Joining a coterie of Yale Law School icons, a painted likeness of civil rights activist Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray LAW ’65 has found a home on the walls of the Sterling Law Building, not long after what would have been her 108th birthday.
Painted by Weston- and New York-based artist Daniel Mark Duffy, the portrait of the civil rights icon will be hung this Thursday in Room 127 — one of the University’s main lecture halls — next to the portraits of other law school affiliates, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79, Law School Deputy Director of Communications Debra Kroszner said. According to Kroszner, Michael Varet LAW ’65 and his wife, Elizabeth, funded the new portrait of Murray, the namesake of one of Yale’s 14 residential colleges.
“When it feels as if our society stands at the edge of a precipice; when our faith in humanity is flagging; when we are exhausted from our efforts; when the mere existence of members of our community is challenged — we must remember Pauli,” said Law School Dean Heather Gerken at the Nov. 12 unveiling ceremony.
Murray — a lawyer, activist, scholar, professor, poet, author and Episcopal priest — was the first African American woman to earn a doctoral of juridical science degree from the Law School. A famous civil rights advocate, she was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of a Virginia bus. The only woman in her graduating class from Howard University School of Law and a member of President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, Murray co-founded the National Organization for Women. She also lobbied for sex to be included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a protected class in cases of employment discrimination.
In her remarks at the unveiling ceremony, Serena Mayeri LAW ’01 — a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied and written about Murray — highlighted the relentless activism that made the scholar and activist ahead of her time.
“Imagine what Pauli Murray would have made of the fact that a college at Yale is named for her, that her portrait will hang in the halls of Yale Law School — recognition she never received during her lifetime from any institution,” Mayeri said. “And imagine how she might have felt to be receiving this overdue recognition at this historical moment: when the universalist values of human rights and the aspirations of a yet unfulfilled American promise to which Murray devoted her life are under the most sustained attack in decades.”
Duffy, who has painted multiple portraits for the Law School over more than a decade, told the News that he knew very little about Murray prior to the portrait-painting process. But before his first brush stroke, he said he spent six months researching Murray and learning about her life.
“It was an amazing experience to learn about this woman,” Duffy said. “She’s really one of the first truly great American black women of the 20th century that we don’t know anything about. It was huge for me to have the opportunity to paint that portrait.”
During his research process, Duffy studied many photographs of Murray for his own portrait, he said. He noticed that she was oftentimes depicted or photographed sitting in front of a typewriter because she was constantly writing. But Duffy added that he strayed away from such a scene to avoid making her appear “secretarial.” Instead, he opted for a standing position to make her appear photogenic but display a slight sense of restraint.
Still, the background presented a challenge, Duffy said, adding that he wanted to ensure Murray remained the focal point of the piece. While he originally wanted to paint her in a “Warhol-esque” setting that would “pop,” he settled on a simple landscape and horizon background, an homage to Murray’s childhood upbringing with her aunt in Durham, North Carolina.
“It’s all about her,” Duffy said. “Some people will look at a portrait and be curious about the artist, but this is a portrait that I hope that people will just be curious about the subject.”
The painting is not the first time the Law School has memorialized Murray. To coincide with the opening of Pauli Murray College last year, the Lillian Goldman Law Library held an exhibit dedicated to Murray from Aug. 28, 2017 to May 31 of this year. The exhibit featured photos of Murray and artifacts from the Yale library archives, including several of Murray’s identification cards and her hand-printed weekly schedule, said Law Librarian Teresa Miguel-Stearns. Additionally, it featured several biographical and autobiographical works as well as some of Murray’s poetry and legal scholarship.
A photo of Murray also hangs among a row of distinguished alumni on the walls of a first-floor Sterling Law Building hallway, not far from where her new portrait will be displayed.
“She has been an unsung hero and an exemplary person for so long that it’s just thrilling to see her finally get the acknowledgement she deserves on so many different levels,” Miguel-Stearns said. “There’s no one quite like Pauli Murray in the history of this country who touched so many different facets of American life.”
Murray died in Pittsburgh in 1985.
Asha Prihar | firstname.lastname@example.org