Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Poverty in the New South

Rural and industrial workers in the early twentieth-century South faced oppressive amounts of poverty and malnutrition. Durr describes the ways this affected health, economics, and family relationships. She also briefly discusses convict labor. She returns to this topic later in the interview.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-1. 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

It is almost impossible for you younger people to realize the terrible poverty of the South before 1932 when the New Deal came in. We can try to express it to you, but since you didn't see it or experience it . . . now, we never suffered from actual poverty, it was always genteel poverty where you were trying to keep your best foot forward on very little money. But we were surrounded by absolutely abject poverty. The poor whites that lived over the mountain, you see, we lived on Red Mountain and over the mountain was where the mines were, the coal mines and the ore mines. And on Saturday mornings, these families would come into Birmingham, walking, there was no paved road and nobody had a car, they were all poor people and no one had a car. They would walk in, these great large families and they were the most miserable looking people that you have ever seen. They were pale and stunted and almost deformed because the thing that was so prevalent among the poor whites in the South at that time was pellagra and worms and maleria. Pellagra was the dietary disease and the Negroes and whites would break out in these white splotches. Of course, it was purely a dietary disease, they just didn't have the right kind of food to eat. Then, these same families would come homelate in the afternoon on Saturday falling and drunken, all of them drunk, the men and women. I don't know whether the children were, but the children were hollering. We lived right on the edge of the mountain and they would come down our street from off the mountain and of course, I was concerned about them too, but the only explanation that I got was that they were just poor white trash, that's just the way they are, you couldn't do a thing with them, no matter how much you tried, they would still be the way they are because that's the way they liked to be.
SUE THRASHER:
Did these people work in the steel mills, or were they farmers?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh no, these people worked in the iron ore mines and in the coal mines. These were the people that lived over the mountain and worked in the mines, at least the men did. They lived in company houses and they were paid with company script, mostly. Everytime they tried to form a union, it was broken up. You see, they had replaced the convicts. There had been a terrible struggle to get the convicts out of the mines and these poor whites had replaced the convicts. I don't mean to be so rambling, but the struggle between the poor whites and the Negroes for jobs was terrible. Most of the convicts were blacks, you had all that in your magazine, the story story of the convicts in the mines in Tennessee, but what I am trying to explain to you is the contrast between the life I led, which was a fairly secure life, although as I said, we were genteely poor, the life that I led and the view that I had of life and the actuality of it which was before my eyes and which I didn't even comprehend. Because as I say, I was told by my mother and father and everybody that I respected and loved, that these people were just that way. They were just poor white trash and if they had pellagra and worms and maloria and if they were thin and hungry and immoral, it was just because that was the way they were. It was in the blood. They were just born to be poor white trash. They dipped snuff and tobacco juice and if they smelt bad and were dirty, well, they liked being that way. This was they way that they liked to live. And you got the same thing about the black people. Now, they had pellagra too, and you cannot imagine the change in the children. The poor white children were very pale and thin little children and had stringy hair and it seemed to me that the textile mill children always had pale white hair and pale white eyebrows and eyelashes and were thin and pale looking. And the black children always looked ashen, not always, but the poor ones had an ashen look to them. They used to wear flour sacks as clothes with nothing under them either, just flour sacks. And they always had two great streams of snot hanging down them from their nose and they were very unattractive looking. You know, you would feel sorry for them and ask your family about them and then there again, "this is just the way they are. They are born this way. They don't have any pride or ambition. If you gave them anything, they would just get drunk or spend it on something. They are immoral and spend their money unwisely." And here they were living on five and six dollars a week, if they were employed. This was the average wage, which was supposed to be a pretty good wage. What I'm trying to say is that the South was so poor. The land itself was so poor. Soil erosion, terrible gullies in the land and the fact that the soil itself was washing away.