By Sean Yoes
AFRO Baltimore Editor
[email protected]

In 1892, John H. Murphy Sr., a former slave and veteran of the U.S. Colored Troops that fought in the Civil War, began the 127-year run of the Baltimore AFRO-American Newspaper.

But, the AFRO may have never been birthed if Murphy’s wife Martha Elizabeth Howard had not given (or loaned) her husband $200 for the purchase of the printing press for the Afro-American newspaper, which Murphy merged with other publications to ultimately become the AFRO. 

From the newspaper’s beginnings to today, Murphy women have been financiers, foot soldiers and visionaries of the Murphy media dynasty.

Martha Elizabeth Howard. (AFRO Archives)

Howard-Murphy, the daughter of Enoch George Howard, a wealthy, free man of color, who owned land in Howard County, sold some of the land inherited from her father to purchase the newspaper. But, she was more than just the AFRO’s financial benefactor; she was also a social force in Baltimore’s Black community.

In 1895, three years after the establishment of the AFRO, Howard-Murphy was a founding member (as well as at least one of her daughters, Frances Murphy) of the Colored Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).

The group founded their branch of the YWCA, which created an employment agency, provided help to unwed mothers and began classes in stenography and typing in the late 1890’s. The YWCA became an important institution in what was Old West Baltimore, the main enclave of the city’s Black community.

The matriarch and patriarch of the burgeoning Murphy family had 11 children (10 survived to adulthood). In addition to the aforementioned Frances Murphy, her brother Carl became the AFRO’s editor-in-chief in 1922, and went on to become the newspaper’s strongman for more than four decades during the media company’s most expansive and influential era. And it was his wife Vashti Turley Murphy, who in January 1913, co-founded Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, as a student at Howard University. For more than a century Delta has been one of the most prominent service sororities in the world.

Two daughters from the union of Murphy and Turley would follow in their father’s footsteps and take the reigns of the AFRO as publishers: Dr. Elizabeth Murphy Moss and Frances L. Murphy II.

Vashti Turley Murphy. (AFRO Archives)

The oldest of Murphy’s five daughters, Elizabeth Murphy Moss graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. In 1944, she became the first Black woman to be an accredited war correspondent during World War II. She worked at the newspaper as a reporter, editor, publisher and columnist. Her column, “If You Ask Me,” ran in the AFRO for 48 years. Her book about her mother, Be Strong! The Life and Times of Vashti Turley Murphy, was published in 1980.

Frances Murphy II, received her undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin in 1944, an undergraduate degree in education from Coppin State College in 1958 and a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University in 1963. The youngest of the five daughters, Murphy II, worked in a variety of jobs at the newspaper before she became one of Baltimore’s only female crime reporters. She was the Baltimore AFRO’s city editor from 1954-1957. She was publisher and CEO of the newspaper from 1971 to 1975. She also taught journalism at the State University of Buffalo, as well as Howard University.

Murphy II’s daughter Dr. Frances “Toni” Murphy Draper continues the Murphy women’s legacy of media excellence and community leadership in the 21st century.

Like her mother, Draper began working at the AFRO as a young woman in various capacities. In fact, she recently shared she made her way to the newspaper as a college student during the Baltimore riots in 1968, with her one-year old son Kevin strapped in the back seat of her car. Later, she became the president of the newspaper in 1988. She also chronicled the love affair of her grandparents Carl and Vashti Murphy, No Ordinary Hook-Up: The Courtship of Vashti Turley and Carl Murphy, 1915-1916, published in 2016.

Draper is also the pastor of Freedom Temple A.M.E. Zion church in East Baltimore. Her cousin, the Rt. Rev. Vashti Murphy McKenzie is the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal church.

In her current position as the AFRO’s publisher and CEO, Draper has taken the mantle established by her great grandfather in 1892, leading the news organization through the myriad changes and transitions inherent in the operation of a 21st century media company.