An old suitcase turned out to preserve one of Laura Murphy’s biggest treasures. She now safely guards a dozen letters between her great-grandparents written six years after the end of the Civil War. (Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

One hundred and forty-four years after they were written, the civil rights advocate found the letters in the bottom of an old suitcase, stacked in thin envelopes and tied together by a faded, baby-blue ribbon.

Somebody had preserved them with such care. Laura W. Murphy opened a letter, looked at the date and gasped.

“Who has anything [written] from 1871 in their possession?” she thought.

The handwriting was exquisite, penned by her great-grandfather in ink that flowed from a quill. In all, there were 12 letters, capturing a courtship between a black man and a black woman six years after the end of the Civil War.

“My dear Mary,” James Hughes wrote in a letter dated July 18, 1871. “I shall employ no compliment neither shall I insult your good name by idle promises but should you accept me as your protector through life all my activity will be to promote your happiness and return passion of your heart. You have known me long enough to be a judge of my character and disposition and perhaps my circumstances also in life. I shall therefore content myself with this: making you an offer of my heart and my hand.”

His happiness, he explained, depended on her reply. He signed it, “Your ever affectionate and faithful friend, James Hughes.”

The letters were exchanged by Hughes and Mary Rebecca Lee, who lived not far from each other in Baltimore.

They were courting in the middle of Reconstruction — a period chronicled in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens Sept. 24. In 1871, Ulysses S. Grant was president, much of the South was in ruins from the Civil War and the country’s nearly 4 million emancipated slaves were adjusting to freedom.

The letters were passed down from generation to generation, landing in the possession of Murphy, a great-granddaughter of James and Mary Hughes.

Murphy, 60, hails from a prominent Maryland family. She became the first woman and first African American to serve as the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office. Her brother, Billy Murphy, is the lawyer for the family of Freddie Gray, whose death in Baltimore police custody sparked riots last year.

Her father was a state district court judge. Her mother was a local television personality and penned a column in the Afro-American newspaper, which was founded by another Murphy ancestor. The Murphys can trace their lineage back seven generations to a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Philip Livingston. Laura Murphy is named after her great-aunt, artist Laura Wheeler Waring, whose oil painting, “Girl in Red Dress,” will be featured at the new museum.

Laura W. Murphy reads through letters between her great-grandparents, Mary Rebecca Lee and James W. Hughes, which were exchanged during Reconstruction. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

In 1997, Murphy received a suitcase stuffed with old photos and other memorabilia from her father’s first cousin. But she didn’t sort through all the contents and discover the letters until last year.

As soon as she read them, she was enthralled by the courtship between her paternal great-grandparents.

“They are not easy to read, but they are so romantic,” she said. “In those hard, oppressive conditions for African Americans, it was unusual for black people to be so learned and to have the education to write so well when it was illegal for black people to be educated.

“James Hughes especially showed a mastery of the English language, and his cursive writing was beautiful.”

Murphy said she isn’t sure whether James or Mary were born into slavery, nor has she been able to determine how they met. They were married in January of 1873. Mary was 25, and James was 24.

The couple had five daughters and established a successful Baltimore business, Hughes Catering, that lasted 74 years. They amassed so much wealth that when James died in 1921, he left each of his daughters $20,000.

In Murphy’s home in Northwest Washington, she is surrounded by reminders of her great-grandparents — carved chairs that belonged to them, a porcelain punch bowl with gold inlay, pieces of crystal and silver from their catering company.

But the letters are especially precious, she said, because they are so intimate and, at times, tender. For her, they represent the strength and endurance of her family during a very tumultuous and hostile period of American history for African Americans.

Envelopes addressed to James W. Hughes from his future wife are held by their great granddaughter Laura W. Murphy. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Most of the letters were written in 1872, and by the end of that year, the couple had gotten engaged — although it’s not clear from the correspondence when that happened:

“November 14, 1872

Dear James:

I write to inform you of the receipt of your kind and welcome letter, I am glad to hear you are having such a busy good time. I wish I could say as much. I have received answer to my letter from my father and you can form some idea of the happiness it gave me. It is a very affectionate letter and a very long letter. . . I mentioned our wonderful intended marriage and I will tell you all he said when I see you again . . . Please excuse this bad writing for I have been busy all day and do not feel like writing.

I have no more to say at present and will love and remain yours sincerely,


“November 21, 1872

My Dear Mary

I cannot let the opportunity pass of writing to one who is [more] dear to me than any other object on earth. And trust we will one day not be very far distant. And you “will be my earthly consolation and companion . . .

I hope that this letter will reach you in time so that I may read an answer this week. I must close as it is getting very late. Good night. Pleasant dreams and dream of me.

Yours love truly,


About this series

This story is part of an occasional series on people connected to the figures or events featured in the Smithsonian’s new African American Museum of History and Culture, which opens Sept. 24.