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  • Emmanuel Mehr

John H. Murphy Sr. and the Early History of the Baltimore Afro-American Newspaper

BHW 10: April 8, 2023


 

Born enslaved in Baltimore in 1840, John H. Murphy Sr. reached freedom by serving in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the Civil War, then started a family newly-free in Baltimore after the war. [1] In 1897, he purchased and revitalized the bankrupt Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, which remains today the longest-running Black family-owned paper in the United States. [2] One of many remarkable aspects of his story is he remained in Baltimore for essentially his entire life. He experienced both slavery and freedom in Baltimore. He met his wife in Baltimore, and they had their children in the city. He developed his career-defining publication as a voice for the city’s Black residents. A­s historian Kim Gallon compellingly argues, “the Afro is the archive of Black Baltimore.” [3] The paper’s archive houses much of the city’s Black history, which it helped shape. It became a fundamental part of community life for generations of Black Baltimoreans, while also making a point of advocating for equality and Black rights. [4] This was made ever more important by the racism and exclusion of Black voices in the Baltimore Sun and the city’s other white newspapers. [5] Much of the scholarly attention given to the Afro-American focuses on the paper’s successes under John H. Murphy Sr.’s son Carl J. Murphy. This makes sense given Carl J. Murphy’s tenure coinciding with the paper’s greatest success and circulation, both locally and nationally. [6] For example, the one academic manuscript on the Afro-American reaches the narrative point of Murphy Sr.’s death eight pages into the first chapter. [7] An examination of John H. Murphy Sr.’s story through the lens of his newspaper provides insights into the histories of Black Baltimore and the Black experience in the United States.


John H. Murphy Sr. claimed his freedom through Union enlistment during the Civil War, joining a USCT regiment in March 1964. [8] Under President Lincoln’s General Order no. 329, from the year prior, this military service made Murphy Sr. free. Indeed, in addition to outlining compensation for former slaveholders, this order stipulated that “‘all persons enlisted into the military service [should] forever thereafter be free.’” [9] In 1920, two years before his death, Murphy Sr. wrote of the war, “I went in a slave and came out a freeman. I went in a chattel and came out a man with the blue uniform of my country as a guarantee of freedom, and a sergeant’s stripes on my arm to prove that there is promotion for those who can earn it.” [10] He carried this ethic of guaranteed freedom and success through hard work throughout his postwar life. Murphy Sr. and other Black people seized the wartime opportunity to claim their own freedom with great bravery and authority. As historian Barbara Fields writes, “From the outset they [enslaved people] were engaged in a war with only one object: to secure their freedom. . . . As soon as federal troops arrived in the vicinity the slaves took the first step, absconding from their owners and seeking refuge with the army they assumed had come to free them.” [11] With newfound freedom earned through wartime service, Murphy Sr. then proceeded to build a life in Baltimore City.


Murphy Sr. met his wife Martha Howard in Baltimore shortly after the war, and worked various jobs around the city until landing on a firm career path through involvement with the Hagerstown, Maryland, A.M.E. Church. He was appointed district Sunday school superintendent and created a newspaper called the Sunday School Helper to coordinate his professional agenda. This publication brought him into the newspaper industry. [12] The church leading him there was not an uncommon path. The Black church played an important role in the building of newly free Black lives post-Emancipation around the United States. [13] Indeed, historian Kidada E. Williams argues that in the face of white backlash against Black freedom during Reconstruction, “[An] ethos of love and care as a means of collective liberation yielded numerous social, economic, and cultural institutions. This yielded churches . . . Whether they were grand edifices . . . or little brush shelters . . . churches provided religious instruction and were the nuclei of Black institution-building.” [14] As the Murphy Sr. case partially shows, these churches became not only Black institutional centers but also places for Black Baltimoreans to find career paths, meet future partners, raise families, and develop identities. They were places for both individual and collective Black life, love, and growth post-Emancipation.


