On the Significance of Pauli Murray (Part I)

On the Significance of Pauli Murray (Part I)

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At the beginning of a seminary career, one of the best people to be introduced to is Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray.

By Dr. Willie James Jennings
Associate Professor of Theology and
Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School

In honor of Pauli Murray’s birthday this week (November 20), we are sharing the following reflections as well as local (Durham) information on activities honoring the occasion. Happy Birthday, Pauli!

At the beginning of a seminary career, one of the best people to be introduced to is Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray.

Born November 20, 1910 and died July 1, 1985, Pauli Murray was one of the most important Christian intellectuals of the last century. Poet, writer, activist, lawyer, and the first African American woman ordained an Episcopal Priest, Murray bequeathed to us a eloquent and powerful testimony of a Christian pilgrimage through some of the most troubled times in American history. If you have never read her novelistic account of her family in Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family or her autobiography, Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest and Poet you owe it to yourself to read these crucial texts.[i]

The Episcopal Church USA is considering elevating Murray to the status of saint and while these deliberations are going on, we thought that it would be a good thing to reflect on Pauli Murray’s life over the next several months. The basic contours of her story are as follows: Born in Baltimore, Maryland to William Murray and Agnes Fitzgerald Murray. Her father was a school principal and her mother a nurse. After their untimely deaths, Pauli moved to Durham, North Carolina. Her father suffered from mental illness due to the effects of typhoid fever and was killed by a guard at the Crownsville State Hospital. In Durham, she was raised by her grandparents Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald, and her aunts Pauline and Sallie. Pauli graduated from Hillside High school, Hunter College in New York, and Howard University Law School. She later received her JD from Yale Law School.

A number of “firsts” mark her life. She was the first African American attorney to work for the law firm she worked for in New York, the first African American woman to receive the Yale J.D., the first African American to serve as deputy attorney general for the state of California and most notably for theological educational concerns, she was the first African American woman ordained an Episcopal priest. This was after she had attended and graduated from General Theological Seminary in New York. In between, during, and after these events, Pauli Murray, was a professor, poet, writer, civil rights and women’s rights activist, founding member of NOW, astute public critic and intellectual, and always a deeply committed Christian.

One of the most important gifts a student can give herself as she moves through seminary or any kind of educational experience are models of people whose life paths illumines embodied wisdom. Pauli Murray is just such a person. We can learn so much from every aspect of her life, her struggles and victories, her frustrations and joys, her fears and her hopes. I would like to briefly consider an incident she recounts from her childhood in Durham. Murray’s brilliant text, Proud Shoes, examines the complex legacy of mixed race existence in America.

The very first chapter of that fine book introduces us to her grandmother Cornelia Fitzgerald who proudly proclaims that she is was “a white man’s child. A fine white man at that. A southern aristocrat. If you want to know what I am, I’m an octoroon. I don’t have to mix in with good-for-nothing niggers if I don’t want to. I don’t like trashy folks whether they’re black, white, blue or yaller. If you mix with the dogs you’ll be bitten by the fleas.” (Proud Shoes, 16)

In this incident, the grandmother then goes on to hurl several racial invectives at her troublesome black neighbors who goat her on. One particular woman, Lucy Bergins, angers Cornelia so much that this elderly woman attempts to climb a fence to get at her. This is when the young Pauli intervenes, trying to keep her grandmother from beating the woman with a mattock.

Granma! Granma! I screamed. “Come down quick. I got something important to tell you.” “Lemme go, child!” Grandmother was doing her best to kick free and hold her balance. Her leg jerked backward like a cow’s hind leg at milking time. She dangled while I held on. “Granma, I tell you it’s important.” Grandmother tried to pull her leg up once more, then gave up and let it fall back, sending me tumbling to the ground. “What on earth do you want Baby?” she asked. However angry Grandmother was about other things she was never harsh with me… “Bend down, so’s I can tell you in your ear.” I didn’t want Lucy or the neighbors to hear me. Grandmother reluctantly climbed off the fence and bent down.

“Granma,” I whispered, “I know it ain’t Sunday but I got the big Bible on the front porch, the one Miss Mary Smith gave you. Come down to the house right now quick, and I’ll read to you in the Psalms. I’ll even try to read a little about ‘Zekiel in the valley of the dry bones and Dan’l in the lion’s den.” I had touched on Grandmother’s two favorite Bible selections. And she treasured that ragged old Bible Miss Mary Smith of Chapel Hill had given her more than any other article in the house. She said she got it when she was a little girl and was confirmed at the Chapel of the Cross. It was over one hundred years old.

It was the one book that Grandmother tried to read herself, peering through her glasses and spelling out the Psalms a word at a time. I had learned to read some of the Psalms by now and every Sunday evening I would read to Grandmother some of her favorite passages. She seemed so proud of having me read to her from the big Bible that I loved it as much as she did….I liked the sound of the words rolling off my tongue and I would let my voice rise and fall like a wailing wind just as I had heard Reverend Small chant the morning lesson at St. Titus on Sundays. Grandmother had utmost respect for the Holy Word.

She hesitated. “You sure got me where the hair is short, Baby,” she said. “Why would you want to read the Bible to me when I’m so vexed?” I could see she was weakening. “You said any time was a good time to read the Scripture, didn’t you? Please come on to the house…” Grandmother considered. The sweat was pouring down her face and her clothes were soaked with it. Her face was flushed and she was panting hard. I pulled her gently toward the house…Grandmother picked up the mattock and took a step toward home. “I’ve never been one to turn my back on the Word of God,” she said. (Proud Shoes, 20-22)

This is one story that offers us a glimpse of the complexity of Pauli’s life beginning with her grandmother. Here we are introduced to the legacy of mixed race existence and the color caste system endemic to it and the violence and self-hatred embedded inside it. But we are also introduced to the place of the scripture, the compelling place of scripture in the lives of African Americans. What stood between Pauli’s grandmother’s desire to inflict punishment through violence on this taunting neighbor was nothing less than her granddaughter invoking the scripture, scripture to be read, scripture to be remembered. Yet equally crucial for grasping Pauli’s rich life is the powerful joining in her grandmother’s love of the scripture and the sound of her young voice reading, speaking the word of God, just like the minister at St. Titus. Indeed it is precisely this rich soil of reading scripture aloud that holds the seeds that grow into voices heard strongly and callings heard clearly.

This was the case with Pauli Murray. It could be that if you reflect on your voice and your own sense of calling you might find a history marked by conflict, race, and the scriptures. Such things don’t point to bad beginnings, but important ones.

Pauli Murray, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999). Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest and Poet (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989).

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