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Collection African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection

Daniel Murray: A Collector's Legacy by John Y. Cole

A pioneering African American bibliographer and historian, Daniel Alexander Payne Murray spent 51 years (1871-1922) working at the Library of Congress, leaving a legacy of rare and important literary materials that document the lives and accomplishments of African Americans. He believed that "the true test of the progress of a people is to be found in their literature." An agent of change in a period when many African Americans were plagued by racial discrimination, unemployment, and poverty, he eventually bequeathed to the Library a unique collection of pamphlets and books about the contributions of African American writers and organizations working for political and social advancement. This collection, now in the Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division, is available online. In 1979, the Daniel A.P. Murray Association was formed at the Library to honor Murray for his exceptional service.

Daniel A. P. Murray (1853-1925). Photographer unknown. Photograph, undated.

Daniel Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 3, 1853, the youngest son of freed slave parents. As a young man, he moved to Washington to work for his brother who managed the Senate restaurant in the US Capitol, which was also then the site of the Library of Congress. The restaurant was located on the ground floor neat the Senate committee rooms, and in due course the 19-year-old Murray came to the attention of Senator Timothy Howe of Wisconsin, a member of the Joint Library Committee, and Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford.

Murray impressed both Howe and Spofford, and they arranged a part-time, minor position for him in the Library. His first day of work was January 1, 1871. In the crowded Library, which stretched across the entire projection of the west side of the Capitol's central section, he joined Spofford and a staff of eight assistant librarians, one messenger, and three laborers. The Library was open to Congress and the public daily, except Sundays, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. At the time, only members of Congress and the Supreme Court, the president, the vice president, cabinet secretaries, and certain other privileged officials could borrow material. Books were delivered to their offices and sometimes even directly to their homes.

Murray was not the only African American on the Library's staff. Jon F.N. Wilkinson, a native Washingtonian, was two decades Murray's senior. Wilkinson began working in the Law Library in 1857, and was rewarded with the Assistant Librarian title in 1872. He served as Murray's immediate model. The two of the made themselves proficient at what really mattered to Spofford: finding and delivering books rapidly. Urged by Spofford, whose own memory was legendary, Wilkinson and Murray each developed an infallible recall for books, titles, and locations, which made them indispensable as employees.

The 49-year-old Spofford, largely self-educated, was a bookseller, editorial writer, and abolitionist in his younger days in Cincinnati, Ohio. He also was a founder of the Cincinnati Literary Society. Enthusiasm, especially in one's work, was the quality he valued above all others. He decided to become Murray's mentor and made him his full-time personal assistant in 1874. He trained Murray in how to help congressmen in their research and encouraged his interest in reading, history, and the study of foreign languages. As an Assistant Librarian, Murray's annual salary was $1,000. Murray appreciated Spofford's patronage and friendship, describing him as "a man singularly free from the blight of color prejudice." Spofford's influence helped shape Murray's lifelong interest in "putting scholarship to the service of Negro protest and advancement."

In 1879, Daniel Murray married Anna Jane Evans, a Washington, DC, schoolteacher and graduate of Oberlin College and Howard University. During the course of their 46-year marriage, Daniel and Anna Murray raised seven children and aided each other in their careers as they became one of the wealthiest and most socially prominent African American families in Washington.

Widely recognized as an authority on African American culture and history, Daniel Murray also excelled in business as the owner and developer of several buildings in the city. In 1894, the Washington Board of Trade inducted him as its first African American member in recognition of his skillful drafting of a legislative proposal that secured federal expenditure and support for the municipal government of the District of Columbia. He and Anna also worked to advance educational opportunities for African Americans in District of Columbia public schools.

In the violent 1890s, African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Murray spearheaded projects designed to counter what they considered dangerous theories of black racial inferiority. While Booker T. Washington emphasized black advancements in the physical and social sciences and W.E.B. DuBois gained an international reputation as the intellectual leader of the African American community, Daniel Murray focused on black literary achievements.

A prolific writer and researcher, Murray authored numerous articles on black history and culture, published several reference bibliographies on black literature, and amassed thousands of biographical sketches, hundreds of books, pamphlets, and musical compositions, and even plot synopses of 500 novels, all for his planned, but never published, grand work, "Murray's Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia of the Colored Race." Drawing on his bibliographic efforts directed toward the Encyclopedia, in 1900—on behalf of the Library of Congress—he made a major contribution to the success of the American Negro Exhibit in the Hall of Social Economy at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris. In 1900, the Library of Congress published the eight-page Preliminary List of Books and Pamphlets by Negro Authors for Paris Exposition and Library of Congress by Daniel Murray. It was the Library's first bibliography of African American literature.

A self-educated, self-made man, Daniel Murray pursued his work with zeal and grace, ever mindful of his mission to dispel disparaging myths about black people and to stimulate greater public awareness and appreciation of African American culture and history.