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Durham director preserves Pauli Murray’s legacy of human rights for the greater good

·10 min read

Barbara Lau grew up feeling like she never fit in, but she knew she wanted to make a difference — to stand for something greater than herself.

Maybe this drive came from the peace marches she attended as a young girl, or her passion for preserving a community’s history. Whatever the spark was, her collective experiences have been the driving force in her career, culminating in her current role as the executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham.

For the past 15 years, Lau has dedicated her life to championing the legacy of the late Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray.

Murray grew up in Durham and became an attorney, activist, writer, priest and poet who made a significant impact in civil rights, women’s and LGBTQ+ movements. As a Black gender non-conforming person, she also encountered her fair share of discrimination. But in a life filled with firsts, Murray helped shape the landmark litigation around race and gender equity and became the first Black female Episcopal priest in the United States, among many accomplishments. Murray died in 1985 of pancreatic cancer.

“Pauli Murray is so important because their vision was everything I stand for: equality that applies to everyone universally,” Lau told The News & Observer in an interview.

Lau hopes a new documentary, titled “My Name is Pauli Murray,” helps the rest of the world understand why Lau’s admiration for Murray is so strong. The film comes from co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who are behind the award-winning “RBG” documentary about late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

My Name is Pauli Murray” is in theaters now and will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video Oct. 1.

“We hope this will help people learn about Pauli’s essential place in 20th century American history,” Cohen told The N&O. “And we also hope it’s going to be a way for people to learn more about Pauli. You know, this is not the definitive Pauli Murray story, and what we hope would be one of many.”

Lau helped facilitate some of the filming at Murray’s childhood home on Carroll Street in Durham and provided some insights and materials for the filmmakers.

She played a role in developing Murray’s residence into what is now the Pauli Murray Center after it was set for demolition. The structure was named a National Treasure in 2015 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2016, the National Park Service designated it as a National Historic Landmark.

This week, the Pauli Murray Center received a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will help further highlight Murray’s vision, activism and scholarship for the next three years, Lau said.

For Lau’s efforts to make sure Murray’s legacy is remembered and amplified, she is The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Month, which honors people who have made significant contributions to North Carolina, the region and beyond.

“The thing you need to know about Barbara is that when she decides to do something, she just brings it all,” said Jerma Jackson, a friend of Lau’s and an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“And so it’s hard for anyone that is friends with her not to get absorbed in Pauli Murray,” Jackson said.

A fascination with folklore

Lau, 63, was born in Cleveland and grew up with her mother and younger brother in the early 1960s. Her mother, who was a social worker and artist, was active with their church around racial justice issues when there were very few opportunities for people to be in more equitable, integrated spaces.

“She took us to peace marches, and later got involved in the anti-war movement,” Lau said. “She was a bit of a hippie. We had a Volkswagen bug, and she put big, sticky flowers down the front of it and, you know, we wore sandals. But I think in that sense, she also raised us to be principled and to believe in equity, and how it impacted our lives.”

Lau went to college at Washington University in St. Louis. She studied sociology and urban studies and was introduced to their folklore program. Her adviser introduced to Lau the idea of public folklore — the broader idea of celebrating traditional culture through festivals.

She became fascinated with that idea while working on the Frontier Folklife Festival in St. Louis. But she also developed a love for being around people who were comfortable just being themselves and knew they belonged in their community.

“The people at this festival were really sort of ambassadors for their communities,” Lau said. “They were the ones sharing the music, making the food, or using the material to make quilts or making baskets — there was a huge range — and I was very intrigued by that.”

Lau took a three-month job with the Frontier Folklife Festival that turned into a five-year job. She ended up becoming the technical and assistant director of the festival and continued to do similar work in St. Louis, Atlanta and Washington.

In Washington, she worked with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. But she realized that if she wanted to do more creative curatorial work in public folklore, she would need another degree. In 1991, she came to North Carolina to go to graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she joined the public folklore program.

During this time, Lau created a documentary about Cambodian dancers in Greensboro. Working with a photographer, they interviewed the dancers and shot film. In 2000, they developed an exhibit in collaboration with the community for the Greensboro Historical Museum, along with a children’s book and a catalog.

Jackson, her friend, was impressed.

“She shared this little book that she put together and showed it to me, and wow, I had no idea,” Jackson said.

When that project ended, her introduction to Murray began.

Barbara Lau, executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham, N.C., poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. Lau is The News & Observer’s September 2021 Tar Heel of the Month.
Barbara Lau, executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham, N.C., poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. Lau is The News & Observer’s September 2021 Tar Heel of the Month.

Telling the story of a community

She learned of Murray for the first time while working for the Center for Documentary Studies, a nonprofit affiliate at Duke University, where she was responsible for a program called Community Stories.

The program taught middle-schoolers how to conduct oral histories, interviews and use photography to tell the stories of their own communities. They spoke with senior citizens about topics like civil rights history, culture and faith.

Her work with Community Stories took her to southwest central Durham, where Murray grew up. A colleague recommended she read Murray’s “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family” to better understand a part of the West End’s neighborhood history. The book, published in 1956, tells the story of Murray’s maternal grandparents.

