Five years of the Pauli Murray Project
It’s been five years since the start of the Pauli Murray Project, which is part of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. The name Pauli Murray is becoming more and more familiar to people, beyond just those who grew up with her in Durham’s West End or knew her work nationally for women’s rights and civil rights, as an attorney and author. She was also the first African-American female Episcopal priest.
Locally, she has been the subject of a historical marker, several talks, a play, poetry and public murals. Two years ago, she was named a saint by The Episcopal Church, which included her in the book “Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints.” She is celebrated on the church calendar every July 1, the date of her death in 1985. This year’s celebration service was again held at St. Titus’ Episcopal Church in Durham.
The Pauli Murray Project has also focused on the future of her childhood home on Carroll Street. The Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice was established as a separate nonprofit last year and is focused on renovation of the 1898 Fitzgerald family home. The city of Durham recently finished work in Maplewood Cemetery near the home to route water runoff through new pipes underground.
Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project, said water runoff that went under the house damaged the foundation, but the pre-war drainage pipes have now been replaced. In the process, Lau said, they found historic bricks. Murray’s mother’s side of the family, the Fitzgeralds, were brickmakers in Durham. Public Works employees staged a lot of the work on the house’s property, which resulted in clearing out, grading and planting grass on an area of land that now reveals the visual lines between the house and cemetery. That helps tell the story, Lau said in an interview this week, and metaphorically the boundary between a black neighborhood and a white cemetery.
The next step for the Murray center is bidding out work of stabilizing four chimneys. Lau said she sees the restoration of the house and the opening of the center as a 10-year plan that also involves a community-based master plan development and capital campaign.
Another aspect of Murray’s legacy was being part of the LGBT community, but not openly during her lifetime because of issues of safety and security, Lau said.
“For her entire life, she had to be completely self-supporting. She lived on what she earned,” Lau said. There were huge risks being in same-gender relationships, she said. “People lost jobs, people lost places to live, people lost their lives because they were in some way public about those relationships,” Lau said.
“I think she recognized that was just a risk she couldn’t take. And later in her life, when she decided to go into seminary, probably felt that choice well founded. The Episcopal Church continues to have issues with bishops LGBTQ-identified. In that time, the same argument was being had about women,” she said.
However, Lau noted, Murray left an extensive archive including letters and journals that revealed her struggle with gender identity and sexual orientation. Murray had a relationship for many years with Irene Barlow, and they are buried under the same headstone in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Murray’s instructions for her burial were clear in her will.
“Choosing where you’re buried is a very public thing. They’re buried with Irene’s mother and Pauli’s aunts Pauline and Sally. Pauli Murray referred to it as family plot,” Lau said.
Lau said that in the context of the time, she doesn’t think Murray had a choice about being out or not. “Financially, personally, professionally, even physically it was not an option to share that publicly,” she said.
Later this month, the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte will host an exhibit they invited Lau to develop called “Pauli Murray: Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest.”
The exhibit describes Murray as “a courageous and accomplished American human rights activist who believed in reconciliation, truth telling, and freedom. She pictured herself, personally and professionally, as having multi-faceted identities. Throughout her life, she worked to end the discrimination she faced as a woman, person of color, worker, and member of the LGBTQ community.”
The name of the exhibit came from names Murray gave to photographs of herself in an album she made.
“I think one of the significant idea gifts Pauli Murray gave us is to redefine [the] concept of freedom … so much of that thinking comes through in her sermons, her writings, her ideas about human rights. Later in life she comes to this concept of human rights, after she coins the term ‘Jane Crow,’ where women’s rights meets civil rights.”
It’s about a bigger sense of justice, Lau said. The exhibit is in Charlotte through January, and then Lau would like to bring it back to Durham and other places around the country.
For information, visit www.paulimurrayproject.org.
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