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.

WWI Gold Star Soldier – Orville M. Coston

On April 6, 1917, Congress declared war. Before this great 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. (The practice started with WWI with gold stars being awarded to the fallen soldiers’ mothers.)

Lieutenant Orville Coston, born March 19, 1893 in Lincoln County, Tennessee, was killed in action October 1918 in the Argonne Forest of France. Below is text from a newspaper notice announcing his death.

Lieut. O. M. Coston Killed in France

Coston_OrvilleMLieut. Orville Menees Coston, of Birmingham, one of the most popular boys who ever attended the University of Alabama, has made the supreme sacrifice. He was killed while leading his men in an attack on a machine gun nest in the [Argonne Forest]. Lieut. Coston was the sort of man that demanded respect wherever he went and no risk not too great for others was too great for him.

He was the son of Dr. R. H. Coston of Birmingham, and attended the University of Alabama for five years, graduating in Academic and had completed one year of his law course when the war broke out. He was among the first to volunteer and went to the first officers’ training camp at Camp Gordon where he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Infantry. He sailed for France last April and had been in the thick of several fights.

In a letter received from Lieut. Coston last month he said that he was so glad that the fight was nearly over and that he thought he would soon be back in the States with his loved ones.

Lieut. Coston was a leader in every phase of University life. He was a member of the Lambda Chi fraternity, Business Manager of the Glee Club, a member of the Black Friars and a member of other clubs.

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.

Woman You Should Know #11

Beatrice Muse Price was born in Bessemer and moved to Greensboro in Hale County when she was three. Growing up, Price, a granddaughter of slaves, knew she wanted something different than what others may have wanted for her. The fear of being stuck in the county’s dirt served as motivation. “They told me if my grades weren’t good enough, I’d be sent back to the kitchens or the fields,” she said in this interview.

Good grades paved the way for her to study nursing in Atlanta, and she eventually served in the Army Nurses Corps from 1944 to 1948.  At one time, she was assigned to a group of Tuskegee Airmen as they trained at Lockbourne Army Airfield, near Columbus, Ohio.


Beatrice Price (l) receives a kiss from U. S. Rep. Sewell after she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Before Price went to Lockbourne, she worked at an army hospital with only eight other black nurses. In an interview, she remembered the pressure she and the others were under to prove they were just as qualified. “It was a struggle,” she said.

After her time in the Army, Price moved to Birmingham and worked as a nurse for 34 years at the Veterans Administration hospital.

In 2012, Price was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for her service during World War II.

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 #8

Louise Branscomb was born in a Birmingham church parsonage during a tornado in 1901 to Louis, a pastor in the Methodist Episcopal church, and his wife Minnie.  The family was radically progressive compared to most of their neighbors.

She studied music at Huntingdon College and received a medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1928. In 1931, she started her private practice in Birmingham as an obstetrician-gynocologist, making her one of the first female physicians to practice in the city.  According to Lawton Higgs, Branscomb worked at Hillman Hospital prior to starting her practice but had been forced to quit after it was discovered she was dispensing birth control to poor patients.

branscombBranscomb was a sociology professor at Birmingham-Southern College from 1938 to 1947. During a feature on Branscomb in an issue of the school’s alumni magazine, one student remembered her as “caring and she wasn’t afraid to talk to her students, especially females, about issues that weren’t talked about very much then…like family planning.”

Branscomb left her practice from 1944 to 1945 to serve during World War II.  Her work as a major in the United States Public Health Service took her to Greece, Italy, and North Africa.

When she returned to Birmingham, Branscomb continued her activism through her church. By a number of accounts, she worked to help those who were oppressed achieve greater equality.  The United Methodist Women of the North Alabama Conference set up the “Louise Branscomb Barrier Breaker of the Year” award in 1990. The award honors a United Methodist who is “willing to risk and stand up for the rights of women and ethnic minority persons,” according to this website.

Branscomb never married or had children. Upon her death in 1999, she left nearly six million dollars to Birmingham-Southern, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and First United Methodist Church of Birmingham.



