Pauli Murray Center aims to inspire ‘young, future firebrands’

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Jun 13, 2017

[Episcopal News Service] A recent National Park Service historic landmark designation and $237,575 grant has ignited hopes for completion of a project to convert the wood-frame childhood home of Pauli Murray into a social justice center dedicated to the legacy of the early civil rights activist, fiery feminist and the first African-American woman ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church.

Pauli Murray’s childhood home in Durham, North Carolina, will open to the public in 2020 as a center for dialogue, the arts, education and community activism for all people. Photo: Courtesy of the Schlessinger Library at Harvard University

“She was a fiery feminist, an early civil rights advocate, arrested for riding in the white section on buses back in the 1940s, long before the Freedom Riders of the 1960s,” recalled the Rt. Rev. Peter Lee, 79, assisting bishop in the Diocese of North Carolina, during a recent telephone interview.

After Murray’s 1977 ordination, he invited her to preach and celebrate the Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, where he was rector.

“It was where her grandmother was baptized when she was a slave child, in that same parish,” Lee said. “It was amazing, that she carried the Bible her grandmother Cornelia had given her. It rested on a lectern engraved in the memory of the slaveholder who brought her grandmother to baptism.

“You could feel barriers of gender, sex, social class, racism dropping in that moment. It was an electric event.”

Pressed into the pages of that Bible were dried flowers sent by Eleanor Roosevelt when Murray graduated from Howard University. Their friendship is chronicled in a 2016 book, “The Firebrand and the First Lady.” Murray had appealed for assistance to President Franklin D. Roosevelt after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill rejected her application to its law school because of her race and Harvard University rejected her because she was a woman. Eleanor Roosevelt responded with a personal letter.

While Murray is not exactly a “hidden figure” in the church—she was elevated to sainthood in 2012—or in the nation, Lee and others say that the center hopes to share much of her legacy that is either unknown or forgotten.

Pauli Murray’s and Eleanor Roosevelt’s decades-long friendship began when Murray asked Franklin D. Roosevelt for help after she was denied admission to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard University. Eleanor Roosevelt replied personally with a letter. Photo: Courtesy of the Schlessinger Library at Harvard University

Like, staging lunch counter sit-ins in Washington, D.C., in the 1940s; and, helping to develop the legal strategy used to strike down “separate but equal” laws, paving the way for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court-ordered desegregation of the nation’s schools in Brown v. Board of Education.

In awarding the National Historic Landmark designation, the Park Service said Murray was a bridge figure between social movements. Her efforts were critical to retaining “sex” as a protected category in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a legal protection for women against employment discrimination. After decades of work for black civil rights, her vision for a civil rights association for women became the National Organization for Women, or NOW.

A poet, author, educator, lawyer, activist and priest, Murray worked for the NAACP, and also identified with the LGBTQ community, courageously embodying decades ago many human rights issues that remain challenges today and symbolizing hope to those on the margins, the Pauli Murrays today, said Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project at the Duke University Human Rights Center.

“Pauli is a woman of our day,” Lau said. “When she was alive, people weren’t ready for her. Her story teaches us to think about our own experience and value it. Her theories about life really grew from her own experience and, instead of trying to be like everyone else, she taught us it is important to accept who we are and try to build a world in which someone like Pauli Murray could truly live out her potential. That continues to be our work.”

‘Proud Shoes’: Nurturing a new generation of young firebrands

When Murray was targeted during the McCarthy era by the House Un-American Activities Committee, she responded with a 1956 book chronicling her family’s roots in slavery: “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family.”

Pauli Murray was the first African-American woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. In 2012, she was included in the church’s commemorative “Holy Women, Holy Men.” The first Eucharist she celebrated was at the Chapel of the Cross, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where her grandmother, a slave, had been baptized. Photo: Courtesy of the Schlessinger Library at Harvard University

Born in 1910, at about 4 years old, Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray was sent to live with relatives in Durham, North Carolina, after her mother died. Murray’s grandfather, Robert Fitzgerald, a Civil War veteran who fought for the Union Army, oversaw construction of the simple, wood-frame home where she grew up and which is a planned centerpiece for the Pauli Murray Project.

Murray graduated from Hunter College in New York City, and earned a degree at the Howard University School of Law, after being denied admission to both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard University. She later earned advanced degrees in law from the University of California in Berkeley and Yale University. She was affiliated with many social justice organizations and served on President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women.

In 1951, she authored “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” which Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible of Civil Rights law.”

All of which makes the anticipated 2020 opening of the Pauli Murray Center “really important, to make her life and ideas visible on the physical landscape … to bring visibility not only to her story but also to ‘young firebrands, future firebrands’ like her,” Lau said.

Mayme Webb-Bledsoe, the center’s board chair and a local resident, said she grew up hearing Murray’s story in Durham’s west end, a small, segregated African-American community that “fed on itself, with neighborhood stores. We walked to things; we supported one another.”

It is important that Murray’s story be told in the spirit of that community, she said, “and that it’s important for the world to know, the nation to know, others to know” Murray’s legacy of inclusivity, dedication to true community and truth-telling.

The center’s goal is to create “a visitor-ready historic site in 2020, focused on history, arts, education and activism, where learning and thoughtful discussion that advances Pauli’s vision for an inclusive America takes place,” she said.

Inspired by a Duke University community revitalization effort, the Southwest Central Durham Quality of Life Project, the center in April 2017 hosted a homecoming celebration attended by 1,500 people, offered workshops, a walking tour, a photo exhibit, documented oral histories and helped to create a series of murals depicting Murray’s likeness.

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry heralded the effort.

