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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, October 16, 1975. Interview G-0023-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Navigating the kinship, class, and gendered hierarchies that governed Virginian aristocratic society

Though Durr found companionship and acceptance in Seminary Hill society, her father did not feel similarly when he came to visit. During one ill-fated tea with a group of ladies, he told a story they found inappropriate.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, October 16, 1975. Interview G-0023-3. 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

Did you find that society in Virginia similar to the Alabama aristocracy?
Well, you see, the Virginia society was so different from Birmingham. You see, Birmingham had a few people who were aristocrats, I mean they claimed that they hadn't done their washing, as my mother says, in several generations. They were freed of that. But the Virginia aristocracy, or the Virginia gentility, was much . . . I can't tell you because there was no competition. You know, they were just sure of themselves. They knew that if they were kin to the Randolphs or the Crawfords or the Patricks or the Jeffersons or the Washingtons . . . And my father would come to visit us quite often. I told you the story he told the Virginia ladies that shocked them so terribly. My father would come to visit us quite often and the ladies would have teas in the afternoon, all the ladies on the Seminary Hill, very pleasant, you know. Sit out in the garden if it was warm, then in the winter by a fire and have . . . And it was pleasant, you know, so I'd take Daddy with me, and he'd love to go. They'd always invite him because Daddy was very chatty, you know, and always made himself very pleasant. But he went to one Mrs. Walker's one afternoon when all the Seminary ladies were there. And he began to tell how he was from Virginia, and his family had come from South Boston and Virginia, you know. He was met with the usual sort of cool acceptance of the fact that you had left although you had left Virginia. So, I don't know whether he got irritated or whether he got, thought he was going to be funny. So he said, this conversation reminds me of a joke, they were talking about whether the Fairfaxes were kin to the Washingtons or the Washingtons were kin to the Randolphs or the Randolphs were kin to the, you know, so on and on. And Daddy said, out of the clear blue sky, this reminds me of a story from an old man up in Walker County, that's, you know, one of the roughest counties in Alabama, up here in the coal mining region. Said they were looking for a school, man to teach school, and said that they wrote up to the University of Virginia and the old man could hardly write, he got a tablet and a pencil and wrote up to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, and said, Dear Sirs, Beat 8 of certain district in Walker County is looking for a school teacher, and can you recommend a good young man? You know, we'd pay him $800, year basis, free board, whatever. So he got this beautifully written letter back. You know, beautiful handwriting and addressed properly and dear sirs, my name is St. John Randolph Washington Jefferson, or whatever, anyway a very old Virginia name, and on my mother's side I am connected to the Washingtons and on my mathers side I'm connected to the Jeffersons and on my grandmother's side I'm connected to the Lees and on my greatgrandmother's side I'm connected to the Fairfaxes. He gave them about four pages of his geneology. And then he ended up by saying that he would like to apply to school teach at the school in Walker County. Well, the writing was very delicate, you know, beautiful, very legible, but very fine. So the school board got together and they read the letter and they figured out, figured out page by page. So they all started answering. And they discussed what to say. So the old man got out his tablet again and wet his pencil and he wrote back, you know, dear sir, University of Virginia, you know. Dear Sir, we have read your letter. N'en mind, you need'n come. We weren't lookin for no man down here for breedin' purposes jus' one to teach school. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
And this was at the Ladies' Auxiliary?
Yes, this was at the Ladies' Auxiliary, or ladies tea party. Nobody laughed, I can assure you of that. And Daddy was just disgraced. They really didn't thing that was funny at all. Because they just spent hours developing these family themes. But they were lovely, sweet people on, you know, a personal level.
Now your father came from an old Alabama family. It must have not been totally alien for him.
Well, it wasn't, but the point was that they made him feel that being from Alabama was kind of a disgrace. If you weren't from Virginia, you know, you really didn't count. You didn't amount to a hill of beans unless you came from Virginia. Of course you could be away from Virginia temporarily, but to leave Virginia, to have your ancestors pick up and leave Virginia, they always thought there must have been something peculiar about you.