Exhibitions News

National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Latest Online Exhibition Tells an African American Genealogy Story Through Pioneering Lawyer Pauli Murray

Online Exhibition Explores the Family Tree of a Free Black Family From the North and Mixed-Race Family of the South Brought Together by Marriage 

February 2, 2021
Pauli Murray as a toddler with her family Pauli Murray as a toddler with her family. All rights with the Estate of Pauli Murray, used herewith by permission of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency

Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray, an American activist, pioneering lawyer, author and priest, inspired a generation of lawyers, including the late associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Murray’s life and family’s genealogical story animates “Pauli Murray’s Proud Shoes: A Classic in African American Genealogy,” the latest online exhibition from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

Based on Murray’s groundbreaking genealogy book Proud Shoes: An African American Family, the online exhibition breathes life to Murray’s family history through historical photographs, an interactive map of her life journey and video interviews, including a piece featuring Ginsburg, whose amicus brief, written for the 1971 Supreme Court case Reed v. Reed, was inspired by Murray. The historic case was the first time the nation’s highest court recognized women as victims of sex discrimination.   

The online exhibition is divided into six sections:  

  • About the Exhibition: The exhibition opens with an introduction to Murray’s distinguished professional journey from lawyer and activist to priest and author. The opening lays the groundwork for exploring Murray’s complex genealogical story of a free Black family from the North and a mixed-race family of the South brought together by marriage.  
     
  • Journey Through the Life of Pauli Murray: The interactive mapping tool takes visitors on the journey of Murray’s personal and professionals travels and the pathways of her grandparents and great-grandparents.    
     
  • Explore the Storylines: The third section highlights essential aspects of Murray’s life and her family story, including her literary career, time as a lawyer and activist, the transition to an Episcopalian priest and personal writing about her gender and sexual identity.   
     
  • The A Closer Look video section of the exhibition contains a virtual walking tour of Durham, North Carolina’s West End neighborhood, a place that shaped Murray’s experiences growing up. The second video, named “RBG’s Legal Hero,” is a rare interview where Ginsburg credits Pauli Murray for inspiring an amicus brief she wrote for the historic 1971 Supreme Court case Reed v. Reed, which was the first time the nation’s highest court recognized women as victims of sex discrimination.  
     
  • Exhibition Profiles depicts six members of Murray’s family, tying together a family tree forged through tragedy, death, rape, slavery, migration and marriage.   
     
  • In the closing section, Exhibition Papers, the interactive experience includes a digital copy of the bill of sale for $450 for Murray’s great-grandmother, Harriet Day, in 1834.   

Murray’s Book, Proud Shoes: An African American Family  

Released 20 years before Alex Haley’s Roots, Murray’s book, which was ahead of its time, documented African American ancestry by exploring the racial and social dynamics between the union of a free Black family from the North and a mixed-race family of the South. It discusses her grandfather Charles Thomas Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was a Freedmen’s school teacher and later helped Murray with her school lessons. Murray drew direct connections between her family’s decisions and her later accomplishments: Graduating at the top of her Howard University law class as the only woman, becoming a leading civil rights activist and then her transition to becoming the first African American female Episcopal priest. In the book, Murray also personally contends with her gender identity and sexuality, all explored in the museum’s blog. The family’s history possesses elements that resonate with many African American families. Proud Shoes gives rise to a better understanding of the critical role African American ancestry and genealogy plays in the history of the American family experience.    

If Grandfather had not volunteered for the Union in 1863 and come south three years later as a missionary among the Negro freedmen, our family might not have walked in such proud shoes and felt so assured of its place in history.

Pauli Murray "Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family "

In honor of Murray’s seminal work and following this year’s Black History Month theme, “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity,” the museum encourages its website visitors to trace their own family history and explore genealogy with The Robert F. Smith Explore Your Family History Center. Visitors can also get an introduction on how to research family histories with museum staff members in a virtual genealogy research session.  

About the National Museum of African American History and Culture 
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed over 7 million visitors. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000.  

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Media Contact(s): 

Jason Spear  (202) 445-7456; spearj@si.edu  
Jermaine House (202) 633-9495; housej@si.edu 

About The Museum

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.