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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Durr learns about the dark side of southern paternalism

One of the most pivotal developments in Durr's activism was the La Follette Committee hearings that revealed the lengths southern industrialists had gone to in order to prevent union organization in their factories. As Durr learned the truth about their actions, she had to face the criminal side of paternalism and red-baiting.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-2. 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

Well, anyway, Ida gave me some idea of what was happening in Mississippi, which was that people were being put in jail and killed and so forth. And then Bob LaFollette started the he arings which are the most significant set of hearings that have ever been held and if you all don't get them, steal them or buy them . . . we had them, but like so much of our stuff, I gave it out to people to read and I can't find them. But all of this is contained, the beginnings of everything is contained in the LaFollette Committee hearings, in every part of the country, California, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi and in Harlan County of Kentucky. Now, this is where I got my education. . . .
JACQUELYN HALL:
I didn't think that they held any hearings except in Alabama. . . .
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh, all over the country.
JACQUELYN HALL:
But not all over the South.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Well, Kentucky, but they held hearings in Washington for months on end. You see, we had a son and he had died. He had appendicitis and they didn't diagnose it right and they took him into the hospital and it burst and they didn't have any penicillen in those days and he died.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When did that happen?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Even dates like that, I can't remember . . .
SUE THRASHER:
He was about five years old?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
No, he was only three. We got to Washington in 1933 and I got pregnant very shortly thereafter and so it must have been about '36, that he died. So, I was terribly distressed and I began going to the LaFollette hearings, they sort of diverted me. Then, I got so interested in them and I finally got into them and I really learned all the economics and everything that I knew from the LaFollette Committee. I would go in every morning with Cliff and come back with him. Again, you see, I still had my first little girl, Ann, and I had Lucy by that time, too, my second daughter. But I had servants, you see. Still had a cook, still had a nurse, still had a yardman, still had a washlady. So, I would go in with Cliff in the morning and stay all day long at the hearings, just absolutely fascinated by them. You just can't imagine how dramatic they were. The Harlan County hearings, here would come in these great big tall people out of the woods of Harlan County and then in would come in a gunslinger or deputy sheriff with a gun on his side, of course, they made them leave their guns outside, thank God. They were the scariest looking people I ever saw. And the thing that was so horrible about the whole thing in Harlan County was that the man who had shot down the fellow they were complaining about, there was so much shooting . . . but they were all kin! First cousins, second cousins, brothers, in-laws. Harlan County was divided between theoperators and the United Mine Workers, but every family was split. So, you just felt like there was murder and death in that hearing room. You just didn't know if one of those big old tall men would pull out their guns and shot somebody. They did have to leave their guns outside. That was dramatic, because they would face each other in confrontation and of course, the mine owners would say that they had nothing to do with it, they were just for law and order, you know, and they didn't do a thing. All these guns and dynamite and all, they had nothing to do with it and so on. Oh, such a bunch of pious lies you've never seen! So, then I heard the Little Steel Strike in Ohio. That was so dramatic because the people that owned the steel mills had started these cities like Canton, Ohio and they were nice looking gentlemen with white hair and they owned the steel mills and they owned the town. They would say, "But we started the town." And LaFollette would say, "But you bought all these guns and machine guns and killed all these people at the strike." "But it is our steel mill and the idea of these people even thinking of organizing the workers. We treat our workers nicely, we've always treated our people nicely." It was exactly like slavery times, except they paid them. They lived in company houses, you see and had no union at all. Then, I remember one preacher had taken the side of the strikers and he had been promptly fired by a benevolent old gentleman. And they said, "Why did you fire Reverend So-And-So? Was it because he encouraged the strikers?" He said, "That was my church. My father built that church. My grandfather built the town." It was his town, his church, his steel mill. That was as dramatic as you can imagine. Then, the automobile workers strike, now that was something. Oh, all the beating up and carrying on. You will never believe that ourfriend . . . the one that got to be president of UAW and became such a big red-baiter. . . .
