Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The primary character in Pauli Murray’s memoir is the author herself. Murray was a prominent attorney, civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, law professor, Episcopal minister, and poet, among other roles. The memoir was published two years after her 1985 death from pancreatic cancer. As it is concerned with her entire life and multi-faceted career in law and theology, the memoir includes hundreds of characters. Murray pays close attention to her family, especially the maternal side, the Fitzgeralds, whom she had profiled in the 1956 Proud Shoes. Because she felt so strongly that she owed her success to the fundamental beliefs and practices that her family instilled in her, Murray decided to devote a considerable portion of the memoir to them.
Numerous other characters are famous, public persons such as Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she counted as a friend, and lawyers who went on to great achievements in civil rights and women’s issues, notably the future US Supreme Court justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as Betty Friedan, with whom she co-founded the National Organization for Women. Murray and the woman she describes as her “closest friend,” Irene (Renee) Barlow, were life partners for seventeen years.
Pauli’s mother died when the girl was four years old, and three years later her father was permanently committed to a mental institution. One of her aunts adopted her, and another aunt participated heavily in raising her; as these Fitzgerald sisters, Pauline and Sallie, were both teachers, they ensured that education held a prominent place in her upbringing. They were also involved in civic projects and encouraged her to take risks and uphold high standards that would uplift “the race.”
Through a combination of naïveté and outspokenness, college-age Pauli Murray wrote letters to both President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt decrying racial segregation at the University of North Carolina, where he had recently spoken. The First Lady responded, beginning what would be a life-long correspondence that later became a friendship. Before Murray entered law school at Howard University, she worked for the Workers Defense League; Mrs. Roosevelt’s shared interest in the defense of Odell Waller, an African-American man accused of murder, brought them into contact in Washington. This friendship had its bumpy moments, however; during the Second World War, Roosevelt strongly objected to Murray’s associating Japanese-American internment with black civil rights issues. In the 1960s, when Roosevelt—in one of her last professional activities before her death—was Chair of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, Murray accepted her invitation to become a member. Murray’s friendship with Roosevelt is further explored in Patricia Bell Scott’s The Firebrand and the First Lady.
The intensity of her connection and the deep commitment she shared with Renee Barlow emerges clearly in the memoir, although she is not fully open that they had a sexual as well as platonic relationship (those aspects appear in her unpublished personal letters). They met when Barlow was the office manager at a law firm where Murray worked. Murray writes of the “sheer joy” in their friendship and of the “chemistry” between them. Murray writes movingly of the experience of staying by her bedside while Renee was dying of cancer and of her role in helping care for her friend’s elderly mother in those same months. After Renee’s death, Murray decided to embark on another path, taking her away from law into theology. Their shared Episcopal faith would be explored further in a new “mission on earth”: she obtained a divinity degree and became one of the first black or female ordained Episcopal ministers.