Durham News

Pauli Murray’s home in Durham designated as a National Historic Landmark

The Pauli Murray house in Durham’s West End neighborhood.
The Pauli Murray house in Durham’s West End neighborhood. Courtesy of the Pauli Murray Project

Her FBI file outlined why Pauli Murray shouldn’t be hired as general counsel for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

She had been a member of the Communist Party of America in the 1930s. She had worn men’s clothing, claimed she was “homosexual” and tried to become a man.

She’d been arrested twice, once on a picket line and again when she wouldn’t move to a broken seat when a white passenger entered a bus, according to a 1967 memo.

Stephen Shulman, the commission’s chairman, noted that people interviewed commented favorably about her, but in light of the concerns raised by the background check “he stated that his problem was to determine how not to give Murray the job as general counsel.” She had been working as a consultant in the position for eight months, a memo states.

Fifty years later, another agency is honoring the same person that the memo discredited.

Murray’s childhood Durham home on Wednesday was named a National Historic Landmark, making it the first site in the state to solely focus on a woman and LGBTQ history.

Murray’s home was among 24 sites named by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell as the National Park Service strives to tell a more inclusive and diverse story of America’s history.

Advocates pointed to her broad accomplishments: a lawyer, the first African-American female Episcopal priest, a civil rights advocate, adviser to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and co-founder of the National Organization for Women.

“(Murray) served as a bridge figure between social movements through her advocacy for both women’s and civil rights,” the U.S. Department of Interior said in a release announcing the landmarks. “Her efforts were critical to retaining ‘sex’ in Title VII, a fundamental legal protection for women against employment discrimination.”

The distance between the FBI file and Wednesday’s announcement demonstrates how the nation is finally catching up to Murray’s ideas about human rights, said Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project at the Duke Human Rights Center.

“What it says is that her more inclusive vision of human rights – which includes rights based on race, gender, and I would argue now sexuality – is something that she picked up and was promoting way earlier than a lot of other people were acknowledging those connections,” Lau said.

Hillside graduate

Murray, a Hillside High graduate, was raised in Durham in the modest house at 906 Carroll Street, which was built in 1898. Murray formulated a legal strategy that drew from the civil-rights movement to support women’s rights and coined the phrase “Jane Crow.”

The Pauli Murray Project and other partners have been working toward national recognition for her story since several entities acquired the house in 2011.

Lau said they are planning a celebration in April and are continuing to raise money to restore the home and convert the property into a community, history and social justice center by 2020.

About 2,500 historic places have been designated National Historic Landmarks, including 39 in North Carolina as of Wednesday.

Only 3 percent of the landmarks nationwide are associated with women, or people of color, or people from the LGBTQ community, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named the home a National Treasure in 2015.

Helena Cragg, chair of the LGBTQ Center of Durham, said Murray broke through various barriers while struggling with her identity. The national recognition of Murray’s home will raise awareness not just about the woman, but about the possibilities, Cragg said.

“The more that folks like myself are exposed to Pauli earlier, that is where the empowerment comes from,” Cragg said.

A strong advocate

The contents in the FBI file center on a background check on Murray after she sought to be general counsel for the EEOC, founded in 1965 to enforce civil rights laws against workplace discrimination.

The memo outlines concerns about her arrests, the association with the communist party and incident in which Murray was found wandering in men’s clothes and said she had been taking hormone treatments at a New York City hospital. Hospital records indicated she was released after two days and diagnosed as schizophrenic, the memo states.

Lau said Murray was associated with some radical individuals and did vote for socialists, but research indicates she wasn’t a member of the communist party. During that period, journal entries indicated she was struggling with her sexuality.

But in general, Lau’s sense was those in power were trying to cast doubt on her character because they didn’t want such a strong advocate for women’s and others’ rights.

Ultimately, Murray was offered the deputy general counsel position at the EEOC. She declined.

The historic designation on her home highlights how Murray’s work is relevant today and and a continued push for a world where more people are allowed to reach their potential, no matter their gender, race or sexual orientation.

“Whose vision are we holding back today?” Lau said. “Who’s pulling us the way Pauli Murray pulled us?”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

5 other national landmarks

▪ Duke Homestead and Tobacco Factory in Durham

▪ North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Durham

▪ Playmakers Theatre in Chapel Hill

▪ State Capitol in Raleigh

▪ The Josephus Daniels House in Raleigh