11/20/2018 0 Comments
On November 20th, 1910 the world got a bit brighter with the arrival of Anna Pauline Murray.
At the age of 13, she became an orphan. Her mother Agnes Murray passed away in 1914, when Pauli was four, due to a cerebral hemorrhage. In 1923 her father, William Murray, was killed by a guard at Crownsville Hospital, where he had been receiving treatment for long-term effects of typhoid fever.
This would be the beginning of Pauli turning tragedy, challenges and difficulties into triumphs that, over time, made her one of the most legendary, inspiring and transformational human beings in modern time.
After the passing of her father, Pauli, who still went by Anna at that time, moved to Durham, North Carolina to live with her aunt Pauline Fitzgerald and her grandparents Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald. Yes, those Fitzgeralds - the Fitzgerald family of brick business and Black Wall Street. Her grandfather Robert was actually the brother who had the idea for the brick business that ended up garnering his brother Richard Burton Fitzgerald the acclaim, success and money.
Education was deeply valued in the Fitzgerald family. Pauli’s father was a Howard graduate and a high school teacher. Her aunt Pauline was an elementary school teacher. Pauli herself graduated from Hillside High School in 1926, with a certificate of distinction, and then went on to have a groundbreaking educational path. She first attended Hunter College in New York, which she worked various jobs to pay for herself. When Wall Street crashed and took the economy with it, Pauli was unable to find work that would allow her to continue on with her classes.
But even the Great Depression was no match for Pauli Murray. This would only be a pause in her education, not the end. And during this pause she went on to do great work for the Work Project Administration, a New Deal program that rebuilt the economy by way of rebuilding America, perhaps this is when her friendship with Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt began. Yes, those Roosevelts. During this time she also was a teacher at New York City Remedial Reading Program and a writer.
And as if rebuilding, educating and enlightening America wasn’t enough during her college break, Pauli also entered her lifelong calling as a Civil Rights activist during this time. In 1938, at the young age of 28, Pauli petitioned to attend the University of North Carolina graduate school despite, or rather in defiance of, their white supremacist policies in place at that time.
Her impressive application rich in qualifications, supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and fortified with a letter of recommendation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt threw UNC President Frank Porter Graham for a loop. The policies were racist, but her application, just like Pauli, refused to be ignored.
Befuddled by the situation, Frank wrote a letter to the state Senate asking for their insight. No surprise, their insight was that special brand of good-ol’-boys club racism and Pauli was not admitted. Thirteen years later in 1951, Floyd McKissick became the first African-American who was accepted to UNC. Pauli’s efforts had clearly put cracks in the glass ceiling for Floyd to break through. Decades later UNC offered Pauli an honorary degree only to be shot down with Pauli’s signature grace and grit. She refused to accept it. Refused.
Pauli Murray had an incurable case of can’t-stop-won’t-stop. In March 1940, Pauli was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of the bus in Virginia, some 15 years before Rosa Parks put her foot down and inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Pauli was always ahead of her time.
The following year she enrolled at her father’s Alma Mater Howard University to follow her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer. She graduated with a degree in law and wanted to further enrich her studies in law at Harvard. She applied and was awarded the prestigious Rosenwald Fellowship, only to be rejected shortly after the award was announces based on gender. She went on to the California Boalt School of Law where she completed her master’s thesis, “The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment.” She would later be a champion in making sure ‘sex’ was included as a protected category in the 1964 Civil Rights act.
During all of this Pauli was building with her prolific writing career. In addition to many articles and poems, Pauli authored several books. In 1951 she wrote “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” which was considered to be the Civil Rights’ lawyer’s Bible at the time. In 1956 she published a Durham treasure, “Proud Shoes - The Story of an American Family.” This book was a biography of the life of her grandparents in Durham.
The list of Pauli Murray’s challenges that gave way to triumphs continues on and on. Pauli was refused to be subjected to the limitations of small minded people. Pauli, who changed her name to be more gender neutral, was a trailblazer for the LBGTQ community in a time where this was completely unheard of. She championed civil rights, broke barriers, defied limitations before other could even think to set them.
In 1977, at the age of 67, Pauli became the first African American Episcopal priest. Adding priesthood to her lengthy list of credentials and accomplishments as a human being - activist, LBGTQ trailblazer, true feminist, poet, novelist, writer, lawyer, priest, Durham legend.
The great Pauli Murray passed away on July 1, 1985, due to cancer, but even death couldn’t stop her triumphs. Her autobiography, originally titled, “Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage” was published in 1987, 2 years after she passed away. Today her childhood home is a National Historic Site - the Pauli Murray Center. It’s a treasure right out in the open in Durham, located at 906 Carroll Street.
There are five Pauli Murray murals throughout Durham, including one on Chapel Hill Street that depicted her alongside Virgen de Guadalupe. This is fitting as Pauli is regarded as a saint in Durham. That mural has incurred some damage since it was completed in 2009 as part of the Face Up: Telling Stories of Community Life Project.
There is so much more to discover about the legendary Pauli Murray. Durham and the nation are better because of her. Find out more at the Pauli Murray Project’s website.