Members of the Durham County Board of Education last week unanimously approved naming an elementary school under construction after two pioneering Black women who contributed to education and civil rights.

Board members on Thursday voted to name the Murray-Massenburg Elementary School after Hillside High School alumna Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, a human rights activist whose life is the subject of an ongoing Amazon Prime documentary, and Betty Doretha Massenburg, the first African-American woman to serve as principal in the Durham City School System, according to a Durham Public Schools press release.

Currently known as Elementary School F in the county’s capital improvement plan, the school will open off of Martin Luther King Boulevard near Roxboro Road in 2023. 

DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth says months before formally naming the school, DPS conducted “a community engagement process” that asked Durham residents to suggest a name for the school.

“The most popular response was, ‘name the school after Pauli Murray,’” Sudderth explains.

As chronicled in the 91-minute documentary film My Name Is Pauli Murray that was simultaneously screened downtown at Durham’s Carolina Theater and premiered on Amazon Prime on October 1, Murray was a legal scholar, author, feminist, poet, Episcopal priest, labor organizer, and multiracial Black, LBGBTQ+ community member. She was also the first Black person to earn a juris doctorate from Yale Law School.

As the INDY previously reported, decades after Murray’s death in 1985, the world finally acknowledged the remarkable activist-scholar whose 1944 law school thesis served as the philosophical premise of Thurgood Marshall’s arguments before the US Supreme Court, which ruled in 1954 that segregation in the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.

In 1965, Murray co-authored “Jane Crow and The Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII,” a pioneering article that pointed to an array of laws across the United States that limited what women were allowed to do. In 1971, the brief that Murray wrote was cited by future associate justice of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in Reed v. Reed, which ruled that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause applied to women.

The DPS release notes that Murray’s “legal arguments and interpretation of the US Constitution” also led to “an extension of rights to LGBTQ+ people based on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the hyphen in the school name is Massenburg, the first Black woman principal in Durham when she led Holloway Street Elementary in 1975. 

Sudderth says there was one response for Massenburg during a school board meeting “months ago.”

It was from the former Durham educator’s family, who “made an impassioned presentation” on her behalf, along with “significant grass roots community support,” Sudderth adds. 

“[Massenburg’s] passion and commitment to teaching Durham students inspired not only the children, but also the community,” the DPS release states. “She was a proud career educator, business owner, motivational speaker, poet, author, and community servant leader.”

Before she was promoted to principal, Massenburg taught at Crest Street and Fayetteville Street Elementary Schools. She also served as dean of girls and assistant principal at Rogers-Herr Middle School.

Prior to Thursday’s vote, the school board members had a thoughtful discussion about the naming of public schools, Durham, and the importance of recognizing and honoring Black achievement in the Bull City. The issue became all the more important after the board members received an email indicating there may have been something negative in Massenburg’s personnel file that precluded naming a school after her.

Alvera Lesane, DPS human resources director, said she and her staff did not find any incriminating information about Massenburg. There was a brief consideration to do additional research in order to not have to remove Massenburg’s name from the school in the future per the discovery of unseemly information.

However, school board vice-chair Jovonia Lewis said she wanted to “lift the energy” surrounding the honoring of the city’s first Black woman school principal. 

“Betty Massenburg,” Lewis said, “believed in children from low-income families and made them believe in themselves.”

Lewis pointedly noted that during the DPS “Black History Bowl,” students not only correctly identified all of the schools named after Black people, but could also “tell you what they did” because they “were able to see themselves and feel connected.”

Board member Frederick Ravin shared a similar sentiment.

“We have Shepard Middle School [along the Fayetteville Street corridor], and right down the street is one of the finest universities in the state and nation with [NC Central University],” that was founded by the public school’s namesake, James E. Shepard.

“So we have to understand representation matters. There are connections,” Ravin added. “There’s a reason why it is so important to honor people when you can because it does resonate with people, maybe not as much today as it does tomorrow.”

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