Trowel Blazers: Dr. Pauli Murray

Sunday, September 1, 2019
Trowel Blazers: Dr. Pauli Murray
Emily McDowell, Assistant State Archaeologist/OSARC
Courtney Page, Staff Archaeologist/OSARC

In honor of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the OSA is celebrating exceptional women who have impacted NC archaeology. These four women span time, culture, and space, but have all left their mark on North Carolina and the field of archaeology in unique ways.

Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray was born in 1910 in Baltimore, Maryland. After losing her mother and the hospitalization of her father, Pauli went to live with her aunt, Pauline Fitzgerald, and grandparents, Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald, in Durham, NC at the age of 3. After high school, Pauli attended Hunter College in New York City until the stock market crash forced her to abandon her studies. She later petitioned to enter the all-white University of North Carolina but was denied. In 1941 she began law school at Howard University to become a civil rights lawyer, and subsequently applied to Harvard University, but was again denied, this time because of her gender. She ultimately received her law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. In the 1960s, Pauli served on President Kennedy’s Committee on Civil and Political Rights but she became increasingly discontented with the disparity in roles of African American men and women in the Civil Rights Movement. She became the first African American female Episcopal Priest in 1977. This is just a fraction of Pauli’s story. To learn more about her unyielding social activism, battle for racial and gender equality, and extraordinary legacy, visit

The Pauli Murray Family Home was built in 1898 by Pauli’s grandfather, Robert, who moved to the south to educate African Americans after emancipation. Pauli’s grandfather was blinded during the Civil War and apparently built the house by touch! In 2015, the Pauli Murray Project began restoration of the home. Worried that house restorations and a city drainage project would impact archaeology at the site, the Pauli Murray Project partnered with Dr. Anna Agbe-Davies of UNC-Chapel Hill in 2016 to archaeologically explore Pauli’s childhood home.

Recovery efforts and historical documentation have already revealed ways in which Pauli and her family were affected by environmental racism. In a presentation given for the OSA Lunchtime Lecture Series, Dr. Agbe-Davies notes that a cemetery sits on the hill directly behind the home, and water historically drained from the cemetery into the foundation, which began to degrade while the Murray family lived there, and the home’s well was condemned. Historical documents show that Pauli’s grandfather filed multiple complaints with the city which went unanswered as evidenced by the discovery of brick features the family put in place to divert and drain water from the house. Additionally, Dr. Agbe-Davies challenges the concept of gender in archaeology. A variety of buttons often associated with male clothing were uncovered at the home, which was occupied primarily by females (Pauli’s grandfather spent much of his later life in a home for disabled veterans). Historical photos of Pauli illustrate that she often wore traditional men’s clothing, suggesting that these buttons may not represent a male presence in the home, as would often be inferred by archaeologists. This is being studied further.

In addition to the brick and buttons found at the home, a variety of other items included plastics, nails, window glass, container glass, table ceramics, and more. Currently, these artifacts are being analyzed in more detail by Dr. Agbe-Davies and her students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Join the OSA this October in honoring the contributions of women, like Dr. Pauli Murray, to North Carolina archaeology and history! Click here for your own copy of Pauli's 2019 NC Archaeology Month poster!


-Dr. Agbe-Davies OSA Lecture: