This interview was conducted over Zoom with Barbara Lau, Executive Director of the Pauli Murray Center and a member of the DHRC Faculty Advisory Board, by Zac Johnson, a fourth-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.  

Zac Johnson (ZJ): What has led you to your passion for Pauli Murray and her history in Durham? 

Barbara Lau (BL): My interest in Pauli Murray really grew out of work that I did at the Center for Documentary Studies, where I was in charge of community documentary projects. One of the community groups was the Southwest Central Durham Quality-of-Life Project, a group of six neighborhoods whose residents worked together to advocate for resources and address their quality-of-life issues. One of their four initial main was “Celebrations and Traditions,” which stemmed, in part, from a CDS program called Community Stories that taught middle and high school students the tools of documentary to share the stories of their community. Pauli Murray was one of the people the West End and Lyon Park neighborhoods really wanted to lift up.  

As I learned more about Pauli Murray, of course I was impressed and curious. At the very end of my time at CDS, we wanted to do a project that literally amplified the voices of people from the neighborhood. With my colleague, Courtney Reed-Eaton, who is still there as the director of exhibitions, we came up with the idea to do a public art project and to work with an artist named Brett Cook. This project eventually became called the Face Up: Telling Stories of Community Life Project – the title drawn from a Pauli Murray quote. Of the 14 murals created through the Face Up project, five of them were of Pauli Murray, and four of those are still up. 

This was right at that point that the Center for Doc Studies decided to stop doing community documentary projects and to focus on some other areas. At a Preservation Durham Lunch and Learn Program about Pauli Murray, Robin Kirk (co-director of the Duke Human Rights Center @ the Franklin Humanities Institute) came up to me and said, “You know, I’ve always wanted it to be the Pauli Murray Human Rights Center.” 

Robin had just finished working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Greensboro that had been funded by a foundation that was really interested in community reconciliation projects. So, we crafted a proposal to create the Pauli Murray Project as a part of the DHRC to think about how history becomes a tool for human rights work. How do we create architectures in which people can engage with the past as a way to think about the present and work together toward a better future? 

We started doing community dialogues, we started doing local history projects, and we started trying to lift up the life and legacy of Pauli Murray, who, in 2009, most people had never heard of. People in the neighborhoods pointed out to us that Pauli’s childhood home, which was built in 1898 by Pauli’s grandparents Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald, was in serious disrepair and in danger of becoming a parking lot.  

The neighborhood had a mechanism to take control of the redevelopment of the site and in 2012, we founded the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice as a nonprofit organization. Fast forward a few years, the site was named a National Treasure, which means you’re important, but you’re in trouble according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Then, a year later, we were able to get a grant to complete the nomination for the site as a National Historic Landmark.  

We’ve been making steady progress toward the goal of a visitor ready, fully accessible, engaging, historic site and community center where people could learn about Pauli Murray, engage in programs and opportunities related to the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray’s vision, and also tell some stories from the West End neighborhood. 

Pauli has a very powerful spirit. There have been many moments on that journey where we weren’t sure what was going to happen next because the grant funds were running out, but then new money would show up. Or people would come onto our radar that had just the skills that we needed, for example. 

ZJ: What is it about Pauli’s story, specifically, that resonates so strongly with you or with the community?  

BL: So, so many different people see themselves in Pauli Murray’s story. You might be a lawyer, you might be a person of color, you might be a queer person, you might be a person who loves language and likes to write letters, you might be someone who is really committed to chronicling your life, you might be an Episcopalian or just a person of faith. All those ways are ways that people connect with Pauli Murray. I have my own admiration for the Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray and my own connections to Pauli as a queer person. I have my connections with Pauli as somebody who really believes that activism can make a difference and that we can advance our democracy despite much evidence to the contrary. 

Pauli Murray was someone who didn’t like boxes or containers and found a lot of things to be constrictive. So, what does that mean for us to walk in those proud shoes as Pauli wrote about in a family memoire? What does it mean for us to engage with a lot of different people? Brett Cook’s suggested that our job was to create the architectures in which people can practice community. This idea has profoundly shaped my life and work. 

Immediately upon starting the Pauli Murray Project, and then building the center, we decided we needed people from the community that are committed and interested in this to guide the process. So, in many ways, I think of myself a bit more as a facilitator or midwife. I was very reluctant to actually to take on the title of executive director because I’m just sort of a conduit. Yes, I have my ideas and I bring those to the table, but there are many more people who also bring their ideas to the table about how we might advance this mission. 

