Pauli Murray - Before Her Time

Feb 11, 2011

Pauli Murray mural in downtown Durham
Credit Face Up Project, Center for Documentary Studie

There are murals of a woman in downtown Durham who was obscure to the population until just about a year ago. Her name is Pauli Murray. Murray was raised in Durham and went on to become a civil rights leader, co-founder of the National Organization for Women and the first African American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest. Durham residents have been celebrating the 100th anniversary of Murray’s birth. There is a Pauli Murray Project at Duke University named for her and even a play in her honor. 

Anna Pauline Murry or Pauli Murray for short – would be 100 years old if she were alive today. In many ways she’s been re-born in the minds of scholars, school children and everyday Durham residents.

Stephanie Yarborough Davis lives in Durham and is Murray’s distant cousin.

"Actually I remember when I got, may be I was six, I started hearing a bout this book – “Proud Shoes.” Oh, there’s a family member who has written a book you have to read it.  Heard about it all my life. Did not read it, until I was about 25 and then I met her, she was something else."

Murray’s book “Proud Shoes” was first published in 1956.

Murray was born in Baltimore but was brought to live with her Durham relatives after the sudden death of her mother. She was raised in a home of several adults – proud adults - as she recalls in this 1973 interview archived by UNC’s Southern Oral History Program.

"In my house I always heard about the race, you can’t keep this race down.  This race is going to show the world yet. The race, the race. I called my aunts race women. There was this sense of loyalty and dedication to the advancement of the race."

Still there was tension because of Murray’s mixed ancestry. She had white great-grand-parents on both sides of her family.

Murray’s up-bringing may have played a role in her being decades ahead of her time. Her fight for the rights of blacks and women started well before Rosa Parks took her seat on a Montgomery bus and before Martin Luther King Junior announced his dreams to the world.

"Where as Pauli Murray was born 100 years ago and grew up in Durham, NC as a part of a prominent African American family.”

Farad Ali is a Durham City Councilman. He read the city’s Pauli Murray Day proclamation at a 100th birthday celebration in her honor late last year at Lyon Park Community center. It’s walking distance from where Murray grew up.

"And Whereas Pauli Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” in recognition of the inter-related discrimination faced by women and people of color and was one of the founders of the National Organization for Women."

Pauli Murry’s life was full of firsts and onlys.  She graduated with honors from Hillside High School in Durham and went on to New York where she was one of four blacks in her graduating class at Hunter College.  Murray was a protégé of late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall – and with his guidance became the first woman to graduate from Howard University’s Law School.

But Murray’s first choice for graduate school was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received a rejection letter dated December 14, 1938 that read: “Under the Laws of North Carolina and under the resolutions of the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina, members of your race are not admitted to the University.”

"One of the things that I particularly value about Ms. Murray was that she had a divine dissatisfaction with the world."

Lynden Harris is the director of Hidden Voices and wrote the play – “To Buy the Sun – The Challenge of Pauli Murray.”

"And so, through her life she was constantly shocked at the fact that the world was not what it should be. There was this great line in Proud Shoes – where she says, I out-ran death this morning. And I feel like today we’re joining her in that journey in which she outruns death because we’re keeping her memory and her example alive. So, thank ya’ll."

Brie Nash:  "My name is Brie Nash. I am a senior at UNC majoring in Communication Studies and I play Pauli Murray."

Nash studied Murray in her Black Women’s History class at Carolina and jumped at the chance to portray Murray in “To Buy the Sun.”

Brie Nash:  "The one line that I always come back to that has become kind of my motto in life now is, exceptional ability is nothing more than persistent endeavor. That’s probably one of my most favorite lines. It just says so much about her, says so much about success in life and I love it, I keep it with me in my back pocket, at all times."

The production has played to packed houses in Durham and Carrboro. It portrays her life as what some call a “one woman civil rights movement.”  And it includes the struggle with her sexual identity.

This Sunday – “To Buy the Sun” will be performed at Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill to a sold-out crowd.  It’s the same church where Murray’s maternal grandmother was baptized as a slave.

And it’s the same church where Murray performed her fist communion after being ordained as the first African American woman Episcopal Priest.

A performance is set for next Friday at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hillsborough. More performances are in the works.