Sunday, December 4, 2022

A Christmas Party That Prevented a Split in the Church

Margaret Black (fl. 1895–1920)
From American Christmas Stories

The Murphy family, c. 1920. Martha (seated, at left) and her husband, John (seated, center), who purchased The Afro-American newspaper in 1897. (Afro-American Newspaper Archives, via Atlas Obscura.)

John H. Murphy, Sr., was a 56-year-old foreman in The Afro-American pressroom when the firm went under in July 1896. The Baltimore newspaper had gone through two changes of ownership since its establishment four years earlier, and the new parent corporation, the Northwestern Family Supply Company, raided the paper’s funds as it slid into bankruptcy. When The Afro-American’s equipment was auctioned the following March, Murphy borrowed $200 from his wife and became the latest owner. “The money came from the sale of a piece of land that Martha’s family had been enslaved on in Montgomery County, Maryland,” their great-great-granddaughter Savannah Wood recently explained. “They eventually came to own that land, and Martha sold her portion of it to invest in her husband’s business.” The family still owns and publishes the newspaper today.

One of the employees who stayed with the firm when Murphy bought the newspaper in 1897 was Margaret Black, who had been responsible for the “Women’s Column.” Black’s weekly article collated a variety of news about women’s clubs, religious events, lectures, temperance, and education, as well as recipes and wholesome activities for school vacations; some of the items were submitted by readers. The column disappeared when Murphy assumed ownership, but Black remained at the paper. In its 25th anniversary number, he named her as one of two employees who had “written regularly for twenty years,” which suggests she had been responsible for many of the unsigned pieces.

In December 1915, The Afro-American published, in two installments, “The Woman,” a Christmas story by Black. Then, in the last issue of the following month, she announced (under a resuscitated “Women’s Column” heading), “Dear friends: For the first time in many years, we are to have ‘A COLUMN’ all our own,” and she invited readers to send in community news and short articles. The reinstatement of the column may have been related to reorganization after the departure of the longtime editor, George Bragg, an Episcopal priest whose faith guided the paper’s tone and coverage for more than fifteen years. “Although the piety of Bragg and Murphy remained in the wake of Bragg’s departure,” writes historian Hayward Farrar, “The Afro-American adopted a sensationalist format in its news presentation.” Staff members featured more articles on crime and corruption and redesigned the layout to incorporate graphics, photos, and larger headlines. In the next five years, circulation increased from 7,500 to nearly 20,000.

In the latest incarnation of her column, Margaret Black returned to a topic she had examined twenty years earlier: “The New Woman,” that is, independent, middle-class Black women who were educated and active in the community and (as she wrote in 1896) “who deserve more than cursory notice.” With the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment on the horizon, her writing on this subject now included discussions of women’s suffrage. In August she attended the convention of the National Association of Colored Women, which held its 1916 meeting in Baltimore. The “spectacle” of a national gathering of women with “thoughts of bettering the race and planning for the good of the coming generation of children, was unheard of in olden times,” she wrote. Impressed by the appearance and confidence of the women she met, she added, “The modern woman or modern girl simply refuses to stay in the background; she knows how to manage a home, and she can attend the clubs, parties, or anything else she has a penchant for and be the sweet, lovable wife.”

Toward the end of 1916, Black published two works of fiction in the paper: a story for Thanksgiving, followed by “A Christmas Party That Prevented a Split in the Church.” The latter was rescued from oblivion in 1997 by historian Bettye Collier-Thomas, who included it in A Treasury of African American Christmas Stories. The setting is St. Michaels, a harbor village of about 1,500 inhabitants in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore; before the Civil War, the region boasted a significant free Black community that dated back to the 1780s, and many more African Americans settled there after emancipation. “Margaret Black has recorded the thoughts, words, deeds, and feelings of Black churchwomen as they struggled to give meaning and definition to their lives,” explains Collier-Thomas in her introduction. “At the center of this text is an African American and female consciousness rarely seen at this early date.”

Margaret Black’s column and short stories continued to appear under her name until early 1919. Other than minimal personal information gleaned from her articles, little is known about the woman who spent a quarter of a century writing for the nation’s most influential African American weekly newspaper.

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