When the mural project was coming to a close, Brett reflected that these murals are just the debris of our collaboration. What was important was what we were in community with other people. The historic site is important in and of itself as an object, as an artifact, as a location. But really it is the conduit or the architecture in which we hope people will practice community and become more active in bringing Pauli Murray’s vision – a world in which a Pauli Murray could thrive, be validated, be listened to, and be leading – into being, which is certainly not where we live. That’s the world I want to live in. 

ZJ: What excites you most about the new documentary My Name is Pauli Murray? Are there any stories that have gone too long untold revealed in the documentary?   

BL: Our site was a location in the film and we helped to gather some high school students, who were filmed there talking with consulting producer Patricia Bell Scott. Our house became the site, the architecture as it were, for that. But I think that the way they used that footage, the way the film ends with a high school student reading part of a Pauli Murray poem gives a sense that the story doesn’t end here. The story is moving to the next generation, it’s being re-energized here at the Pauli Murray Center. We’ve done numerous panels with the filmmakers and others after showings of the film. We did one during the drive-in premiere of the film here and we also made major contributions to the discussion guide that supports with the film. 

The challenge of trying to tell, share, or chronicle Pauli Murray’s story in even a two-hour documentary is significant. There’s just so many elements and aspects and so many people and issues that the film couldn’t cover everything. But we, along with the filmmakers, believe that this new awareness of Pauli’s life and this amazing archive of materials could become fodder for even more media projects. And I certainly hope that happens. 

We’ve been thinking recently about the concept that we’re rooted in Durham, but radiating to the world. The film, of course, is an amazing vehicle to introduce people to who Pauli Murray was, what kinds of things Pauli Murray did in their life, what their struggles were, what their successes were, and how people think about Pauli Murray now? Hopefully what it does is it doesn’t tell the whole story, but invites curiosity and more questions, like why don’t I know about this person and what else could I know? 

ZJ: The Pauli Murray Center recently received a grant for $1.6 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Where do you see this money going and what will this provide to the center? 

BL: For the first time we have at least a few years of guaranteed funding for our executive director and our staff, which is a big deal at 10 years old. About half of the money is going to go into bringing the site online; making sure the site’s accessible through the correct kind of walkways, parking spaces, and driveways; transforming the mill house that’s a part of our property into a welcome and education center. There’ll be a big addition to the current mill house that will allow a whole group of fifth graders to fit in one room, an opportunity we do not currently have. And because we’re in a residential neighborhood, we have to have a small parking lot with at least a certain number of spaces. This money is going to help us really bring our site to fruition way, way faster than we thought. The other part of the funds are for our inaugural exhibits – what we’re going to put in the historic house and to expand our staff. Really until about 18 months ago, it was me and a lot of students every year. We had student interns from Duke and UNC, but now we have staff and beginning October 1st when the grant began, we have full-time staff. So, this kind of stability and increased capacity that makes us stronger and gives us the platform upon which we can build a sustainable future. 

We are now getting ready to think about something called stewardship planning, which is convening the major partners in this endeavor to think long-term about the sustainability of the Center. How do we commit to keeping the center an active, viable and robust place for many, many years to come? That might include Duke, the city of Durham, Preservation Durham, the Episcopal church, or other organizations or universities that have a stake in a place like this.  

ZJ: How will Duke students and Durham community members see the benefits of the grant?   

BL: The big payoff for everybody is a visitor-ready, fully accessible site that is open full-time to the public. You visit now – there’s an exhibit on the lawn at 906 Carroll Street. In the future, there will be many more programs and people will be able to visit and enjoy learning at the site whenever they want. So, I think the physical place will be a real benefit. The access to the story and to the stories of people from the neighborhood will also be a huge benefit.  

I also think this is going to become a piece of Durham’s historical destination network. And there’s the pride that Durham, in its messy and unique history, produced and nurtured the spirit of someone like the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, along with so many other people that have that have made impact here and beyond. Part of this is also changing a little bit about how Durham thinks about itself and how we think about it, and I hope that this site along on with other historic places in Durham will encourage both students and Durham community members to take a bigger interest in where they are. 

In the future, I think that it’s really important for us to look at the people like Pauli Murray who made a difference, but who may not be so well-known, whose stories are really important and really had impact in this Duke community, and to think about how we lift those people up. That would be acting in the spirit of Pauli Murray.