JACQUELYN HALL:
Reuther?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Reuther. Yeah, well, he was a big organizer at that time. You can't believe it, but he really was. Oh, they all got beat up and shot. But this was the kind of things that would happen. A man would get on the stand, an automobile worker, and he would say that he had tried to organize the automobile workers and he would tell about what he had done and how they had been beaten up and forced out. They would ask if he knew of any informers in the union and "No, not to my knowledge." So, they would bring a man on that looked sort of like an automobile worker and they would say, "Do you know this man?""Do I know him? He's my best friend, we have a cottage up on the lake together. My children and his have played together since they moved inot the neighborhood." Then, of course, it would turn out that this fellow would be an informer and had been an informer the whole time. Well, at that point, you never knew what was going to break out. They had to hold some of these guys because they really wanted to go out and sock them, you know. It was not only the fact of being betrayed, but of being betrayed by their friend. So, I went through all that and finally, they came down to Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. Well, boy was that a fight! By that time, I had gotten to know all the people on the committee, we were devoted friends. John Abt was the head counselor as I recall and Luke Wilson was on the staff and Charlie Flato, who is coming down to see us this spring and wantsto write something for you all, and Harold Weinstein, and that big fellow from Kentucky named Ed Prichard. He was sort of loaned from the White House. He was one of the "hot dog boys," Felix Frankfurter's law clerk. He was from Harvard . . . (laughter) Oh, they always called them the "hot dog boys." And he always wore beautiful white linen suits, he was just the perfect picture of the old Kentucky colonel, you know. He didn't have a mustache, but gracious manners and an extremely attractive fellow. You know, he got put in jail for stealing votes and the people that knew him never could believe it. We didn't doubt that he might have stolen the votes, but we couldn't imagine how he got caught! We couldn't see how he could get caught in anything like that, because he was a brilliant fellow and he was just so smart. We liked him very much indeed. I'm sure that if he stole the votes, he stole them for a good cause, I'll say that. (laughter) He was a delightful young man, I must say. Now, who else was on that committee, I can't remember, maybe some of the other names will come to me. But anyway, they were all very nice young men and we had lunch together, and I got to be a real fan. I was down on the front row all the time. There were a whole lot of other people, too, which is too much to go into. All the lobbyists of the labor unions were there and a lot of labor people were there. It was a real exciting summer and it did take my mind off my little boy's death, I must say. At least during the day. And then when they finally got to old Tom Girdler and Republic Steel and what he had done to the people in Birmingham and Girdler himself got on the stand and was confronted with all this. . . well, that was a great day, you can imagine. But when it got to the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, they told all about these fine men in Birmingham who had formed this committee to fight the unions, of course. See, Bull Conner had been head of the steel mill police. The Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company at that time, as did most of these other organizations like the Little Steel in Ohio, had private police forces. In addition to the city police forces, they had private ones. So, Bull Conner had been head of the United States Steel private police force. Then, you see that Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad ran Birmingham, practically. We ate when they were prosperous and didn't when they weren't. So, they got him elected to be the police chief of Birmingham. Then, Crack Hanna took his place as head of the steel police and remember this, because he is the one that beat up Joe Gelders, had him beaten up. . . he got to be head of the National Guard here later. Crack Hanna got to be head of the US Steel private police force. So, this long thing was spread on the record about these fine gentlemen who had formed this order and keep out all these organizers and all the things that happened with organizers, held incommunicado and all. They had held them sometimes for six months. Now, the guy that you were telling about, was Don West's brother-in-law. Now, he had another brother-in-law who came down there, I'm sure that he was a Communist, I forget his name now, because he went under two or three different names now, as I recall. And he was brought up and held incommunicado for six months it turns out, in this jail. He couldn't even get in contact with anybody. Nobody knew whether he was dead or . . . . [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Nobody knew whether he was dead or alive.
JACQUELYN HALL:
In Birmingham?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
In Birmingham. Well, he had to go out to Colorado because he had tuberculosis, which he got in jail.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Is this Jack Barton?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
I don't think so. I don't remember his name, those young Communists in those days changed their names so often. I can't remember what name he went by then, but I just remember running into him in Denver and saying something to him and you know, he wouldn't recognize me and he wouldn't admit that he had ever been there. He wouldn't admit that he had ever taken part in it or anything. You know, you said that Annette Ross was the same way. They had a rough time and the ones that got out and went their way, they didn't even want to be reminded of it. At least, this guy didn't. Maybe it was Jack Barton, I can't remember it. You see, there were so many of them. The same thing was going in Mississippi, you see. And anyway, some of these fine high priced gentlemen who had formed this committee were the fathers of my friends.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did the committee have a name?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh, I don't think so. I can't remember. I think that it was just a citizen's committee or something. You see, they all formed citizen's committees everywhere to keep them from organizing. But these were some of the fathers of my friends and the leading men of Birmingham, the men that I had been brought up to think were the leading men of Birmingham. So, I did something that I look back now as showing how foolish and stupid I was, I couldn't believe it. I thought that it was all just a total. . . I just didn't believe that these men could do that or keep people in communicado or have them beat up or disappear. And of course, Joe Gelders you see, he was the sort of focus of this hearing. Anyway, I will just say that I sent telegrams to all of my friends' fathers, these high class gentlemen, saying, "I have heard today in the LaFollette Committee you accused of such and such and I am sure that it is not the truth. Please refute this unwarranted lie." (laughter) I just couldn't believe it. You know, people like Victor Hanson, who was head of the Birmingham News and lived on the next block up from us, oh, all kinds of people.
SUE THRASHER:
But you believed it about Harlan County and all the other places?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
But I didn't know them, you see. I knew these men. They were the fathers of my friends who had been so sweet to me all my life and were the leading citizens, so you know, I just didn't believe it. Well, I got some of the most embarrassed letters back that you have ever seen. They didn't send any telegrams, but. . . "My Dear Virginia, I do not think that you understand what has gone on here in Birmingham. I can assure you that our only objective has been to maintain law and order and we had nothing in the wide world to do with all this shooting and killing and holding incommunicado. That was absolutely not our intention." They just excused themselves completely.