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Rejected from UNC 38 years ago, Pauli Murray returns to offer hope

Rejected from UNC 38 years ago, Pauli Murray returns to offer hope

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Rejected from UNC 38 years ago, Pauli Murray returns to offer hope


Sjoerdsma, Ann


The Daily Tar Heel


February 18, 1977


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6 / The Daily Tar Heel / Friday. February 18. 1977

Rejected from UNC 38 years ago, Pauli Murray returns to offer hope

by Ann Sjoerdsma
DTH Contributor

Staff photo by Allen Jernigan

The Rev. Pauli Murray. 66, the first black woman ordained in the Episcopal Church, gave her first sermon at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill Sunday, Feb. 13

A wisp of a smile. A purple ribbon from a box of flowers Eleanor Roosevelt sent her. Her grandmother's Bible. Standing before the multitude of people as she had 14 years ago in Washington, D.C. when she thanked God Almighty she was free at last, Pauli Murray held firmly the Bible, the ribbon, the smile.

“I stand before you now, after rejection from Chapel Hill 39 years ago proclaiming the healing power of Christ’s love."

Sunday in the Chapel of the Cross, the people of Chapel Hill welcomed the Rev. Pauli Murray, the first black woman ordained an Episcopal priest, who had come to deliver her first sermon in the church where her slave grandmother was baptized 122 years ago. Defying the admonition of another well known North Carolinian—Thomas Wolfe—Pauli Murray had come home, again.

She spoke of the future: “Good news—the South is rising out of its own ashes. It is being healed of unclean spirits. We shall overcome. Black and white together"; of the past: “It was my destiny to be the descendant of slaveowners and slaves. My entire life's quest has been for spiritual integration"; and of the present: “I’m on the winning side now.”

But returning to a place is a venture into the past, and it is the past Pauli Murray resurrected Sunday. Her past in Chapel Hill embraces the anguish of slavery, the pride and dogged determination of her educated ancestors and her own struggle to break the color barrier at UNC.

Pauli Murray’s family tree

The Chapel of the Cross baptismal record for Dec. 29. 1854 reveals that on that day were baptized “five servant children belonging to Miss Mary Ruffin Smith. The mother's name is Harriet.” Cornelia Smith, the Rev. Murray’s grandmother, was one of the five children. Harriet Day was Murray's great-grandmother.

Miss Mary Ruffin Smith was the only daughter of James Strudwick Smith, one of two prominent doctors in Orange County in the early 1800s, a state senator for a term and a trustee of the University. He owned 30 slaves, 5.000 acres of land and a plantation in Hillsborough. For Mary's 20th birthday and in recognition of her forthcoming debut into North Carolina society, James Smith gave his daughter a slave, Harriet, a beautiful, fair-skinned woman.

Smith also had two sons, Frank and Sydney, both of whom attended UNC. Sydney, the elder, studied law and went on to serve one term as a state senator: Frank, like his father, was a doctor.

After graduation from the University, both sons returned home and were delighted to discover the lovely new acquisition, Harriet. Bitter and intense jealousy soon developed between the brothers as they vied for Harriet's affections and a place in her bed.

Harriet, however, married a free black farmer, Rubin Day, and had a son. Julius Day. The marriage proved to be only a temporary inconvenience as the brothers soon succeeded in running Day off the plantation. One evening in the year 1843. Sydney Smith waited for Harriet in her cabin. Once she returned, he nailed the cabin door shut and brutally raped her repeatedly.

Frank Smith was incensed when he learned of his brother's conquest and was determined to have Harriet for himself. After nearly beating Sydney to death, he assumed the carnal rights to Harriet. By this time Harriet was pregnant; in 1844, she gave birth to Cornelia Smith, the Rev. Murray’s grandmother.

Frank and Harriet had three daughters, all of whom were baptized in 1854 with Cornelia and Julius Day. The descendants of these children claim Frank and Harriet married, but no records to that effect exist.

Miss Mary Ruffin Smith was mortified by her brothers' scandalous behavior in the slave quarters, but she was powerless to exact a change. To make matters worse, the Smith brothers never married or raised legitimate heirs. Harriet’s near-white children and the conspicuous absence of Smith heirs scandalized Chapel Hill society. Mary Ruffin Smith bore the brunt of the scandal. After the outbreak of the scandal, the Smith family moved to Chapel H ill to evade the scrutiny of the proper Hillsborough social set. Their plantation in Chapel Hill was at the present site of Smith Level Road.

