Retired educator Maxine Johnson Wood, Ed.D. speaks on the importance of truth and unbiased reporting in the AFRO’s 130th year. (Courtesy Photo)

By Maxine Johnson Wood, Ed.D.,
Special to the AFRO

The founding of the AFRO-American Newspaper 130 years ago on August 13, 1892 is being widely celebrated, lauded and applauded. Of particular significance to many interested in its origin is the life, activity and motivations of its founding publisher, John Henry Murphy, Sr. 

A perusal of current and past information on the life of Mr. Murphy generates varied stories and observations of the newspaper’s beginning and his impetus for becoming its publisher. With no intent to question or compare, I am interested in commenting on what I believe to be the consistent and abiding purpose for which he began the newspaper, and what has remained a basic focus over these years. 

Mr. Murphy was born a slave. He also was a former soldier, having served in the Civil War. Practicing his Christian faith, alongside his training, experiences and interactions with other former slaves and Black men born free in all likelihood increased his awareness of the need to help them learn about their emerging culture, communities, and themselves. 

Murphy demonstrated his belief in the importance of providing information, knowledge and understanding among his people, who in their changed status had limited reading and communication skills. This pioneering effort seemed to intentionally demonstrate a caring commitment that has sustained for well over a century.

A number of articles offer historic perspectives on Murphy’s life and activities. It seems fitting when celebrating his timely initiative to give attention to a recent reflection on his life. An article appearing in the Feb. 18, 2022 edition of the AFRO written by Micha Green entitled “The reinvention of John H. Murphy, Sr.: from slave to soldier to publisher” was particularly inspiring. 

Referenced in the article is commentary from Savannah Wood, a fifth-generation Murphy family member who serves as the AFRO Archivist and director of AFRO Charities. Based on her research, Ms. Wood expressed that Mr. Murphy “likely decided to take over the AFRO in order to ensure the truth about Black life was revealed to African American communities, not only then, but for future generations like now, who can use the news then as a blueprint and insight on happenings today.”

Having been a long-time reader of the AFRO, I submit that the goal of the newspaper continues to focus on informing people of color –from post slavery to present times– and encourage them to learn more about themselves. 

Articles provide basic facts, generally communicated using traditional elements of journalism. “The Five W’s” help journalists report the details of an event by answering questions about “who, what, when, where and why?” However, the critical elements were contained in the information through the first four questions: who, what, when, and where? 

It seems that for Mr. Murphy, the significance of the “why?” was the compelling need to help his peers and fellow Negroes devote their energies in a post-slavery period to cultivating and nurturing their emerging identity.

I believe the five W’s warrant renewed attention today, in a time of rampant misinformation.

The “who, what, where and when” of a story –not including or explaining the why– gives clarity and increased potential for narratives free of bias and opinion. This is an important consideration to ensure that truth and validity are dominant elements, whether print or visual, when laced with opinions. 

Re-visiting “The Five W’s,” we would see that the emphasis on “who, what, where, and when” should continue to be the dominant takeaway when analyzing– regardless of what media it appears in. 

The “why” in many instances contains personal observations that are distracting. 

We live in a so-called information age, and it needs filtering to identify truth. 

During Murphy’s time, the first four W’s were necessary tools. It is important to acknowledge the value of Murphy’s emphasis on the four W’s and look at the ‘why’ as his motivation. It remains important to focus on these questions when seeking to capture facts regarding the history of Blacks. We must ensure that truth prevails and opinions are minimized, recognizing that the “why” may be opinions that distract.

The fifth “W” – the why – is often dominated by responses and comments. 

Including the ‘why’ can distract valuable attention. 

The work of Mr. Murphy provided observations without judgement. Observations of “who, what, when and where– without the judgement of “why,” can have sustaining power. 

This is the invaluable legacy of the AFRO for 130 years and beyond.
Maxine Johnson Wood, Ed.D. is a retired educational administrator, consultant, and author of “HomeWork: Lessons Learned in the Home for Success in School & Life.”

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