BALTIMORE (WJZ) — A law was written in Maryland that said, “It is illegal for a white woman to bear a child fathered by a negro,”
That law was only tested in the courts once. In 1957, Shirley Billy bore a child with the man she loved. Shirley is white. Her husband, John, is black.
Their courage knocked out that law and altered legal history in our state.
In September 1954, the night of the “I am an American” parade, the Honey Boys were hired to sing at a white teen’s social club.
Honey Boys lead singer, John Billy, dances with 18-year-old Shirley Howard to the tune of “In The Still Of The Night”
Shirley was 18, a senior at Patterson Park High School. John lived a few blocks away on Bradford Street. One dance was all it took. They fell in love.
And today, in their 80s, here they still are.
Shirley suffered a stroke last year, and now John takes care of her.
“I learned how to cook,” John said.
But this is not a simple love story. Shirley’s family was outraged. When she became pregnant with John’s baby, her mother told her, “You are not allowed to bring that baby in my house,” So, the morning after Shirley delivered Johnny, Social Services took him from her.
At night, she was introduced to the baby, the next morning, the baby was gone.
“And then, soon after, the police came in the night, arrested Shirley, put her in the Pine Street Women’s Jail, and charged her with a 242-year-old law: she had given birth to a “negro man’s baby”.
“She said she cried all night long once she was in that cell, you know,” John said.
Shirley’s case made headlines in all the local papers, in Jet Magazine. And John could do nothing to help her.
“Here’s the whole city, the whole city you know. She ain’t got nobody, you know,” John said.
John said he repeatedly reached out for help to the NAACP, one woman there telling him, “Well, after all, she was white,”
Shirley’s case went to court. And because of her, in April 1957, a judge found the law unconstitutional.
Shirley and John finally got married in D.C., where it was legal. But it took them two years to get their son back.
“The baby was in South Carolina and someone was ready to adopt it, you see, what you can do, and we were able to get him before he was adopted,” John said.
John’s music career, chronicled in their home, flourished. But Shirley’s notoriety got her fired more than once. She couldn’t hold a job.
They went on to have three children. But for decades, John could not move in Shirley’s world, and when she took her mixed-race children with her she often encountered racial hatred, even in the 5 and Dime.
“A woman came up to me and said, ‘What are these,” I said ‘They’re children,'” Shirley said.
Those children now have children. John and Shirley’s long marriage has been spent in a loving home. They’ve chronicled their story in a book. And interracial marriage is now not only legal- it’s accepted.
[WJZ Reporter Denise Koch:] “Do your children understand what you went through? They must be grateful?”
“Yes, they are,” They said.
It was John’s daughter who made him that “Flavor” headband. It stands for love and victory over racism.
“You can’t find more love than what we had,”
[WJZ Reporter Denise Koch:] “No regrets Shirley?”
“No, he’s a good man,” She said.
“You’re a good woman, that’s what makes a good man,” John said.
In 2007, the Billys wrote a book about their life together, entitled, “Flavor”. It is available on Amazon.