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Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, October 16, 1975. Interview G-0023-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    This is the final interview in a series of three. Since the previous session, Clifford Durr had died, making the interview feel very different. Virginia wanders several times and remarks how he always managed to pull her thoughts back on track. The interview begins with stories from Clifford's time with the Reconstruction Finance Commission. While there, he encountered the wealthy men from Alabama who had refused to offer him respect, revealing the role of family connections in southern society. She argues that poor manners made poor men. Though Clifford went into the chaos of Washington, D.C., every day, Virginia found peace and companionship among the gentility of Seminary Hill in Alexandria, Virginia. Throughout the interview, she compares the old aristocracy with the nouveau riche in Birmingham.

    During the New Deal era, James M. Landis climbed to prominence in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration. Through his wife Stella, Virginia grew interested in New Deal politics and policies, and she also gained an insiders' view of the Landises' marriage. The people she met through Clifford and the Landises pushed her into a greater social awareness, fueling her growing activism. Durr's first participation in activism in Washington, D.C., was as a volunteer with the women's division of the Democratic National Committee. She had discussed this in an earlier interview, but here, she reflects on the other women working with her and the racialized nature of their lobbying group. Though Roosevelt had promised them his support, when the southern senators began to distance themselves from the administration's New Deal policies, Roosevelt dropped the anti-poll tax efforts. Durr explains what that meant for her efforts.

    She then returns to the issue of southern poverty, explaining that it motivated her and other reformers. She also describes how the southern New Dealers composed The South: Economic Problem Number One in her living room. This interview reflects a growing awareness of racism in the South, and Durr describes her relationship with Mary McLeod Bethune, Lucy Randolph Mason and others. She also discusses in greater detail her impressions of the 1938 Southern Conference on Human Welfare along with its subsequent actions. The anti-communism of the 1950s disappointed her greatly, and even several decades later, she found it hard to comprehend why the American public reacted as they did. The red-baiting that occurred fractured many of the groups Durr admired most and ultimately undid her own anti-poll tax committee. Durr also talks about the sexual harassment she and other women working on the Hill endured. During the last portion of the conversation, she tells stories of the various people she had know and worked with, including Vito and Miriam Marcantonio, Lee and Sunny Pressman, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She maintains that when Roosevelt died, the entire attitude of the nation changed. After the war, Clifford worked with the Federal Communications Commission, so he and Virginia befriended television producers and directors.

  • Clifford settles into his job with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation
  • Virginian aristocracy
  • Poverty and gentility for aristocratic families of Virginia
  • Poverty and gentility for aristocratic families of Virginia
  • Navigating the kinship, class, and gendered hierarchies that governed Virginian aristocratic society
  • Durr learns about New Deal politics
  • Durr becomes increasingly interested in the New Deal
  • Virginia's first activist role
  • Roosevelt changes his stance on the poll tax to garner support for other causes
  • Durr's first exposure to the violence of southern paternalism
  • Gelders' actions and his assault
  • Violence against activists
  • Composition of The South: Economic Problem Number One
  • Lucy Randolph Mason and Joe Gelders team up for workers' rights
  • The first Southern Conference for Human Welfare
  • Launching the anti-poll tax committee
  • Communism and socialism compared to religious sects
  • How the growing antagonism toward unions affected the labor movement
  • Differences between New Deal activists and civil rights organizers
  • Durr's disappointment and disillusionment
  • Growth of the anti-poll tax committee
  • Sexual harrassment in Congress during the 1930s
  • The variety of people interested in the anti-poll tax movement
  • Durr protected from accusations of Communism
  • Durr begins to question her racial prejudices
  • Finding new supporters for the anti-poll tax bill
  • Keeping peace within the anti-poll tax committee
  • Durr's confidence in government
  • Durr's perspective on World War II
  • Vito and Miriam Marcantonio
  • Poor manners among the opposition
  • Secret friends of the anti-poll tax movement
  • The hypocrisy of southern politics
  • Discerning Lee Pressman's true character
  • Red-baiting divides the anti-poll tax coalition
  • Those who remained committed to the anti-poll tax committee despite red-baiting
  • A description of the anti-poll tax committee's only openly Communist member
  • How the growing anti-Communist movement affected the Roosevelts
  • Clifford prepares the nation for the war effort
  • Russia, World War II, Roosevelt, and Truman
  • The early television industry and the executives who ran it
  • Learn More
  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • Subjects
  • Southern States--Race relations
  • Women civil rights workers
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.