Life Story: Pauli Murray (1910-1985)
Bringing the Struggles of Identity to the Fight for Civil Rights
The story of a woman who advocated for full equality, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality.
Content Warning: This life story references physical and sexual violence.
Pauli Murray was born Anna Pauline Murray on November 20, 1910 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was the fourth of six children. Her mother, Agnes, was a nurse. Her father, Will, was a college-educated high school teacher. When Pauli was three her mother died suddenly. Her father suffered from depression and divided his children among relatives. Pauli was sent to live in Durham, North Carolina, with her Aunt Pauline.
Aunt Pauline was a teacher and an important influence on Pauli. She enrolled Pauli in school, took her to church, and encouraged her to embrace self-expression. When Pauli played with toys and wore clothes typically given to boys, Aunt Pauline did not object.
Pauli understood the horrors of life under Jim Crow at a young age. Her family lived in constant fear of the Ku Klux Klan, and her father was brutally murdered by a white guard while living in a mental hospital.
Pauli’s understanding of race was further informed by her family’s mixed heritage. Several of Pauli’s ancestors were the children born out of sexual violence between white slave owners and enslaved black women. Pauli described her family as a “mini-United Nations,” with varying shades of skin color. Life in segregated Durham presented the world as white versus black, but Pauli’s own heritage defied that division.
Pauli excelled at school. She taught herself to read at the age of five, completed sixth grade at 10, and graduated high school at 15. Pauli’s family encouraged her to attend a black college, but Pauli did not want to be part of a segregated school system yet again.
Aunt Pauline supported Pauli’s decision to apply to her dream school, Columbia University. However, Columbia did not accept women, and its sister school, Barnard College, was too expensive. Pauli was furious. To her, segregation by gender and economic status was just as bad as segregation by race.
Pauli enrolled at Hunter College in New York City, a racially integrated women’s college that offered free tuition. She rented a room at the Harlem YWCA and took odd jobs waitressing and answering phones to pay rent. She saved money by skipping meals and wearing secondhand clothes. At the YWCA, she attended lectures by some of the most important figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, A. Philip Randolph, Mary Church Terrell, and Mary McLeod Bethune.
Throughout all of this, Pauli was involved in a personal struggle. She continued to prefer male clothing. She rejected the name Anna and experimented with various nicknames, including Paul, Pete, and the Dude. She eventually settled on Pauli. She cut her hair short and wore pants instead of skirts. On a hitchhiking trip, she and a friend wore Boy Scout uniforms to pass as boys, and Pauli successfully used a men’s bathroom undetected. She felt confused and frustrated by her physical attraction to women.
In private, Pauli began to see herself as a man. However, she continued to present as a woman. Pauli spent hours at the library reading the latest research about gender and sexuality. She went to counseling and asked doctors to examine her body. She suffered regular mental breakdowns and struggled to understand her feelings. The term “transgender” did not enter the vocabulary until the 1960s, and hormone therapy and surgical reassignment procedures were very new and not easily accessed. There were very few supports for anyone who did not align with society’s heteronormative expectations.
Despite these personal struggles, Pauli graduated in 1933. She struggled to find full-time work and sought public assistance. She worked under the New Deal’s Federal Relief Association and Works Progress Administration and moved frequently. She also made money writing poems, articles, and opinion pieces.
In 1938, Pauli applied to the University of North Carolina to study sociology, which rejected her application with a letter stating “members of your race are not admitted.” Out of frustration, she wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. To Pauli’s great surprise, Eleanor wrote back. While she could not help, the first lady wrote that she believed necessary changes were slowly taking place and that Pauli should keep fighting. This exchange led to a decades-long friendship between the two.
Pauli enrolled at Howard University’s law school in 1941, just as the United States entered World War II. As the only woman in her class, Pauli experienced sexism. Pauli formulated an idea she called “Jane Crow” to describe this double discrimination and actively discussed it with anyone willing to listen. As a poor woman of color who struggled with her gender and sexuality, she saw firsthand how multiple factors made up someone’s identity. Race was just one part of the equal rights puzzle.
“The discovery that…men I deeply admired because of their dedication to civil rights…. could countenance exclusion of women… aroused an incipient feminism in me long before I knew the meaning of the term ‘feminism.’”
At Howard, Pauli led student protests and helped form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She focused her studies on civil rights and wrote her thesis on how laws excluded people based on race.
After graduation in 1945, Pauli accepted the job of deputy attorney general for the state of California. She was the first African American to hold such a title in the state. Pauli officially worked on housing and employment discrimination, but her unofficial role was helping her white colleagues understand the particular challenges facing the black community. She regularly published articles and quickly gained the attention of women activists. In the spring of 1946, the National Council of Negro Women named her one of 12 “Women of the Year.” Later that year, the national magazine Mademoiselle bestowed a similar honor upon her.
By 1947, Pauli was back in New York. She published her first book, States’ Laws on Race and Color. In it, she explained the complexities of legal segregation. Her book became one of the Thurgood Marshall’s references when arguing Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court.
Pauli’s work throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s brought her into contact with leaders of both the civil rights and women’s movements. The lack of intersection between the two left Pauli frustrated. In 1963, she complained to A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when they failed to include a single female speaker at the March on Washington. In 1966, she partnered with Betty Friedan to form the National Organization for Women (NOW), but worried it did not do enough to include women of color and working-class women.
