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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, February 6, 1991. Interview A-0337. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Eleanor Roosevelt supports civil rights

Durr describes a meeting of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare where Eleanor Roosevelt made a statement by sitting precisely between the white and black seating areas. She did so despite warnings from the Birmingham police that none of the participants should break segregation laws.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, February 6, 1991. Interview A-0337. 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 DURR:
Well, there were black on one side and white on the other. That's the main thing I remember. Sunday night, as you walked in, and Frank Graham made the first speech, it was integrated. It was mixed on both sides. The next morning, as we came in, it was segregated, and they had police all around.
JOHN EGERTON:
Was Bull Conner there?
VIRGINIA DURR:
Yeah.
JOHN EGERTON:
Did you know who he was at that time? Was he a notorious figure then, as he came to be later?
VIRGINIA DURR:
No, he was just police. But we realized that we were surrounded by the police, and they got up and they said, you know, if anybody crossed the aisle that they would be taken to jail, and they had the black mariahs outside waiting for us.
JOHN EGERTON:
That was the name that they gave to their secret police?
VIRGINIA DURR:
No, black mariahs were the police vans to take you to jail, the vehicles. I don't know why they called them black mariahs. And that was when Mrs. Roosevelt took the chair and put it in the middle of the aisle, you know.
JOHN EGERTON:
Do you remember that? You have a vivid mental picture of her doing that?
VIRGINIA DURR:
Yes. She just took an old folding chair and just plunked it right in the middle of the aisle.
JOHN EGERTON:
And sat down there.
VIRGINIA DURR:
And nobody dared to arrest her either. She was a remarkable woman.
JOHN EGERTON:
Miss Modjeska Simkins told me, when I talked to her up at Birmingham when they had the homecoming reunion group, she had a recollection that-let me see if I can find it here. She was not at that meeting, so this is hearsay, and I'm a little skeptical of this, but this is what she said. "Mrs. Roosevelt asked for some chalk and a ruler, and that she marked the midline in the line, and sat her chair right astraddle the line."
VIRGINIA DURR:
I don't remember that. She just put the chair there. She didn't mark it. The thing was that she was daring them to arrest her, and they didn't arrest her. See, there were police all around the meeting hall.
JOHN EGERTON:
Do you have a picture in your mind of that meeting hall itself?
VIRGINIA DURR:
Very vivid, it was a long time ago, but I can remember. The thing about it was that Sunday night had been extremely pleasant. Frank Graham had made a very fine speech. It had been unsegregated. It was about the first unsegregated meeting I'd ever been to in the South. Then the next morning, we walked in, we were surrounded by police, and the black mariahs were all around the building, and we were told that if broke the segregation law in any way, shape, or form, we'd be taken to jail. They announced that from the podium. So that changed the whole atmosphere, and the atmosphere after that got very tense. It meant that there was segregation, and the people could go up on the platform. Like Mrs. Bethume could go up on the platform, and they couldn't segregate her from the white people on the platform. She was glad to say what she had to say. She had plenty to say too [laughter].