Article and photos by Wendy Nugent
Verda Byrd spent 70 years living as a black woman, and then she found out she was white. The Newton native, who now resides in Rio Blanco, Texas ? which, ironically, means ?white river? in Spanish ? knew she was adopted to black parents, but she didn?t know her birth parents were white. The 72-year-old didn?t find that out until a few years ago. When she found out, she said it was ?overwhelming.?
?Totally overwhelming,? she said on the phone from Texas. ?I began this research to find out just who Jeanette Beagle was.?
She initiated that research after finding an adoption document with Jeanette Beagle?s name on it at her late parents? home.
The story of Jeanette Beagle begins with Byrd?s birth parents. Her birth mother, Daisy Beagle, didn?t have an easy life. She had 10 children and was married to Byrd?s birth father, Earl, who was an alcoholic, and a physical and mental abuser.
?He was awful, but his name is on my birth certificate, so I guess he was a no-good daddy,? Byrd said. ?She and Earl were legally married, but Earl would leave Daisy, and go and come and go and come.?
At times, they were separated, but one day, Earl left and never came back. So Daisy ventured to downtown Kansas City (Byrd was born Sept. 27, 1942) to search for a job to support her children. Byrd said Daisy fell 30 feet off of a trolley and got hit by another trolley headed in another direction.
?She was badly injured, and as a result, was in the hospital for a whole year,? Byrd said.
At the time, Daisy had five children, and all were placed in Kansas City welfare facilities. The other four later returned home to Daisy, but living up to her current last name, Byrd was able to fly away.
?Me being the youngest, her baby child and youngest child, Daisy chose to let me stay in the children?s home,? Byrd said. ?She realized that she loved me enough for me to have a better life and a better home than she could provide at that time. I was the only one she gave up for adoption. The significant thing of this whole story is the love that Daisy Beagle had for her child proved that regardless of race, financial status that an adoptee can have a good and successful life by loving, adoptive parents.?
Byrd went to a foster home, and the foster family adopted her in 1947 when she was 5. Her name was changed to Verda N. Wagner, and her adoptive parents were Ray and Edwinna Wagner, a black couple in Newton.
?My new home was Newton, Kansas, where the Wagners lived,? Byrd said. ?So living in Newton in the ?40s and ?50s, I never knew I was a transracial adoptee. Edwinna did tell me that I was adopted, but she failed to tell me that I was born white, so she never told me I was born of white natural parents.?
Byrd?s skin color isn?t alabaster white, and it isn?t dark ? it?s somewhere in between, so that might account for some confusion.
It appears the 1960 Newton High School graduate had a nice life with the Wagners and then attended Bethel College in North Newton for three years before transferring to Metro?politan State in Denver. She has a bachelor of science degree in mental health and an associate?s degree in drug and alcohol counseling.
After she left Newton, her adult life became a black world because Byrd didn?t know anything else. She thought she was supposed to go to black churches, black clubs and eat soul food ? doing ?black things,? as she put it.
?I didn?t know I was white in the first place, so usually people tend to stay in their own communities,? Byrd said. ?But Newton didn?t have that many black people in the first place, so it doesn?t matter.?
Byrd became an Air Force wife and worked for the government. She and husband Trancle lived overseas at times, and she was never treated there as having a race ? she just was thought of as being American, and people from those countries wanted her to teach them English, especially the Japanese.
?And that?s the way the military works overseas,? Byrd said. ?You?re from the USA, not from the fields of cotton or nothing. They don?t look at race.?
When her father retired from Santa Fe, he and Edwinna moved to Phoenix. They both died there about 32 years ago.
?At the time, I had been living in Germany with my husband, who was in the Air Force, but I came home to Phoenix where Mom and Dad were,? Byrd said. Her father had cancer and her mom had to be put in the hospital, and then her parents suddenly died.
When Byrd cleaned up their home after their deaths, she came across an adoption document regarding a Jeanette Beagle.
?At the time, I didn?t know who Jeanette Beagle was,? Byrd said, adding she read the document and thought she?d find out who she was but didn?t research it at the time.
