Pauli Murray: Historic change agent for women, blacks

Pauli Murray was an attorney, professor, author, and the first black woman to be a priest in the Episcopal Church. To raise her profile, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named her house a national treasure.

She was an activist for minorities and women, an attorney, professor, author and eventually, the first black woman to be a priest in the Episcopal Church. She influenced some of this country's great minds, including a Supreme Court justice.

Yet Pauli Murray's prominence has ebbed and flowed with the times, partially because she didn't align herself with one issue. Now that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named her house a national treasure, those who work in her name hope that Murray's life will once again come to the forefront of history and stay there.

"She kept trying to find an organization where she could show up as a whole person," said Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project at the Duke Human Rights Center.

Murray didn't want to choose among improving the lives of women, or blacks or workers — she tried to help them all, Lau said.

Murray had every reason to fight for all people — the descendant of slaves and slave holders was rejected at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where her great-great-grandfather had been a trustee and from Harvard because of her sex.

Her maternal grandfather, Robert Fitzgerald, built the house in 1898, and he and his wife, Cornelia, raised Murray there. The six-room house, considered relatively large for the neighborhood in its day, now needs about $450,000 to get it ready for visitors, Lau said.

The hope is to start the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in the house and perhaps on property beside it, Lau said. The house is the 56th active property for the trust, which has completed 10 projects.

The designation as a national treasure doesn't include money, but it does include staff time from the trust and a level of prestige that can attract donors.

The trust has worked on locations such as Ellis island and Union Station in Washington, D.C. "But it's just as important to save the places that don't look like national landmarks," said John Hildreth, eastern regional vice President for field services for the trust.

"This house, you would see many like it in North Carolina, But what happened there is important and who it's associated with is important and frankly, not very well known. I don't think Pauli Murray is recognized as a historical figure and a person of importance. This is a way to not only promote that story but preserve a place associated with her."

Murray was one of the leaders in arguing that the constitutional right to equal protection should apply to women, along with minorities. "Pauli Murray is the person that begins to say, race is something you can't change, and gender, you're born with it, it's not something you choose," Lau said. "So you can use that same kind of reasoning to fight for women's rights."

For all her very public work, Murray was forced to keep her private life hidden from most. She had a long-term relationship with a woman, Irene Barlow, and the two are buried under the same headstone in a New York cemetery.

In her brief for Reed v. Reed, a landmark equal protection case that bids gender-based discrimination, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg names Murray as one of two co-authors, even though they didn't contribute directly to the brief. Ginsburg has explained in interviews that the symbolic gesture was meant to recognize two pioneers who fought for women.

In a 2011 essay, Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, described Murray as a friend and mentor "who would not be going about business as so many of us are today when the foundation of our community's house is crumbling."

Her FBI file shows that Murray lived at more than 50 addresses; yet the project has more than 2,500 folders of material in her archives that Murray packed up and moved to each new residence. "Somewhere, she got that what she was pushing for was important and that at some point, people" would want to know about her, Lau said.

But that didn't happen in her lifetime. "We weren't ready for her," Lau said. "And neither was the world, unfortunately."




Martha Waggoner can be reached at

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