Growing up on Durham’s West End, Duke Senior Neighborhood Coordinator Mayme Webb-Bledsoe heard all the time that she needed to learn more about Pauli Murray, needed to read Pauli Murray’s book and take a lesson from her story. A few decades later, as the Pauli Murray Project takes form, she said the rest of Durham seems to be catching on.
“I can’t tell you how long people have been trying to lift up Pauli Murray and her story over the years and haven’t been able to gain any traction,” said Webb-Bledsoe, who facilitates the Southwest Central Durham Quality of Life Project (QOL). The change has come in just the past few years, as QOL has partnered with Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies and other groups to create community mural projects, exhibits and documentaries in celebration of Durham’s unsung heroes, particularly Pauli Murray.
“I think using the arts and the power of the documentary has allowed people to finally champion Pauli Murray’s past and allowed the community to take pride,” Webb-Bledsoe said. “And that sense of pride helps us sustain our work.”
QOL’s emphasis on celebrating its neighborhoods’ histories and traditions marked the beginning of what is now the Pauli Murray Project, housed in Duke’s Human Rights Center and headed by Barbara Lau. The project launched its website this month; it will launch an online interactive map of Durham civil rights history on December 1; and it’s sparked in the last week alone a Pauli Murray lecture by Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Pauli Murray book reports in the Lyon Park afterschool program, and a Pauli Murray Birthday Party in celebration of the Durham native’s life and legacy.
Raised in Durham’s West End by her aunt, Murray graduated at the top of her class from Hillside High School and spent the rest of her life breaking barriers of race and gender as a lawyer, a professor, an activist, a poet and a priest; the Pauli Murray Project seeks to activate that history for social change.
The concept is a familiar one for QOL, which uses local history and traditions to provide a context for more nuts-and-bolts community efforts such as economic development, affordable housing and nonprofit support. An example lies in the housing development on the West End developed by QOL and partners — the street is Pauli Murray Place, and off of it is Proud Shoes Park, named after one of Murray’s books.
That’s where Lyon Park afterschool student Temani Parker first heard of Murray.
“I learned about her when I saw the name of the street, and I looked her up,” said Parker, who made a poster and wrote a report about Murray. “She succeeded a lot. It’s kind of an impact on us to make us do better.”
Webb-Bledsoe said she’s seen how that kind of connection to place and history can inspire meaningful progress.
“We have to know who our heroes are, why this land and this community are worth fighting for,” she said. “What Pauli Murray was fighting, those are the same things we’re fighting today. We have to see those examples in front of us, where we can see life is a struggle but we can make it happen.”