Virginia's first activist role
Durr's first activist role in Washington, D.C., was as a volunteer with the women's division of the Democratic National Committee. She had discussed this in an earlier interview, but here, Durr goes into greater detail regarding the other women working with her and the racialized nature of their lobbying group.
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
Anyway I got to know a lot of these people in Washington who were in the New Deal, so I decided I wanted to do something. I had servants; I could leave the children at home for a morning or an afternoon without feeling any sense of great guilt. So I volunteered to be a worker in the women's division of the Democratic National Committee. And I asked Sister and Hugo if they thought that was all right. And they thought that was a good idea. There were two very nice Southern girl named May Thompson Evans from North Carolina-she was working in the Women's Division. And then the head of it was named Dorothy McAlister-she came from Milwaukee, and her husband later became a judge, and she was an awefully nice woman. Two or three times a week I'd go down to the Women's Division of the National Democratic Committee, and I was a volunteer; I didn't get paid. And I'd clip newspapers and answer the telephone and do whatever volunteers were supposed to do. But it was lots of fun because Mrs. Roosevelt would come in quite often. There would be all kinds of women coming through. What they were trying to do at that time was to . . . The Women's Division of Democratic National Committee was trying to put into effect what they called the 50-50 plan, which is that all the Democratic
Coommittees would be 50-50, 50 women, 50 men; they would have equal representation. [Was that considered a radical proposal?] Oh, God, yes. I should say it was. Because in the Southern states there was not a single woman on a single Democratic committee. The Democratic National Committeewomen were usually sort of pretty Southern women that wore big hats and would sing Dixie. [Whose idea was this, the 50-50?] Well, Mrs. Roosevelt and there was somebody named Molly-what was her name; she came from New York state-and Dorothy McAlister and May Thompson Evans, all these women that were working in the Women's Division were working on the 50-50 plan. So they were particularly worried about the South because there were no Southern women on any Democratic committee I mean local, city, state, anything. They were just completely outside. So they got particularly worried about the South. So they made quite a study of it. They said that the thing that was wrong was the poll tax. The poll tax in all the Southern states, you see, had been put on after the Populist uprising, around 1900, when they disenfranchised the Negroes by the white primary and by the poll tax, but they also disenfranchised the poor whites. You see, no women voted. Women didn't start voting until 1920. Very few women voted because if a man, a poor tenant farmer if he had scraped up a dollar and a half to pay his poll tax, he sure as hell wasn't going to pay a dollar and a half for his wife. And they never had any money. And then in Alabama you know, the poll tax was retroactive. If you started voting when you were forty-five, you had to pay 35 dollars because you had to pay back every year you'd missed. [Was it retroactive in a lot of other Southern states?] Well, it was retroactive in Virginia for three yearsback, but in Alabama it was retroactive from the time you were 21 years old. Now I think the highest proportion of voting was in Texas, which was about 31%, but then it got down to 12% in Mississippi. Now this was the proportion of people who voted of voting age; this wasn't the proportion of population. This was the people who were eligible to vote over 21. So the South was just run by an oligarchy composed of
whites, usually middle-aged, gentlemen, or men, some of them were gentlemen and some of them weren't. But in any case Mrs. Roosevelt at that time had a very high voice; you know she had voice lessons and she really queeked, like Squeeky Fromm. But she had that high, very high-pitched voice. But I just became devoted to her. I thought she was a wonderful woman, just a great person. And the women in the Democratic Division were devoted to her. And old Mrs. Daisy Harriman would sweep in. You don't remember her. She was a great figure in the Democratic Party. She became an ambassador, I think, later to Sweden or Denmark. She was a very handsome woman and gave a lot of parties. She would sweep in. But it was an interesting lot of women, you know, extremely interesting. So I became very fond of them. But now there were no Negroes around. There was absolutely not one single black person around the Democratic National Committee that I ever saw. It was about 1934, I reckon, '35. I was born in 1903, so I was about 30, I suppose. I was a young woman. So we were yorking quietly along on this 30-30 [sic] thing, and then, I mean the 50-50 thing, and then the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee began the onslaught on the poll tax.. They were saying we had to get rid of the poll tax. They were getting out literature against the poll tax and sending out literature and trying to get somebody on the Hill to introduce a bill, you know, to get rid of the poll tax, and trying to get the States to get rid of the poll tax. And the poll tax got to be a great political issus.