Celebrating Pauli Murray

A recently-installed mosaic mural of Pauli Murray.

*Pauli Murray’s gender identity throughout their life was very fluid, and we don’t know how Pauli would express themselves today. So, keeping in tradition with many other scholars, I’ll use they/them pronouns.*

When I first found out I was in Pauli Murray College, I was extremely disappointed. I wanted to live on Old Campus with most of the other first-years, and I didn’t take the news well — my family will tell this story every chance they get. They think it’s so funny because I quickly realized that there was no college that I would rather be in.

Established in 2017, Pauli Murray College is named after the legendary civil and women’s rights activist, Christian minister, and the first Black person to receive a JSD degree from Yale Law School. They were also the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest, receiving an honorary degree from the Yale Divinity School in 1979. Over the last four years, I’ve come to admire Pauli more and more as a trailblazer, an academic, and as a person.

If you visit other Yale dining halls, you’ll often come across a nice oil portrait of the college’s namesake. However, as of a few weeks ago, our dining hall installed a tribute to Pauli that (in my humble opinion) puts any portrait to shame. I’ll let you take a good look for yourself.

A full picture of the mosaic mural honoring Pauli Murray — a young Pauli is in black and white, looking out to the right over the sky and a field of flowers.

The mosaic was designed by 2002 School of Art graduate Mickalene Thomas — an acclaimed New York-based visual artist whose mural sings her praises more than I ever could. Prof. T wanted a dedication that was “monumental”, “enduring”, and “challenging” — I would argue that Mickalene more than rose to the occasion. You’ll notice that this looks nothing like the old, Gothic architecture of much of Yale.

Mickalene Thomas standing in front of the mosaic mural that she designed.
Mickalene standing in front of her handiwork.

The dedication ceremony for this stunning mosaic might honestly be my favorite residential college-related event that I’ve ever attended. Of course they had fantastic finger food and mocktails — my favorites were the spiced hummus and zero-proof whiskey sour!

The highlights of the ceremony, however, were the speeches from Prof. T and Mickalene. Prof. T highlighted the importance of Pauli as a namesake — as the first college named after a Black woman or a queer person, it was important to her that Pauli’s Blackness was centered and celebrated. You might have noticed that Pauli doesn’t look much like many other college’s namesakes, and that’s something that means a lot to myself and a lot of other people in our community. Pauli was a trailblazer, and it’s touching to see their legacy celebrated with the respect and dignity that they deserved.

Even more touching was Mickalene’s intentional decision to depict Pauli at our age, “envisioning” our collective future and “looking out” over the horizon. For me, the work of art reminds me that I have so much life ahead of me, that I have the opportunity to be monumental, enduring, and challenging. Cheers, Pauli!