Pauli Murray & Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black & White
Pauli Murray & Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black & White
Edited by Anne Firor Scott. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 194 pp. Cloth, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8078-3055-0).
Reviewed by Cherisse Jones-Branch, Arkansas State University
In this new work, Anne Firor Scott, a pioneer in American women's history, chronicles the letters that Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware wrote to each other from the 1940s through the 1970s. No two women could have come from more different backgrounds. A black woman, Murray was born in Jim Crow North Carolina in 1910, the child of a nurse and a public school teacher. In 1933, she graduated from a branch of Hunter College in New York City and later applied for and was denied admission to the segregated University of North Carolina. Descended from a multiracial family, Murray realized early in life that her relatives were people who stood in "proud shoes" (12). This later became the title of a book Murray published in 1956 about her grandparents' lives in post-Civil War Orange County, North Carolina. Murray became a labor lawyer and a teacher; she was later ordained as the first African American female Episcopal priest.
Ware, a white woman, was born in 1899 in Brookline, Massachusetts. The scion of New England Unitarians, she benefited from the privileges of a private education, receiving a scholarship to study at Oxford while a student a Vassar College in the 1920s. She later earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University and in 1931 published The Early New England Cotton Manufacture, perhaps one of the most important historical studies on industrialization to be written in the twentieth century.
It is through the correspondence of these two women that Anne Firor Scott reveals the nexus between women from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Ware and Murray formed a friendship of equals across racial lines when the two women met at Howard University in 1942. Ware had just been appointed to a fulltime position and was assigned to teach constitutional history. She met Murray in her second year at Howard and from there emerged a friendship and a commitment to racial and social justice that lasted for over forty years.
Thanks to a prodigious mining of Murray's papers at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Ware's papers at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in New York, in addition to oral history interviews, Scott does indeed "introduce both women to a wider audience" (x). Although their origins in life were different, Ware and Murray quickly realized that they had much in common, including their admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt.
When these two women became friends in the 1940s, they were drawn, inextricably, into the fabric of each other's lives. Murray, the younger of the two, was actively involved in the struggle for human rights, including the desegregation of Washington, D.C. Ware served on the National Defense Advisory Commission in addition to her teaching and writing. In their letters to each other during World War II, the two women discussed issues pertaining to the war. Ware worked with several voluntary associations including the American Association of University Women; Murray worked with the Workers Defense League on the Odell Waller case. Waller, a sharecropper, had been convicted for shooting his white landlord when he refused to honor their contract. Murray used her new friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt to try to procure a stay of execution for Waller from the Governor of Virginia. Unfortunately, the first lady's efforts were to no avail.
In addition to their shared enthusiasm for human rights, Ware and Murray held a great affection for one another. Ware and her husband Gardiner Means, whom she met in while in graduate school, gave Murray a Sheltie puppy. In their letters, the two women often referred to each other by such pet names as "Skipper," "Pumpkin," "Pixie," and "Lamb." Yet their letters are also filled with opinions about the issues of the day. In addition to the war, for example, Murray and Ware often wrote to each other about race relations, racial justice, and sexual discrimination.
Their interests did not change in the 1950s and 60s, as Americans turned their attention to the Cold War and the Supreme Court contemplated the validity of Plessy v. Ferguson. Murray was particularly interested in civil rights issues and often shared her excitement about pending changes with Ware. Ware also encouraged Murray to pursue job opportunities, critiqued her family biography, Proud Shoes, and assisted her financially, pursuing her own interests at the same time. In due course some of Ware's activities were scrutinized because of their "subversive" nature. For example, she was prohibited from going to Chile by the International Organizations Review Board for working part time for the Pan American Union and was later interrogated by the FBI for being a "dangerous liberal" (75).
In the 1960s, Ware and Murray's letters to each other are filled with the latter's experiences as a professor at the University of Ghana Law School, and Ware's encouragement and insights into the problems found in newly independent countries. There is also the usual political commentary as Ware saw hope in the election of President John F. Kennedy and the potential appointments to his administration. In 1961, she was appointed to Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women. Murray, in turn, was appointed to the Committee on Civil and Political Rights. In the years that followed, Murray assumed the presidency of Benedict College in South Carolina, and later a position at Brandeis University. Despite her increasingly busy schedule she maintained her correspondence with Ware by sending her drafts of her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat.
The correspondence wanes in the 1970s as Murray became preoccupied with her obligations and Ware's eyesight declined. Yet their letters are still filled with the ruminations of two very intelligent individuals who were fully engaged in battles for human rights. Their bond was severed only when Murray was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She died in 1985. Ware made her own journey into the hereafter just five years later.
Anne Firor Scott has unearthed a truly special collection of letters and provided a window into the worlds of two passionate women who were dedicated to obtaining first class citizenship for all Americans. She has further enlightened us by revealing the tenets of a long lasting, equal and mutually beneficial relationship across racial lines. It is truly a worthy contribution to the historiography of women's and African American activism.
Cherisse Jones-Branch, Ph.D., is assistant professor of history at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Author of several articles on black and white women's racial activism, she is currently working on a manuscript entitled, "Repairers of the Breach": Black and White Women's Racial Activism in South Carolina, 1940s-1960s.