The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, Priest | The Rev. Susan E. Hill, Associate Rector

07.8.24 | Celebration, Community, International, Pulpit Posts, World

With both the Pride and Independence Day celebrations in late June and early July, it can be easy to overlook some of those whom we commemorate in the church during this time. For example, on July 1, we remember two remarkable people: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Pauli Murray. The Rev. Dr. Murray is by far less well-known but also had an outsized impact on both society and the church. During her long and varied career she was a lawyer, a writer and poet, a civil rights activist, a professor, and eventually, an Episcopal priest. On January 8, 1977, Murray was ordained the first African American woman priest at the Washington National Cathedral.

Murray was born in 1910 and was raised in North Carolina. Despite the significant and ongoing obstacles placed before black women of the time, she graduated from Hunter College in 1933 and then Howard University Law School, where she was the only woman in her class, in 1944. While at Howard, she wrote a paper that later served as a framework for Thurgood Marshall’s argument in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954, and she also participated in and helped organize some of the nation’s first sit-ins seeking racial desegregation. Her fight against racism led her to focus as well on the prevalence of sexism. She began to work against what she called “Jane Crow,” and was a founding member of the National Organization for Women. She was also a longtime friend of Eleanor Roosevelt!

Murray struggled with sexuality and gender for much of her life. She had a two decade relationship with a woman named Renee Barlow, and preferred an androgynous wardrobe to go along with her chosen nickname of Pauli, short for Pauline. Some scholars today speak of Murray, who died in 1985, as someone who was trans, and they use they/them pronouns when referring to Murray. It is clear that in many ways and many dimensions, the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray was ahead of her/their time.

Here is the concluding prayer for the litany we prayed at the June 16 Evensong held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Women’s Ordination. It was adapted from Murray’s poem Dark Testament, verse 8:

O God, hope is a song in a weary throat: Give to us a song of hope, and a world in which we can sing it. Give to us a song of faith and people to believe in it. Give to us a song of kindliness and a place where we can live it. Give to us a song of hope and love.


Rev. Susan Hill

Rev. Susan Hill


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