Pauli Murray (one of the co-founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW)) was ordained on January 8, 1977 as the first female African American Episcopal priest. Murray was born in 1910 in Baltimore, Maryland and had a very full and accomplished life prior to her ordination.
Murray’s mother died when she was young and her father sent her to live with relatives in Durham, North Carolina. Her father was murdered when she was 13. Her aunts and grandmother emphasized education and she graduated at the top of her high school class.
Murray was rejected by Columbia University because it did not admit women. She attended Hunter College and graduated in 1933. She applied to the University of North Carolina for graduate school but was rejected because she was African American. In 1941 Murray entered Howard Law School. While there, she was one of the co-founders of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Murray faced discrimination as the only woman in her law school class, but still managed to graduate first in her class. Men who before her had graduated first in their class at Howard Law School were given a fellowship for graduate work at Harvard Law School. Harvard, however, rejected Murray because of her gender, despite a letter supporting her admission written by President Roosevelt (after Murray had written Eleanor Roosevelt ). Murray attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley law school (Boalt Hall), where she wrote her master’s thesis, “The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment”, the first master’s thesis ever written on that subject.
In 1950 Murray wrote “State’s Laws on Race and Color”, which Thurgood Marshall labeled “the Bible for civil rights lawyers.” The NAACP used it in arguing the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education before the United States Supreme Court.
It was in 1956 that Murray published her family memoir, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. The idea to write the memoir originally came to her shortly after college, but it was due to the encouragement of poet Stephen Vincent Benet, that she interrupted her law practice and devoted four years to researching and writing the book. Of Proud Shoes, a New York Herald Tribune reporter wrote, “[It] is a book of such variety of incident and such depths and changes of tone as to astonish one who mistakes it simply for a family chronicle. It is history, it is biography, and it is also a story that, at its best, is dramatic enough to satisfy the demands of fiction….”
In 1961 Murray was appointed to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. In 1963 she strongly criticized the March on Washington for not inviting any woman to make any of the major speeches and not including women in its delegation of leaders who went to the White House. In 1965 Murray became the first African American to earn her Juris Doctorate (JD) degree from Yale. It was in 1966 that she co-founded NOW and helped to draft its “statement of purpose”. From 1968 to 1973 Murray was a Distinguished Professor of Law and Politics at Brandeis University. During her time at Brandeis she published a prize-winning book of poetry, Dark Testament and Other Poems (1970).
At age 62, after an exemplary career in law, education, writing and politics, Murray decided to enter the seminary and embark on a new career. On January 8, 1977 she became the first African American woman in the United States to become an Episcopalian priest. Interestingly, Murray was a lesbian, though she struggled with identifying herself as such; it was not until 2009 that the American Episcopal Church adopted a resolution in the General Convention declaring that gays and lesbians who had been baptized were eligible for “any ordained ministry,” including becoming bishops (many individual Episcopal churches and dioceses have been more welcoming for many years). She performed her first Holy Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, NC, the same church where her grandmother, a slave, had been baptized. With her ordination Murray felt that finally, “All the strands of my life had come together.”
Murray died in 1987. Her autobiographical work, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (1987) was published two years after her death.
JANUARY 8 BIRTHDAYS
Emily Greene Balch (1867 – 1961) was the co-founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom with Jane Addams. An economist and sociologist, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946, shared with John Mott.
–Nancy Campbell Mead