Video: Building at Vanderbilt Commons honors African American pioneer

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Walter R. Murray, Jr., spent his life inspiring, leading and serving his community and others, becoming one of Vanderbilt’s most celebrated African American alumni. Tuesday Vanderbilt named one of the new Commons residence halls in his honor and held the first Walter Murray Jr. Memorial lecture.

The lecture will be held annually at the Commons as a tribute to African Americans who have played an important role in Vanderbilt’s history.

The inaugural lecture was given by Murray’s best friend and fellow renowned Vanderbilt alumni Perry Wallace. Wallace, who was the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, said creating a lecture in honor of the man he called “little preacher” was, “quite simply perfect.”

Wallace said he and Murray came of age during the tumultuous 1960s, and both were inspired to make a difference at Vanderbilt, fueled by the words and actions of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.

As an undergraduate, Murray was vice president of the Student Association and founder of the Afro-American Association and Project Opportunity. In his senior year, he was elected by his classmates as the first black member of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, and he founded the Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni. Murray also worked on campus as an admissions counselor and later as the university’s first Opportunity Development officer, becoming Vanderbilt’s first African American administrator.

“In making such contributions, he did so much to instill in the institutional body and memory of Vanderbilt University the powerful lessons of our poignant experience,” said Wallace.

Interim Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos
called Murray a “man of courage” and said Murray embodied the ideals of the new Commons. “The sense of community, the sense of true diversity at work, the sense of courage, the sense of true equality and a fundamental notion of justice,” said Zeppos.

Murray’s widow said it’s fitting that her husband’s name be a part of a unique new collaborative community like the Commons. “This is a conceptual place where diverse people come together with a new commitment for change,” said Donna Murray.

Even during Murray’s 12-year battle with cancer, Donna Murray said her husband stayed positive and always had a desire to bring, “healing, harmony and melody to the lives of the people he touched.” Murray died in 1998 at the age of 50.

“Walter lived the life of quiet commitment to the common good,” said Donna Murray. “Even though I knew and loved him for over 30-years as my best friend, my husband and the father of my children, I don’t think I fully understood the totality of what his life’s work represented.”

After leaving Vanderbilt, Murray joined Cincinnati Technical College as dean of students. He then received a doctor of divinity degree from Harvard University and served as managing director of INROADS, a national organization aimed at matching talented minority students with businesses to prepare them for corporate and community leadership. Murray worked in many other service organizations and served as pastor of the Zion Baptist Church in Lynn, Mass.

“For whenever he could, he created, changed and transformed everything and everyone he touched for the better.”

by Amy Wolf,