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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 Great Depression strikes the industrial areas of the South

As the economy slowed, the Great Depression devastated the working-class communities surrounding Birmingham. As Durr grew increasingly active in Red Cross relief efforts, she recognized the suffering caused by paternalist industrialists.

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

The Great Depression was in progress and there was no money left whatever and nothing that they could sell and nothing that they could borrow and nothing that they could do except starve to death. So, the Red Cross workers at that time had no cars and they had to go on the street cars to investigate these cases. You see, the greater part of the complete destitution was in these towns around Birmingham, these sort of industrial suburbs like Ensley and West End and Gate City, where the big corporations like the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company and Republic Steel and those places were. So, Rachel London, who was the president had the idea that we would form a motor corps and take these Red Cross women around so that they could certify more people, you see. If they had to go on the street car, it took them forever to go from one place to another. So, we did. The Junior League formed a motor corps and we took these Red Cross workers around and I began taking Mrs. Bishop around, who was a Red Cross worker, and a very intelligent and fine person and finally, we found that she had some connection to Cliff, one of his cousins had married a Bishop, so there was kind of an in-law relationship there. I became very devoted to her. She was just overcome with the weight of the misery that she was trying to deal with in this way and so, I began to take her out one day a week and then I think that I . . . he said that I did it every day, but I really didn't, I. . . .
I want to tell you how I was suffering. I was walking the whole way, fully two and a half miles and back every day. It was every day of the week once you got started.
I had a cook and I had a nurse. I don't know what I paid them, but I know that it was mighty little. They were so thankful and delighted to have a place and food. Everyday black men and black women would come to the door begging for work. They would work for fifty cents a day or for anything. Then, the white people would come begging for work and they would work for anything. It was just mass misery. But I began to get the full extent of the scope of it when I took this Red Cross worker out and saw whole areas just flat out broke. What the corporations had done was, they had shut down everything, you see, because they couldn't operate at a profit and the people who were living in company houses, and you know, they had these company stores where they traded in scrip, they would be paid in scrip rather than in money. Now, the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, which was a part of US Steel, they let the people stay in their houses, but they cut off the light and water and there was one water tap on every block. They would have to go to this one tap to get their water. There were no lights, no electricity and no heat. Then, at Republic Steel, Tom Girdler was the president of that and I conceived this mortal hatred of him, because they wouldn't let the poor people even stay in their houses. They drove them out and put in guards to shoot them if they came back. And those people, a lot of them, were living in coke ovens. You know what coke ovens are? They are kind of a brick beehives where they smoke the wood. You know, coke is made out of wood, isn't that right, Cliff?
Coke is made out of coal. Charcoal is made out of wood, but it is something of the same process.
Anyway, these little beehive ovens, they would crawl in there like animals and keep the rain off. So, I saw more accumulated misery in the shortest time that you can imagine. I saw more children with rickets and these poor pitiful women and the men so ashamed of themselves. But the thing that really bothered me the most was, they were like the people who blamed them for being so poor, they blamed themselves for being poor. They never did say, "We are in this situation because US Steel doesn't treat us as well as they treat the mules." You see, they fed the mules in the mines and the animals, whatever they needed to keep going, but they didn't feed the people. They fed the mules! But they never once said, "The United States Steel Company or the Republic Steel Company is to blame, they are the ones that laid me off." There was no wrath or indignation. They would always say, "Well, if we hadn't bought that old Ford or if we hadn't gotten that radio." They were so full of guilt about themselves. It was just the way that my mother and father were full of guilt because they lost everything. They didn't blame it on the cotton market, they blamed it on themselves. These people were the same exactly. They blamed it all on themselves. And these preachers would come around. You would be in this cold house trying to certify that a woman or man was absolutely penniless so that he could be certified for the two and a half dollars a week and some damn preacher would come in. He would tell these people that they had sinned and that was why they were suffering. He would pray with them. You know, I got to where I wanted to kill them. I really thought that to come into these starving people in these cold houses with rickety children and tell them that they had gotten that way because they had sinned! And to tell them that they had to come to God or they would all go to hell! Well, I really got such a strong bias against preachers at that point that, particularly these hell fire and damnation preachers, that I haven't gotten over it yet. There was no rebellion, there was no feeling that they were being done in. There may have been a few people around there that felt it, but if there were, I never ran into them.