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 #7

Did you know a member of the Harlem Renaissance lived in Birmingham – during the height of the renaissance?


Effie Lee Newsome

Effie Lee Newsome was a writer of mostly children’s poems and an illustrator whose work is best known within the pages of “The Crisis,” the NAACP magazine started by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1911 and the “Brownies’ Book,” the first magazine created for black children and youth. Du Bois first published this magazine in 1920.

Newsome began contributing work to “The Crisis” in 1917. In 1920, she married Henry Nesby Newsome, and they moved to Birmingham in 1923 when he was tapped to lead St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church.


The Bronze Legacy
(To a Brown Boy)
‘Tis a noble gift to be brown, all brown
Like the strongest things that make up this earth,
Like the mountains grave and grand,
Even like the very land,
Even like the trunks of trees-
Even oaks to be like these!
God builds His strength in bronze.

To be brown like thrush and lark!
Like the subtle wren so dark!
Nay, the king of beasts wears brown;
Eagles are of this same hue.
I thank God, then, I am brown.
Brown has mighty things to do.
– Effie Lee Newsome

(The poem appeared in “The Crisis” in October 1922.)

Mary Effie Lee was born in Philadelphia on January 19, 1885, to Benjamin Franklin Lee and his wife Mary Elizabeth Ashe Lee. Her father was a bishop in the AME church. Newsome studied at Wilberforce, Oberlin, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, and the University of Pennsylvania.

According to the “Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature,” Effie “decried the dearth of African and African American images in children’s books and dedicated herself to giving youngsters two great gifts: a keen sense of their own inestimable value and an avid appreciation of the natural world.”

Du Bois promoted Effie to editor of the children’s section of “The Crisis” in 1925. Over 100 of her poems appeared in the magazine from 1917 to 1934.

The Newsomes left Birmingham in the late 1920s/early 1930s to live in Wilberforce, Ohio. Effie continued to write; her work was included in anthologies by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps in the ’30s. Her volume of poetry, “Gladiola Gardens,” was published in 1940. Effie died in 1979.

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 #6

helen-sellers-davisHelen Sellers Davis was the first licensed female architect in Alabama. Davis trained at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn University). She married one of her instructors, Charles Davis, and after her 1935 graduation, the couple moved to Birmingham. Helen received her state registration in 1936.

She first practiced at Miller, Martin, and Lewis, Architects with her husband; they both moved on to Van Kueren, Davis & Company  (now known as Davis Architects). Helen left the practice in the ’60s to start her own firm.

Helen was given the Distinguished Architect Award in 2004 by the Alabama Council of the American Institute of Architects.

She died April 10, 2008, 10 days prior to her 96th birthday.

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 #5


Carrie Tuggle

Carrie Tuggle, a married mother of four and welfare officer, stood in the courtroom as two destitute black boys went before a judge. The boys were about to be sentenced for some petty crime, but Tuggle stepped in and offered to take the boys home to live with her. The judge agreed with her plea. Not long after, the idea to start a home and school for youthful offenders and orphans was birthed.

Carrie A. Greggs was born into slavery in Eufaula, Ala., in 1858. She married John Tuggle there and had four children. She and her family moved to Birmingham in 1900 for greater opportunities. The Tuggle Institute, after much struggle to raise funds, was opened September 3, 1903.

Nestled in the black middle-class neighborhood of Enon Ridge, the school grew quickly and soon began to take in neighborhood students as well. Some of the school’s students included successful businessman A.G. Gaston,  influential jazz musician John “Fess” Whatley and Big Band composer and musician Erskine Hawkins.


Tuggle Institute (as shown in 1906)

The school adopted the Tuskegee Institute’s philosophy of industrial education, emphasizing the importance of a skilled trade over classical learning.

Tuggle remained the school’s headmistress until her death on this day in 1924. It became affiliated with the Birmingham school system in 1926, and the school’s name was changed to Enon Ridge School in 1934 when the Birmingham Board of Education purchased it. Two years later the school was renamed Tuggle Elementary School.