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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 >>

Lucy Randolph Mason and Joe Gelders team up for workers' rights

Durr describes how Lucy Randolph Mason met and collaborated with Joe Gelders to use their combined charm and political power to further workers' rights. Along the way, they encountered opposition from men such as Mississippi Congressman John Rankin but gained the support of the Roosevelts and other New Deal administrators.

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

And Mrs. Bryant had been a Mason, and they had lived in the big old Mason house that was down the street from where we lived. She was the granddaughter of the Mason who went to, you know, in the Confederacy Slidell to England, you remember. And she was also the descendent of the Mason that lived down on the river author of the Virginia Bill or Rights, wasn't he? George Mason? Anyway they had an old sort of Victorian house. So she had a sister named Lucy Randolph Mason, who had been a YWCA worker. And Miss Lucy was a very pretty, white-haired Virginia lady who wore glasses, very dainty and extremely Virginian looking, if you know what I mean, very aristocratic looking-had a lovely soft Virginia voice. And Mrs. Bryant had invited me to a luncheon party to meet her sister Miss Lucy Randolph Mason. So Mrs. Bryant was very attractive, very bright, lively lady and had a big house. I never will forget what marvelous meals you'd get. I remember that way we had broiled quail on toast and sherbert in between and charlotte rouse. But this was a ladies' luncheon, so I met this Lucy Randolph Mason. And she told me at this meeting that she was at the YWCA, but she was very anxious to get into the New Deal or into some sort of another line of work because she had realized that the YWCA, as good as it was, it really wasn't attacking the problem of poverty. And I was very much impressed with Miss Lucy. We discussed the situation in the South, you know. So through her brother-in-law, Mr. Bryant, who was head of the bank, he went to see Mr. John L. Lewis and told Mr. Lewis that she wanted to get into the labor movement. She had been in the YWCA and welfare work, but she had decided this really didn't begin to attack the real problem, which was this terrible poverty. And she wanted to get into the labor movement, the union movement. So Mr. John L. Lewis, who was a very bright man in many ways. If he hadn't had such a terrible ego-that was his stumbling block. He immediately saw Miss Lucy could be of a great advantage in the South. He's smart enough to see to Send Miss Lucy South as his public relations person would be very disarming because all these fierce people, police chief and sherriffs and newspaper editors, you know, who were looking for some big old gorilla to come in and Miss Lucy appears. She was the kind of lady that men would instinctively rise, give her a seat, because she was such a perfect Southern lady. So he hired her as his public relations representative in the South, and he gave her an office in Atlanta. There's a girl over in Atlanta, a big fat girl, Margaret somebody, she lives in New York now. She and Miss Lucy were great friends. Josephine Wilkins would know her name, because she was a great friend of hers too. Anyway . . .Josephine knows all this, too. You know you ought to interview Josephine because she knew all of this very well. You know Josephine's a whole lot older than I am. You won't believe it but I'm 72 and she's 80. Isn't she remarkable? So, they were having a textile strike in Mississippi. There was a great deal of violence going on in Mississippi. And Joe Gelders had gone over there. There was a fellow named Jimmy Collins, who had been beat up and arrested. He was an officer, an organizer of the textile workers. I believe this was all in Tupalo where John Rankin came from and you know John Rankin hated the unions worse than anything in the world; he was terribly racist, too, he was just a terrible old man, I thought. He was like Bilbo, but he was higher class than Bilbo. But he was as big a racist as Bilbo. He was very much against unions. So they had been having all this terrible trouble in Tupulo and that's when Ida Sledge, whom I've told you about, whom I got to know so well later, had gone down. The IGWU had sent her down to Tupulo to help organize the women. They made overalls and cotton dresses. There was a factory there. But she got run out of town. She was a Sledge. She was very aristocratic. I hate to use this word again. Her father married and had a daughter who married Will Bankhead, who was Tallulah's mother, Eugenia's mother. That was Miss Aoa Sledge. If you want to go down here to the musuem here, you can see her wedding costumes and her trusseau. She had a waist, I think, 15 inches. She was very beautiful and extremely charming. She died when Tallulah was born. And if you've ever read anything about Tallulah, you know Tallulah always said she was so strange because she alwyas felt she killed her mother, by being born. Have you ever read any Tallulah books? Well they're rather interesting books, but peculiar to say the least. But Tallulah, you know, was kind of crazy, I think. When she was in "The Little Foxes" she was absolutely marvelous. That was Lillian Hellman's play, perfectly marvelous. Well, anyway, Mr. Sledge married again quite late in life and he had a daughter named Ida Sledge. So that made Ida and Tallulah half-aunts. I know by this time you've quit. [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
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[So Ida Sledge was working there for the IGWU?] She was the one I've told you about that had gone to Wellesley and began to work for the ILGWU in Baltimore and they sent her down to Mississippi, because she came from Mississippi. They had the idea, the unions did, that if native Southerners came down here, they wouldn't maybe have as much trouble as outsider agitators, as they were called. Ida got run out of town twice, out of Tupulo, once in her night-gown. They came and got her. She had a tough time. I have a lot of the articles that came out about it in the papers. [She's also in Lucy's book. I remember than.] Lucy Mason wrote a book herself? I must have read that, but I can't remember. [To Win These Rights.] In any case, Miss Lucy and Joe Gelders got together, in Mississippi, I think. See here was Joe Gelders living in Birmingham trying to protect the rights of these organizers and get them out of jail and keep them from being beat to death and held incommunicato. And here was Miss Lucy who was the CIO representative in Atlanta. But I think they met in this trouble in Tupulo, involving Ida Sledge and Jimmy Collins. And Joe was an extremely lovely fellow. He was tall and thin. He looked like a kind of a Jewish prophet in a way, in that he had a very sensitive face and a very strong face, the combination of both strength and beauty. And he was an absolutely honest man. I never met a person in whom I had greater faith or trust. And he really was devoured. You see he'd had a conversion almost after this killing of the pigs and things; he felt like all the suffering . . .You see the thing that made the depression so awful was that it was not a depression of scarcity-it was a depression of glut. In other words, there was too much of everything. Do you get my point? [It wasn't spread out?] Well, I mean there was too much wheat, too much corn, because people couldn't buy it, you see. Like Abyssinia or Ethopia or a country that has just nothing to it much except some sand and dessert and some few little patches, when the people go hungry there you can understand. The Sahara Dessert or these poor people there, you know you're always seeing their pictures. But here in this great rich country, these people were starving to death and having rickets and consumption and hookworm and pellegra, because there was just too much. It was the idea of people starving in the midst of plenty. So Joe had become obsessed; really he was a flaming torch of anger and also of determination to set it right. So he and Miss Lucy got together over there in Mississippi. And she had known Mrs. Roosevelt in her days of the YWCA and women's works and things like that. So she and Joe decided that they would go up to Hyde Park where the Roosevelts were then staying and see if they would organize in the South some sort of an association or meeting or have a meeting and bring together the New Deal elements in the South, the labor unions, the people who were benefitting by the New Deal, like the WPA people, and. . . So they did. They went up to Hyde Park and they got Mr. Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt to agree to have a meeting. Now this was in 1937, I believe.