Pauli Murray was a remarkable woman. Born into a family that blended slaves, slave-owning whites, Cherokee Indians, freeborn African Americans – a family whose history she would later celebrate in her book Proud Shoes – she grew up an orphan in her grandparents’ home in Durham, NC. Bright and energetic but poor, Murray graduated from the city’s segregated schools in 1926. In a display of characteristic determination, she applied to Hunter College in NYC. Rejected because she was so poorly prepared, she moved in with a cousin, enrolled in high school in NY, and entered Hunter a year later. The struggle to find work and stay in school in the midst of the Great Depression was so intense, however, that Murray, already suffering from malnutrition, nearly succumbed to tuberculosis. Shortly after her graduation from Hunter in 1933, she found brief sanctuary in Camp Tera, one of the handful of women’s camps established by the New Deal as a counterpart to the men’s Civilian Conservation Corps, and then as an employee of remedial reading and workers’ education projects funded by the WPA.
“World events were breeding a new militancy in younger Negroes like me,” she would write; “One did not need Communist propaganda to expose the inescapable parallel between Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany and the repression of Negroes in the American South. Daily occurrences pointed up the hypocrisy of a United States policy that condemned Fascism abroad while tolerating an incipient Fascism within its own borders.” In 1938, she applied to the law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, attracted by the work of its sociologists on race relations and farm tenancy. Many law school students supported her admission, as did Frank Porter Graham, the president of the university, but state law mandated her rejection because of race.
Torn between her writing and law, Murray threw herself into working for social justice. Her involvement in the unsuccessful struggle to obtain clemency for Odell Waller, a black sharecropper whose right to be tried by a representative jury had been denied because Virginia called to jury service only those who had paid a poll tax, brought her to the attention of Leon Ransom of Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. When Howard University offered her a scholarship in 1941, she entered law school “with the single-minded intention of destroying Jim Crow.”
Murray had an extraordinary legal career as a champion of racial and gender justice, serving as a consultant to the President’s Committee on the Status of Women in preparing its 1963 report and on the National Board of the ACLU. In January 1977, she became one of the first women to be ordained an Episcopal priest.
Here is an excerpt of her accounts of time at Howard Law School:
“Ironically, if Howard Law School equipped me for effective struggle against Jim Crow, it was also the place where I first became conscious of the twin evil of discriminatory sex bias, which I quickly labeled Jane Crow. In my preoccupation with the brutalities of racism, I had failed until now to recognize the subtler, more ambiguous expressions of sexism. In the all-female setting of Hunter College, women were prominent in professional and leadership positions. My awareness of the additional burden of sex discrimination had been further delayed by my WPA experience. Hilda Smith, national director of the WPA Workers’ Education Project, was a woman, my local project director and my immediate supervisor were both women, and it had not occurred to me that women as a group received unequal treatment. Now, however, the racial factor was removed in the intimate environment of a Negro law school dominated by men, and the factor of gender was fully exposed.
During my first year at Howard there were only two women in the law school student body, both of us in the first-year class. When the other woman dropped out before the end of the first term, I was left as the only female for the rest of that year, and I remained the only woman in my class for the entire three-year course. While I was there, not more than two or three women enrolled in the lower classes of the law school. We had no women on the faculty, and the only woman professional on staff was…the registrar, who had graduated from the law school many years earlier.
The men were not openly hostile; in fact, they were friendly. But I soon learned that women were often the objects of ridicule disguised as a joke. I was shocked on the first day of class when one of our professors said in his opening remarks that he really didn’t know why women came to law school, but that since we were there the men would have to put up with us. His banter brought forth loud laughter from the male students. I was too humiliated to respond, but thought the professor did not know it, he had just guaranteed that I would become the top student in his class. Later I began to notice that no matter how well prepared I was or how often I raised my hand, I seldom got to recite. It was not that professors deliberately ignored me but that their freewheeling classroom style of informal discussion allowed the men’s deeper voices to obliterate my lighter voice, and my classmates seemed to take it for granted that I had nothing to contribute. For much of that first year I was condemned to silence unless the male students exhausted their arguments or were completely stumped by a professor’s question.”
Kerber, Linda K. & DeHart, Jane Sherron, Eds. Women’s America: refocusing the past. Oxford University Press, NY, 1995. p.478-479
For your consideration:
Jokes can often disguise hostility. Have you had a comparable experience to Pauli's? Can you think of individuals in the public sphere - pundits, comedians, teachers, etc. - who use 'humor' in this manner?