Black History: The Life of Pauli Murray

Happy Black History Month! Celebrate with Become All and learn about Black figures and history that you may not know about throughout the month of February (and beyond). To start….

Meet Pauli Murray, or, more correctly: Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray. All those titles offer a glimpse of their dynamic life and achievements. Pauli did a lot during their lifetime and had a wide-ranging impact on the Civil Rights Movement. Plus, Pauli’s an often-unsung LGBTQ+ icon.  

(Note: Scholars and historians still debate which pronouns to use for Pauli Murray. Some say that if Pauli were alive today, they may have identified as a transgender man—but this was not clearly established by Pauli while they were alive. Some historians say Pauli identified as gender-nonconforming. I will use they/them pronouns, in accordance with the latest guidance from The Pauli Murray Center

Pauli Murray was born on November 20, 1910 in Baltimore, Maryland, one of six children. They faced tragedy early on in life: In 1914, their mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. And later, their father suffered from both depression and typhoid fever. In 1923, he was murdered by a white guard while staying at the Crownsville State Hospital.

Pauli then moved to Durham, North Carolina and was raised by their aunt and grandparents.

As a child, Pauli was incredibly bright. It’s said that they taught themself how to read by age 5 and they were always a top student.

In 1926, Pauli moved to New York City to attend Hunter College, studying English Literature. In the city, Pauli met people like W.E.B. Dubois and Langston Hughes, and had a front-row seat to the Harlem Renaissance, watching greats like Cab Calloway perform live. 

They graduated in 1933 and shortly after, changed their name from “Anne Pauline” to “Pauli”. During this time, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Pauli often felt that they were a man trapped in a woman’s body. They started pursuing gender-affirming treatments, like hormone therapy, treatments for which they were routinely denied.

Pauli worked as a teacher as part of the Works Project Administration, a post-Great Depression, nationwide employment and infrastructure program created as part of the New Deal. Pauli also wrote poetry and articles for numerous publications, including the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine.

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Pauli used their passion for education not just as a tool to learn and teach, but to protest inequality and segregation. In 1938, Pauli applied to a graduate program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a school that, at the time, still did not accept Black students. They created a campaign around it, and was ultimately denied.

But this was just the beginning of Pauli’s civil disobedience. They later joined the Fellowship for Reconciliation, an interfaith peace and justice group, where they worked to end segregation in America’s public transportation system. In 1940, Pauli refused to sit in the back of a bus while traveling from New York to North Carolina, years before Rosa Parks did the same in Montgomery, Alabama. Pauli was arrested and put in jail for this protest.

Later, Pauli worked with the Workers Defense League, advocating to help an imprisoned sharecropper. Pauli also wrote to FDR about taking racial justice more seriously in the U.S., which caught the attention of his wife and first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, sparking a friendship between the two.  

Pauli went on to Howard University’s Law school, where they wrote a paper that eventually became part of the backbone of Brown v. Board of Education, the legal challenge to the Plessy v. Ferguson, a Supreme Court decision which ruled that segregation was, indeed, constitutional.

From there, Pauli went on to UC-Berkeley School of Law and later, was the first African-American to earn a JSD from Yale Law School in 1965.

Pauli practiced law and joined numerous other groups, like the National Organization for Women, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and more. 

Then in 1977, Pauli turned to their spiritual roots, becoming the very first African-American woman (as identified back then) Episcopal priest in the country. According to the National Women’s History Museum, Pauli gave their first Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross church in Chapel Hill, a short walk from the school that rejected them years prior due to the color of their skin. 

Pauli passed away in 1985, leaving behind a remarkable and dynamic legacy that prioritized justice, equality, and self-determination. 

I hope you’re inspired by the life of Pauli Murray and take the time to share their story with others. Here, again, is a link to learn more.


My friend Sophie Rutstein Ansari is an artist and creator who made a really cool video about Pauli Murray on her Youtube channel (check it out here!) Before that, I had never heard of Pauli Murray and was thrilled to learn about all Pauli did in their lifetime—so much!

Illuminating Black History is something I am not just passionate about as a storyteller and Black woman in this country, but just as a person. Now more than ever, we see that learning history matters, and something we must fight to protect.

Please comment below with any other figures you’d like me to cover!

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Thanks for reading!

— Cynthia Betubiza. February 1, 2022.

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