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Future of former Pauli Murray home uncertain 

This model of Pauli Murray's childhood home is based on the house at 906 Carroll St. in Durham, where she lived with her grandparents.

Photo by D.L. Anderson

This model of Pauli Murray's childhood home is based on the house at 906 Carroll St. in Durham, where she lived with her grandparents.

The house at 906 Carroll St. looks older than the other houses in the neighborhood, mostly because it is. At 102 years old, the former home of Episcopal saint Pauli Murray wears its age: crumbling stone steps and broken bricks piled at the base of the chimney. Behind the house, there are a few steps of grass before the property is cut off by a fence that divides it from Maplewood Cemetery.

On a recent Saturday, neighbors are celebrating a birthday at nearby Carroll Street Park, the sound of hip-hop music blaring from the speakers. People ignore the house as they walk by; in fact, few neighbors know that one of Durham's most notable civil rights leaders lived there.

The 1,500-square-foot house belonged to Cornelia and Robert Fitzgerald, the grandparents of Pauli Murray, the activist who was recently elevated to Episcopal sainthood. Murray moved to Durham in 1914 after her mother died and her father went to Crownsville State Hospital, a Maryland psychiatric hospital for black patients. She lived in the home until she graduated from Hillside High School in 1926.

Since May 2011, the house has been owned by three organizations: The Pauli Murray Project, the Southwest Central Durham Quality of Life Project and Self-Help Credit Union. They have renamed it The Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice.

The groups want the center to memorialize Murray and her accomplishments, but like most of Murray's successes, the road to finishing the project won't be an easy one.

Murray was a leader in civil, women's, labor and LGBT rights. She also wrote literary works, such as Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family in 1956. Murray became one of the first African-American women lawyers, working in local underserved communities.

In 1977, Murray was the first female African-American to be ordained an Episcopal priest. The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina announced Murray's sainthood earlier this month, along with Virginia Dare and Manteo.

"[Pauli Murray] was one of these people who was a bridge person," Bishop Michael Curry said at the celebration of Murray's sainthood. "She was a descendent of both slaves and slave owners. She was a woman long before her time who did things others said were impossible to do."

Organizers are still uncertain whether the center will become a traditional museum, community resource or both, because the home is in poor condition. It's uninhabitable, said Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project.

Although the state designated the house a historic site in November, it remains boarded up. Before the house can be made into a functioning historic and neighborhood institution, Lau said, the foundation, roof and chimney must be fixed, at a cost of $150,000 to $200,000.

And to ensure there are no future structural issues, the homeowners want the city to repair the drainage system in Maplewood Cemetery. Water runs off from the cemetery and under the house, damaging the foundation.

The city budgeted $100,000 for local cemeteries this year, but nothing was allocated specifically for Maplewood Cemetery. Most of the money will be used to study the condition of walkways and deteriorating drainage pipes in local cemeteries, said Jim Reingruber of Durham's Budget Management Services office. The failing pipes create potential hazards by destabilizing the walkways.

Lau said she hopes the drainage project can start by early 2013, but it's difficult to predict how long it will take to restore the house.

The owners have also considered using the boarded-up property next door at 900 Carroll St. for part of the project, although it also needs substantial work. That house is part of the Quality of Life Project's land bank, which contains properties the organization buys, fixes up and sells as affordable housing.

"This whole effort isn't just about Pauli Murray and saving that history," Lau said. "That's important, but part of it is doing her work."

Stephanie Yarbrough Davis is Murray's third cousin and a member of the Pauli Murray Project's board. She said she hopes the house can become a community center where people can go for help.

"I think it's important to the neighborhood mostly," Davis said. "I think it would bring some pride to the neighborhood."

While Murray's home is in Durham, Davis said most of her historical artifacts and documents are at Harvard's Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Murray's family still has some of Murray's grandparents' heirlooms. Davis said the family has a diary kept by Robert Fitzgerald—Murray's grandfather—and his sword from the war.

"I'm learning that it's an honor (to be related to Murray) and we really have to learn how to honor the legacy she left us," Davis said.

Mechelle Hankerson is an intern at the Independent Weekly.

Due to an editing error, the age of the Pauli Murray house was incorrect. It was built in 1910, making it 102 years old, not 112.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Time will tell."

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