Published January 25, 2023
"You say I can't, I'll show you I can, even if I die trying." — Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray
Have you ever heard of Pauli Murray? If you teach twentieth-century American history, in particular the Civil Rights Movement or the women's rights movement, you're probably already familiar with some of Pauli’s ideas because of their influence on landmark court cases related to race and gender. You may have even learned about some of Pauli’s collaborators, like Thurgood Marshall, Betty Friedan or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So why is it that most of us never learned about Pauli in school?
In this episode, Kathleen Barker* will take you back in time to Pauli Murray's early years to learn about some of the formative events that shaped their career as a Black, queer, legal and civil rights pioneer. You will also hear Pauli Murray in their own words from an interview recorded on February 13, 1976, with Genna Rae McNeil, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for the Southern Oral History Program.
*Kathleen Barker is History UnErased’s program director and is a library and information specialist and public historian with 20 years of experience as a museum and library educator.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council. It was developed by History UnErased and produced and edited by Dinah Mack; Kathleen Barker; Amanda Hurwitz; and Deb Fowler.
After listening to Part 1, check out Part 2 (you don't want to miss it) here. You can also find this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, or anywhere you get your podcasts!
Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I’m Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.
In this season, my colleague Kathleen Barker will introduce you to a few of the characters featured in our Intersections & Connections curriculum and some fascinating - and empowering - backstories. We're beginning this season with Pauli Murray. And if that name is new to you, you are not alone. But after listening, we are certain you will agree that we cannot tell the story of America without Pauli Murray. Take it away, Kathleen!
Have you ever heard of Pauli Murray? If you teach twentieth-century American history, in particular the Civil Rights Movement or the women's rights movement, you're probably already familiar with some of Pauli’s ideas because of their influence on landmark court cases related to race and gender. You may have even learned about some of Pauli’s collaborators, like Thurgood Marshall, Betty Friedan, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So why is it that most of us never learned about Pauli in school?
Pauli Murray was many things: a Black, queer, legal and civil rights pioneer as well as an author, lawyer, poet, priest, and human rights activist. Throughout their lifetime Pauli challenged the word no and fought for human dignity.
Because Pauli wrestled with identity from an early age, they explored a lot of ideas about gender identity and sexuality in their journals, at one point even wondering if they were “one of Nature's experiments: a girl who should have been a boy.” Pauli sometimes identified as male, and referred to themselves as a “he/she” personality. No matter how Pauli felt, they understood that the world would always see them as female. We don’t know how Pauli would have identified today, so we are using they/them pronouns to refer to Pauli in this two part podcast. You will also hear Pauli Murray in their own words from an interview recorded on February 13, 1976 with Genna Rae McNeil, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for the Southern Oral History Program. Thanks to the University of North Carolina and the Documenting the American South Project for providing access to the interview.
Author, lawyer, poet, priest, and human rights activist…Pauli was truly a champion of equality– but what motivated Pauli Murray to become an activist?
Anna Pauline Murray, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 20, 1910, the fourth child in a family of six children. After their mother’s death, Murray was sent to live with their aunt Pauline and their maternal grandparents, Robert George and Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, in Durham, North Carolina. Aunt Pauline would become a guiding force in Pauli’s life. It was Aunt Pauline who enrolled Pauli in school and took Pauli to church. Pauline referred to Pauli as her “boy-girl” and allowed Pauli tower pants (except when attending church) and play with toys typically given to boys. But Pauli’s entire family was rather remarkable.
Pauli came from a family of educators and activists, beginning with their maternal grandfather, who was one of the first students of Asmun Institute, later renamed Lincoln University. He helped to establish schools for freed blacks in Virginia and North Carolina after the Civil War. Pauli’s father was a principal in the Baltimore Public Schools, while their aunt, Pauline Fitzgerald Dame, taught for many years in the city school system of Durham, North Carolina.
