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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Multigenerational view of race relations in Durham, North Carolina

Murray draws comparison between race relations in Durham, North Carolina, during her grandparents' and parents' generations during the late nineteenth century and during her own childhood in the 1910s and 1920s. In particular, Murray focuses on the race-related violence of the Ku Klux Klan, drawing from her grandmother's memories as well as her own. Her comments reveal the evolution of race relations and racism over the course of several generations.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Before I ask any more questions specifically about the important members of your family, I would like to get something about what it was like to be in Durham. You describe it in Proud Shoes as a village something like a frontier town and you said that while there was considerable prejudice, "that there was recognition of individual worth and bridges of natural respect between older white and colored families of the town." Now, was this something that only hindsight made you realize or was this something that one could be aware of even in adolescence?
PAULI MURRAY:
No. The quotation that you are giving there was my characterization of post-Civil War Durham in the latter part of the nineteenth century. I am really there talking about the climate in which my parent's generation, my mother and her sisters and brother grew up in and the time in which my grandparents and their generation were in their prime. Durham being this really post-Civil War town, it did not exist before the Civil War, so it had no background tradition of slavery and the Confederacy and all this sort of thing, and it being this kind of frontier town, it meant that people like my grandfather and his brother, my great uncle, Richard Burton Fitzgerald, coming into the town and being resourceful businessmen, had a rough respect of their white counterparts. And this would be true of families. One would recognize the Fitzgeralds, along with maybe the Hills and the Carrs and the Dukes, not necessarily …when I use these terms, not suggesting that there were any social contacts between them, but simply a recognition that these were hard working, respectable families, good solid citizens of the community. And there was this rough respect.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Now, do you say that this continued?
PAULI MURRAY:
I suspect that by the time I came along it was not the same. You know …oh, I am trying to think of our historian who wrote The Nadir …
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Rayford Logan.
PAULI MURRAY:
Rayford Logan, he talks about the nadir of Negro life and around 1900 to 1915 was simply the lowest, the very lowest ebb, and I think that I came along in Durham, and I came to Durham around 1914 when I was about three, I imagine that I grew up in sort of the aftermath of that lowest period, in which segregation had now become legal …somewhere between 1900 and 1910, you know, all the segregation laws began to pile one on top of another …and therefore, everything was clamped down tight in terms of rigid legal segregation of the races, lynching was still continuing, perhaps not as intense as it had been earlier, but it was still done and you would get maybe fifty or sixty people a year being lynched and lynching was something always in the background. You know, the terror of lynching was always in the background. The awareness of the Ku Klux Klan was always in the background.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
At what point in your life did you become sensitive to these kinds of racial distinctions, primarily the restrictions and the terrorization of this violence that was a part of being an Afro-American or a Negro or a black in the town? And then also, were you aware of color distinctions, that is, between mulattos and the darker and did this make any difference at all in terms of the Durham community?
PAULI MURRAY:
Let me see, let me answer these one by one. I suppose this awareness to a child of my generation grows with you just like almost a part of your body and your being. It is hard to say when you become aware because you take it in all of the time. I don't remember, for example, lynchings being prominently portrayed in the newspapers, but we would hear about them by word of mouth. You know, (whispering) "Somebody got lynched over in So-and-So County last night." I think that sometimes, they were even suppressed in the newspapers, but one was aware of it. It was something that one was aware of. Awareness of segregation …of course wherever you went in town, you saw the "White" signs, the "Colored" signs, drinking fountains, anytime that one would go down into the public center of town, one would be very, very conscious of it. Obviously, one would be conscious of separate schools and separate churches and the older people talking. It's something that you simply grow up with. It's not something that you suddenly experience. Now, there may be particular experiences.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
So therefore, you had no particular experiences such as Benjamin Mays or Malcom X., who might have had a Ku Klux Klan experience, that kind of violence perpetrated upon the family immediately or directly?
PAULI MURRAY:
No, only my grandmother's and my grandfather's memories, my grandmother would tell me about the Ku Klux Klan riding around her little cabin up in Chapel Hill and how sometimes she would get up at midnight and walk the twelve miles to Durham because she was afraid to stay there. This was during Reconstruction times when apparently the Ku Klux Klan was not very happy to have a person of color owning property. But for myself, not probably until I was about eight or nine did I have any experience that dramatized it for me. As a girl, obviously there would be a certain kind of protected life, I would not be as much …I wouldn't be as free to roam or to go around by myself, let us say, as probably the males were. Also, I would be probably less the target of male aggression, white male aggression, as a girl.