Pauli Murray Exhibit in the Keller Library

Dark Testament inscription to Bishop Moore
Photographed by The Rev. K.Jeanne Person

To celebrate International Women’s History Month, the Christoph Keller, Jr. Library invites you to visit an exhibit related to civil rights activist and visionary feminist, the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray. Dr. Murray was a 1976 GTS graduate and the first African American woman ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. Items from the library’s Special Collections and institutional archives also include a book she gave to the Rt. Rev. Paul Moore, Bishop of New York open to a inscribed “With the prayer that someday you may be able to ordain me priest in our Church,” written four years before her 1977 ordination.

Reference librarian Mary Robison has this to say about the exhibition she curated:

Pauli Murray was an obvious choice to me when the St. Blandinas group asked me to work on a display celebrating International Women’s Month. I had been interested in her life since I read Proud Shoes (her account of her early life) many years ago, and this past fall I heard a presentation at the Episcopal Women’s History Project conference about Dr. Murray’s Aunt Pauline, who raised her after her parents’ untimely death. In addition to her Dark Testament gift to Bishop Moore, other items in the display include materials she donated to the library and seminary publications from the time Dr. Murray was a student here. (These materials are part of the Special Collections and Archives of the Christoph Keller, Jr. Library.)

While the bulk of her papers are at Radcliffe College, we have some fascinating pieces in our collections that belonged to Dr. Murray. We have several books she donated, including her States’ Laws on Race and Color and a bound group of Ebony magazines with her annotations. In the exhibit, this volume is open to an article about Christ’s message to the disinherited, and it shows where she underlined parts that were especially meaningful to her. Her Song in a Weary Throat is open to the page where Dr. Murray describes our own Bishop Lee’s invitation to celebrate her first Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, where he served as rector. In this autobiography, published posthumously, Dr. Murray also describes her student evaluation, including professors’ opinions of her, some of which seem to have been less than stellar! I thought that students might appreciate this after having gone through similar rites of passage in their seminary careers.

To give context about Dr. Murray’s earlier life as a civil rights lawyer, a feminist activist and pioneer in many other fields, I included several news accounts and articles. One stands out in particular as an example of how far our society has come in 60 years in terms of race relations. This is a 1953 Ebony article by Eleanor Roosevelt, “Some of my best friends are Negro,” and it tends to catch the attention of our students, many of whom are too young to remember when this kind of phrase was uttered without irony. Finally, contemporary newsletters and other materials show Pauli Murray’s senior photo and give an idea of student life in the 1970s—though I found little else about her in GTS materials.

To accompany this exhibit, I included a binder with articles and interviews with more background information than I could include in the display. Some of this material discusses recent scholarship on Pauli Murray as feminist and considers aspects of her life as a closeted lesbian. We might think it odd that an outspoken feminist and civil rights activist would be willing to hide this part of her life, but it’s important to remember that Pauli Murray lived during the McCarthy era. She had been investigated by the government for being a radical and suspected communist, and undoubtedly this would have affected her willingness to be an activist in the 1970s. As an archivist, I am intrigued by the fact that she “cleaned up” her papers in an attempt to hide her sexual orientation. It’s important for us to consider the tension between what we would like to learn about her life through her unpublished papers, and how Pauli Murray wanted to present herself. It’s been a wonderful project to work on, I’m excited to be able to show what an amazing woman she was, and I hope this will get people excited about International Women’s History Month.

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