John H. Murphy Sr. hoped to live to be 100, but in the event that he didn’t, he penned a letter on his 80th birthday that he wanted opened in 20 years. It told the story of his life, one of the most interesting to have taken place in our city.
Murphy was born enslaved in Baltimore on Christmas Day, 1840. His father was a whitewasher by trade, and taught his son the skill.
After the Civil War began, John enlisted in the Army, where he rose in the ranks, all the way to first sergeant.
“That was a real war for liberty,” he wrote of the Civil War. “I went in a slave and came out a freedman.” (Though he added that the years since the war had seen the common people enslaved again.)
His blue uniform assured his freedom; the sergeant’s stripes on his arm proof of the value of hard work. It also impressed the woman he was to marry.
When he returned to his family’s home on Forney Alley in Baltimore, Murphy met Martha Howard, the daughter of a successful farmer and “as pretty a freckled face girl as I had ever seen.” She was a neighbor, tending to his sick mother. Martha picked up his Army blue cap and put it on her head, moved by the soldier who’d fought with Lincoln to free the slaves.
Murphy was penniless, but promised Howard “a world that would be gay with the laughter of children and happy because I worshipped her.” The couple wed and moved to a house on Saratoga Street, bought by Martha’s father. They had 10 children: five boys and five girls.
With 12 mouths to feed, Murphy worked jobs from janitor to postal worker. There was no money in whitewashing any longer now that people were covering their walls with paper. Murphy started a Sunday paper and eventually purchased The Afro-American.
Through the next century, The Afro-American covered the events of black life — both good and bad — that were ignored in white papers. The paper covered birthday parties, church hirings, as well as the grim details of lynchings and hate crimes. “THE CRIME OF BEING A NEGRO” read a headline from 1911. In 26 years, 2,458 blacks had been lynched, the paper reported — yet "not one lyncher has ever been punished."
“There was a lot to be outraged about,” said Jake Oliver, Murphy’s great great grandson, today the publisher and CEO of The Afro. But Murphy’s voice wasn’t one of fury: He firmly believed that if his paper simply reported the truth, things would eventually change. “He wasn’t shouting, he wasn’t cussing, he was just simply unveiling,” Oliver said.
Murphy died in 1922. Under the stewardship of his son Carl, the paper went on to become one of the highest-read African-American papers in the United States, with correspondents in London and Paris. “It went everywhere there was a black community,” Oliver said.
Murphy wrote that he was driven by a simple desire: to please Martha. “Nobody wants his wife to believe him a failure,” he wrote in his letter. “If the AFRO-AMERICAN lives, it will be because I couldn’t let her down.”
Murphy’s letter ran in The Afro in 1942, and his portrait hangs below Oliver’s office at The Afro-American. Oliver sometimes gets lost in the archives, re-reading his great great grandfather's words.