Union Springs Women of Courage

Mrs. Virginia Durr (left) seated next to Mrs. Annie Mae Turner.

Mrs. Virginia Durr (left) seated next to Mrs. Annie Mae Turner. The painting in the background is a Union Springs Street scene, a south view along Prairie Street.

Several weeks ago, I had a rare experience. I was present while Virginia Foster Durr and Annie Mae Paulk Turner talked about growing up in Union Springs, county seat of Bullock County Alabama at the beginning of this century. The occasion was Mrs. Durr’s visit with Mrs. Turner at her residence in Montgomery.

Because I am from Bullock County, Mrs. Durr asked me if I knew Mrs. Turner. I told her that I had known Mrs. Turner when, she served as Executive Director of the Bullock County Development Authority. Having confirmed that I was a friend of Mrs. Turner’s, she asked me to take her to visit her at her Montgomery residence.

Mrs. Turner met us at the door of the residence, sitting in her wheelchair, smiling. I was pleasantly surprised to find her so radiant and cheerful. Snow-white hair framed her face, free of makeup and full of color. Her bright blue eyes darted from Mrs. Durr to me, manifesting excitement like a young child. In a word, Mrs. Turner is doing great.

She seated us in her room, decorated with items of furniture, photographs, and paintings from her Union Springs home. Annie Mae Turner loves Union Springs, the city of her birth. It was there in 1916 that her parents established a plane business, named after her mother, Bonnie Livingston Paulk. Today, Bonnie Plant Farm is one of Bullock County’s oldest and most successful industries, doing business in 18 states.

Born in 1918, the oldest of the six Paulk children, Annie Mae graduated from Union Springs High School in 1936 and went to college. Majoring in speech and drama, she earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Montevallo known then as Alabama College in 1940. This would not end of her scholastic achievements. After her 1941 marriage to the late William Turner of Union Springs and raising their four sons Wayne, William, James and Harold she returned to her academic career. In 1960, she earned her master’s degree at Auburn University where she majored in education. In 1978, she took her doctorate in education degree from the Union Graduate School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Mrs. Turner taught English at Union Springs High School for most of her career. As a professional educator, she was active in the Alabama Education Association, or AEA as it is known. She achieved the high office of president of the AEA in 1965.

It was while serving as president of AEA that the nation recognized and celebrated this Union Springs mother of four for her courage. Annie Mae Turner, as head of the AEA, had the courage to speak out for African American voting rights, a position that stood in direct opposition of Alabama’s Jim Crow political structure.

She told Montgomery Advertiser reporter, Nick Lackeos, about her farewell speech as AEA president at a convention in Birmingham.

In a January 1992 article, “Former AEA President Speaks Her Mind,” Lackeos describes how she had prepared the speech and released a copy, in advance, to one of the reporters covering the convention. The AEA hierarchy asked her to modify the speech eliminating her remarks about voting rights. Rather than do this, she did not speak at all. However, excerpts of the speech made news throughout Alabama and across the United States. Excerpts of the speech were even carried in the Wall Street Journal.

It is well known that Virginia Durr rocked Jim Crow’s boat some years before Mrs. Turner’s speech. As an activist in the Women’s Division of the National Democratic Committee, Virginia Durr fought for an end to poll taxes.

Her campaign against the Poll Tax earned her a summons before Mississippi Senator Eastland’s Internal Security Subcommittee. In 1954, with the case of Brown vs. Board Of Education pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Eastland called her before the committee meeting in New Orleans.

The hearings were an effort on his part to use Virginia Durr to discredit Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Justice Black was married to her sister Josephine and was expected to vote to overturn the doctrine of “Separate But Equal” with the Brown decision.

Sitting in the pleasant surroundings of Halcyon Terrace, an exceptional facility for assisted living, my mind pondered the lives of these two courageous women. I thought about the social change that they help bring. It was almost surreal, thinking of the scope of change brought about within American society as the result of the work of a few individuals with the courage to do right.

Born at the beginning of the century, without the right to vote, in an America not yet mature enough to grant women full citizenship. Both women, Annie Mae Turner and Virginia Durr, devoted much of their lives working to extend full franchise to all Americans.

Now at the end of the century with their work nearly complete, these women seek each other to share childhood memories of growing up in Union Springs.

Words Processed by Major W. Cox
Originally Published: 1993, Union Springs Facts

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