Interview: Pauli Murray Project Continues Legacy of Durham Faith-rooted Human Rights Activist, from the Ivory Tower to the Pews

This year, the DOCE is highlighting the intersection of faith and civic engagement at Duke. One of the most salient examples of that fusion is in the Pauli Murray Project at Duke’s Human Rights Center @ FHI, which preserves the story and legacy of Pauli Murray. The project’s graduate social work intern, Indhira Udofia, sat down with me to share about Pauli Murray and the project’s work in bringing Duke and the Durham community together to build a more just community across divisions of race, class, faith, sexuality, and more.

Pauli Murray True Community Mural, 313 Foster St.

EDV: Who is Pauli Murray, and what makes her legacy significant?

IU: Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was a lawyer, a teacher, an activist, a writer, a poet, and she was the first African-American woman ever ordained as priest in the protestant Episcopal church. She was also queer and of mixed heritages, and she wrote prolifically about her story and the idea of human rights. She’s done so much for the world and yet, many people don’t know who she is. What makes her legacy important is that she often did things ahead of the curve. Spinning off [the term] “Jim Crow,” she coined the term “Jane Crow;” before there were the famous sit-ins, she was doing organizing; she was the co-founder of the National Organization of Women, which most folks don’t know; she was trying to integrate Carolina before it was cool. I think Pauli Murray represents what it means to be a trailblazer and think prophetically about the work of justice in the world.

She’s got roots in Durham, right?

She lived in Durham in the earlier part of her life – some of her most formative years were spent living with her Aunt on Carrol Street.

How and why did the Pauli Murray Project (PMP) get started?

The PMP started in 2011 as an initiative through the Duke Human Rights Center @ FHI. With the goal of eventually creating a social justice center in Pauli Murray’s childhood house on Carrol St, the project was based on the principle of, ‘how do we embrace alternative knowledge?’ – that cultivates and includes the community outside the Duke bubble. [Project director] Barbara Lau had a vision of starting community dialogues and community-based social programming to really encompass the legacy of this forgotten hero. So through the Human Rights Center, which does a lot of work on human rights in general, the PMP asks, ‘How can we talk about human rights here in Durham? Who are the community partners doing this work that don’t necessarily have the Ph.D. behind their name?”

Face Up: Telling Stories of Community Life Project

What sort of work is the PMP engaged in right now?

You’ve asked at a really interesting time – April is “faith month” for the project, so we’re all “catchin’ the spirit” with Pauli! We are doing a couple of programs around spiritual trauma, including a sermon slam on 4/1 to cultivate creative energy around reimagining sacred space, where we’re partnering with the Resource Center for Women in the South. We’re also hosting two dialogues (4/11, 4/18); one at the Durham Public Library and the other at First Presbyterian, and we’re looking at what trauma looks like in sacred space, and what pathways towards healing can look like when spaces that are supposed to be most healing (i.e. the church) are traumatic sites. We’ll be working from Pauli Murray’s own experience of spiritual trauma, as a woman who could not get ordained until late in life, who experienced racism, who wrestled with identity and queerness, – and we’ll build from her strong convictions about a just society and church space. We’ve also recently finished up an exhibit housed at The Scrap Exchange and a school curriculum that focus on her intersecting identities.

Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray

Pressing in on that intersection of faith and civic engagement, you are a dual degree student between Duke Divinity School and the UNC School of Social Work – tell me a bit about your program and goals, and how you integrated your interests through your work at the PMP.

I am at both Duke and Carolina (though, I do favor the blue devils more!) – and I approached this degree asking the question, “Is spiritual trauma a thing? What is the source? Is it the people, the policy, the structure? Or something deeper, in the church’s theology?” I came into the program asking, “How can we create trauma-informed churches?” and approached the PMP to do work around race, history, and story. This made me think a lot about how so many people are experiencing spiritually-based trauma and don’t get to tell their stories. So I’ve used this year as the PMP’s intern to imagine what it’d look like to curate stories, and it’s all been leading up to these community dialogues on 4/11 and 4/18. I interviewed faith practitioners (pastors, chaplains, other faith leaders, laypeople), and asked, how does church shape their identity and purpose? What does it mean to them now? How does trauma impact it? …. Little did I know that NC legislature was going to pass HB2, where it’s the ultimate manifestation of spiritual trauma, right? Using religion as a way to literally put bodies into harm’s way. Trauma is not just personal, but it’s political. The church as a structure needs to reckon with this.

To turn things towards our context here at Duke – here in the DOCE, we’re thinking critically about the role of civic engagement in higher education. One can imagine a project around race, faith, gender, sexuality, etc. being led by a community non-profit. What is significant about the Pauli Murray Project being housed in the higher education context? What does your being at Duke bring to the project – and what does your work in going beyond the walls of Duke bring back to the higher education side?

Reflections on Charleston event. Photo via The Chronicle.
Reflections on Charleston event. Photo via The Chronicle.

There’s something paramount about understanding theory and practice. Being at Duke, enlivened to all the theories of human rights is wonderful and it helps shape an ethic and way of understanding, it puts language to what you see on the ground. There’s also something beautiful about being in the Durham community – speaking as someone who grew up here – it’s something powerful about now being in Duke and speaking back to an institution that felt like the community didn’t hear them or understand them or see what they were going through. A beautiful part about Duke is the resources we have to find people who are thinking about these issues beyond Duke, and having the freedom to say – hey, there’s a local initiative that’s happening right here in Lyon Park that’s doing similar work and having a practitioner talk directly to the experts – is probably the most amazing part of being in the higher education context.

For example, in February, we had the Reflections on Charleston event, where the Office of Black Church Studies at Duke moderated a discussion with two pastors and the widow of Rev. Pinckney. They had a dialogue of what they conceive of as justice, or how to continue the work for our freedom. I don’t think it’s something I would ever have gotten just working for a regular community non-profit… or elsewhere at Duke, for that matter! It the idea we believe here that each individual person, whether they be an expert with a PhD or a community expert, each has invaluable knowledge that we can learn and grow from.

Indhira UdofiaIndhira Udofia is a joint M.Div / M.S.W. student at Duke University Divinity School and UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work, and is currently serving as a graduate social work intern at the Pauli Murray Project.

Emma DeVries is the Civic Engagement Fellow at the DOCE. 






View photo credits here.