A brief, golden mo­ment for up­per-crust black Amer­i­cans

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY MICHAEL A. FLETCHER Michael A. Fletcher, a for­mer Wash­ing­ton Post reporter, is a se­nior writer with ESPN’s the Un­de­feated.

Any­one in­ter­ested in learning more about the in­cal­cu­la­ble dam­age done to African Amer­i­cans and, really, all of Amer­ica in the decades fol­low­ing Re­con­struc­tion ought to read his­to­rian El­iz­a­beth Dowl­ing Tay­lor’s ab­sorb­ing new book, “The Orig­i­nal Black Elite.”

The book peels back the life of Daniel Mur­ray, a main­stay of the na­tion’s tiny black up­per class in the late 19th cen­tury. His story il­lu­mi­nates an of­ten-over­looked cor­ner of his­tory that res­onates even to­day, in the era of Black Lives Mat­ter and a new pres­i­dent who never seems to con­sider the con­tin­u­ing im­pact of the na­tion’s tor­tured racial his­tory.

Mur­ray was an as­sis­tant li­brar­ian at the Li­brary of Congress, one of the very best jobs avail­able to a black man in post-slav­ery Amer­ica. He was also an en­tre­pre­neur, com­mu­nity leader, self-taught his­to­rian, bon vi­vant and so­cialite. Mur­ray’s life of­fers a win­dow into a lit­tle-known stra­tum of African Amer­i­cans who par­layed the op­por­tu­ni­ties opened dur­ing Re­con­struc­tion into a com­fort­able life­style, so­cial stand­ing and, in more than a few cases, real pros­per­ity.

Mur­ray was born in Bal­ti­more in 1851. Mary­land was a slave state, but Bal­ti­more was also home to the largest pop­u­la­tion of free blacks in the coun­try. They typ­i­cally were freed or es­caped slaves, or mixed-race chil­dren of in­den­tured ser­vants. Ninety per­cent of black Bal­ti­more­ans were free. And Mur­ray’s family was among them.

His world was one where the family pas­tor went on to be the found­ing pres­i­dent of Wil­ber­force Uni­ver­sity, the na­tion’s first black-owned and -op­er­ated col­lege. He had pri­vate tu­tors with im­pec­ca­ble cre­den­tials and high-minded par­ents who not only ex­pected him to rise in the world but also had the family con­nec­tions to make that hap­pen.

When Mur­ray left home, it was not for some room­ing house and dead-end job. In­stead, he caught a train to Wash­ing­ton, where he moved in with his older half-sis­ter, who owned a home within walk­ing dis­tance of the White House. A half-brother, Sa­muel Proc­tor, lived down the street and ran a well-es­tab­lished cater­ing busi­ness whose client list once in­cluded Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln.

By 1869, Mur­ray was a waiter in a restau­rant run by Proc­tor on the ground floor of the Capi­tol. It was called the Se­nate Sa­loon, and there Mur­ray was able to make con­nec­tions that led to bet­ter jobs and other op­por­tu­ni­ties.

It is as­ton­ish­ing to think that as Mur­ray made his way in the world, the coun­try was just out of slav­ery and beginning its brief ex­per­i­ment with Re­con­struc­tion. While most black peo­ple were dirt poor, nei­ther Mur­ray’s family nor his so­cial cir­cle was strug­gling; in­deed, they en­joyed many of the perks of high so­ci­ety.

It was not un­usual for their par­ties, wed­dings and church ded­i­ca­tions to be cov­ered ad­mir­ingly in the white press. Oc­ca­sion­ally, the events even in­cluded white guests. Mur­ray joined in­te­grated po­lit­i­cal clubs, and the seg­re­gated so­cial clubs he fre­quented typ­i­cally had black mem­bers who were sim­i­larly sit­u­ated.

