Pauli Murray, nonbinary Black activist, lawyer, priest, and poet, will be featured on a quarter in the next round of the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters Program, making Murray the first Black queer person to appear on U.S. currency.
Murray’s quarter will be issued in 2024. Others in the 2024 group are Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color to serve in Congress; Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War–era surgeon, women’s rights advocate, and abolitionist; Zitkala-Ša, a writer, composer, educator, and activist for Native Americans’ rights; and Celia Cruz, the Cuban-American singer known as the Queen of Salsa.
“All of the women being honored have lived remarkable and multi-faceted lives, and have made a significant impact on our Nation in their own unique way,” Mint Director Ventris C. Gibson said in a press release. “The women pioneered change during their lifetimes, not yielding to the status quo imparted during their lives. By honoring these pioneering women, the Mint continues to connect America through coins which are like small works of art in your pocket.”
Murray, born in 1910 in Baltimore, was assigned female at birth but questioned their gender and is now understood as nonbinary. They grew up in Durham, N.C., and became a lawyer and activist against sexism and racism. They graduated at the top of their class from Howard University School of Law.
Murray’s book States’ Laws on Race and Color, published in 1951, was described by civil rights lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as the Bible for civil rights litigators. In the 1950s, Murray joined the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton, and Garrison, where they met their longtime partner, Irene Barlow, who was office manager there.
In the 1960s, Murray served on the Committee on Civil and Political Rights as part of President John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and continued to be active in the Black civil rights movement but objected to the fact that movement organizations were largely led by men while women did much of the work. In 1966, they helped found the National Organization for Women, “but later moved away from a leading role because s/he did not believe that NOW appropriately addressed the issues of Black and working-class women,” according to the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice.
Murray taught an American studies program at Brandeis University from 1968 to 1973. In 1973, following Barlow’s death, Murray entered General Theological Seminary, and in 1977 they were the first Black person perceived as a woman to become an Episcopal priest in the U.S.
Murray wrote several other books, including a poetry collection, an autobiography, and a volume on the government of Ghana. Their best-known book, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, chronicles the difficulties faced by her grandparents in Durham due to racism. It has remained in print since its initial publication in 1956.
Murray died of cancer in 1985. Their life and significance were chronicled in the documentary film My Name Is Pauli Murray, released in 2021.
David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, issued a statement praising the Mint’s honoring of Murray.
“The announcement by the U.S. Mint that it will include civil rights activist Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, the first Black queer person to be featured on U.S. currency, deserves celebration,” he said. “This moment is a reminder that wherever there is history there is Black history and that Black history has always included the contributions of Black queer, trans, and nonbinary/nonconforming members of our beautifully diverse community.
“Commemorating the life and legacy of Murray, who was a groundbreaking leader of racial and gender equality and progenitor of effective civil rights tactics, and was also one of the first women, first gender nonbinary person, and the first Black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, is an important step toward recognizing the contributions that Black LGBTQ+/same-gender loving people have made to American history. Especially at a time when the evangelical right is using religion to separate, segregate, and inspire hate.
“We commend the U.S. Mint for honoring Pauli Murray, amongst a number of influential and groundbreaking women. The lives, contributions, and stories of Black trans, queer, and nonbinary/nonconforming people are fundamental to Black history and should continue to be told and celebrated.”