Pauli Murray to be 1st Black queer person on US currency

Pauli Murray, the trailblazing nonbinary Black activist, 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. The program includes four additional honorees: 

  • Celia Cruz, the Cuban-American singer known as the “Queen of Salsa”
  • 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

“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,” Ventris C. Gibson, director of the United States Mint, 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’s life and legacy were chronicled in the 2021 documentary “My Name Is Pauli Murray.”

Murray was born in 1910 in Baltimore. She was assigned female at birth, but questioned their gender for decades. 

William Dorsey Swann was the 1st drag queen in the US


When Murray lived, “language about LGBTQ+ communities, gender expression, and gender was different than it is today. We don’t know how Pauli Murray would identify if they were living today or which pronouns Murray would use for self-expression,” according to the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice.

During the 20th century, being openly queer in the United States was illegal and dangerous. In efforts to survive and maintain employment and housing, many queer, transgender, and gender nonconforming people were forced to repress or conceal their identities.

“Respectability politics, widespread homophobia and transphobia, and federal and state policies likely constrained Pauli Murray’s ability to publicly and thoroughly explore their gender,” to the Pauli Murray Center.

The center chooses to use he/him and they/them pronouns when discussing Murray’s early life and she/her/hers when discussing Murray’s later years, according to the site.

When discussing Murray in general, the center interchangeably use she/her/hers, he/him/his, and they/them/theirs pronouns, or it refers to Murray by their name and title(s).

“We hope this strategy will encourage readers to embrace the individual and fluid nature of gender,” the center said on its website.

Civil rights activist

Murray grew up in Durham, N.C., and became a lawyer and activist fighting against racism and sexism.

They graduated at the top of their class from Howard University School of Law.

Civil rights lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall described Murray’s 1951 book “States’ Laws on Race and Color” as vital material for attorneys in the fight against segregation.

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.

Murray’s best-known book, 1956’s “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family,” is a biography of how white supremacy and anti-Blackness oppressed their grandparents and their efforts of racial uplift and a poignant portrayal of their hometown of Durham.

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. She continued to be active in the Black civil rights movement, but objected that men were in charge of many organizations in the movement, even though women did most of the work.

Pauli Murray

In 1966, Murray 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.

Murray taught an American studies program at Brandeis University from 1968 to 1973.

In 1973, following Barlow’s death, Murray entered the General Theological Seminary. 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.

Murray died from cancer in 1985. 

David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, praised the Mint’s decision to honor 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,” Johns said in a statement.

“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,” he said.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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