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In the tradition of great storytellers, Davis continues to approach Off The Path in serial form. He’ll explore this season, called "Off the Plank," in 2 or 3 installments and then combine them into a single podcast episode. Here, you’ll find those individual installments — which we’re calling “Mile Markers.” Enjoy the ride!

A 'close encounter' transformed the lives of two civil rights activists

Betty and Barney Hill were at the center of one of America’s most famous alien abduction cases. They were also an interracial couple and civil rights leaders at the time. But their alleged abduction on a late night in New Hampshire in 1961 — set them on a different path, according to a new book.

Betty and Barney Hill with their dachsund, Delsey.
University of New Hampshire Library
Betty and Barney Hill with their dachsund, Delsey.

The Hills didn’t want to be known for UFOs — at first.

“Betty and Barney Hill are, in many ways, conventional Americans," said Matthew Bowman, author of the book The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill, released this month by Yale University Press. “They grew up in an America that largely trusted the government. It's an era of optimism in American life, and confidence that those things that were not optimistic about can be fixed. This is what Betty Hill believes — she was raised in a family of activists.”

Barney — who was Black — was an activist too. He was a major figure in New Hampshire’s NAACP, and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He attended the 1963 March on Washington and Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration.

“He's part of a generation of African Americans who believe in political reform, who believes that passing laws, establishing new government agencies, these things can combat and take on and eventually eradicate discrimination in America," Bowman said. "So they are becoming fairly prominent leaders in this organization. And Barney is really worried about what this story might do to their credibility.”

And they’re alarmed when their story is leaked to the press. Matthew Bowman said the Hills found some UFO researchers they thought they could trust. One was Donald Keyhoe, author of the book “The Flying Saucers are Real.” Keyhoe was a former Marine who founded a group called the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena.

“Betty and Barney Hill find in these groups people who will tell them, we think you saw something real, we think your memories are real," Bowman said. "And so Betty and Barney rebuild their world to think differently about what authorities should be trusted, and what authorities should not be trusted.”

Bowman said the Hills came in contact with the New Age movement of the late 60s and 70s. And he said this straight-laced couple met some people with unusual ideas.

“Ideas about conspiracy theory, ancient aliens. And I think, critically, this idea that the government knew things about UFOs and was covering it up," he said.

Barney Hill died suddenly in 1969. Bowman said Betty was devastated.

"She does begin seeing UFOs more and more and more frequently," he said. "She writes that one night soon after his death she's driving home on a kind of lonely New Hampshire road and the UFOs come over her car. And she stops the car and she leaps out and she asks them, ‘UFOs, are you looking for Barney? Barney is dead. He's not here anymore. He's in the cemetery.’”

Betty spoke at conferences and wrote more about her experiences. She became a celebrity in the UFO community that had grown huge by the time of her death in 2004.

Kathleen Marden, the Hill’s niece, sees herself as a defender of her aunt and uncle’s legacy. She said Betty wasn’t a new ager or a conspiracy theorist at all.

“The disinformants have told us that Betty was a UFO kook, a science fiction fan, that she had been interested in UFOs all of her life," Marden said. "And that is absolutely false. Betty was a brilliant woman. She was a social worker for the state of New Hampshire … They said that Barney was a very fearful man. That's false. You don't marry a white woman when you're a Black man in 1960. If you're a fearful man, you don't become a leader in New Hampshire's civil rights movement if you are a fearful man. Barney was highly intelligent, and assertive. And he told the truth.”

Kathleen is the executor of her aunt and uncle’s estate. She’s also an advocate for people she calls experiencers, and there are hundreds of cases a year.

“People are traumatized when they have these experiences," she said. "And then when their identity is made public, not only UFO investigators, but also these — bullies, actually, come forward. These people create so much trauma for these individuals, that they're doubly traumatized. And it's a horrible thing to have happen.”

She said she hopes to see the day when the claims of the ‘experiencers’ are validated.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.