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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 >>

Refused admittance to University of North Carolina on basis of race

Murray discusses her efforts to gain admittance to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1938. After spending several years living in New York and working on her poetry, Murray returned to North Carolina, partly at the behest of her Aunt Pauline. Murray decided to apply to the law school at UNC, in part because the Thomas Hocutt case was currently in the headlines and she did not think she would be barred from admittance on the basis of race. Nevertheless, Murray was denied entrance for that very reason. She describes her reaction to this event and her efforts to get the NAACP to intervene on her behalf. In so doing, she discusses the role of the NAACP in civil rights legal cases during those years, explaining that they could not help her because various aspects of her case did not ensure its victory.

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

I think the key fact, the thing that made me really apply to the University of North Carolina …well, here again was a convergence of factors, my ostensible reason, and it always seemed to be this way, that I had some family problem, some personal problem that I was trying to work out and what seemed very logical to me, I then began to follow up on. Of course, the minute that I began to follow up on what was very logical to me, I began to run into road blocks. My aunt really wanted me to come home.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
This is Aunt Pauline?
PAULI MURRAY:
Aunt Pauline and Aunt Sally, Now, they were getting older and my problem was that I wanted to get some more education. I wanted to do some graduate work. Well, wouldn't it make great sense to come home and commute to the University of North Carolina and get a graduate degree at the University of North Carolina, either in social science or in law and that would allow me to fulfil my family responsibilities in Durham.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
We find that after the futile attempt of Thomas Hocutt under the auspices of the NAACP to enter UNC School of Pharmacy, Pauli Murray, because of a number of reasons, which you stated, some having to do with family, sees it as a logical thing to do to enter UNC in social science or law school. So, in November of 1938, you apply for a catalog and an application and thereafter, what occurs?
PAULI MURRAY:
They sent me an application blank and they had written into the printed application blank, race and religion. This has been typed in so that it stands out apart from a normal form. I think I answered it but may have said, "But what difference does it make?" Obviously tongue in cheek. In due course, I got back a letter from Dr. Frank Graham, who was the then president of the University of North Carolina, saying, "I'm sorry, but the constitution and the laws of the state of North Carolina prohibit me from admitting one of your race to the law school." 3 * The first letter of rejection dated Dec. 14, 1938, was signed by W. W. Pierson, Dean of the Graduate School. Correspondence with Dr. Graham came later. The Gaines decision was announced Dec. 12, 1938. Either the day after or two days after I received this letter, down came the Supreme Court decision in the Lloyd Gaines case. Now, the Lloyd Gaines case decided in December of 1938 was the beginning of the long read back from Plessy vs. Ferguson, the "separate but equal" decision. Lloyd Gaines, in the educational field, was the start of the long road back to the 1954 decision and what it said was: A state has a responsibility to educate its residents. It cannot shift responsibility to other states by giving out-of-state scholarships. It must give substantially equal facilities to its colored citizens as well as the white or must admit them to the existing institutions. It went on to say that this is a "personal right" and in a sense it does not matter if only one person is seeking it. This, of course, you can imagine …I immediately wrote back to the University of North Carolina and said, "Ah, but here is the Lloyd Gaines case." The story is that, the legend is that Dr. Frank Graham sent my application down to the legislature. Remember that this is now December. The legislature meets around January 5, 1939 something of the sort and says, "Look, what are we going to do with this? Here's the Lloyd Gaines case and here's this application." Presumably, it was the bouncing of the application down to the legislature and the problems that this raised for the legislature, "Look, we can't fool around with this, the issue is upon us," that made it newsworthy and it must have leaked up in that way, because I knew nothing about it and my family knew nothing. I don't even know if I had …maybe I had told my family. I guess that I had.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Since their house was about to be burned, perhaps, you probably mentioned to them. [laughter]
PAULI MURRAY:
And it suddenly burst out over the radio, you know, and came to be sort of national news. But it was this "unidentified Negress." [laughter] It's in the headlines, an "unidentified Negress makes application to the University of North Carolina." This correspondence went back and forth for awhile and then I put the whole stuff together in an envelope and sent it down to the NAACP, namely to Thurgood Marshall, maybe I sent it to Walter White and he referred it to Marshall. Well then to take the cake, I thought, "All right, they couldn't win on Hocutt because of complications and whatnot, but nobody can say anything about the standing and status of Hunter College nor of me in terms of academic standing, and isn't this an answer?" I then got the shock of my life. I learned that the NAACP very carefully picks its cases in these days, they had to win every case, it goes carefully into the background of the person who is going to be the bearer of the case, and all of this being said to a proud Fitzgerald Murray, you know …"What does he mean by ‘going carefully into the background of it?"’ But there was a certain kind of …the way that I read this was, "We have to be very careful of the people that we select. They have to be Simon-pure and you are not quite Simon-pure enough." I was too maverick.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Now, they had special qualifications for test litigants which were designed by Charles Houston when he came as special counsel. Now, by the end of '38, he was moving back to Washington, D.C. and more and more things were coming to Thurgood Marshall's desk. Now, in his letter to you, did he indicate …
PAULI MURRAY:
I think that this was not a letter, I think this was a personal interview.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
In this interview, he indicated that your radical activities had adversely affected their …
PAULI MURRAY:
Might well have been. He might have implied this, you see.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
I see.
PAULI MURRAY:
Now, Conrad Pearson, whom you know …
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Yes, the Assistant Attorney General …
PAULI MURRAY:
Yes, but he used to be the local NAACP …
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
That's right.
PAULI MURRAY:
Conrad was very anxious to go forward with it and to try it anyway, but I had …here is a part of the contradictions in my personality where I am extremely individualistic, but at the same time have a very strong sense of team play and you know, if the National NAACP did not feel that they could take the case, I would hesitate and think a long time before I would sort of "go off the reservation," so to speak. The other legal problem which Thurgood raised was that the Lloyd Gaines case had to do with a state resident and I really was no longer resident of the state of North Carolina. I argued that my ancestral home was there, we have property there, I even owned property there in terms of being part of an heirship of my grandmother's farm, this kind of thing, and besides, if the Fourteenth Amendment, under the Fourteenth Amendment they let in white nonresidents, that same Fourteenth Amendment requires them to let me in. But this did not …
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
Certainly, it's legally arguable, but it did not seem politic, in other words?
PAULI MURRAY:
But note who is making the argument. What I'm really trying to show you is how the logic of the situations in which I found myself and my reaction to them was driving me in a sense, toward a legal career.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
So it seems that despite the sensibleness and the possibility certainly, the legal feasibility of it being argued, it simply did not seem the reasonable thing to do at the time, to go on with that.
PAULI MURRAY:
Right. You see, I was a victim of a policy which obviously the NAACP felt that it must carry out in those early days and that is, it could not afford to lose a case and therefore, it built very carefully every single case that it took up before the Supreme Court so as to almost insure victory. This is understandable. I might as an individual involved, feel terribly disappointed, but if you stand off historically and look at it and see where the NAACP was in those days, fighting a long battle …