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Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    Virginia Foster Durr discusses her early life and how she became aware of the social justice problems plaguing twentieth-century America. Descended from a wealthy southern family that emigrated to Alabama during the early 1800s, she begins by telling stories she heard from her grandmother about life in the antebellum South. She explains what life was like on the plantation when she was a child, focusing on race relations between her family and the black workers employed by her grandmother. Her grandmother practiced noblesse oblige, giving gifts and parties to the poorer white and black families in her community. Throughout the interview, Durr reflects on her relationship with her father, addressing his disappointment in the fact that she was a girl and listing his various disciplinary methods. While Durr's parents carefully maintained an aura of condescending tolerance toward the blacks they employed, not all of her relatives were as gentle.

    After the death of her grandmother, Durr's parents advanced in Birmingham society, joining the country club and other social organizations. She repeatedly returns to the issues surrounding southern female gender identity, especially for elite women. She talks about how her social circle dealt with issues of sexuality and describes the racial and class divisions that ran through Birmingham during her youth. As teenagers, Durr and her sister Josephine, along with many other young southern belles, were sent to New York City for finishing and socialization. While there, Josephine met and married Hugo Black, the future Supreme Court Justice. Durr asserts that while her sister and Hugo Black had a happy marriage, the relationship stifled something within her sister. Nevertheless, the other women in her family never questioned the roles and even averred that women who fought for more rights had immoral reasons. Durr managed to convince her parents to send her to Wellesley for two years. While there, she began to question many of the assumptions that had governed her relationships and behaviors while in Alabama. Because of financial problems, Durr left Wellesley after her sophomore year, returning home to spend a year as a debutante. When she failed to find an eligible offer that year, she took a job at the law library, where she met her future husband, Clifford.

    Excerpts
  • Brutality and violence in frontier life
  • The romanticized myth of slavery as told by whites in the New South
  • Race relations on a New South plantation
  • Noblesse oblige in a wealthy southern family
  • Use of the Old South among middle-class New South whites
  • Violence in the South
  • The duel between Edward Ward Carmack and Duncan Brown Cooper
  • Durr's relationship with her father
  • Learning racial etiquette
  • Learning racial etiquette
  • Repairing relationships broken by racism
  • Learning racial etiquette through fighting
  • Durr's father has to leave his church
  • Moving up through New South society
  • Learning gender roles
  • Physical and social environments in Birmingham
  • Learning about sex in a racially divided city
  • The ways class separated various religious groups
  • Training middle-class southern belles
  • Poverty in the New South
  • Pretensions and delusions of the wealthy classes in the New South
  • Ironic forces contributing to Durr's feminism
  • Josephine Foster marries Hugo Black
  • Hugo Black and the Ku Klux Klan
  • Advantages of racism for white southern women
  • Gender roles and their impact on women's lives
  • Ways women found power despite society's gender structures
  • Durr goes to Wellesley
  • Ideas of masculinity and class drive Durr's family into debt
  • Women find power through their sexuality
  • Durr's realizes how racism controls her life while at Wellesley
  • Meeting wealthy industrialists unaware
  • Durr learns about independence
  • Learning about sex at Wellesley
  • Durr first fears black men
  • Durr gets her first job and meets Clifford
  • Durr delivers her first child
  • Family responsibilities and Hugo Black's political career
  • Poverty spurs Durr into her first social justice campaign
  • Learn More
  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • Subjects
  • Southern States--Race relations
  • Women civil rights workers
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.