Angela Thorpe in front of artist Brett Cook’s “Pauli Murray in the World" mural on 117 S. Buchanan Boulevard. Credit: Photo by Brett Villena

Family roots are deeply intertwined with history and culture. This is especially true for those who are descendants of enslaved people.

Angela Thorpe, a cultural heritage leader, public historian, and scholar, has family hailing from Edgecombe County, near Rocky Mount, where her father was born into a family of 14 children. As a military kid, Thorpe often moved around but remained rooted in North Carolina. Like many Black families, her family frequently returned to their hometown for annual reunions.

Growing up around a vibrant, dynamic Black Southern family who shared stories about everyday life on the farm in Edgecombe County inspired Thorpe to learn more about the lives of Southern communities, especially marginalized groups. In college at the University of Florida, she switched from biology to history and, under the guidance of two Black female professors in the African American Studies Department, discovered a passion for public history.

“These experiences made me realize that I wanted to document and share the stories of Black people. I wanted to be a part of preserving Black history for future generations,” Thorpe says.

In 2012, she pursued a master’s in history and museum studies at UNC Greensboro.

“I knew that if I wanted to do the work of Black history, I wanted to do it in the place where my family was rooted,” she says.

From writing about the lack of diversity in public history to leading the curation of an award-winning multimedia exhibit that examined the history of Warnersville—the first Black-planned community in Greensboro—and promoting North Carolina Black heritage as the director of the state’s African American Heritage Commission (AAHC) from 2018 through 2023, Thorpe has made a significant impact during her 10-year journey in public history. 

One of her biggest accomplishments as director of the AAHC was developing the nationally recognized North Carolina Green Book Project, a traveling and virtual exhibition produced to highlight the experiences of African American travelers during the Jim Crow era in North Carolina. Her work has involved building community relationships and partnerships, amplifying underrepresented voices, and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In March, Thorpe was named the new executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, making her the organization’s second leader. Located in Durham, the center is a significant historical site anchored by Pauli Murray’s childhood home, which was built by Murray’s maternal grandparents in 1898. In 2011, a coalition of local groups saved the home from demolition. Since then, funding from various sources, including the National Park Service and the Mellon Foundation, has allowed the home to be stabilized and restored.

Thorpe takes on the position from founding executive director Barbara Lau, who has grown the center over the last 15 years.

“It is an honor to nurture and grow the rich work that Barbara led,” Thorpe says. “She spent decades building an incredible foundation for the center, which has positioned me well to see the center through to its next phase.” 

Thanks to that vision, the center is now positioned to be a fully operational historic site, with a goal of encouraging visitors to stand up for peace, equity, and justice by connecting history to contemporary human rights issues.

The Pauli Murray Center is expected to reopen to the public in 2024. On the heels of Thorpe’s hire, the INDY spoke with her about the Pauli Murray Center and her vision for it.

INDY Week: When were you first introduced to Pauli Murray?

Angela Thorpe: While working with the Museum of Durham History to develop an exhibit on the history of the baseball card, I was trying to draw inspiration from other creative exhibits. So Katie Spencer, the director of the museum at the time, took me to the Scrap Exchange in Durham to see the Pauli Murray Center’s traveling exhibit. That was when I was first introduced to Pauli Murray. I remember being so moved, inspired, and excited by that exhibit. 

I also remember saying out loud, what I hear a lot of people saying to me now, “Why have I never heard about this person?” I would argue that Pauli has had a hold on me ever since. In my work at the [AAHC], I had the great fortune of being deeply connected with the center in various ways.

What do you love most about Pauli Murrary’s story?

There are a couple of things that inspire and move me about Pauli. One, like how multihyphenate of a person Pauli was. Like, the fact that they spent a lifetime being so many versions of themselves is really inspiring. To be a civil rights activist, to be a writer, to be a lawyer, and later decide “I’m going to be a priest”—Pauli helps me to understand that we can be as much as we want to be, and that we can stand in our identities as fully as we want to, or need to, even when categories may or may not exist for us. That’s another thing that inspires me about Pauli.

As a queer person, and as somebody who today, we might say, is gender nonconforming, they stood in their truth at a time when a box nor the language for that truth did not exist. That, to me, is phenomenal.

Let’s talk about the center’s mission and the work that the team will be doing with your leadership.

Yes. So we lift up the legacy of the great Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray, who, of course, was an activist, a legal scholar, a faith leader, and a thinker. I’m joining the center at a really incredible and exciting time. Barbara Lau has worked for decades to grow the center and amplify Pauli’s story all over the world. 

We’re nearing the end of that process and entering a new phase. My big work is taking that house and transitioning it into a museum and historic site that people from all over the world can visit. And that feels so profound to me. I look forward to our center being a place for all people. This is a place where people who love history can come and engage with exhibits. 

This is a place where perhaps people who love literature or our legal scholars can reserve one of our rooms upstairs so that they can have time to write and study. This will be a space where activists and organizers can gather to strategize, rest, and organize further. This will be a place where families and school children can come to learn about Pauli and hopefully leave being inspired. 

Our site is in a historically Black neighborhood on the West End of Durham, a community with rich history, a community anchored by elders. And so part of our responsibility is to make sure that we are holding those folks up by working in solidarity and in community with them as well. I’m really excited to explore what that looks like to connect even more deeply with West End.

How is the center funded?

Over the last 15 years, we have been fortunate to receive support from colleagues and family members, including one of Pauli’s nieces, who sits on our board. The most notable source of the last couple of years has been the Mellon Foundation. Thanks to the recent $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, we have been able to activate the space, complete renovations, and restorations, and conceptualize and design exhibits for the interior of the space. This funding has also allowed us to bring on an executive director, education coordinator, program and communications coordinator, and assistant to further our preservation efforts.

It takes a lot to run museums. It takes a lot to run a historic site. We have been supported for a long time by the generosity of everyday people. The $5 that somebody is giving every month or the $100 one-time donation is part of what helps us grow, too.

What are you most looking forward to?

A few weeks ago we had a program at the site called “Built by Feel” that was led by the brilliant Aya Shabu and other folks from all over the community. There were kids everywhere playing in the mud, making flower crowns, and eating way too many bags of Cheetos. I’m looking forward to that happening every single day. 

I look forward to that space being activated. I look forward to the grounds of the center, the Fitzgerald House, being a place where my fellow community catalyst can find inspiration to create incredible programs for our community. I look forward to our space being a place where kids feel free to just be and where parents feel safe to bring their kids and connect them to the legacy of Pauli Murray. That is what excites me.

If you could say anything to Pauli Murray, what would you say?

I would say that it was worth it. It is so exciting that we are evolving into a space where we are developing language that is inclusive of the identities or the various identities that Pauli Murray once held. You hear people throw around the phrase “I’ve dedicated my life to this work.” 

For me, Pauli is someone who truly has dedicated their life to the work and the causes that they believed in. They never stopped writing, advocating, pushing, or pulling. And probably did their work like their life depended on it. They did their work in poverty. They did their work without recognition. Pauli Murray is an example of what it looks like to truly dedicate your life to work, and it was worth it. 

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