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 >>

Hugo Black and the Ku Klux Klan

One of the biggest criticisms of Black's political career was his involvement in the Ku Klux Klan. Durr explains that he became involved in the Klan because of his support for unionization but acknowledges the racism involved and refers to the threat of black peril begun by the rumors that black soldiers had slept with white French women during World War I.

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

But anyway, I came home for Christmas vacation and at that time, Sister had I can't tell you how many beaus trying to marry her. She just was surrounded by young men trying to marry her. And instead of making her conceited, it made her very sorrowful. She couldn't marry all of them, you know, and she was terribly weepy over theones that she couldn't marry and you know, she felt that she couldn't bear to hurt their feelings. So, I remember that that Christmas feather fans and beaded pocket books and boxes of candy and flowers just rolled in. I think that I got a few modest things . . . (laughter) I think that one of them was a hammer that somebody had made in school. (laughter) But the thing was that Sister was just besieged at that point by young men trying to marry her and Hugo was still in there every minute. He never wasted a second, you know. So finally, when I got . . . and she was very undecided still, she couldn't make up her mind whether to marry him or not. My mother liked Hugo and Daddy liked him and they realized that he was a very successful lawyer and was involved in the country club and had very lovely manners, but of course, he came from Clay County and they couldn't quite place him. They never had heard of the Blacks from Clay County. They found that the Blacks ran a store, his father was quite a prosperous merchant in Ashland and . . . .
CLIFFORD DURR:
A prosperous merchant for Ashland.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
For Ashland.But you know, as I say, all the word came to them that he was a Bolshevik, so they were kind of undecided, too.
SUE THRASHER:
How much of a reputation as a radical did he have?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
A terrific reputation as a radical.
SUE THRASHER:
It didn't seem to bother them too much?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Well, Mother and Daddy didn't know what a Bolshevik was, I don't think, really. They were not part of this group, they were not part of the group that controlled the town. They weren't part of the corporate group, you see.
SUE THRASHER:
And even though he was considered Bolshevik, he was in the country club and . . . .
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
He was very popular and he had other lady friends. He had had them before he went with Sister. He was considered quite eligible, as a catch. If you weren't part of the corporate fight that was going on . . . you see, there was terrible warfare, class warfare in Birmingham between the corporations and the labor unions, they were just crushing the labor unions generally. Hugo represented the carpenters and the mineworkers and the railway unions and the thing that he did, as I told you before, he got these tremendous verdicts for them before these juries . . . you see, one of the reasons that the Ku Klux Klan arose, and this is something that the books that have been written about him never make very plain, don't make plain at all. When he came back from the war in 1919, 1918, whenever he got back, the soldiers came back by the thousands from the war. They had been drafted. Well, two things happened. One was that these soldiers that came back from the war were determined that they were going to be rewarded. They weren't going back and work for nothing. So, there was a tremendous effort at that point to form unions and get higher pay.
CLIFFORD DURR:
Also, you were exempt from poll tax if you had been in the Army.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Yeah, you were exempt, so you could vote. So, they were determined that they were not going to be paid the way that they were and live the way that they were. There was a radical feeling in the air. Then, the other opposite end of the pole was that a great many black men had been in the army and they had been in France and the word came back that they had been sleeping with white women. Well, these two things worked against each other, because the white men wouldn't let the blacks into the unions and they wouldn't organize on an integrated basis. On the other hand, the word was spread by the corporations that the blacks were going to organize; they arous all the southern passions by saying that these blacks had come back after sleeping with white women in France and they were going to try to sleep with white women in the South. And all the old passions of sexual . . . the dreadful sexual cesspool, I call it, came to the surface. There were terrible things done then, you know, lynchings and dreadful things done to the black soldiers. It was designed to make them go back in their place and not think that because you were in the United States Army, you can get by with this. Horrible oppressions took place. Well, Hugo was right in the middle of trying to get the unions organized. He belonged to the Baptist Church and he taught Sunday School and he belonged to I can't tell you how many fraternal organizations and he got elected city judge, didn't he?
CLIFFORD DURR:
That was before the war.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Well, anyway, he knew Birmingham inside out and upside down and the poor folks, the black folks, the white folks, the labor folks and he had become quite a figure, but anti-corporation, you see. The corporation people absolutely hated him because he encouraged unions and then, he got these verdicts in the courts. But the unions were broken, they were helped as I said, by Cliff's father and the National Guard was called out. So, the Klu Klux Klan was formed at that point as a kind of underground union and unless you were there and knew it, nobody will believe it. They will say, "Oh, but the Klan was against the unions." Well, it wasn't. They had tried to form unions. They had tried to make themselves politically effective and they were defeated, so that's when they flocked into the Klan. And all over the South, you see, these returning soldiers flocked into the Klan, these white soldiers. They flocked in because one, they had been determined to get more money and they were determined to be politically effective and they felt that they could only do this by a secret organization. The bad part of it was that they were determined that these black soldiers would not be able to think that they were going to sleep with white women. And not only that, they were against the Catholics and against the Jews, too, but not nearly so much. I don't think that it was so much anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic feeling as it was anti-black.