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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 >>

Poverty spurs Durr into her first social justice campaign

Following a miscarriage, Durr spent several weeks in the hospital where she befriended a woman whose son had just been killed by a protestor who wanted fair milk prices; another woman she met had decided she could not afford to keep her baby. She also saw children afflicted with rickets. In response to this poverty, Durr launched her first social activist campaign by organizing the Junior League and other middle-class women to distribute milk to poor children.

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

Then I had another terrible miscarriage and nearly died then. I had what they called placenta previa and I nearly bled to death and had a terrible time, but while I was in the hospital, soon thereafter, I was very ill and had to have blood transfusions. I had a nurse, Mrs. Van Markenstine, I believe her name was. She was a very devout Catholic, you see, the big hospital then in Birmingham was St. Vincent's Hospital, and she was married to some man and had I don't know how many children, she was a Catholic and thought that birth control was a sin. But her husband and she were sort of separated, they would come back together, maybe he felt like they had too many children, anyway she had an older son. And at that time, the dairies in Birmingham had a terrible sort of price war and people couldn't buy milk and they were losing money all the time and everybody was just engaged in this cuthroat endeavor to make as much money as they could or at least stay out of bankruptcy. So they had this terrible warfare between these various milk companies and her son, who was at a dairy place called Southern Dairies I think, and he was just getting a milk shake or ice cream cone and another dairy came by and threw a bomb and he was killed. It was the most awful, unnecessary killing and most completely horrible thing for this poor woman, Mrs. VanMarkenstine her name was, a very handsome woman, marvelous nurse and a woman who I really felt like had saved my life, she was so devoted. Her son just got killed like that. Well this did wake me up as to what was going on, on a personal basis. Here was this unnecessary thing. I found from her that they were pouring the milk in the gutters. So after I got strong enough and well enough and went back in the Junior League and began working with them, I did bring up the idea of what we could do about the milk being poured down the gutters, because another thing that I had seen in the hospital when I had had this terrible miscarriage, was these children with ricketts. There was a whole wing of the hospital that was the children's wing and I would see these children, they had a great big gallery, and I would see these children sort of weaving around. I thought that they had cerebral palsy, but it was ricketts just because they didn't get enough to eat, no protein. That shocked me. Another shock was that after I was well enough, I would be wheeled out on the gallery that surrounded St. Vincent's and there was a woman next to me and by that time, I had had one child and two miscarriages. The last one had been very bad. There was a woman by me, a woman in her thirties, I imagine, late thirties, she was a rather nice looking, comfortable woman and she came from Chicago. I said to her . . . she said that she had just had a baby and I said, "Where is it?" She said, "I've never seen it." I said, "You've never seen your own baby?" She said, "No, I'm going to put her up for adoption and I don't want to see her because I'm afraid that I might get fond of her." I said, "My God, what in the world for?" She said, "The matter of fact is that I don't know who the father is. I worked at the ready to wear at . . . "some big store in Chicago . . . "and we were expected to entertain all the salesmen and customers. They would take you out to dinner and ask you to go up to the room. I was always very careful, but somehow I did get pregnant and I found that I was having a baby and didn't really know it for several months and didn't want to have an abortion, I was afraid that something would happen, so I decided to come on down here and have the baby." She took it very calmly and I said that that certainly seemed to me just awful and she said, "Well, how else are you going to make a living." Well, here was a woman that had to make a living not only by selling ready to wear, but also by being ready to wear, as it were. I just thought that was the most horrible thing. Here I had been surrounded with Mother and Sister and Cliff and the nurse and flowers and doctors and everybody acting like having a baby or not having a baby was the most important thing in the world and I was treated like I was a queen bee. Here was this woman having a baby all by herself down in Birmingham and nobody even knew her and she never would see it because she knew that she had to give it away. For the first time, I really became aware of how badly women could be treated and how helpless they were in situations like that. I think that was the first dawn, if you know what I mean, of a feeling of wrath and rage against women's lot. I had nothing at all against my life, the miscarriages, I had no feeling of anybody's fault, it was just something that happened but with her, I just began to have this feeling . . . those two things that happened at that point, seeing those children with ricketts and that woman who had that baby and had to give it away before she could even see it. I mean, that was sort of the beginning and then Mrs. Van Markenstine's son being killed.
CLIFFORD DURR:
She was the one that was called in on an emergency and found that it was her own son.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Yes, she was called in and found that it was her own son. So, I began little by little to kind of wake up to the world. So I did start on the milk, I thought that would help the ricketty children anyway. And we did, the Junior League did. I won't go into all of that, it took an immense amount of time, an immense amount of trouble because people were so afraid that if they gave away milk, nobody would buy it. Then, the city made objections about it, they said that they couldn't bottle it, it would have to be delivered in five gallon cans and they made objections to that. The only way that we ever persuaded them to do it was that we said, "Now look, if you give these people a taste of milk . . . "and the Junior League, I think, paid them a little something for the delivery . . . "they will get used to drinking milk and then when they do get jobs and there is some money available, they will buy milk." It had to be put on a perfect commercial basis to get them to do it. They finally did it and they did began to deliver the surplus milk in these five gallon cans to sort of feeding stations, through the Red Cross. I don't know exactly how, I can't remember now exactly how it was handled, but I do know that they stopped pouring it down the gutters. At that time, I still wasn't in contact with the terrible poverty, hunger and distress that was going on. The president of the Junior League at that time was a girl named Rachel London whose husband was a baby doctor and he was our baby doctor and we were very devoted to him. So, Rachel knew more than I did about the suffering that was going on. There was no relief, there was no city relief, no county relief, no state relief and by that time . . . .
CLIFFORD DURR:
And no federal relief.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
No federal relief. You see, Hoover was the president then and in that idiotic way, he was talking about two chickens in every pot and we were going to have prosperity around the corner. But the main thing was that he took the attitude, and most people took this attitude who were well off, that it was the poor's fault. If they had saved their money, if they had been more provident, if they had stored up something like the grasshopper and the ant, they would be o.k. And I didn't hear anybody say that this was the system. Now my mother and father, they were losing everything, I mean everything that Daddy had was just going down the drain, all the things that he had mortgaged or borrowed money on were being taken over by the banks and everything was just going down the drain.