Murphy Sr. was not alone in establishing his footing in the newspaper industry through the Black church, the founder and initial editor of the Baltimore Afro-American did so as well. This was a pastor named Reverend William Alexander, of Baltimore City’s Sharon Baptist Church. [15] Many Black papers in this era had their roots in the church. [16] As historian Dennis Patrick Halpin argues, the Black press and Black churches became foundational to Baltimore’s Black freedom struggle. A takeaway from Halpin’s analysis is that the churches and newspapers operated collaboratively in many ways to provide a place for community voices and unite Black Baltimoreans. [17] A look at some early editions of the Afro-American Ledger, the paper’s name in the early 1900s, demonstrates these interconnections through the religious sections included each week. The recurring section “The Pulpit: A Sunday Sermon” exemplifies this. It featured reproductions of recent sermons, connecting Black churches along the East Coast through shared sermon consumption. For example, on January 5, 1906, the Sunday Sermon opened by stating, “Brooklyn, N.Y.—Preaching at the Irving Square Presbyterian Church on the theme, ‘Jesus Christ; an Estimate,’ the Rev. Ira Wemmell Henderson, pastor, took his text St. John 1:14: ‘And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’” The entire sermon followed, taking up half of a page and sharing Rev. Henderson’s words with the Afro-American readership. [18]


That the abovementioned Sunday Sermon was from Brooklyn speaks to the audience and content reach that Murphy Sr. made a priority. When he bought the Afro-American from its founder, Rev. Alexander, the paper was struggling financially. This is why he got it for such a bargain in 1897, at auction for two-hundred dollars. [19] He then took over the paper and it has been run by his family ever since. He played a key role in growing its circulation and thus improving its financial situation. As historian Hayward Farrar argues, the paper’s East Coast reach “was because of the aggressive leadership of John H. Murphy Sr. and his family.” [20] It appears Murphy Sr. and associates understood the marketable allure of reading a newspaper that feels as though it represents a person’s community. Being an avowedly Black paper that covered national news, the Afro-American felt like home to a significant number of readers beyond Baltimore. Through marketing, Murphy Sr. and team established the largest circulation amongst East Coast Black papers. This expansion also included sustaining infrastructure, through the creation of bureaus in major East Coast cities. [21] These bureaus coordinated regional editions that all carried the Afro-American name but differed in content. All the while, the paper maintained its national edition for those outside of the bureau cities or who preferred a national outlook. [22]


The Afro-American also expanded its perspectives and circulation beyond the borders of the United States. The Black press has a long history of international publication, notably with papers published from Canada by Mary Ann Shadd Cary and other American anti-slavery freedom fighters in the years between the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Civil War. [23] The Afro-American took this further with a transoceanic reach, focusing on links to Africa and the African Diaspora. This really became Murphy Sr.’s son Carl J. Murphy’s project, which he worked on into the 1940s. By doing so, he took his father’s legacy of growing the paper past Baltimore to new levels. [24] Historian Baiyina Muhammad deeply engages with this topic, arguing that “Not only did the Afro-American attempt to forge a symbolic connection between African Americans and other Africans across the Diaspora, but it also developed and supported concrete measures to carry out its mission.” She then looks at Ethiopia, Liberia, and Haiti as case studies for examining the paper’s global Black consciousness. She also draws the connection that the Afro-American’s iconic masthead includes two overlapping globes, one featuring the Americas and the other featuring Africa. (Figure 1). [25] The Diaspora is quite literally front and center for the paper in this regard. In addition to its focused Diaspora coverage, the paper also had subscribers in Africa as early as 1915. [26]


This is a nameplate from an issue of the Baltimore Afro-American Ledger newspaper from September 6, 1913. In the middle of the paper's name are two globes, one featuring the Americas and the other featuring Africa.
Figure 1. “Afro-American Ledger nameplate,” September 16, 1913, public domain [27]

While the Afro-American’s audience breadth is remarkable and became crucial to its sustained success, it also made a point of emphasizing the stories of Black Baltimore. One way the paper approached this was with a focus on Black success. In a way, the spotlighting of highly successful Black Baltimoreans operated on society similarly to the prominence of Black soldiers like Murphy Sr. during the Civil War. Black soldiers demonstrating military proficiency, honor, and success on behalf of the United States provided irrefutable evidence of claims to citizenship for Black Americans. [28] Similarly, stories of local Black greatness proved to readers that Black people could achieve magnificent things in Baltimore. They reinforced the ideologies of Black uplift the paper sought to promote. [29] The Afro-American itself also embodied Black excellence through its economic success. Some of this stemmed from buying into sensationalism with attention-grabbing headlines, but this was all deemed in service of the paper’s oft-printed motto, to be “PUBLISHED EVERY SATURDAY IN THE INTEREST OF THE RACE” (Figure 1). Despite numerous obstacles for Black papers of this era such as extreme difficulty in securing advertising dollars, the Afro-American found ways to be financially successful. Thus, it maintained its ability to advocate for and advance racial progress. [30] The paper did so while also contending with and addressing virulent anti-Black racism.


