The Afro-American has crusaded for racial equality and economic advancement for Black Americans for more than a century. In existence since August 13, 1892, John Henry Murphy Sr., a former slave 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.
The Afro-American rose to national prominence while under the editorial control of Carl Murphy. He served as its editor-publisher for 45 years. The newspaper was circulated in Baltimore, with regional editions circulated 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 circulated 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.
In the 1930's The Afro-Amerian launched a successful campaign known as "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 school teachers.
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 first hand 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. DuBois during the anti-Communist campaigns of the Joseph McCarthy era.
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 writes 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 Courier helped 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 J. Oliver, Jr. and Frances M. Draper, continue to manage the paper in recent years.
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