Verda Byrd, 72, had been raised as a black child and had only recently discovered on her adoption papers that she was actually white.

By Cathy Free
Updated June 29, 2015 05:55 PM
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Credit: Verda Byrd

For more than five minutes, Verda Byrd and Debbie Romero stood in the rain hugging and crying, stunned by the realization that they were lost sisters who had never met.

The emotional get-together at Byrd’s Converse, Texas, home in June 2014 was made even more remarkable by the news that Byrd shared with Romero and her two other found sisters four months earlier: She had been raised as a black child and had only recently discovered on her adoption papers that she was actually white.

As reported by PEOPLE last week, Byrd, 72, one of 10 children born to Earl and Daisy Beagle of Kansas City, Missouri, was put into foster care at age 2 when her father left the family and her mother was in a serious accident that left her in a body cast, unable to care for “Jeanette,” as she was then called.

Byrd was adopted by a black couple, Ray and Edwina Wagoner of Newton, Kansas, and grew up an only child, immersed in African-American culture her entire life.

Although it was rare for a black couple to adopt a white child in segregated states in 1942, it was not illegal in Missouri at the time.

“It was considered inappropriate,” Byrd tells PEOPLE, “but there was nothing on the books to stop my parents from adopting me. If it were illegal, the state wouldn’t have allowed it. They wouldn’t have violated their own rules.”

To those who have speculated that Byrd appears to be biracial, the retired Army substitute teacher says this: “Everybody has their own opinion, and that’s fine,” she says. “I can’t control what other people think. People are implying that my mother may have had an affair with a black man, but they don’t know that and I don’t know that. Nobody can prove that.”

“I know who I am and I know what the documents say,” says Byrd. “The documents say that I am white. And I don’t believe the state of Missouri would lie on those documents.”

For her newly-found sisters, the color of her skin is the least important aspect of their family’s story.

“Black or white, we’re glad she’s our sister – that’s all we’re thinking about,” says Debbie Romero, 58, a florist from Dallas who, along with another sister, Kathryn Gutierrez, was born after Byrd was put into foster care.

“It’s only been a year since Verda has been in our lives, so we’re still getting to know each other. It’s a slow process since Verda thought she was an only child for 70 years. We have a lot of catching up to do, Romero tells PEOPLE.

“It’s such a fantastic feeling, to learn that we have a new family member after so many years,” adds Guitierrez, 62, a retired thrift store manager who lives in Omaha, Nebraska. “Verda is such a kind and caring person – we talk now almost every day. I almost forget we’ve only recently met.”

Byrd’s sisters, Guitierrez, Romero and Sybil Panko of Merritt Island, Florida, admit that they were skeptical at first when Byrd called in February 2014 with her surprising news.

“I told Debbie, ‘Let’s make sure this isn’t a joke,’ ” Gutierrez tells PEOPLE. “But when we saw our mother’s signature on the adoption papers we knew that Verda was telling the truth.”

Guitierrez, who took care of her mother in her later years, says that Daisy Beagle always wondered about her youngest daughter.

“She would say, ‘I wonder where she is now? I wonder if she’s okay,’ ” she says. “My mother always knew in her heart that the best thing to do was to give her to a family that could care for her, because she couldn’t do that. After the accident, she could barely take care of herself.”

When Byrd’s sisters all visited her in Texas last year, she took them out for a limo ride and dinner to celebrate their new bond.

“To see them all together was overwhelming,” she says. “I wept and wept. Every day, I feel blessed to have a new sisterhood. We’re family now for life.”