Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Learning racial etiquette

Durr explains how her aunt intervened one summer to begin teaching Durr and her sister Josephine proper racial etiquette. Embarrassed and unwilling to hurt the African American children she had befriended, Josephine created a new name for herself that soon became her nickname.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. 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

Aunt May had married a great friend of my father's from Memphis, named Mr. Johnston and she had divorced him, which was almost unheard of in those days. And Aunt May was there with her daughter, she had divorced Mr. Johnston and had married another man who was an Irishman . . . what was his name? It'll come to me.
She lived in New York?
She lived in New York and she was very fashionable. She dressed in great style, you know, and spent a lot of money and went abroad a lot. Her daughter Elizabeth, married very rich men. The last one was Count von Furstenberg, who was a German count. And they had a daughter named Betsy von Furstenberg who is an actress now in New York. She was and still is quite a well known actress. Aunt May was determined to live the . . . she would be a jet setter now. It was all kept up, of course, by the money from the plantation.
Not by her husband's money?
No. She married a rather poor man and the family looked down on him because he was Catholic and Irish and didn't have any money. I think that he had a lot of charm, but he didn't know how to hunt or shoot and he was always sort of looked down on as though Aunt May had made a very serious mistake, which I'm sure must have irritated her very much, because her brothers were not very kind about Mr . . . . what was his name? Leary, Mr. Leary, an Irish name. Well, poor Mr. Leary had a pretty hard time, too, because he came down at Christmas time and all the men went hunting, you know, and he was left behind or else he was taken out and made fun of because he couldn't shoot. He didn't know anything about horses and was a city boy and they all thought that he had married Aunt May for her money and that she was always getting more than her share out of grandmother and there was always friction there. I was conscious of it. Anyway, she came this Summer and she heard the little black children in the back yard calling my sister, "Sis." And my brother called her, "Sis," and I called her, "Sister." Now, although she was the angel of the family and I was supposed to be the devil, I adored her. The fact that I was not supposed to be up to her didn't keep me from loving her. She wasjust such a sweet spirited person. I really adored her. She was one of the loves of my life. This episode was so typical of her, because Aunt May sent Easter out to tell the little black children that they couldn't call her, "Sis." They had to call her "Miss Josephine." So, that was sort of a warning of thing you know. Our idyllic days were over. So, when they were told this, they were all sort of astonished and hurt and we were all kind of hurt and didn't know what it was about. Here, Sister who had been playing with them all of her life had to be called "Miss Josephine" all of a sudden.' So, Sister said to them, "Now, you don't have to call me 'Miss Josephine,' you just call me 'Miss Sis.' " So, everybody after that called her Miss Sis and that got to be her nickname. The white children and the black children all called her "Miss Sis." She solved the issue by not hurting anybody's feelings. She spent her life doing that.