Virginia Foster Durr

Virginia_Foster_DurrOn February 24, 1999, Virginia Foster Durr, a civil rights advocate, died in Carlisle, Pa. Durr was born in Birmingham on August 6, 1903 to a Presbyterian minister, Sterling Foster, and his wife Anne. Various accounts state Durr was raised as a typical Southern girl, one who accepted racial segregation. But as a sophomore at Wellesley College, Durr began to question that aspect of her upbringing. The school’s dining hall had “rotating tables” where the coeds were required to dine with random groups of students, including blacks. At first Durr balked, but was told by school officials she could either comply or leave. Durr chose to stay (until she had to leave due to financial reasons). There she began to step outside of her “magic circle,” as the quote below (taken from her autobiography) explains.

“She [the Southern white woman] could be the actress, playing out the stereotype of the Southern belle. Gracious to ‘the colored help,’ flirtatious to her powerful father-in-law, and offering a sweet, winning smile to the world. In short, going with the wind. If she had a spark of independence or worse, creativity, she could go crazy—on the dark, shadowy street traveled by more than one Southern belle. Or she could be the rebel. She could step outside the magic circle, abandon privilege, and challenge this way of life. Ostracism, bruised of all sorts, and defamation would be her lot. Her reward would be a truly examined life. And a world she would otherwise never have known.”

She married Clifford Durr, a lawyer, in 1926. In 1933, they moved to Washington, D.C. where her husband served in the Hoover administration, and then later Franklin Roosevelt’s. They eventually had five children.

While in D.C., Virginia Durr worked hard to eliminate the poll tax, a tax Southern blacks had to pay before being allowed to vote. The Durrs moved to Montgomery in the early 1950s and soon became involved with the civil rights struggle there. She and her husband helped bail Rosa Parks out of jail after she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Throughout the civil rights movement, the Durrs provided invaluable support.

After her husband died in 1975, Durr continued to work for progressive causes, including the eradication of poverty.  At the time of her death, President Bill Clinton stated, ”A white woman, born to privilege in the Deep South, Mrs. Durr refused to turn a blind eye to racism and intolerance in our society. Her courage and steely conviction in the earliest days of the civil rights movement helped to change this nation forever.”

Read more on Durr’s life here.

Birmingham’s WWI Gold Star Soldiers

On April 6, 1917, Congress declared war. Before the war would end in 1918, the U.S. acquired an army of 4 million men (2 million had been sent to France).  Within these numbers were brave men from our city. Over the next few days, we will highlight some Gold Star soldiers who lost their life while in uniform. (Gold stars were awarded to the mothers.)

This information was taken from the World War I Gold Star Database found on the Alabama Department of Archives and History’s website.  The information, which varies in length, was given by a family member of the deceased in preparation of a book that was never published. The site cautions that the information has not been verified “including spelling of names.” The text below was taken verbatim from the “Biographical Memoranda” the family member completed. (It may have been edited for grammar.)

This biography was prepared by the soldier’s mother, Mrs. W.R. McGavock who lived at 1021 St. Charles Street, South in Birmingham. 


Sergeant Leon Ragsdale McGavock

“The McGavock family is a very old one, and one prominently identified with military and political affairs of the country for nearly 200 years. James McGavock, Sr., the great-great-great grandfather to Sergeant Leon Ragsdale McGavock, was the first of his family to come near Glenarm. In 1754 or 1755 he landed in Philadelphia, later settling in what is now Rockbridge, Virginia, and settled at Fort Chisell, Virginia. Here he filled with credit high offices, both in civic and church affairs, and also served as Magistrate and agent responsible responsible for disposal of provisions for the Continental Army. Mr. McGavock came of that remarkable people, the Scotch-Irish, who have done so much for the liberties of this country, and for education generally, and the dissemination of Presbyterian principles, especially in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Hugh McGavock, the son of James Sr. and Mary Cloyd McGavock, was the great-great grandfather of Sergeant Leon Ragsdale McGavock. He married a Miss Nancy Kent of Montgomery County, Virginia, in March 1785. He was in a volunteer company under Colonel Joseph Crockett in the Revolutionary war to repel an invasion by the Indians on the Ohio frontier.