Moved by Christian duty and the disagreeable fact that they were, after all. Smiths. Mary brought the girls into the main house and tutored them in the domestic arts. Mary was an intelligent, pious woman, capable of great compassion: however, she never could fully accept that the four slave girls were her blood nieces.

Abandoned by their fathers, the four girls and Harriet lived with Mary on the Chapel Hill plantation after the war. Both brothers died—Sydney, supposedly of chronic alcoholism in 1868 - and left all their property to their sister, ignoring their illegitimate children.

In 1870 Cornelia married Robert Fitzgerald, an educated northern black man who came to Hillsborough from Delaware to teach in the freedman's schools. Fitzgerald helped establish schools for black freedmen in Virginia and North Carolina. Eventually Cornelia and Robert moved to Durham and lived in the poor black-section of town, a great come down for Cornelia who was Mary Ruffin Smith's favorite, pampered niece.

In 1881 Mary Ruffin Smith died. She divided her land between the two institutions she cherished most the University of North Carolina and the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. Her ties with the University, which she was never able to attend, dated back to the 1790s when her maternal grandfather's offer to give his land to the University as the future site of the institution was turned down. Mary was a long-time parishioner of the Episcopal Church and attended the Chapel of the Cross where she brought the five children for baptism. In her will, she also provided each of her nieces with a 100-acre parcel of land and $250, but the bulk of the girls' rightful inheritance went to the University.

Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald had a daughter Agnes, who was Pauli Murray's mother. Agnes Fitzgerald was a graduate of the Hampton School of Nursing in Virginia and eventually settled with her husband William Murray, a teacher, in Baltimore.

Staff photo by Alan Jernigan
Over 150 years ago, the Rev. Murray's grandmother was one of five slave children baptized at the Chapel of the Cross.
Pauli was different

Agnes Murray had six children. Her sixth child. Pauli, was born in 1910. In 1913 when Pauli's mother was pregnant with her seventh child, she died of a brain hermorrhage. A week before her death. Agnes had written to her sister Pauline in Durham, requesting that if anything should happen to her. Pauli should go to Durham to live with her aunt and grandparents. Pauli was different from the other children, she wrote: Pauli resembled her aunt, who was a schoolteacher.

At the age of three. Pauli Murray went to Durham and was reared on her grandfather Fitzgerald's tales of his African ancestry and on his undying belief that education, hard work and a Christian way of life would bring black people the respectable status in the country that they deserved. And from her grandmother, Cornelia. Pauli Murray learned about her people, the Smiths, who had contributed generously to the growth of the University at Chapel Hill.

This is the story of the Rev. Murray's book Proud Shoes which focuses on the lives of her maternal grandparents, the Fitzgeralds. Proud Shoes was printed in 1956 and created nary a ripple in Chapel Hill, which remained steadfast in its refusal to recognize its slaveholding past.

Pauli Murray followed her grandfather's dictum on education, but soon discovered that doors of higher learning were closed to her on the basis of her color and her sex. After graduation from Hunter College in New York in 1933. she applied for admission to the University of North Carolina Law School in 1938, and was rejected, despite her family connections, because she was black.

The Rev. Murray fought the University decision, and in her own words, threw the University community into a state of excited turmoil.” From January to April 1939, while the state legislature was in session, the battle raged.

In search of social equality

On Feb. 5. 1939. the front page story of the Daily Tar Heel was headlined— "Negro Applicant Seeks Student Opinion; Pauli Murray Sends Questions on Race Relations to Graham.” “What is ‘social equality,' she asked President Frank Graham in a letter containing 10 questions concerning interracial relationships at UNC. “Does the concept of democracy include equal rights for minority groups? To what extent would the admission of a Negro student to the University of North Carolina affect the prestige of the school? If the purposes of higher education are to gain insight into social problems, what valid objection would white students have in admitting a Negro student to their classes?” President Graham answered: it is for the state legislature to decide, not I.

The Rev. Murray followed up her attack on “southern prejudice" with other letters to the Daily Tar Heel and to Graham. In a letter to the DTH, Feb. 17, 1939, she asked. “If a young woman... happens to feel that you have one of the best departments of any university in the country...are you so intellectually ungenerous as to resent her desire to gain the information through normal channels, just because she is colored?” The state legislature answered her in the affirmative.

“By March,” the Rev. Murray said, “the legislature had passed this mealy-mouthed resolution that said when and if requested and if necessary...Negroes would be let in.” The first blacks were admitted to UNC in 1951.

Murray took her case to the NAACP.

