Saturday was Pauli Murray’s day in Durham. The lawyer, activist, author and priest grew up here, and her childhood home is now a National Historic Landmark. Mayor Bill Bell and Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs both read proclamations for the occasion celebrating the national designation of the house in Durham’s West End.
The designation announced in January by the U.S. Department of Interior named the house at 906 Carroll St. a landmark because of its “association with groundbreaking African American civil rights activist, lawyer, educator, writer, feminist and Episcopal priest, Pauli Murray. The Rev. Dr. Murray’s scholarship and activism profoundly shaped American legal history and advanced the women’s and civil rights movements.”
Murray, who died in 1985, was named a saint by The Episcopal Church in 2012.
Saturday afternoon, the light blue two-story house under renovation was the backdrop for a ceremony unveiling the National Historic Landmark plaque. The Fitzgerald family home will be opened as the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in 2020.
Stephanie Davis’ great-grandfather Richard Fitzgerald and Murray’s grandfather Robert Fitzgerald were brothers. Fitzgerald family members still live in the West End, Davis said Saturday. She remembers being told as a child that a relative had written a book, Murray’s 1956 memoir of growing up multi-racial in Durham, called “Proud Shoes: the Story of an American Family.” Murray fought for women’s rights and civil rights throughout her career as a lawyer and author and was a founder of the National Organization for Women. Later in life, she became the first female African-American Episcopal priest. Davis remembers much excitement in the Fitzgerald family homes around Durham when Murray came to visit.
When Davis met Murray, “I instantly knew she was awesome.” She said Murray’s life was race, gender and sexual orientation discrimination all wrapped up in one dynamic person.
Rosita Stevens-Holsey, at the ceremony representing the Murray side of the family, said that she has seen a renewed interest in her aunt since being declared a saint.
“Pauli was determined the future would not be the past — for women, for blacks, for the forgotten and overlooked,” she said. Stevens-Holsey said that while Murray was a deep thinker and serious person, she also had a lighter side and sense of humor.
“She was a fortress and a guiding light for others,” Stevens-Holsey said. “I am so grateful to know Aunt Pauli is no longer an unsung hero.”
Rev. Mykal O’Neal Slack gave a call to action and quoted Murray: “True community is based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.”
After the ceremony Saturday, visitors were allowed to walk up the five steps onto the wide front porch into the first floor of the house to view two exhibits -- “Finding Jane Crow: Civil Rights and Women’s Rights in Pauli Murray’s Contacts,” which showed her address book, and “The Life and Legacy of Pauli Murray,” which featured a timeline of Murray’s life.
Roderick Kevin Donald came to the Murray house celebration at the invitation of a friend. He did some research on Murray first, and said she reminds him of Ida B. Wells, the civil rights activist.
Donald said he has a love-hate relationship with the South.
“In spite of all that, it’s really nice to be able to come to something like this and see all types of people,” he said.
Jeanette Stokes, a board member of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, said that the house will offer a physical location for children to learn about Murray.
“We’re just so lucky to have this particular woman to honor here, because she has so many threads,” Stokes said.