Robert McGavock, son of Hugh and Nancy Kent McGavock, was the great grandfather of Leon Ragsdale McGavock. He was born October 20, 1794 at Max-Meadow, Wythe County, Virginia. He married Anne Hickman, daughter of Colonel Thomas Hickman, March 9, 1819, at Howard County, Missouri, where he engaged in the practice of law for a number of years, having graduated at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University.

It is not surprising to find an enviable Army record on file for Leon Ragsdale McGavock, for his ancestors on both sides had set the example for him. His grandfather, Robert Ragsdale, fought all through the Civil War, together with three brothers and three brothers-in-law.

He was born at Athens, in Limestone County, Alabama on October 7, 1893. [McGavock] started school in Birmingham, Alabama, at Powell School, under Miss Mary Callahan as principal; for five years he attended Ullman School in Birmingham, under Mrs. Dabney as principal. He then entered St. Bernard College at Cullman, where he studied for five years. [He was a] member of 11th Avenue Methodist Church, Birmingham, Alabama.

On February 8, 1914, Leon Ragsdale McGavock enlisted in Battery E, 4th Field Artillery, in which company he stayed for three years at Texas City and Brownsville, Texas. Leon R. McGavock had just gotten out of college and had not entered into any profession or occupation before making his enlistment in February 1914.

Beginning September 17, 1917, he was stationed at Camp Mead, Maryland, in the 312th Machine Gun Batallion, 79th Division, where he was engaged as an instructor for about nine months. He sailed for France July 8, 1918. Leon Ragsdale McGavock fought in the Meuse-Argonne battle from September 13, 1918, until October 6th, 1918. While engaged in battle, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. On the victory medal of Leon Ragsdale McGavock are two bars inscribed as follows: Meuse-Argonne and Defensive Sector.

He died at Revigny, Meuse, France on October 15, 1918.







30 Women You Should Know

Over the next 30 days, The Birmingham Buff will feature 30 remarkable women who have made their mark on Birmingham’s history.

Women You Should Know #9 and #10

If you’re a bibliophile, then this story is probably one you’ve daydreamed about: throwing caution to the wind to open your own bookstore.


Virginia and Anna Praytor

For sisters Anna Linton Praytor (1914-1989) and Frances Virginia Praytor (1899-1974), this dream became their reality when they purchased Smith and Hardwick Bookstore in the early 1950s. According to a profile featured on the Alabama Hall of Fame website (to which both sisters were inducted in 1991), Virginia, as she preferred to be called, served as the store’s president and Anna as secretary-treasurer.

Both women attended Birmingham-Southern College and taught English and Latin at various Birmingham high schools.

Virginia went back to school (to Vanderbilt) in her 40s to complete her master’s degree. Her thesis contributed to Clyde Pharr’s seminal translation of the Theodosian Code, a set of laws under the Roman Empire.

If they had a motto, I’m sure it was “Age ain’t nothing but a number,” or maybe not. But we all can agree we can learn to give caution the old heave-ho to follow our dreams, just as the sisters had.



30 Women You Should Know

Over the next 30 days, The Birmingham Buff will feature 30 remarkable women who have made their mark on Birmingham’s history.

A Woman You Should Know #2

Bessie Sears Estell was the daughter of a baptist preacher who brought his family from Green County, Al. to Birmingham around 1918. Milton Sears had been called to pastor Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville, a working-class community north of downtown Birmingham.

estellEstell once called her father a pioneer in promoting civil rights in the city, but she was a pioneer in her right, having been the first black woman elected to the city council in 1975.

