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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 >>

Durr's realizes how racism controls her life while at Wellesley

Durr's time at Wellesley challenged her worldview in several important ways that prepared her for later social activism. She describes an incident her sophomore year where she was forced to eat at the same table as an African American for the first time.

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

Anyway, I went back to Wellesley for my sophomore year and this is the first time anything happened to me to change me at all. You see, I had been surrounded by southern boys, going to the Southern Club dances and in college, there were no Negro girls where I lived and no Negro girls where I ate and so when I went up on campus, for the first time, I came in contact with a Negro girl, who was living in the same house. My room-mate and I had a beautiful room. Wellesley had sort of a roulette, you pulled a number and we got a low number and we got this beautiful set of rooms with a study and a bedroom on the first floor and then this Negro girl lived in the same dormitory. So, the first night, I went to the dining room and this Negro girl was sitting at my table, My God, I nearly fell over dead. I couldn't believe it, I just absolutely couldn't believe it. Here was a Negro girl, she wasn't very black, sort of pale, but she was sitting there eating at the table with me in college. Well, I just promptly got up and marched out of the room and went upstairs and waited for the head of the house to come and she came up. She was a tall, thin, New England spinster and she wore those kind of glasses that have a little round thing pinned on the bosom, are you pull them up and down with a string or something and they kind of teeter on your nose, you look over them. So, I said to her that I couldn't possibly eat at the table with a Negro girl, I was from Alabama and my father would have a fit. He came from Union Springs, Bullock County and the idea of my eating with a Negro girl, he would die. I couldn't do it, she would just have to move me immediately. So, she looked at me and she said, "Well, Virginia, why do you feel that way?" I said, "Because I'm from Alabama and my father would have a fit. I just couldn't dream of it." I was rather irritated with her for considering that I could do such a thing. She said, "Well, you think then that it is just impossible for you to eat with a Negro girl?" I said, "Why, absolutely. I couldn't think of it. You'll just have to move me." She said, "You know, Virginia, Wellesley College has rules and the rule is that you eat at the table to which you are assigned and that you change your table after a month, but you can't change your table until the month is up. This is the rule, now if you don't want to obey the rule, then that is up to you." I was perfectly amazed. I said, "You mean that I have to eat at a table with a Negro girl?" She said, "Well, you have to obey the rules of Wellesley College." I said, "Well, what happens if I won't do it." She said, "Well, we'll just say that you chose to withdraw. We won't expell you or suspend you, you'll have nothing on your record, except that you are through and that you chose to withdraw." There were no threats at all; just calm acceptance but firm insistence in obeying rules! I said, "But my father, he would have a fit." She said, "But he's not our problem. He's your problem, he's not our problem. You are our problem. The rule is that you either abide by the rules or you go home. You can withdraw but you won't be expelled." I couldn't believe it, I was just absolutely amazed that anybody would take this attutude. She said, "Now look, you go to your room and think about it and let me know in the morning what you want to do. And as I say, you can just go home and there will be no trouble, you won't be expelled and nothing on your record except that you have withdrawn." Well, I went to my room and I was just absolutely amazed. This was the first time that my values had been challenged. The things that I had been brought up with, nobody had ever challenged them before. I never even dreamed that anybody could. So, I said to my room-mate Emmy, that I was upset and Emmy said, "Well, I don't know what is wrong with you. I just think that you are crazy. Last summer when I was visiting you down there in Alabama, that old black woman that was cooking for you, you kissed and hugged her. I wouldn't have kissed and hugged an old black woman and you did. Why would you kiss and hug them and not eat with them?" Well, it was hard to explain. I said, "Why, I just love the cook, but I don't eat with her." I had a real hard time making any sense out of it. Emmy said, "Well, I just think that you are crazy because you are dated up for the Harvard game and you're dated up for the Yale game and why you want to go home and give all that up because you don't want to eat with a Negro girl, I just think you are crazy." Well, she went on to sleep and I stayed awake, I reckon, all night long. It was terrible for me, because I knew that if my father ever heard of it, I could just hear him, "My daughter eating at the table with a Negro girl! I sent her up to Wellesley with the Yankees and they make her eat with Negroes!" He would have had a fit. So, about dawn, I realized that if nobody told Daddy, if I didn't tell him, nobody was likely to tell him. So, that was the only conclusion that I came to. I didn't really have any great feeling of principle, I just said that he never would hear about it and I wouldn't tell him. So, the next morning, I went back to the head of the house and told her that I was going to stay. I thought she was going to give me a lecture or something, but she just said, "Well, I'm very glad." And that was it. So, I did eat with a Negro girl for about a month and I did come to realize in that time that it wasn't the Negro girl I was scared of. She was a perfectly nice girl and just as clean and well-mannered and intelligent and used the right fork and all. She was a southerner too, I forget where from, but I remember that she and I both . . . they used to give us what they called Indian pudding on Saturday night, which was nothing in the world but cold grits with molasses on it. And we both thought that was the most horrible thing we had seen. They served it to us and we both said, "Cold grits! With molasses!" We thought it was the most horrible thing that we had ever tasted. So, I did come to realize that the girl wasn't any problem, it was really the pressures that I had had on me since my infancy and my father, the fact that I knew how he would carry on. So, I got used to having Negro girls . . .
SUE THRASHER:
Was she the only Negro woman at Wellesley?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh no. There were a number of them. I don't know how many but there were several there and there were also lots of Chinese girls. You know, all the Shangs went there and I know that . . . .
SUE THRASHER:
How did the other southern girls respond?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Well, they never said. I remember that it was something . . .I think that we were all a little bit ashamed of breaking the southern taboos and yet we didn't want to leave Wellesley. Again, it was never discussed.
SUE THRASHER:
So, you didn't talk about this with your beaus or with Clark Foreman?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
No, I was sort of ashamed of it, really. I mean, I was in conflict about it, I didn't know whether I had acted right or wrong, whether I should have stood by southern tradition and gone home. I knew that I had stayed because I didn't want to miss all the good time I was having. No, I didn't discuss it. I remember only one other incident. In the spring . . .Wellesley is on a big lake and I remember that we were all swimming and there was a black girl swimming and I remember that this other southern girl got up by me on the dock and said, "My God, I never thought that I would be swimming with black people." She had evidently accepted the fact that she could eat with them, but not swim with them. But you see, I think that all of us were kind of the same way that I was, a little bit in conflict and we didn't want to repudiate our southern traditions and we didn't want to leave Wellesley, particularly Harvard and Cambridge either. So, we never discussed it. That was one of the things at that time, you didn't discuss things. There was none of all of this soul searching done and you were supposed to have a certain set of values and you just lived by them.
SUE THRASHER:
Well, was your attitude to kind of ignore the black woman or did you become friends with her or . . . .
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh, I didn't become friends with her, but I was pleasant, I was polite. But the thing was that there were not only a number of Negro girls in the college, but there were Chinese and Indian girls, too and I had to get used to that too. And of course, one of the Chinese girls was named Lillian Chen, I believe and she was one of the famous Chen family of China, immensely rich with jewels and she was a rather special kind of a girl because she was so rich and had just such beautiful jewels. She would wear these beautiful embroidered brocades and the Indian girls would wear these beautiful embroidered saris and they had jewels. They must have been awfully rich girls. But I never made any friends with them either. We were all polite and pleasant, but I never made friends. My friends were the southern girls and my room-mate and her sister.