After the death of her grandmother, Durr's parents advanced in Birmingham society, joining the country club and other social organizations. She repeatedly returns to the issues surrounding southern female gender identity, especially for elite women. She talks about how her social circle dealt with issues of sexuality and describes the racial and class divisions that ran through Birmingham during her youth. As teenagers, Durr and her sister Josephine, along with many other young southern belles, were sent to New York City for finishing and socialization. While there, Josephine met and married Hugo Black, the future Supreme Court Justice. Durr asserts that while her sister and Hugo Black had a happy marriage, the relationship stifled something within her sister. Nevertheless, the other women in her family never questioned the roles and even averred that women who fought for more rights had immoral reasons. Durr managed to convince her parents to send her to Wellesley for two years. While there, she began to question many of the assumptions that had governed her relationships and behaviors while in Alabama. Because of financial problems, Durr left Wellesley after her sophomore year, returning home to spend a year as a debutante. When she failed to find an eligible offer that year, she took a job at the law library, where she met her future husband, Clifford.
Outside of Union Springs, there is a sort of a ridge that they call Chunnunugee Ridge, which is above the lowlands where the slaves worked, and cotton was grown. My family settled on that. The high land was considered to be immune to malaria, I don't think that it was, but that was the idea. The plantation owners lived up on the ridge, Chunnunugee Ridge that was supposed to be above the malaria belt. Of course, they really didn't know what caused malaria then. They thought it was the miasma of the swamps, they didn't know it was mosquitos. My grandmother had fifteen children, but a lot of them died. The Foster graveyard down in Union Springs is just full of little bitty graves, "So and So child that died of summer complaint at the age of nine months or two years." So, out of the fifteen children only four lived to be old. Two of the boys were killed in the Civil War.
I always used to think that it was funny when we were being accused of trying to overthrow the government by violence or force or something, because we were trying to get the vote or get some rights for people, we were constantly being accused of being part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government by force or violence, particularly in the Eastland hearings. I often thought that it was strange that here was my grandfather who spent four years trying to overthrow the government by force, fought in the cavalry and he was honored and got elected to Congress and became a very honored man and he was head of the Shiloh Cemetery. I've often thought how strange it was because those who actually did it became great honored figures whereas us grandchildren were reviled because we were trying to get the vote. Well, the South is a peculiar place.
Yes. But my uncle ruined his political career completely. I think that he was elected in his later life to a judgeship or given one in Memphis. But he knew that it would, he told my mother, "Annie, of course, this is going to ruin my political life and I will never be elected to political office again, but I cannot let my friends hang. I know that they did it for me, as unwise as it was and I can't let them hang." Now, whether that was noble or silly depends on your point of view. After that, Uncle Malcolm practiced law in Memphis and then he became a great . . . (you know that he had been accused of drinking so much) and he became a great prohibition advocate. He used to go all over making prohibition speeches and he was a wonderful orator and used to attract thousands of people to the cause of prohibition. I remember him coming to our house and having a meeting in the city auditorium or some theater and speaking on prohibition. That was a great political cause in the South for years, you know, the fight against prohibition. I never knew him well at all, he was a very self-absorbed man.
But in any case, the great trauma was that when my birthday came along, I had always had my birthday celebrations in Union Springs because it was in August and we were usually down there in August. This time, I was seven years old and I was going to school the next fall. I always had my birthday in the back yard with the black children and we would have barbeque and they would let us barbeque over a little pit that they would dig for us. So, this time, my mother and grandmother and aunts and all said that I had to have it in the front yard and with just the white children, no black children could come to the party. Well, I got very angry about that and the main thing was that I wanted the barbeque. [Laughter] You see, they would dig a pit in the back yard, which was sandy, and then the cook would give us chickens and we would build a grill over the hole and build a fire and then we were allowed to baste the chickens and turn them over and of course, by the time that we got through, they were full of sand, but to me, (this had been my usual birthday party) and to me, this was a great event. Here I was presiding over the chickens, you know. Well, anyway, I had a tantrum at breakfast and made strong protest about the party in the afternoon and no barbeque. So, they agreed that I could have the barbeque in the morning and the party in the afternoon. This was the compromise that they reached.
