When discussing civil and human rights leaders of the past, names such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells and Mary McLeod Bethune often come up in conversation and are the subject of programs, documentaries and books.
However, writer Anita Hackley-Lambert recently penned a book about her great-grandfather Freeman Henry Morris Murray, who conducted his civil rights activities, entrepreneurial pursuits, and artistic projects largely out of Alexandria, Virginia.
Murray was a colleague of some of the nation’s leading African American leaders in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries but hasn’t received the notoriety that they have had. Hackley-Lambert’s book, “F.H.M. Murray: First Biography of a Forgotten Pioneer For Civil Justice,” talks about the life and contributions of this Alexandrian.
“This book is the first biography ever written about Murray, who crossed the color line during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to play an important role in the advancement of what he called his ‘beloved African American race,’” writes Hackley-Lambert, 76, in the book’s Preface. “This epic saga is a historical unveiling of an orphan toddler’s struggle and journey through extreme racism and rejection that began with a family race war, which started before he was born and lasted through his lifetime.”
Lambert said her mother, Florence Luckett Hackley, unofficially sanctioned her to write a book about her noted ancestor.
Highlights of Murray‘s Life
Murray was born September 22, 1859, in Cleveland, Ohio to a white man of Scottish descent, John M. Murray, and a Black woman, Martha Bentley. When his father died, his mother moved the family to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Murray attended Mount Pleasant Academy to train to be an educator, graduating in 1875.
Bentley’s father, Daniel, ran a whitewashing and painting business and secretly ran an operation known as the “Underground Railroad” before and after slavery to help Blacks escape from oppression to better opportunities.
“One of the reasons why I think my great grandfather did not reach prominence had to do with the Underground Railroad,” Hackley-Lambert said. “If it were known that Freeman Murray was part of the Underground Railroad, he and his family would have been hanged.”
In 1883, Murray married Laura Hamilton with the union producing five children. The next year, Murray passed the civil service exam in Ohio and moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where he was appointed to a position in the Pension Division of the War Department. The appointment made him the first Black person from Ohio to be appointed to a federal position. He moved to Alexandria and started a real estate business and continued the Underground Railroad activities. He eventually started a business, Murray Brothers Printers and Publishing Company.
Murray got involved in the Niagara Movement in 1906, which was founded to improve the political and economic positions of Black people. The Niagara Movement, with scholar W.E.B. DuBois as a primary leader, was the forerunner of the NAACP.
In addition to DuBois, Murray interacted with Douglass, becoming the caretaker of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Cemetery in the District, and other notables such as editors Ida B. Wells and William Monroe Trotter.
Murray also edited a social and political publication, Horizon.
He became a foe of famed Tuskegee Institute principal Booker T. Washington, so much so that Hackley-Lambert writes “the outspoken and bold Murray…became targets of Washington and his supporters for at least the next six years.”
“The anti-Niagarites [Washington supporters] were serious about silencing and stopping these two men [the other was Lafayette M. Hershaw] in particular,” she said. “They even took their fight to the top, to the President of the United States.”
Hackley-Lambert explains in the book that a Washington supporter, Charles W. Anderson, asked President Theodore Roosevelt to fire Murray and Hershaw, but was rebuffed.
Murray edited and managed newspapers such as the Home News and the Washington Tribune. He became the Washington correspondent for the Boston Guardian as well as other Black newspapers and journals.
In 1916, he wrote a book, “Emancipation and the Freed American in Sculpture,” which discusses Black Americans and their role in sculpture. Hackley-Lambert said the book advocated Black emancipation and liberation in sculpture instead of focusing on heroes and great battles.
Murray knew five languages and played a role in the development of U Street in the District as a business and entertainment mecca. He died on February 20, 1950.
Remembering Murrary and His Legacy
Hackley-Lambert said Murray was spiritually gifted and talented and self-motivated.
She said no markers exist in Alexandria honoring Murray, but plans are in the works for a street to be named in his honor and both of his house sites to be noted by historical markers.