Murphy African-American Museum is a house with many stories
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) – Delicate lace curtains fall over each window of a two-story, olive green house on the corner of Paul W. Bryant Drive and Lurleen Wallace Boulevard. The curtains are whispers of the history encased in and around the Murphy-Collins House. But nestled inside, awaiting visitors, sits much more.
The historic bungalow structure is home to the Murphy African-American Museum. Inside its walls are exhibits that serve as visual narrations of the importance of African-Americans’ history and contributions to Tuscaloosa, the state and, on an even grander scale, society.
Emma Jean Melton, volunteer director and chairwoman of the board of management, helped spearhead efforts to reopen the museum in 1996 and eventually renovate the building to what visitors can see today.
“I sort of fell in love with this old house,” said Melton, a retired high school biology teacher who has worked with the museum for more than 20 years. “When I got here, it was in dire need of repair, and so we got a grant to restore it to its natural beauty, so to speak.”
The 2004 grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs was worth $50,000, and the restoration work earned Melton the Idella Childs Distinguished Service Award given by the Alabama Historical Commission’s Black Heritage Council.
“Here at the museum for the past 20 years has been a labor of love,” she said.
And it shows, in the exterior of the Murphy-Collins House and in the items inside.
The structure itself was built around 1923 by African-American contractors hired by Will J. Murphy and his wife, Laura B. Murphy. Bricks, beams, windowsills and other materials salvaged from the burned remnants of Alabama’s Capitol in Tuscaloosa – which now sit as the ruins in Capitol Park – were purchased by Will Murphy and used in the construction of the house.
The house was located in what became known as the “lace curtain community” or the “white curtain district” of Tuscaloosa, home to affluent black professionals in the area during the early 1900s, Melton said. At the time, it sat on a property that was a dividing line between the black-owned and white-owned properties during segregation.
Will Murphy was the first licensed black mortician and funeral director in Tuscaloosa and also a successful businessman. Laura B. Murphy was the principal at 20th Street Elementary School.
After the Murphys owned the house, it was sold to Sylvia Collins, who lived in the home for a time and rented it to the Phoenix House, a nonprofit for women, and later men, recovering from alcoholism.
Melton said Ruthie Pitts formed the organization Revealing a Heritage in 1985, which ultimately led to the foundation of the Murphy African-American Museum.
The city of Tuscaloosa purchased the house from Collins in 1986 in order to preserve it, and the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society leases it.
The Murphy-Collins House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Alabama as of 1993, is set up much as it was in its heyday. On the first floor, visitors will see a portrait of Will Murphy hanging above a large brick fireplace in the living area. There’s a period-piece cast-iron stove, along with cast-iron cooking utensils in a small room off the kitchen. A Victrola phonograph, a favorite of many visitors, is displayed in the dining area. It worked until recently – someone may have cranked it too vigorously during a tour, volunteer guide Evelyn Gardner suspects.
Many of the items exhibited in the museum were donated by members of the community, Melton said. Some bring back items from their travels to Africa to donate to the museum’s African Room, also on the first floor. Limpopo ceramic dishes from South Africa as well as a glass-top table displaying African beaded jewelry were donated by Dr. Ruby Perkins of Stillman College. Artifacts in the room include an Ikot Ekpene ceremonial mask and skirt, a dress from Ghana and a carved pumpkin gourd from West Africa.
The room also contains a vintage pump organ, made in 1904 and restored in 1995. The organ was donated by a couple with the stipulation that it be played once a year – and someone does come in to play it annually, Melton said, though it has been a challenge, at times, to find someone who knows how to play a pump organ.
On the second floor, museum visitors can step into Laura Murphy’s bedroom, where antique dolls and family photos are displayed. Two more rooms, formerly used as bedrooms for the family, now display science and history contributions African-Americans have made, including some of society’s integral everyday items, like traffic lights.
The museum highlights prominent figures from Tuscaloosa, including Dr. George Augustus Weaver, the first black doctor in the area. The Weaver-Bolden Library Branch is named in his honor. There’s a display on the Rev. Thomas Linton, a prominent civil rights leader. Sam S. May, a janitor at the University of Alabama before the school was integrated, studied science and did experiments during his free time on the job. Dinah Washington, a Grammy Award-winning jazz singer for whom downtown Tuscaloosa’s cultural arts center is named, is also highlighted. Even local sports icons, like former NFL star John Stallworth, Olympic Bronze medalist and world heavyweight boxer Deontay Wilder and Olympic gold medalist in track, Lillie Leatherwood, are all included in the displays.
“A lot of the history of African-Americans is not in the history books, and it’s not in the history as far as being taught in the schools,” Melton said. “You might have one or two when you get to certain areas, like George Washington Carver, but there were many more that made contributions that you don’t hear of. So we try to highlight some of those when (visitors) come.”
More than 1,700 people visited the Murphy African-American Museum from January 2017 to February 2018, according to the museum’s annual report. The museum hosts annual events, including a Black History Month program and special tours in February, the Black Heritage Tour of Tuscaloosa as well as the National Women’s History Month exhibit and program in March, and Diversity Day in April.
It will soon be featured as a stop on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, along with the historic First African Baptist Church, located about a block away from the museum and a major landmark in Bloody Tuesday, where a peaceful march against segregation at the courthouse turned violent as black marchers were tear-gassed, beaten and arrested.
“Most people are surprised by contributions from African-Americans they didn’t know about – some I did not know about until I started here at the museum,” Melton said. “So when they come in, we try to give them a history lesson and tell them about the importance of the museum and its role in the community.”