The AFRO-American Newspaper has been in existence since August 13, 1892, when John Henry Murphy Sr., a former slave started the paper. Murphy died on April 5, 1922. At the time of his death, the AFRO was the most widely circulated African American newspaper on the Atlantic Coast. The publication was so popular amongst Black America that poet Langston Hughes, and legendary sports editor Sam Lacy—whose column influenced the desegregation of professional sports— contributed over the years.
After Murphy, Sr.’s death, his son, Carl Murphy served as publisher of the paper from 1922 until his death 1967. Under Carl Murphy’s leadership, the publication rose to national prominence, with as many as 13 editions being circulated across the country. The AFRO is still going strong 130 years later, with its publication offerings including digital and print editions, podcasts and more.
John “Jake” Oliver, Jr. and now Dr. Frances “Toni” Draper, who are fourth generation members of the Murphy family, have managed the paper in recent years along with a governing board of family and community members. Both are the great grandchildren of John H. Murphy.
“Our ancestors who founded this paper showed yes, I can do it. We can do it. And we will show you that we can do it,” said Oliver, a former publisher for the paper, who also authored editorials to bring about change in the community. “And that was one of the major steps that I believe, facilitated the beginnings of the Civil Rights era where Jim Crow started to be effectively sidestepped, if not eliminated. Black folks were viewed as not being able to contribute, because they were still being viewed as former slaves and uneducated, since education was illegal for Blacks to have while they were under the roof of enslavement.”
He added, “But individuals began to emerge who exhibited unusual talent, imagination, and ability in all forms including the communication and journalism fields. It started to attract people and white people realized we have misjudged these people and segregation simply is not right.”
A visionary, who foresaw the forthcoming world of digital publications several decades ago, Oliver earned his J.D. degree from Columbia University Law School 1972. He practiced corporate law as an associate with the firm of Davis, Polk, and Wardell in New York City from 1972-78.
“There were so many outstanding photographers, editors, writers and others who came through the AFRO,” said Oliver. “And it shows, based on the cohesive focus the AFRO placed on the issues that it considered important for the elevation of the Black community. It’s a continued battle we face.”
In February 2018, Dr. Draper was named Chairman of the Board and publisher of the AFRO American Newspapers. She served previously as president of the company from 1987 to 1999.
“Our mothers worked there, and our fathers worked there, so we had a hefty dose of the family business around the dinner table and other places,” said Dr. Draper. “So many things covered by the AFRO over the years were being ignored by the mainstream press. The AFRO covered not just the headline things that all of us know about like the March on Washington, but they covered Jesse Owens when he won the Olympics. We were there.”
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, Carl Murphy’s daughter, Elizabeth Murphy Phillips Moss, was the first Black female correspondent.
“We had the largest contingency of Black war correspondents who were actually journalists,” said Dr. Draper. “They enlisted into the armed service as war correspondents and wrote about what was going on. We covered so many things we now look back on.”
In the 1930s, the AFRO launched a successful campaign known as The Clean Block. Still in existence today, the effort is aimed at improving the appearance of, and reducing crime in, inner-city neighborhoods. During its long and “storied” history, the AFRO also campaigned against the Southern Railroad’s use of Jim Crow cars and fought to obtain equal pay for Maryland’s Black schoolteachers.
Radio personality and political campaign strategist Anthony McCarthy worked at the AFRO as a staff writer during the late 1990s.
“I came to the AFRO from Virginia,” recalled McCarthy. “I called the AFRO because I had gotten to know the late Jimmy Williams and he told me he needed a reporter in Baltimore. I took the job, and boy, my life has never been the same. The AFRO opened so many doors for me. It was extraordinary for me professionally. Working there really helped me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and that was to be involved in politics. I will always be thankful for the AFRO.”
In celebration of its 130th Anniversary, the historic publication will be holding the AFRO Gala on Saturday, August 13, 2022 at Martin’s Crosswinds located at 7400 Greenway Center Drive in Greenbelt, Maryland. The Black-Tie affair will feature Kid Capri, Tommy Davidson, and Absolute Music featuring Temika Moore.
To purchase tickets to the AFRO Gala, visit AFRO.COM.