African-American author, lecturer, and civil rights activist; first author to publish a book on African-American art. Freeman Henry Morris Murray was born in 1859 in Cleveland, Ohio to John M. Murray (d. 1862), a tailor, and Martha [Mary] Bentley (Murray). Murray’s ethnic background was diverse; his father was a white man of Scottish descent and his mother had Irish, Native American, and African roots. By age two, Murray had lost both of his parents - his abolitionist father was killed fighting for the Union Army at Bull Run Ridge and his mother died of influenza - so he and his older brother were raised by their maternal grandparents. Murray completed his primary education in Cincinnati and attended Mount Pleasant Academy as one of only three African-American students. After graduating in 1875 with a teaching degree, Murray became a teacher in Covington, Kentucky at a school for impoverished African-American children. He also became an apprentice journalist for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Through his early work as a journalist, he learned the value of the news industry as a means to disseminate social and political messages.
In 1883, Murray married Laura Hamilton. By the following year, he passed a civil service examination, moved to Alexandria, Virginia, and started his tenure as a clerk for the War Department. At this point in his life, Murray devoted himself to civil rights activism. According to journals, Murray converted his Alexandria residence into a “safe house” where he provided refuge for fugitives from Southern lynchings (Hills). He also joined forces with prominent civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois to combat Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist ideology. In 1905, he and Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement in New York, which became the United States’s first civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Murray edited the organization’s journal, the Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line.
As early as 1904, he started an independent study called “Black Folk in Art,” which he delivered as a series of lectures at the Chautauqua National Religious Training School (now North Carolina Central University). The lectures had an intense focus on the representation of African-American people in Western art. He scrutinized painters such as John Trumbull (1756-1843), Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), Winslow Homer (1836-1910), William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), and sculptors such as Augustus Saint Gaudens (1848-1907) during parts of the lecture series for their portrayal of African-American art subjects.
In 1916, Murray published Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation, the first book on the treatment of African-American art history. Murray’s primary motivation for publishing the book came in response to a volume issued by the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Hills). The volume, The Negro’s Progress in Fifty Years, by W.E.B. Dubois honored the Jubilee Year of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Disappointed in the volume’s coverage of African-American contributions to the field of art history in “The Negro in Literature and Art,” Murray pursued a more robust study of the subject that he estimated would span several monographs (Hills). Once he published Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation, he traveled around the United States lecturing to small churches and community gatherings, both white and African-American audiences, about what he had found in his research.
Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation asks pointed questions to the reader, emphasizing the cultural significance of the artistic representations of African-Americans and encouraging the reader to critically reflect on imagery and the corresponding impressions it makes on the viewer (Powell). Throughout the book, Murray critiqued a wide range of sculptures with African-American art subjects and challenged the writings of several early American art scholars, including Henry Theodore Tuckerman, James Jackson Jarves, Lorado Taft, and Charles H. Caffin. An overarching theme of the book is “sculpture’s capacity to communicate the social consciousness and political status of its black subjects” through the specific form the piece takes (Powell). The book was the first example in art history of a specific focus on racial representation (Hills). It was “surprisingly ahead of its time and even visionary in terms of articulating what decades later would be… critical analyses of the probative function and social impact of art” (Powell). The art historian Albert Boime referred to Murray’s book as “‘one of the most remarkable and idiosyncratic texts of art criticism in the modern epoch’” and described him as a progressive “‘Foucauldian critical theorist’” (Powell).
Murray refused to separate art and the socio-political context in which it was created (Smalls). Whereas other art historians of the time placed great emphasis on a piece’s adherence to formal conventions, Murray evaluated the “interpretive malleability” of the work (Smalls). The best application of this “interpretive malleability” concept came in his critique of Thomas Ball’s (1819-1911) statue Emancipation Group. He argued the monument ignored the role that African-Americans played in their own emancipation and glorified the concept of white benevolence and bestowal (Smalls). Murray’s discontent with Ball’s statue was yet another example of his continuous artistic battle with the idea of the representation African-American art subjects.
Murray was not only concerned with what was present in the depictions of African-Americans, but strongly believed “what is elided, covered up, dismissed, or degraded is quite often conscious and insidious disparagement in the service of race and class hegemony” (Hills). His critique of demeaning representations and celebration of accurate depictions of the African-American experience were his contributions to the field of African-American art history (Hills). His willingness to “write an art history that was directed to black audiences” and publication of Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation has earned him the status of “a pioneering American art scholar - the first African-American to hold this distinction” (Powell). Murray’s legacy is also shaped by what he did as a civil rights activist, both his work in the Niagara Movement and the brave actions he took to protect African-Americans from lynchings (Hackley-Lambert).
- Murray, Freeman Henry Morris. Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation. Washington, D.C.: Murray Brothers, 1916.
- Hackley-Lambert, Anita. F. H.M. Murray: First Biography of a Forgotten Pioneer for Civil Justice. Fort Washington, MD: HLE Pub., 1997;
- Jones, Angela. African American Civil Rights: Early Activism and the Niagara Movement. Westport: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011;
- Powell, Richard. “Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture by Freeman Henry Morris Murray” (Book Review) The Art Bulletin 2013, vol. 95, no. 4, pp. 646-649;
- Hills, Patricia. “‘History Must Restore What Slavery Took Away.’” in Ed. Chambers, Eddie. The Routledge Companion to African American Art History. New York, NY : Routledge, 2020;
- Smalls, James. “Freeman Murray and the Art of Social Justice.” in Parfait, Claire and Le Dantec-Lowry, Hélène and Bourhis-Mariotti, Claire, eds. Writing history from the margins : African Americans and the Quest for Freedom. New York, NY : Routledge, 2017;
- Ater, Renée, “Slavery and Its Memory in Public Monuments.” American Art Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 20-23 https://www-journals-uchicago-edu.proxy.lib.duke.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/652738
- Powell, Richard J. Black Art: A Cultural History. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2002.