Pauli Murray Center to host 10th anniversary pilgrimage through the streets of Durham

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Jun 22, 2022

The Rev. Pauli Murray the first Black woman ordained an Episcopal priest. Photo courtesy Carolina Digital Library and Archives/University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

[Episcopal News Service] The Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice is celebrating its 10th anniversary by inviting pilgrims to retrace the footsteps of the Black, Episcopal icon through the streets of Durham, North Carolina, where they grew up.

“In walking this path, you see the freeway that cuts into the African American section of Durham. You see the working-class neighborhood where Pauli Murry grew up, now being gentrified,” Callie Swaim-Fox, 23, a fellow at the center serving through Johnson Service Corps, a local affiliate of the Episcopal Service Corps, recently told Episcopal News Service.

“Pauli writes about what it was like to walk through white neighborhoods, to go to the segregated high school, and how it made her think about racism, segregation and classism.”

The June 25 “Walk + Reflect” 4.5-mile self-guided pilgrimage begins and ends at the center, located in Murray’s restored childhood home in Durham’s historically Black West End neighborhood.

“We’ll start here, at her home, and then go to her former high school, Hillside, and then to the church she and her family attended, St. Titus Episcopal Church,” Swaim-Fox said. “We will also go to the library, Stanford L. Warren. It was originally called the Durham Colored Library.”

As early as the 1940s, Murray—a civil rights and feminist activist and the first Black (perceived) woman ordained an Episcopal priest—challenged segregation, sex discrimination and gender norms. Born Anna Pauline Murray in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1910, they moved to Durham at age 4 to live with an aunt after their mother died and their father became incapacitated. After graduating from the segregated Hillside High School at 16, Murray was refused admittance to Columbia University in New York and instead attended Hunter College.

After graduation from Hunter, Murray shortened their name to “Pauli” to embrace a more androgynous identity (ENS is using they/their pronouns to refer to Murray except in direct quotations). From there, Murry went on to study law at Howard University, where they were the only woman and graduated first in the class of 1944. Murray was the first African American to earn a doctor of the science of laws from Yale University Law School. They were a co-founder of the National Organization for Women and the Congress of Racial Equality.

As a lawyer, Murray argued against “Jane Crow,” in recognition of their struggle against both racial segregation and gender discrimination. In 1940, Murray was arrested for disorderly conduct for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Petersburg, Virginia, 15 years before Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama. Murray also organized restaurant and lunch counter sit-ins in Washington, D.C., 20 years before the famed Greensboro, North Carolina, protests.

Former NAACP President and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall called Murray’s book, “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” the bible of the civil rights movement. Another future Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, named Murray as coauthor of a brief on the 1971 case Reed v. Reed, in recognition of their pioneering work on gender discrimination.

“So much of Pauli Murray’s experience, work, identifies with so many different communities. We feel it’s incumbent upon us to be responsible to be accountable to some of those communities,” said Barbara Lau, the center’s executive director.

Visitors to the center, founded in 2012, and Murray’s ubiquitous life, inspired the in-person anniversary pilgrimage. “We noticed a lot of people have reached out to us or have on their own, planned pilgrimage events related to the center. It got us thinking about it,” Lau said.

“We think of Pauli Murray’s life as a bit of a pilgrimage; she was constantly on the move. She lived at 50 different addresses in her lifetime; in some sense, Pauli was answering calls throughout her life in different arenas. It’s the kind of thing that makes sense if you want to lift up, not just her story, but her legacy. We hope people will meet each other, walk near each other, get to know each other.”

Aleta Payne, a member of the center’s faith task force that helped plan the pilgrimages, said Murray’s achievements continue to inspire others. “There’s always more to be learned about Pauli Murray. Especially when you look at the timeline of her life, and the challenges she faced and the way, time and time again, she stood up to them, whether it was a societal issue, or a church issue, it’s deeply transformational.”

“She was a brilliant, gifted visionary,” added Payne, senior associate editor at Faith and Leadership at Duke Divinity School.

“When I feel tired and overwhelmed, as a Black, female Episcopalian who recognizes the places that my chosen denomination has sometimes come up short, I think well, Pauli Murray would be like, ‘get up and get moving. Use the good sense God has given you and the opportunities presented to you, and make some change,’” Payne said.

Swaim-Fox agreed. “Pauli Murray’s spirit is so strong. It was, throughout their life, and it still is now, despite all the obstacles she pushed through and created these beautiful things. All the joy and light in their life and inspiration from their family and love found in their partner, all of those things made them who they were, and they were always searching for how to be whole in the world. I don’t know that they figured it all out, but they found a way to be themself and to live fully, and that provides a lot of inspiration for me,” she said.

“At this time in my life, I feel a lot of pressure about what to do, to have a career,” Swaim-Fox said. “Pauli Murray had three careers and a million different callings. She had an opportunity come up and she took it, and it reminds me that I don’t have to have everything figured out right away, to trust I will be led to where I need to be led and that I can do many different things for the same purpose and calling and that gives me a lot of hope. I feel like I walk with Pauli and Pauli walks with me.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for ENS, based in Los Angeles.