“Monumental, enduring and challenging:” New mural debuts in Pauli Murray dining hall
Muralist Mickalene Thomas ART ’02 crafted a mural of Pauli Murray in the college’s dining hall over spring recess.
Michael Paz, Contributing Photographer
Students returned to the Pauli Murray College dining hall after spring recess to see a new mural of Murray — the first person of color to receive a JSD from Yale Law School — brightly displayed across the once-empty wall.
Contemporary American artist Mickalene Thomas ART ’02 put the piece together over spring recess and officially introduced it at a celebratory event on Monday afternoon. Thomas depicted Murray as a young adult, the same age as many of the students who live in the college.
“I always knew I wanted something BIG to represent someone whose life did not obey frames: who literally imagined themselves out of Jim Crow North Carolina, out of patriarchy, out of so many limitations that were imposed on them,” Murray Head of College Tina Lu told the News. “I also wanted a portrait that would always exist in a little bit of tension with the room itself; as Mickalene says, Pauli in the mural is looking outward.”
Monday’s mural celebration included refreshments, musical performances and speeches. Local private school Trinity Girls Choir — the choir for the Trinity Church on the New Haven Green — performed selections including Murray’s grandmother’s favorite hymn. Yale’s gospel choir sang “Amazing Grace” and their alumni song.
At Monday’s event, Lu also commended Thomas for her work on the mural, calling her an “artist for the ages” and commending her “rockstar energy.”
Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910 and raised in Durham, North Carolina. They became a prolific civil rights lawyer and activist, challenging racial segregation. Murray worked within frameworks of intersectionality decades before Kimberlé Crenshaw would formally coin the term in 1989. They helped found the National Organization for Women in 1966 and coined the term “Jane Crow,” which is used to describe the unique structures of oppression that Black women faced during the twentieth century during the twentieth century.
In the 1940s, Murray, who attended Yale Law School, wrote a paper encouraging civil rights lawyers to challenge state segregation laws as unconstitutional. Murray’s argument would go on to form the basis of the 1954 landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that overturned segregation in schools. It also would shape the basis of former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s successful arguments against sex-based discrimination in the 1970s, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Murray wrote about and struggled with their gender identity during a time period in which words like “transgender” and “nonbinary” were not widely known. In one of their journals, Murray questioned whether they were “one of nature’s experiments; a girl who should have been a boy.” Murray also spoke with medical professionals about what they personally called “an inverted sex instinct” and sought out specific medical professionals who would agree to give them testosterone.
Based on their writings, some gender studies scholars think that had they been living today, Murray may have identified as a transgender man. However, Murray did not explicitly identify as nonbinary or transgender — perhaps due to the obscurity of these terms at the time. Some activists and historians have encouraged the use of gender-neutral or varied pronoun sets for Murray in an effort to recognize their gender journey, while others continue to use she/her pronouns to maintain the same language Murray used for themself.
Incoming Murray First Year Counselor MeiLan Haberl ’25 said it is “inspirational” to see Murray depicted as a young adult.
“[Lu] highlighted the significance of [the mural] being a monument to a queer person of color, which is not necessarily the person who ends up in oil paintings at Yale,” Haberl told the News. “But I love what she said about Pauli being our age in this and dreaming of monumental things and really wanting to leave a mark [because] then that can be something for us to look forward to and move toward in the future.”
Fellow incoming FroCo Aaron Weiser ’24 expressed similar sentiments to Haberl, noting in particular that it will be “beautiful” for the incoming class of 2027 to look up at it every day.
Thomas’ works often depict Black women and celebrities through mediums like acrylic, enamel and rhinestones, according to Artnet. Her pieces reflect themes such as femininity, race, beauty and childhood, and she is known for painting the first individual portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama.
When looking at her mural, Thomas says she is most struck by feelings of “possibility.”
“When you look at the mural and you see Pauli’s gaze and the direction that she’s looking toward, [it’s] the future,” Thomas told the News. “She’s looking beyond, and she’s looking toward hope. So I think the possibility that it’s possible to do whatever it is you set your mind to [is] the emotion that I feel that is visualized.”
Some of Thomas’ other pieces can be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. and the Baltimore Museum of Art.