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"Pauli's Power": How One Black Woman Changed America For The Better

There are several murals of Pauli Murray on buildings in downtown Durham, NC
Courtesy of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice

Learn more about the effort to rename a building on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill for Pauli Murray on this episode of WUNC's podcast Tested.  

If you drive around downtown Durham, North Carolina, there are several reminders that a Black woman named Anna Pauline Murray lived here. A decade ago, at the corner of Carroll and West Chapel Hill streets, a North Carolina Historical Highway Marker was erected in "Pauli" Murray's name. 

But a marker could never do justice to someone as influential as Pauli Murray: a civil rights activist, a lawyer, a poet, a priest, a powerhouse for change.

Who we honor in America – and especially in the South – is an ongoing national conversation. Statues can come down. Building names can change. But there's no template for how these decisions should be made or whose memorial can stand the test of time.

Credit Jeanette Stokes
This North Carolina Historic Highway Marker was unveiled near Pauli Murray's childhood home in Durham, 2011.

In this moment, there's a general Confederates-bad- civil-rights-leaders-good kind of approach. Even still, deep thought about how the people who pushed our society toward progress might react to having their name on a monument is rarely considered. And that’s because we don’t do a great job of giving folks their due while they’re still with us.

Karen Ross is Murray's great niece. She said at the marker celebration, it felt good for Murray to finally get her due respect.

"It's been almost 30 years since she's died and nobody has given her the real recognition that she deserves," said Ross. "She's been the first at so many things. Trailblazer with occupy sit-ins, just the first at so many things and we have really kind of ignored her existence."

With Murray, there’s a lot to respect. She was an activist, a lawyer, a beautiful writer, and the first African American woman Episcopal priest who was sainted by the church.

Murray's legal writings helped lay the foundation for giants of our justice system like Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was good friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. Langston Hughes, too. And she worked alongside feminist icon Betty Friedan to help start NOW, the National Organization for Women.

Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC
Pauli Murray's childhood home in Durham, North Carolina, is being transformed into the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice.

In Durham, there is a cult-like following of fans and supporters. Rainbow-hued murals of her face adorn downtown. And a few years after the historic highway marker was placed, renovation began on Murray's childhood home.

Barbara Lau is executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice.

"This is a time for Pauli Murray's vision to come shining through and to help lead us into the places we want to go, which unfortunately, we don't always feel like we're getting there," said Lau, who is leading the effort to turn Murray's childhood home into a place for people to come and learn more about "Pauli's" life.

"We're not honoring the dignity of other people," she said. "We're not working together. We're not trying to find the ways we're connected. So, I think that makes pulling Murray's vision even more valuable today."

Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC
Barbara Lau is the executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice. She participated in a socially-distanced birthday celebration for Murray on Nov. 21, 2020.

In 2016, the two-story wood-framed house became a National Historic Landmark. The following year, there was a public celebration for the designation. It was a memorable day, with poetry for the poet.

"Brave brain and a bright brown heart. With a DC start and a Durham education," read Alexis Pauline Gumbs, a Pauli Murray admirer, whose middle name is "Pauline" for a reason.

Gumbs is a fellow with the National Humanities Center and a Black feminist scholar who channels Murray through her work.

"Brown girl dreams from generations of Paulines turned tomboy steam, office boy gleam and grandpa's shining shoes," read Gumbs. "Crushed, clinched heart for the over-smart, for a season's start to repair. Boyish art and impish chart of shorter and shorter hair."

So, there are books and poems written about her life, a highway marker with her name on it and her home is a historic landmark. Not exactly an unsung hero, but how could a pioneer like Pauli Murray not be a household name? Are there more appropriate and deserved tributes for someone with such a resonant influence?

To answer that, we really need to know more about the person behind the progressive policies – how Pauli came to be brilliant, bold and brave enough to push for change. She passed in 1985, but luckily she wrote a lot and gave interviews, including one recorded in 1976 with the Southern Oral History Program at UNC Chapel Hill.

