Black History They Didn’t Teach You in School:
Pauli Taught Me
By Shereá Denise
Originally written for Guerilla Glam.
I was sitting in a college classroom the first time I learned about how instrumental the city of Durham, NC and its people had been in the Civil Right Movement. In the years following, Twitter and Google brought Anna Pauline "Pauli" Murray to my attention. The more I researched Pauli, the more I learned about myself. Pauli has become a point of reference in my writing – if for no other reason than – because that was one of many ways in which Pauli chose to leave an overlooked but undeniable mark on the state of North Carolina, the nation, and the Black children of all ages who are looking for guidance in embracing who they are, who they love, and in writing their own stories.
Anna Pauline "Pauli" Murray was born on November 20, 1910 in Baltimore, MD. After the deaths of her parents, Pauli was sent to Durham, NC to live with relatives. After graduating from high school, Pauli sought to become a Civil Rights Attorney, but was met with discrimination in the world of academia due to her race and her gender. For this reason, Pauli became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, but was disheartened to experience similar gender-based discrimination within the movement as well. (https://paulimurrayproject.org/pauli-murray/biography/)
Despite the efforts to push women to the background in the Civil Rights Movement, Pauli quickly became known for her unwillingness to back down or to stay on the sidelines. She was arrested for attempting to integrate public transportation in Virginia fifteen years before Rosa Parks. She organized restaurant sit-ins in Washington, D.C. twenty years before the sit-in movement gained attention in Greensboro, NC. She served as a necessary connector between the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. (https://now.org/about/history/finding-pauli-murray/)
While participating in the Civil Rights Movement and furthering her education, Pauli began gaining attention for her writing. She published articles, poems, and essays in various magazines and publications. Pauli used her words and her writing to boldly and poignantly address the issues of society that she encountered, that she witnessed, and that she believed needed to be eradicated.
Among those who know of Pauli Murray, she is most well-known for her writing, her work as an Attorney, and the fact that she was chosen as the first African American woman to serve as an Episcopal Priest. But, in the LGBTQ+ Community, Pauli is and should be recognized for an additional reason. Pauli was what we would now consider gender non-conforming. She was more masculine presenting at times, hence her choice to be referred to as “Pauli.” Pauli was also very open with those in her family, social circles, and those within the Movement about the “passionate, romantic partnerships and friendships [that Pauli shared] with women.”” (https://www.workers.org/2019/02/41178/amp/)
What continues to strike me as the most amazing thing about Pauli Murray is her acceptance of who she was regardless of where she was and who she was amongst. Reading Pauli’s words made me feel seen in a world blinded by its preference for conformity and silence among women with ambition. Her quotes were the first time that I saw writing referred to as activism and respected as such.
This Black History Month, I encourage you to search for the leaders that speak to the totality of who you are and what you believe. I encourage you to lift their names and their voices so that they do not get lost in the quotes from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frederick Douglass. I implore you to learn more about those leaders who can be the catalysts that further your self-acceptance and understanding that the space you fill is both needed and necessary. Remember that you are not only celebrating Black History, but you are Black History as well.