By Frances L. Murphy II
Steps – they seemed to ascend all the way to the sky but in truth only to the third floor of 628 N. Eutaw Street in Baltimore. The great and small including such persons as Thurgood Marshall, Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, President John Kennedy and his brother Robert ascended those steps to walk through the editorial room of the AFRO American Newspaper where the clanking typewriters and ringing telephones drowned out the voices.
They turned a sharp left and walked down three small steps to greet a stern but gracious Ivy Boone or Odessa Dyson. It was to them pleas were made to enter the inner sanctum where Carl Murphy sat in the middle of a curved desk. On top of the desk were a Dictaphone (for recording conversations), a telephone and an intercom for talking to his two secretaries or to listen to all incoming telephone calls in the building, where some 100 employees were hard at work.
Or, you were invited to his home in Morgan Park, the small all-Black community overlooking Morgan State College where Mr. Murphy was fond of having kidney stew and cornbread served as he either battled with his four brothers for control of the family-owned newspaper started by his father in 1892, or he greeted special people who wanted to talk but did not necessarily want to be seen.
Carl J. Murphy (1889 – 1967) (Courtesy Photo)
Carl Murphy was the man who could order the endorsement of a political candidate, write an editorial in defense of your protest or raise money for your worthy cause. But woe to those who came to get a story squashed. As they sat at his desk and poured out their side of a contested divorce or criminal behavior, Carl Murphy listened intently with the tape recorder running. That interview, many learned too late, usually ended up in screaming headlines in the next edition.
Carl Murphy, Howard University and Harvard College graduate, wrote letters and received answers from most of the great men and women in the country during his lifetime from 1918 to 1967.
But it was his newspaper that helped him wield his great power…a newspaper which came out once or twice a week depending on the city. A newspaper that was both feared and loved by its readers.
Martin Luther King, who received an honorary degree from Morgan State College because Carl Murphy as chairman of the Board of Trustees recommended him, wrote early in his civil rights career with the SCLC for Carl Murphy to “Please come see what I am doing here in the South. I need help.”
Thurgood Marshall, the young Baltimore attorney who ended up as a Supreme Court justice, gives credit to Carl Murphy for raising the much needed money as head of the NAACP Legal Redress fund so that he and his struggling lawyers could carry the “separate but equal doctrine” and the school desegregation suits all the way to the Supreme Court.
It was Carl Murphy who took up the battle for the great singer Paul Robeson who needed his passport returned so he could come home to the USA after doing a concert tour in the forbidden Russia. He thanked Mr. Murphy in a recorded interview.
Who was the first man to the North Pole? If it hadn’t been for the AFRO and Carl Murphy all credit would still be given to Admiral Peary. But Carl Murphy made sure that everyone knew it was Matthew Henson. He was later honored at a White House ceremony thanks to AFRO writers.
Sports and Jackie Robinson, equal teachers’ salaries, Black policemen and Black firemen, restaurants open to all are just a few of the many fights for justice led by Carl Murphy.
It was Carl Murphy who fought hard against the restaurants along U.S. Route 1 (the highway between Baltimore and Washington) that refused to serve Negroes. He embarrassed them by having two of his reporters dress up in African garb. He sent them down the highway in a limousine to eat at the larger restaurants. All served the “African diplomats.” The color barriers soon dropped.
During World War II, Carl Murphy sent eight of his own reporters (including one of his five daughters) overseas to cover the “Tan Yanks.” His newspaper carried story after story about the discrimination in the armed forces – so much so that J. Edgar Hoover charged the newspaper with treason – a charge he later had to drop.
All of this and much more is documented in the newspaper’s archives and in 95 boxes of letters now deposited at Howard University.