Fifth Interview
January 17, 2008
This is the fifth interview of Louis F. Oberdorfer that was completed as part of the Oral History
Project of The Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is
Benjamin F. Wilson. The interview took place at Judge Oberdorfer’s chambers on Thursday,
January 17, 2008.
Ben Wilson: This is an interview history of Judge Louis Oberdorfer, taking place in his
chambers. We’re starting at approximately 2:40 p.m., on Thursday, Jan. 17, —
Louis F. Oberdorfer: 2008.
B.W.: 2008, yes sir, thank you. Judge Oberdorfer, I want to thank you for taking the
time to answer the questions I have for you today. I know that the Historical Society is eager to
have us complete this, and obviously eager for others to hear from you.
I have a number of questions I’d like to ask, recognizing that your oral history was
taken about 15 years ago. I know that I will plow over some old ground. I’ll try to do that
quickly, and follow up on some areas that might not have been fully explored before, and
obviously we’ll also talk about some new areas.
And what I’d like to do is maybe start with your family history again. If we could
start, who were the first Oberdorfers in America?
L.F.O.: I suppose my grandfather Bernard Oberdorfer.
B.W.: Do you know approximately when he first came?
L.F.O.: It was before the Civil War because he was in the Confederate Army.
B.W.: Do you know where he was from?
L.F.O.: Württemberg, Germany.
B.W.: Is that Bavaria?
L.F.O.: Yes, I think.
B.W.: Do you have an idea of about how old he was when he came to the U.S.?
L.F.O.: I could reconstruct it. He died at age 75 in 1905 and he came here in 1855 when
he must have been 25.
B.W.: So that means he was born in about 1830 or thereabouts?
L.F.O.: Yes sir. He’s buried in a cemetery in Charlottesville. It might be his birth date’s
on the tombstone.
B.W. Do you know what your grandfather did before he came to America?
L.F.O.: No.
B.W.: When your grandfather came to America, where did he settle initially?
L.F.O.: New York, New York.
B.W.: Do you know what he did in New York?
L.F.O.: Yes, he worked in a cigar factory.
B.W.: Was he married when he came to the U.S.?
L.F.O.: Not married, I don’t think, but I don’t know.
B.W.: I know from having read your first history that his first wife died.
L.F.O.: My grandfather’s first wife had died.
B.W.: Please tell me, do you know the history of how he met her?
L.F.O.: No.
B.W.: But then your grandfather married again and he married the sister of
his first wife and they had five children.
L.F.O.: I suppose that’s right.
B.W.: As I understand it your father had a twin.
L.F.O.: Correct.
B.W.: Did you ever meet your uncle?
L.F.O.: Oh yes, I used to stay with him. He was an optometrist in New York, a bachelor.
He had a house at 128 East 79 Street and I was very interested to learn that my grandson Kevin, th
who now lives in New York and is a young lawyer, has just moved into an apartment on East
79th between Second and Third avenues.
B.W.: Not far away, about a block away! Is he aware that his great
grandfather—actually uncle—lived there?
L.F.O.: I haven’t been able to get on the phone to tell him.
B.W.: That’s a nice story. Obviously, your uncle was an identical twin. Was he a similar
personality and demeanor to your father?
L.F.O.: Identical. Identical in every way. I used to go, for instance, to college on the train
to New York and spend the night or more at my uncle’s house and there were no telephones. For
instance, on public affairs, even without communicating, as far as I know, they agreed. For
example, they both hated Arthur Krock who was a columnist for the New York Times and you
could hear somewhat the same language, the same verbiage from either of them. Politically they
were absolutely identical.
B.W.: Yes, and what was their politics, how would you describe the politics
of your father?
L.F.O.: Wilsonian Democrat. And Roosevelt Democrat at the other end. And Cleveland
B.W.: How was it that your one uncle went to New York and your father went to
Birmingham? Do you recall what went into their decisions?
L.F.O.: I don’t know what sent my uncle to New York but all the way through school they
sat together and the story was that when the professor called on one of them, the one that was
prepared would answer whether he was called on or not. They were known as Oberdorfer
Number One and Oberdorfer Number Two and I don’t know who was One and who was Two.
B.W.: I suspect whoever was prepared got the Number One moniker. That’s alright.
Where was your maternal grandfather from?
L.F.O.: He was from a place called Schneidemühl, the spelling of which I leave to you,
which was in Germany, but is now, I believe, in Poland.
