Source of Inspiration

Walter Murray left an indelible mark as a Vanderbilt student, Board of Trust member and administrator

Portrait of Walter Murray
(Vanderbilt University/Joe Howell)

The Rev. Walter R. Murray was a Vanderbilt trailblazer many times over. The Nashville native graduated from the city’s Pearl High School in 1966 alongside his best friend, Perry Wallace. The two would go on to attend Vanderbilt and were among the university’s first African American undergraduate students.

As a student-athlete, Wallace integrated SEC varsity basketball in 1967—while Murray excelled as a student leader. Murray was elected vice president of Vanderbilt’s Student Government Association and was a founder of the Afro-American Student Association. In 1970, he became the first African American to serve on the university’s Board of Trust when he was elected a young alumni trustee that April.

After graduating in 1970, Murray worked on campus as an admissions counselor in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. The following year, he was named the university’s first opportunity development officer with responsibilities that included developing and coordinating plans for equal opportunity employment for faculty and staff.
Murray earned a master of management from Vanderbilt in 1974 and founded the Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni. He would go on to earn a master of divinity from Harvard University in 1986. Murray died in 1998.

In 2007, Vanderbilt named one of the 10 residence halls on the newly opened Martha Rivers Ingram Commons in his honor. It was at the dedication of Murray House that Rosevelt Noble, a senior lecturer in sociology, was inspired to pursue in earnest a research project aimed at chronicling the lives and experiences of Vanderbilt’s Black students.

“While at the ceremony to dedicate Murray House, I engaged an undergraduate student in conversation,” Noble recalled in a 2014 essay for Vanderbilt Magazine. “‘Which one is Walter?’ she asked me, pointing to the front row where his family was sitting. It occurred to me that she and many other undergraduate students were there to celebrate the fact that Vanderbilt was naming a building after an African American, but they did not know much about him beyond that—including the fact that he had died in 1998.

“In that instant I decided to fill the information void,” wrote Noble, now assistant dean of residential colleges and director of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt. “I emerged … with an intense desire to tell the history of African Americans at Vanderbilt, the story of Walter Murray, and the story of every other Black student who ever attended Vanderbilt.”

Murray was the catalyst for Noble’s Lost in the Ivy project, which continues to collect the stories of former and current Black students at Vanderbilt. Since 2008, The Ingram Commons has sponsored the annual Murray Lecture, which brings to campus prominent speakers to discuss issues of race and culture. In 2018, Murray’s portrait was added to the Vanderbilt Trailblazers series.

Learn more about the Lost in the Ivy research project.