Jackson noticed that Lau connected with Murray through the book.

“I remember buying ‘Proud Shoes’ years ago, and I read it. It didn’t do anything for me,” Jackson recalled. “But Barbara picked that book up and it just resonated with her in a way that made her want to do something about it.”

Lau can point to a page in the book — page 62 — where a quote from Murray became more than words on a page.

“It has taken me almost a lifetime to discover that true emancipation lies in the acceptance of the whole past, in deriving strength from all my roots, in facing up to the degradation as well as the dignity of my ancestors,” Murray wrote.

Lau called the quote “incredibly transformational.”

“If I could sort of scale that up from what Pauli was talking about on the personal to the community level, I thought that I could really make some community change,” Lau said.

Beyond Murray’s words and motivations, Lau found herself relating to how Murray explored her sexuality. Both Murray and Lau were in relationships with men at one point but ultimately ended up with women.

Barbara Lau wears a necklace with images of Pauli Murray and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pictured here on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021 at the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham, N.C.
Barbara Lau wears a necklace with images of Pauli Murray and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pictured here on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021 at the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham, N.C.

In 2007, Lau began working with her colleagues at the Center for Documentary Studies on a public art project. They collaborated with artist Brett Cook, who incorporates community input in the places where his murals are painted. After a two-year period, five of the 14 murals Cook created in southwest central Durham were of Murray.

But Lau was not done with Murray yet, and she found a partner to help her in Mayme Webb-Bledsoe, who was just as passionate about Murray and community preservation as she was.

Webb-Bledsoe, a Durham native, grew up in the West End neighborhood. Her mother knew Murray in the neighborhood and at Lyon Park Elementary School.

“It was a close-knit community, and Pauli would go to the classes that Ms. Dane [Murray’s aunt] taught, at the time my mother and her sisters were in school,” Webb-Bledsoe said.

Lau and Webb-Bledsoe crossed paths through their community nonprofit work. Webb-Bledsoe oversaw the programming of the former Lyon Park Elementary School, which became the Community Family Life & Recreation Center at Lyon Park in 2002.

Lau said she learned a “huge amount” from Webb-Bledsoe, particularly in building relationships in the neighborhood where Murray and Webb-Bledsoe’s mother lived.

“I would say we’re co-conspirators in this work and share the same values about whose voice is important in this work,” she added.

Bledsoe-Webb now serves as the board chair of the Pauli Murray Center.

Working with Bledsoe-Webb, Lau learned how to listen to the communities that she is working with.

“You have to collaborate with the folks who are telling you what they want to see happen,” Lau said. “And you have to ask yourself, how does your understanding as someone who’s not a member of the community help create programs, exhibits or films, that uplift stories from those communities that they want to tell to [others] who might not [otherwise] understand?

“And I think that the Pauli Murray Center is just another example of that.”

Barbara Lau, executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, poses for a portrait on the front steps of Murray’s childhood home in Durham, N.C. on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. Lau is The News & Observer’s September 2021 Tar Heel of the Month.
Barbara Lau, executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, poses for a portrait on the front steps of Murray’s childhood home in Durham, N.C. on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. Lau is The News & Observer’s September 2021 Tar Heel of the Month.

The future of the center

Lau’s experience working in public folklore prepared her for working at the Pauli Murray Center. She learned how to write grants, plan events, solve problems and promote a cause. But running a nonprofit organization can be stressful. In those times, she has turned to her partner of 12 years, Gail Crabtree, who has supported Lau and her efforts.

“She listens to me when I face challenges, and our relationship has really sustained me in the rocky road of my work,” Lau said.

Lau and Webb-Bledsoe have gradually grown the Pauli Murray Center into a nonprofit that can be financially independent from Duke University, where it has been housed in various capacities since its beginning. The two say becoming its own entity will put the center in the best position to raise funds, build relationships and sustain itself over the years.

Lau and Webb-Bledsoe are thrilled with the opportunities the Mellon grant will offer them.

Lau said the investment will transform the center by funding new positions, creating an education welcome space and inaugural exhibits and enhancing the center’s online presence — all with the goal of sharing Murray’s “powerful” narrative from Durham to the world.

That’s one of the goals of the film, said Cohen, one of the documentary’s directors.

“We also hope it helps people rethink how we think about history,” Cohen said. “And what you might have learned in your elementary school or high school textbooks that didn’t necessarily tell you about all the important people that we should know about.

“Pauli’s life was multifaceted and complex,” Cohen said. “And obviously, there were so many elements and so many accomplishments that we couldn’t get into.”

The Pauli Murray Center is expected to open to the public for the first time next year.

“I think this is an amazing moment in our history, where we’re going to be able to have a little bit of breathing room and time to be working on how we sustain this for generations to come,” Lau said.

“There have been numerous times when we were 30 days away from me not having a job, or I went from full-time to part-time or, you know, just to sort of keep this going. Because most people had not heard of Pauli Murray.”

That, she hopes, is about to change.

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