B.W.: What was his name?
L.F.O.: Louis Falk, F-A-L-K; that’s my name, I am named for him.
B.W.: Tell me about him. What did he do?
L.F.O.: He was a merchant in Decatur, Alabama. Incidentally, there’s a town in north
Alabama called Falkville. According to mythology, he came there as a peddler and set up a stand
which became a store—a general merchandise store. He later moved to Decatur, Alabama. Now
where he was before he went to Falkville, I don’t know.
B.W.: I read that he’d been a director of the Southern Railroad, is that right?
L.F.O.: That’s right.
B.W.: Yes sir.
L.F.O.: L&N.
B.W.: Oh, Louisville and Nashville? So obviously he was a very successful
L.F.O.: He was, he was. But I never knew him.
B.W.: And your maternal grandmother?
L.F.O.: She died when my mother was two years old.
B.W.: What was her name? I know her last name was Goodhart.
L.F.O.: I’ll have to fill that in, it doesn’t come to my mind right now, obviously I never
knew her, but it’ll come again.
B.W.: I understand from having read the earlier history that your housekeeper was sent
and she helped raise your mother, is that right?
L.F.O.: I know her name, Miss Emma Oppenhagen, O-P-P-E-N-H-A-G-E-N.
B.W.: Do you know how, I mean do you know why she came to Decatur?
L.F.O.: She was a seamstress for the Goodhart family in Cincinnati and later New York.
Her great uncles were very, very protective of my mother, and as I understood the story, they
were concerned about my mother being raised by a single male parent down there on the frontier.
They arranged for Ms. Oppenhagen, who was the family seamstress, to come down and live there
and be the housekeeper.
B.W.: Where was your maternal grandmother from? Was she from New York or was she
from Cincinnati?
L.F.O.: I assume she was from Cincinnati. The Goodhart family had settled in Cincinnati,
they later moved to New York, but they established themselves rather importantly in Cincinnati.
B.W.: Do you recall your mother ever telling you how her mother and father met?
L.F.O.: I do not.
B.W.: Now you say both of your grandfathers served in the Confederate Army. Do you
know what rank they reached?
L.F.O.: Private. That’s—I won’t use the profanity—of private.
B.W.: Yes sir, I appreciate that. Do you know anything about what theaters they served
L.F.O.: Yes. My paternal grandfather was living in Charlottesville, and served in sort of
the Home Guard in Charlottesville. The mythology about him is that he had a sister who lived in
New York during the war, and he learned that she was penurious and ill, and he went through the
lines to New York to take money to her and came back successfully.
My maternal grandfather was in a cavalry unit in the area around Decatur. His
commanding officer was a Colonel Harris and the Harris family lived right across the street from
him. At least when I was growing up, they were in the house right across the street from me.
Ms. Harris was a teacher of my mother, and they were very close. But in any event, it was a
cavalry unit. I used to know it, something tells me it was the Fifth Alabama or something like
that. He was captured at some point rather early in the war, and the story is that there’s a bridge
across the Tennessee River at Decatur, and he made clear to me that as a prisoner, he was walked
across this railroad bridge and then put on a train to the Libby prison. I think it’s near Chicago.
B.W.: Okay, because Libby is in Richmond, there were also prisons in Chicago.
L.F.O.: I’m not sure of that, whether dim recollections or mythology.
B.W.: As I understand it, your mother was one of the first, if not the first woman from
Alabama, to attend Vassar, was that right?
L.F.O.: I don’t know about first but she certainly was one of the few.
B.W.: Right. Do you know about how that came about?
L.F.O.: I think that was the paternalistic role of the movement. By then it had moved to
New York.
B.W.: You’ve been very gracious to help me get through some of the history. I think
you explained to us that your father went to Birmingham; his sister had gone there before. Is
that right, do you recall why she chose Birmingham?
L.F.O.: She married somebody from Birmingham.
B.W.: But you don’t know what her married name was?
L.F.O.: Yes, her married name was Raywise.
B.W.: And then your father chose to go to Birmingham. Was he younger than his sister
L.F.O.: Yes, the twins were the youngest.
B.W.: He graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law?
L.F.O.: And University of Virginia undergraduate, too.
B.W.: Yes, and so had he practiced law somewhere before Alabama?
