120 years ago, the convergence of the dreams of three men created a publication that has served an important purpose in the African-American community, The Afro-American Newspapers. The Afro-American has crusaded for racial equality and economic advancement for Black Americans since its humble beginnings.
In existence since August 13, 1892, John Henry Murphy Sr., a former slave who gained freedom following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, started the paper when he merged his one-page weekly church publication, the Sunday School Helper, with two other church publications, The Ledger (owned by Reverend William M. Alexander, pastor of Baltimore’s Sharon Baptist Church). By 1922, Murphy had evolved the newspaper into the most widely circulated Black paper along the coastal Atlantic, and used it to challenge Jim Crow practices in Maryland. Following Murphy’s death his five sons, each of whom had been trained in different areas of the newspaper business, continued to manage the Afro-American. Two of his sons, Carl Murphy and Arnett Murphy, served respectively as editor-publisher and advertising director.
The Afro-American rose to national prominence under the editorial control of Carl Murphy, who served for 45 years as its editor-publisher. The newspaper was circulated in Baltimore, with regional editions circulated in Washington, D.C., twice weekly and in Philadelphia, Richmond and Newark, once a week. Its circulation continued to grow until there were as many as 13 editions circulated across the country. The Afro-American’s status as an African-American newspaper impacting many Black communities allowed it to be instrumental in affecting social change on a national scale.
Carl Murphy used the paper’s editorial pages to advocate the hiring of African Americans by Baltimore’s police and fire departments; to press for Black representation in the legislature; and for the establishment of a state supported university to educate African Americans.
In the 1930s the Afro-American launched “The Clean Block” campaign. This successful effort is still in existence today. The campaign developed into an annual event aimed at improving the appearance of, and reducing the crime in, inner-city neighborhoods. The Afro-American also campaigned against the Southern Railroad’s use of Jim Crow cars and fought to obtain equal pay for Maryland’s Black school teachers.
During World War II, the Afro-American stationed several of its reporters in Europe, the Aleutians, Africa, Japan, and other parts of the South Pacific, and provided its readers with first-hand coverage for the war. One of its reporters, Elizabeth Murphy Phillips Moss, was the first Black female correspondent.
The Afro-American collaborated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on numerous occasions. This collaboration against the University of Maryland Law School for its segregationist admission policies in the 1950s led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing segregated public schools. The Afro-American also supported actor/singer Paul Robeson and Sociologist W.E. B. DuBois during the anti-Communist campaigns of the Joseph McCarthy era.
The Afro-American has employed many notable Black journalists and intellectuals, including Langston Hughes, William Worthy and J. Saunders Redding. In the mid 1930s, it became the first Black newspaper to employ female sportswriters when it hired Lillian Johnson and Nell Dodson. Renowned artist Romare Bearden began his career as a cartoonist at the Afro-American in 1936.
Sam Lacy, haired as the paper’s sports editor in 1943, and who, at the column for the paper, used his weekly “A to Z” column to campaign for integration in professional sports. Lacy’s writing protesting racial inequities in professional sports helped to open doors for Black athletes.
Following the death of Carl Murphy in 1967, his daughter, Frances L. Murphy II, served as chairman and publisher. In 1974, John Murphy III was appointed chairman and eventually became the publisher. Since the 1980s, fourth generation member of the Murphy family John J. Oliver Jr. has served as CEO/Publisher.
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