March 25, 2015

Childhood Home of Civil Rights Pioneer Pauli Murray Now a National Treasure

Future home of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, 2012.

Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was an accomplished human rights activist, historian, attorney, poet, and teacher who believed in justice, reconciliation, and freedom. “As an American,” she wrote in 1945, “I inherit the magnificent tradition of an endless march toward freedom and toward the dignity of all mankind.”

Mentor to luminaries such as Eleanor Holmes Norton, Marion Wright Edelman, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Pauli Murray referred to this march in a Ms. Magazine interview as a relay race. Today, the goal of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice is to nurture the next generation of Pauli Murrays -- and its new home will be none other than her childhood house.

The great-granddaughter of enslaved people and their owners, Pauli Murray became a consultant to presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy and a lifelong friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to stand, Murray refused to sit in the back of a bus, and 20 years before the Greensboro sit-ins, she organized restaurant sit-downs in Washington, D.C.

She won a Rosenwald Fellowship that allowed her to apply to Harvard Law for graduate work, but was rejected when the school discovered "Pauli" was a woman. She was the first African-American awarded a law doctorate from Yale, and a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Murray was the first African-American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest and in 2012 was named a saint by this denomination. Thurgood Marshall called her book States' Laws on Race and Color “the Bible for civil rights lawyers."

Decades ahead of her time, Pauli Murray not only lived on the edge of history, she seemingly “pulled it along with her.” Despite all of this, she has gone largely unrecognized in part because of her political associations and her lifetime of committed relationships with other women.

Childhood home of Pauli Murray built by her grandfather Robert Fitzgerald, 1910.

The designation of Murray’s childhood home as a National Treasure -- so that it might be restored as the home of Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice -- is a strong step in promoting her legacy. The activist lived at more than 50 addresses during her 74 years, but none is more significant than 906 Carroll Street, Durham North Carolina.

This house was built in 1898 by Murray’s maternal grandfather, Robert George Fitzgerald. In her 1956 memoir Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, she described the home as “a monument to Grandfather’s courage and tenacity” -- a place where her family’s commitment to democracy and education inspired Pauli and set her life on an ambitious course of activism.

The goal of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice is to advance Pauli Murray’s vision at this important historic site. The history of women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community is often lost because of the transitory nature of their lives. Their stories need a safe and welcoming home, much like the one that nurtured Pauli Murray.

To be sure, renovating and maintaining a historic house is a huge responsibility for a small, independent organization. Visitation to historic house museums and many cultural institutions has declined in the past several decades, and the next generation of visitors has shown a particular lack of interest in supporting historic sites with their feet and their wallets. But if not here, where would Pauli Murray’s story be told?

In the U.S., we erect monuments to help us remember people like Pauli Murray and Robert Fitzgerald who have made important contributions to the “greater good.” We continue to tell the stories of their journeys of struggle and triumph. In this vein, the Pauli Murray Center’s educational programming will:

  • include open community dialogues that about the pressing issues of our time and their historical roots;
  • offer residencies for young lawyers, faith leaders, poets and activists;
  • create documentary projects focused on the “lesser known” stories like Pauli Murray’s that shape our future;
  • and promote social justice work that seeks fairness and justice across divisions such as race, class, sexual and gender identity, and spiritual practice that often divide us.

We embrace the transformative power of collecting and telling our stories and our truths as a process that heals these divisions and promotes human rights. And that vision is what turns a humble working-class home such as Pauli Murray’s into a true national treasure.

By: Barbara Lau, Director of the Pauli Murray Project at Duke Human Rights Center

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