L.F.O.: No. Again, the mythology is that at that time you were admitted to the bar of
Virginia after taking an oral examination by the justices of the Supreme Court of Virginia in a
courtroom. And the mythology is that the Supreme Court at that time was meeting in
Wytheville, Virginia, and he went to Wytheville to start his examination and went on from there
to Birmingham. Now I don’t know whether he settled in Birmingham at that time; there’s
another story.
B.W.: Now your mother, I think you told us, was a prohibitionist. Is that right?
L.F.O.: Yes.
B.W.: And do you recall what prompted her to be a prohibitionist?
L.F.O.: I think I explained it sometime.
B.W.: You did.
L.F.O.: Miss Emma was a Methodist, a prohibitionist. And my mother’s religious
education was in the Methodist Church in Birmingham, I mean in Decatur. She was a Methodist
B.W.: Do you recall hobbies that your mother had, interests that she had?
L.F.O.: Well, she was a member, probably a very early member, of the American
Association of University Woman, AAUW. She was active in the affairs of a chapter in
Birmingham. She gardened and at some point she played golf. I never understood how, but she
B.W.: When you say you didn’t understand how, why wouldn’t she?
L.F.O.: She was most unathletic. She was overweight, short, all physical qualities that
Tiger Woods doesn’t have. And not particularly dexterous. I never saw her play, but I have her
golf clubs.
B.W.: You say she was a member of the American Association of University Women.
L.F.O.: She also had something to do with the Democratic Party, but I’m not sure.
B.W.: Now, was your mother a baseball fan at all? Or does that come from your father?
L.F.O.: Yes.
B.W.: How did you and your mother spend time together, what was your relationship?
L.F.O.: Well, my mother raised me, my father was not a hands-on father in my childhood.
My mother was the law of the house. She used to say my father was a guest in his own house.
B.W.: (laughter) What did he say about that?
L.F.O.: (unintelligible)
B.W.: He’s a wise man. When you were growing up and in school, who was it that kind
of made certain you did your homework, did your chores, and that you did a certain amount of
L.F.O.: She was it.
B.W.: Now, it must have been unusual because there weren’t that many women who
were college educated in that era.
L.F.O.: Maybe so, I don’t know. I know that there were relatively few.
B.W.: I also recall in your earlier interview, you mentioned that you saw your father
conduct a cross-examination.
L.F.O.: Yes.
B.W.: Can you talk about some instances of strong memories of your mother’s that
might be similar that are just as clear in your mind?
L.F.O.: Well I think I told this story earlier but our house was on the side of Red
Mountain. And upstairs on what really was the third floor—because there was a basement that
was above ground—on the third floor was the screened room which we called the sleeping porch
where we slept in the summer. And it looked out over the city. But immediately behind our lot
was an alley and I can remember vividly waking up early in the morning, daylight barely, and
hearing a horrible cry from a male voice, “Stop that, stop that,” or something like that. And my
mother went to the screen and looked out and there were police beating a young black boy with a
tire tread, and she yelled out the window, “You all stop that!,” and they did. Drove away. The
boy walked down the alley sobbing, but it was a real alarm in the night; I was probably about ten
years old.
B.W.: Do you have any idea how old the boy might have been that was being beaten?
L.F.O.: Older teen, nineteen, might have been up to some mischief.
B.W.: Yes, when I grew up in Jackson there were certain parts of the city that were white
and black and we knew which parts of the city were yours, and if you stayed within that part,
generally, you didn’t run into any problems. Was this fellow in a part of town that he would not
have been welcomed in?
L.F.O.: Oh it was lily-white but contemporaneously within the last few weeks I got a letter
from a New York lawyer named J. Johnson, a partner of Paul White, saying that he’d just been
visiting his sister in Birmingham and discovered that she and her family were living in the house
that I was born in and grew up in, and that the neighborhood was integrated.
B.W.: Is that right?
L.F.O.: I want to show you the letter.
B.W.: Please, I’d love to see it.
L.F.O.: Wait a minute, I’ll get it.
B.W.: It’s very nice. Here’s a picture of the house. And where would the sleeping porch
have been?
L.F.O.: On the back side.
B.W.: I see. And structurally, is it as you remember it?
L.F.O.: Oh yeah.
B.W.: That would have been a very substantial house in the time that you grew up.
L.F.O.: Yes it was.
B.W.: What year were you born?
L.F.O.: Nineteen nineteen. That would have been a house built in nineteen fifteen.
B.W.: Yes. Was it built for your father and mother?
