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Pauli Murray

Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray
November 20, 1910 – July 1, 1985
Notable: Activist, lawyer, and priest
Nationality: American


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Born in Baltimore, Pauli Murray’s early life was marked by the tragic death of her parents. Her mother, Agnes, died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage when she was three-years-old. Her father, William, now responsible for raising six young children while also grieving his wife’s passing, sent Murray to live with her aunt and grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. Unable to cope and having lingering effects of typhoid fever, William was committed to the Crownsville State Hospital for the Negro Insane. When Murray was twelve, her father was beaten to death with a baseball bat by a racist guard.

Murray was born during the period when Jim Crow laws were being implemented to oppress Black people and reinstate the White supremacist social order that existed before the Civil War. As a child, Murray had uncontrollable energy but also showed intellectual promise by teaching herself to read by the age of five. Aware of the Jim Crow system from a young age, Murray refused to be treated as a second class citizen and aspired beyond the confines of North Carolina’s social and academic opportunities for Black students.

North Carolina had no Black high schools that went beyond the eleventh grade and the schools had limited academic offerings in comparison to the courses required for college admission. At the age of 15, Murray graduated from high school having distinguished herself by not only participating in an array of extracurricular activities but also taking on various leadership roles. To further her education, Murray moved to New York City and lived with a cousin so she could enroll in a local high school to obtain the credits needed to attend Hunter College.

Having achieved her goal of enrolling at Hunter, Murray moved to Harlem where she met many Black cultural icons. But, just when everything seemed to be going according to plan, the stock market collapsed and launched the country into the Great Depression. The odd jobs that Murray had worked to support herself dried up and she had to temporarily drop out of college though she would eventually graduate in 1933. She continued to work whatever odd jobs she could and eventually found work teaching in the New York City Remedial Reading Project and at the Works Projects Administration (WPA).

In the late 1930s Murray applied to the University of North Carolina’s sociology graduate program but was denied admittance because the university did not accept Black students. When her application was denied, Murray was prepared to fight back and tried to enlist the NAACP in her cause but they declined to assist. A few years later, Murray found herself in another civil rights fight when she refused to vacate a seat on a bus traveling from Richmond, Virginia to Durham and was arrested. But the incident fizzled out when the state reduced its charges and issued fines for Murray and her traveling companion.

While working for the Workers Defense League, Murray again traveled to Richmond where she gave a rousing fundraising speech that brought her to the attention of Thurgood Marshall and Leon Ransom, a law professor at Howard University. The two men encouraged Murray to apply to Howard Law School and helped to smooth the path for her admittance. Upon arriving at Howard, Murray found that she was the only female in the program and had to endure sexist attitudes and comments. Following graduation from Howard, Murray applied to an advanced law program at Harvard University but was denied admittance because of her gender. She instead attended the University of California where she completed her master’s thesis, The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment.

After completing her law studies, Murray moved back to New York City but had a hard time finding work as a Black female attorney. She was eventually hired by the women’s division of the Methodist Church to write a pamphlet explaining America’s segregation laws. The church wanted something simple to distinguish between legal requirements and social expectations for segregation. Instead, Murray turned in a hefty tome entitled States’ Laws on Race and Color which delved deeply into segregation. The book was highly regarded by the ACLU and NAACP as well as widely distributed to non-profits, colleges, and law schools. Murray then spent a few years working at a law firm before moving abroad to work at the Ghana School of Law.

Upon returning to America in the 1960s, Murray became involved with the Civil Rights Movement. She worked closely with several icons from the period but did not agree with the male-centeredness of the movement and its organizations. Concerned with both racial and gender equality, Murray issued a call for women to march on Washington in protest. This ultimately resulted in Murray and other female activists gathering to create what would become the National Organization for Women (NOW). Originally envisioned at least in part as an organization that would serve the interests of Black women across income brackets, it eventually became dominated by professional White women.

Throughout her life Murray had struggled with both her gender identity and sexuality finding herself attracted to women and more closely identifying as a man. The stress of dealing with her identity issues had resulted in multiple breakdowns. Unable to find help or relief and growing disenchanted with both the civil and women’s rights movements, Murray eventually sought solace in the church and entered a seminary to become an Episcopal priest. When Pauli Murray was ordained on January 8, 1977, she became the first Black female Episcopal priest.

Pauli Murray died of cancer on July 1, 1985.


  1. “Finding Pauli Murray.” n.d. National Organization for Women. Accessed May 22, 2020.
  2. “Pauli Murray Project.” n.d. Biography | Pauli Murray Project. Accessed May 22, 2020.
  3. Schulz, Kathryn. 2017. “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast. April 17, 2017.
  4. “The Reverend Pauli Murray, 1910-1985.” n.d. The Archives of the Episcopal Church. Accessed May 22, 2020.

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