Community preserves legacy of Pauli Murray in Durham and beyond

A painting of Pauli Murray at St. Titus' Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C.

Pauli Murray is known nationally as a Black and LGBTQ+ civil rights activist, writer, teacher and Episcopal priest. 

But to Karen Ross, the founder and president of the Pauli Murray Foundation, Murray was family.

Ross, the great niece of Murray, has been working since 2012 to provide students involved in their own activism with scholarship money funded by donations and Murray’s estate.

“To us, this is the best way to honor her, so she could continue to touch young people’s lives, even 37 years after she’s passed,” Ross said.

Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1910, but moved to Durham in 1914 and grew up in their aunt’s home in the West End neighborhood.

This childhood home is being restored to be opened to the public by the summer of 2024, Angela Mason, the Pauli Murray Center’s executive director, said. The space will be multifunctional and include historical exhibits and space for the community to gather.

“Part of our hope is that folks who identify with Reverend Dr. Murray in various ways, whether they’re members of the LGBTQIA+ community, or whether they’re activists in their own right, have the opportunity to use our space to rest to seek joy, but also to strategize and to organize,” Mason said.

Rosita Steven-Holsey, one of Murray’s nieces, visited Durham in 2015 and had an ‘epiphany’ when she saw the work the Pauli Murray Center was doing to honor Murray.

“On that day, January 7, 2015, I made a pledge to start advocating for her, to find out other organizations that were involved somehow in trying to promote her accomplishments and thinking about, ‘what else could I do?’” she said.

Steven-Holsey has now been on the board at the center for almost three years and leads Preserving Pauli Murray, an LLC dedicated to advocacy about Murray’s life and legacy. She has also co-written a book, “Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist,” geared toward educating young people about Murray’s life.

More people are beginning to learn about Murray’s legacy, and is being displayed on a U.S. quarter this year, which Mason said will connect people from all over the country to Murray.

Murray was a lifelong advocate for civil rights and women’s rights, working with the NAACP; writing books, articles and papers; and teaching and administering law.

“She was an educator,” Ross said. “And she believed in challenging your mind on a daily basis, moment to moment.”

According to the Pauli Murray Center’s website, Murray graduated from college in 1933, and applied to UNC for graduate school in 1938. Murray was rejected due to their race, and ultimately graduated from Howard Law School in 1944, the only non-cisgender man in the class.

Murray made history as the first Black person to receive a J.S.D. from Yale University and held positions in law, education and the U.S. government. 

Still, Ross said that everywhere Murray turned, “she was rejected.” 

Murray was rejected by Harvard Law for a fellowship after graduating from Howard due to gender discrimination, and from a position through the U.S. State Department in 1952, according to the Pauli Murray Center’s website.

“It was a constant struggle for her,” Ross said. “About, ‘where where can I be heard? Where can I be seen and valued as the individual that I am?’”

Murray was a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and had a lifelong struggle with their gender identity, according to Mason.

“I think she came to realize— and I say this to the younger family members— she came to realize that she didn’t need to be accepted by anybody or defined by anybody, because she had that from God,” Ross said. “She knew she was accepted and loved by God, and that was enough.”

Murray grew up attending St. Titus’ Episcopal Church in Durham, and in 1973, entered divinity school at the age of 62. In 1977, Murray became the first Black female-presenting person to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.

Beyond the red doors of St. Titus’ current location is a community of people touched by Murray’s legacy. 

Murray was granted sainthood by the episcopal church in 2012, and their legacy is present in the building paneled by light wood, both among the congregants and Reverend Valerie J. Mayo, the church’s rector and a Black woman.

Greg Jacobs, a congregant at St. Titus’, said that the church has had to face the reality that Murray had to overcome various obstacles to become a spiritual leader.

“If we had truly believed in equity and equality in those days, when she was growing up, how much more could she have been?” Jacobs said.

According to Jacobs, Durham residents have connected with Murray’s legacy over the years because Durham is where Murray’s roots are.

Durham has a thick, electric spirit of community, activism and advocacy, Mason said, and everyone— including creators, academics, LGBTQ+ people and people of color— works in solidarity for community uplift.

“I think that is something that is uniquely Durham, and also a through line from Reverend Dr. Murray’s legacy,” she said.