L.F.O.: No, they bought it from a man named Nerwill Wilner who developed the whole
neighborhood. The guy’s brother-in-law is an anchor of some broadcast network.
B.W.: Yes, I saw that in the letter. Thank you for sharing that. I wanted to ask a few
other questions about growing up. Let’s spend a few minutes talking about your relationship
with your father. I know you all went to baseball games together, is that right?
L.F.O.: Yes.
B.W.: And I think you went for walks.
L.F.O.: That was his exercise.
B.W.: Yes, yes. You also indicated you went to movies on Saturday nights with friends?
L.F.O.: Saturday DAY, not night. Saturday afternoon at five.
B.W.: Why wouldn’t you go at night?
L.F.O.: As a youngster I didn’t go out at night.
B.W.: And who were your best friends, do you remember their names?
L.F.O.: I do. My very best friend lived back in the back, their backyard and our backyard
were separated by an alley. His name was David Massey.
[End of Tape 1, Side A]
Ben Wilson: Tape #2, Thursday, January 17, at about 3:15 p.m. When last we left, Judge, you
were telling me about your best friends growing up.
Louis F. Oberdorfer: Another was Hugh Nabers. His father was a doctor and his mother was a
Comer, and his grandfather had been Governor Comer of Alabama. They were a very proper
southern family, and Hugh Nabers’ house was about a block and a half away. They had a very
large yard where we used to play baseball and touch football, and that kind of thing. Next door,
later, in my still very young life, was a family named Jemison. They were the real estate people
in Birmingham. Elbert Jemison was the son my age, who later was an aide to General Patton. I
don’t know whether he went to VMI or West Point, but he was an aide to Patton.
Emil Hess, who was in my Sunday school class, was the son of the owner of
Parisian’s store. Dolph Speilberger, who lived a little further away, was also in our Sunday
school class. Milton Jacobson lived up the street. I would say those were my closest friends.
B.W.: Did you maintain those friendships?
L.F.O.: David and I remembered all through the years, each other’s birthdays.
B.W.: Yes.
L.F.O.: I always wrote him or called him on his birthday and he always wrote me or
called me on my birthday. Until last summer I called down there and nobody answered. He and
his wife had moved to a retirement home.
B.W.: I also recall your describing going to summer camps in Connecticut and Maine.
Tell me about those camps.
L.F.O.: Well they were creations of my mother through a friend of hers who lived in New
York by the name of Martha Barbe. The camp in Connecticut was called Housatonic after the
river and it was on the river. I don’t remember a whole lot about it except that we went canoeing
and I guess baseball and stuff like that and hikes. The camp I went to the longest was called
Camp Androscoggin in Wayne, Maine. It was on an island in Lake Androscoggin. Beautiful
spot. It was run by a guy named Edward Healy whose brother, Jefferson Healy, had been killed
in World War I. The camp had a kind of a military aspect to it. For example, I remember one
evening there was a flag raising. The campers formed three sides of a square around a flagpole.
I was the bugler and I blew the colors. The military aspect was underscored by the presence
amongst the counselors of two West Pointers every year, undergraduates or underclassmen, or
whatever you call them. The two counselors were cousins; one’s last name was Herman. I
remember he had two brothers, and I can’t remember. Dick Herman, I think, and the other was
Orvil Dreyfoos, whose name you will see on the masthead of the New York Times. He married a
social worker and they were Dartmouth undergraduates. I went to Dartmouth by influence of
B.W.: Now you said Herman was a cousin of?
L.F.O.: Dreyfoos.
B.W.: Oh, okay but they were not related to you?
L.F.O.: No, no, no.
B.W.: Okay.
L.F.O.: And we went on canoe trips and hikes. Lots of softball every evening after dinner
and it was a very competitive place in the way they gave awards. The highest award that goes
out to campers was the Jefferson A. Healy Memorial Trophy. There was a so-called select group
called the Androscoggin Club. The way to be admitted in the Androscoggin Club was that the
whole camp lined up around the ball field and the incumbent, I don’t know whether it was the
chairman, president of the Androscoggin Club and a couple of other members, would march
around this group and tap very forcefully the person they wanted to admit and that person was
directed to go to some undisclosed location and wait to be called. There was a lot of hocuspocus.
B.W.: Now were you tapped ever?
L.F.O.: Yeah, later in my career there.
B.W.: Let’s talk about school—growing up in elementary school and high school. Did
you attend the public schools there in Birmingham?