The other main way the Afro-American maintained its ties to Black Baltimore was through coverage of and advocacy against anti-Black racism in the city. By speaking out against racism, the paper both built community through common cause and incorporated an element of protest into its work. [31] The Great Migration brought large numbers of Black newcomers to Baltimore from the South starting in the 1910s, and many arrived already engaged in activism. Indeed, their very migration out of the South was a statement about American society, in addition to often being a survival tactic amidst anti-Black racism. [32] Murphy Sr. witnessed this phenomenon in the final years of his life, and likely felt a measure of pride in how the paper offered community and a voice to these new Black Baltimoreans. He himself was engaged in the civil rights struggle, as evidenced by his 1912 crusade against the segregated facilities of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad. He wrote to the president of the B&O demanding the end of segregated waiting rooms, threatening using his paper’s influence to marshal a boycott. Ultimately, Murphy Sr. was successful, and the B&O ended its waiting room segregation policy. Even in this the last decade of his life, he demonstrated active involvement in both the paper and the social justice interests of Black Baltimore. [33]


Another way the Afro-American maintained its connections to Black Baltimore was through the Murphy family’s continued role in its operations. Inaugurating this multi-generational Murphy enterprise is surely one of Murphy Sr.’s greatest legacies. When the Smithsonian Institution opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in 2016, the museum conducted oral history interviews with some of its initial donors. One of these donors was Murphy Sr.’s great-grandson John Jacob Oliver. In his interview, Oliver provided a memorable anecdote that speaks to how this paper became a Murphy institution in Baltimore. Reflecting on the Afro-American paper cutter that was donated to NMAAHC, he said, “the joke was that one machine took out more Murphy fingers than exist. I mean it seemed like I got aunts and uncles who walk around missing a finger. . . . That machine was like, it was a guillotine. . . . but that was a badge. That was a badge of you were in the business.” [34] These physical injuries representing commitment to the business is very striking, and it demonstrates Murphy Sr.’s intergenerational impact on Baltimore’s Black press.


John H. Murphy Sr. seized his freedom during the Civil War then built a career advancing Black freedom and community in Baltimore through the press. He took over the bankrupt Afro-American newspaper in 1897 and turned it into a cornerstone of Black Baltimore through a thoughtful blend of racial justice work, ambitious marketing, and community involvement. In 1955, Afro-American reporter Herbert Mangrum interviewed a subscriber named Mrs. Carter. Mangrum told readers, “A subscriber for 52 years, she is one of the oldest AFRO readers in the city.” Reflecting on the paper’s longevity, Mrs. Carter remarked, “I have seen the AFRO grow and it has grown because, I think, its founder, John Murphy, was a level headed man. His memory will last forever.” [35] It seems Mrs. Carter was correct about the immense significance of Murphy Sr.’s role. Hopefully she is right about his memory as well. Under his leadership, the paper covered a wide array of content ranging from Black success stories to local scandals and from anti-Black racism to Black-led antiracism protests. The Afro-American continues this work into the present-day. It also inspires other Black-driven publications in Baltimore, such as the Baltimore Beat, “a Black-led, Black-controlled nonprofit newspaper and media outlet” with a mission “to honor the tradition of the Black press.” [36] Baltimore’s Black press continues working to assert what John H. Murphy Sr. knew so well, that Black experiences and Black stories are essential to both Baltimore and the United States.


 

[1] “THIRTIETH REGIMENT INFANTRY, U.S.C.T. MD. VOL.—COMPANY G.,” 1864, database with images, Ancestry.com, s.v. “Sgt Murphy,” 252, accessed March 31, 2023, https://www.ancestry.com/mediaui-viewer/collection/1030/tree/27079641/person/110088500000/media/bfc590eb-27cc-422d-805b-59f15e301c96.

[2] See Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, “Timeline: Milestones of the Black Press in the U.S.,” July 14, 2020, https://nieman.harvard.edu/articles/timeline-of-the-black-press/; Hayward Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, 1892-1950 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), 3, https://archive.org/details/baltimoreafroame0000farr.

[3] Kim Gallon, Savannah Wood, and Martha S. Jones, “Hard Histories Conversations: Kim Gallon and Savannah Wood,” webinar from SNF Agora Institute, March 30, 2022, 18:24-18:34, https://youtu.be/x5lPOwhmo1M.

