Born Anna Pauline Murray on November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, Maryland, Pauli Murray lost her parents at a young age and was raised by relatives in Durham, North Carolina. A nearly lifelong activist for racial and gender equality, Pauli Murray became the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1977.
While pursuing higher education, Pauli Murray encountered racism and sexism—unfortunately, common types of discrimination of the 1930s. After graduating from Hunter College in New York City, she was denied admission to the University of North Carolina’s law school because she was African American, and was turned down by Harvard University because she was a woman. These experiences with prejudice led Murray to become active in civil rights and women’s rights movements, and spurred her participation in many sit-ins and other forms of protests.
After receiving law degrees from Howard University and University of California, Pauli Murray worked as a deputy attorney general of California during the 1940s. She spent time in private practice before pursuing a doctorate in law at Yale University in 1960s. When she finished her doctorate in 1965, Murray became the first African American to be awarded a J.D.S. degree from the university. Along with such leading feminists as Betty Friedan, in 1966, Murray became a founding member of a new group that addressed issues of gender equality and women’s rights: the National Organization for Women.
In addition to her work as a social activist, Pauli Murray taught at numerous colleges and universities, including the University of Ghana, and served as president of Benedict College in the 1960s. During the 1970s, she decided to challenge sexual discrimination in the Episcopal Church by entering the priesthood. Murray earned a master’s degree in divinity from Yale in 1976, and she made history the next year when she was officially ordained. She served in churches in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Pittsburgh until her retirement in 1984.
A talented writer and editor of non-fiction and poetry, Pauli Murray had several books published. Showing great versatility in her early works, she tackled complex issues as the editor of 1951’s State’s Laws on Race and Color, and shared her own story in 1956’s Proud Shoes. Later in her career, she explored such diverse topics as Constitution and Government of Ghana (1961) and Human Rights U.S.A. (1967). She also had poetry published, including 1970’s Dark Testament and Other Poems.
Pauli Murray died of cancer on July 1, 1985, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She spent much of her life breaking down the barriers of race and gender in the fight for equality. Murray received numerous awards for her contributions to society, including honorary degrees from Dartmouth College, Radcliffe College and Yale.
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