When Josie Murray was forced to stand outside a public library in Purcellville, Virginia, unable to check out a book, she knew she had to make a change.
Her white friends offered to go inside for her and bring the books to her, but she felt morally repulsed at the idea that she was denied this public good simply because of her skin color.
Luckily, in 1957, the young Black woman had someone else with power in her corner: President Dwight D. Eisenhower. With the help of the commander-in-chief, and her own husband, Murray built a case that would become a catalyst for the desegregation of all public buildings in Virginia.
The seldom-told journey of Josie Murray inspired Chatham County author Linda Sittig to share the empowering story in her new creative nonfiction book “Opening Closed Doors: The Story of Josie Murray,” which hit bookshelves on May 10.
Before moving to Chatham earlier this year, Sittig lived in Purcellville for 50 years and taught in Fairfax County Schools in Virginia. Her home was just two blocks from the “color line” in the town, which was drawn during the Jim Crow era to keep the Loudoun County neighborhood segregated.
On a walk one day, Sittig noticed dozens of flowers placed on the sidewalk outside a demolished home in town. When she asked a passerby about the scene, they told her the home belonged to Murray.
“She was the best seamstress in town,” the man told her. “Perhaps the best that ever lived.”
When Sittig approached another neighbor to inquire about the beloved seamstress, she got a cockeyed look. Sure, Murray was a talented seamstress, but she was also much more than that.
It sent Sittig on a research rabbit hole to uncover who Murray was and uncover how she shaped local history, and the broader Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Based on the belief that family literacy leads to lifelong readers, Sittig wrote, for 15 years, a weekly newspaper column, “Kinderbooks,” reviewing the best in children’s literature. The column ran in multiple newspapers in Washington, D.C. Combining her passion for history and strong women, Sittig also created a blog, Strong Women in History, where she highlights the stories of women who should have become famous. Sittig has several other historical works including “Cut From Strong Cloth,” “Last Curtain Call,” and “B-52 Down! The Night the Bombs Fell From the Sky.”
Sittig spoke with the News + Record about her writing process, the mission of “Opening Closed Doors” and how the book’s audience makes the book especially impactful.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The more I got interested in Josie Murray, the more I started seeking out African Americans who still live in Purcellville on that same side of what used to be the “color line.” Many of the homes have been in families for generations and they never go up for sale — They just get passed down to younger generations.
When I began talking to a few of those families about what life was like for Josie, I found her niece, Linda King. King invited me to her home and showed me some of Josie’s old artifacts including a portable typewriter.
“That’s the one she took to the White House,” King told me. I was shocked, and I realized then that I knew nowhere near the full story. From there I began interviewing more folks who knew her and families in the area. I also spent a lot of time in the library.
Josie learned how to sew from her grandmother, and eventually became an incredible seamstress. Her clients came from all over, as far as Washington, D.C., and were Black and white. In December 1956, Josie, 34 at the time, was working at the shop and a woman came up asking for Austrian shades for her home.
Josie said she didn’t know the pattern for the shades, but the woman said she could find the pattern at the local public library. That library was “whites only” at the time, meaning Josie knew she couldn’t check out books. But she was feisty and determined and set out anyway.
So the first week of January 1957, they got dressed up in their church best and went to the library. Of course, the librarian denies her from checking out a book. The head of the library, Mr. Emmerich, who knew Murray for her seamstress work, said he would check the book out for her.
“No, if I can’t check the book myself I don’t want it,” Murray told Emmerich.
So Murray called the client and told her she couldn’t make the shades requested. Her client, Mrs. Moore, was upset at the situation and said she should hire a lawyer, and that she’d be making a call to her brother-in-law.
Well, her brother-in-law just so happened to be Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president of the United States. With the White House backing them, Josie Murray gets the name of a Quaker lawyer who takes on the case pro-bono.
The case took months and divided the town of Purcellville with some wanting segregation and others wanting integration.
Finally, after months of debate, the library was desegregated and it became a catalyst for the rest of Virginia. Once public buildings in Loudoun County were desegregated it paved the way for the rest of the state, too.
The book, despite its heavy themes, is actually meant for 4th and 5th grade students. It’s got illustrations in it from a Black illustrator, Whitney Truitt, who helped bring the story to life as a picture book. I think those pictures help soothe the story along. It was important to me to use the styles of a Black illustrator for this piece because you can’t tell a Civil Rights Movement story with a white author and white illustrator, it just isn’t fair or justified.
I wrote it so that a child would be able to identify with the injustice, without including the violence. I really wanted to get this story into the hands of schoolchildren because I want them to realize one person’s power, and courage, has the capacity to change the world.
I tried to make it realistic and completely factual, but had things added into it to carry the story along so a child wouldn’t be frightened.
Teachers who have read the book have really resonated with it, and one even told me her whole class cheered for Josie, so I’m glad it’s resonating with our young people.
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