In a lifetime, John H. Murphy went from a life of slavery to publisher of a legendary newspaper

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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.

John H. Murphy, Sr.

Early life

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. 

The Afro-American

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 toolHe 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.

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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

Shown in the photo [left to right] at the christening of the John H. Murphy: Mrs. George B. Murphy; Sr., [his son and daughter-in-law], Mrs. John Murphy, and in front of Capt. Godfrey, Miss Frances Murphy, only surviving daughter of Mr. Murphy, christened the new vessel.  Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library

Shown in the photo [left to right] at the christening of the John H. Murphy: Mrs. George B. Murphy; Sr., [his son and daughter-in-law], Mrs. John Murphy, and in front of Capt. Godfrey, Miss Frances Murphy, only surviving daughter of Mr. Murphy, christened the new vessel. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library

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.

John H. Murphy, Sr., native of Baltimore,Maryland and founder of the Afro-American Newspapers, was honored on March 29, 1944 when a liberty ship bearing his name was launched at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard. Many civic and religious leaders, as well as 36 relatives, were on hand. Photo shows the  SS John H. Murphy  just after she slid into Curtis Bay.  Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library

John H. Murphy, Sr., native of Baltimore,Maryland and founder of the Afro-American Newspapers, was honored on March 29, 1944 when a liberty ship bearing his name was launched at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard. Many civic and religious leaders, as well as 36 relatives, were on hand. Photo shows the SS John H. Murphy just after she slid into Curtis Bay. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library

John H. Murphy, who founded the Baltimore Afro-American, rests in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Photo used with permission of Sean Paul Murphy via  Find a Grave.

John H. Murphy, who founded the Baltimore Afro-American, rests in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Photo used with permission of Sean Paul Murphy via Find a Grave.