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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 Durrs meet Lucy Randolph Mason and become more active in social justice efforts

Through her friendship with Kathryn Lewis, Durr met Lucy Randolph Mason who was then running public relations for the CIO. In this excerpt, Durr reflects on how Mason's identity as a southern lady assisted her negotiations between labor organizers and industrial leaders. She then explains how Mason convinced the Roosevelts to become more active in the labor movement which led to a coalition between Mason, the Southern Policy Commission, and other southern activists, both white and black.

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

But Mrs. Lewis was a very well educated woman and lady, you know, and she wanted to associate with ladies and gentlemen.She loved northern Virginia, she loved the gentility of Alexandria and the old houses and the gardens. I think that she loved the black servants, too, the butler, the maid, the cook. It's a very pleasant life, I can assure you. (laughter) And at that time, it was a very cheap life, too, because the servants were so cheap. But in any case, I met Lucy Randolph Mason. She was terribly excited at this luncheon because she had been hired by Mr. Lewis to be the public relations expert for the CIO and to be settled in Atlanta. She was a very pretty woman with white hair and blue eyes and very delicate looking, you know. And oh, the epitome of the Virginia aristocratic lady, you know, the delicate bones and all. She was just thrilled to death that day and nobody else at the luncheon knew what she was talking about, you know. To be a public relations expert for the CIO? Good God! Can you imagine such? So, she and I got to be friendly because I knew what she was talking about and we had a little private conversation and I thought it was marvelous that she was going to Atlanta to be the public relations expert for the CIO. She had come to her brother-in-law, Mr. Bryant, who was a banker, and he had told her to ask Mr. Lewis if he would interview her, because she had been working with the YWCA and she had gotten tired of that. She just thought that it was hopeless and she wanted to get in the labor movement some way. So, Mr. Lewis was smart enough to see what an asset she would be to him in the South, because you know, she could go to see all the editors and all the sheriffs and you know, they would just instinctively get up and take their hats off, they couldn't sit in her presence, you know. I guess they thought that they would see someone like Bella Abzug,just charging on like a Mac Truck, but then here was this beautiful little old lady with pink cheeks and blue eyes and white hair and she always dressed in a very neat sort of maidenly way and she had this lovely Virginia accent, you know. She said, "gyardon" instead of "garden," she was just the absolutely, just the epitome of the Virginia aristocratic lady.
What was it about the YWCA that had discouraged her?
Well, she thought that these girls didn't get paid enough. How could you work with a lot of girls in a tobacco factory if they just weren't being paid enough? How could you save them from a life of sin or to bring them to Jesus or whatever? (laughter) You know, they weren't making but about fifteen dollars a week, maybe, and she just thought that wasn't enough. No, she had a very strong developed social consciousness and she also had been a friend of Mrs. Roosevelt. She had known her through these various YWCA, laboring girls projects, these do-good projects. Well, anyway, about the middle of the summer, which must have been the summer of 1938, I'm sure it was, I got a call from Joe Gelders, who I had met just once before. And he said that he and Miss Lucy Randolph Mason were in Alexandria and wanted to come out and see me. So, they did come out and they had just been to see Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt at Hyde Park and what had happened was this: Joe Gelders had gone over to Mississippi to Tupelo, I think, where John Rankin was a Congressman and he was the most vicious of all, although he wasn't as bad as Jim Eastland got to be, that son-of-a-bitch, I mean, that polecat, that cottonmouth moccasin, that rattlesnake . . . (laughter) . . . that "common lowdown poor white trash." (laughter) Is there anything else that we can think to call him? Well, anyway, John Rankin was just awful, you know, he was anti-Semitic and anti-black but he was for the New Deal in that he was for the TVA, the public electricity. But he was just adamant about any labor unions. Then, he began all this Communist business and I heard a lot about that from the LaFollette Committee, too you see, everybody that joined the CIO was a Communist, oh, just everybody was a Communist. And I still thought that if you belonged to a labor union, you probably were a Communist, that was just what I understood about it. So, anyway, Joe and Miss Lucy said that they had been to see the Roosevelts up at Hyde Park and told them the terrible conditions that were happening in Mississippi, you know that they had had all kinds of burnings and murders and beatings up and defiances of the law there. There was a Jimmy Collins as I remember, who was a famous case and he got to be almost as famous as that girl in Carolina, what was her name, Ella Mae Wiggins. You've heard of her, they wrote a song about her and there is a whole novel about her called To Make My Bread. Well, Jimmy Collins was trying to organize the textile workers in Mississippi and he was beat up and so forth and so on and it was about this time, you see, that Ida Engeman got kidnapped and run out of town in a nightgown.
Was she organizing for the textile workers?
She was organizing for the ILGWU. So, anyway, they had gone to see the Roosevelts to tell them about these terrible conditions in the South. And Mr. Roosevelt was still feeling pretty sore, you see, because he had failed in his purge and everybody had voted for the people that he was trying to purge in the South. So, the Roosevelts had agreed to call a meeting in the South in the fall to bring together the New Deal elements of the South. So, Joe and Miss Lucy were asking me if I would help them with it in some way, you know, trying to get Hugo Black interested in it maybe, or Cliff interested. So, I told them at that point about Clark Foreman and how he had had this group going, the Southern Policy Committee and the pamphlet that they had written, so they all got together. Now, I can't tell you all the details of them getting together, but they all got together finally. I mean, the New Dealers and the Southern Policy Committee and the labor people and then, you see, the black people, because they brought them in.