Estell also worked in what she called “the greatest profession in the world” – teaching.  By the time she retired in the mid-70s, Estell was a principal, but she still cherished her work on the front lines. “Well, the greatest joy in my life is to have [students] come back to me, and say, ‘I remember when you tried to instill this [lesson]; [you don’t know] how much I appreciate it.’ That’s a reward you can’t measure in dollars.”

Listen to Estell describe her life in her own words. 

30 Women You Should Know

Over the next 30 days, The Birmingham Buff will feature 30 remarkable women who have made their mark on Birmingham’s history.

A Woman You Should Know #1

One of my favorite movies is “Auntie Mame” (which is based on the 1955 Patrick Dennis’ novel of the same name and Broadway production “Mame”).  The film follows Auntie Mame as she dashes from one adventure to the next. She’s free-spirited and eccentric.

When I first learned about Birmingham’s Eleanor Massey Bridges, I was struck by how much she reminded me of Auntie Mame. Like Mame, Bridges blazed her own path. Born in Columbus, Ga. in 1899 to Richard (founder of Massey Business College) and Bessie Massey, Bridges grew up in the famed Massey residence on Red Mountain.  (The Masseys had moved to Birmingham when Bridges was three months old.) Some interesting points in Bridges’ life:

  1. From an early age, Bridges declared she wanted to be an artist, over her father’s objections. She was able to train with the local artist Hannah Elliott.
  2. She roomed with Amelia Earhart at boarding school.
  3. She met her husband George Bridges in Birmingham at a debutante party. They were engaged within a week later.
  4. The couple were married in 1920 in her family’s home. Her disapproving parents remained upstairs. The Bridges honeymooned at a camp on the Warrior River.
  5. They studied at the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts. Eleanor studied painting while George studied sculpture.
  6. The couple lived in France, Greece, and Spain before returning to Birmingham.
  7. During the Great Depression, she and her husband took in as many as 18 abandoned children over a decade.
  8. She taught in Vassar College’s art department and gave free art classes to students from Parker High School and the Homewood school system.
  9. Eleanor’s “Cyclorama of Birmingham History,” a free-standing collage she began when she was 80, was installed (unfinished) at Bell South, although it was commissioned for the lobby of the Brown-Marx building.


    Bridges’ Cyclorama of Birmingham History

Eleanor died in 1987. (George died in 1976.)  Read more about this fascinating woman here.



The First Lady and a Bull

In June 1938, the U.S. government published “A Report on the Economic Positions of the South.”  The report was created to bring attention to area’s crushing poverty. The report revealed systemic problems with the region’s wages, housing, child labor, education, water resources, etc.  “The low-income belt of the South is a belt of sickness, misery, and unnecessary death. It’s large proportion of low-income citizens are more subject to disease than the people of any similar area,” reads a paragraph from a section entitled “Health.


Eleanor Roosevelt

According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama website, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was influenced by human rights activists who wanted to hold a conference that would address oppression.  Roosevelt thought a conference would be an ideal forum to “publicize the grim findings of the report and possibly rally more southern support behind the New Deal,” the website states. The president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was quite enthusiastic about the conference and pledged her support.

On November 20, 1938, the first meeting of the Southern Conference of Human Welfare was held in Birmingham. Among the 1,200 delegates were prominent liberals such as the First Lady, Bibb Graves, Alabama’s governor, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and activist Virginia Foster Durr. “During three days of panel discussions, the conference drew from throughout the South delegates who addressed labor relations, credit, education, farm tenancy, the poll tax, and constitutional rights,” states the Encyclopedia of Alabama.


Eugene “Bull” Connor

It probably comes as no surprise that the meeting drew opposition. Twenty percent of the delegates were black. On the second day of the conference, Eugene “Bull” Connor, public safety commissioner, barged into the conference and ordered the participants to separate themselves. Blacks were made to sit on one side of the room and whites on the other. Determined to stand her ground, Eleanor Roosevelt sat with the black attendees. After a policeman told her to move, Roosevelt placed her chair between the two sections.