In 1965, she became the first black person to graduate with a doctorate in judicial science from Yale. That same year she co-wrote Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII. In it, she described how racial segregation and gender segregation were more similar than many realized.
Throughout all of this, Pauli kept her personal struggle with her gender identity a secret. Although she worked tirelessly for women’s rights, she did not know if she was a man or a woman. Since the 1950s, she had maintained a secret relationship with fellow lawyer Renee Barlow.
In 1973, Renee died of a brain tumor. Pauli was devastated. She and Renee had bonded over their Christian faith, and Pauli found comfort in that connection. She enrolled in a seminary and, in 1977, the Episcopal Church ordained her as their first black woman priest. Many were shocked that she left the law, but Pauli saw it as another form of service. Instead of writing briefs and organizing groups, she preached and visited the sick.
Although Pauli never publicly acknowledged her struggle with identity, her private papers suggest that she found peace in her faith. She believed God made her for a reason. Perhaps it was her mission to be at the intersection of so many categories—black and white, male and female, queer and straight.
Pauli Murray died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 1, 1985. Her autobiography, which never mentioned her personal struggle with identity, was published posthumously.
CURRICULUM WRITER’S NOTE: Although recent research suggests that Pauli Murray privately identified as a man for most of her life, she publicly identified as a woman. Historians continue to debate the best pronouns to use when writing about Pauli. In WAMS, we have chosen to use she/her/hers in alignment with Pauli’s own writings, and encourage educators to discuss and debate the implications of this choice with students.
- A. Phillip Randolph: An African American leader in the civil rights movement.
- attorney general: A lawyer who represents the government of a geographic area.
- Barnard College: A women’s college in New York City affiliated with Columbia University.
- Betty Friedan: A feminist activist and author, best known for writing The Feminine Mystique in 1963.
- Brown v. Board of Education: The landmark Supreme Court case that declared the notion of racially segregating schools under the “separate but equal” policy was unconstitutional.
- Columbia University: A prestigious university in New York City.
- Congress of Racial Equality (CORE): An African American civil rights organization.
- Episcopal: A form of Christian protestant religion.
- Federal Relief Administration: A government agency that provided paid work for Americans in need.
- Harlem Renaissance: A term used to describe the intellectual, artistic, and creative output of African Americans in Harlem in the 1920s.
- heteronormative: Relating to public attitudes that define heterosexuality as the only normal sexual orientation.
- Howard University: One of the most famous historically black colleges in the United States. Located in Washington, D.C.
- Jim Crow: A term used to describe policies and actions that segregated black Americans from mainstream society and denied them equal rights.
- Ku Klux Klan (KKK): A national organization that promoted an America made up entirely of white, Protestant, native-born Americans. Inspired by the KKK of the 1870s, which was a secret organization focused on terrorizing black citizens in the post-Civil War South.
- Langston Hughes: A famous Harlem Renaissance poet, novelist, playwright, and activist.
- March on Washington: One of the most important civil rights demonstrations in American history. Took place in 1963 and included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
- Mary Church Terrell: A nineteenth-century suffragist and black rights activist.
- Mary McLeod Bethune: An education and civil rights advocate who sat on FDR’s “black cabinet.”
- National Organization of Women (NOW): An activist organization for women founded in 1966.
- New Deal: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s national program for stimulating the American economy during the Great Depression. Included employment, housing, and social service support systems.
- posthumously: After a person’s death.
- segregated: Separated by race, sex, or other category.
- thesis: A major research projected completed by a student in a higher-education program.
- W. E. B. DuBois: A civil rights leader and activist of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
- Works Progress Administration (WPA): A program under the New Deal that employed approximately 8.5 million men and women in a variety of jobs.
- YWCA: The Young Women’s Christian Association, an organization that provided classes and social services for young women.
- Learn more about the challenges African American women faced in the post-war era by combining this life story with the artwork of Elizabeth Catlett.
- Pauli was a college student in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. Explore this history more by connecting her life story to those of Zora Neale Hurston and Bessie Smith.
- Pauli struggled to pay rent and stay in school throughout the Great Depression. Connect her life story to the resources in that section to add another woman’s voice to the discussion. In particular, how does her experience align to the idea of unattached women?
- Pauli met many important figures in her life, including Mary Church Terrell, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Read these women’s life stories and consider how they might have shaped Pauli and her beliefs, and how she might have had an impact on them.
- Pauli’s Jane Crow concept embodied an idea that many black women attempted to articulate in earlier generations. Think about the notion of Jane Crow in conjunction with any of the following resources: the life stories of Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Madam C.J. Walker, Maggie Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston; Fannie Barrier Williams’ article in the Chicago Defender; the article about black suffragists; the account of black social workers in WWI; photographs of African American war workers and African American WAACs; and more resources found in the Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow curriculum guide.
- Connect Pauli’s life story to other LGBTQ individuals within WAMS, including Thomas(ine) Hall, the Public Universal Friend, and Bessie Smith.
ACTIVISM, BLACK EXPERIENCES, EDUCATION, GREAT DEPRESSION, GREAT MIGRATION, HARLEM RENAISSANCE, JIM CROW, LAW & LEGAL STATUS, POLITICS & GOVERNMENT, RACE & RACISM, WORK, QUEER HISTORY