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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 >>

Physical and social environments in Birmingham

This passage contains two separate stories, one embedded inside the other. The larger story concerns Durr's childhood friendships with a group of Jewish boys from her same socioeconomic sphere. During high school, however, both the Protestant and Jewish mothers severed those ties so that the children would not date outside their religion. The embedded story is of the founding of Birmingham and the way the industry affected the local environment.

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

In 1918, I was fifteen, so you see this was about, oh, 1913, 14 or 15, right about there. These Jewish boys and I were devoted friends; there was Morris Cohen whose father owned a big department store, and Adolph Lobin whose father owned a big department store, and Godfrey Goldman-I don't know what his family did-and Adolph-I can't remember his name, somebody or other-oh, I adored him. He was beautiful.
You were friends with them in school . . . did you socialize with them at all?
Well, that's what I'm getting to. We could play, you see, in those days you played outdoors under the lights at night. Children don't do that anymore, they watch television, I think. After supper we'd all go out-that was on Rose Avenue and Niazuma too-and we'd all meet, the children would. We'd play under the street lights, games and such, and nobody did have television and we only went to the movies very rarely and that was our amusement, we amused ourselves. The older people would sit on the porch and rock, you know, and it was a neighborhood. You see, neighborhoods then were very important because that was were you amused eachother and yourself, was to sit on the porch, the neighbors would drop in and children go out to play . . . Beck, Adolph Beck, his father was a great friend of Hugo Black's it turned out later. Anyway, these Jewish boys I was just devoted to, and they were devoted to me and we'd call up and do our lessons with eachother over the phone, you know, and compare our grades. And the smartest one was Isadore Besitch-you know, that's the great big department store-and he always made just a few more marks than anybody did, but he wasn't a member of the group he was sort of an 'outsider.' See, even in the Jewish community there was a great deal of social . . . there were Eastern Jews who originally went to the synagogue, but the German Jews who went to the Temple were much more upper class. There was a great deal of social division in the Jewish community between the people that . . . .
Was there a large Jewish community in Birmingham?
Pretty big. You see, there were a lot of mercantile establishments that they owned.
When did they settle there, after the war?
Oh yes, Birmingham was formed after the war. It was just a little village called Elyton and then the L&N and the Southern crossed there and it became a great commercial center and then they discovered the iron ore and the coal and the limestone all right there in that valley and so it became a great center of coal, pig iron and United States Steel and Tennessee Iron, Coal and Railway Company and then the Woodward Iron Company and Republic Iron and all the great big steel companies. When I was growing up, people didn't think about pollution then. The air was so full of dirt that you couldn't go out without having your nose and throat stop up and your white gloves get dirty. Birmingham was prosperous. If the air was clean then everybody was down and out. Now, I knew that much, but it was as distant from me as though it was another country. I never even went to those places. My life consisted entirely of downtown Birmingham, Highland Avenue and the South Side and what lay beyond that was just a foreign country as far as I was concerned. The people that lived in it might as well not have existed. My whole life was concentrated in this social group in this neighborhood. The first shock that I got was . . . you see, we went to the Temple, the Presbyterian church went over there and so often on Saturdays, some of these boys would ask me to go to the Temple with them and I would go to the Temple with them on Saturday and I remember looking at the various things connected with the Jewish religion which I thought were very interesting. But I never could get them to go to church with me on Sunday. I used to invite them but they never did go. Well, we were devoted friends, but the point was that when we started dating, as long as we were just playing outdoors under the lights, that was fine, we could have our Jewish friends and everything was fine, just like the black children in the backyard. But when we started dating, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, when you started going to parties, then the axe fell. Well, their mamas didn't want them to date us either and our mamas didn't want us to date them. So, it was a very sad thing for me because these had been my best friends and these were the boys that I would have naturally started going out with. But because they were Jewish, it wasn't possible. We were completely divided. There was a country club called The Standard Club which they went to and we went to the Birmingham South Highland Country Club. But it was a very sad thing because we were just literally cut in two, if you can imagine.