Michael A. Fletcher, a former Washington Post reporter, is a senior writer with ESPN’s The Undefeated.
Anyone interested in learning more about the incalculable damage done to African Americans and, really, all of America in the decades following Reconstruction ought to read historian Elizabeth Dowling Taylor’s absorbing new book, “The Original Black Elite.”
The book peels back the life of Daniel Murray, a mainstay of the nation’s tiny black upper class in the late 19th century. His story illuminates an often-overlooked corner of history that resonates even today, in the era of Black Lives Matter and a new president who never seems to consider the continuing impact of the nation’s tortured racial history.
Murray was an assistant librarian at the Library of Congress, one of the very best jobs available to a black man in post-slavery America. He was also an entrepreneur, community leader, self-taught historian, bon vivant and socialite. Murray’s life offers a window into a little-known stratum of African Americans who parlayed the opportunities opened during Reconstruction into a comfortable lifestyle, social standing and, in more than a few cases, real prosperity.
Murray was born in Baltimore in 1851. Maryland was a slave state, but Baltimore was also home to the largest population of free blacks in the country. They typically were freed or escaped slaves, or mixed-race children of indentured servants. Ninety percent of black Baltimoreans were free. And Murray’s family was among them.
His world was one where the family pastor went on to be the founding president of Wilberforce University, the nation’s first black-owned and -operated college. He had private tutors with impeccable credentials and high-minded parents who not only expected him to rise in the world but also had the family connections to make that happen.
When Murray left home, it was not for some rooming house and dead-end job. Instead, he caught a train to Washington, where he moved in with his older half-sister, who owned a home within walking distance of the White House. A half-brother, Samuel Proctor, lived down the street and ran a well-established catering business whose client list once included President Abraham Lincoln.
By 1869, Murray was a waiter in a restaurant run by Proctor on the ground floor of the Capitol. It was called the Senate Saloon, and there Murray was able to make connections that led to better jobs and other opportunities.
It is astonishing to think that as Murray made his way in the world, the country was just out of slavery and beginning its brief experiment with Reconstruction. While most black people were dirt poor, neither Murray’s family nor his social circle was struggling; indeed, they enjoyed many of the perks of high society.
It was not unusual for their parties, weddings and church dedications to be covered admiringly in the white press. Occasionally, the events even included white guests. Murray joined integrated political clubs, and the segregated social clubs he frequented typically had black members who were similarly situated.
Theirs was an exclusive world inhabited mostly by blacks with light-toned skin. Nearly all the people in their social circle would pass a “brown paper bag test” — meaning their skin was no darker than a brown bag, once the standard for some exclusive black organizations. They would probably require the test, too. (Of course, there was the occasional dark-skinned interloper, such as the famed poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.) They rubbed shoulders with Reconstruction-era black politicians and their progeny, as well as leading African Americans of the day: Sen. Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Pinckney Pinchback, who served as governor of Louisiana. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and W.E.B. Du Bois also were in the mix.
They were all cultured and well-read in a nation where federal officials estimate that 70 percent of blacks and 10 percent of whites were illiterate as late as 1880. Their children went to the best schools, colleges included. Together, they formed what Taylor calls the “tiny tip” of the black social pyramid.
Many of them got there the same way almost every aristocrat did: by accident of birth. Like Murray, many were never enslaved and were the small-business people, preachers and entrepreneurs who occupied the top rung of black society before emancipation. Later, they and their children were in position to take advantage of the civil rights priviliges and educational opportunties that flowed during Reconstruction.
Murray and his crew may have been social elites and elitists, but they were concerned about the African Americans who lived at the bottom of the pyramid. Murray considered himself to be a pioneering authority on black history, even if he proved an undertrained one. He and his wife were public advocates for racial equality and worked in the forerunner to the NAACP.
It was said of Murray that he “enjoys the distinction of being one man of color on whom the ‘color line’ is very seldom drawn,” a feeling many members of the black elite shared in the hopeful days of Reconstruction.
Needless to say, that feeling did not last as Reconstruction was replaced by the creeping indignities and racial violence sparked by Jim Crow laws that followed. For much of black America, that era of racial retrenchment meant the slavery-like conditions of sharecropping, segregated living and mob violence at the hands of state-sanctioned racists. For Murray and his set, the impact was far more subtle but no less diabolical. He was demoted at his job at the Library of Congress and forced to endure salary cuts. The stated — not hidden — reason was that he was black. But Murray, like black America, persevered and fought back, until his death in 1925.
Jim Crow no doubt hindered the black elite, but it did not snuff them out. Even today, the remnants of that old guard can be found in their longtime hangouts, such as Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, and at their social clubs like Jack and Jill and the Boule. Still, the racial rollback came at a steep cost to their ideals, their sense of dignity and their belief in America.
It is a tale that Taylor, author of the acclaimed “A Slave in the White House,” tells in impressive detail. Her research adds flesh and blood to a chapter of history most often told in broad strokes or just plain glossed over. The many facts Taylor marshals in her compelling book are at times hard to keep straight, as she ducks down side streets from the main artery of the chronology of Murray’s life. But the book is well worth the effort it takes to keep up.
Murray often spoke of “the virus of race madness,” and Taylor’s work drives home in a personal way just how virulent it was, even to those best equipped to overcome it.
By Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
Amistad. 498 pp. $27.99