Pauli Murray


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(1910–1985), poet, biographer, historian, lawyer, teacher, activist, and priest.

Born in Baltimore, Pauli Murray was orphaned at age three and raised by her mother's sister in the home of her maternal grandparents (the Fitzgeralds) in Durham, North Carolina. The Fitzgerald family had a profound influence on Murray throughout her life. The aunt who raised her was a teacher, and Murray learned to read and write at a very early age. Her grandfather, wounded in the Civil War as a Union soldier, and among those who set up the first schools for free blacks in North Carolina and Virginia, and her grandmother, daughter of a prominent white North Carolinian and a slave woman, served as strong examples of fortitude. Education, equal rights, and personal faith and courage are themes connecting the various spheres of Murray's work and life.

Murray received her BA from Hunter College in New York in 1933, with an English major and a minor in history. This was the time of the Harlem Renaissance, and Murray had the opportunity to meet figures such as Dorothy West, Countee Cullen, Sterling A. Brown, and Robert Hayden, as well as Langston Hughes, who helped her to publish her first poem, “The Song of the Highway,” in Nancy Cunard's 1934 anthology, Color. At Hunter she also encountered Stephen Vincent Benét—not in person, but through his poem “John Brown's Body,” which strongly affected her. It was seven years, however, before she introduced herself to Benét, sending him an early version of what was to become the poem “Dark Testament.” When she did, he offered encouragement and served as her literary mentor until his death in 1943.

Murray's social and spiritual concerns took her beyond writing, however. She received her initial degree in law from Howard University in 1944. Denied entry to the graduate program at Harvard because she was a woman, Murray received her LLM (1945) from the University of California at Berkeley instead. She practiced law in California and New York and earned the JD from Yale (1965), eventually teaching at Yale and Brandeis, and in Ghana. During the 1940s Murray worked briefly for the National Urban League and was one of the original “freedom riders” protesting bus segregation. She worked to further education rights, bringing legal action against universities for denying women admission to their graduate schools. Murray also was one of the founders of NOW, the National Organization for Women, and in 1977 she was among the first ten women ordained in the Episcopal Church—the first African American woman ever to hold that office.

Years of historical research went into Murray's first major literary publication, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (1956). Tracing the Fitzgerald family history from the time of slavery, it looks unflinchingly at issues of racism, sexism, and miscegenation. Critics have praised its willingness to address the full range of African American experience, in order to claim a past that is both honest and “usable,” and it has been read as a microcosm of African American history as well.


Subjects: Literature — United States History.

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