She continued living her life. Fast forward 25 years ? Byrd ran across that same document again and thought, ?I really need to know now at this time in my life who Jeanette Beagle was. I had the frame of mind to research to find out who this person was.?
By this time, she had retired from the government and had a clear enough mind to focus on the project, she said. The document had the address of the Kansas City juvenile court, so Byrd sent a copy of that document and a request to find Jeanette Beagle?s mother. She found out they couldn?t tell her because it was a closed adoption and that she?d have to prove the birth parents had died before getting the information.
Her next move was to hire a woman versed in adoption research, who found the names of Jeanette Beagle?s biological parents, who happened to be Daisy and Earl Beagle.
?With that being done, the research lady sent to the court in Kansas City a request from me, Verda Byrd, to release my birth parents? names and all documents involved in this closed adoption case,? Byrd said.
She received the package containing the adoption records in February 2014.
?It took (from) about October 2013 to February 2014 for me to find out who I was born as,? she said. ?I saw my birth name, my birth parents, information that had been sealed for 70-some years. The mystery was solved. I never knew who I was born as. So, Edwinna took it to her grave she had adopted a white baby 70 years earlier. She never told me at all.?
She was Jeanette Beagle. There still are three other living daughters of Daisy Beagle, and Byrd met them in June 2010.
Since Newton is a small town and there weren?t that many ?negro couples,? as Byrd put it, she kept the secret of her being able to adopt a white baby.
Her father also knew and didn?t tell her.
?He didn?t tell it because he didn?t want Edwinna getting mad at him,? Byrd said.
After feeling overwhelmed, Byrd found acceptance.
?It didn?t matter to me who I was or where I was or where I came from,? she said. ?I accepted my history. After reviewing these documents for weeks, I couldn?t change the documents. Everything was in black and white. Every legal document was dated and signed, and it was what it was. I couldn?t change it, so my mind didn?t focus on what happened 70 years ago; it focused on what it is now.
?The reality of the whole thing was acceptance, and it was a done deal, and I could not erase 70 years of my life.?
So, does she think of herself as black or white?
?The honest answer is it does not matter,? Byrd said. ?What difference does it make? I might be, ?This is my white day, this is my black day,? but it doesn?t matter because I?m still Verda. I can?t say I love being white because I was only white the first five years of my life.?
And from those first five years of her life, she doesn?t remember her birth parents.
Byrd said she goes by what?s on the documents, which say she?s white, but sometimes, people want her to be biracial or black.
?Everybody I know have parents, and they have names,? she said. ?Living or dead, you had one. One or two names are on there, and that?s the way it is. It doesn?t change my behavior. It doesn?t change my attitude. I like who I am. I?m Verda.?
She spent many years not knowing she was white, and this is different than the recent turbulence over Rachel Dolezal lying about being black.
?I did not know I was born white,? Byrd said. ?Rachel, the young lady who wanted to be black, knew she was born white. She was choosing to be something she wasn?t. I don?t understand people lying about something they want to be that they?re not. It made me very angry with her.?
Because of that national scandal and her life, Byrd has been contacted by a variety of national media and TV shows, such as ?The Steve Harvey Show,? ?The View? and ?Good Morning America.? She hadn?t appeared on any shows as of mid-July, but she was featured in People magazine and USA Today. She also did a live radio show in California, and a photo of her was shown on ?The View,? which displayed the photo on air and then said they?d get back to Byrd?s story, but they never did. She also was contacted by a producer for Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of a non-denominational church with 30,000 members.
Byrd is chronicling her experiences in a manuscript, ?70 Years of Blackness,? which she was hoping would be done late August, and then hopes to turn into a book and possibly a movie.
She?s using her experiences to help other transracial adoptees by formulating the Jeanette Beagle Founda?tion, which will help those youth ages 6-18. She wants to provide money to them for extra costs, like going to basketball games, buying uniforms, purchasing soda or a program, and going to cultural venues. To find out where to donate, email Byrd at firstname.lastname@example.org.
?So, I don?t focus on what could?ve been,? Byrd said. ?I focus on what I can do to help transracial adoptees that are born from alcoholic and drug-addict parents. That?s my main focus now. With the foundation, maybe I can help some other kids.?