Pauli Murray mural in Durham

Established in 1990, the Pauli Murray Award recognizes a local youth, adult, and a business for upholding the mission of Murray by promoting human rights, inclusion, and equality for all. The above mural is located in downtown Durham.

The 29th annual Pauli Murray Awards will soon be presented to a local business and two individuals who embody the spirit and mission of the American civil rights activist.

The Orange County Human Relations Commission grants these awards to an Orange County adult, youth, and business that have served the community with distinction in the pursuit of equality, justice, and human rights for all residents.

These individuals and businesses are annually nominated by peers or patrons online. All submissions are reviewed by a six-member subcommittee of the Human Relations Commission, an 11-member advisory commission to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners. The deadline to submit nominations has been extended to Jan. 21 at 5 p.m.

This year’s awards celebration will be held on Sunday, Feb. 24 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Whitted Building at 300 W. Tryon St. in Hillsborough. 

Established in 1990, the Pauli Murray Award commemorates the life of the late Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray (1910-1985), a distinguished and remarkable person who confronted discrimination, racism, and sexism in her own life, the commission website states.

Previous Hillsborough businesses who have upheld these ideals and been awarded the Pauli Murray Award include Weaver Street Market, Kelsey’s Cafe, the Music Makers Relief Foundation, and Sports Endeavors. 

Criteria for nominations for individuals over 18 includes having a public record and community history of promoting human rights, inclusion and equality in Orange County. This leadership is often expressed through striving to diffuse racial tensions, promoting inclusion at local events, advocating for members of a protected class, and working to embody the legacy of Pauli Murray.

Youth awards, given to recipients under the age of 18, honor a person who fights discrimination and encourages inclusivity in their school or community. These students exhibit leadership, citizenship and a positive attitude.

Businesses who are awarded must encourage inclusion in the workforce and provide leadership and direction for the upward mobility for all employees; provide self-improvement opportunities for employees through such options as educational assistance, in-house training or employee assistance programs; and publicly promote and participate in activities and programs related to human relations affairs, the criteria states. 

The Life of Pauli Murray

Murray, a civil rights activist, lived a phenomenal and difficult life. After being denied admission to top schools based on her skin color and gender, Murray fought to become a civil rights lawyer, renowned author, radical women’s rights activist, and the first African American Episcopal priest.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1910, Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray, moved to Durham as a teenager after the death of her mother (1914) and her father, a former teacher, in 1923. She lived with her grandparents and her aunt, an elementary school teacher.

She graduated from Hillside High School in 1926 with a certificate of distinction and moved to New York City to attend Hunter College. Forced to give up her studies due to the Wall Street Crash, she worked for the Works Projects Administration and as a teacher.

She became involved in the Civil Rights Movement and in 1938 sought to enter the all-white UNC-Chapel Hill, gaining national attention through the support of the NAACP. After being denied admission, she began her path to becoming a civil rights lawyer. Graduating from Howard University in 1944, she pressed on and enrolled at Harvard University to continue her law studies. She was granted the prestigious Rosenwald Fellowship to the school, but ultimately denied entrance due to her gender. 

Murray obtained her law degree from the University of California Boalt School of Law and after, moved back to New York to continue work in the Civil Rights Movement. She published many renowned essays and articles in this time. Her book “States’ Laws on Race and Color” published in 1951 was described by Thurgood Marshall as a Bible for civil rights lawyers, according to the Pauli Murray Project. 

She continued the fight through her writing, though it was deemed radical. 

In 1977, she became the first African American woman to become an Episcopal priest. She died eight years later of cancer in 1985. 

Student Essay Contest

In addition to three Pauli Murray Awards, the commission annually hosts a student essay contest, inviting  middle and high school students to write on a relevant prompt for the chance to win a cash prize.

Unlike years past, this year’s prompt was more of a research paper topic, said Tara May, Civil Rights Specialist for the Orange County Department of Human Rights and Relations. 

The prompt asked students to express their views on the question: What do you feel was Pauli Murray’s biggest contribution to the lives of women and/or people of color? The prompt also asked writers to describe a meaningful personal experience that reflects the acceptance of, or advocacy for, diversity and inclusion. 

Commission members felt students should have the opportunity to explore the life of Murray closely, as “she is not as well-known as the other activists of her time,” May said.

The submission date for the essay contest is also Jan. 21 at 5 p.m. Essays will be judged by a panel of eight people, all of which represent outside organizations. These judges include: WCHL News Anchor Aaron Keck, a representative from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich, WUNC’s Education Policy Reporter Liz Schlemmer, a representative from the Carolina Friends School, a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, a community member who is a local attorney, and a UNC professor. 

Essays must submitted with specific information and formatting. High school entries must be at least 750 words and middle school submissions, 500 words minimum. 

The first place winner will receive $250, second place will receive $150, and the third place prize is $100. 

For more essay information, or to nominate an individual or business, visit

Human Relations Commission

The Orange County Human Relation Commission is an advisory commission to the Orange County Board of Commissioners who work to ensure specific policies are upheld by the board. These policies include: to promote the equal treatment of all individuals; to protect residents’ lawful interests and their personal dignity; and to prevent public and domestic strife, crime, and unrest within Orange County.

Members are appointed by commissioners and meet once a month. 

The commission receives support from the staff at the Orange County Department of Human Rights and Relations.