But you know, the curious thing is and this is a true story that you won't hardly believe, but this is an absolutely true story. Years and years later, I was in Washington working against the poll tax and I was working with a Mrs. Spraggs, who was a black woman, a very light woman, from Birmingham, Alabama, who wrote for the Chicago Defender. So, she and I got to be very friendly, we would kid each other about being from Birmingham, you know. And I would always call her Mrs. Spraggs and she would call me Mrs. Durr. We were being formal, but we were being . . . if I had called her Venice and she called me Virginia, that would have been fine, but she couldn't call me Mrs. Durr and I call her Venice, you see, and she never would call me Virginia. We were working toward a new relationship, if you know what I mean. So, she called me Mrs. Durr and I called her Mrs. Spraggs. She was a very handsome woman, very smart indeed. She worked in the NYA with Aubrey Williams and then she had come to Washington and was a correspondent for the Chicago Defender, which was a big Negro newspaper. One of the largest in the country and she was supporting the anti-poll tax fight and we were quite friendly. So, she came up to me one day and said, "Mrs. Durr, my mother-in-law is visiting me from Birmingham. She wants to see you." I said, "Who is that?" She said, "Her name is Mrs. Spraggs." I didn't know who in the world it could be, I had never heard of a Mrs. Spraggs. She said, "She knows you." I said, "I'm sorry, but I don't have the least recollection in my entire life of knowing anybody named Mrs. Spraggs." So, about a year later, she came up to me again and said, "Now, Mrs. Durr, my mother-in-law is visiting with me and she wants to see you. Her name is Mrs. Spraggs." And I said, "Mrs. Spraggs? I would like to see her. Bring her down to the office, but I have no recollection of Mrs. Spraggs at all." Well, the third year, she came to me and said, "Mrs. Durr, my sister-in-law would like to see you, she's visiting me and she knew you as a little girl." I said, "What is her name, and at that point, she said, "Sarah Spraggs." Well, you see, I had never known Nursey by her name at all.
Was my old nurse and I had never known her name. Here she was, the love of my life and she raised me from a baby for all those seven years and I adored her, but I never knew her name. She was either Nursey or Alice. You see, her daughter-in-law would not call her by her old name, she kept telling me that she was "Mrs. Spraggs," and I didn't know who Mrs. Spraggs was. I had never heard of Nursey being called Mrs. Spraggs. It just shows you just how completely backwards I was. But she did say, "Sarah Spraggs." So, I immediately recognized Sarah. Well, Sarah came and she was a handsome woman then and we were both then in our thirties and I said to Venice Spraggs, "Bring her down to the office and we'll have lunch together." Well, the problem then was where in the name of God to have lunch with two black women. At that time, the only place that you could have lunch in Washington was at the YWCA, that was the only place that you could go that was integrated, black and white together. But there was a Chinese restaurant right near the office. So, I called up this Chinese restaurant and asked them if they would take us . . . . well, anyway we went there and they did take us and put us in a sort of a little private room. So, it was Sarah and we had a wonderful time talking about our childhood and our early life and Nursey by that time had died, you see. So, I missed seeing her because I didn't know her name. But the thing that Sarah remembered about me was when I threw the knife at my cousin because she called her a little nigger and wouldn't eat the chicken out of her hand. She had remembered that all her life, and I remembered it too. And that was the thing that she remembered most about me. We tried to stay in touch with each other, but then I think she finally went to Chicago and finally faded out. I can't find her. I think that she got to be a school teacher. This is the difficulty, here I was, just as intimate with Sarah and Nursey and the tall yellow man, it was as though they were members of my family, and yet, I literally never knew what their name was.
She did try to take up for her daughter, but she didn't try to take up for her nurse and neither did my grandmother. You see, the nurse had been coming down there for seven years of my life and spending almost every summer and they knew her and they knew what a good woman she was and knew how kind she had been to us and what a faithful servant she was and yet, they did not defend her from this charge of being . . . of course, it was venereal disease that they were talking about. So, Nursey put me to bed that night and lay down by me until I went to sleep and the next morning, she was gone. She had taken her daughter and left and she never came back. 2b1af7f3a8