Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Let's Celebrate Bertha Elizabeth Kilson, Class of 1936!

It's graduation season and for the past two Wednesdays, I've been highlighting relevant fun finds from the Kilson branch of my family tree. I started with Samuel Dennis Kilson's 1933 high school yearbook and continued with a 1931 article about the 8th grade graduation of his little sisters Bertha Elizabeth and Eleanor Frances Kilson. This week I'm highlighting Bertha's senior year yearbook, from 1936.

The great thing about finding yearbooks in genealogical research is that they can give you insight into a person's personality and interests that you just can't get from vital records like birth, death and marriage certificates. Here's Bertha's listing:

Check her out, in the upper right corner, right at the top of the page. Like her older brother Samuel, Bertha - or Lib, as she apparently was known - took the General track of high school courses, as opposed to Commercial, College Prep, or Scientific. (Note: This wasn't a track that all black students were pushed into, and, as you can see above, it wasn't solely black students who took it.)

Bertha E. Kilson school photo
Also like her brother, Bertha kept her school commitments pretty light, but she was actually a bit more engaged than he was: she participated in Biology Club in her sophomore year, and French Club in her senior year. In fact, most of the students on this page were in Biology Club together - can you picture them dissecting frogs in a classroom? And Bertha would have been in French Club with the Class of 1936's "Most Friendly" person, Dorothy Levitsky. Were they friends?

In fact, I do wonder what the Kilsons' social relationships were like. The high school was integrated, but Salem itself wasn't exactly a mecca of racial harmony and equality. (See here for a post about the KKK in Salem in the 1920s and 30s, and here for an outside blog post about segregation in Salem.) And you can see that Bertha - the only visibly black student on this page - is also the only student on this page who did not sign this yearbook. Are those things related?

However, look what her classmates wrote about her: "With youth and jollity by her side." When you compare it to what they wrote about other seniors, like Comley Link, who "minds his own business and plods along," or Esther Mae Lamb, who was "a living illustration of responsibility," you definitely get the sense that Bertha brought some joy and levity to her class body, and that they appreciated it.

If Bertha had made it to her 25th Reunion in 1961, I wonder how her classmates would have greeted her. Unfortunately, she passed away in 1953. But her classmates hadn't forgotten her:

So, congrats to Bertha Kilson, Salem High School Class of 1936 - gone, but not forgotten!

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