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-0023-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Socioeconomic divisions between middle-class activists and working-class laborers

At the 1940 Southern Conference on Human Welfare, Durr met James A. Dombroswki for the first time. As then founder and administrator of Highlander Folk School, Dombrowski invited Durr and Kathryn Lewis to visit Highlander with him. While there, Durr met with working-class members of the labor movement, an interaction that solidified some of her disappointments in other members of the civil rights front.

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

VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
the first time that I had been to Highlander and I hadn't seen Jim Dombrowski before. Across the hall, I saw this handsome man with dark brown eyes, you know, Jim looked like St. Francis of Assisi, and so he came up and introduced himself and you know, Kathryn was with me all the time. It was the strangest combination because here I was on one side and she on the other, but we still stayed friends.
SUE THRASHER:
Now, we are talking about dates. This is 1940, and you hadn't met Jim earlier?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
No, I hadn't met him before in my life. I didn't meet him down at the Southern Conference in '38. So, he came over and introduced himself and asked us that if we would like to come up to the Highlander Folk School, he would drive us up for a day or so before we went back to Washington. So, we did. And Jim drove us up and Myles met us and oh, I had never been there before and I just loved it. I adored Zilph ia, you know, Myles's wife who was so beautiful and such a marvelous singer. She was just a wonderful person. But you know all that from Claude, how her father was a coal operator and all. I adored Highlander and I adored the people there, oh, I just loved every minute of it. On Sunday, they sent out word all over the mountains that Kathryn Lewis was there, John L. Lewis's daughter and by God, they came out again. I bet there were two hundred miners there. I don't know whether you have ever seen those Tennessee miners, but they all wear black hats, I never saw a one of them that didn't, they are very silent men, you know, and they never would come inside. They all sat out on the front lawn and Kathryn had to make a little speech, you know and Myles got them something to eat. But not one of them would ever take off their hat or come in the house. Not one of them. Now, she got along with them very well, she knew how to talk to them and so did Jim and Myles. My efforts failed, I can assure you. I would say, "Where are you from?" And "You say that your name is Jones? Now, what Jones are. . . ." (laughter) I am sure that they thought I was some agent of the FBI or whatever. I got very poor response. I had to learn that when you are dealing with people like that, you know, you have to listen. If you talk too much, they are suspicious right off. (interruption while original reel is changed) You see, I identified with the labor movement and it took me a long time to realize that the labor movement didn't identify with me. I remember going to one of the CIO conventions and I was younger and prettier then and was considerably younger and considerably prettier. And I was very earnest and lobbying a great deal. All they wanted to do was take me out and buy me a drink, you know. They wanted to have a good time.
CLIFFORD DURR:
That wasn't all they wanted.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Well, that was the first step in that direction anyway. (laughter) I had a terrible shock, you see. I thought that all labor men were going to be great, it was going to be just right down the line in our interests, they were going to be just as interested as I was in getting rid of the poll tax and fighting for the rights of labor. I got the biggest shock of my life to see those fat flunkies sitting around guzzeling booze and chasing women. That's what they did. That's human. It was a great disappointment to me, I lost a lot of illusions.