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date: 17 August 2019

Murphy, John Henry,

(25 December 1840–05 April 1922)
  • James Phillip Jeter

Murphy, John Henry, Sr. (25 December 1840–05 April 1922), newspaper publisher, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the only son of Benjamin Murphy, Jr., a whitewasher, and Susan Coby. Murphy was born a slave. The Baltimore Afro-American, the newspaper he would guide to prominence during the first two decades of the twentieth century, described Murphy’s educational attainment as “limited.” A short man, he walked with a limp, the result of a childhood horseback riding incident that left one leg longer than the other. Freedom for the Murphys came via the Maryland Emancipation Act of 1863.

Despite his limp, Murphy answered Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops and joined the Union army during the Civil War. He enlisted as a private in Company G of the mostly black Thirtieth Regiment of the Maryland Volunteers—an infantry unit—on 18 March 1864. During his twenty-one months in uniform he served under General Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia and General William T. Sherman in North Carolina. He left the army in December 1865 as a sergeant.

After his discharge, Murphy returned to Baltimore. On his first day back home he met Martha Elizabeth Howard, daughter of a well-to-do Montgomery County, Maryland, farmer. Howard’s family had been born slaves, but her father, Enoch George Howard, had purchased his freedom and later that of his wife and children and eventually even bought his former master’s property. It took two years for Murphy to convince Howard’s father that he was sincere about marriage. The couple were married in 1868; they would have eleven children.

To support his growing clan, Murphy worked at various jobs over the next twenty years. He followed his father as a whitewasher for a time, until the use of wallpaper became widespread. Murphy later used his veteran’s status to get a political patronage job with the U.S. Post Office, but he lost that when the Democrats came to power with the 1884 election of Grover Cleveland as president. Subsequent jobs included being a porter, a janitor, and a feed store manager. (Neither Murphy nor others who have written about him cite dates or lengths of time that he stayed at his various jobs.)

Murphy was in his forties when he decided to become a printer, as he described himself. Active in local organizations, particularly the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, in the 1880s Murphy became superintendent of Sunday schools for the Hagerstown (Md.) AME Church District. For years Murphy had wanted to structure black church schools into some type of organization, and he saw a newspaper as a means of achieving this goal. His initial publication, designed to generate more community interest in Sunday school work, was the Sunday School Helper, which he began in the late 1880s in the basement of his home. Murphy’s competition came from publications started by other local black church groups. The Afro-American, which, under the leadership of the Reverend William Alexander, carried a combination of church and community news, was the Baptists’ publication. The Ledger, edited by the Reverend George F. Bragg, was allied with the Episcopal church. (Initial publication dates have yet to be established for any of these weekly publications.)

The Afro-American’s parent company was the Northwestern Family Supply Company, a Reverend Alexander enterprise that operated a dry goods store. When Alexander’s larger business failed and was auctioned off, in 1896 Murphy acquired, with $200 borrowed from his wife, the Afro-American, then a one-page weekly with a circulation of 250. Murphy merged the two publications and dropped the Sunday School Helper name but retained the church and community news content. As time passed, Murphy brought his children into the enterprise by assigning them various editorial, printing, and circulation tasks. Between 1900 and 1901 the Afro-American merged with the Ledger and was known for a time as the Afro-American Ledger (1901–1916), when it was published semiweekly. Under this arrangement, Murphy became the publisher, and Bragg became the editor. Murphy eventually obtained control and returned the newspaper to its former—and current—name, the Afro-American. During the last three decades of his life, Murphy guided the operation as it became one of the premier black newspapers of all time. In the process he not only achieved success, fame, and financial reward; he laid the foundation for a venerable publishing concern that would be headed by generations of Murphys for nearly a century.

Murphy said he wanted to publish a newspaper that would “render service to the whole community.” Like many of his black newspaper executive contemporaries, he was a Republican, but he vowed not to let the Afro-American be a newspaper “tied to the apron strings of any political party, fraternal organization or religious denomination.” He established the paper’s motto of “Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing.” Murphy credited two characteristics for his success: faith and industry. He said he had “faith in the ability of the black man to succeed in this civilization, faith in myself and faith in God. Then, too, I believe in just plain, everyday, hard work.”

Murphy had hoped to live to be 100 years old and on his eightieth birthday wrote a letter to be opened on Christmas Day 1940. A reflection on his life and a statement of the philosophy that made him one of the most respected “race” men of his time, the letter reads in part:

I measure a newspaper not in buildings, equipment and employees—those are trimmings. A newspaper succeeds because its management believes in itself, in God and in the present generation. It must always ask itself whether it has kept faith with the common people; whether it has no other goal except to see that their liberties are preserved and their future assured; whether it is fighting to get rid of slums, to provide jobs for everybody; whether it stays out of politics except to expose corruption and condemn injustice, race prejudice or the cowardice of compromise… . [The Afro-American] has always had a loyal constituency who believed it honest, decent and progressive. It is that kind of newspaper now and I hope it never changes.

 Murphy remained active until shortly before his death in Baltimore. Tributes poured in. The one from the Negro (later National) Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), the black newspaper publishers trade organization, was a fitting epitaph. To his peers, it said, Murphy was “a noble Roman of the fourth estate and … an inspiration to future generations of black men.”

By the time he died, Murphy had managed to establish a newspaper with an extensive readership outside the city that was once called “the graveyard of black newspapers.” The Afro-American’s circulation of 14,000 at the time of his death made it one of the ten largest black newspapers in the United States. As the number of black newspapers grew, with the migration of blacks to the North the Afro-American became one of the “Big Five” black newspapers of the first half of the twentieth century. Although Murphy did not start the Afro-American, he was the driving force that transformed the publication from a local newspaper into one of the most significant and influential black journals in the nation. John Henry Murphy was a man of perseverance and vision, and his life indicates that one is never too old to succeed.


The Afro-American Archives are located at Bowie State College, Bowie, Md. An additional primary source is a letter by John H. Murphy, “Sergeant Murphy: Story of a Civil War Veteran,” dated 25 Dec. 1920, Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture Clipping File 3003, 362–1. See also “John Henry Murphy,” Afro-American, 7 Apr. 1922, p. 7 (obituary); “John Henry Murphy, Sr., 1840–1922,” Afro-American (magazine section), 9 Jan. 1957, p. 4; and “Letters and Telegrams Eulogize John H. Murphy,” Afro-American,” 14 Apr. 1922, p. 7. An important source on the influence of the Afro-American is Roland E. Wolseley, The Black Press: U.S.A., 2d ed. (1990).