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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 Progressive Party

Durr explores the reasons she became a member of the Progressive Party instead of remaining loyal to the Democratic Party as her husband had done. To illustrate the need for change, she describes what happened when she attempted to register to vote in Virginia and ran into the Byrd machine.

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

Virginia, how exactly did you get involved in the Progressive Citizens of America? That was the predecessor of the Progressive Party.
Well, through Beanie Baldwin. I knew him very well, he was in the Agricultural Department and became the kind of the executive secretary. He was a dear friend and his wife. He came from Virginia and he still is a dear friend.* * Beanie Baldwin died in May 1975 Haven't you interviewed him? He was one of the reasons I joined. I lived in Virginia. There was no Republican party to speak of, there may have been ten or twelve, Republicans but I never met any. But the Democratic party of Virginia was absolutely controlled by Harry Byrd. It was the Byrd machine. 12% of the voting population voted. It was the lowest of any place in the whole entire country. You were up against an absolute oligarchy, a total machine. The Democratic party was the most tightly controlled thing in Virginia. You couldn't break it to save your life. It was all around the courthouses in every county and it was just a tight machine. I got to be president of the northern Virginia PTA, of all things, because I sent my children to public schools. I began to be a citizen of Virginia. I'll tell you how the machine worked, I'll tell you how I got to vote in Virginia. I'll try to make this very brief. This was during the war and I had been elected president of the northern Virginia PTA and the ladies said that I had to become a Virginia citizen. I couldn't testify for the PTA by keeping on voting in Alabama. So, I said o.k., I would become a citizen. I really liked Virginia. Cliff never did become a citizen of Virginia. He was an Alabamian from start to finish. He never even thought about being a citizen of Virginia. So, my neighbor across the way, Mary Walker Livingston, she was Mary Walton McCandlish. Her family was very prominent in VirginiaHer uncle was the undersecretary of State, So, I asked her how I would go about getting to vote. She said, "Well, the first thing that you have got to do is get registered." I said, "Who is the registrar?" She said, "Well, I will have to find out from the courthouse." This was during the war and we had no gas to speak of. But she knew everybody at the courthouse and she called up and found out the name of the registrar and the place he lived. I said, "Well, does he have a telephone?" "No." "Well, how will I know that he is going to be there?" "Well, you will just have to take your chances." So, I got an extra amount of gasoline. The board let me have five gallons to go to register to vote, they did do that. So, I drove out this old road and came to this old country farmhouse and went inside and there was an old lady there and I asked if I could see the registrar, that I wanted to get registered to vote. She said that he wasn't there and she didn't know when he would be back. I waited and waited and dark came on and I had to come home. I went back another time and he wasn't there. No telephone, you see, and no way to get in touch with him. I suppose that I could have written him. Anyway, the third time that I got there, he was there. And he was like most Virginians, he had nice manners. He said that he would be glad to register me, he was just delighted. Of course, they didn't have many people registering during the war because nobody could get up there. He said to his wife, "Mamie, where is that poll book?" She said, "I think that we've got it in a trunk in the attic." He said, "Well, you see if you can find it." So, she went up in the attic and rustled around for awhile and she came back and gave us the poll book. She had put it away in a trunk because she didn't think that anybody would come to register during the war. It was so hard to get gasoline and he lived way up there in the country. So, I said that I wanted to register and I had my driver's license, I suppose, something to identify myself with and I said, "Do you have a pen?" He said, "No, I don't have a pen." I said, "You don't have a pen?" He said, "No. Don't you?" I said, "No I don't, I have a pencil." He said, "You can't register with pencils." (laughter) I said, "Well, let's see if we can't find a pen." So, the old lady began looking around and she finally found an old rusty pen, just about to fall apart with rust. And then he said, "We don't have any ink." I said, "You don't have a pen and you don't have ink?" He said, "Well, I thought certainly that you would have brought your own." I told him that I certainly thought that he would have a pen and ink. I said, "Well, now, what can we use for ink." He said, "I don't know." I said, "You know, this is the third time that I have been here. I've spent fifteen gallons of gas coming here." And he said, "Lady, that's just too bad, but I just don't have any ink." I asked his wife if she knew anything that we could use for ink. She said, "Well, I've got some mecurochrome." You know, that's that red stuff that they used to put on boils and things. She said, "Let's mix it up with a little soot and see if we can't make ink out of it." And she did. She got some mecurochrome and mixed it up with some black something, soot I reckon, and it made a kind of a pale red-black ink. Anyway, I got my named signed in the book. So, I got my receipt that I had registered.
Did you have to pay a poll tax?
Not at this point. Just registered. I was in this precinct, you see, and had to register in this precinct. So, then I came back and said, "Now, Mary Waltors, what do I do next?" She said, "Well, you have to go up to the Fairfax County Courthouse and pay your poll tax." You register in the precinct but pay your poll tax at the courthouse. So, that was about twelve or fifteen miles and I had to go and scrounge around for some more gas to get up there. I went up there and Virginia had a poll tax where you had to pay two years back plus the current year. I had to pay a dollar and ahalf a year and I paid four dollars and a half. You see, I had to pay the two years back that I hadn't paid. So, I thought, "Thank God, this is over. I am registered, I've got my receipt and my receipt for my poll tax." So, the next time that they were having an election, I went down to the place where they voted right down the hill from us and. . . .. [END OF TAPE 4, SIDE B] [TAPE 5, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 5, SIDE A]
. . . so, I went up to Mr. Donaldson who ran the polling place, and said, "Well, I want to vote and check my name on the book." He said, "But you aren't on the book." I said, "Mr. Donaldson, here is my poll tax receipt, here is my registration receipt. I must be on the book." He said, "Well, you are not." I said, "Well, I just don't see how that is possible. What in the world could make me not be on the book?" He said, "Did you pay your interest?" I said, "My interest?" He said, "You know, when you don't pay your back poll taxes, you have to pay your interest on them." I hadn't paid the interest on the two years of back poll tax that I paid.
Why didn't the people at the courthouse tell you?
Because they didn't want me to vote. Nobody in Virginia wanted you to vote, they tried to keep you from voting. This was just one of their ways. They didn't tell me because they didn't care about my vote, they didn't care about anybody's vote unless they knew you. If I had been a member of the courthouse ring, you know, or somebody they knew, then they might have told me, but they didn't want me to vote, I was an outsider, a stranger. So, I couldn't vote. I had to go back to the Fairfax County Courthouse and pay something like 27¢ or 17¢ before I ever finally got on the poll book. Now, I went to Wellesley for two years, I had been working on the anti-poll tax for five or six years. I was keenly interested in things then and did my best to find out the best in information and this is what happened when I went to try to register. Now, this was typical of Virginia. 12%, they had the lowest number of people voting in Virginia of any place in the entire South. It was an absolute Byrd machine. So, when the Progessive Citizens of America was formed, they formed a northern Virginia branch and a lot of CIO people lived in northern Virginia. This was not the Political Action Committee, this was the citizen's committee. Beanie Baldwin was the head of that. So, that's why I became a member, because the Democratic party was so hopeless.