Pauli Murray

Courtesy of UNC-Chapel Hill
Courtesy of UNC-Chapel Hill

Born in Baltimore and orphaned at an early age, Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was raised on Cameron Street behind Maplewood Cemetery in Durham, North Carolina, by her maternal grandparents and an aunt, in whose first-grade class she learned to read. Two other aunts also took a keen interest in her upbringing. “Having no parents of my own,” she wrote in her poignant memoir Proud Shoes, “I had in effect three mothers, each trying to impress upon me those traits of character expected of a Fitzgerald-stern devotion to duty, capacity for hard work, industry, and thrift, and above all honor and courage in all things.”

She graduated at the top of her class from Hillside High School, and with honors from Hunter College in New York, but was denied admission to law school at the University of North Carolina in 1938 because of her race, and to Harvard University because of her gender. These and other experiences spurred her to a life of activism, working to dismantle barriers of race and gender. From sit-ins to integrate Washington, DC, lunch counters in the 1940s, through her efforts as a founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the early 1970s, Murray took challenges head-on, while generally avoiding the limelight.

After receiving her law degree at Howard University, she later earned a master’s degree in law from the University of California at Berkeley, and was a tutor in law at Yale, where she received her doctorate in 1965. Pauli Murray had a distinguished and varied career as a civil rights lawyer, a professor, a college vice president, and deputy attorney general of California. She was named Woman of the Year by Mademoiselle in 1947. Beneath her drive, her will, her achievements, lay “the elusiveness of her self-esteem,” and the fact that she was “not entirely free from the prevalent idea that I must prove myself.” The idea of writing a family memoir began to grow in her shortly after college, “but the struggle to educate myself and to earn a living during the Depression, and then my law studies and practice, kept me from writing for many years.” Encouraged by her literary association with the poet Stephen Vincent Benet, she interrupted her law practice to spend four years researching and writing Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, which was published in 1956.

Murray became so immersed in her research for the book that for months after retracing the legendary routes of the Underground Railroad, she found herself dating correspondence 1854 instead of 1954. “Proud Shoes is a book of such variety of incident and such depths and changes of tone as to astonish one who mistakes it simply for a family chronicle,” a New York Herald Tribune reviewer wrote. “It is history, it is biography, and it is also a story that, at its best, is dramatic enough to satisfy the demands of fiction….”

In addition to Proud Shoes, Murray compiled a massive reference work on state race laws and published a prize-winning volume of poetry, Dark Testament and Other Poems (1970). Her autobiographical Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (1987) was published two years after her death.

At age sixty-two, when many people are planning retirement, Pauli Murray entered seminary and embarked upon a new career. In 1977, she was the first black woman in the U.S. to become an Episcopalian priest. In performing her first Holy Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, where her grandmother, a slave, had been baptized, Murray finally believed that “All the strands of my life had come together.”

Return to Inductees

Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (Beacon Press, 1999):

Listen to Courtney Reid-Eaton read Pauli Murray’s “Dark Testament: Verse 8” during the July 1, 2009 service honoring Pauli Murray at St. Titus Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina:

(Courtesy of The Pauli Murray Project,

Listen to Courtney Reid-Eaton read Pauli Murray’s “Prophecy Bounce” during the July 1, 2009 service honoring Pauli Murray at St. Titus Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina:

(Courtesy of The Pauli Murray Project,

Watch Barbara Lau, Director of the Pauli Murray Project at Duke University, and Lynden Harris, director, discuss the life and legacy of Pauli Murray:

(Courtesy of UNC-TV)

Watch a one-minue presentation about the Pauli Murray Project in Durham, NC:

(Courtesy of The Pauli Murray Project, an initiative of the Duke Human Rights Center)

Watch a light-hearted telling of Pauli Murray’s life story… performed with Legos:

(Courtesy of gared67)

In July of 2012, the Episcopal Church voted to include Pauli Murray in its book Holy Men, Holy Women: Celebrating the Saints. This officially made Murray a Saint of the Episcopal Church. Coverage was wide across the state, but included the following:



Appearances in Periodicals

Reference Material

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