BLACK HISTORY didn't begin with Daniel A. P. Murray, but it might as well have. During his 51 years at the Library of Congress, Murray (1852-1925) assembled the most significant collection of black literature in America.

Murray's pioneering is celebrated in a small exhibit at the library's Madison Building. It's the first of a planned series drawing on the more than 36,000 books, pamphlets, biographical sketches and other documents Murray collected.

Born in Baltimore to former slaves, the self-educated Murray went to work at the library at 18 in 1871 and was promoted to assistant librarian 10 years later. He began his celebrated collection as part of the Negro history exhibit in the American pavilion at the 1900 International Exposition in Paris. The project won gold, silver and bronze medals for Murray and collaborators T. J. Calloway, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.

With his 1879 marriage to schoolteacher Anna Jane Evans, niece of two of John Brown's black recruits in the Harpers Ferry Raid, Murray founded one of Washington's most prominent black families. The Murrays were leaders in the improvement of public schools and the fight against Jim Crow laws. He grew wealthy in real estate development and was the first black member of the Washington Board of Trade.

But the major and lasting contribution of Murray's career was the library's priceless collection of books and pamphlets by black authors, and the massive bibliography upon which Murray was still working when he died. Sadly -- even shockingly, in this era of renewed emphasis on black history -- the work has never been completed or published.

DANIEL ALEXANDER PAYNE MURRAY: A Collector's Legacy -- Through March 31 in the Madison Building, Library of Congress. 202/707-2905. The sixth-floor exhibit area is open 8:30 to 5 Monday through Friday, but usually is closed on weekends. Excellent wheelchair access.