Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Growing up in North Carolina in the early twentieth century, Pauli Murray was aware of both class and race distinction. Although her immediate family was of limited means, some of her black relatives were very well-to-do. This knowledge stayed with her, shaping her confidence in African American success in all endeavors.
Despite the fact that Great-uncle Richard’s family was referred to as the “rich Fitzgeralds” and my grandfather’s family as the “poor Fitzgeralds,” the family bond was a countervailing force against the view that colored people were inferior. All around me among my own kin was evidence that a Fitzgerald was somebody.
Her female relatives were socially aware activists, who helped her learn about instances of injustice as well as progress. She recalls them constantly talking about racial advancement, as they declared: “The race is moving forward! You simply can’t keep the race down!”
Murray is straightforward about her great ambitions that were sometimes mismatched with limited information. Determined to attend “Columbia” college in New York, she confused Columbia Teachers College with Columbia University, which was still gender segregated, and she was unaware of the high tuition at the females’ counterpart, Barnard College. These were among the reasons that she entered a public school, Hunter College—after repeating a year of high school in New York to make up numerous deficiencies from her North Carolina school’s curriculum. When she finally enrolled there,
I was thrust into a strange world, the only colored person among four thousand students . . . I could not throw off the anxiety that plagued me during those first few months; I had never competed with white children before . . .
After finishing college, Murray later applied to the University of North Carolina, intending to do graduate work in sociology. In the 1930s, “separate but equal” provisions were being put to the test as increasing numbers of black students applied to all-white schools. However, in 1939, UNC used race as the criterion for denying her admission, informing her that she should apply to an all-black school. She immediately wrote in reply that she would consider legal action, and her case gained widespread attention in the press, ranging from praise for her stance (although she was not named) to death threats. She told the school’s president:
It would be a victory for liberal thought in the South if you were favorably disposed toward my application instead of forcing me to carry the issue to the courts.
Eventually, she was not admitted, and later opted for law school at a prominent historically black university, Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her stay in Washington coincided with the US entry into World War II. In law school, she experienced gender discrimination within the all-black student body.
During my first year at Howard there were only two women in the law school student body, both of us in the first-year class. When the other woman dropped out before the end of the first term, I was left as the only female for the rest of that year, and I remained the only woman in my class for the entire three-year course.
Although there was little overt hostility from the male students, the professors were all male and often condescending; one of them commented that the men would have to “put up” with the women who, for a reason he could not fathom, wanted to attend law school.
Much later, after having become an attorney and forging a distinguished career, Murray also attend Yale Law School. During that period, she noted one of the highlights of her professional life. President Kennedy established the Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, and Murray was asked to become a member and to write a position paper on the applicability of the Fourteenth Amendment to gender issues. The Commission saw her as
the logical person to make this inquiry because of my academic background in civil rights cases under the Fourteenth Amendment. When I undertook the study . . . I certainly did not anticipate that the resulting memorandum would play a strategic role in the formation of Commission policy.