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Baltimore councilman lauds family once torn apart by racist laws

Couple John Billy (far left) and Shirley Billy (far right) were honored by City Councilman Robert W. Curran during Monday's City Council meeting. John Billy's song "F.L.A.V.O.R. - The Civil Rights Love Song" was presented for consideration as the official Baltimore civil rights love song. Their daughter Terry Billy was also in attendance.
Couple John Billy (far left) and Shirley Billy (far right) were honored by City Councilman Robert W. Curran during Monday's City Council meeting. John Billy's song "F.L.A.V.O.R. - The Civil Rights Love Song" was presented for consideration as the official Baltimore civil rights love song. Their daughter Terry Billy was also in attendance. (Yvonne Wenger)

Six decades ago, authorities tore apart a biracial Baltimore family: The mother was sent to jail, and the couple's newborn son was placed in an orphanage.

On Monday, it was suggested that authorities honor that family and the song the father wrote about their struggles, under a proposal that the tune be deemed Baltimore's official civil rights love song, on the first day of Black History Month.

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Councilman Robert W. Curran, who represents the third district, lauded Shirley and John Billy and presented a resolution to honor "F.L.A.V.O.R. - The Civil Rights Love Song," written by John Billy, at Monday's City Council meeting.

John Billy, a resident of Baltimore for more than 70 years, wrote the song in 2014, honoring his wife, Shirley Billy, and telling a story about the hardships they faced being a white woman and a black man in love in Baltimore. They also had published a book in 2007 called "Flavor: Faith Love And Victory Over Racism," documenting their experience in the '50s.

The couple first met in the city in 1954 at an all-white teenage club where John Billy and his doo-wop music group "The Honey Boys" were performing. After Shirley and John's first dance together, they fell in love. Little did they know that years of hardship would follow.

"We couldn't go to a restaurant. We couldn't go to a movie," John Billy remembered, and the couple received flack from both friends and family.

It was complicated, too: John Billy was married when he met Shirley.

After Shirley Billy gave birth to their firstborn, Johnny, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1956, their family was torn apart.

According to a nearly 250-year-old law in Maryland, Shirley Billy had "unlawfully suffered and permitted herself to be begotten with child by a negro or mulatto" and was arrested and jailed, according to a news release from Curran's office.

Shirley Billy said she spent a day and a half in jail and needed $1,000 to be bailed out.

"This was 1956. A thousand dollars was a lot of money," she said.

At times, Shirley Billy said she feared for her husband's life.

"They could do anything to you that they wanted, and there was nothing you could do about it," Shirley Billy said. "The city, the police, they could do anything they wanted. In those days, there was nobody you could go to."

Their son had been taken to an orphanage, and soon after, John Billy received notice that he was going to the Army.

It would be two years before the two could get their son back: First, they had to wed in Washington, D.C., because interracial marriage was still illegal in Maryland. And Shirley Billy would have to find a job, but says she was fired multiple times in relation to her arrest.

In 1957, Maryland ruled the law banning white women from getting pregnant by black men unconstitutional, but the couple would still have to wait 10 years before their interracial marriage was recognized in Maryland in 1967.

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In light of all of the turmoil, John Billy, now 80, wrote the song in honor of Shirley, 79, and found out last week that their song would be submitted as the official civil rights love song of Baltimore.

He had sent a letter to Curran, who said he thought highlighting their experience would be a good tribute for Black History Month.

A hearing will be held in the coming weeks for council members to review the lyrics and decide whether to adopt the song.

"It's my last opportunity to make a statement about Black History Month," said Curran, who is retiring this year after serving since 1995. "It's an important part of history."

The letters in the acronym "F.L.A.V.O.R." each stand for the ways he and his wife overcame the difficult cards they were dealt, John Billy said.

"It was Faith / It was Love / It was a Victory Over Racism / I call it FLAVOR," the lyrics read.

John Billy attended Monday night's City Council meeting along with his wife and their daughter, Terry Billy.

"We're very blessed to be here to tell it, and I hope in the future with things like civil rights and racism, [the song] will be geared towards laws that need to be stopped," John Billy said beforehand.

Since sharing their story, Shirley Billy said she and her husband have been invited to colleges and other venues to speak about their experience. Many young people have no idea what it was like for an interracial couple at that time, Shirley said.

"People say, 'Nothing's changed.' I say, 'You don't know. Everything's changed,'" she said.

But all of the struggles were worth it, according to John Billy.

"All the racism we survived, and that was 59 years ago, and today we're still surviving. We add that up to love," John Billy said. "Couldn't be no greater than that."

An earlier version misspelled Terry Billy's name. The Sun regrets the error.

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