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Pauli Murray in her study in Arlington, Virginia
Visitors to UNC’s campus may have trouble finding Pauli Murray hall on Google Maps—that’s because it isn’t there. Instead, one will find directions to Hamilton Hall, the building’s official name, honoring a past department chair and founder of Carolina’s famed Southern Historical Collection. More than a member of Carolina’s faculty, Joseph Grégoire de Roulhac Hamilton was a white supremacist who praised the Ku Klux Klan, excluded black voices and experiences from his Southern Historical Collection, and argued that Reconstruction was a “disaster” because it gave political power to African Americans. Though the collection is much more diverse now, Hamilton’s legacy at UNC remained through his namesake building. When considering new names for the building, following local and national events like the Silent Sam events of 2018 and the broader Black Lives Matter movement, one name came up most: Pauli Murray.

On July 9, 2020, the academic units housed at 102 Emerson Drive—the Departments of History, Political Science, and Sociology, and the Curriculum on Peace, War, and Defense–submitted a request to UNC’s Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward to rename Hamilton Hall as Pauli Murray Hall. A poet, lawyer, writer, activist, priest, professor and intellectual whose work inspired several generations of cultural, political and social figures, Murray’s commitment to critical thinking, creativity, historical research, and above all to justice, epitomizes the ideals that the UNC History Department believes the historical profession should uphold. The department’s faculty, students and staff are committed to ensuring that the work taking place in Pauli Murray Hall reflects the remarkable legacy of this important luminary.

Department chair Professor Lisa Lindsay, an early advocate for renaming the building, emphasizes the contrast between Murray–whose legal research was foundational both for Thurgood Marshall’s challenge to “separate but equal” and for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s challenge to job segregation by sex–and Hamilton, whose research was shaped by and contributed to white supremacy. As Lindsay explains: “It is fitting that we replace the one name with the other, because both reflect linkages between historical scholarship and public citizenship–one in a way we repudiate and another in a way we hope to emulate.”

Murray’s own experience of discrimination here on campus closely illustrates the connection between the research conducted at UNC and the broader mission of the university. When she applied to Carolina for graduate studies in sociology in 1938, she was denied admission on the basis of her race despite her impeccable credentials. Murray’s personal rejection came from none other than UNC President Frank Porter Graham. Then, in 1978, she was offered an honorary degree from UNC, which she turned down because North Carolina was at that time tied up in a legal case in which it was resisting desegregation in all parts of the state university system. “In these two instances,” Lindsay explains, “if not for official racism, Pauli Murray would be both an alumna of UNC (from a department now housed in the building we hope to name after her) and the holder of an honorary degree from the university.”

Despite her application’s rejection from UNC, Murray earned advanced degrees, including a PhD, in law. Her research underwrote the legal tactic that Thurgood Marshall used in Brown v. Board, and she co-authored the arguments in Reed v. Reed, a case argued by Ruth Bader Ginsburg that overturned sex discrimination in estate disputes. Later in her life, she was ordained as a minister, preaching her first service at the Episcopal Chapel of the Cross near UNC’s campus.

The renaming decision also rests on lesser known connections between Murray and the university that can be unearthed in her writings. Published posthumously in 1987, Murray’s memoir, Song in a Weary Throat, won the Robert F. Kennedy and Lillian Smith Book Awards, among numerous other distinctions. Praised as “visionary” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and upheld as “a model for a new understanding of the pursuit of social justice” by Drew Gilpin Faust, Song in a Weary Throat also underscores the strong connection between Chapel Hill and the author’s personal and family history.

The first such connection is that Murray’s maternal grandmother, Cornelia Smith, was the daughter of an enslaved black woman whom Pauli describes as “part-Cherokee” who was sexually assaulted by a plantation owner/lawyer named Sidney Smith. Cornelia was born in the 1840s and she married Pauli’s grandfather in 1869. The white Smiths owned extensive plantation lands in southern Orange County and northern Chatham County; and a big Smith house still stands on Smith Level Road, a thoroughfare which leads from Carrboro to North Chatham County that is well known to everyone on campus.

Second, as a child growing up in Durham, Murray met Julian Carr, shortly after he dedicated UNC’s (now removed) Confederate “Silent Sam” Statue with a speech whose violent racism has earned Carr notoriety in the annals of Chapel Hill history. The meeting took place because Murray became an avid reader while living with an aunt in Durham. By the age of ten, she had read so many books at the “Colored Durham Library” that she received a prize. As Murray recounts in her memoir: “One year I won first prize among the colored children for having read the most books in the library. The prize, a fountain pen, was presented to me by General Julian S. Carr, a man my folks called a ‘true southern aristocrat.’ The presentation ceremony and General Carr’s words of praise made me feel very proud of my achievement.”

Commenting on the irony of this award coming from an avowed defender of the Confederacy, Professor Lloyd Kramer notes “the strangeness of history: The man who spoke so belligerently about white supremacy and the Confederacy at the dedication of Silent Sam later gave a pen to Pauli Murray to honor her reading achievements at a ceremony in Durham.” Carr could not then have imagined that the gifted child before him would play a pivotal role in creating a new landscape that would eventually make the removal of the “Silent Sam” statue possible (albeit with much difficulty) in 2019. Kramer continues: “She took that ‘pen’ (if I may speak metaphorically here) and went on to write her own story and to challenge the racist system and University policies that Carr had so strongly defended. Little did he know that he was giving a pen to someone who would assault—with lifelong determination–the whole racist system he sought to defend.”

The community of faculty, students and staff in Pauli Murray Hall views the process of renaming the building not as an end in itself, but as the beginning of the significant work that remains to be done on campus in achieving Murray’s vision of a just and fair society, whose contours are so brilliantly captured in the concluding lines of her poem, “Prophecy”:

I have been cast aside, but I sparkle in the darkness.
I have been slain but live on in the rivers of history.
I seek no conquest, no wealth, no power, no revenge;
I seek only discovery
Of the illimitable heights and depths of my own being.

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