L.F.O.: Yes.
B.W.: And tell me about your favorite teachers in elementary school, high school, junior
L.F.O.: My favorite elementary school teacher was Ms. Edmunds. By the way, to be a
teacher in the white public schools in Birmingham, you had to be an unmarried woman, whether
divorced or not, really I don’t know. None of them were married and that was a requirement, as I
recall. Another teacher who taught speech and debate was influential with me, Ms. Thomas. I
also remember my unfavorite teacher was a Ms. Davis, who taught Latin. She had a nervous
habit of popping rubber bands and every now and then one would break or come off and hit her
in the face and she was a certifiable nut, I’m sure, but I took four years of Latin. I would not call
her a favorite.
B.W.: Go back to Ms. Edmunds, why did you like her.
L.F.O.: She taught Geography and I was interested in it. She made a lot of sense.
B.W.: Yes.
L.F.O.: You know?
B.W.: As for Speech and Debate, I know you participated in Debate while at Dartmouth.
L.F.O.: And in high school.
B.W.: And in high school, but it started in high school. You were saying that the debate
coach or the debate advisor was one of your favorites.
L.F.O.: John Neal.
B.W.: Yes, what was the name of your high school?
L.F.O.: High School?
B.W.: Yes sir.
L.F.O.: The Erskine Ramsey Technical High School.
B.W.: Yes.
L.F.O.: Which is also now integrated, thoroughly integrated.
B.W.: Yes. And how many public high schools, if you recall, were there in Birmingham
at that time?
L.F.O.: I can remember three.
B.W.: Yes.
L.F.O.: Ramsey, Phillips and Woodlawn.
B.W.: So there would have been three white public high schools and maybe one black
public high school?
L.F.O.: None of those was black.
B.W.: Right.
L.F.O.: I don’t know the name of the black high school.
B.W.: Tell me, what was high school like for you?
L.F.O.: Well, for the first time I ran into fraternities and sororities. It was obviously—it
was just a given, never thought anything about it. There were fraternities that were all Christian
and then there was one Jewish fraternity, I think. Maybe there wasn’t a Jewish fraternity in high
school. No I don’t think there was, we just didn’t get in it.
B.W.: Right. And, do you recall ever having a discussion with a Christian friend about
that? Was it never talked about or was just assumed?
L.F.O.: If I did I don’t remember anything about it.
B.W.: Yes.
L.F.O.: I just accepted it that was the way it was.
B.W.: What activities, if any, were you involved in in high school other than the Debate
L.F.O.: Boy Scouts.
B.W.: Right.
L.F.O.: That’s a very interesting phenomenon. Troop 28 Boy Scouts met in a building
attached on the grounds of the Independent Presbyterian Church.
B.W.: Yes.
L.F.O.: And, it, of course, was, in my sense of it, quite integrated. I remember one of the
scoutmasters was a Mr. Booth, whose son Herbert Booth was one of my social friends, and then
there was a guy name Scotty Erkert, who was a C Scout, and he was involved in the activities of
the church. They met every Friday night at that church during school time. There was a Boy
Scout camp, Camp Cosby, about fourteen miles from where we were and one of the things I
remember was our hiking out there and hiking back—more than once. One of my good friends
and colleagues was a guy by the name of Coburn Martin. He and I went through the Merit Badge
system and got Eagle Scout, which was quite an achievement.
B.W.: Yes it was. Did you have siblings?
L.F.O.: Siblings?
B.W.: Yes.
L.F.O.: No. No, only child.
B.W.: So you were the only child?
L.F.O.: Which is a part of my persona.
B.W.: Now tell me this, did your parents have academic expectations for you, and, if so,
how did they make them manifest to you?
L.F.O.: My father was sort of contemptuous of my intellect really. He was a very smart
guy and I always thought he looked down his nose at me and what I read, what I thought, and
what I did in school. I wasn’t an all-“A” kind of guy. I was an “A” and “B” guy. My mother was
supportive with a few lessons.
B.W.: Well, did your father think that the schools in Birmingham were not as good as
the schools he’d attended in Charlottesville?
L.F.O.: I’m sure he did.
B.W.: Was he just an all-“A” student up in Charlottesville?
B.W.: Yes.
B.W.: Obviously you did very well in school. I saw where you had skipped a grade or
two. (laughter)
L.F.O.: Which was probably a mistake.
B.W.: Why do you say it was a mistake?