Theirs was an ex­clu­sive world in­hab­ited mostly by blacks with light-toned skin. Nearly all the peo­ple in their so­cial cir­cle would pass a “brown pa­per bag test” — mean­ing their skin was no darker than a brown bag, once the stan­dard for some ex­clu­sive black or­ga­ni­za­tions. They would prob­a­bly re­quire the test, too. (Of course, there was the oc­ca­sional dark­skinned in­ter­loper, such as the famed poet Paul Lau­rence Dun­bar.) They rubbed shoul­ders with Re­con­struc­tion-era black politi­cians and their prog­eny, as well as lead­ing African Amer­i­cans of the day: Sen. Hi­ram Rev­els of Mis­sis­sippi and Pinck­ney Pinch­back, who served as gover­nor of Louisiana. Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, Har­riet Tub­man and W.E.B. Du Bois also were in the mix.

They were all cul­tured and well-read in a na­tion where fed­eral of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that 70 per­cent of blacks and 10 per­cent of whites were il­lit­er­ate as late as 1880. Their chil­dren went to the best schools, colleges in­cluded. To­gether, they formed what Tay­lor calls the “tiny tip” of the black so­cial pyramid.

Many of them got there the same way al­most ev­ery aris­to­crat did: by ac­ci­dent of birth. Like Mur­ray, many were never en­slaved and were the small-busi­ness peo­ple, preach­ers and en­trepreneurs who oc­cu­pied the top rung of black so­ci­ety be­fore eman­ci­pa­tion. Later, they and their chil­dren were in po­si­tion to take ad­van­tage of the civil rights priv­iliges and ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tun­ties that flowed dur­ing Re­con­struc­tion.

Mur­ray and his crew may have been so­cial elites and elit­ists, but they were con­cerned about the African Amer­i­cans who lived at the bot­tom of the pyramid. Mur­ray con­sid­ered him­self to be a pi­o­neer­ing author­ity on black his­tory, even if he proved an un­der­trained one. He and his wife were pub­lic ad­vo­cates for racial equal­ity and worked in the fore­run­ner to the NAACP.

It was said of Mur­ray that he “en­joys the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing one man of color on whom the ‘color line’ is very sel­dom drawn,” a feel­ing many mem­bers of the black elite shared in the hope­ful days of Re­con­struc­tion.

Need­less to say, that feel­ing did not last as Re­con­struc­tion was re­placed by the creep­ing in­dig­ni­ties and racial vi­o­lence sparked by Jim Crow laws that fol­lowed. For much of black Amer­ica, that era of racial re­trench­ment meant the slav­ery-like con­di­tions of share­crop­ping, seg­re­gated liv­ing and mob vi­o­lence at the hands of state-sanc­tioned racists. For Mur­ray and his set, the im­pact was far more sub­tle but no less di­a­bol­i­cal. He was de­moted at his job at the Li­brary of Congress and forced to en­dure salary cuts. The stated — not hid­den — rea­son was that he was black. But Mur­ray, like black Amer­ica, per­se­vered and fought back, un­til his death in 1925.

Jim Crow no doubt hin­dered the black elite, but it did not snuff them out. Even to­day, the rem­nants of that old guard can be found in their long­time hang­outs, such as Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vine­yard, and at their so­cial clubs like Jack and Jill and the Boule. Still, the racial roll­back came at a steep cost to their ideals, their sense of dig­nity and their be­lief in Amer­ica.

It is a tale that Tay­lor, author of the ac­claimed “A Slave in the White House,” tells in im­pres­sive de­tail. Her re­search adds flesh and blood to a chap­ter of his­tory most of­ten told in broad strokes or just plain glossed over. The many facts Tay­lor mar­shals in her com­pelling book are at times hard to keep straight, as she ducks down side streets from the main artery of the chronol­ogy of Mur­ray’s life. But the book is well worth the ef­fort it takes to keep up.

Mur­ray of­ten spoke of “the virus of race mad­ness,” and Tay­lor’s work drives home in a per­sonal way just how vir­u­lent it was, even to those best equipped to over­come it.

THE ORIG­I­NAL BLACK ELITE Daniel Mur­ray and the Story of a For­got­ten Era By El­iz­a­beth Dowl­ing Tay­lor Amis­tad. 498 pp. $27.99

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