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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 first fears black men

Because of financial problems, Durr left Wellesley after her sophomore year, returning home to spend a year as a debutante. To explain her experience, she describes Zelda Sayre's reputation and actions. The same year, she and a date are mugged while visiting Beale Street by a group of African American men fleeing the South, and for the first time, she feels afraid of another race.

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

So, when I came back home, the first thing that I got ready to do was to make my debut. I had to make my debut. That was '23. So, all that summer, the great discussion was about making my debut. I did and I had all kinds of fall dresses and I was introduced by the Redstone Club and . . . .
CLIFFORD DURR:
I don't think that it was the Redstone Club, I think that came on a little later.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh, I was introduced and I went to party, party, party, you know. We would have luncheons and teas, we were the debutantes and everybody was watching you. You were dressed up all the time and going to parties all the time and dances all the time. Then I visited my aunt over in Memphis and I went to lots of parties over there. Well, I had a horrible experience in Memphis. Shall I tell her about being held up by the black boys?
CLIFFORD DURR:
Yes, I think that's . . . .
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
That was a really frightening experience. As I say, the Depression hit the South very much sooner than it hit other places, particularly in cotton. So, I went over to visit my aunt, the same aunt in Memphis that I adored so, Aunt Louise (Oo-Oo) I went to millions of parties over there and I met a boy named . . . what was that boy's name . . .Jim Rainer, I think his name was. They had a plantation in Mississippi. He was a big, tall good-looking boy, and a wonderful dancer. I always went with wonderful dancers, except Bill Winston, he wasn't much of one. Oh, when I left Wellesley, I thought that I was engaged to Bill Winston, I forgot that little detail, and I came home and told my mother that I had met this marvelous boy that I was going to marry, named Bill Winston. So, I got two or three letters from him and that was the end. I never heard from him again, he just faded out completely. And then he committed suicide. I don't think that he committed suicide that year, but he committed suicide the year after. That was always one of the great mysteries of my life, I just can't imagine why that boy committed suicide. He was handsome and good looking and smart and I just can't imagine. Well, anyway, he did. By that time, he had ended the affair himself so I didn't have it on my mind.
SUE THRASHER:
Now, did you go back to Wellesley that fall?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
No.
SUE THRASHER:
You did not go back, ever, to Wellesley?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Well, I went back on a visit.
CLIFFORD DURR:
She went back to visit the . . . .
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh yes, the following year, I went back to visit but I never went back. We didn't have any money. But that year, I made my debut and then I went over to visit my aunt, but this is just an example. Handy, the famous Handy band . . . what was his name?
SUE THRASHER:
W.C. Handy.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
W.C. Handy, you see, he was playing on Beale Street then, in what they called The Two Bit Bands. The boys would all get together and put in two bits and then they would go down to Beale Street and get a band to come and play. I don't believe that Handy was two bit then, he was a regular band.
CLIFFORD DURR:
He was still cheap, because he played for a dance at the University of Alabama and . . . .
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh, that was the most marvelous music that you can imagine.
CLIFFORD DURR:
. . . . and it was quite a bargain.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh, you just can't imagine, the St. Louis Blues and the Beale Street Blues and oh, to dance to Handy's band was one of the most marvelous things in the world. But then they had what they called Two Bit Bands. The boys would put in two bits, which was a quarter, and they would hire a band off of Beale Street, which was then sort of the center of jazz. Of course, New Orleans was too and then they would play and you would have a wonderful dance. So, I just danced, danced, danced. That was my great thing, I could dance by that time quite well. And you see, being nearsighted didn't make any difference in dancing and swimming. I couldn't play tennis or golf or anything because I couldn't see, but I could dance and swim. But this young fellow took me out after one of the dances to this road right near the country club that they called the Lover's Lane or something. By that time, I had gotten used to all the boys wanting to kiss you. This was a game they played and it didn't mean a damn thing, of course, they just wanted to see if they could, I reckon. Anyway, we were having the usual argument about whether to kiss or not to kiss and did I kiss or didn't I kiss . . . the thing that is so funny about this is that this was the Jazz Age, which was supposed to have been such a terrifically gay, drunken, sex age. Well, it really wasn't. I mean, there were some people that might have engaged in all that, but the nice girls didn't. I don't bet that Zelda Sayre . . . I bet that kissing was the limit that she went to, in spite of what they all said about her, I'll bet that she never went beyond kissing either. Because you see, if you read his books, they are not as sexy as you would think they were.
CLIFFORD DURR:
I would be willing to bet that Zelda had never had an affair with any man until she and Scott got married. She always did things to shock people, but that was it.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
She used to come up to the dances in Birmingham and she was just gorgeous. She had sort of a golden glow around her and when she would come into a ball room, all the other girls would want to go home because they knew that the boys were going to be concentrating on her. They would line up the whole length of the ball room to dance with her for one minute. She was just pre-eminent. And we recognized it, we just knew that when she came around we might as well go home, because as far as we were concerned, we had had it. But anyway, Jim Rainer and I stopped and all of a sudden, on either side of the car were these two black fellows. One of them with a pistol and one of them with a knife. And they said to this Jim Rainer, "Get out of that car, or we'll cut your heart out, and give us what you've got." You see, he had this plantation in Mississippi and was used to the blacks. So, he got out and stayed very cool and said, "O.K., I'll give you all I've got, I'll bet that you are on your way to Chicago." They said, "We are." He said, "Well, I'm sorry that we don't have anything for you in Mississippi." They were all leaving Mississippi then, a lot of them were going north. He talked with them and kind of joked with them and laughed and gave them the money that he had in his pocket and they went on off. Of course, it scared the hell out of me. I was just terrified. So, of course, I kissed him in gratitude then! I didn't have any debate about that. So, he took me home and he told me, "Please don't tell your aunt, because I will be blamed for it, I'll be in a lot of trouble. So please don't tell your aunt." Honestly, I read the paper the next morning and there had been a series of robberies and rapes on the borders of Memphis. So, now whether these boys that held us up were the robbers and rapers or not, I don't know, but anyway it did scare me. So, when I got home, I began having nightmares. I was just terrified. I would wake up in the night screaming and finally I told Mother what it was and after I told her, I got it off my mind. But that was the first time in my life that I had ever been scared of a black person. I had been surrounded by them all my life, they had waited on me and taken care of me and cooked for me and washed for me, but I had never, never been frightened of one before.