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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 >>

Various ways activists protest racism

In 1942, the Southern Conference on Human Welfare gathered in Nashville, Tennessee, for their annual meeting. When Durr, Mary McLeod Bethune, Louis Burnham, Jim Dombrowski, Charles Johnson, and Eleanor Roosevelt gather at a downtown hotel, however, Bethune and Burnham have trouble with Jim Crow laws. Each of them finds a creative way to undermine segregation in the hotel.

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 anyway, up in Nashville, Jim was the secretary and Mrs. Roosevelt came down again. That was in the middle of the war, you see, and we were all united again to defeat Hitler. Paul Robeson came down and sang. Then, there was a fellow there named Louis Burnham, do you know who he was? He was very active in the Southern Conference. His daughter is Margaret Burnham. Well, Louie was a very bright and fine fellow and very smart and extremely nice, an attractive man in every way and very direct and honest. I remember two things that happened there. You see, the race issue was beginning to play a large part now. You see, we had the labor issue, poll tax issue, the war issue and now, we come to the race issue. We met at this hotel there in Nashville, a leading hotel, you know the name of it, downtown. A tremendous big lobby and all . . . .
The Hermitage?
I think so. Anyway, we got there and I had just got in, you know, and Jim said, "Virginia, we are having a meeting of the board, you see, I was on the board. I don't know whether I was vice-president then or not. I can't remember. Isn't that ridiculous? I know that I was vice-president of the poll tax thing, but I don't know if I was of the Conference or not. So, we went to the elevator and in the group, there was Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, Jim Dombrowski and I believe there was Dr. Charles Johnson of Fisk and me. So, we went to the elevator and the elevator operator, a young black boy said to Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, "I am sorry Mrs. Bethune, but you cannot ride this elevator, you will have to ride the freight elevator." Well, Dr. Johnson, I think he was there, but I don't remember him playing any part in this episode. Well, Mrs. Bethune drew herself up in all her majesty and said, "Young man, Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune is not freight." So, with that, she began to walk upstairs. It was on the fifth floor and she had awful asthma, you know. So, she would pause at every landing and gasp and by the time we got upon the fifth floor, we thought she was dead for sure. We were scared to death. Here we were, the wife of the president and all, and scared to death. Mrs. Bethune was a consumate actress, you know, so we never could be sure just how much of it was asthma and how much of it was acting. So, when we finally got up to the fifth floor, she (the following is said in raspy, out of breath voice) said, "Call the doctor, call the doctor." Oh, God, we called the doctor and we called the manager and we called the ambulance and everything that we could think up. Oh, she was dying and everybody was scared to death and terrified and she kept on wheezing and trying to catch her breath. Finally, the doctor came and I don't know what he did, gave her a shot or something and wanted to take her to the hospital. No, she wouldn't go to the hospital. She wouldn't do anything but stay there and make that manager feel guilty. (laughter) She had that manager just scared out of his mind. You could see it, "Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune dies in the presence of Mrs. Roosevelt because they wouldn't let her use the elevator." She just scared the living daylights out of that manager. Then he apologized and carried on and at that moment, segregation was forgotten in The Hermitage hotel. No more segregation there. She just killed that right then and there. She was just absolutely incredible. But Louis Burnham had come there the day before and run into it and he had done something that black people somethimes do.. I think that Angela Davis tells about that in her book . . . he put a towel around his head and told them that he was from India. They registered him right off, he got a room and they took his bags up and nobody minded at all. He was an Indian, may have been brown, but with that towel wrapped around his head, he was o.k. (laughter)