"We must accept the challenge of our existence. Our existence being that of a rejected, unwanted, persecuted minority and that in a sense, we cannot accept this," said Murray. "We must make our contribution to history."

Murray's Early Years

Murray was unapologetically Black before it was a thing. She was born in Baltimore but her Southern upbringing helped shape her identity, too. The pronouns often used to describe Murray are "she and her," because she always publicly identified as a woman. But in private, Murray was known to express a fluid gender identity. When her home was named a National Historic Landmark in 2016, it was the first in the country to focus on Women’s and LGBTQ history.

Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC
In 2017, there was a celebration at Pauli Murray's childhood home in Durham, recognizing the site as a National Historic Landmark. Stephanie Davis is one of Murray's distant cousins.

Black. Southern. Gender queer. All of these many identities fueled Murray's personal mission. She spent her whole life fighting for justice and dismantling systems of white supremacy that tried to bring her down.

"I hope that I will continue to do what I have tried to do most of my life and that is, when there was a principle which I felt I ought to act on, I did not stand in fear of consequences," Murray said. 

To better understand Murray, one needs to know about an experience that was formative in her development as an activist, according to William Sturkey, a history professor at UNC Chapel Hill.

"Pauli Murray is really an incredible figure whose scholarship really stood up 50, 60 years, even though Pauli Murray was also, you know, just a person of their times," said Sturkey.

A group of professors at the university want to remove the name of a white supremacist historian from a building on campus and there is a faculty recommendation to re-name the building in honor of Pauli Murray. Part of the reason why they want to re-name it for Murray is because back in 1938, when she was 28 years old, Murray applied to UNC for graduate school.

"And she tried to enter the social sciences graduate program. We're all social sciences here in history, poly science, sociology," said Sturkey. "But this is basically the home of where Pauli Murray would have gone to graduate school."

Murray continues the story, recorded by UNC's Southern Oral History Program.

"In 1938 when I applied to the University of North Carolina, this was met with consternation by my family, my immediate family, primarily becasue they were afraid that they would be lynched, or that the house would burn down," said Murray. "I think it was real fear, not disagreement with me on principle."

Murray continued: "Wouldn't it make great sense to come home and commute to the University of North Carolina and get a graduate degree at the University of North Carolina, either in social science or in law and that would allow me to fulfill my family responsibilities in Durham."

Murray's Fight Against Segregation at UNC

Historian Glenda Gilmore chronicled Pauli's fight against segregation at UNC in her book Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950. She said Pauli wanted to attend UNC's sociology program because it was known for studying the "race problem."

"She was working in New York, but always saw herself as a North Carolinian," said Gilmore. "And she wanted to come back to North Carolina and find ways to challenge segregation."

But in 1938, universities across the South were, of course, segregated. Nevertheless, Murray believed she had strong grounds to be admitted to UNC because of her family history. She was a descendant of a Trustee from the school's early history. In 1843, this Trustee’s son raped Murray's enslaved great-grandmother, Harriet.

So nearly a century later, Pauli sought retribution through enrollment to UNC.

"They sent me an application blank and they had written into the printed application blank, race and religion," said Murray. "This has been typed in so that it stands out apart from the normal form. I think I answered it but may have said, 'But what difference does it make?' Obviously tongue in cheek."

Gilmore said, "They said, 'members of your race are not admitted to the university.' That was it. There was no attempt to cover that up at all. She knew from the start, that she would fight this."

The rejection didn't come as a shock at all to Murray. But she felt she had some grounds to challenge it. Just days before UNC rejected her, the Supreme Court made an important ruling in favor of a Black student in Missouri, who sued the state university for rejecting his application to its all-white law school.

Murray was aware of the ruling. She argued her case in letters, back and forth with the UNC president, and eventually went to the press to launch her attack.

"And it suddenly burst out over the radio, you know, and came to be sort of national news. But it was this 'unidentified Negress'," Murray laughed. "It's in the headlines, an 'unidentified Negress makes application to the University of North Carolina."

