The XX Factor

Yale Will Name a New Residential College After Awesome Civil Rights Activist Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray.

Carolina Digital Library and Archives/Wikipedia

Yale University’s year-and-a-half-long naming debate has finally come to a close. In a university-wide message sent Wednesday evening, Yale president Peter Salovey announced that the campus’s two new residential colleges will be named after Anna Pauline Murray and Benjamin Franklin. Salovey also announced that Calhoun College—the residential college named after pro-slavery vice president John C. Calhoun—will keep its name, despite a student- and alumni-led campaign to change it.

The decision to continue memorializing Calhoun is the aspect of Salovey’s announcement that will likely get the most attention, but Yale’s choice to honor Murray is noteworthy, as it represents a departure from the roster of white men whose names grace the facades of the 12 (soon to be 13) other colleges. Murray will be not only the first woman but also the first person of color to serve as a residential college namesake.

Though a relatively unknown figure of the Civil Rights Movement, Anna Pauline Murray, better known as Pauli Murray, was a champion of both African-American and women’s rights. Graduating first in her class from Howard Law School in 1944, Murray went on to receive a masters in law at UC-Berkeley and also to become the first African-American to receive a J.S.D. (Doctor of Juridical Science) from Yale Law School in 1965. Throughout her education, Murray fought an unremitting battle against racial discrimination, at one point even soliciting the help of the NAACP to sue a university that had rejected her on the basis of race. Murray devised the term “Jane Crow”— a sister term of “Jim Crow” referring to sex discrimination—which served as the basis for her seminal work: “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII.” Her articulate legal scholarship has influenced several court cases involving race and gender, as her arguments have been used by prominent judges ranging from Thurgood Marshall to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In her later years Murray entered the ministry by becoming the first African-American to be ordained by the Episcopal Church in 1977. Murray died in 1985, but her legacy continues to grow—Murray was named to Episcopal sainthood in 2012.

Given the contentious discussions of race that swept through campus last year, members of the Yale community are ecstatic about the choice of Murray. Associate Professor of African American Studies, and one among a handful of faculty of color, Crystal Feimster, told me she’s “thrilled” about the decision. “In countless ways Murray brilliantly and beautifully captures the hopes and dreams of the ‘Next Yale,’ ” Feimster wrote in a Facebook message. “She believed, ‘True community is based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. …’ A perfect motto for a residential college, don’t you think?” It’s hard to disagree. And though Murray College will be Yale’s first major and visible recognition of an alum of color, it will hopefully be the first of many more to come.