Pauli’s family history was the definition of intersectional, a history they explore in her 1950 family autobiography called Proud Shoes – From the birth of their grandmother, Cornelia Smith, who was the daughter of a slave, to the story of their grandfather Robert Fitzgerald, whose free black father married a white woman in 1840. Pauli described this family as a “mini-United Nations,” with varying shades of skin color. Even within their own family, Pauli’s skin color occasionally left her at a disadvantage.
“Color differences operated not only between an individual and the local community, but they also operated within a family. I recall, for example, that I told you there were six of us, six little Murrays. On the one visit that I made back to Baltimore, when I was about nine, it was very clear that at least four of us could go downtown to the movies on Saturdays, the white movie houses. ‘And sit wherever you wanted to?’ Yes, and two of us couldn't. I happened to be one of the two and that says something to you about why I would become a crusader for civil rights.”
Pauli was infuriated by the Jim Crow laws that limited opportunities for black people and restricted their movements in town. Even as a young person Pauli found ways to protest these injustices: by walking or riding a bike instead of riding the segregated streetcars, or by skipping a movie rather than sitting in the segregated theater.
In the early twentieth century, Durham, N.C., was known as the capital of the Black Middle Class, although Pauli’s family wasn’t wealthy. They were not business people, and Pauli described the family as “respectable poor” with middle-class values. Even being nominally middle class didn’t protect Pauli and other black people from experiencing the isolation of racism. Segregation was a fact of life in the south, and Pauli saw reminders of it everywhere.
“I suppose this awareness to a child of my generation grows with you just like almost a part of your body and your being. It’s hard to say when you become aware because you take it in all the time. Awareness of segregation, of course wherever you went in town, you saw the "White" signs, the "Colored" signs, drinking fountains, anytime that one would go down into the public center of town, one would be very, very conscious of it. Obviously, one would be conscious of separate schools and separate churches.”
Pauli and her family, like so many black families in the South, were never completely safe from violence either. After the death of their grandfather in 1919, Pauli’s grandmother Cornelia became increasingly fearful of the KKK. She began to barricade the doors and windows, screaming that the KKK was outside trying to burn down the house. While this destruction never came to pass, Pauli’s family experienced a great loss when William Murray, Pauli’s father, was murdered. William has been a patient at the Crownsville State Hospital for the Negro Insane in Maryland. Shortly before he was to be released, William was taunted by a white guard who then beat him to death with a baseball bat.
School was another site of inequality for Pauli and the black students of Durham. They were forced to attend the West End school, housed in a dilapidated old wooden building.
“I'll never forget West End School. It was a rickety old wooden built building with peelings; I can see those scales now. You know how wood or shingles or paint blisters and I can see it. When there was a wind in a storm, you could just hear the wind blowing through that old building. And of course, the white kids school, a nice brick school sitting in a lawn surrounded by a fence. West End was up on a sort of clay, just a barren ground. There was no lawn whatsoever. The fact that I can remember this today and I can see that old school building there, no swings, you know, nothing to play with when you went out.”
Pauli graduated from the West End School in 1921 at the age of ten. The next school they attended was quite an improvement: Pauli entered the eighth grade at Hillside High School, which was housed in a new brick building. Upgraded facilities did not mean equal access to resources, however. The US Supreme Court had sanctioned racial discrimination in school funding through the 1899 case of Cumming v School Board of Richmond County Georgia. This did not discourage Pauli, who together with classmates, hosted fundraisers in order to purchase basic supplies, as well as the textbooks that the district refused to provide to black schools.
“I was an all round athlete, I was the editor in chief of the high school newspaper, I was a member of the debating club, I was involved in most of the things that kids are involved in. I enjoyed doing these things, but underneath I hated segregation so, that all I wanted to do was to get away from segregation.”
Despite the inadequate facilities and funding, Pauli was an excellent student, graduating first in their class from Hillside at the age of 15. Pauli’s family members encouraged them to attend a black college. Although Pauli was offered a scholarship to Wilberforce, a private historically black college in Wilberforce, Ohio, Pauli was no longer willing to endure the inequalities they observed and experienced in segregated schools and school systems.