L.F.O.: Well I went to college at sixteen. I wasn’t ready for college, and I struggled my
first semester.
B.W.: Why did your parents encourage you to skip the grades?
L.F.O.: I don’t know, I’m not sure they did.
B.W.: What about socially, if you were a senior at sixteen there would have been some
boys and girls in your class who where eighteen when they had graduated from high school?
L.F.O.: Well my social life was around Sunday school and I was thinking the other night
about that. Our social activity was that we would get together, go to one of the groups’ house and
play Twenty One. We couldn’t drive, so our parents had to deliver us there. I think I was
allowed, because you could drive at age sixteen, but I was out of town.
B.W.: Did you date while you were in high school?
L.F.O.: That’s another thing. In the South at that time, the Jewish families in Atlanta,
Montgomery, Birmingham, and New Orleans had events—the dance thing. In Birmingham, I
think it was called a Jubilee. Contemporaries from Atlanta, Montgomery, New Orleans would
come to Birmingham for the Jubilee. We would go to Montgomery. They had what was called
the Falcon, and I forget where it was in the town. That was our mixed social life.
B.W.: Sure. But there must have been girls that you saw that you liked?
L.F.O.: One of them I married.
B.W.: Well, there you go. Did you like her even then?
L.F.O.: No.
B.W.: Did she pay any attention to you at all?
L.F.O.: No.
B.W.: Was it your mother who graduated from Vassar?
L.F.O.: She didn’t graduate; she went there for two years.
B.W.: For two years, okay, but your mother had been to Vassar. Your father UVA
undergrad and to the law school. Was there ever any question you would go to college?
L.F.O.: Oh no, no. I think there was a story certainly in that other interview about how it
was assumed that I would go to University of Virginia and go into his law firm.
B.W.: Yes.
L.F.O.: Until my mother discovered in my preteens or early teens that at the University of
Virginia they drank whiskey.
B.W.: Yes. Now, my recollection of Dartmouth, of course I went a little after you, was
they drank a little bit of everything up there. If they did in my time, I suspect they may have in
your time as well. (laughter)
L.F.O.: More than that. (laughter) She just didn’t know anything about Dartmouth.
B.W.: Now you clearly had some interest in Dartmouth; you met Dick Herman, you met
Dreyfoos, and was there any other connection with Dartmouth?
L.F.O.: I had a friend at camp by the name of Al Eiseman E-I-S-E-M-A-N. We lived in
the same bunk and I remember he was very active in Dramatics, and I had some role in that. His
father had gone to Dartmouth and he was headed for Dartmouth. I heard about it from him. He
was contemporary minded.
B.W.: Okay, so, where was he from?
L.F.O.: New York City.
B.W.: I see, and which camp was this?
L.F.O.: The camp in Maine.
B.W.: And so at some point you talked it over with your father, and I understand why
your mother would prefer Dartmouth over the University of Virginia. What was your father’s
thought about it?
L.F.O.: I don’t think he had any problem.
B.W.: I had some other questions I wanted to ask you, we’ll stop it at 4:00 o’clock or
anytime you say.
L.F.O.: 4:00 o’clock will be fine.
B.W.: I think you ran for president of your senior class in high school, is that right?
L.F.O.: I may have been president, I’m not sure.
B.W.: Well you had to have run before you made it. (laughter)
L.F.O.: Okay.
B.W.: Was that something you wanted to do?
L.F.O.: It just happened.
B.W.: It just happened, okay. Do you recall your opponent or the making of a speech or
anything like that?
L.F.O.: I’m not sure there was one.
B.W.: You grew up in the Depression, and you would have been 11 years old in 1930. Is
there anything, any personality traits, any impact on you, that are a result of growing up around
the Depression?
L.F.O.: Talking about the Depression?
B.W.: Yes.
L.F.O.: Absolutely. I have a responsibility for a certain amount of money, and I have an
investment advisor. I keep telling him that I am a child of the Depression and I remember when
the stock market went down. I remember the Bank Holiday, (unintelligible) as my dad had gotten
a fee of $100 just before the banks were closed. And that was the only money in the
neighborhood and they were handing out $5 to this guy. That was an awful time, and it is burned
into my persona.
B.W.: I read in the obituary of your father that bankruptcy was one of the areas in which
he practiced for many years. He obviously was keenly aware of the financial issues.
