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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 >>

Money, gender, race, and power in the New South

Durr explains how much control men such as Judge Elbert H. Gary and Milton Smith had over the lives of southerners, even those of the same class.

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

You can't imagine what . . . for instance, when I lived in Birmingham and was a young lady making my debut, Mr. Gary, who was then the president of the United States Steel Corporation, George Gordon Crawford was the head of the Tennessee Coal Iron and Railroad Company, but Judge Gary was the head of the whole United States Steel Corporation. Well, he would come down to visit his fiefdom in Birmingham and come down in a private car and park it on the railroad at the train station, and then everybody in Birmingham would bow and scrape and Mrs. George Gordon Crawford, who was quite a society lady, would have a series of parties for him. And I remember very well that she called up one day and invited me to come to a luncheon that she was having at the Roebuck Country Club. And she said, "The judge loves to see young people around so I am inviting all you young people and we want you to sing and dance and just give us a background of gaiety. The judge just likes to see a background of gaiety." So, we were just to be a chorus, a background of singing and dancing, swimming and all dressed up just to give the judge a background. Well, we all went. We ate lunch, we didn't sing, we didn't dance and we didn't swim, because all of us had this awful feeling that we were just being asked to be prop characters. We weren't being asked because they wanted us but just to be a background for the judge. The abasement of people when Judge Gary came around: It was just like the king coming down to visit one of his provinces. You all ought to read the life of Mr. Milton Smitch of L & N Railroad. He probably had more influence in the South and on the legislatures than anybody else. The railroads were the big lobbyists in those days and were where the money was coming from. You just take a poor country, the way the South was, an agricultural country that had been overrun and what wealth they had in the slaves was gone. And everybody was trying to pick up the pieces and the one thing that they wanted was industry, they wanted to be like the North. They would do anything to get a cotton mill set up or any kind of industry to come down from the North. They were perfectly willing to have child labor, perfectly willing to have the lowest kind of wages. As I told you, one reason that I got the corporate opposition against Hugo was that he got big awards before juries because they had no workman's compensation, you see. What I say is that the South, by the disenfranchisement provisions, was ruled by an oligarchy, some few planters in the black belt had been able to get together a lot of land and still managed to make a living and they were in alliance with the corporate interests in Birmingham, we called them the "Big Mules." And they ran the state as an oligarchy.