Gilmore says being turned down by UNC affected Murray for years.

"She went back and wrote little notes toward the end of her life on those newspaper clippings that she kept," said Gilmore. "They had headlines like 'Colored Girl Applies To University' and in the corner that she wrote 'colored girl.' Did it hurt? Yes."

Murray persisted, even without the help of the NAACP. They said her case wasn't strong enough because when she applied, she was a resident of New York and not North Carolina. But Murray soon found out there was something else going on.

"I then got the shock of my life," said Murray. "I learned that the NAACP very carefully picks its cases in these days, they had to win every case. (NAACP said) We have to be very careful of the people that we select. They have to be Simon-pure and you are not quite Simon-pure enough."

Murray said she was too "maverick." And the NAACP did not think women were the best plaintiffs. And there was another issue.

"I think a lot of people by this time, knew two things about Pauli Murray that would sink her at various times in her life," said Gilmore. "One, is that she was gay, and the second was that she had had a very brief membership in a Communist Party offshoot."

But mostly, Gilmore says they just didn't like Murray.

Despite her hard work, Murray was never accepted to UNC. But the rejection didn’t set her back. A few years later, Murray would attend Howard University Law School and build a career as a legal scholar. Her legal writings would go on to help the NAACP dismantle segregation by winning Brown v Board of Education, and aid Ruth Bader Ginsburg in achieving gender equality through the courts. 

In the end, UNC's rejection was just a blip on her timeline, but it wouldn't be the last time Murray and the university crossed paths.

Decades Later, UNC Offers An Honorary Degree

In 1978, 40 years after the school rejected her, UNC made a move to try and make things right. Murray received another letter from the University, quite the opposite of a rejection. This one said the school wanted to give her an honorary degree in respect of all her achievements. 

By this time, Murray had been a social justice activist, civil rights lawyer, and the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. This apology in the form of an honorary degree was long overdue. But it wasn’t enough to make amends.

At first, Murray was actually excited to receive the offer. To her, it was a way to help mend the wounds of her family tree. 

"It was a symbol of acceptance, stretching back to my grandmother, Cornelia, and her relationship to the Chapel Hill Smiths, whose position as benefactors of the university, from which I was excluded, had intensified my feeling of being disinherited," said Gilmore, reciting from Murray's memoir.

Despite her initial excitement, it was Murray's turn to reject UNC. She turned down the school’s offer. A few weeks after receiving the letter, she learned about UNC's lawsuit with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The agency was suing the university because it said UNC wasn’t doing enough to desegregate the university school system.

So what would Pauli Murray think about Pauli Murray Hall -- having an academic building at UNC named for her at a place she had, a "complicated" relationship with?

"I mean, I don't think Pauli Murray was doing any of this stuff to try to get a name on a building," said Gumbs, the Black feminist scholar who shares a name with the civil rights hero. "However, the fact that Pauli Murray knew that the University of North Carolina was created by Pauli's own ancestors, white enslaving ancestors, and was the premier public institution of learning in North Carolina at that time...there is a way that Pauli Murray understood a claim to that space."

Gumbs said putting a name on a building doesn't necessarily mean that what's going on in the departments in that building are actually really honoring the complexity of Pauli Murray.

"There could be an argument made that UNC hasn't yet earned the right to wear the sacred name of Pauli Murray," said Gumbs. "The visionary faculty at UNC have said this would honor us walking by this, instead of thinking about slavery. I think that's good."

There is not an official process at UNC for permanently renaming buildings on campus, so it could be a while before we see a Pauli Murray Hall. But awareness of Pauli’s legacy grows more by the day.

"I feel as fully an American as anyone else, this is my country, nobody will rob me of my birthright. I have as much right to speak as an American as anyone else." Murray said.

This is the first in a series of deeper examinations of Pauli Murray's fascinating life. Tune in to our podcast feed for Pauli - a special project that explores the power of one person to improve life for women, Black people and other marginalized communities.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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