L.F.O.: Oh yes. We had the Depression and I can remember listening to Roosevelt and all
of them on the radio at night. We were very enthusiastic about him and what was I, 13 years old?
In our household, our dinner table was quite animated with discussion about the Depression and
the Administration, and Hoover, and Roosevelt.
B.W.: Right. I suspect your father held some strong views.
L.F.O.: Well yeah, my mother did, too, and she didn’t mind expressing them—certainly in
the house for sure. She was also well read in current things. There was a group, I don’t know
whether I referred to this in the earlier dialog or not, but I should have. It was called the Sunday
Night Crowd. Did I mention that?
B.W.: I don’t think you did.
L.F.O.: A group of their contemporaries. A very sophisticated, well-educated group of
people that started out meeting every Sunday night to discuss books that they read and of course
it got into a social thing and then they were really part of our/my extended family. I called the
man “Uncle” or the woman “Aunt.” They were very cool and very, very sophisticated. At an
early time I was welcome at their dinner and conversation, it was really part of my experience.
B.W.: Yes, yes, I can remember kind of listening to and sitting on the edge of adult
conversations. It’s amazing what a person can learn if that opportunity is afforded to you. You
mentioned that Sunday Night Crowd as part of a family tradition and you mentioned the Jubilee
and the Falcon and other dances that were part of traditions. Were there other family traditions
that you recall?
L.F.O.: Not really.
B.W.: I read somewhere in here, if I can find it, this book is called A Century of Jewish
Life in Dixie, and the author is [Mark H.] Elovitz. This is a remake of his dissertation, which is a
history of the Jews in Birmingham in 1870.
L.F.O.: I wasn’t in it?
B.W.: No. (laughter) I think there is a mention here, if I can read it, where they talk
about Temple Emanuel. Were your parents members of that?
L.F.O.: I was confirmed there.
B.W.: Yes. And they talked about the Sisterhood of Temple Emanuel.
L.F.O.: Yes, my mother was very active in that. I forgot to mention it.
B.W.: It says, “Mrs. A. L. Oberdorfer, the President.” I’ll just show that to you right
there. I don’t know if you recognize the names of any of the other ladies.
L.F.O.: Oh, yeah, I know all of them. Dr. Morris Newfield was our Rabbi.
B.W.: Yes. And later in some of those sections that I have stickers by, there is a
discussion of your father. The obituary that appeared in the paper upon his death, as presented,
and they discuss that there were a couple of other members of the Synagogue, in addition to your
father, that are recognized. I think a Mr. Joseph who was a businessman and a Rabbi as well.
Did you attend service regularly?
L.F.O.: I think in Sunday school we were supposed to be there every Saturday.
B.W.: Yes.
L.F.O.: I don’t know whether I was or not.
B.W.: Yes.
L.F.O.: He always made a fuss about it.
B.W.: Yes. And I think your father was on the board there as well.
L.F.O.: Yeah, but very, very passive.
B.W.: When you say your father was passive, what do you mean?
L.F.O.: He was not, he was a realist, he didn’t get as religious.
B.W.: No? And, how did your mother feel about religion?
L.F.O.: About what?
B.W.: About religion. You said your father was a realist.
L.F.O.: Well, she was sort of involved, but it was not a big issue or the subject of much
B.W.: Alright. In another section of this book it talks about the Klan in Birmingham in
the 1920s. I’ll just read to you this one author’s opinion. He said, “By 1927, conscionable
Birmingham came to realize they were dangerously close to being swallowed entirely by zealots
and bigots. The Chamber of Commerce, the Jaycees, the newspapers and the bar association
under the presidency of Leo Oberdorfer in 1928-29 fought the Klan.”
L.F.O.: You read that to me once.
B.W.: Yes, I did, I was just reading it. (laughter) I think it was before we went off the
tape. It said, “They achieved their convention against the Klan in the celebrated Jeff Calloway
case in June 1927, and this plus the advent of the Great Depression served to rupture the decadelong Klan domination of Birmingham.” Do you recall talking about the Klan at all with your
L.F.O.: Well, you know my father and Hugo Black were very close personal friends?
B.W.: I was getting there eventually, yes sir. (laughter)
L.F.O.: It started when Black came to town. My dad when he first came to Birmingham
wrote a book, I’ve got a copy of it, Alabama Justices’ Practice, a handbook, not just a handbook
but a very good practice book for practice before the Justices of the Peace.
[End of Tape 1, Side B]