Picturing Black History

Photographs and stories that changed the world

A collaboration of     and    

Afro Newspaper Collection

The Afro-American has crusaded for racial equality and economic advancement for Black Americans since August 13, 1892. John Henry Murphy Sr., a formerly enslaved person who gained freedom following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, started the paper when he merged his church publication, The Sunday School Helper 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). 

By 1922, Murphy had evolved the newspaper from a one-page weekly church publication into the most widely circulated Black paper along the coastal Atlantic and used it to challenge Jim Crow practices in Maryland. Following Murphy’s death on April 5, 1922, his five sons, each of whom had been trained in different areas of the newspaper business, continued to manage The Afro-American. Two of his sons, Carl and Arnett Murphy, served respectively as editor-publisher and advertising director.

Photo by Afro Newspaper/Gado/Getty Images
(Original Caption) A half-length portrait of pressman Joseph Goldman placing a metal plate on AFRO’s Goss press in the print room, Baltimore, Maryland, 1960.

The Afro-American rose to national prominence during the 45 years of Carl Murphy’s editorial control. The newspaper was circulated in Baltimore, with regional editions in Washington, D.C. twice weekly and in Philadelphia, Richmond, and Newark, once a week. At one time there were as many as 13 editions distributed across the country. 

The Afro-American’s status as a Black paper circulating in several predominantly Black communities endowed it with the ability to profoundly affect social change on a national scale. Carl Murphy used the editorial pages of The Afro-American to push for the hiring of African Americans by Baltimore’s police and fire departments; to press for Black representation in the legislature; and for the establishment of a state supported university to educate African Americans.

In the 1930’s The Afro-American launched “The Clean Block” campaign, which is still in existence today. The campaign developed into an annual event and was aimed at improving the appearance of, and reducing crime in, inner-city neighborhoods. The Afro-American also campaigned against the Southern Railroad’s use of Jim Crow cars and fought to obtain equal pay for Maryland’s black schoolteachers.

Children gathered during The Afro-American Newspaper’s Clean Block urban beautification campaign

Photo by Afro Newspaper/Gado/Getty Images
(Original Caption) Children during The Afro-American Newspaper’s Clean Block urban beautification campaign, Baltimore, Maryland, 1937.

During World War II, The Afro-American stationed several of its reporters in Europe, the Aleutians, Africa, Japan, and other parts of the South Pacific, and provided its readers with firsthand coverage of the war. One of its reporters (and Carl Murphy’s daughter), Elizabeth Murphy Phillips Moss, was the first Black female correspondent.

The Afro-American collaborated with The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on numerous civil rights cases. In the 1950s the newspaper joined forces with the NAACP in the latter’s suit against the University of Maryland Law School for its segregationist admission policies. Their combined efforts eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing segregated public schools. 

The Afro-American also supported actor/singer Paul Robeson and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois during the anti-Communist campaigns of the Joseph McCarthy era.

Photo by Bettmann Collection/Getty Images
(Original Caption) Speakers before the mass meeting of the “Committee to Defeat the Mundt Bill” are left to right; Representative Vito Marcantonio, (AL) of N.Y., singer Paul Robeson, and Rep. Leo Isacson, (AL), of N.Y. They are shown just before addressing the meeting held on the Washington Monument grounds.

The Afro-American has employed many notable Black journalists and intellectuals including Langston Hughes, William Worthy and J. Saunders Redding. In the mid-1930s it became the first Black newspaper to employ a female sportswriter when it hired Lillian Johnson and Nell Dodson to serve on its staff. Renowned artist Romare Bearden began his career as a cartoonist at The Afro-American in 1936.

​Sam Lacy, who was hired as the paper’s sports editor in 1943 and who, at the age of 94, still wrote a weekly column for the paper, used his weekly “A to Z” column to campaign for integration in professional sports. Using their writing to protest racial inequities in professional sports, Lacy and sports writers such as Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courierh elped to open doors for Black athletes. 

Following the death of Carl Murphy in 1967, his daughter Frances L. Murphy II served as chairman and publisher. In 1974, John Murphy III, Carl’s nephew, was appointed chairman and eventually became the publisher. Fourth generation members of the Murphy family, John “Jake” Oliver, Jr. and now Pastor Frances “Toni” Draper, with a governing board of family and community members, have managed the paper in recent years.

Beginning in 2010, The Afro-American worked with social enterprise Gado Images to digitize more than 100,000 photographs from the paper’s extensive and historically-rich archive. In partnership with Gado Images and Getty Images, The Afro-American’s photographs have been used more than 10,000 times in books, newspapers, documentary films, and other media worldwide.

See the growing collection on Getty Images here.

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