The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era (Paperback)
In this outstanding cultural biography, the author of the New York Times bestseller A Slave in the White House chronicles a critical yet overlooked chapter in American history: the inspiring rise and calculated fall of the black elite, from Emancipation through Reconstruction to the Jim Crow Era—embodied in the experiences of an influential figure of the time, academic, entrepreneur, and political activist and black history pioneer Daniel Murray.
In the wake of the Civil War, Daniel Murray, born free and educated in Baltimore, was in the vanguard of Washington, D.C.’s black upper class. Appointed Assistant Librarian at the Library of Congress—at a time when government appointments were the most prestigious positions available for blacks—Murray became wealthy through his business as a construction contractor and married a college-educated socialite. The Murrays’ social circles included some of the first African-American U.S. Senators and Congressmen, and their children went to the best colleges—Harvard and Cornell.
Though Murray and other black elite of his time were primed to assimilate into the cultural fabric as Americans first and people of color second, their prospects were crushed by Jim Crow segregation and the capitulation to white supremacist groups by the government, which turned a blind eye to their unlawful—often murderous—acts. Elizabeth Dowling Taylor traces the rise, fall, and disillusionment of upper-class African Americans, revealing that they were a representation not of hypothetical achievement but what could be realized by African Americans through education and equal opportunities.
As she makes clear, these well-educated and wealthy elite were living proof that African Americans did not lack ability to fully participate in the social contract as white supremacists claimed, making their subsequent fall when Reconstruction was prematurely abandoned all the more tragic. Illuminating and powerful, her magnificent work brings to life a dark chapter of American history that too many Americans have yet to recognize.
About the Author
Elizabeth Dowling Taylor is the New York Times bestselling author of A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons. She received her PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, and over her twenty-two-year career in museum education and research has held the positions of director of interpretation at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and director of education at James Madison’s Montpelier. She is now an independent scholar and lecturer and a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville.
“This work reads like a sweeping epic. The level of detail and research sheds light on a period that is mostly forgotten, revealing much-needed insight into African Americans’ role and response in the shaping of American culture and politics… Essential.”
— Library Journal
“Historian Elizabeth Dowling Taylor brings insight to the rise and fall of America’s first educated black people.”
— Time magazine
“Taylor’s book could not be more timely.”
— Chicago Tribune
“A detailed (and, at times, moving) biography… Murray’s life underscores the fragility of the black elite.”
— Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The Original Black Elite is a compelling biography of Daniel Murray and the group the writer-scholar W.E.B. DuBois called ‘The Talented Tenth.’ In this work, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor deftly demonstrates how the struggle for racial equality has always been complicated by the thorny issue of class.”
— Patricia Bell-Scott, author of The Firebrand and the First Lady, which was longlisted for the National Book Award.
“Elizabeth Dowling Taylor’s riveting and timely story of black politicos and professionals—their joys and passions—blazing a trail of equity and excellence in the nation’s capital, reminds us all too prophetically how fragile racial progress has been in American history. In this new post-Obama era, The Original Black Elite is a cautionary tale that this “forgotten era” of the first black elite in the highest corridors of power and influence a century ago is not just about the passing of time and the loss of memory. It is about the need to vigilantly learn from the past, never forgetting black progress has always been met with resistance and erasure.”
— Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness
“Brilliantly researched...Taylor knows how to weave an emotional story of how race and class have long played a role in determining who succeeds and who fails.”
— New York Times Book Review