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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 >>

Skin tone and social class in the African American community of Durham, North Carolina

Murray discusses issues such as skin tone and social class within the African American community in Durham, North Carolina, during the 1910s and 1920s. As a person of mixed racial heritage, Murray recalls her awareness of hierarchies related to skin tone, particularly as she experienced them during her early school years. Additionally, she describes how her family was regarded as middle class, even though they were poor, because of the values they espoused and their standing within the community.

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:
Well, I wonder, your mixed heritage and the whole issue of color in your family, did this cause any particular problems growing up in Durham …
PAULI MURRAY:
Oh, yes. [laughter]
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Problems that were not the same kinds of problems of someone who came from a strictly black heritage and would not have this experience?
PAULI MURRAY:
Well, one of the ways that it showed itself …
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
I think of Harriet, you know.
PAULI MURRAY:
Yes. One of the ways that it showed itself was that I was one of three …the term that they used to use in those days was "light skinned children." Christine Taylor, whom you know as Christine Morris, Lucille Johnson, whom you know as Lucille Johnson Hancock. She is a retired school teacher in Durham. Now, if you recall those types, you know Christine, here were children of …I was much less so, but here were children who were almost indistinguishable from Caucasian children and wherever you are a minority, you know, whether you are a fair skinned minority or even if you are a white minority, a Caucasian minority among black kids … and this is now being spelled out in studies here in the District where there are white kids who are a distinct minority in predominantly black schools, wherever you are a minority you are apt to run into the normal kinds of being the butt of children's cruelty. So, I was very aware of being a minority, a light skinned minority among the kids in school. One of the ways that the other kids in school would enforce this kind of pecking order, they would say, "Black is honest and yellow is dishonest." You know, meaning that you are illegitimate and this was supposed to make you feel terribly ashamed. The very term, "yellow" was meant to be a term of insult.