Landmark and legacy

By the editorial board

Attorney, activist, poet and priest Pauli Murray, who grew up in Durham.
Attorney, activist, poet and priest Pauli Murray, who grew up in Durham.

Pauli Murray was one of the more important and influential people to come out of Durham, a woman for whom too many years the proper fame and recognition was scarce.

That has dramatically changed in recent years, as her activism, her pioneering pursuit of justice and a career despite barriers of gender and racial prejudice have been acclaimed.

That acclaim hit another milestone Saturday when government leaders and many of those who have worked to make the day possible gathered to celebrate the designation of her childhood home here as a National Historic Landmark.

The site is unique among the nation’s 2,500 National Historic Landmarks for its focus on LGBT issues and women. She was a founder of the National Organization of Women and a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, who Harvard rebuffed for post-graduate work after she had earned a law degree from Howard University -- then later pursued a vocation as a priest. She has been named a saint by the Episcopal Church.

“Pauli was determined the future would not be the past -- for women, for blacks for the forgotten and overlooked,” Rosita Stevens-Holsey said Saturday. Stevens-Holsey was representing the Murray family.

“She was a fortress and a guiding light for others,” Stevens-Holsey said.

In announcing the landmark designation last year, the U.S. Department of the Interior noted that “Murray served as a bridge figure between social movements through her advocacy for both women’s and civil rights. Her efforts were critical to retaining “sex” in Title VII, a fundamental legal protection for women against employment discrimination. After decades of work for black civil rights, her vision for a civil rights association for women became the National Organization for Women (NOW).”

Many in Durham worked hard to raise the funds and invest the energy to restore the home where Murray spent her childhood -- a childhood evocatively portrayed in here memoir, “Proud Shoes.”

It’s reanimation as the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice is both a salient part of the revitalization of the West End, but also an important link to the area’s rich history and a bulwark against gentrification eroding if not erasing the sense of that history.

Perhaps in these divided times, when the schisms in our civic sphere are especially fraught, it’s invigorating to remember words of Murray’s that were cited at Saturday’s celebration:

“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.”

Words worthy of a landmark and of our embrace.