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Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    Pauli Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1910. A few years thereafter, her mother died, and she went to live with her Aunt Pauline in Durham, North Carolina. Murray begins the interview with a discussion of her early memories of her family before shifting the focus to her childhood and adolescent years in Durham. Murray offers a vivid comparison of race relations in that area over the span of three generations, noting important class distinctions, hierarchies related to skin tone, and the evolution of racial violence. Murray recalls her early school years with fondness and argues that she was imbued with a strong sense of racial identity both at home and in school. Shortly following her graduation from high school, Murray turned down a full scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio because she had already determined that she no longer wanted to have a segregated education. During the late 1920s, Murray established residency in New York so she could attend Hunter College, a women's school where she was one of a handful of African American students. Murray describes some of her experiences at Hunter College (she graduated in 1933) and her decision to stay in New York for a few years while working on her poetry.

    During the late 1930s, Murray returned to North Carolina, partly at the behest of her Aunt Pauline, with the intention of pursuing graduate work at the University of North Carolina. In 1938, Murray was declined admittance to UNC because of her race. Her unsuccessful effort to challenge the decision was the first of three pivotal experiences in her journey towards pursuing a career in law. The second occurred shortly thereafter, in 1940, when Murray and a friend were arrested for violating segregation statutes and for creating a public disturbance when riding a Greyhound bus through Petersburg, Virginia. On the coattails of her arrest and short prison term, Murray began to work for the Workers Defense League, specifically with the legal defense effort for Odell Waller, an African American sharecropper sentenced to death for the murder of his white landlord. Her work on this case was the third pivotal incident, and it led her to meet Leon Ransom, who arranged for her to attend Howard University on a full scholarship. During her years in law school at Howard University, Murray continued to pursue her interests in matters of racial justice; however, it was also during those years that she became acutely aware of gender discrimination. After her graduation, Murray pursued further education at the University of California, Berkeley, and worked briefly as the Deputy Attorney General of California before accepting a position with a law firm in New York. During the early 1960s, Murray traveled to Ghana where she helped set up a law school. In addition to describing her work there, she also offers a unique perspective on African politics during the early 1960s. After her return to the United States, Murray worked as a law professor at Brandeis University and continued her political involvement on the Civil and Political Rights committee of the President's Commission on the Status of Women and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1973, she left her position at Brandeis in order to enter the seminary, in part because she believed that the civil rights and women's liberation movements had become too militant and that an emphasis on reconciliation would better result in equality. The remainder of the interview is devoted to a discussion of Murray's poetry, her book Proud Shoes, and her views on racial and class differences within the women's movement.

  • Multigenerational view of race relations in Durham, North Carolina
  • Skin tone and social class in the African American community of Durham, North Carolina
  • Refusal to attend segregated university
  • Importance of racial identity and sense of community
  • Influential professor at Hunter College
  • Refused admittance to University of North Carolina on basis of race
  • Arrested for violation of segregation statutes and public disturbance
  • Defense of Odell Waller
  • Development of "conscious feminism"
  • Decision to become a seminarian
  • Thoughts on feminism and the "double victimization" of African American women
  • Learn More
  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • Subjects
  • Women lawyers--North Carolina
  • North Carolina--Race relations
  • African American lawyers
  • Segregation in transportation--North Carolina
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.