“Pauli Murray was, to paraphrase the late martyr Oscar Romero, ‘a prophet of a future not her own.’ Long before these things could be realized, and often with great pain and personal sacrifice, she courageously followed what St. Paul called the ‘upward call of God in Christ Jesus,’” said Curry, in a statement to ENS.

“As such, she crossed chasms and challenged humanly-created barriers preventing anyone from realizing the fullness of God’s dream for their life, because of their race, their gender, sexual orientation or identity. In that sense, she truly was a bridge person who charted a way beyond socially constructed nightmares connecting us to the very dream of God for us and all creation.”

Webb-Bledsoe said that individuals, corporations and foundations have contributed to the effort to create the center. The funds support the renovation of Murray’s circa 1898 childhood home, and an adjacent property to be used as a welcome center.

“It is important to know that we can now share this space and save it, not just as a moment in time, but to begin to really think of ways we can use her message, her challenges, her strength, to grow and explore new ways of being a part of a community, learning to be good neighbors, helping to be part of helping our new generation to understand where they came from and how they’ve benefitted from it,” Webb-Bledsoe said.

Above all, the center hopes to “allow people to be able to dream and to live that dream because we encourage it, we feed it,” she said. “My hope is that it is going to be useful, to provide tools, allow people an opportunity to engage in something wonderful, a change of life, a change of thinking, to at least be moved, to be provoked to something.”

Honoring Murray’s ‘true community’

The Rev. Brooks Graebner, rector of St. Matthew’s, Hillsborough, North Carolina, said the complexity of Murray’s story has guided his ministry as diocesan historian as the diocese grapples with its racial history.

One of four community murals in Durham, North Carolina, depicting Pauli Murray at various stages in her life. Photo: Courtesy of the Schlessinger Library at Harvard University

Murray’s autobiography, “Song in a Weary Throat” was published posthumously two years after her 1985 death from cancer.

“She was willing to draw strength from all her roots and to chronicle what she called both the dignity and the degradation of her own family past” as a descendant of both slaves and slaveholders, as well as struggling with issues of gender identity, he said.

“Everything she did and what she stands for is to hold out the goal of living in that notion of true community, a community where we meet on grounds of equality, mutuality and reciprocity. Where we are allowed to be ourselves in our own diversities and complexities but at the same time acknowledge others as fellow members of society and the church,” Graebner said.

“She saw herself pulling the disparate strands of American life, culture, disparate strands of her own life and weaving them together.”

A recent profile in the New Yorker magazine sheds more insight into Murray’s life.

The Episcopal Church’s ‘best kept secret’

In July 2016, Lau took Murray’s story to Houston, Texas, for a weekend fundraiser, at the invitation of the Houston-area chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians and Integrity Houston, according to Ayesha Mutope-Johnson, UBE chapter president.

The weekend included panel discussions about race, gender and sexuality issues in the church; a forum about the intersectionality between issues of race and gender; and an original play, written and produced by John Cornwell. The event raised $1,500, Mutope-Johnson said.

She was inspired to organize it after realizing that, although Murray had been included in the Episcopal Church’s “Holy Women, Holy Men” commemorations in 2012, “I had never really heard much about her.”

Afterward, she realized “Murray’s life was this amazing story. She was the best kept secret in the Episcopal Church.”

A playwright and artistic director, Cornwell said he and the cast felt transformed by it and by her life.

“That’s the power of Pauli Murray; she inspires and speaks to people in ways that you suddenly just do things,” he said. “It’s a grace that inspires you and makes it all happen.”

He noted the poignancy of Murray’s struggles, frequent arrests and life on the margins. “Not only was she a woman working hard on women’s rights, but an African-American working hard on the rights of ethnic minorities, and she was also struggling with her own sexual identity. At times, she considered that she must have a mental illness because that’s how society portrayed it.”

While researching her life as background for the play, Cornwell recognized Murray’s struggle led her to the priesthood: that over time she understood true reconciliation couldn’t be achieved by the law solely, but also by touching spirits and hearts. She earned a master of divinity at The General Theological Seminary in New York and served as an Episcopal priest until she was 72, the Church’s mandatory retirement age.

Still, he said, she continued to serve. “She just kept on and kept on … for any of us, one of her challenges might have been enough to shut us down and make us not try, but she just kept going.”

But he added, “What is scary is that there are so many parallels that we are still living through that were occurring in her life 75 to 80 years ago.”

Lau agreed. “I don’t associate her just with civil rights, or just with women’s rights, or just with the faith community, or just with Durham. She operated in the spaces between that weren’t easy to categorize. She helps us navigate the whole 20th century of human rights movements, which makes her amazing.”

The center aims to continue Murray’s legacy, Lau said. “The question is not just talking about how she’s fantastic, but to think about what she calls us to do. She said human rights are indivisible, that if we just work for the rights of one group, we’re not doing our job.

“The other message from her (is) … we’re related by common history, culture, suffering, blood. When are we going to admit we’re related and get on with the business of healing those wounds? We’re not going to heal them until we face the truth.”

She added, “That’s the hard truth of our past, the hard truth of white supremacy, the hard truth of greed and the way the capitalist system has pushed some people to the bottom while raising other people to the top. That’s the hard truth of patriarchy. Like Pauli, we have to face the degradation and the dignity of all the ancestors. That’s the hard truth she asks us to face.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service, based in Los Angeles.


Comments (3)

  1. Don’t miss Pauli Murray’s wonderful autobiography Proud Shoes!

  2. Elizabet Habecker says:

    Thank you Pat for a really beautiful article. I was in seminary with Pauli and feel very blessed to have shared that time with her.

  3. Pickett E. Thomas, Jr. JD says:

    This is History of an African American Woman which should be taught in all schools in the U.S. to encourage all students to pursue their dreams regardless of the obstacles placed in front of them. African American students in particular.

Comments are closed.