Carl Murphy was the editor and publisher of the Afro-American Newspapers for 45 years. I once wrote him a letter. Murphy kept it, along with 30,000 others he received and answered between 1922 and 1967, the year of his death. These letters (with carbon-copy responses), all neatly tied in brown paper and string and labeled by years, have recently arrived at the Moreland-Spingarn Research Center Library at Howard University. It represents a treasure for researchers in American contemporary history. Almost nothing has been written about this man (even simple biographical information is missing from most popular encyclopedias), the son of a slave, who edited and published the largest circulated black newspaper in the history of this country.

The letters are only a part of the documents -- manuscripts, transcripts, and photographs -- that until now have been stored in cardboard boxes at the home office of the Afro-American Newspapers in Baltimore. There are also hundreds of disks of taped telephone conversations with national leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. among them.

One of Murphy's five daughters, Frances, is at Howard this year on sabbatical leave from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, where she is an associate professor of journalism, to catalogue the materials. She has not yet reviewed all of them, but already has found signatures of many well- known people, black and white, of that period, including educators Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune and Carter Woodson; Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman; Sens. Claude Pepper and Rob Rep. Adam Clayton Powell; Gen. Benjamin O. Davis and Col. West Hamilton; and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. People from all walks of life sought Murphy's advice and help on many matters in an effort to persuade him to use the influence of the paper on their behalf.

And influence is what the Afro- American did wield in its heyday, before 1965. The Afro, published since 1893, was one of the major publications in which the recorded reporting of black journalists and analyses of events could be found. Carl Rowan was once one of its aspiring young reporters, as were several of the journalism professors now at Howard University (James Tinney, Larry Still and Raymond Boone). It is now published in five cities.

Through its rather successful efforts to unbar the doors of discrimination in the employment market, the Afro eliminated itself as a competitor for top black journalists. The black press has been unable to compete with the white press in the offering of comparable salaries or in advertising, production and distribution sides of the business. But acknowledging this does not detract in any way from the Afro-American's place in history.

The Afro-American is still a family- operated newspaper. Carl Murphy's father, John H. Murphy Sr., a white- washer by trade who bought the paper at auction in 1893 for $200, often said that although he was a slave when he fought in the Civil War, he left it a sargeant and a free man. Carl Murphy, born in 1889, studied at Howard from 1907 to 1911, received a masters (cum laude) from Harvard in 1913 and returned to Howard to teach German until the death of his father in 1922. He then went home to run the family business.

Readers of the letters should delight in Murphy's candor and bluntness. In an exchange of correspondence with columnist Arthur Krock and New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Murphy expressed anger over Krock's telling President Truman in a New York Times interview: "You know intimately the conditions of the Negro race and the limitations of its capacity to fill certain kinds of employment." Murphy wrote them that "Limitations were not due to race and color, but to location and to economics." He accused Krock of race-baiting. Krock and Sulzberger did not let Murphy get away with this accusation, as future historians will find when they review the several letters that went back and forth between the three journalists.

The collection is filled with letters from black Republicans seeking Murphy's support for their programs and candidacies. Murphy would not support Taft, however, and said so emphatically, in a letter to Perry W. Howard, chairman of the Draft-Taft-for-President National Committee: "I am against Taft for president." He went on to explain why: "While Dewey was putting through the anti-discrimination law in New York, which has resulted in the employment of colored people in department stores and plants all over the state, Taft was still opposing any Fair Employment Practice Act which would compel employers to operate without discrimination."

The presence of W. E. B. DuBois in the collection is strong. He and Murphy were close associates and neighbors when DuBois lived in Baltimore, and Frances Murphy remembers the long morning walks the two took together (with her teetering on their heels).

The information in this collection offers more than a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes role of the black press, as chronicled by a man who had direct access to the public and its leaders over a period spanning eight presidents and three major wars, and who recorded (and had the good sense to keep), in thousands of private papers, the internal struggles of a nation not at rest with itself.