Ahead of her time, and others’ / by Clarrie Feinstein

Exhibit at St. Paul’s Chapel celebrates and explores the complex, manifold life of Pauli Murray


Amid downtown’s skyscrapers, hotels and the still budding World Trade Center complex, stands St. Paul’s Chapel. Built in 1766, it is the oldest surviving church building in Manhattan. The chapel, part of the Episcopal Parish of Trinity Church Wall Street, is grounded in Manhattan history — and allied to social justice and reconciliation. 

It is a fitting host, then, for an examination of Pauli Murray, the civil and women’s rights activist, lawyer, author, professor, poet and priest whose mixed ethnic heritage and struggles with sexual and gender identities would, were she were alive today, likely put her in the vanguard of debates about identity politics and intersectionality. 

Murray, who was born Anna Pauline Murray in 1910 in Baltimore and died the Rev. Pauli Murray 75 years later in Pittsburgh, is, so far, not as well known as some of her contemporaries. “Pauli Murray: Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest,” looks to change that, at least somewhat. 

She attended Hunter College and worked as remedial reading teacher in city schools. She would start advocating for civil rights in the late 1930s, by trying to enroll in the then-all-white University of North Carolina. In 1940, Murray, the great-granddaughter of slaves and slave owners, was arrested in Virginia for sitting in the white-only section of a bus, 15 years before Rosa Parks would do the same in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Murray became a lawyer shortly after this incident. She would become deputy attorney general in California. She was later appointed to the civil and political rights committee of President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. Murray also was the first African-American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest, in 1977. 

“She was ahead of her time,” said Ruth Frey, program officer for justice and reconciliation at Trinity Church Wall Street. “I think she’d be pushing us now.” 

Throughout her life, Murray struggled with gender identity, saying she had an “inverted sex instinct.” Believing her tendencies to be more male than female, she changed her name from Pauline to Pauli to fit her more androgynous identity. 

The exhibit, in partnership with the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, is curated to emphasize each aspect of her person. The display works to highlights the various strands of Murray’s life and how she embodied not just one, but many, identities. 

And she was well place to recognize how social movements affected others and brought them together with her advocacy – and worked to promote true inclusion. 

“Often people are categorized and pigeonholed,” Frey said. “Many people would see Murray as being binary, but she encompassed all. These different fractions of her life create a full person. That message is needed in this time of divisiveness. More figures like Murray need to be known.” 

Murray, like many women and especially women of color, is scarcely mentioned, if at all, in high school curriculums. 

“I didn’t know about Murray,” said Maria Rodriguez, a 10th grader at Leadership and Public Service High School, just a few blocks south of St. Paul’s. “But learning about someone like her has given me a new role model. I’ve felt empowered to explore my own identity.” 

There is a longstanding partnership between Trinity Church and the Leadership and Public Service High School when it comes to community building and outreach. Trinity Church offered the high school advanced art class taught by Anne Schellhorn an opportunity be part of the exhibit. The students each created a triptych, each panel representing a different aspect of their identity. 

“We sat down and discussed what the project would like,” said Trinity Parish Center’s program manager, Jennifer Chinn. “How would we do a self-portrait about identity? What does it mean? What would the archetypes be?” 

Eventually they decided each panel represent; people see me as, I see myself as, and I want to be seen as. For a month, students worked on their art project now on view at the chapel. 

The curators specifically designed the exhibit to display the students’ artwork as a continuation of Murray’s timeline to indicate the continued impact her lifework has on various communities. 

“We’re carrying on her legacy,” said Frey, Trinity’s program officer. “Oftentimes, human beings like to keep things narrow. But Murray leaves everything wide open.” 

The exhibit is on view until March 21.

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