From the Papers: A pioneer of Black history, bibliography, and biography

February 16, 2021

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Portrait of Daniel A. P. Murray (1853–1925), circa 1880. Unknown photographer. Courtesy of Library of Congress; Daniel Alexander Payne Murray to Calvin A. Frye, December 23, 1885, 947.93.045; Murray, Daniel Alexander Payne, and Daniel Murray Collection. Murray’s Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia of the Colored Race Throughout the World: Its Progress and Achievements from the Earliest Period Down to the Present Time (Chicago: World’s Cyclopedia Co., 1912). 

Mary Baker Eddy and her secretaries corresponded routinely with the Library of Congress (LOC) regarding the copyright of her writings. Most of these letters that the Mary Baker Eddy Papers has been encountering in its annotation work were exchanged with Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who served as the 6th Librarian of Congress, from 1864 to 1897.

But one postal receipt included in this correspondence is notable, because it was from the assistant librarian, Daniel Alexander Payne Murrary (1852–1925). He was one of the first African Americans to work as a librarian at the Library of Congress. Murray joined the LOC staff in 1871, and by 1881 he had become an assistant librarian—a position he held for 41 years.

The receipt in the Library’s collection, which bears Murray’s signature, was postmarked on December 26, 1885, at Washington, D.C. It certified that the LOC had received a registered parcel sent by Calvin A. Frye, Eddy’s secretary. This parcel likely contained copies of the 16th edition of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, which was set to be published in February 1886. A major revision, this new edition combined the previous two-volume work into one volume, expanded the “Key to the Scriptures” section, and included an index for the first time. Copyright registration required that two copies be deposited with the LOC.1 The postal card was signed “D Murray” and sent back to Frye as proof of receipt.

In addition to his work at the LOC, Murray was active in prominent African American social circles in Washington, D.C., including membership in the elite Diamond Back Club.2 He was also active in politics, testifying before Congress on Jim Crow laws, and was twice a delegate at the Republican National Convention.

As a Black man, Murray obviously found Jim Crow impacting all areas of his life, including his many years at the LOC. At one point, because of his race, he was demoted and his salary was frozen for more than 25 years.3

Murray’s activism was intertwined with the unparalleled contributions he made to collecting African-American writing and other creative works. In 1899 he began to compile a collection of books and pamphlets by Black authors. Upon his death he bequeathed the collection to the LOC. The collection is known today as the Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection and is available as part of the African American Perspectives Collection. Texts in the collection argue for equality for African Americans and showcase Black thought and writing. They include “The progress of colored women;” “The Negro tried and triumphant, or, Thoughts stirred by race conflict;” and “The absolute equality of all men before the law, the only true basis of reconstruction.”

Murray also collected works by Black authors for an exhibition of “Negro Authors” at the 1900 Paris Exposition. This was a monumental task done as part of his work at the LOC, but one that he labored over both in and out of the office.

Murray’s most ambitious contribution was his uncompleted and self-published Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia of the Colored Race. This multi-volume set was intended to collect “25,000 biographical sketches of men and women of the colored race of every age” and to be “a bibliography of over 6,000 titles of books and pamphlets” by Black authors, listing many more works representing the contributions of African Americans. Although unfinished, this work, along with Murray’s many other bibliographic contributions, cemented his legacy as a pioneer of what would become known as Black history.4

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  1. Alexander Payne Murrary to Calvin A. Frye, 23 December 1885, IC947.93.045.
  2. Mary Maillard, ed., Whispers of Cruel Wrongs: The Correspondence of Louisa Jacobs and Her Circle, 1879–1911, (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017), 47.
  3. Elizabeth Downing Taylor, The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era (New York: Amistad, 2017), 6.
  4. Taylor, The Original Black Elite, 232.