Explore the family history of Pauli Murray, a pioneering lawyer, activist, writer and priest who published an early but often overlooked work in African American genealogy. Her book, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, showcases the racial and social dynamics between the union of a free black family from the north and a mixed-race family of the south.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Murray was reared in Durham, North Carolina, by her maternal grandparents and learned about family history from her aunts. Murray's great-grandparents, Charles Thomas Fitzgerald and Sarah Burton, were an interracial couple married in 1834 with six children that survived to adulthood.
Her grandfather, Robert Fitzgerald, was a Civil War soldier and teacher whose family was free before the war. Her grandmother, Cornelia Smith, was born into slavery in North Carolina and was a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church. She was shaped by the struggles and achievements of her ancestors who influenced her life’s work.
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"
The Fitzgerald Family
According to Fitzgerald oral history, Charles Thomas Fitzgerald, Murray’s great-grandfather, was born free in Delaware and raised by Samuel Lodge. After researching courthouse records, Murray discovered that Fitzgerald had in fact been enslaved by Samuel Lodge, whose son, George, manumitted Fitzgerald in 1832 at the age of 24. In 1834 while working on a Delaware farm, Fitzgerald married Sarah Burton, one of the farmer’s daughters. The interracial couple made their first home in New Castle County, raising 12 children, six of whom survived to adulthood.
Home to Hinsonville
In the 1850s, the Fitzgeralds left Delaware, a slave state, and moved to Hinsonville, Pennsylvania. Named after Emory Hinson, a free man of color who purchased land in 1830, this emerging free black community drew residents from Maryland, Delaware and other parts of Pennsylvania. The Fitzgerald family was one of several families that moved to Hinsonville seeking opportunities to buy land, farms and engage in trades. Charles and Sarah Fitzgerald purchased a 25- acre farm with a five-room log house and invested in a local brickyard where their three sons William, Robert and Richard learned the trade of brickmaking.
Hinsonville also became the home of Ashmun Institute (Lincoln University), an early educational institution which granted degrees to African Americans. Robert Fitzgerald enrolled in Ashmun Institute after having attended the African Free School in Wilmington, Delaware and the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. Robert shared what he learned with his family by reading from the Bible, newspapers and almanacs. He used this same technique with his granddaughter Pauli Murray, a future lawyer, writer and priest.
The Civil War
After President Abraham Lincoln opened the Union Army to African American men in 1863 Frederick Douglass gave recruitment speeches in Philadelphia and Chester, Pennsylvania. Robert Fitzgerald enlisted, along with his brother William, his cousin Tillman (Joe) Valentine and 16 other men from Hinsonville. These soldiers and sailors served in nine regiments; 10 of the veterans are buried in the Hosanna Church Cemetery. After serving in the Navy, Robert joined the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, where he served at Antietam, Culpepper and Warrenton, Virginia, and at Harper’s Ferry.
When the war ended, Robert Fitzgerald was part of a large body of northern educators who moved south to teach newly freed people. From 1866 to 1868, he taught at three Freedmen’s schools, including posts in Amelia County Courthouse, Virginia, and Goldsboro, and Hillsborough, North Carolina. He eventually settled in Orange County, North Carolina, and his parents and brother Richard joined him. As a teacher, Fitzgerald instilled the value of education to his children and granddaughter. Struggling with vision problems for most of his adult life, he taught, farmed and engaged in brickmaking until he went blind.
The Smith Family
In writing the family history of her great-grandmother Harriet Day, Murray faced a challenging story of sexual violence that was common between enslaving families and enslaved women. In 1834, Dr. James Strudwick Smith purchased a 15-year-old girl named Harriet for $450 as a personal maid for his daughter, Mary Ruffin Smith.
Described as “mixed race” and “one of the most beautiful girls in the county,” Harriet was permitted to “marry” Reuben Day, a local free man of color when she was around 20 years old. Not able to live together as a couple, Day visited regularly. In 1842, Harriet gave birth to their son, Julius.
When Day was run off the plantation, Harriet was sexually assaulted by Sidney Smith, a son of Dr. James S. Smith. As a result, Harriet gave birth to Cornelia, Murray’s grandmother. After a physical confrontation with his brother Frank, Sidney kept his distance from Harriet. Over time, Harriet give birth to three more daughters—Emma, Annette, and Laura—who were fathered by Frank. The girls were raised in the plantation house by their biological aunt, Mary Ruffin Smith, while their brother Julius lived with other enslaved people on the estate.
Smith later purchased Cornelia, her siblings, and their mother. She took the girls to church each Sunday. They sat in the balcony, as was the custom for black congregants in white churches. Though enslaved, Cornelia and her siblings were baptized at Chapel of the Cross, an Episcopal church. When Smith died in 1885, all of Harriet’s children received land from her estate.
Explore Your Family History
The Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center helps people begin their family history journey and learn the basics of researching African American genealogy. Register for virtual genealogy research sessions and attend our public programs online.