By Quinton Harper
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham Voice
Anna Pauline, aka “Pauli” Murray, is an important person in American history with roots right here in Durham.
She was a poet, scholar, lawyer and civil rights activist, feminist and the first African-American female priest ordained by the Protestant Episcopal Church.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs ‘thanks Pauli’ every time she passes the mural painted on the building at the corner of Carroll and West Chapel Hill streets in Southwest Central Durham.
The narrow-nosed, kinky-haired, sharp-jawed woman painted in bursts of bright colors above Alexis is her “shero.” Alexis idolizes her.
Murray paved the way for Black women like Alexis to attend collegiate institutions that did not previously admit women or African-Americans.
“I know for a fact, the things that I do, and have done are things that are easier to do because she did those things,” said Gumbs.
Murray graduated from Hillside High School in 1926 as valedictorian of her senior class, and was at the top of her law school class at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She taught at several universities and was even vice-president of Benedict College in Columbia, S.C.
However, en route to academic achievement, Pauli Murray faced numerous roadblocks. But she was not deterred.
Murray was the only woman in her Howard Law School class. In 1938, UNC-Chapel Hill denied her admission because of her gender. Harvard Law School followed suit in 1944 and denied Pauli enrollment despite the fact that she earned a full scholarship and had a letter of recommendation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
More than twenty years later, in 1965, the resilient and determined Murray became the first African-American to receive a Doctor of Law degree from Yale in New Haven, Conn.
“She would want people to test boundaries and to not believe that just because a certain boundary exists that it should exist,” Gumbs said.
“She would want people to fight back all the time in every way they can. She would want people coming together around their commonalties, and working together for the greater good.”
As a civil rights activist and a vanguard for racial equality, Murray did fight back. Her work paved the way and tested boundaries for Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders to follow.
Murray was arrested and jailed in Virginia for protesting segregation on buses 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.
More than 15 years before the Royal Ice Cream Company sit-in, which happened right here in Durham in 1957, and nearly two decades before four N.C. A & T students staged the Greensboro sit-in at Woolworth, Murray, then a student at Howard, participated in restaurant and cafeteria sit-ins to desegregate public facilities in Washingon, D.C.
In 1951, Murray wrote “States’ Laws on Race and Color.” Thurgood Marshall called Murray’s legal text the “bible” for the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, which declared separate as unequal and legally desegregated public schools.
Barbara Lau is the director of the Pauli Murray Project, a collaborative of the Duke Human Rights Center. She says her job is to bring Durham’s diverse community of people together to celebrate the life and legacy of Murray and to use Durham’s history to activate social change and address local social justice issues.
Lau’s goal is for Durham to not only be known as the home of tobacco and Duke basketball, but also as the home of Pauli Murray.
“Pauli Murray is someone that everyone can relate to and identify with. She connects in so many ways to so many people,” Lau said.
“Twenty years after her death, we’re finally beginning to catch up to Pauli Murray,” Lau said. “She was talking about things that people weren’t talking about.
“Her whole life was about making that space in the middle – where all of her identities intersected – bigger. Not just for her but for all of us,” Lau said. “When I think about how many times the door was closed in her face and she was told: ‘No you can’t do that because you’re black or no you can’t do that because you’re a woman,’ how do you live through that? Where’s that resilience come from?”
In 1956, Pauli Murray’s book “Proud Shoes: The Story of the American Family” was published. It is a memoir about her grandparents’ struggles against racial prejudice, their interracial marriage and mixed-race heritage, and life here in Durham.
Mayme Webb-Bledsoe is a proud Durham native. She is the neighborhood coordinator for the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs at Duke University and serves on the advisory board for the Pauli Murray Project. She said that when she speaks of Pauli Murray she feels a sense of community and connectedness – like she’s a part of Murray’s family.
Webb-Bledsoe grew up three blocks away from the Fitzgerald house where Pauli was raised, she played in the same streets that Murray wrote about in “Proud Shoes,” and she went to the same elementary school that Murray attended.
“There are a lot of unsung heroes in our community that carried the water that many of us drink from today,” Webb-Bledsoe said. “I had no idea of the significance of her and her life until I was older.
“Pauli Murray is a wonderful example of what you don’t know sometimes about your own neighborhood, and what jewels and pearls exist, that were raised in your own community. We all touch each other’s lives in many ways.”
Like Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Barbara Lau, Webb-Bledsoe is inspired by the determination and drive that Murray had to overcome obstacles and achieve her goals.
“She did not let ‘no’ stop her. Even when the doors closed, she continued to fight,” Webb-Bledsoe said.
In addition to being an author, scholar, lawyer and civil rights activist, Murray was also a feminist. Even within the civil rights movement, Murray fought to make sure that women’s voices were heard.
In 1961, President Kennedy appointed Murray to the President’s Commission on the Status of Women Committee on Civil and Political Rights. In 1966, Murray joined Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” and others as founding members of the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) – the most influential mainstream feminist organization in the country.
Murray eventually split with N.O.W. when she felt like the mostly white middle class mainstream organization didn’t represent women like her.
In 1973, at the age of 62, Pauli Murray went back to school – the General Theological Seminary –and three years later she completed her Master of Divinity degree. In 1977, Murray was ordained by the Protestant Episcopal Church and became the first African-American female Episcopal priest.
Marjorie Diggs Freeman, a retired educator and community activist, completed a patchwork quilt titled “I Speak for the Human Race” to honor the life and legacy of Murray.
Diggs Freeman said that Murray should be a great example to youths in Durham. She hopes that they will be inspired by Murray’s story to believe in themselves and their ability to accomplish whatever they set their minds to do.
“Never let anyone tell you what you can’t do. You set a goal for yourself and be determined to do what you really want to do,” Diggs Freeman said.
“With Pauli Murray, when they said, ‘No you can’t,’ it made her all the more determined to prove to them ‘Oh, but yes I can.’ You have to be determined to do what you really want to do. Let nothing, let no one stop you from achieving that goal. All things are possible.”
According to Barbara Lau, in Durham we have five monuments honoring one very important African-American woman whom we all should be proud of, and who made a lot of things possible for a lot of people.
For that we say: “Thank you, Pauli Murray!”