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Pride, no prejudice, Orange County-style

By Valarie Schwartz

Pauli Murray didn’t spend much time in Orange County. She visited the plantation house on Smith Level Road named after her kin who had been among the largest land- and slave owners in the county; and I expect she visited the family home in Hillsborough, the site of the rapes of her great-grandmother, a slave bought for the Smith daughter.

Murray recounts the story in her third book, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, published in 1956,

Mary Ruffin Smith was the eldest of three children. When she turned 18, her father, Dr. James S. Smith, bought her a slave, beautiful 15-year-old Harriet. When Mary’s brothers, Francis (a doctor) and Sidney (a lawyer), returned home to Hillsborough after studying in Chapel Hill, they became obsessed with Harriet, even though by then she had married and given birth to a son. Dogging her every move, the brothers snarled at each other and together beat and ran off her husband.

For protection, Harriet nailed her cabin door shut at the end of every day. But one night, Sidney broke down the door, nailed it back up to keep her in, beat her, then raped her for hours. Her shrieks of terror each time she saw him thereafter only fueled his desire, resulting in repeated rapes, until the night Francis accosted Sidney after he left Harriet, beating him unconscious. After that, Sidney let her be; but his offspring grew inside her. The child would become Murray’s grandmother, Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, a half-sister to the three daughters Harriet would bear from the rapes that followed during the next eight years by Francis, during which time the shamed family moved from Hillsborough to the country plantation.

One hundred years ago this November, two generations after this sorry, though not uncommon, story, sprang one of the linchpins of the Civil Rights movement. Born in Baltimore, Anna “Pauli” Murray spent her later childhood in Durham with grandmother Cornelia and grandfather Robert Fitzgerald, before moving to New York and finding her way through the obstacle course life presented for a mulatto woman continually striving to better not only herself but seeking equal rights for all. Even before the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill refused to enroll her in 1938 based on her race, she was an activist. After graduating at the top of her class from Howard University in 1944 with a fellowship to pursue a law degree at Harvard, she was rejected due to her gender. But the door was open at the University of California at Berkeley, where she titled her master’s thesis The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment. After receiving a doctorate from Yale in 1965, she taught law in Ghana and at Boston and Brandeis universities while remaining active in the movements toward equality that provided her friendships with Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gloria Steinem, among others.

She long recognized the courage and effects of Mary Ruffin Smith, the great-great-aunt who accepted her bastard nieces as family, raising them in the Big House and taking them with her to attend services at Chapel of the Cross, where they were relegated to sitting in the balcony, and where, at age 66, Murray celebrated her first Eucharist as the first black woman ordained an Episcopal priest – an event recorded by CBS for Charles Kuralt’s On the Road program. Murray died in 1985; but since 1990, her example of living is revisited in Orange County each February with the giving of three awards in her honor.

The staff of the Orange County Human Rights and Relations office and members of the commission of the same name ask that you look back over last year and consider making a nomination for its Pauli Murray Awards, to be presented Feb. 28 at 3 p.m. in The Little Theater at New Hope Elementary School.

Each year, an individual, a young person (18 or younger) and a business are honored for their examples of how to promote human rights, diversity and equality – such as last year’s business winner, Cliff Collins of Cliff’s Meat Market in Carrboro, for his example of embracing change while making life easier for the Latin American immigrants who have relocated here.

People such as Nerys Levy, who has worked tirelessly to keep a library in Carrboro; Elaine Jerome, an octogenarian selflessly galvanizing people to create more healthy opportunities for our youth; or Margaret Gifford, who started a donation program at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market to provide fresh food to those in need. Who could you nominate for their service in 2009?

Nomination forms are at every town hall and public library in the county, as well as at co.orange.nc.us/hrr/pmurray.asp

“The effect of labels divides us and separates us, denying opportunities for us to genuinely embrace our differences,” said James Spivey, a human-rights specialist in the county office, which investigates allegations of discrimination in housing and other race-based issues and assists with diversity training in the schools. “We are unbiased fact-finders who try to be more proactive than reactive to help enlighten and empower people.”

Make your nominations by Jan. 15 and mark your calendar for the awards event, which promises to be a stimulating close to February, designated as Black History and National History month.

Intelligent people learn and grow from history, no matter how dirty it is, gaining the power to clean it up.

Contact Valarie Schwartz at 923-3746 or valariekays@mac.com

  1. Mia Majeed

    I have read your article about the Smith’s family, also I have a copy of the book “Proud Shoes.” I am just writing to say that there are many different views on what happen during this time. Pauli Murray and I would be considered cousins because our great grandmothers was sisters Corniela and Emma, both was Harriet’s daugthers. My great grandfather would be Francis J. Smith and and Pauli Murray would be Sidney Smith. I believe that Harriet and Francis loved each other despite of their issues.