For more than 70 years, Verda Byrd of Converse, Texas, thought she was black. Her adoptive parents were black and took her to worship at an all-black congregation. Her best friends were black, her boyfriends were black and she has been married twice – both times to black men.
Now Byrd, 72, has recently discovered that she is actually white. And she has a message for Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP president in Spokane, Washington, who lied about her race.
“I respect her for wanting equal treatment, but the fact is, she outright lied,” she tells PEOPLE. “That’s what is so upsetting to me. She knew she was white and tried to be something she wasn’t. Whereas in my case, the fact is, I simply did not know. And really, now that I know the truth, does it really matter?”
Byrd’s remarkable story begins in 1942, when her biological parents, Earl and Daisy Beagle of Kansas City, Missouri, took her home from the hospital and named her Jeanette.
The youngest of 10 children, Byrd was given up to foster care at age 2, when her father abandoned the family and her mother was severely injured after falling 30 feet in a trolley accident and could no longer care for her.
Her African-American foster parents, Ray and Edwina Wagoner from Newton, Kansas, legally adopted her in Kansas City and named her Verda, circumventing racist adoption laws of the 1940s, she says, because “my mother was light-complected and they assumed she was white.”
An only child, Byrd grew up during a time of segregation in nearby Missouri, but didn’t experience discrimination personally.
“In our little town of Newton, we didn’t have segregation,” she says. “And nobody really bothered me, because my complexion was light.”
Her adopted father, a porter for the Santa Fe Railroad, made $250 a month – more than enough, says Byrd, to provide a comfortable life for her and her mother, a homemaker.
“My mother took me to a black hairdresser, and I grew up participating in Martin Luther King marches and eating soul food,” she says. “My life was completely immersed in black culture, and why wouldn’t it be? For all intents and purposes, I was black.”
It wasn’t until October 2013, long after her adopted parents had died, that Byrd came across an adoption document with her birth name on it. Official queries with Kansas City adoption court officials led her to her adoption records, which had been unsealed after her parents’ deaths.
“On every single paper,” she says, “it said that I was white.”
“It was overwhelming – unbelievable,” says Byrd, a retired substitute teacher for the Army who has one daughter. “I had never questioned it growing up and my parents had never told me. They took that I was white to the grave, and I simply had no clue. I thought I was black.”
Her adoption records led her last year to three surviving biological siblings – all sisters.
“Not only do we learn we have a sister, we learn that she has grown up black,” says Debbie Romero, 58, a Dallas florist. “But it certainly didn’t bother us. It’s not the color of Verda that shocked us, but the fact that we have found a lost sister.”
“She could have been purple as far as I care,” Romero tells PEOPLE. “It’s just so fun to have her now in my life.”
Verda has been married for 36 years to Trancle Byrd, 68, a retired Air Force worker who “went to bed one night with a black woman and woke up the next morning with a white one,” says Verda. “I still feel black and that’s not going to change.”
“When you’re dead and gone in the cemetery, the tombstone doesn’t say what race you were,” she says. “It doesn’t matter. In the end, you have to take the bitter with the sweet and be comfortable with who you are.”