In a lifetime, John H. Murphy went from a life of slavery to publisher of a legendary newspaper
John H. Murphy, Sr.
December 25, 1840 – April 5, 1922
When John H. Murphy Sr. used a hand-operated printing press to make a Sunday School bulletin for Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in the 1890s, no one could have imagined that this was the beginning of the famed Afro-American. “The Afro” has been a dominant force in the African American community and in the local and national civil rights movements for 125 years and counting.
John H. Murphy Sr. was born into slavery in 1840 in Baltimore to the former Susan Colby. His father, Benjamin Murphy III, was a whitewasher by trade and taught these skills to his son.
It is believed that he remained enslaved until the Civil War, when the 24-year-old Murphy joined United States Colored Troops, 30th Infantry Regiment at Camp Stanton, Maryland, in February 1864. A natural leader, he rose to the rank of Sergeant as a non-commissioned officer. At the time, only white solders could become commissioned officers.
When he returned home from war, whitewashers were no longer in demand. Murphy then worked a variety of jobs. He was not well-to-do, though this didn’t keep Martha Elizabeth Howard, daughter of a prosperous Montgomery County farmer, from falling in love with him. She was impressed that he fought in the Civil War for the freedom of enslaved people. He promised her “a world that would be gay with the laughter of children and happy because I worshipped her.” They married and became parents to 11 children. All but one survived into adulthood.
Murphy was a churchgoer and taught Sunday School, believing that the church was a key to building quality education for African American children.
He produced The Sunday School Helper as a teaching tool. He later merged with two other church publications, The Ledger (owned by George F. Bragg of Baltimore's St. James Episcopal Church) and The Afro-American (published by Reverend William M. Alexander, pastor of Baltimore's Sharon Baptist Church.) He purchased equipment needed for future production of the expanded Afro-American with a $200 investment from his wife, Martha.
At first, Murphy’s family members kept the paper going. By 1922, though, The Afro American had 100 employees and a circulation of 14,000. It was evolving into a nationally recognized newspaper and the largest black-owned newspaper along the Atlantic coast as well as the third largest in the nation.
Murphy passed away in 1922. His son, Carl J. Murphy, was named editor and publisher, serving for the next 45 years.
Until 1990, the newspaper’s production plant was at 628 N. Eutaw Street in a three-story, block-long building that housed advertising, circulation, business offices, typesetting machines, the engraving plant, teletype room, photographers’ studio, archives, mailing rooms, paper storage rooms and a garage.
John H. Murphy, Sr., and then his son Carl, grew the Afro American into a widely circulated and influential newspaper. Reproters focused on a combination of local news and human-interest stories, while challenging the status quo of Jim Crow laws and other injustices faced by African American citizens. Many historians count the Afro American as one of the most powerful forces in Baltimore’s fight for civil rights.
John H. Murphy as well as his son Carl, are buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery.
The Liberty Ship John H. Murphy
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that $350 million would be appropriated to emergency shipbuilding. Across the nation, including Baltimore’s Bethlehem Steel Yards, 2,750 Liberty ships were built by the war’s end. They were named for deceased prominent American men and women: presidents, governors, Supreme Court justices, actors, railroad presidents, aviators, musicians, industrialists, artists, writers, union leaders, newspaper barons and signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The John H. Murphy was christened at Bethlehem-Fairfield yard on March 30, 1944. Am
Frances L. Murphy, a daughter of the late publisher, performed christening honors. Looking on were such dignitaries as Mayor Theodore McKeldin, Maryland Governor. Herbert R. O'Conor, Carl Murphy, president of the Afro-American, and Harry Clifton Byrd, president of the University of Maryland. The 416-foot long vessel had a long career after wartime service. The ship was later renamed the Old Dominion State, Henry Ulman, Omnium Explorer, Valiant Explorer and Mount McKinley before being scrapped in the 1960s.
Bibliography and read more:
Retro Baltimore: John H. Murphy Sr.: from slave to publisher of The Afro by Christina Tkacik
The Baltimore Sun, February 21, 2017
The Afro-American Newspaper
Baltimore's oldest black cemetery finally restored, with help of inmates by Justin Fenton
The Baltimore Sun, May 14, 2012
Baltimore National Heritage Area
Liberty ships honored blacks in U.S. history, Frederick N. Rasmussen
The Baltimore Sun, March 6, 2004