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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 >>

The first Southern Conference for Human Welfare

During the first Southern Conference for Human Welfare, Bull Connor attempted to force the integrated meeting to segregate, but when Eleanor Roosevelt arrived, she challenged Connor to enforce his announcement.

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

Hugo gave a perfectly marvelous speech, quoting Thomas Jefferson all the way through it. Mrs. Roosevelt was there that night and we were strictly segregated. All of one side of the city auditorium was black and the other side was all white. Because, you see, Hugo got there the last day of the meeting, but I had been there for several days before and I went to the first meeting, which was on Sunday night. Cliff hadn't come then, but we met there with all of these people from all over the South. There was Joe Gelders and there were Jane Speed and Dolly, you know and this fellow Rob Hall, the Communist Secretaryfor Alabama. Then, there was a lot of labor people there, there was Bill Mitch and the mine workers people were there and so were the steel workers and Mrs. Bethune was there and of course, Frank Graham and all the North Carolina people were there. So, Frank Graham was elected temporary chairman and he got up and there was a lot of singing and praying always at Southern meetings, particularly where there are blacks, you know. We prayed and we sang. So, we were all integrated, just sitting all over the auditorium in little groups. Myles Horton was there, you know, people from . . . by that time, I had been to the Highlander Folk School, but that would take another tape to tell about the effect that it had on me, which was really terrific.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Can we go back to that?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Well, we can, but I will talk for three or four weeks or months if you are going to carry in all these various things. But I must say that the Highlander Folk School did have a tremendous effect on me. But in any case, we were all sitting there in the auditorium, and as I said, we were all integrated and they elected Frank Graham for temporary chairman and there were a lot of announcements of things and the program and so forth. We were going to have a meeting the next morning to elect a permanent chairman and then break up into workshops. So, when we came back on Monday morning, the whole place was surrounded by Black Marias, surrounded on all four sides. Every police van and Black Maria in the city and county were up there and the whole place surrounded by policemen, inside and out. And there was old Bull Conner saying that anybody that broke the segregation law of Alabama would be arrested right then and there and taken to jail in that Black Maria and no if and, and buts about it, he was going to watch it. There was a great debate as to whether they could get together on the stage. We accepted the fact that under the laws of the city of Birmingham, we had to be segregated, blacks had to sit on one side and whites had to sit on the other. There was a great debate as to whether they could sit and stand on the stage together. You just can't imagine the state we were in when we had this terrific debate as to whether two speakers could pass each other on the stage, one black and one white, or stand together, you know. So, they accepted that, the people who were running it, you see, Frank Graham and others, they accepted that. So, they divided with blacks on one side and whites on the other. And Mrs. Roosevelt had come by that time and she took a folding chair and put it plumb right in the middle of the aisle and said that she would not be segregated. And they were scared to arrest her. After all, she was the wife of the President of the United States. (laughter) So, she got by with it.