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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Racism in the social justice movements of the 1930s

The Durrs explain why the unions failed to include African American workers and how industrial leaders used race to undermine labor organization efforts. Virginia explains how her awareness of injustice had to grow to include racial inequality.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-2. 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

CLIFFORD DURR:
I moved to Birmingham in 1925 and at that time, the workers in the steel mills, were sort of the aristocracy of labor, had twelve hour shifts and as Virginia said, twenty-four hour swing shifts from morning. And the coal miners had to compete with convict labor.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
You know John Beecher's poems, well, he has a whole book on this. You see, his father was the secretary-treasurer of United States Steel in Birmingham, but John worked in the steel mills, so much of his poetry is about working in the mills and what it did to the people. I think that they were paid two dollars a day then, or something small. So, the unions were terribly wanted, they would long for a union. But you see, there again, you have that competition between the black and white. You see, I was telling Sue, and I have said this so many times, one of the reasons that the poor whites were so opposed to the blacks was because there was this frightful competition for jobs between them and if they made any protest to an employer saying that they thought they should get more than a dollar or a dollar and a half a day, he would say, "Well, O.K., if you don't like it, I'll get a nigger and he'll do it for 50ยข." Well, he would. And the Negroes were often used as strikebreakers, because they would bring in a lot of Negroes and of course, you had that competition with convicts by the miners, but there was this terrible competition for jobs. The share-tenant system was one of the most degrading systems in the world, as you know, and when the people could escape from share-tenantry and come to the city and get any kind of cash at all, they felt that they were better off than they were moving around and working in the fields all day. I think that the thing that divides, well, not your geneation, but several before you, is the Depression. My generation, Cliff's generation, Clark Foreman, all of us who lived through the Depression, we really live in another era. Although all of you have seen hard times, I'm sure, and a lack of money, you have never seen the terrible poverty that we saw and the pellegra and the malaria, hookworm, tuberculosis and the awful degradation of the southern people. But as I say, the black issue, the race issue, was terribly important. But at this time, my emphasis was on labor and also on women's rights and it was only later that I came to see that this was all interwoven with the blacks, too.