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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Dabney's learning experiences as a journalist

Dabney describes his early journalistic experiences and the impact of H. L. Mencken on his writing style.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

DANIEL JORDAN:
Mr. Dabney, I wonder if you might mention for us some formative influences. This could be perhaps an individual, it could be something that you read, could perhaps be an event of the times. Something that maybe in the 1920s would have shaped some of your beliefs and values.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I began reading a lot at that point. I realized that I hadn't read as much as I should, except in my courses. I had to do a lot of reading for some of them, but I didn't do any outside reading to speak of, and I didn't during college keep up with current events well at all. I was just in the typical ivory tower. This is a horrible confession for me to make, but I never read a newspaper editorial in my entire life until I went on the Richmond News Leader! I'm really ashamed of that fact, but I just skipped the editorials. I don't know why, I just wasn't interested in current affairs. So, when I finally decided to go into newspaper work, I began reading avidly newspapers and books in all my spare time. When I went on the paper, the first six months, I think I learned more about the world around me than I had learned in my entire life before. I didn't know, at that point when I went on the paper, any thing about public affairs, what sort of government say Richmond or the state of Virginia had. I vaguely realized that the state had a government, I didn't know how many people there were in the legislature. I knew there was a governor, but I hardly knew who he was and I didn't know who the people were under him. All these things that I had just let go by, I soaked up like a sponge as a newspaper reporter. I learned so much about the capitol, and the city hall, and the things that make things tick in local, state and national affairs that I had my eyes opened in a big way. I hadn't thought about race relations at all when I was growing up and in school. The fact that there were colored people was of course, obvious, but I wasn't thinking about whether they were getting what they deserved or not. One or two of them were working for my family and a washer woman who did the clothes. They got something like four dollars a week, and I just didn't think about that, whether that was right or wrong. It was pretty much standard to pay a house servant, four dollars a week. They also got their meals and some cast off clothes and things of that sort. Of course, four dollars a week was probably equal to twenty dollars a week now, but it wasn't nearly enough. All that just went by me until I got on the paper, and then I began thinking about social questions and working conditions and wages of people and whether they were adequate.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Did you start to read H.L. Mencken about this time?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I started reading Mencken at that time and Mencken in some ways was very reactionary; on the plus side, he was against puritanism, prohibition, and Babbitts and for freedom of the mind. On the race question he had a somewhat ambivalent attitude. He did not hesitate to dine with Negroes or have them contribute to American Mercury but he wrote of them in a manner which wouldn't be accepted today. For example, he referred to lynchings as "publicly frying blackamoors." Mencken influenced me a great deal. I found his writing extremely incisive and amusing and it opened my mind to concepts and attitudes that had not occurred to me before. I think that next to my parents, he was the greatest influence on me at that period.
DANIEL JORDAN:
How about Howard Odum? Was he active at this point?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
He was active, but I wasn't aware of his existence until 1930, or thereabouts. I came into personal contact with him in the late '30s and worked with him on the Southern Regional Council we organized in Atlanta. I'm getting a little ahead of the story here. On the paper, one thing that was so educational for me was that I asked for all kinds of assignments. I wanted to learn something about city government, state government, the courts . . . I had never been in a court until I came on the paper, I didn't know how they operated. I got awfully sick of covering police court, but it was good for me to do it. I had a beat called Southside and Chesterfield, which was one of the lowly assignments on the paper. I had to go over to South Richmond on a streetcar and go to the undertakers first, view the corpses and get the details of whoever had been killed in an accident, and then go to South Richmond police court and see the cases that were tried there and what was done with them, how they were handled. I would go to Hustings Court and listen, and to a lady who had news of the BYPU. I had never heard of that organization; I found out that it was the Baptist Young People's Union. I'd get news of other churches. I never knew until then that Methodist and Baptist churches were named for streets, a locality or a person whereas Episcopal churches had names like All Saints and St. Paul's. There were all kinds of such things everyday that I picked up.
DANIEL JORDAN:
So, the newspaper itself was a sort of a liberating experience?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, very much. I found out what the other side of the tracks was like and what the world was like.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Did you have any trouble adapting to newspaper writing?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I was perfectly green at it and I was completely uninformed and uninstructed. I think I learned pretty fast. However, i had a shocking experience that gave me a lesson that I never forgot. They were sufficiently unwise to send me to cover a bank failure and to go to the State Corporation Commission for a statement on this bank failure. It was a Negro bank, operated by a very prominent Negro named John Mitchell, who was the leading Negro in Richmond. I was just as green as I could be, and I went to see the chairman of the Commission and asked him what he could tell me about failure of the bank. Well, he said, "I don't think that if I were you I would use this, but what happened was that somebody took valuable securities out of the bank and put worthless securities in their place, and that went on over a period of years, and finally, the thing just caught up with them and the bank collapsed." Since Chairman Adams of the Corporation Commission said he didn't think I ought to use this, I went back to the office and didn't write anything. Well, pretty soon, the city editor said, "Where's that bank story?" I said, "Well, the Corporation Commissioner told me what happened, but he said that he didn't think we ought to use it." The city editor said, "What? Didn't think that we ought to use it?" I said, "Yeah, that's what he said." He said, "What is this that we shouldn't use?" I said, "Well, he just thought it would be better if we didn't publish the facts." The City Editor exploded: "What the hell has he got to do with it? Can you write it?" I said, "Yeah, I can write it." I hadn't made any notes at all, but I thought I knew what the commissioner said. So, I wrote incorrectly that "State Corporation Commissioner Adams said that the president, John Mitchell, took valuable securities out of the bank and put worthless securities in their place." What he had said was that somebody had done this. This was the crucial point. Well, the Corporation Commissioner hit the ceiling and said that he had been misquoted which he had, and the managing editor got after me in a big way and said that it was a horrible mistake, which it certainly was; it was absolutely inexcusable. I thought I might be fired. I ran into one of the Bryans, who said, "Why in the world did they assign you to that? Why didn't they get an experienced reporter? It is going to cost us about $10,000." Which at that time was real money. Fortunately, in a stroke of luck, what I said happened had actually happened. Mitchell had taken the good securities out of the portfolio. He never did sue, but I was absolutely miserable until the statute of limitations expired. I felt that if I wasn't fired immediately, I thought that I would be fired when he sued. The fact that Mitchell had done exactly what I had said he had, saved my hide. But after that, believe me, I was careful.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Took your notes more carefully.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, I would always verify things with the utmost care.