Hidden Figures

Dalena Hunter



Pauli Murray, Lucy Slowe and Mary P. Burrill were African American women who made important contributions to legal studies and education. However, they are less well known than their contemporaries. This paper asserts that these women are less well known because they were hidden from history because of their sexual orientation. Concepts taken from Black feminist studies and archival studies are employed to expose the processes involved in silencing these women from historical narratives. First, the concept of essentialism in Black history explores how the women were excluded from male-centered narratives. Next, the concept of cultures of dissemblance shows how Black women might have elided certain aspects of their personal identity from their professional lives to protect themselves from unfair scrutiny. Finally, archival concepts of provenance and neutrality will explore how archivists may have contributed to the demotion of these women in primary source collections by uncritically attributing creatorship and applying descriptive terms.

A biography of each woman is supported by primary and secondary source materials that show how they were received by their contemporaries and how they were uncovered by recent scholars. Pauli Murray was a lawyer who made extensive contributions to the historic Brown et al v. Board of Education case. She was known to wear men’s clothing and use the name “Paul” publically. Lucy Slowe was a dean of women’s students at Howard who lived off campus with her long-time partner, Mary P. Burrill. Slowe helped establish the National Association of University Women and served as its first president. She also advocated for women’s equality in higher education. Ms. Burrill was an educator at the famed Dunbar High school. She was noted for theater productions at Dunbar High school and at Howard University. When Ms. Slowe died, Burrill oversaw managing the estate and solidifying Slowe’s legacy.

Each of these women deserve to have their lives represented in what Audrey Lorde described as “harmony in contradictions” in historical records. The goal of this essay is to move scholarly work in Black studies and archival studies towards a critical approach that embraces the fullness of Black lesbian experiences.