By Frances “Toni” Murphy Draper,
AFRO Publisher and CEO
A few months ago, in preparation for its 130th anniversary, the AFRO embarked on an ambitious quest to identify the direct descendants of my great grandfather AFRO founder, John Henry Murphy Sr.
We knew that he and Great Grandmother Murphy (nee Martha Elizabeth Howard) had 11 children (one died in birth), but there was not a complete and accurate record of the family tree beyond the third generation. Not only did we seek to identify each descendant, we wanted to create an easy-to-understand visualization of how each person was connected to the founder and to one another.
To that end, we enlisted the assistance of the Local Media Association’s data journalist, Maya Pottiger, who developed the following ‘questionnaire’ to be sent to family members:
- Name all family members (your grandparents, parents, siblings, nephews/nieces, children, and grandchildren) connected to John J. Murphy Sr. and Martha Howard Murphy with their birth and death dates.
- Would you prefer to enter family information directly into an online portal such as ancestry.com?
- Did any of these people have a relationship to the newspaper? Do you know which years they were active with the newspaper?
- The thing I want people to know about _______ (insert family member’s name) is ____________ (ex: Martha Murphy gave $200 to her husband to buy the name AFRO and a printing press at an auction).
- And, if you have photos, we’d like those as well.
Simple, right? You can use it with your own relatives by creating an editable Google document and emailing or texting the file link to as many descendants as possible. Make sure to give them permission to edit the document! Add a “return by” date, and watch in real time as information is contributed by relatives. Voilà you’re done!
Well, what we naively thought would be a relatively simple undertaking for our family turned into a major project that, in some cases, created more questions than answers.
Questions about origin, questions about heritage, questions about belonging, questions about identity all came to the forefront. These are important questions – especially as most medical professionals ask about family histories. They also are important because knowing where you come from and to whom you’re related, give you a sense of community and connectedness.
As Kiana Cox and Christine Tamir (research associate and former research analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center) noted earlier this year, “because of slavery, it is often difficult for Black Americans to trace their ancestry prior to the 1870 census. Records of the enslaved are often handwritten, poorly maintained, or simply lost over time.
“Their report went on to say that “Black adults for whom being Black is a significant part of their personal identity (81 percent) were more likely than those for whom being Black is less important (59 percent) to say they have spoken to their relatives about family history.”
While we weren’t trying to go back before the 1870 Census, we were very interested in putting the pieces of the entire Murphy family puzzle together once and for all with the goal of creating an accurate family tree. Family members were our primary source, along with archived editions of the AFRO- after all we’ve been around since 1892. (Sidebar: Nearly all of the Baltimore AFRO American Newspapers are digitized and searchable and are available for free. All one needs is a valid Enoch Pratt library card. For more information, go to afrocharities.org)
“Well,” one cousin asked, “are we counting the children that my stepfather already had when he married my mother who was a direct descendant?
“How about ‘adopted’ children?”
“What about the child born out of wedlock who thought the person who raised him or her was their mother, when she was really her aunt?’
“What about the child who was given up for adoption?
The questions kept coming and coming.
Because there were so many unanswered questions, and so much that was –and still is– unknown, we decided to figure out how many belonged to which family branch, rather than get all of the information that we originally sought. So, data was entered on ancestry.com (thanks to Savannah Wood, 5th generation family member and executive director of Afro Charities) and within a couple of weeks, there were 345 names—way too many to publish. What we did publish, however, is the graphic below (created by Maya Pottiger) showing how many belong to which of John and Martha’s offspring.
Do we have everyone? Probably not.
Have we created more questions? Probably so.
Is it important to trace our family histories? Absolutely.
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