Rediscover the oft-overlooked legacy of one of the most important figures in civil rights, women's rights, and LGBT history
As a mixed-race woman growing up in the segregated South, she encountered injustice and learned from her family how to combat it. “The ideals and influences within my own family had made me a life-long fighter against all forms of inequality and injustice,” she wrote in her most famous book, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family.
As an adult, she was a professional nomad, but her formative years were spent with her grandparents and aunt in a small and simple Durham, North Carolina house built ca. 1898 by Murray’s grandfather, Robert Fitzgerald, who was a Union Civil War veteran. Murray herself was a descendant of both slaves and slave holders.
Her family valued education. Murray earned law degrees from Howard University, Yale University, and the University of California, often breaking barriers as she went. In 1951, she wrote The States' Law on Race and Color, which Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible for civil rights lawyers.” She was an advisor and friend to Eleanor Roosevelt and was appointed by John F. Kennedy to his President's Commission on the Status of Women Committee on Civil and Political Rights in 1961.
Murray worked tirelessly in the struggle to achieve equal rights for African-Americans and for women. She sat down on buses and sat in at lunch counters in the 1940s, and she penned the memorandum sent to the U.S. Congress advocating for women’s rights in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In 1966, Murray co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), created to mobilize women, give women’s rights advocates the power to put pressure on employers and the government, and to promote full equality of the sexes. She helped write the organization’s original mission statement.
At age 62, Pauli Murray entered seminary seeking ordination. In 1977, she became the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. She offered communion for the first time at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 123 years after her grandmother had been baptized there as a slave.
The Pauli Murray House (a National Treasure of the National Trust for Historic Preservation) was designated a National Historic Landmark on April 1, 2017. It currently operates as a museum with rotating exhibits, with plans in place for the interior’s renovation. Fundraising efforts continue in earnest for the Pauli Murray Project, which endeavors to open the home to the public as the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in 2020.
RELATED: Learn more about the historic library at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where Pauli Murray attended from 1941-1944.
If you're passionate about African-American history, you'll appreciate this interview with public historian Russell P. Hopson about black history connected to Virginia's historic James River.
Clementine Hunter began work at Melrose Plantation in Louisiana as a farmhand, and later became a maid and a cook. While housekeeping, she discovered some paint that was discarded by a visiting artist. From this beginning, Hunter began painting.
She created more than 4,000 paintings over four decades, depicting scenes such as cotton picking, wash day, pecan gathering, Saturday nights, church scenes, and her favorite flowers, zinnias. In 1955, at the age of 68, Hunter completed her most famous work, the African House murals. They were painted with oil on plywood and installed on the second floor of the African House on the Melrose property.
Hunter was the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Although she lived in poverty and sold her paintings for as little as a quarter during her lifetime, today her paintings sell to collectors for thousands of dollars. Her works have been exhibited at galleries across the country, including the American Folk Art Museum, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Dallas Museum of Art, and the Louisiana State Museum.