Camay Calloway Murphy is off her rocker. At 94, there is too much for the longtime community activist to do than just while away her golden years in her home in Havre de Grace. For Murphy, there is still history to be reckoned with and heroes to be hallowed.
In June, for instance, before a turnout in the town’s Tydings Park, Murphy unveiled the statue of Ernest Burke, a former Negro Leagues baseball player and Havre de Grace native who’d pitched for the Baltimore Elite Giants in the 1940s. Burke also served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II, one of the first Blacks to join up.
The project was “a labor of love,” said Murphy who, as chair of the lengthy eight-year venture, just dug in her heels and saw it through.
That gritty determination and boundless energy comes from her father, Cab Calloway, the popular singer and band leader who brought jazz to the masses nearly a century ago. In her life, Murphy has taught school in Nigeria, authored a children’s book and created the Cab Calloway Jazz Institute and Museum at Coppin State University. For a decade she ran an award-winning grade school in Virginia, then headed the Eubie Blake National Jazz and Cultural Center in Baltimore and served on the city’s school board.
Now a nonagenarian living on the cusp of the Susquehanna River, she is looking for more fish to fry.
“I’ve slowed down a lot,” said Murphy, who is battling breast cancer, which will have to wait because she plans to write a book about early childhood education. And who knows if she’ll ferret out another unheralded local figure from the past who’s deserving of a monument?
“My father had a very high work ethic,” Murphy said. “He insisted on band rehearsals – which jazz musicians hate to do – and was among the first professional artists to actually practice in order to make his act look spontaneous.”
It’s said that in Calloway’s classic “Minnie The Moocher,” he ad-libbed the chorus (hidee hidee hidee hi, hode hode hode ho) because he forgot the lyrics. Not so, said Murphy:
“He always knew just what he was doing.”
It’s a tenet she has long embraced.
Born in 1927, she was named for Camay soap, introduced the year before.
“My aunt Bernice named me,” she said. “Camay was said to be ‘the soap of beautiful women,’ and she was hopeful that I would be beautiful.”
Growing up, she lived with family members and friends, mostly in Baltimore where her father was raised. She met up with him on trips to New York, usually backstage in the smoke-filled theaters where Calloway performed for audiences that reveled in his effervescent act.
“I remember being 8 or 9, at the Cotton Club, and going into the chorus girls’ dressing room, where these beautiful women put lipstick on me and one of those feathered headdresses that they wore onstage,” she said. “They even put a ‘mole’ under my eye, with a makeup pencil, to make me look glamorous and quite sexy.”
Alas, Murphy never performed for the crowds.
“Once, at the end of his show at the Apollo [in New York], they called the kids in the audience onstage to do a popular dance called ‘Truckin,’ " she said. “I begged my father to let me do it and he finally said OK. But I had to come from backstage and when the time came, I got all tangled up in the curtains. When I finally got out there, it was over.”
Murphy did hobnob with musical greats of the era, like Duke Ellington (”nice, but kind of aloof”) and Paul Robeson.
“I met [Robeson] at a party in New York that my father had taken me to when I was a student at NYU,” she said. “He was a big guy and very impressive. I told him that I wanted to be a teacher, and he suggested that I go south and teach the children there.
“‘Oh no,’ I said. ‘They lynch people down there.’ Paul said, ‘But that’s where you’re needed; that’s where you should go.’”
Another time, on a rainy day at the Paramount Theater in Manhattan, Murphy went backstage to greet her dad ... and walked right by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the celebrated tap dancer who’d starred in four films with Shirley Temple.
“My father said, ‘Do you know who you just passed?’ I said no — I was more interested in [Temple] at the time — but I did go back and speak to Bill. He was very charming. I asked if he could teach me a couple of dance steps, and he showed me the ‘Choo Choo,’ I think. But I didn’t do well because I had on my galoshes.”
Though music beckoned Calloway and his sister, Blanche Calloway — the first woman to lead an all-male band — Murphy never followed suit.
“I took piano lessons on a very low level and I tried modern dance. That was my only artistic skill,” she said. “My father didn’t care and it didn’t frustrate me. I wasn’t too much for his kind of life; [entertaining] was a hard way to go.”
Murphy’s stage was the classroom. She taught briefly at a private school in Virginia and then, in 1960, went to Africa to be headmistress of a boarding school in Nigeria, which had just gained its independence from Great Britain.
“They were desperate for teachers there and I wanted to help the kids to think, to make decisions for themselves,” she said.
Three years later, she returned and began work in the Arlington, Virginia. school system, initially as one of the first African-American instructors at a mostly white institution in the state, and then as principal at Ashlawn Elementary in 1978.
A progressive educator, she established a Black history museum at a predominantly white school, with exhibits on everything from African cooking to the Harlem Renaissance that her father helped forge. With Murphy’s blessing, the youngsters also organized a jazz band where they performed “Jumpin Jive,” a Calloway standard, and Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”
Conformity has never been her thing. Murphy has long been one to push the envelope in an effort to give children a more rounded outlook on life.
“I’d rather do something and then have someone say ‘no,’ than to ask if I can do it and be rebuffed,” she said. Not all of her efforts are structured. Once, during the school’s celebration of Arbor Day, she taught her charges how to dance The Electric Slide.
Married twice, she wed John Murphy III, publisher of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, in 1980. At the ceremony, her father offered up tunes from “Porgy and Bess.”
“That surprised me,” she said. “It was lovely.”
A widow, she lives in the two-story cottage she bought 25 years ago as a “getaway” from the bustle of Baltimore.
“Antique stores and the opera house are nearby, the public library is right around the corner, and I can see the Susquehanna when the leaves fall,” she said. In the town known as The Decoy Capital of the World, she has all of her ducks in a row.
Given her druthers, said Murphy, she’d prefer to pass on during a gathering like the unveiling of the statue honoring Burke, the Negro Leagues ballplayer – paying homage to someone who, in life, made this a better world.
“That would be the best way to go,” she said.