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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 >>

Japanese internment, red-baiting, and the Durrs

Throughout the war, the Durrs took in a number of refugees, and one of the families was a Japanese couple and their daughter. Always alert to the Durrs' movements, the FBI began investigating the other family to be sure they were not spies, leading to a funny anecdote involving girlie photos. More seriously, Durr explains her stance on Japanese internment and how she justified it. Red-baiting also begins to take a toll on the social activists' relationships.

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

Then, another thing that happened was Lowell Mellett, who had been head of the National Emergency Council lived right down the road and he had become a White House aide and he had a Japanese butler named . . . well, it will come to me in a minute. Anyway, he was a very elegant butler, but when Lowell Mellett got to be a White House aide, the FBI said, "Look, you can't have a Japanese butler that is not even a citizen of the United States in your house when you are on a hot line to the White House." So, Lowell came up and asked me if I would take him. I said,' " Lowell, I can't take a Japanese butler. He can't cook or wash or nurse children, you know. I don't have that kind of a household where you have to have a butler come in and bring you cocktails before dinner." He said, "Well, you could just let him stay there for awhile." I had a room downstairs, a servant's room, that had a bath to it. It was a very nice room, actually, we had it built on. So, Yamasaki was his name. And so, he came andwhich nobody knew, he had a wife and baby. Oh! (laughter) So, here was the Japanese and his wife and baby. That added up to twelve, I think, by that time. Well, he got a job in the neighborhood and Decca hired his wife, whose name was Saiko, to be the nanny for her child, dinky Donk. Well, I must say that the thing that was so marvelous was that she turned out to be an angel, an absolute marvel, a whiz, a wonderful, sweet, kind, a loving woman. She had been born in Hawaii, but she was Japanese and he was Japanese. And he got a job next door at the Seipmans, who lived a rather more formal life than we did. He was the butler. Then, my little girl, Tilla, and Decca's little girl, Dinky Donk and the little Japanese Hiroshi boy all called Cliff "daddy." They were all the same age and all five of them would just laugh and say, "Daddy this and Daddy that." He had a hard time explaining how he had a Japanese child and an English child and an American child all the same age.
SUE THRASHER:
Was he still at the RFC then or. . . .
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
No, he was on the Federal Communications Commission then. Well, anyway, Saiko was a marvelous cook, she did everything beautifully. You couldn't imagine anything that she didn't do perfectly. She would clean a room so well that it shined. If she washed or ironed, it was perfect and if she mended clothes, you couldn't see the stitches. Everything that she did was perfect and she was the sweetest, kindest, best woman that I have ever known. Then, there was a white woman working for us named Mrs. Daniels. She would come in and work, help with my mother, you see, who was an invalid. Then, she would help with the children and she would clean up and wash. She was a wonderful woman, too. But we had a strange household, I'm telling you. One of the funniest things that happened was that the FBI came all the time.
SUE THRASHER:
And you were still involved in the poll tax and. . . .
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh, I was still involved in the poll tax, but the FBI wasn'ton account of me. It was on account of this Japanese living in our house, you see, they had to check on him all the time. It got so that the children would call up and say, "Mama, the laundry man is here." "Mama, the milkman is here." "Mama, the FBI is here." (laughter) There were always two big old dumb goofs who wanted to look around and see if there were any aeriels and if we were transmitting messages to the Japanese. You see, instead of being accused of being a Communist, I was being accused of being pro-Japanese. Well, they went into Saiko's and Yamasaki's room one afternoon, and they found that he had a false trunk, a false bottom to his trunk. Well, they knew that they had him this time, they knew that he was transmitting secrets to the Japanese from this false bottomed trunk. (laughter) Oh, I thought that he would die in his tracks. He kept pleading with them that it was just personal things, something very personal. So, they ripped out the bottom of this trunk and he had a whole lot, the whole bottom of this trunk filled with pictures of all these naked women. (laughter) Whew boy! And his wife right there, too. (laughter) Was he embarrased!
BOB HALL:
Was the FBI embarrased?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
No, they aren't ever embarrased. (laughter) Oh, they did such stupid things. They made us take his camera for the duration of the war. But I did have these two wonderful women helping me, Mrs. Daniels and Saiko. I forget all the details, but it was pretty rough, because we were on rations, you know and I had to do all the marketing and buying and so forth.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I was going to ask if you got involved at all in the issue of civil liberties for the Japanese-Americans on the west coast.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
No, Hugo wrote the decision interning them.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Well, what did you think. . . .
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Well, I didn't have much to do with it. Cliff thought that it was wrong at the time, I remember him saying that. I was so busy at that time. I still did the poll tax, but there was another girl there that ran it. A perfectly beautiful girl, great big blue eyes and lovely hair, but I can't remember her name. Wonderful person, Katherine somebody. She ran it, because I was really involved at this point just trying to run the house and all and I couldn't get down there for more than once a week, or sometimes twice.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Kreuger talks about that and intimates that at the national meeting of the Southern Conference, where they wanted a panel on civil liberties and that you were on it. He says that that panel, said that under the pressures of war, some civil liberties had to be removed, that it sort of justified what was being done.
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
I don't remember any of that at all. Iwas engaged in a great fight then with this same McAllister and then there was a textile guy named Lawrence and he was red baiting the hell out of us. So was McAllister and there were some more in the AFL that were doing it. This was right in the middle of the war, too.