In 1892, former slave, Civil War veteran, and Baltimore citizen John H. Murphy Sr. had a vision for a new kind of news source: one that would serve the city’s African American population. Merging several church newsletters — and borrowing $200 to buy printing presses — he launched the Afro-American Newspaper.
Murphy spent the rest of his life scaling up the paper. He later passed it down to his family, who stewarded it through multiple generations and continued its expansion. In its heyday, the paper had nine editions in 13 East Coast cities.
Today, more than 120 years after its founding, the Afro continues to operate. Even more remarkably, it has remained in the Murphy family. It’s still a major news source in Baltimore and D.C. and holds the title of the longest-operating family-owned African American paper in the United States.
Murphy led a vibrant and storied life, serving in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War and crusading against Jim Crow laws. The Afro’s history is equally storied. Its reporters and photographers documented Plessy v. Ferguson, bore witness to riots and lynchings, and rubbed elbows with the likes of Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X.
History literally spilled from these boxes, with photos covering tables, desks, even walls.
Perhaps most remarkable, though, is the history the paper has amassed in its century of operation. In an era when many newspapers have actively sold off their photographic archives to raise revenue, the Afro has aggressively preserved and carefully stewarded its own. The result is that its archives contain a collection of 1.5 million photographs dating back to the paper’s founding. It’s likely one of the best Black history collections in the world and has been called a “national treasure.”