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I met the most amazing person on June 2, and you can meet her too at Pauli Murray: Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest on display at the North Carolina Museum of History now through November 27. Murray was living and teaching intersectionality years before scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw used the term in 1989.
As you walk through the large-format black-and-white photos on the History Museum’s ground floor, I expect you will be as gob-smacked as I was by the accomplishments of this small, determined person. In her relatively short life, despite interminable obstacles, she became a human rights activist, educator, lawyer, author, poet, and Episcopal priest. Although little known by the general public, Murray had pivotal influence on every major human rights movement in the 20th century, including women’s, civil, and LGBTQ rights.
Murray was born in Baltimore, M.D. in 1910. After her mother died of a brain aneurysm, three-year-old Murray was moved to Durham to live with two aunts and her maternal grandparents. Always proud of their large, extended family, Murray called them a United Nations family, including African American, Native American, and White people.
Murray learned to read at an early age by sitting with older children in the classroom where one of her aunts taught. She observed the disparities between the Black and White schools under the “separate but equal” doctrine that held sway in the U.S. from 1896 to 1954. (She would eventually write a paper that led to its overturn.) She was determined to go to integrated schools after graduating high school, and so her aunt moved with her to New York, where she went to Hunter College.
The years that she was at Hunter (1928-1933) coincided with the exciting events of the Harlem Renaissance when she met Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and other artists and thought leaders of the era.
Also during that time, she married a man but had the marriage annulled almost immediately. Murray’s father had been hospitalized for mental illness shortly after their mother’s death, and Murray would experience a number of breakdowns throughout her life, often precipitated by the end of a relationship. Murray struggled to define her own sexuality, and scholars disagree on her orientation.
While lesbianism was never technically illegal in the U.S., all 50 states criminalized same-sex activity until 1962. By 2003, all remaining laws against same-sex sexual activity had been invalidated. Although during her lifetime Murray used she/her pronouns, she also called herself a "she/he personality." Throughout the exhibit, the museum largely used they/them pronouns in reference to Murray to reflect the complexity of her gender identity.
During one of her stays in a mental health facility, Murray told doctors that she was “one of nature’s experiments” and that she felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body. She wrote that she was most drawn to attractive heterosexual females and that she longed for a life of conventional domesticity.
In 1937, she legally changed her name to Pauli over her more feminine birth-name, Pauline, and sought medical and psychiatric gender-affirming treatment, including hormone therapy, and continued to study gender.
After graduating from Hunter, Murray worked for a while as a teacher for the Works Project Administration and as an activist for the Workers Defense League. In 1938, she applied for admission to UNC-Chapel Hill as a graduate student but was denied because of her race – despite the fact that her ancestor had been an original UNC trustee.
Instead of going to UNC, Murray went to Howard Law School, where she was openly discriminated against because of her sex by both students and faculty, one of her teachers asking why a woman would even want to go to law school. At the time, she coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe her experience of being discriminated against because of race and gender.
In 1940, 15 years before Rosa Parks, Murray and others were arrested for protesting unfair bus-seating laws, but the canny Virginia lawmen arrested them for disturbing the peace instead of attempting to segregate.
Throughout the 1940s, Murray worked to improve conditions for Black people. In 1944, she went to University of California, Berkeley, School of Law for an advanced degree after being denied admission to Harvard because of her gender. After graduating from Berkeley and passing the California Bar, she was appointed the state’s first Black deputy attorney general.
She received advanced degrees in English literature, law, and divinity, and wrote essays, books, and papers that influenced and brought her into the company of such luminaries as Thurgood Marshall, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
From 1965 to 1973, she served on the National Board of Directors for the American Civil Liberties Union, and in 1966, along with Betty Friedan and 26 others, founded the National Organization for Women.
Her companion of nearly 20 years, Irene Barlow, died in 1973 while Murray was a tenured professor at Brandeis University, and Murray quit the job to pursue ordination as an Episcopal priest. She said that she felt that all the work she had done in the name of social justice was ultimately of a moral and spiritual nature.
Murray became the first Black female priest ordained by the Episcopal Church. She presided over the Eucharist for the first time on February 13, 1977 at the Chapel of the Cross, in Chapel Hill, where 123 years earlier, her grandmother, Cornelia, had been baptized as a slave.
All of the achievements listed here are just the tip of the iceberg that was Murray’s life.
I asked Jeanne Robinson, another museumgoer, about her response to Murray and the exhibition. She said, “I first knew of Murray as the first Episcopalian woman priest, and then I realized she was so much more. The exhibit presents a really fascinating picture of her. She had so much determination.”
The exhibition shows Murray to be the very definition of self-determinism in photos of her various personae: the Imp, the Dude, the Crusader, the Priest, and the Vagabond. The accompanying legends ask the question: What would you label the different aspects of yourself?
She died in 1985 of pancreatic cancer, a woman far ahead of her time. It seems that in human rights, we are just starting to catch up with her ideas.
Graphics and information about Murray came primarily from the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham.
You can find out more about Murray on the podcast Ridiculous Romance, which has two episodes about Murray ("Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray Pt. 1" and "Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray Pt. 2") and in the excellent documentary My Name is Pauli Murray on Amazon Prime. But the most recommended way to learn more about Murray's life and influence is to visit the NC Museum of History and experience Pauli Murray: Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest yourself.
Pauli Murray: Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest continues through November 27. For more details on this exhibition, please view the sidebar.