From the Historic Alexandria Office
Alexandria, VA – Historians of the civil rights movement remember Virginia Foster Durr as a friend and prominent supporter of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s. But the roots of her involvement date back to when she lived in Alexandria, attending social events on Seminary Hill in the 1930s and 1940s.
Virginia Durr grew up privileged in Alabama, but her experiences in Alexandria, first as a supporter and supporter of New Deal policies and then of racial equality, led her to question the status quo when she and her husband Clifford later returned to Alabama.
Virginia’s sister was married to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and also lived in Alexandria. Virginia found meaning and confidence in her activism, first as a member of a local chapter of business and professional women in the 1930s, then in organizations that fought for civil rights. While attending traditional social events such as tea parties and parties, Durr began to connect with women who became powerful activists in the civil rights struggle in Northern Virginia, such as Mary McCandlish Livingston and Belinda Crompton Straight.
Virginia’s social connections, including her sister Josephine Foster Black and the wife and daughter of labor leader John L. Lewis, provided opportunities to engage in political activity in ways considered socially acceptable to the people. distinguished women. One of his earliest causes was raising money for the Southern Summer School for Workers, a six-week program aimed at educating and empowering workers in southern mills, factories and fruit packing houses. Southern Summer School students, who were usually already associated with organized labor, received instruction in English, economics, health, hygiene, and labor history.
Virginia Durr’s identification with the labor movement led her to enroll her two youngest daughters in public schools in Alexandria. Although she was told by other women that St. Agnes School was the only suitable school for her daughters (and her first daughter Ann went to St. Agnes for a time), Virginia enrolled the younger girls at Lee-Jackson Elementary School. Seeking to improve the school, Virginia became president of the Lee-Jackson Parent-Teacher Association and fought for safe school lunches and playground equipment for all students.
Virginia became involved in the National Committee’s efforts to abolish the poll tax. She became interested in the issue while involved with the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW). This interracial group sought to improve living conditions in the South and reduce racial segregation. Durr’s work in abolishing the poll tax led to the knowledge of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and ultimately helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
While her national work with SCHW brought her into contact with prominent African American leaders Mary McLeod Bethune and Mary Church Terrell, Virginia Durr also spoke and volunteered for local advocacy organizations. civics. One such organization was a program at the Pendleton Street Leisure Center which included African-American lawyer Oliver Hill and future lawyer Otto Tucker. Otto was arrested in 1939 in connection with the Barrett Branch Library Sit-in organized by his brother Samuel.
By the mid-1940s, Virginia was actively involved in national politics. Her support for the New Deal led her to run for the U.S. Senate on the Progressive Party ticket as a means of supporting presidential candidate Henry Wallace. Although Durr did not come close to winning her election, interestingly, she garnered twice as many votes as Wallace.
At this time, the Durrs had no intention of returning to Alabama. A sign of their choice to remain in Alexandria was the burials of their young son and Virginia’s mother at Ivy Hill Cemetery. But in 1951, the Durrs left Alexandria and returned to Montgomery, Alabama.
Virginia volunteered for the Human Rights Council, the only interracial civil rights group in Montgomery at the time. While working on civil rights issues, she befriended ED Dixon, a man who had worked for the NAACP. Dixon introduced Virginia to her friend Rosa Parks.
Virginia Durr helped support Mrs Parks by patronizing her tailoring business. Virginia also raised money for Ms. Parks to attend Highland Folk School, which sought to empower African Americans to use the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education. When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to ride in the back of the bus in December 1955, ED Dixon, Virginia, and Clifford Durr posted her bail.
Far from our city limits, Virginia Foster Durr’s experiences in Alexandria eventually led her to support Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She is a strong figure in the history of Alexandria and women.
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