Albertha Johnston Murray: The Life of a Local Public Intellectual

Murray-Lasaine Elementary School, Charleston County, South Carolina (Flickr)

Some of America’s most celebrated Black intellectuals—Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Ida B. Wells, Carter G. Woodson, and others—began their careers, in the inadequately funded classrooms of America’s racially segregated schools. Some of that can certainly be attributed to the limited professional opportunities for college-educated Black Americans, especially in the Jim Crow South. Yet Black schoolteachers often exemplified the life of a public intellectual. In their daily work, Black educators actively engaged in building and sharing knowledge. Through their schools, students, and organizational networks, they made knowledge accessible to their local communities.

South Carolinian Emily Albertha Johnston Murray spent nearly fifty years in education. Murray argued that a teacher should be “a genuine scholar.” Simply knowing one’s discipline was insufficient because “a teacher’s knowledge should be wider than the subject taught.” Like many Black women educators, she believed teaching was “the best way to learn yourself,” the “noblest profession,” and the “highest calling in the world.” For Murray, teaching was an intellectual pursuit because one could “make impressions on the mind and heart that last forever.”

One form of Murray’s public intellectualism was helping to mold the minds of future Black intellectuals. As principal of Cut Bridge Elementary School (later renamed Murray-LaSaine Elementary School) in 1959, Murray’s influence was exemplary. Two of her seven faculty members were former students, so were the school’s dietitian and janitor. Fifty percent of her students entered college and many of those who graduated later became doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. This included Thomas LaSaine, Jr., son of Dr. Mary Alice LaSaine, former Charleston County Supervisor of Negro Schools. Thomas LaSaine became the head of the preventative medicine department at Meharry Medical College—one of only four historically Black medical schools. Murray’s nephew was an instructor at Delaware State College; and a niece was the dean of guidance at a school in Jacksonville, Florida. And while some educators may have claimed that the quality of their students disintegrated over the years, Murray boasted “If anything, these children in my class now are easier to teach because they are children of parents I trained.”

Murray also strove to educate children and adults in Black communities around her. She did this work through the Black clubwomen’s network. Murray was active in the South Carolina Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, the National Council for Negro Women, and the Palmetto State Teachers Association. Being a clubwoman put her in constant contact with other well-known Black South Carolina schoolteachers such as Mamie Garvin Fields, who authored a memoir titled Lemon Swamp and Other Places, and Septima Clark, the well-known teacher, activist, and leader of the Citizenship Schools. While white southern clubwomen used their status to teach a narrative of American history rooted in the “Lost Cause” (a myth that romanticized the Old South and was sympathetic to the Confederacy) Black clubwomen like Murray, Fields, and Clark “negotiated an alternate understanding of African American, Southern, and American identities that belied stereotypes of inferiority.” For Black educators like Murray, being an intellectual was not merely performative, it was hard work because it fell on them to ensure Black children not only had access to an education, but sufficient educational facilities. For instance, during her time at Cut Bridge Elementary School Murray raised funds for the school to have electric lights installed. Even after her retirement, she continued to help the school raise funds.

Murray’s role as a public intellectual is further exemplified through her status as part of the Black elite—a status granted to her because she was a teacher and clubwoman. Indeed, education was essential for Black women who wanted to have a role in the public sphere. In fact, although they had varying levels of education—ranging from a high school or normal school diploma, to a four-year degree, to a master’s degree—many of the women in Murray’s social circle were educators, or the wives of educators.

Murray’s contemporaries affirmed, publicly and privately, her intellectual contributions to the community. In 1958, the Charleston chapter of The Links recognized Murray’s contributions by naming her the Woman of the Year for her 48 years as an educator, organizational work, and community engagement.  A few months later Septima Clark wrote to congratulate her “for having rounded out nearly a half century of teaching.” She knew that Murray enjoyed instructing generations of children, and watching them “develop and grow towards free men and women.”  In 1961 she was honored at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston for her “service in education, religious and civic affairs, and Gray Ladies service.” In 1966 WCSC Television awarded her with an “Outstanding Citizen” award. Perhaps she would find her posthumous memorialization in 2021 especially meaningful. Under the direction of a muralist, students at Murray-LaSaine Elementary School painted a mural that included portraits of both Albertha Johnston Murray and Mary Alice LaSaine on one of the school walls.

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Candace Cunningham

Candace Cunningham, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of History, and specializes in African American history, Women and Gender studies, and Public History. Her research is on the 20th century African American experience with a special emphasis on civil rights, education, gender, and the South. Her 2021 article, “‘Hell is Popping Here in South Carolina’: Orangeburg County Black Teachers and Their Community in the Immediate Post-Brown Era” was published in the History of Education Quarterly. She recently collaborated with the Boca Raton Museum of Art to conduct oral histories and write an essay that will accompany a photography exhibit on Pearl City, a Boca Raton’s oldest neighborhood, and its only historically black community. She is currently finishing her manuscript on Black teacher activists in the civil rights movement. You can follow her on Twitter @candace_n_c.

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