A former slave built it, and he built it strong. And 122 years later, the Afro-American Newspaper continues to thrive.
“Consistency and reliability,” said AFRO Chairman and Publisher John J. Oliver of the secret to the newspaper’s longevity and stature among its readers. “We’ve never missed an edition.
“We’ve always been there [and] you can’t shake that. [We’re] like an old shoe – you don’t throw it away because it becomes part of the family.”
On Aug. 15, the AFRO will celebrate its 122-year anniversary with a black tie-optional gala at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in downtown Baltimore. “The AFRO Legacy Gala will be a great time to bask not just in the institution’s 122-year history but [also] in the people that made it possible for the paper to go out every week,” said AFRO archivist Ja-Zette Marshburn.
On Aug. 13, 1892, John Henry Murphy Sr., a former slave who gained freedom following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, built the AFRO when he combined his church publication, The Sunday School Helper with two other church publications, The Ledger and The Afro-American. By 1922, the newspaper had evolved from a one-page weekly church publication into the most widely circulated Black paper along the coastal Atlantic. And today, it continues to serve its readers, both local, national, and international, through its ever-expanding use of technology.
Throughout its evolution, the AFRO remained true to its call as a crusader for racial equality and economic opportunity for African Americans and a faithful record of Black history and legacy. The publication’s leaders were always involved in civic and community groups to keep their finger on the pulse of the community, both local and national, and the AFRO served as key resource for many civil rights and other Black leaders.
“When these individuals wanted to get the word out to the community [about an event or cause] they came to the AFRO,” Marshburn said. “We reached the community wherever they were.”
Oliver added, “We have been chronicling the African-American community of this country for 122 years. We have the record of what’s been on our [African American] mind, what we like, what we didn’t like, the campaigns we fought together, and the campaigns we fought against each other.
“Today’s [AFRO] front page is tomorrow’s Black history.”
Case in point is Freedom Summer, the African-American voter equality campaign launched in June 1964 and waged in Mississippi, which had historically blocked Blacks from the ballot box. Marshburn said the AFRO’s coverage of this historic Black event was enriched by its previous coverage of such stories as the founding and progress of Mound Bayou, an all-Black, self-segregated enclave in the Yazoo Delta in Northwest Mississippi. The example of self-determination, Black pride, economic advancement, and social justice set by that town played into Freedom Summer’s goal of political empowerment.
As this year marks the 50th anniversary of that voter education and registration initiative, the AFRO, during its gala, will pay tribute to the patriots of this movement including some of the AFRO’s own reporters and photographers.
The newspaper will also honor a particular group of people who played an integral role in establishing its legacy – AFRO paperboys and papergirls. “They were all part of the personality people associated with the AFRO,” Oliver said.
When the paper’s new editions returned from the printers, the paperboys’ and papergirls’ would hit the streets, shouting “Ay de AFRO!” to potential buyers. “They were the town criers announcing, ‘Here’s your news,” Oliver, a former paperboy, added.
At one time being an AFRO paperboy or papergirl was almost a rite of passage for many young Black people in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and the other cities where the paper operated.
The experience “laid the foundation for who they became as men and women,” Marshburn said, referring to former paperboys like former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and former Maryland Chief Judge Robert Bell.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings agreed. At age 9, he started running a 20-household AFRO paper route in an attempt to make money. By age 14, after he inherited a 150-strong route, he hired assistants, giving him an early taste of entrepreneurship.
Between dealing with customers like “Mr. Willie,” a mechanic who always gave him extra money to encourage his honest pursuit of economic advancement, and those customers who hid when he came around to collect their debts, Cummings, now 63, said the job “gave me a lot of wonderful opportunities to learn about life.”
And, in reading the paper, Cummings, who grew up poor in the “small world” of South Baltimore, had his eyes opened to the larger world of Black struggle and achievement. “It was probably one of the most important things that happened to me,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much it shaped my world.”
For more information and to purchase AFRO Legacy Gala tickets, please contact Diane Hocker, 410-554-8243 or visit afro.com or the AFRO’s Facebook page.