By Nadira Jamerson | Word In Black
(WIB) – There are over 200 newspapers in the United States dedicated to the preservation of Black stories and the amplification of Black voices. They are the Black press.
One of the oldest is the Baltimore Afro-American — the AFRO newspaper for short. John H. Murphy, Sr., a formerly enslaved man, founded the paper in 1892 in Baltimore with $200 from his wife, Martha Howard Murphy. He envisioned the AFRO as”a platform to offer images and stories of hope to advance their community.”
On August 13, the AFRO will celebrate 130 years of truthful and excellent journalism — news that has influenced Black communities around the country.
The AFRO is now the longest-running African-American family-owned newspaper in the United States, and its publisher, Dr. Frances Toni Draper — John H. Murphy Sr.’s great-granddaughter — is one of the 10 founders of Word In Black. On such a historic anniversary, Dr. Draper tells us her insight into the value of the Black press, reflects on the power of 130 years of legacy, and imagines a hopeful way forward.
WORD IN BLACK: Many people do not choose to take on the family business. What made you want to dedicate your career to continuing your family’s legacy at The AFRO?
DR. FRANCES TONI DRAPER: My parents helped, my aunts helped, my cousins helped, my grandparents helped. My grandfather was the publisher from 1922, when his father died, until 1967 when he died. To be honest, I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want a job in journalism. Most of our generation — the fourth generation — worked at the paper holidays, and weekends, and summer vacations, but only one that I can think of in my generation pursued a journalism degree. That was my sister. She went to the same school my mother did, which was the University of Wisconsin. I didn’t really want to do that, and a lot of our generation didn’t until I was older and I came back. I came back to the family business in ’86, left in ’99, and now I’ve been back since 2018.
WIB: What is your first memory of the AFRO?
FTD: I don’t think there’s a time when I don’t remember something about the AFRO. My mother, her sisters, and so much family in that second and third generation — this is what they did. My mom and her sisters went to Big 10 schools for journalism and came back to the family business. We grew up in the business. The earliest memory I have is probably 3-years-old, or 4-years-old when my parents both ran the Richmond office.
WIB: Are there any accomplishments from the AFRO that you are most proud of, and why?
FTD: There are so many things that I’m so proud of with the paper in general. One certainly is our longevity, but not just its longevity, for longevity’s sake. The impact I believe the AFRO has had worldwide, nationwide, and in the markets that we’ve served — I’m certainly proud of all of the journalists who were produced or got their start at the AFRO.
I’m proud that the AFRO is a trusted news source, and we hear that a lot. It is a go-to source for real news, if you will, about our community. Accurate reporting. Reporting that covers a wide spectrum of Black life, not just the screaming headlines we see where our shortcomings as a people seem to be amplified when there is so much good. It’s not that the AFRO didn’t report on crime and other things, but we reported on so much more. If it weren’t for the AFRO, we wouldn’t know what it was like for Black soldiers to serve in World War II. We had six war correspondents who actually enlisted, and they were journalists, and they sent back their stories. If it weren’t for the AFRO, we wouldn’t have to know what it was like for Jesse Owens to be at the Olympics, or what it was like for Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier.
WIB: Do you remember the first story that you ever reported on? Is the story still important to you now?
FTD: When you start at the AFRO — and I don’t know that this is the same as other news desks — but you get assigned to the obituaries. We would get the daily paper, and we could tell by the funeral home if it was an African American person because, just like it is today, Black funeral homes bury mostly Black people. You are the person who calls up the families, and it was a whole script. You would tell them how sorry you were for their loss and ask them about that person, and you listen to them for however long.
I remember being assigned to a story where there was an unfortunate death of a young person. When the Black paper — any Black paper — when we cover tragedy throughout our community, we put a face. It’s not just “John Doe was killed.”I remember going up to an apartment building to meet a mom who had just lost her son and spending what seemed like forever just talking to her about who he was as a person. Not just the person he was going to be painted as now by others. That’s the uniqueness of the Black press, and I remember having those opportunities.
WIB: Looking forward, what are your hopes for the future of the paper? How has adapting to the times contributed to the AFRO’s success?
FTD: We are content creators. We are information gatherers. In terms of what’s in the future, none of us knows. We couldn’t have guessed 30 years ago, really, with the internet. What we need to do has not changed as much as how we do it. Regardless of the platforms — and we are really big on social media and getting things out that way — in 10 years, it will probably look like something else. Our mission is the same, the way we do it just evolves.
WIB: Do you have any advice to offer young Black journalists or Black folks looking to start media outlets in their communities?
FTD: Whatever you pursue, make sure that it is something that you are passionate about and something that you get the training for. Journalism can look easy, but it’s a profession. I know if you’re a broadcast journalist, for example, you think your first job should be CNN. It might not be CNN. It may be the local news station in your market. Start where you can start, and be the best that you can be. Give it 1000%. Learn as much as you can, and remember that you are a lifelong learner.
WIB: Is there anything else that you would like to tell us about?
FTD: Be true to yourself. I’m a mom. I’m a wife. I’m a grandma. In terms of this role, I am someone who just believes that her community is so talented. If you ask the average person who reads any kind of news what happened with the Breonna Taylor case, we would know those things because they are national news. If you ask the same person who was the commencement speaker at the high school, or something, most people wouldn’t know it because they don’t have a need to know it, but the people in those communities have a need to know it.
If you read some other papers, you would think [Black people] didn’t get married, or have children, or die of natural causes, or anything. Your viewpoint of Black people would be influenced by news that only snatches a story here and a story there. I tell people that Black lives have always mattered. Black lives didn’t just start mattering to the Black press, and Black lives have always mattered to the AFRO since 1892. Black people have always had a contribution to make, and Black people have always made a contribution.
You can attend the 130th anniversary of the AFRO in person by registering for the gala on their website.