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The Daily Tar Heel

Guest Column: Pauli Murray and Silent Sam

In light of the events of recent days and considering the living history of the University, I’d like to encourage the whole UNC community to read Pauli Murray’s memoir "Song in a Weary Throat."

Murray, an African-American woman who was raised in Durham had ancestors who were prominent planters in Orange County. One of her white ancestors was a UNC trustee. 

She applied for admission to the UNC graduate school in 1938, hoping to study public welfare and sociology. I graduated from the successor program to the one she hoped to attend — the School of Social Work — in 1993. Her application became a test case. At the time, it was against the law for UNC to admit African Americans.

Some students were outraged by her application, and there were letters both for and against her admission in the DTH and the local press. One student threatened to tar and feather any Black person who tried to join her in class. 

Murray appealed directly to Frank Porter Graham for a positive response to her request. He responded that the decision was up to the North Carolina General Assembly. Murray’s aunt in Durham discouraged her attempts to gain admission to UNC. She was worried that the attention brought to the family by the case would cause her to lose her job as a public school teacher in Durham and the pension that she hoped to receive. 

Ultimately, Murray’s application was denied. Rather than allow her admission to the graduate school at UNC, the General Assembly created a graduate school at North Carolina Central University instead, furthering the flawed doctrine of separate but equal educational opportunity. That graduate school closed days after it opened, as only one student enrolled. 

Murray went on to become a leader in the civil rights and women’s rights movements. She was a poet, an attorney and, in 1977, became the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. As a child she had worshipped at the Chapel of the Cross, as had her enslaved ancestors, in the balcony apart from the white worshippers. She celebrated the Eucharist there after her ordination.

She turned down an honorary degree from UNC in 1978. After being initially excited to accept the honor, she declined in the midst of another controversy over segregation, when the General Assembly and UNC were further resisting full integration and fought a lawsuit from the federal government. 

UNC has had a long tradition of making African Americans unwelcome on campus. Silent Sam symbolized that desire to keep the school a place for those with considerable privilege.

Isn’t it time for us to see this history and how it continues to live in the present? If Carolina is to be a great public university, we need to reckon with our history. Let’s hope university leaders will see fit to shine some light, show some courage and promote liberty and equality for all. Pauli Murray can show us the way.

Bebe Smith

Master of Social Work, '93

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