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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, October 16, 1975. Interview G-0023-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The first Southern Conference for Human Welfare

The Durrs met in Birmingham to attend the first Southern Conference for Human Welfare in 1938. While there, race remained a debated issue, one on which both Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune took important, symbolic action.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, October 16, 1975. Interview G-0023-3. 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.

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So I got there. Cliff you see was going to meet me from Texas and that afternoon on Sunday we went down to the Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham and they had the first meeting. There was a woman named Louise Charleton-I think she was an aassistant to bankruptcy or something. She'd been active in organizing it. Now Mrs. Roosevelt had insisted-this is what I understand-Mrs. Roosevelt was the one that insisted that blacks be included. And Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune was kind of her emissary. You ought to get some of this from Dr. Gomillion, because he would know more than I do about how the blacks got into this. Certainly the Democratic Committee had nothing to do with the black vote at that time. So we met in the Auditorium and oh it was a love feast-there must have been 1500 to 2000 people there from all over the South, black and white, labor union people and New Dealers and Dr. Frank Graham and all these nice men from the University of North Carolina. Then Miss Lucy was there. Just a big huge crowd of people. The proceedings are somewhere. They had a lot of preaching and praying, singing, you know, at Southern meetings you always have a lot of preaching and praying and hymn singing. And then they elected Frank Graham as chairman. He got kind of queesy, too, later on about Communism, particularly when they defeated him for the Senate, you know, on this. It was a lovely meeting; the whole meeting was just full of love and hope. It was thrilling; it was really marvelous. And Dr. Graham made the most beautiful speech. He was alovely, lovely man. He was another one of these pure men, if you know what I mean. So he sort of set the tone for the meeting. Oh we all went away from there Sunday night just full of love and gratitude. The new day had come; the whole South was coming together to make a new day, and it was just thrilling. OK. Well, the next morning we get down to the City Auditorium and the whole auditorium was surrounded by black marians, you know what they are, station wagons. Every policeman in Birmingham was there, and there was Bull Connor. And so they announced, Bull Connor announced that if the segregation laws were not observed-you see on Sunday night it had been unsegregated; in other words, black and white sat all over the auditorium-but he announced on Monday morning that if it was not segregated everybody would be arrested. You see there was a central aisle in the City Auditorium and he said the blacks had to sit on one side and the whites on the other. And there was all kind of confusion about whether the blacks and whites could occupy the platform at the same time. [He didn't insist that the blacks sit in the back, though?] No, he gave them a whole side, but if anybody crossed over that side, they were going to be arrested. And so the policemen were all around the inside of the hall watching everybody to see that they didn't integrate. And in the meantime the KU Klux Klan or whoever it was that was the chief instigator of the resistance had gotten a woman named-she was a kind of a bad character round town who did dirty work for the . . .she said she was head of the Democratic white women. I think her name was Brown. But anyway they came out in the paper with all this terrible goings-on down there. And she began the whole line about how the black men and the white women were undoubtedly spending the night together. You know, it was just that nasty, cesspool, vicious kind of stuff. So then on Monday Mrs. Roosevelt arrived. So she was ushered in with great . And everybody clapped and clapped and clapped and clapped. So Mrs. Roosevelt got a little folding chair and put it right in the middle of the aisle. She said she refused to be segregated. They were afraid to arrest her. She carried this little folding chair with her whereever she went, because they broke up into workshops. They workshops were in various churches and things, and she'd take her chair. [And the workshops also had to be segregated?] Had to be segregated; policemen followed us everywhere, everywhere. The churches had to be segregated. Everywhere you went had to be segregated. And of course the Tutwiler Hotel was where a lot of white people were staying, and that was completely segregated. The only thing I remember that happened particularly during the day, maybe it was Sunday night, was that Mrs. Charlton, Mrs. Louise Charlton, who had been one of the organizers, who was presiding temporarily until Dr. Graham got to be elected president . . .She called on Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, and she called her Mary; she said, Mary, do you wish to come to the platform, or something. And Mrs. Bethune got up-did you ever see her? You know she looked like an African queen; she was a very large woman and homely, if you know what I mean, but she had an air of grandeur and she always carried a stick that President Roosevelt had given her engraved with her name on it; she was very proud of that stick.. So Mrs. Bethune got up with that stick and she said, my name is Mrs. Bethune. So Louise Charlton had to say Mrs. Bethune, will you come to the platform. Well, that sounds like a small thing now, but that was a big dividing line. A Negro woman in Birmingham, Alabama, called Mrs. Bethune at a public meeting. So Mrs. Bethune was very eloquent as always. This was on Monday. Well they had meetings all that day and Cliff came in and he did his article on credit. And then I went to the meeting on the poll tax, on the franchise and the vote. It was all broken up into working things.