Pauli Murray Becomes First Black Nonbinary Person to Appear on U.S. Currency

by Xara Aziz
Brandeis University

It’s official. The U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters Program has announced that a nonbinary Black activist, lawyer, priest and poet will be featured on a quarter in the next round, making her the first Black queer person to appear on U.S. currency.

Pauli Murray’s quarter will be issued in 2024. Others in the 2024 class 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.”

Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1910, Murray was assigned female at birth but questioned her gender at an early age. They grew up in Durham, North Carolina and would graduate at the top of their class at Howard University School of Law. They would later become a lawyer and activist against sexism and racism.

Their 1951 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, was highly-regarded and described by civil rights lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as the Bible for civil rights litigators. Following the book’s publication, they would join the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton, and Garrison, where they met their partner, Irene Barlow, an office manager there.

Murray was a staffer on the Committee on Civil and Political Rights as part of President John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and played an active role in the Black civil rights movement of the 1960s. 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 was a professor at the American studies program at Brandeis University from 1968 to 1973. They then entered General Theological Seminary in 1973 and was the first Black person perceived as a woman to become an Episcopal priest in the U.S.

In addition to Murray’s illustrious accomplishments, they wrote several books, including a volume on the government of Ghana. Their best-known book, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, examines the challenges they faced by her grandparents due to racism.

Murray died of cancer in 1985 but their legacy has been cemented as a lasting one according to many historians.

“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,” David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said in a statement. “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.”

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