Pauli Murray: A Child of Destiny or A Nobody Without Identity, 1910–1926

To further celebrate Pride Month, the following is an excerpt from Troy R. Saxby’s Pauli Murray: A Personal And Political Life. This book is one of five titles from a reading list we created in commemoration of Pride Month; view the entire reading list here.

Pauli Murray long believed that she was born on November 20, 1910, and named Anna Pauline Murray. It came as a shock to discover, then, when she began research for an autobiography, that her birth certificate said her birth occurred a day later and her baptism certificate listed her name as Annie, not Anna. The sudden confusion around the basic elements of her personal identity illustrate a more general uncertainty that appeared at different points in Murray’s life: uncertainty as to whether what she believed of herself was true, or whether what society said about her was true. Had her parents remained in her life for longer, Pauli might have asked them for confirmation, but instead their early absence created further uncertainty. As a child Pauli “fed voraciously” on other people’s memories of her parents—these reminiscences had a profound influence on her development. In the opening paragraphs of her autobiography she explained, “Their striving to achieve filled me with pride and incentive, while their misfortunes left a legacy of mournfulness hovering like a gray mist over my early childhood.” Through the gray mist of tragic events and unreliable evidence, Pauli looked back to fashion a coherent, encouraging story of her own beginning. The story shifted over time, but her final autobiographical account went along the following lines.

Pauli Murray believed that she inherited an energetic nature from her father. William Murray liked to hunt and fish, play baseball and basketball, compose poetry and music, and play the piano and flute. Despite severely limited education and employment opportunities for African Americans—William’s mother washed clothes, while his father waited tables—“Will” showed tremendous grit to graduate in 1899, at age twenty-seven, from Howard University’s college preparatory department. He gained employment as a teacher in Baltimore’s segregated school system and married another teacher, but the marriage soon ended in tragedy when he lost both his wife and their first child during labor. Grief didn’t slow William down for long. Soon after his first wife’s death, Will attended a summer school in Hampton, Virginia, where he met Agnes Fitzgerald.

Pauli Murray believed that she inherited a fiery temperament from her mother. Those who knew “Aggie” well described her as quick-tempered, though her rage subsided equally quickly and she didn’t hold grudges. Six years younger than William Murray, Agnes was born on Christmas night 1878 and grew up participating in all the manual work required to keep the family’s North Carolina farm going, yet when she decided that she wanted to be a nurse, her parents said no. Like many at the time, her parents believed a nursing career would be too physically demanding and too likely to expose their daughter to indignities. Her three older sisters chose more acceptable careers—two went into teaching, and the other became a dressmaker—but Agnes wanted to be a nurse and would not be deterred. Through a combination of persuasion and stubbornness Agnes gained her parents’ permission, if not their blessing, to attend Hampton Training School for Nurses, where she met William Murray in 1901.

He noticed her at a dance. Agnes was hard not to notice—her expressive eyes and mass of curly hair were especially striking. On this night she wore her hair pulled back and tied with a pink ribbon that matched the pink dotted dress she had made for the occasion; Agnes only realized when she got home that evening that she had worn the dress inside out. If William noticed, he didn’t care. His eyes followed her all evening, but he dared not approach her. Will had escorted Aggie’s cousin Sadie to the dance and, as the campus YMCA president, he did not want to appear frivolous. Nevertheless, he made sure he left the dance at the same time as Agnes, then maneuvered Cousin Sadie through a crowded streetcar to gain an introduction. Agnes and William began courting immediately. People who saw the handsome pair together thought they could be siblings—both were lean, with expressive eyes, dark wavy hair, and coppery-colored skin. The courtship continued through correspondence after the summer ended and William returned to Baltimore.

Troy R. Saxby is an academic and research officer at the University of Newcastle.