Daniel Murray Papers, 1881-1955, 1966


Daniel Alexander Payne Murray, black bibliographer and historian, devoted twenty-five years of his life to a monumental project through which he hoped to make widely known the many accomplishments of blacks in all fields. Although his work, “Murray's Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia of the Colored Race...,” was never published, Murray amassed a voluminous collection of data and became widely recognized as an authority on black history, biography, and bibliography. He was born on March 3, 1852 in Baltimore, Maryland, the youngest son of a freed mulatto. Educated privately and at a Unitarian seminary, Murray went to Washington, D.C., at the age of nine to work for his brother, a caterer and manager of the United States Senate Restaurant.

Ten years later, on January 1, 1871, he joined the twelve-person staff of the Library of Congress as the personal assistant to the librarian, Ainsworth Rand Spofford. Murray's was a professional position, the second held by a black at the library. Spofford encouraged him to expand his education, especially in research techniques and modern languages, and promoted him to assistant librarian in 1881. As a member of the reference staff, Murray soon acquired a reputation for his prodigious and accurate memory.

In 1899 Spofford's successor, Herbert Putnam, asked Murray to compile a collection of books and pamphlets by black authors for a “Negro Literature” exhibit to be shown at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Murray soon published a preliminary list of 270 titles and appealed for information about additional works. By the time of the Paris Exposition, his list had expanded to eleven hundred titles, and continued to grow as the “Negro Literature” exhibit was subsequently displayed in several American cities before becoming the nucleus of the Library of Congress's “Colored Author Collection.”

As Murray's interest in black authors expanded to include black composers, inventors, artists, military and political leaders, and others, he developed the idea of assembling the data he was collecting in encyclopedic form. He made use of his exceptional opportunity for access to the research collections of the Library of Congress, and corresponded heavily with the subjects of his sketches and with others who were knowledgeable in the topics he planned to include in his encyclopedia.

Murray also corresponded with several publishers concerning his work, and in 1911 the World Cyclopedia Company announced that “Murray's Encyclopedia of the Colored Race” was complete and would be published during 1912 and 1913. It was intended to be a single authoritative source discussing the lives and accomplishments of blacks from the time of the Old Testament figure Hagar to the twentieth century as well as whites whose actions in some way affected the black race. There were to be over twenty-five thousand biographical sketches, titles of six thousand books and pamphlets and of five thousand musical compositions by blacks, and plot synopses of five hundred novels by white authors. The six-volume set was to sell, in monthly installments, for twenty-four dollars, but not enough subscribers came forward to enable publication.

Murray continued his research in the ensuing years and attempted unsuccessfully to interest several other publishers in his work. W. E. B. DuBois, who hoped to publish an “Encyclopedia Africana” of his own, was aware of Murray's work, having been invited in 1910 to serve as one of Murray's associate editors. In 1922, weeks before Murray's retirement from the Library of Congress, DuBois urged him to consider publishing parts of the encyclopedia in The Crisis, but Murray refused, preferring to leave his work to be published in its entirety by his sons.

In 1879 Murray had married Anna Jane Evans, a teacher educated at Oberlin College and Howard University and a niece of two of John Brown's five black recruits in the Harper's Ferry raid of 1859. The Murrays, who had seven children, were prominent in Washington social and civic life and were one of the wealthiest black families in the city. Murray, who was noted for his business acumen, constructed and owned many buildings in the Washington, D.C., area.

Murray was widely acknowledged as an authority, not only on black history and literature, but also on current political issues affecting his race. In recognition of his role in drafting the 1894 proposal which determined the share of federal support given the District of Columbia municipal government, the Washington Board of Trade made Murray its first black member. He served as the black representative on the committee which escorted Spanish-American War hero Admiral George Dewey from New York City to Washington, D.C., in September, 1899. In 1902 Murray testified before two subcommittees of the United States House about “Jim Crow” passenger cars and about the migration of blacks from rural to urban areas. He was an officer of the Colored American Council and of the committee responsible for black visitors during four presidential inaugurations, twice a delegate to the Republican National Convention, and a member of many other committees, councils, and organizations.

Murray was a prolific writer and a frequent contributor to black journals, especially The Voice of the Negro (1904-1907). In a 1904 article in that publication, “The Industrial Problem in the United States and the Negro's Relation to It,” he proposed that Southern blacks observe a semi-fast, avoid all labor, and pray for ten days following a lynching; the article aroused nationwide controversy among Afro-Americans. In recognition of his contributions to historical research, Wilberforce University awarded Murray an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1915.

On December 31, 1925, exactly three years after his retirement, Daniel Murray died, his encyclopedia still unpublished. His personal library of works by blacks, including 1,448 volumes and pamphlets, fourteen broadsides, and one map, was bequeathed to the Library of Congress, which later shared some of this material with the library of Howard University.