CARRBORO - Town staff members have had initial discussions with developers about a possible residential project on Smith Level Road, on property that includes the old Smith plantation house.
"At this point, there is no project," said Chris Murphy, development review administrator for Carrboro. "There is no formal application."
But Murphy said prospective developers have asked the town for feedback on rough designs for a residential project.
The familiar house along Smith Level Road was built in the 1840s by members of the Smith family, from whom the Rev. Pauli Murray was descended. Murray's grandmother was born to a black slave and a white member of the slave-owning Smith family.
As Murray recounts the Smith family history in (her memoir) "Proud Shoes, An American Family," James Strudwick Smith married Delia Jones in the early 1800s. Jones was the daughter of Revolutionary War veteran Francis Jones, who had been granted several thousand acres for his military service.
Jones deeded about 1,500 acres at Smith Level Road to his granddaughter, Mary Ruffin Smith, the first-born child of James and Delia Smith.
The Smiths also had two sons, Sidney and Francis. According to Murray, the family owned a young slave named Harriet, whom Sidney raped. Harriet had a daughter by Sidney, named Cornelia, who was Murray's grandmother.
Murray descended from free blacks on her grandfather's side. Her grandfather, Robert Fitzgerald, was born in Delaware and came to North Carolina after the Civil War to help educate former slaves.
Fitzgerald met Cornelia Smith in Orange County and they were married.
Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910, but she grew up in Durham with her maternal grandparents and aunts.
Murray fought against discrimination as a writer, lawyer, professor, college vice president and deputy attorney general for California. At age 62, she entered seminary and eventually performed her first Holy Eucharist in Chapel Hill at the Chapel of the Cross, the church where her grandmother, Cornelia, had
been baptized. Murray was the first black woman ordained in the Episcopal Church.
For the past few years, the Orange County Human Relations Commission has given Pauli Murray Human Relations awards to residents and businesses in the county.
Chapel Hill resident Joe Herzenberg was one of the winners this year. Herzenberg read "Proud Shoes" soon after he moved to Chapel Hill in 1969 to study history, and he said he was inspired by Murray's story.
He also has had an interest for several years in the fate of the plantation house on Smith Level Road.
"It is one of the very few surviving plantation houses in the county," he said. "It's really a magnificent house, and it's in relatively good condition."
Herzenberg said historic preservationists at the state level also are aware of the house. He said he'd like to see someone living in the house who would take good care of it, and he'd also like to see an official historical marker placed there.
Herzenberg even went to Carrboro and talked to Murphy about the property, and Herzenberg said he's pleased with the initial recommendations by town staff.