Daniel Murray and The Story of America’s Black Elite
Though the son of a freed slave and self‐educated, Daniel Murray became a highly‐regarded archivist at the Library of Congress and joined the ranks of a growing Black elite in Washington, DC.
Daniel Murray was a groundbreaking historian, biographer, and champion of civil rights. His life illustrates the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of America’s Black upper class during the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Murray was born in 1851 in Baltimore, Maryland, a city that despite being nestled in a slave‐owning state boasted the nation’s largest free Black population. His father was a former slave and lumberjack. 1
At the tender age of nine, Murray moved to Washington D.C. to work for his brother, who managed the United States Senate Restaurant, a venue where senators regularly ate and socialized. In 1871, at the age of nineteen, he joined a team of a dozen staff at the Library of Congress. It was there that he worked for ten years as the personal assistant to the Librarian of Congress before he was elevated to the role of assistant librarian, a role he performed for an additional forty‐two years.
Murray’s distinction as only the second Black American to hold a professional position at the Library of Congress came at a time when these sorts of prestigious government appointments were a rare achievement for Blacks. The first to hold that distinction, Jon F.N. Wilkinson, was a native Washingtonian and two decades Murray’s senior. Indeed, he served as Murray’s mentor and role model. Over time the two became known for their command of the vast library collection, both men possessing an uncanny recall of books and titles requested by congressional staffers.
In 1879, Murray, although self taught, married the highly educated Anna Jane Evans, a local school teacher and a graduate of both Oberlin College and Howard University. They were a D.C. power couple at a time when Black Washingtonians comprised a third of the population. A polished socialite who hailed from an impressive lineage of Black abolitionists, Anna Jane was related to U.S. senator Hiram Revels, the first Black citizen to serve in either house of Congress.
Anna Murray believed that any substantial progress of the race was predicated on childhood education. Because of her advocacy on the issue, she is regarded as the mother of public kindergarten in Washington D.C.
Over the course of their 46‐year marriage, the Murray’s raised seven children and were one of the wealthiest Black families in the nation’s capital. They built an opulent house in Northwest Washington D.C. on S Street, becoming the first of several Black Americans to live on that block.
Daniel’s distinguished position at the Library of Congress, combined with Anna’s connections at Oberlin, gave the two access to elite DC circles. This included some of America’s first Black U.S. senators, representatives, and business leaders.
These well‐educated and well‐off Black elites engaged in politics, mixed at high brow cultural events, and enjoyed a vibrant social life in D.C. Reflective of a rarely talked about intra‐racial divide, Blacks comprising this elite cadre typically had lighter skin complexion than those in working class DC neighborhoods. The fact that most could pass for white led Daniel Murray’s close friend Cyrus Field Adamsto to lament, “My trouble is, all my life I have been trying to pass for colored.”
Active in Republican politics, Daniel Murray frequently testified before Congress and was consulted by multiple presidents on racial issues such as lynching and Jim Crow segregation laws. He also built a reputation as a writer and researcher, authoring a voluminous collection of articles on Black history and culture, including a massive trove of bibliographies of works by and about Black authors that included biographies, books, pamphlets, and musical compositions. Furthermore, he wrote more than 500 plot synopses of Black novels, all for his planned but never published magnum opus, “Murray’s Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia of the Colored Race.”
With the volatile 1890s as a backdrop, Murray along with the likes of prominent Black leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois played a prominent role in challenging disparaging myths about Black people. While Washington championed educational advancement and DuBois focused on intellectual leadership, Murray became a key torchbearer for Black literary achievement. He believed that “the true test of the progress of a people is to be found in their literature.”
The wealth that Murray amassed was the fruit of his real estate and entrepreneurial ventures, specifically his development of several buildings in the city. In 1894, he was afforded the distinction of being inducted into the Washington Board of Trade and the first Black American to receive this honor. This was in recognition of his efforts drafting a legislative proposal that secured federal monies and support for the municipal government in the District of Columbia. 2
But despite their efforts to fuel the assimilation of Black cultural ways into the broader fabric of America, Murray and other members of the Black intelligentsia were subjected to the chilling effect of Jim Crow segregation and white supremacy. The efforts to humiliate a Black population that many whites felt had advanced quite far enough is profiled by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor in her exquisitely well‐researched book The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era.
In a 2017 lecture at the Library of Congress, Dowling Taylor offered the deeper story of the eventual downfall of America’s Black middle‐class, the failure of Reconstruction, and the concomitant rise of Jim Crow which amounted to the effective re‐enslavement of many Black workers. She recalled that for all of the positive action that occurred around elite Black advancement in the post‐Civil War period, progress was halted later in the century amid a rebirth of racial humiliation, stalled career prospects, and the diminishment of Black wealth.
This theme was highlighted in Chapter 7 of her book which she titled “Backsliding.”
Murray’s disheartening personal reversal was just manifestation of newly emerging color prejudice in the nation’s capital over the 1890s, which proved to be a period of deteriorating status and bleak reckoning for black elites.
When federal troops enforcing Reconstruction‐policy compliance withdrew from the South in adherence to the 1877 Wormley Agreement, rollbacks for that section’s blacks came swiftly. In the name of reconciliation with the former Confederate states, the national government not only revoked its commitment to black advancement but delivered its new citizens into the hands of white supremacists, who lost no time in renewing their oppression.
Local and state governments restricted the political, economic, and social status of African Americans by legalizing segregation and discrimination. Such racist statutes, constituting an uglier, more pervasive form of racism than had existed before the Civil War, became known collectively as “Jim Crow” laws. The name was derived from black figures mockingly caricatured by minstrel‐circuit performers in blackface. 3
Says Dowling Taylor: “The Constitution stood loud and clear in terms of individual rights and equal treatment under the law but was discounted. Sure, we want to believe that there is a master narrative, one of increasing freedoms over time but this story gives lie to that.” 4
Nevertheless, Daniel Murray and the nineteenth century black DC elite remains proof that black Americans, when given the slimmest opportunity, could scale the cultural, economic, and political heights of even a generally hostile society.
1. “The Sage of Negro Bibliography”: Daniel A. P. Murray, the Librarian as Public Intellectual November 2019 The Library Quarterly 90(1):56–93