Written by April Johnson
Dr. Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, an orphan, was born in1910 and raised by grandparents Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald in Durham, NC. Pauli’s grandfather and great uncle established economic stability as landowners, educators and business leaders in the community and stood for everything the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws fought to prevent.
Pauli became an activist in her twenties, later emerging as a leader in the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Pauli was also a writer, poet, teacher, feminist and a first of a few things. She was the first African American woman to receive a J.D.S. from Yale University and the first African American woman to become an Episcopal priest. During her career, Pauli worked with Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall and Philip Randolph.
Today, the one-and-a-half story I-house where Pauli grew up sits far back from the road up against a cemetery. It stands tall and distinct from the other houses around it, but is vacant, rancid, trashed and constantly broken into by vagrants. For years now the community organized meetings to figure out how the house can be saved. Finally, thanks to the Pauli Murray Project, the talking is turning into action. Baby steps, but action!
There is a core group of organizations thinking and strategizing about what to do to celebrate Pauli Murray’s childhood home. I volunteered for this project like a schoolgirl raising her hand in the classroom shaking her arm uncontrollably nearly falling out of her seat. Once I read only a few chapters of Pauli Murray’s autobiography Proud Shoes, I knew I was in.
A problem facing the groups is that the house has been altered a bit, so at least two applications to the State Historic Preservation Office were not approved for the study list. I was discouraged and didn’t think much else of it until I took my survey advisor with me to help me decide on historic district boundaries for the neighborhood where the house is located. She too turned into that schoolgirl and urged me to send in the application again. What?!
So now I’m excited about working with the Pauli Murray Project, the Durham Quality of Life Council and self-help, yes I said it…self-help. Our priority is getting the funds for the work and yes we take checks, credit cards and cash. I will work on documentation and submitting a nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. Our mission is to save this house and make it a place to remember Pauli Murray’s activism and create a sense of community pride. Maybe later we’ll decide on what we’d like to do with the house once it rehabilitated.
April Johnson is the Documentation of African American Historic Sites Coordinator for Preservation Durham in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation Partners in the Field program.