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Inquiring Minds: Author Tells Story of Black Elite Through Library’s Daniel Murray

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Daniel Murray, a pioneer in the black history movement, worked at the Library of Congress for 52 years, from 1871 to 1922. He began as special assistant to Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford, later serving as a librarian and a bibliographer of works by African-Americans.

In “The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era,” Elizabeth Dowling Taylor draws on Murray’s lived experiences to recount the story of the rise and disillusionment of the black elite in Washington, D.C. She is the bestselling author of “A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons” and a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Taylor discussed “The Original Black Elite” at the Library of Congress on Feb. 14 in a “Books and Beyond” event cosponsored by the Center for the Book and the Daniel A. P. Murray Association. The event was part of the Library’s observance of African-American History Month. Her presentation can be viewed on C-SPAN. Here Taylor shares insights about the book, published in January, and her research at the Library.

Photo of Daniel Murray Family at Library
Elizabeth Dowling Taylor and Darren Jones and John Cole of the Library of Congress (fifth, sixth, and seventh from left in middle row) gather with descendants of Daniel Murray in the Great Hall on Feb. 14. following Taylor’s presentation. Photo courtesy of John Cole.

Your book follows the African-American elite in Washington, D.C., from Emancipation through Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era. What, briefly, is the story?

The larger narrative is the African-American experience over Daniel Murray’s lifetime (1851–1925)—the advance of prospects through Reconstruction and the subsequent betrayal at the hands of the government, which passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments but, in the name of reconciliation with the South, then abandoned the new citizens to renewed oppression by white supremacists. History is more meaningful and accessible when it is personalized, so the story unfolds through biography.

Daniel Murray
Daniel Murray

Why did you want to tell this story?

This is a cautionary tale of rise and slide. All Americans need to understand that our freedoms, even those embedded in the U.S. Constitution, can be reversed. Rights won must be rights guarded. I focused on the black elite for two reasons. One was to underscore the heterogeneity of the African-American experience historically. For many, the existence of a black elite in the 19th century is a revelation. The other was to put the absurdity of white supremacy in highest relief. The rise of those in Daniel Murray’s circle was realized rather than potential. Its members attained high levels of education, achievement, culture and economic security. They were living proof that African-Americans did not lack the ability to become full contributors to American society.

How did you decide to tell the story through Daniel Murray?

Daniel Murray was a pioneer in the field of African-American history; a leader in the National Afro-American Council, the first national civil rights organization and forerunner of the NAACP; and a prominent member of Washington, D.C.,’s black elite. His compelling story deserves to be shared, and it neatly exemplifies the arc of the larger narrative on the rise and disillusionment of the black elite.

How did Library of Congress resources support your research?

Library historian John Cole, who was director of the Center for the Book at the time, encouraged me early on to pursue research on Daniel Murray. Murray’s papers were donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society by his last surviving son but were destroyed after being microfilmed. I worked from the copy of the 27 reels of microfilm held by the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. Library staffers Jurretta Heckscher, Cheryl Fox and Adrienne Cannon were extremely helpful in bringing my attention to Library resources, including the miscellaneous personnel files on Murray from the Library of Congress archives.

Murray published a bibliography of African-American literature for the Paris Exposition of 1900. How did he come to do that and what was his goal?

In 1899, Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam approved a request from the organizers of the upcoming Paris Exposition to provide a bibliography of works by African-Americans and put Murray to the task. Murray took on the work with zeal and produced a preliminary list of black authors along with some of their books to be displayed in Paris. Once the exposition closed, he continued to grow his specialized bibliography. Murray had found not only a literary niche, but also an antidote to troubled race relations, believing that “the curse of prejudice is the hand-maid of ignorance.” He became the “go-to man” on all questions relating to black history as his reputation grew. No longer satisfied with bibliography and book collecting, Murray took on black history and biography. His goal eventually expanded to a monumental six-volume encyclopedia.

How was Murray’s work received in his lifetime?

Still laboring over his life’s work in retirement, Murray wrote, “I have not courted and do not now expect a place in the Temple of Fame, but shall be fully satisfied if thought worthy by those who may consult my work of the glorious distinction of admittance to the Temple of Truth.” Aware of Murray’s frail health, W.E.B. Du Bois pleaded with him to allow parts of his encyclopedia to be published in periodicals, but Murray refused to break up the six volumes. Murray died in 1925, never having found a publisher to underwrite his opus. It was Carter G. Woodson who would become known as the Father of Black History.

In 1897, Murray experienced a setback in his Library of Congress career. What happened and why?

Just two months after being named to helm the new Division of Periodicals, Murray was demoted and reassigned to his former position by newly appointed Librarian of Congress John Young. The reason given was “friction incident to caste.” Murray’s humiliation was exacerbated by a substantial drop in salary. He complained that his pay was now lower than that of others with similar duties. This injustice was ignored, and Murray’s salary never rose for the remainder of his tenure.

How did Murray respond to the backward trend in African-American rights and status?

When the rug was pulled out from under African-Americans with the premature abandonment of Reconstruction, the elite had only further to fall. Before the 1890s were over, black leaders attempted to block the slide away from full citizenship. Murray took on a leadership role on the executive committee of the National Afro-American Council and was appointed director of its Legal and Legislative Bureau. The bureau lobbied Congress to pass antilynching and anti-Jim Crow laws, and it laid the groundwork for a constitutional test case challenging disenfranchisement of black voters.

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