A few years earlier, Pauli had visited New York City with Aunt Pauline and fallen in love with the city. When one of their favorite teachers at Hillside told them about Columbia, Pauli knew it was a college for them. Except, as it turns out … it wasn't.
“All that I knew was that Columbia was in New York City. I didn't know that Columbia didn't take girls, that girls had to go to Barnard. [Laughter] All that I knew was that there was a Columbia University and my teacher had been there and that was where I wanted to go.”
In the summer of 1926, Aunt Pauline took Pauli to New York to visit Columbia, where they discovered that Pauli would have to attend Barnard College. With help from the Registrar there they discovered that Pauli would not be able to afford Barnard.
“Aunt Pauline took me over to Hunter College and there I discovered that I had to have certain entrance requirements. Three years of one language and two years of another and four years of English and Hillside Park High School in Durham at the time was only an eleven grade school. In other words, only three years of senior high. And so, what it amounted to was that they were referring me to go back to high school and complete the twelfth year and at the same time, if possible, to make up anywhere from one to two years of requirements that I would need for Hunter.”
Aunt Pauline’s cousin Maude agreed to host Pauli as they finished high school in order to establish NYC residency and qualify for Hunter. Maude even adopted Pauli so that they could become a legal resident of New York city. Upon graduating from high school, Pauli had to return to Durham to earn money for college, since Aunt Pauline was no longer able to support them financially. After a year of working various jobs as a janitor, typist, stenographer, and reporter, Paulistartedcollege at Hunter in 1928! It was around this time that Pauli decided that their birth name of Anna Pauline didn't quite suit them so they chose the name Pauli because they felt it sounded more gender-neutral.
Pauli had always had an interest in writing, and they found professors at Hunter who encouraged them to explore life as a writer. They also found classmates who exposed her to the literature and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.
“Actually in college, I decided that I didn't want to do anything but write. So, I didn't take any of the ed courses and I avoided all the psych courses, I took none of the courses that would prepare me for teaching, but all of the courses that I thought dealt with literature, such as "Creative Writing," "Short Stories," "Shakespeare," this kind of thing.”
One of Pauli’s greatest challenges was overcoming their own self-doubt. Pauli often felt that their experiences growing up in the segregated south left them at a disadvantage.
“This, I might say, would be the one big hurdle that a child coming out of a segregated school system would have to make. That child didn't know whether he or she was equal to his white counterparts because there had never been any opportunity for him to find out. So, way back in the back of his mind was always, "Have I got it?"
Pauli’s interest in writing and literature meant they almost missed out on one of the most important classes they would take at Hunter. A fellow classmate suggested that Pauli take a course in Anthropology. During this course, Pauli would take field trips to the Museum of Natural History and spend time in the Hall of Man, exploring African art and artifacts and the Native American collection.
“Now I have touched upon the other two streams of my ancestry, growing up in a kind of European-dominated society and my American Indian ancestry and my African ancestry being more or less suppressed. This experience in anthropology did more for me, I think, than maybe any other course in college, because first of all, it showed me a comparative view of man and how man responds to the environment in which he lives, to build his homes, his art, his institutions and whatnot and I could see the parallels between American Indians and Africans. And secondly, in a sense for me, it removed them from the column of what I needed to have any sense of being embarrassed about.”
Pauli had many extracurricular adventures during their time at Hunter. In the spring of 1930, Pauli and their friend Dorothy set off to explore the United States dressed as Boy Scouts. They were caught when Dorothy tried to use a women’s restroom (while dressed as a boy) in Connecticut. In April 1931, Pauli hitchhiked across the country to California, but had to make a quick return when they heard that Aunt Pauline was ill. Short on cash, Pauli once again donned a Boy Scout uniform and traveled from California to New York by jumping trains. In their scrapbooks, Pauli recalled dodging railroad guards and learning from experience which train cars were the warmest. Pauli memorialized these experiences in poems such as “The Song of the Highway,” and a short story “Three Thousand Miles on a Dime in Ten Days.”
