Anna Pauline Murray was born on 20th November 1910 in Baltimore , Maryland , United States of America and was raised in Durham , North Carolina , by her mother’s parents and her Aunt Pauline Fitzgerald Dame after the age of four. This was due to her mother Agnes Fitzgerald Murray’s early death from a cerebral haemorrhage and her father William H. Murray developing emotional and mental health problems after suffering typhoid fever. Her father died in 1923 at the hands of a guard in the secure hospital he was confined to.
Rev Dr Murray came from a very mixed race background, including African-American, Native American, white Irish and white American. When she was 16 she moved to stay with her cousin Maude in New York to finish studies at Hillside High School graduating in 1926. Her visible ethnicity caused problems as her cousin’s family had been ‘passing’ as white. She had a brief marriage to a man only known as ‘Billy’, which was annulled after a few months.
Upon graduating High School Rev Dr Murray enrolled at Hunter College, having been rejected by Columbia University because of her gender and Barnard college due to lack of funding. In 1933 she graduated with a BA in English, and a portfolio of published works from the college paper including poems and articles.
Rev Dr Murray worked for a short time for the National Urban League selling subscriptions for their paper Opportunity, but ill health forced her to move to work at a conservation camp called Camp Tera . Whilst at camp she began a relationship with Peg Holmes, and this coupled with her refusal to stand to attention when the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended to inspect and her possession of materials which intimated communist leanings led to clashes with her superiors. Eventually she and Ms Holmes left the camp to travel the United States .
In 1938 Rev Dr Murray applied to study at the University of North Carolina but was rejected due to her race; this became widely publicised throughout the country in all media. Rev Dr Murray became a known activist in the civil rights movement. However, the NAACP declined to pursue the case and it was strongly believed this was due to her openness about her sexuality and non-gender conformity. She herself believed she may have been born with male genitalia within her, even at one point asking for an exploratory operation to test this theory. It is possible that she might have identified as transgender if she had been born at a later time, but did identify as female although one who preferred male clothing and had many typically masculine traits.
By 1940 Rev Dr Murray was suffering mental health problems and was hospitalised for a short while at Bellevue Hospital for treatment. She left to join her then girlfriend Adelene McBean, and the couple moved to Virginia . Whilst there, the pair refused to move from the whites only section and were arrested, but when they were charged with disorderly conduct rather than violating segregation laws, the NAACP again refused to support them. She was imprisoned in March 1940, and the fines levied were eventually paid by socialist workers organisation the Worker’s Defense League. Later that year Rev Dr Murray took a job with them on their administrative committee.
Through Rev Dr Murray ’s work for the WDL, which involved touring the country seeking support for disenfranchised workers, she became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, and this lasted until the
latter’s death. In 1941 she enrolled at Howard University law school, inspired to help more where she could, and it was here that she experienced gross sexism. In 1942 she joined the Congress of Racial Equality, challenging segregation wherever she saw it.
Rev Dr Murray was very successful at University, graduating top of her class and being elected Chief Justice of the Howard Court of Peers. Despite this she was rejected by Harvard University based on her gender. A letter in support of her application from President Franklin D. Roosevelt held no sway. Instead she moved to Berkeley , California to attend the Boalt Hall School of Law where her Master’s thesis The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment was published in the California Law Review.
In 1945 Rev Dr Murray passed the California Bar exam and the following year became the first Black deputy attorney for the State. She became renowned for writing legal articles examining the prejudice inherent in systems and the racial and gender bias faced by many in law. In 1950 she published States’ Laws on Race and Color, which became the basis of legal recourse for legal practitioners throughout the country.
From 1960-1961 Rev Dr Murray lived in Ghana , serving on the faculty of the Ghana School of Law, but returned to the United States to study at Yale and become the first Black person to receive the JSD (Doctor of Juridicial Science) in 1965. During this time she was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Presidential Committee on the Status of Women. Throughout the 1960s she became a voice for women suffering sexism within the civil rights movement and in 1965 her article co-authored with Mary Eastwood, entitled Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII and published in the George Washington Law Review, opened the eyes of many. In 1966 she was a co-founder of the National Organisation of Women and in the same year was instrumental in winning the right for women to sit on juries in equal status with men as board member of the ACLU.
By 1968 Rev Dr Murray moved to Brandeis University in Waltham , Massachussetts, as tenured Professor of American Studies, a position she held until 1973. She continued to author and co-author articles examining legal precedent and impact of equality laws as they were fought for and enacted.
By the time she was in her 60s Rev Dr Murray had been drawn to the Episcopalian church, through her strong relationships with many of the women within the church, and she enrolled in a seminary to become a reverend. In 1977 she was the first Black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, and for the next seven years she ministered to the sick in a parish in Washington DC .
Rev Dr Murray died on 1st July 1985 after battling with pancreatic cancer.
Honours and Awards:
1946 – National Council of Negro Women “Woman of the Year”
1947 – Madamoiselle Magazine “Woman of the Year”
1930s - Angel of the Desert
1956 – Proud Shoes (autobiography)
1970 – Dark Testament and Other Poems
1987 – Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (autobiography) - re-released the
same year as “ Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest and Poet”
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson