Winfrey, who co-hosted the nationally televised ceremony with Fordham graduate Denzel Washington, FCLC ’77, added: “That Dr. McMurray has been able to accomplish so much is admirable. That she’s been able to accomplish this from a wheelchair is extraordinary.”
McMurray, then a professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service, had been living with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a rare, progressively muscle-wasting disorder, for almost three decades. She was one of eight Black women—including Maya Angelou and Debbie Allen—honored that evening by Essence magazine for their remarkable contributions to society.
Prior to the ceremony, the magazine’s editor in chief, Susan L. Taylor, a 1991 graduate of Fordham College at Lincoln Center, told The New York Times, “The powerful stories of African American women are hardly ever told; the things we achieved unknown and the obstacles we overcame are not known by the larger society. This event is a celebration of our triumphs, tenacity, and our ability to endure and overcome.”
Eight months after being honored by Essence, McMurray died at her home in Manhattan. At 58-years-old, her life was short and significantly impacted by her degenerative disease, but she took to heart her parents’ childhood assurances that nothing could stand in her way. And her former Fordham colleagues and students recall a woman who set a high bar for excellence and proved that physical challenges don’t necessitate career limitations.
Supporting Girls and Women
Born in 1934 in Philadelphia, McMurray graduated from Temple University and earned a master’s degree in social service from Bryn Mawr College in 1962. She gained public attention in 1966 when she founded Project Teen Aid, a program aimed at supporting pregnant teenagers. At the time, teens were expelled from school when they became pregnant, something McMurray rightly believed to be devastating for their futures.
“Excluding pregnant girls from going to school with their classmates is really how you keep poor or Black or Latino girls from getting an education,” she told Essence magazine in 1992. “Girls often become pregnant because there is no emphasis on female education. There aren’t great expectations for either young men or women.”
The organization, which still exists, was so successful that in 1969, New York City Mayor John Lindsay appointed McMurray director of his administration’s Early Childhood Task Force, through which she was responsible for developing social services for children and families. Then, in 1971, she became the first commissioner of the New York City Agency for Child Development.
Patricia Brownell, Ph.D., GSS ’78, ’94, associate professor emerita of social service at Fordham, and one of McMurray’s former students, said that as commissioner, McMurray “had been an advocate for publicly funded daycare and was very, very instrumental in getting the public sector daycare program funded and implemented.”
Letting Advocacy Do the Talking
Within a few years of her appointment, McMurray had undergone two hip replacements and was walking with a cane—making her disability increasingly visible. She resigned from the position in 1974. In the October 1983 issue of Working Woman magazine, Andrea Fooner wrote of McMurray, “Even an exceptionally strong and adaptive personality is not immune to the complexities of pursuing a career while handicapped. … Clearly her disability made her more vulnerable to attack.”
Elaine Congress, D.S.W., professor and associate dean of the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS), said McMurray wasn’t one to get into a “super battle,” preferring to let her advocacy speak for itself. “People choose what battles they want to fight,” she said. “She did it more by example, and she just focused on the issues.”
After leaving the Agency for Child Development, McMurray co-founded the Alliance for Children with David Seeley; served as the Community Service Society’s deputy general director for programming; and founded her namesake GLM Group, a consulting firm providing research, training, and technical assistance to government and nonprofit organizations working with families and children.
Inspiring by Example
But it wasn’t just students or children and families in need who were touched by McMurray. Susan Egan, Ph.D., GSS ’77, ’04, former assistant dean of GSS, shared an office with McMurray in the late 1980s. She said she soaked up inspiration by osmosis.
“I think without her realizing it, she was a role model to me because I just got to witness how she interacted with colleagues and students,” Egan said. “And I just thought she was brilliant and kind and even-tempered. I just learned from her by sitting next to her.”
According to Brownell, toward the end of her life, McMurray turned her focus to advanced health directives after recovering from a coma related to her disease.
“At that time, if somebody were ill and were unable to make a decision for how to direct their doctors, particularly in relation to terminating life support, it was impossible” to honor their wishes, Brownell said. “She was able to go, with her electronic wheelchair, into legislator’s chambers and give testimony as to how important it is for people to be able to direct their care choices.”
By the time McMurray was a professor of social policy in the doctoral program at GSS, she was paralyzed from the neck down, teaching class from a motorized wheelchair with the help of an assistant and a computer she controlled using a mouth stick. What stood out to her colleagues and students, though, wasn’t her physical disability, but her “remarkable” dedication.
Brownell, who had McMurray for two social policy courses, said she was struck by how animated McMurray was. “She was a very special mentor, particularly for social work students coming from the city, and a source of great inspiration,” she said.
“I think she brought out the best in people,” Brownell added. “She had very high standards for others and very high standards for herself, and she always met her high standards and really expected others to live up to high standards for themselves. It was very, very positive and empowering.”
Congress witnessed McMurray at work outside of the classroom as she interacted with students in her office and echoed this sentiment. “She was an incredible, incredible teacher,” she said. “What inspired me is how she had this terrible illness, it got worse and worse, but … she didn’t end up kind of sitting in a nursing home. What did she do? She had a doctoral class at Fordham.”
‘Building Blocks in Erecting the Temple of Human Rights’
In a video shown during the 1992 Essence Awards ceremony, McMurray shared her wish that every child in the world would “have the opportunities that I have had to realize my humanness—to become a human being, to be able to give and to receive, to use one’s talents.”
“I know I will not see it in my lifetime,” she said, “but I know if I could just change it for one child, I’ll be very happy.”
Upon receiving the award from Oprah Winfrey, McMurray received a standing ovation.
“This is a glorious evening,” she said, as the applause died down, “and I am so happy to be with you all and to know that God has kept me alive for this night.
“Yes, I have worked to keep pregnant girls in school, set up daycare centers for working parents, fought for universal preschool services and for the liberation of Black women and indeed for all oppressed people,” McMurray said. “But I see these as the building blocks in erecting the temple of human rights in celebration of God’s gift of life.
“So, remember: As long as there is one oppressed child, oppressed woman, oppressed human being in this world, the struggle continues.”