I am the Highway,
Long, white, winding Highway,
Binding coast to coast
And people to people;
I am the spine of the earth.
Over the hills I glide
And then, come swooping down
To some deserted spot.
Over river and lake I stride-
Through farm and field, and town,
Through desert sands, white-hot.
I laugh when the brooklets laugh,
And weep with wayside trees
So bent-so broken by the wind.
Sometimes the birds and flowers
Fill my path with song and bloom;
Sometimes a fragrant breeze
Leaves me drenched with faint perfume.
I hear the sounds of earth-
The low of cattle on the plains,
Clatter of hoof, sound of horn,
Rustling fields of rye,
Of wheat, of tasseled corn;
Sweet sounds, so dear-
As through the year
Life marches on.
I am old-sad things I know,
Ache of road-worn travelers,
Lonely hours; the tragedy of pioneers
Who trudged through scorching lands,
Through rain-and snow,
Who bartered with famine-thirst-
And death-to give me birth.
But I go on in silence,
For those who know my life
Will sing my song,
Song of the Highway,
Long, white, winding Highway.
New York, 1931
Thankfully, Aunt Pauline was not as ill as Pauli feared, but Pauli decided to put adventure behind them (at least temporarily) and return to Hunter.
After graduating in 1933 as an English major, Pauli went to work for the Works Project Administration as a teacher in the New York City Remedial Reading Project. Pauli also became an accomplished poet, exploring their place in the world through poems like “The Newer Cry.”
“The Newer Cry was expressing my racial identity. I am troubled by a sense of the violence of revolution, destructiveness. Protest you must, but at the same time let your throat ache double with the beauty of the here and now. A child that was brought up essentially close to nature, and essentially I think with great freedom and a sense of love, never really relinquishing this longing for love in however way you wish to describe it. Love as the greatest instrument for change. For me you can see always responding to challenge. You say I can't, I’ll show you I can, even if I die trying.”
Over the next few years, Pauli continued to explore their identity, trying to understand why at times they felt more comfortable identifying as male. Pauli also began to think about attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina. UNC had never admitted a black student and was prevented from doing so by the North Carolina state Constitution. Once again, Pauli was undeterred. Little did they know that their application would spark a friendship with a First Lady and further ignite Pauli’s interest in fighting Jim Crow…a story we will investigate in part two of this podcast.
Kathleen Barker is History UnErased’s program director and is a library and information specialist and public historian with 20 years of experience as a museum and library educator.
This podcast is funded by the New York City Council. It was developed by History UnErased and produced and edited by Dinah Mack; Kathleen Barker; Amanda Hurwitz; and me, Deb Fowler.
Our UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities podcast theme music is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise.
I’m Deb Fowler. Thanks for listening.
Thank you to the University of North Carolina and the Documenting the American South Project for providing access to Pauli Murray's February 13, 1976 audio oral history interview with Genna Rae McNeil, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for the Southern Oral History Program.
Bell-Scott, Patricia. The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
Murray, Pauli. Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
Murray, Pauli, and Patricia Bell-Scott. Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Rosenberg, Rosalind. Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Books for younger readers:
Duling, Kaitlyn, and Arvilla Mae Morett. Pauli Murray. Greensboro, N.C.: Rourke Educational Media, 2023.
Linck, Deborah Nelson, and Angela Corbin. Pauli Murray: Shouting for the Rights of All People. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2022.
Stevens-Holsey, Rosita, and Terry Catasús Jennings. Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist. New York: Yellow Jacket, 2022.
Pauli Murray Center for History & Social Justice: https://www.paulimurraycenter.com/
“Pauli Murray as a LGBTQ+ Historical Figure” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture: https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/pauli-murray-lgbtq-historical-figure
“Pauli Murray; Survival with Dignity” at the American Writers Museum: https://exhibits.americanwritersmuseum.org/exhibits/pauli-murray/