Their hands were tied. It was not an air-tight case, and the N AACP did not have the necessary funds to launch a legal counterattack on a large scale. Pauli Murray left Chapel Hill in 1940. bound for Howard University Law School. Her lifetime fight for indivisible human rights had begun.

When asked today about her ordeal with the University, the Rev. Murray says simply, “God did not mean for me to be a lawyer. He wanted me to be a priest.” She feels no anger, no desire for retribution. The decision to reject her application to graduate school was only the first of many setbacks she had to overcome, as a black and as a woman, in a white man's world.

Resisting segregation

In 1940 the Rev. Murray was arrested and convicted in Petersburg. Va. for resisting segregation on an interstate bus. She spent several days in prison in lieu of paying a fine. Three years later, while a law student at Howard, she led “sit-ins” against segregated all-white restaurants in Washington. This two-year protest was instrumental in bringing about the 1953 Supreme Court decision to ban discrimination and segregation in places of public accommodation in Washington.

The Rev. Murray graduated from Howard University Law School, cum laude, in 1944 and applied for graduate admission to the Harvard Law School. She was rejected solely because of her sex. She appealed to the Harvard Board of Overseers, but her appeal was denied. Instead she earned a Master's from the Berkeley School of Law in 1945 and a Ph.D. from Yale in 1965 with a dissertation on the roots of racial crisis.

In 1973 she entered the seminary and graduated cum laude from the General Theological Seminary in New York in 1976. being ordained to the Holy Order of the Deacons of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., on June 9, 1976. When the General Convention of the Episcopal Church authorized the ordination of women to the priesthood beginning Jan. 1, 1977, the Rev. Murray was one of three women and two men to be ordained in Washington's National Cathedral on Jan. 8, 1977.

In the years between graduation from Howard and ordination, the Rev. Murray wrote two books. Proud Shoes and States’ Laws on Race and Color (1951), a collection of poetry. Dark Testament and Other Poems ( 1970), and numerous law reviews and monographs on human rights.

From 1948 to I960 she served in private law practice. She taught constitutional and administrative law in Ghana at the Ghana Law School in the early '60s and later American Studies at Brandeis University. She has also practiced before the Supreme Court.

But above all. she has been a crusader in the struggle for equal rights for women and blacks. As a protege of Eleanor Roosevelt in her youth, the Rev. Murray had the chance to see the modern-day feminist movement at its earliest point.

“Eleanor Roosevelt is the mother of the feminist movement.” she said. “If she were alive today I think she would like to see a woman as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, as president of the United States, as secretary of state.

“I think she is the greatest woman of the 20th century. I think she shows what America can produce. Eleanor Roosevelt was a peak among mountains.”

The Rev. Murray is a member of the Advisory Council of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and was a founding member of NOW, a member of the National Association of Women Lawyers and a life member of the National Council of Negro Women. When a vacant position on the Supreme Court opened in 1971, she wrote to then President Nixon suggesting he appoint her to fill the gap, hoping people would be encouraged to consider women for Supreme Court positions.

“Women are a group of people who from the dawn of patriarchal history have been submerged, alternately touted as the mother of God and as the brazen hussy Eve.” she said at the reception held at the Y-court Monday. “They were ‘slaves.'

“I'm a foot-loose and free, rip-roaring feminist, free of marital and parental responsibilities. My contribution has been to be married to my movement. The pain came with the civil rights movement. I can have fun with the women’s movement now.”

Thus is the past of the Rev. Pauli Murray, attorney, educator, civil rights activist, feminist, priest. A “bridge-builder in a torn world.” says the Rev. Peter Lee, Rector of the Chapel of the Cross.

"It was my destiny to he the descendant of slaveowners and slaves. My entire life’s quest has been for spiritual integration.—The Rev. Pauli Murray

A look ahead

But the Rev. Murray came to talk to the people of Chapel Hill about the future, not the past. According to the slight, gray-haired rebel with a cause, the tone for the future was set at her January ordination when 2,000 people “erupted into happy chaos.”

“This joy. unconfined, is part of the reconciliation,” she said in her sermon. “I see the events of the past two centuries, well, from 1789 when the Constitution was put into effect] to 1976. as efforts to complete the first American Revolution, a revolution marked by the cleansing of vexatious spirits."

January 1977, she believes, was the starting point for the unified spiritual movement of all the American people. The ordination of women to the priesthood and the inauguration of“our first truly Southern president” who was elected by “that strategic black vote" mark the commencement of spiritual integration.

“There is no black Christ, nor white Christ, nor red Christ.” she said. “There is only Christ, the spirit of love and reconciliation, the healer of deep psychological wounds.”

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