The recent antics in Charlottesville, Virginia ostensibly began as a protest of the impending removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, astride his horse. The demonstrators were enraged by this attack on their heritage. The South’s Confederate legacy was so important that it took nearly sixty years, until 1924, for them to get around to erecting this monument in its honor. Like most Civil War memorials, this one was built not during the postwar reconstruction, but during the time of Jim Crow laws, a sort of “in your face” to African-Americans whose few decades of civil rights were ending.
Daniel Murray was born in Baltimore in1852. His father was a freed slave; his mother a free black woman. At the time of his birth, Baltimore had the largest free Black population in the country. Baltimore and nearby Washington D.C. were islands of opportunity for free blacks. Careers in government service and Howard University attracted African-American civic leaders and intellectuals. With timing, connections and his ability to network – sound familiar? – with both whites and blacks, Murray built a successful business and government career. By 1899, he was Assistant Librarian, the second-highest position at the Library of Congress, working with Congress doing research for legislation. He was a member of the Washington Board of Trade, the only non-white on the advocacy group of businessmen. Murray’s wife, Anna Evans, was a black socialite who taught at local schools and attended Oberlin College. They owned a three-story brick home in D.C.
Thomas Rice, a white vaudeville performer, became famous in the 1830s for a song and dance he performed in blackface and wearing shabby clothes. He claimed his inspiration was a slave he had seen. He called the routine “Jump, Jim Crow.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 1877 that states could not prohibit segregation on streetcars, railroads, riverboats or other public transportation. That same year, federal troops were pulled out of the southern states. Reconstruction had ended. The Supreme Court promulgated its “separate but equal” doctrine in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case. (“Equal” had a different meaning in southern states.) A deluge of “Jim Crow” laws followed, peaking in the 1920s, coincided with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and a new need to put up Civil-War monuments. Confederate statuary reached a second peak in the fifties and sixties, a reaction to the escalating civil-rights movement.
After being inaugurated as president in 1913, Woodrow Wilson oversaw the segregation of federal offices, firing or demoting black employees and segregating facilities. Daniel Murray was one of those demoted and salary slashed. He was not allowed to eat in the Library’s public cafeteria. He died in 1925, in a segregated hospital and was buried in a segregated cemetery.
Read “The Original Black Elite” by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor.