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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 >>

Durr joins the anti-poll tax efforts

Because her servants freed her from her housekeeping duties, Durr had time to become active in the anti-poll tax movement. Through personal experience, she had discovered that the poll tax did not only disfranchise African American voters; it also affected poor whites and white women.

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

We had a cook, a nurse, a yardman and a washlady. The yardman and washlady, of course, weren't full time, but you can imagine how little they were paid. I think that we paid the cook eight dollars a week and the nurse maybe eight a week and the yardman about two or three dollars a day and I suppose that we paid the washlady the same thing. And you know, there again, I was totally blind. I paid what was the going wage, you see. . . . And it never occurred to me that I was . . . you know, Cliff was making $6500 a year and we were sending money back home to my mother and father who had lost everything . . . in the meantime, they had moved back to their house and we had gotten a lady to live there with her family and look after them, or look after my mother who had come back from the sanitarium and we were sending them money. My brother had a job then with the New Deal and was sending them money. And so, they were back in their own home. . . .
Was your father still working in Birmingham for the National Emergency Council at that time?
Well, he got that job later. Anyway, after he got his job, we didn't send money but we were always going to have to be prepared to do so, you know, we didn't know how long the job was going to last. It lasted several years, though, I believe. But in any case, $6500 a year, which Cliff was getting, was not a great amount of money, but the point was that in those days, things were so much cheaper and the servants were so much cheaper. I had free time, you see, because I had the cook and nurse and even though I had the two children. I was free. So, I began to go into town and work at the women's section of the Democratic Committee. It was very pleasant, because the woman who was the head of it was named Mrs. McAllister from Grand Rapids and she was a very attractive woman and Mary Evans . . . what was her name . . .Mary Thompson Evans, a very attractive southern girl from North Carolina was the second in command. Well, what they were working on oddly enough, was that they were trying to get rid of the poll tax so that the white southern women could vote. You see, the women's division at that time was working on something they called "The Fifty-Fifty Plan", whereby the Democratic Committee would be composed of 50% women and 50% men. Now, there was no mention in the Democratic National Committee at that time of black people, very few of them voted in the South. Of course, they did in the North. But the southern women didn't vote, either. They had come to the conclusion that they didn't vote on account of the poll tax. You all know what the poll tax was, it was put on around 1901 to disenfranchise the Negroes, but it disenfranchised everybody who was poor, because in Alabama, for example, if you missed a year, you had to go back and pay your back taxes before you could vote. And if you started paying when you were forty-five, and if you hadn't paid from the time you were twenty-one, you had to pay $36 before you could vote. It was an accumulated poll tax, you see. Well, I had had personal experience with it in Birmingham, which made me realize how stupid it was and how difficult. Because when I was twenty-one years old, before I married Cliff, my father was always a registrar and one reason was because they knew that he had never registered any black man. He used to come home from the Board of Registrars and say, "I swear to God, there was a damn nigger there today who had been to Harvard. Harvard, mind you! And you know, you just couldn't hardly think of enough questions to ask him that he couldn't answer. But, I did." So, he never registered a single one. Well, I took this completely for granted too, you see. Daddy was just upholding pure white southern womanhood and the white supremacy. You see, I accepted all of this. I had been surrounded by it all my life and I accepted it. But anyway, I got registered when I was twenty-one and I paid a dollar and a half for my poll tax. Well, from then on, when I would go down to vote, they would say, "You haven't paid your poll tax." I would say, "But I did pay my poll tax." I didn't know that you had to pay it every year. You see, I was as stupid as that and I had been for two years to Wellesley. So, I would sign an affidavit that I had paid my poll tax. When I got married, Cliff went with me to vote and found that he had to pay about fifteen dollars so that I could vote, because all these affidavits that I had made out didn't mean a thing. (laughter) They had found out that I hadn't paid my poll tax. So, I got a first hand lesson in paying poll tax. So, Cliff thought that I was so terribly stupid for not knowing that I had to pay it every year. But anyway, when I started working for the women's division of the Democratic National Committee, they were working on getting rid of the poll tax for the women of the South. O.K., you leave me for the time being and I'll branch out in other directions. You're going to leave me as a young married woman on Seminary Hill in an old farmhouse that we fixed over, with a little boy and a little girl and two full time servants and two part time servants and an automobile, and in a lovely, quiet neighborhood, which I adored, but I also wanted to be in Washington in the midst of all the excitement, because the New Deal to me was perfectly thrilling. Cliff was saving the banks and the telephone was ringing and some man would say, "Mr. Durr, if that money is not here tomorrow, I'm going to jump out of the window." And bless God, they did jump out of the window sometimes. You know, it was a terribly exciting and thrilling time to be there. So, although I loved Seminary Hill, I also liked to be in the excitement in Washington.