The SCHW’s existence was rocky; it suffered from lack of funds and charges of being a Communist organization, among other woes. The SCHW folded in 1948, but it is seen as a forerunner to important civil rights groups of the ’50s and ’60s.

Ethel Armes: Pioneer Journalist

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

I’m sharing interesting tidbits I’ve recently learned about Birmingham and some of her people. These items may be new to you as well or just a reminder. 

Number TEN

In the early 1900s when Ethel Armes arrived in Birmingham, it was not common to meet a woman who made her living as a journalist. But the Washington D.C. native was an accomplished one, having worked at The Washington Post as a reporter and features writer as well as once working for The Chicago Chronicle. She became a member of The Birmingham Age-Herald’s staff upon her arrival.

In 1907, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce hired Armes to write a history on the state’s coal and iron industries, according to the book “True Tales of Birmingham.”  Armes’ research reached beyond reviewing various books; she got in the trenches herself. “A diligent and meticulous researcher, she put on a miner’s cap and inspected coal and iron sites and communities across the northern Alabama mineral region,” stated “True Tales of Birmingham.”  Armes’ book, “The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama,” was published in 1910.

You can download a free e-copy of Armes’ book here.

The Birmingham Age-Herald building where Ethel Armes briefly worked

The Birmingham Age-Herald building where Ethel Armes briefly worked

Mary Anderson invented the windshield wiper

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

I am sharing interesting tidbits I’ve recently learned about Birmingham and some of her people. These items may be new to you as well or just a reminder. Please join me each day for a new fact.

Number Nine

I just learned that a Birmingham resident invented the windshield wiper. Mary Anderson was born in Greene County in 1866 but moved to Birmingham with her widowed mother and sisters in 1889.

It was during a visit to New York in 1903 that Anderson noticed “that the motorman drove with the front window open because of difficulty keeping the windshield clear of falling sleet. When she returned to Alabama she hired a designer for a hand-operated device to keep a windshield clear and had a local company produce a working model. She applied for, and in 1903 was granted, a 17-year patent for a windshield wiper.Her device consisted of a lever inside the vehicle that controlled a rubber blade on the outside of the windshield. The lever could be operated to cause the spring-loaded arm to move back and forth across the windshield. A counterweight was used to ensure contact between the wiper and the window.Similar devices had been made earlier, but Anderson’s was the first to be effective,” according to Wikipedia.

Click the following link for more information:

Mary Anderson (1866-1953)

Mary Anderson (1866-1953)

Charity begins at home

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

I am sharing interesting tidbits I’ve recently learned about Birmingham and some of her people. These items may be new to you as well or just a reminder. 

Number SIX

If you’ve been in Birmingham for some time, the Bruno name is quite familiar.  From their once-bustling eponymous grocery stores to their numerous charitable contributions, the family’s last name was as visible to residents as Vulcan’s bottom.

But I just recently learned about Vincent and Theresa Bruno’s, the family’s patriarch and matriarch, hardscrabble start.  The Brunos were a young couple when they made their way to Birmingham from Sicily in 1908. Vincent began working at one of the local furnaces while Theresa took care of the home.  Despite the family’s struggle to make ends meet during that time, Theresa still provided help to those in need.  There’s one story from “True Tales of Birmingham” that exemplifies this: “The Bruno kitchen was always open to homeless men who arrived daily on freight trains, begging a meal. Theresa fed them at her table, usually a zesty vegetable stew and fresh Italian bread. If one of her children asked who the stranger was, she would reply: ‘Chi sa. Non fa niente. Aveva appetito.’ (Who knows. It doesn’t matter. He was hungry.”)

Photo credit: Life Magazine Walking the rails during the Great Depression.  Date and location unknown.

Photo credit: Life Magazine
Walking the rails during the Great Depression. Date and location unknown.