didn't know how I was going to get out of it."

She didn't get out of it. Weeks later, police showed up and arrested Shirley in the middle of the night.

"A grand jury had gotten together and decided that they thought I should go to jail for this crime,” she said. “I just can't imagine that and I thought, ‘Nah, it’s not going to happen. Nobody goes to jail for having a baby.’"

But Shirley did.

“The first night in jail, I cried all night until I went to sleep,” she said.

John was never arrested because the law only targeted white women. Ultimately, that is what Shirley's lawyers used to make their case.

On April 22, 1957, the judge dismissed the indictment against Shirley and declared the law, which was written in 1715, unconstitutional.

Even with the threat of jail time gone, the young couple still faced not being able to raise their son. John Jr. was still in the orphanage.

"We would go out there and see him, but after a while, it seemed like we were just visiting some child. We didn't have that bonding,” said Shirley. “You miss the most important months to hold him.”

"We were thinking about kidnapping him once,” said John. “I told Shirley, ‘Let's just go and take the baby. It's our baby.’”

The state told Shirley that in order to get her son back, she would have to get a job, find a place to live, and get married to John.

But back then, it was illegal for blacks and whites to get married in the state of Maryland. Shirley's lawyers wanted the couple to take up a new fight and challenge Maryland's law prohibiting mixed race marriages.

Weary from their last battle, they declined.

But one year later, John and Shirley drove to Washington D.C. and legally got married.

A short time later, they also got their son back. But by that time, nearly two years had slipped away.

“When we did bring him home, he was like a kid in a stranger’s house,” said John.

“Those real bonding days were gone,” said Shirley. “That's what hurt the worse.”

Despite all they endured, John and Shirley say their faith and love helped them overcome racism, discrimination and a 241-year-old law.

"What kept it going is us,” John said. “She kept holding me up, I kept holding her up, and two things together being held up are going to stand tall.”

Nearly 56 years later, Shirley still remembers dancing with the young man she met inside that private all-white teenage social club in east Baltimore.

"I just took him for what he was and I liked him for what he was,” said Shirley.

"The best thing I like about her is that she's just what she is today what she was when I first met her,” said John.

Shirley is the only person ever prosecuted in Maryland under that law.

The Billys still live in Baltimore. In addition to John Jr., they have another son, Gregory, and daughter named Terry.

They continued to face racism from blacks and whites over the years. When we ask them how they feel about being the catalyst for changing Maryland's racist laws, they told us they didn't know they were changing anything. They were just living their lives.

They love sharing their story now and have written a book, “Flavor: Faith Love and Victory Over Racism.” They don't want people to forget how far we have come.


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