[4] Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, xi.

[5] In 2022, the Sun published an acknowledgement of and apology for its extensive history of anti-Black racism. The apology leaves much to be desired, but can be read in its entirety here: Baltimore Sun Editorial Board, “We are deeply and profoundly sorry: for decades, The Baltimore Sun promoted policies that oppressed Black Marylanders; we are working to make amends,” Baltimore Sun, February 18, 2022, https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/editorial/bs-ed-0220-sun-racial-reckoning-apology-online-20220218-qp32uybk5bgqrcnd732aicrouu-story.html; see also Dennis Patrick Halpin, A Brotherhood of Liberty: Black Reconstruction and Its Legacies in Baltimore, 1865-1920 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 90, Kindle edition.

[6] Kim Gallon, Pleasure in the News: African American Readership and Sexuality in the Black Press (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2020), 24, Kindle edition.

[7] Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, 8.

[8] Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, 3.

[9] William C. Harris, Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2011), 273, https://archive.org/details/lincolnbordersta0000harr_v9z3.

[10] John H. Murphy Sr., “Letter from John H. Murphy Sr. to the Murphy Family,” December 25, 1920, quoted in Sarah Booth Conroy, “A Tribute Long Overdue,” Washington Post, September 5, 1994, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1994/09/05/a-tribute-long-overdue/7fc88a10-4268-4dcd-a02e-fb49649533bb/.

[11] Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 100-101, https://archive.org/details/slaveryfreedomon0000fiel.

[12] Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, 4.

[13] Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (New York: Penguin Press, 2021), 76-77, 92, 95, Kindle edition.

[14] Kidada E. Williams, I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction (New York: Bloomsbury, 2023), 31.

[15] Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, 1.

[16] Roland E. Wolseley, The Black Press, U.S.A. (Ames, IA: The Iowa State University Press, 1971), 30-31, https://archive.org/details/blackpressusa0000wols; Clint C. Wilson II, Black Journalists in Paradox: Historical Perspectives and Current Dilemmas (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), 21, https://archive.org/details/blackjournalists00wils.

[17] Halpin, A Brotherhood of Liberty, 69.

[18] Rev. Ira W. Henderson, “The Pulpit: A Sunday Sermon,” Baltimore Afro-American, January 5, 1906, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=eSgmAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Av4FAAAAIBAJ&pg=4349%2C919861.

[19] Wolseley, The Black Press, 31.

[20] Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, 1.

[21] Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, 10.

[22] Wolseley, The Black Press, 68.

[23] Elena K. Abbott, Beacons of Liberty: International Free Soil and the Fight for Racial Justice in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 2-3, 196-197.

[24] Baiyina W. Muhammad, “The Baltimore Afro American’s Pan African Consciousness Agenda, 1915-1941,” The Journal of Pan African Studies 4, no. 5 (September 2011): 8, http://www.jpanafrican.org/docs/vol4no5/4.5Baltimore.pdf.

[25] Muhammad, “The Baltimore Afro American’s Pan African Consciousness Agenda,” 11, 9.

[26] Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, 7.

[27] “Image of nameplate from the Afro American Ledger, 9.6.1913, precursor to Baltimore Afro-American,” September 6, 1913, scan or digital reproduction of an issue of the publication, public domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1913.09.06.afro.american.ledger.nameplate.png.

[28] Charles Lewis Wagandt, The Mighty Revolution: Negro Emancipation in Maryland, 1862-1864 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1964), 126, https://archive.org/details/mightyrevolution0000waga.

[29] Gallon, Pleasure in the News, 16.

[30] Gallon, Pleasure in the News, 19.

[31] Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, xi.

[32] See Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 9-10; Gallon, Pleasure in the News, 24.

[33] Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, 178.

[34] John Jacob Oliver, “John Jacob Oliver Oral History Interview,” by Kelly Elaine Navies, 2016 (Baltimore, MD), Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 18:45-19:37, http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/fd594ee3333-f1df-495d-bd7c-9bc68e19a9c8.

[35] Herbert Mangrum, “She’s Been An AFRO Reader For 52 Years,” Baltimore Afro-American, September 17, 1955, 13, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=BtUmAAAAIBAJ&sjid=owIGAAAAIBAJ&pg=519%2C987996.

[36] “About Us,” Baltimore Beat, July 26, 2022, https://baltimorebeat.com/about-us/.

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