Some know her as a civil rights activist, feminist and the first African American ordained Episcopal priest. Others know her as a LGBT icon, lawyer, poet and author.
Regardless of what society knows her as, those that attended the fundraiser for the Pauli Murray Project on Oct. 1 agreed on one thing: Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray was someone ahead of her time.
The Pauli Murray Project, a community-based initiative, has committed itself to upholding the diversity of Murray by renovating her old home into The Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice.
“We want to have a historical site where we can tell her story,” Barbara Lau said.
Lau is the director of the Pauli Murray Project at the Duke Human Rights Center.
Lau previously worked as the director for the Center of Documentary Studies. During “Face Up: Telling Stories of Community Life,” a collaborative mural project with Southwest Central Durham, Murray was one of the figures featured.
The DHRC soon took an interest in Murray’s story and in March 2009, planning for the center began.
Murray lived in Durham from 1914-1926 at 906 Carroll St. Built in the 1890s by Murray’s grandfather, the home is arguably one of Durham’s most prominent historical landmarks.
Lau said the house is important because it’s where Murray’s legacy started.
“She grew up in that house, she was formed in that house, she had probably some of the most important thoughts of her life in that house,” Lau said.
She went on to describe just how deteriorated the house is with the destroyed foundation, old cemetery water running beneath the house and the crumbling chimney.
Renovation will begin around 2014 or 2015. Lau said that over the course of four years, PMP has raised around $40,000 for the house project.
As far as getting the center set up, though, Lau said they’re five years out at the minimum.
Lau said the purpose of the center is to create an open dialogue within the community about issues and to provide a space for education, the arts and activism.
She also said her hope is that the center will create the vision Murray had of unity across all barriers.
Dolares Chandler, an intern with PMP, drew attention to Murray’s influence on the community. Chandler said it’s amazing that lawyers, preachers, LGBT people and many more have been brought together to celebrate the historical figure.
“It’s given us a lot of resources in the sense that so many people love Pauli Murray,” Chandler said.
Despite Murray’s confidence in the human rights movement, she grappled with her sexual orientation. Though she had several long-lasting relationships with women, she never identified as lesbian. Instead, Murray identified as a heterosexual male to overcome the stigma.
“As fierce as she was about her position, she couldn’t even begin to touch that aspect of herself in a public way,” Chandler said.
Chandler said that’s why she values the ability to bring all aspects of herself into PMP.
Charmaine McKissick-Melton, interim chair of the Department of Mass Communication at N.C. Central University, said Murray is someone she would’ve personally loved to have known.
“She took risks,” McKissick-Melton said. “Everywhere she went, she transformed what was happening.”
McKissick-Melton said an issue Murray commonly dealt with in the 60s and 70s was separating her struggle as a black person and as a woman.
“Women’s rights. Civil rights. She said they were intertwined,” McKissick-Melton said. “She could not separate herself from being a woman or from being black. They were one in the same.”
Because of that time period and with majority of civil rights activists being men, the black community wanted to focus racial injustice first.
McKissick-Melton became involved with PMP through her friendship with Lau. She said they worked on several projects in Durham and bonded over their shared issues.
McKissick-Melton said one of the goals PMP has already successfully completed is encouraging conversations among the Durham community.
She mentioned an event she was involved in that focused on desegregation. Hundreds of people from ages 3-93 showed up. McKissick-Melton said the discussion gave them the ability to express things that they wouldn’t have been able to express before.
“My personal belief and I think what Pauli Murray believes in is you can’t make change without dialogue,” McKissick-Melton said. “Talking to people is not the same as talking with people.”