By Maya Pottiger,
Special to the AFRO
Some families have recipes they pass down, others have jewelry or furniture. In the Murphy family, the AFRO American Newspaper has been passed down through generations for 130 years.
Currently at the helm is Dr. Frances “Toni” Draper, the great-great-granddaughter of the paper’s founder, John Henry Murphy Sr. She’s joined by Savannah Wood, part of the fifth generation of Murphys, who, as the director of Afro Charities, is unlocking pieces of family history. And Kevin Peck, Draper’s son, serves as the vice president of technology. His daughters Morgan and Taylor have also helped out with the family business.
Throughout its history, the AFRO has been a vital voice in the community. Its pages tell the most important stories across the region, from shining a light on inequities in classrooms to explaining issues at all levels of politics to highlighting the local arts.
But it’s taken a lot of work to get here.
It began on August 13, 1892. Civil War veteran John H. Murphy Sr. merged his church publication with two others, which was only made possible by a loan from his wife Martha Howard Murphy, co-founder of the Colored Young Women’s Christian Association. In his 30-year reign as publisher, Murphy made the AFRO, through which he challenged Jim Crow laws, the most widely circulated Black newspaper on the Atlantic Coast.
Upon his death, his 10 children took over the paper, which had a weekly circulation of 14,000. His children had grown up training in different areas of the newspaper industry, and four of his sons became the second generation of management.
In 1922, Carl J. Murphy took over as editor; John H. Murphy Jr. was head of circulation and production; D. Arnett Murphy led advertising and national distribution; and George B. Murphy was on the board. Under the brothers’ leadership, the paper gained national traction with 13 editions circulating across the East Coast and through the South.
With the brand now a trusted and established voice, it began to effect social change on a national scale, including through advocacy in the editorial pages on a variety of issues. The paper — in its social, community, church, and sports sections — shared reliable information about what was happening in Black communities, which was often omitted by mainstream outlets.
Meanwhile, the women were working on initiatives that formed the basis for Afro Charities. The Clean Block campaign — launched by Carl J. Murphy’s sister Frances L. Murphy I in the 1930’s— is still in existence. Its mission then and now is to improve the appearance of the city’s neighborhoods and help reduce crime, and the program now includes green initiatives. The AFRO Honor Roll, which started in the 40’s, and the 50’s-era Mrs. Santa program also came under Afro Charities’ purview when the organization was officially established in 1963. Today, Afro Charities’ main focus is on preserving the AFRO’s extensive archives, but it continues to provide administrative support for AFRO Clean Block and Mrs. Santa.
As the AFRO expanded, not everyone stayed domestic. Several reporters were stationed in Europe during World War II, along with other parts of the Eastern hemisphere. This included Elizabeth Murphy Phillips Moss, Carl Murphy’s daughter, who was the first Black female war correspondent. Elizabeth went on to serve in a number of editorial leadership positions as part of the third generation of management that took over upon her father’s death in 1967. During her tenure, Elizabeth eventually became vice president and publisher until she retired in 1976.
Her cohort included John H. Murphy III, who, after working at the Philadelphia AFRO, became president in 1961 and was also chairman of the board. After working as a mechanical superintendent and holding a number of production positions, John J. Oliver Sr. was elected president in 1976. Frances L. Murphy II (Carl Murphy’s daughter) was chairman of the board from 1970-1974 and was publisher of the Washington AFRO through the 90’s. And Mae Murphy Dyson was D. Arnett’s sidekick, a corporate secretary, and worked in a board leadership position until she retired.
Frances (also known as Frankie) strongly believed in the whole family contributing to the paper’s success, which included enlisting her grandchildren to sell newspapers on street corners. Her family also remembers her as always being able to see the positives in every situation. John H. Murphy III was described as a “down-to-earth” boss and a people person. He spent his life recording history not only through the AFRO but also his photography.
Under the third generation, the AFRO expanded its initiatives on a national scale. In the 50’s, the newspaper collaborated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on many civil rights cases and ultimately joined a suit that led to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing segregated public schools. It also launched a monthly magazine in the 60’s, called “Dawn,” which was printed for 20 years and inserted into more than 2 million Black papers across the country.
Like the third generation, many in the fourth generation started working in the family business when they were in junior high school. However, unlike the third generation, most of them pursued other careers.
In 1986, John J. Oliver Jr. (Jake) and Frances Murphy Draper (Toni) returned to the AFRO and were elected publisher and president respectively. Cousin Arthur W. Murphy joined them and began cataloging the company’s extensive archives. Arthur died in 2008 at the age of 57. Oliver is credited with initiating the company’s transition from print to digital. Draper left the family business in 1999 to pursue her call to full time ministry. Her first cousin, Benjamin Murphy Phillips IV, once an AFRO photographer (like his father, Frank Phillips and his uncle I. Henry Phillips) rejoined the company as director of global markets (2007-2014) and was elected president (2014-2016, 2018- present).
In 2018, Draper replaced Oliver as publisher, a role she still holds today. In addition to Draper, Oliver and Phillips, several other fourth and fifth generation members currently serve on the company’s board of directors, including Rachael Murphy Humphrey, the Rev. Dr. Marie Murphy Braxton, Blair Carl Smith, Laura W. Murphy, Dr. James E. Wood, Jr, Kevin Peck, Lori Murphy Lee and Lynn Michalopoulos.
Just as the generations before them, this group makes sure the AFRO is still a pioneer in the industry. The AFRO was one of the first papers to launch a website among the Black press, which also led to other technological advancements, like TK.
These days, Draper is feeling “extremely proud” of Team AFRO and its diversity. They were recently honored with awards from the MDDC Delaware Press Association and the John B. Russwurm trophy for excellence in journalism from the National Newspaper Publishers Fund. Draper was also voted Publisher of the Year in 2022 by members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Along with content growth and an expanding digital footprint, Draper is proud of the collaborative opportunities, specifically through Local Media Association and Word In Black.
2022: 130 Years of AFRO
With the fifth (including AFRO Charities director, Savannah Wood) and sixth generations already hard at work, the AFRO will only continue to grow and adapt to the ever-changing industry in ways that best suit the needs of its loyal readers and followers.
View photos and videos from the AFRO 130th Gala here!
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