"As a historian, attorney, poet, activist, teacher and Episcopal priest, she worked throughout her life to address injustice, to give voice to the unheard, to educate, and to promote reconciliation between races and economic classes."
- The Pauli Murray Project
Duke Human Rights Center
The Life of Pauli Murray
Pauli Murray was the granddaughter of a slave and the great-granddaughter of a slave owner. Born in Baltimore and orphaned at an early age, Pauli Murray was raised on Cameron Street behind Maplewood Cemetery in Durham, North Carolina, by her maternal grandparents and an aunt, in whose first-grade class she learned to read. Two other aunts also took a keen interest in her upbringing. “Having no parents of my own,” she wrote in her poignant memoir Proud Shoes,“I had in effect three mothers, each trying to impress upon me those traits of character expected of a Fitzgerald—stern devotion to duty, capacity for hard work, industry and thrift, and above all honor and courage in all things.”
She graduated at the top of her class from Hillside High School, and with honors from Hunter College in New York, but was denied admission to the University of North Carolina in 1938 because of her race, and to Harvard University because of her gender. These and other experiences spurred her to a life of activism, working to dismantle barriers of race and gender. From sit-ins to integrate Washington, D.C. lunch counters in the 1940s, through her efforts as a founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the early 1970s, Murray took challenges head-on, while generally avoiding the limelight.
After receiving her law degree at Howard University, she later earned a master's degree in law from the University of California at Berkeley, and was a tutor in law at Yale, where she received her doctorate in 1965. Pauli Murray had a distinguished and varied career as a civil rights lawyer, a professor, a college vice president, and deputy attorney general of California. She was named Woman of the Year by Mademoiselle in 1947. Beneath her drive, her will, her achievements, lay “the elusiveness of her self-esteem,” and the fact that she was “not entirely free from the prevalent idea that I must prove myself.” The idea of writing a family memoir began to grow in her shortly after college, “but the struggle to educate myself and to earn a living during the Depression, and then my law studies and practice, kept me from writing for many years.” Encouraged by her literary association with the poet Stephen Vincent Benet, she interrupted her law practice to spend four years researching and writing Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, which was published in 1956.
At age sixty-two, when many people are planning retirement, Pauli Murray entered seminary and embarked upon a new career. In 1977, she was the first black woman in the U.S. to become an Episcopalian priest. In performing her first Holy Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, where her grandmother, a slave, had been baptized, Murray finally believed that “All the strands of my life had come together.”
-North Carolina Writers’ Network