By Tashi McQueen and Kara Thompson,
Report for America Corps Member, Political Writer for the AFRO; MDDC Intern
John Henry Murphy, Sr. might have been born a slave- but he died a giant of the Black press.
The founder of the AFRO American Newspaper was born on Dec. 25, 1840, in Baltimore.
Born to Benjamin Murphy III, a whitewasher, and Susan Colby Murphy, a housewife, his life’s work would help change the trajectory of a race of people, newly freed after shedding the bonds of chattel slavery.
He enlisted in the military at age 24 during the Civil War and progressed to the rank of Sergeant by the end of the conflict. Upon returning home to Maryland in 1868, Murphy married Martha Elizabeth Howard.
Murphy was interested in the role of the church as it pertained to the education of African-American schoolchildren, and worked with the Sunday school at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He would later become superintendent of the District Sunday School in Hagerstown, Md.
To help with instruction at the Sunday school, Murphy began to publish a school newspaper with a manual printing press, called the Sunday School Helper. In 1892, a local pastor started a rival newspaper, titled the Afro-American, to promote his own church. But by the end of the year, Murphy bought the Afro-American with $200 from his wife and merged the two papers.
Together they created a platform to offer images and stories of hope to advance their community. The AFRO provided readers with good news about the Black community not otherwise found- but they also helped the community keep a pulse on political happenings that directly affected Black Americans.
Early editions of the AFRO’s national edition, available in the AFRO Archives’ virtual vault, show that the publication was reporting on happenings in the U.S. treasury and U.S. senate at the turn of the 20th century. Murphy kept readers updated on political fights happening not just in Maryland. In 1902 he had journalists reporting on the new Virginia Constitution.
According to the Library of Virginia, which virtually displays the original 1776 Virginia constitution and every version of the document between 1831 and 1971, the 1902 edition was created during a convention of men determined “to disenfranchise African American voters.”
The men were successful. They cut down the freedom of Black men by “imposing a poll tax and complicated registration regulations that allowed registrars to deny registration to just about any man they did not want to vote,” according to the Library.
In December 1902, Murphy used the paper to keep a written record of how the Supreme Court of the United States refused to intervene on behalf of African-American voters.
From Virginia to London and Paris, the AFRO kept the conversation of Black liberation going- right here from Charm City.
“Baltimore was just the center of the long civil rights movement,” said Larry Peskin, History and Geography Professor at Morgan State University. “People like Murphy and Lillie Carroll Jackson- they were really central to the early civil rights movement of Baltimore.”
The Afro-American was mostly staffed by unpaid family members in the beginning, but popularity of the publication allowed Murphy to quickly expand the paper’s employees to nearly 100 workers by the 1920s.
Murphy died on April 5, 1922. At the time of his death, the AFRO was the most widely circulated African American newspaper on the Atlantic Coast.
It was so popular amongst Black America that Langston Hughes, academic J. Saunders Redding, artist Romare Bearden, and sports editor Sam Lacy, whose column influenced the desegregation of professional sports contributed over the years.
Two years before his death, Murphy in a letter to his sons further details the mission and purpose of the AFRO:
“A newspaper succeeds because its management believes in itself, in God and in the present generation. It must always ask itself –
Whether it has kept faith with the common people;
Whether it has no other goal except to see that their liberties are preserved and their future assured;
Whether it is fighting to get rid of slums to provide jobs for everybody;
Whether it stays out of politics except to expose corruption and condemn injustice, race prejudice and the cowardice of compromise.
The Afro-American must become a semi-weekly, then a tri-weekly and eventually when advertising warrants, a daily.
It has always had a loyal constituency which believes it to be honest, decent, and progressive. It is that kind of newspaper now, and I hope that it never changes.
It is to these high hopes and goals of achievement that the people who make your AFRO have dedicated themselves. God willing, they shall not fail.”
-John H. Murphy, Sr.
Today, the AFRO remains one of the oldest operating Black family-owned newspapers in the country. It is led by fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of Murphy Sr., and continues to “provide readers with good news about the Black community not otherwise found.”
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