From the humblest of beginnings, John H. Murphy Sr. rose to become the founder of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, which had an office here at 1336 N Carey St in the 1910’s. Murphy was born enslaved in Baltimore on Christmas Day, 1840. He was the son of Benjamin Murphy III, a whitewasher, and Susan Coby Murphy. Not much is known about his youth. In March, 1864 Murphy joined the 30th Regiment Infantry of the U.S. Colored Troops, Maryland Volunteers. In the army, he rose to the rank of first sergeant. Murphy fought in General Grant’s Wilderness campaign. Later, he was with General Sherman in North Carolina when the Union Army captured Confederate General Johnston’s troops. Murphy later wrote of the war:
I went in a slave and came out a freedman. I went in a chattel and came out with the blue uniform of my country as a guarantee of freedom, and a sergeant’s stripes on my arms to prove that there is a promotion for those who can earn it.
After the war, Murphy returned to Baltimore a free man. Soon after he married Martha Elizabeth Howard in 1868. He went on to work for the Sunday school at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Baltimore. In the late 1880s, Murphy became the superintendent of the District Sunday School and moved to Hagerstown, Maryland.
As superintendent he began to publish a Sunday school newspaper called Sunday School Helper to realize his dream of uniting all Maryland A.M.E Sunday schools. In 1892, Reverend William M. Alexander started a rival paper, the Afro-American, to promote his church, the Sharon Baptist Church. In 1897, Murphy purchased the Afro-American for $200 and merged it with the Sunday School Helper to create one paper.
In its early years, unpaid family members staffed the paper. The popularity of the publication gave Murphy the opportunity to expand the paper’s paid employees to nearly 100 workers by the 1920s. He was also able to expand into multiple offices, including the Uptown office located at 1336 N Carey Street. By 1922, the Afro-American had grown large enough to become the biggest African American-owned newspaper on the East Coast and the third largest in the nation.
Within its pages Murphy was an outspoken advocate for justice and exposing racism in areas such as housing, education, jobs, and public accommodations. In 1913, he was elected president of the National Negro Press Association. He also served as the president of the National Negro Publishers Association. Until his death in 1922, Murphy used the paper as a platform to advocate for the African American community.
At the time of his death, Murphy Sr left to his five sons what was then the largest black newspaper plant in the nation, operated and manned by 138 employees, with a circulation of 14,000 subscriptions. Out of all the brothers, Carl J. Murphy was selected to serve as chairman and publisher of the Afro-American. For 45 years, Carl Murphy worked tirelessly to grow the publication from a local weekly newspaper to a national daily chain. Under Carl Murphy the paper reached a peak weekly circulation of 235,000 newspapers in 1945.
Today, John Murphy’s family continues to uphold his legacy. The Baltimore Afro-American remains one of the oldest operating black family-owned newspapers in the United States. And although the original office was torn down, the Uptown office remains a poignant reminder of Murphy Sr.’s legacy as the first African-American newspaper magnate.
The research and writing of this article was funded by two grants: one from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and one from the Baltimore National Heritage Area.