Pauli Murray: For All My Bravado, Deeply Engrained Notions of Respectability Filled Me With Distress, 1926 – 1940

Recently Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life by Troy R. Saxby was selected for North Carolina Reads, North Carolina Humanities’ statewide book club for 2022 that features five books that explore issues of racial, social, and gender equality and the history and culture of North Carolina. To celebrate this accomplishment, we’ve decided to share an excerpt from this book.

The Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray (1910–1985) was a trailblazing social activist, writer, lawyer, civil rights organizer, and campaigner for gender rights. In the 1930s and 1940s, she was active in radical left-wing political groups and helped innovate nonviolent protest strategies against segregation that would become iconic in later decades, and in the 1960s, she cofounded the National Organization for Women (NOW). In addition, Murray became the first African American to receive a Yale law doctorate and the first black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest. Yet, behind her great public successes, Murray battled many personal demons, including bouts of poor physical and mental health, conflicts over her gender and sexual identities, family traumas, and financial difficulties.

In this intimate biography, Troy Saxby provides the most comprehensive account of Murray’s inner life to date, revealing her struggles in poignant detail and deepening our understanding and admiration of her numerous achievements in the face of pronounced racism, homophobia, transphobia, and political persecution.

Click here to view another excerpt from Saxby’s Pauli Murray that we shared earlier this year.

In 1926, a spindly fifteen-year-old Pauli Murray packed her suitcase and joined the southern exodus. Some seven hundred thousand African Americans migrated to the North during the 1920s, continuing the mass migrations that had begun during World War I. Murray wasn’t alone in choosing New York City as her destination—by the time of her arrival, New York had the largest Black population of any city in the nation. Everything about the city excited Pauli, particularly the enormity of the skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty, the entertainments of Coney Island and Broadway, the strange double-decker buses and automats that dispensed hot food, and, above all else, the absence of segregated public transportation and movie theaters. Although far less enthusiastic, Aunt Pauline still traveled to New York to help her bright-eyed adopted daughter get settled.

Murray wanted to study at Columbia University for the sole reason that her favorite high school teacher had attended Columbia (she did not realize that her teacher had attended Columbia Teachers College). The plan to attend Columbia fell apart quickly. The admissions office informed Aunt Pauline that women were not admitted and referred them to Barnard College across the street, where they discovered that Aunt Pauline didn’t have the money and Pauli didn’t have the prior education required for admission.

Barnard staff suggested they try Hunter College, a city school that did not require tuition for New York residents. Any hopes of an easy transition to college in New York were again dashed when Hunter denied her admission because her North Carolina high school education ended in year eleven, not year twelve as required. Undeterred, Murray set about completing another year of high school in New York City. 

Murray moved in with Aunt Pauline’s cousin, Maude, who had been close to Agnes Fitzgerald growing up in Durham. Maude had a husband and three young sons, but her only daughter died in infancy. Her daughter would have been a similar age to Pauli, leading Murray to believe that Cousin Maude wanted her to be a surrogate daughter. If true, the wish went unfulfilled. Murray appreciated Maude’s hospitality, which extended as far as formally adopting Pauli to help with school residency requirements, but Pauli refused to play the role of dutiful daughter and assist in domestic activities— she had long eschewed domesticity in favor of tomboy interests and sometimes resisted mothering if it represented a threat to the place reserved for her deceased mother.

Other factors also complicated the relationship. Most of the residents in the new Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens, where Maude’s family lived, were first- and second-generation European immigrants, including many Poles—likely reminding Pauli of her father’s killer. Even if this wasn’t a worry, the absence of African Americans—there were only two other Black families in the neighborhood—posed a definite problem for Pauli, or, rather, a problem for Maude’s family that became a problem for Pauli. Even half a century later, when writing her autobiography, Murray treaded carefully in describing Maude’s family’s race passing. Murray described it as an “ambiguous situation,” because her fair-skinned cousins—she didn’t use their family name—had moved in when there were few houses in the area. Maude’s family had not moved into the home to start new lives as white people, Murray asserted, they had simply remained silent about their racial background in the developing immigrant neighborhood and lost touch with Black friends from their old neighborhood.

When Pauli came into the house, with her “unmistakable yellow-brown skin, kinky-curly hair, and southern accent,” the family’s racial identity became suspect. Murray felt like an embarrassment. She recalled, “Although the neighbors were nice enough, Cousin Maude saw the questions in their eyes and hinted that my presence made the difference. In spite of everything she did for me, I could not help feeling that I was a stranger who had upset the delicate balance in neighborhood relationships. I kept to myself and made no friends my age on the block.” Moving from Durham had not freed Murray from race problems or cured her loneliness—her new home environment in New York City offered no better social opportunities, and she still felt conscious of being too dark-complexioned at home.

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