City’s black founding father
Deangelo McDaniel, Staff Writer
Minister, historian reconstructing life of ex-slave who became successful farmer
First in a two-part series
The Rev. Wylheme Ragland would like to spend one day with Robert Murphy.
So would local historian Peggy Allen Towns.
“Just one day,” Ragland said emphatically. “Just one day.”
Murphy, who died June 8, 1918, is one of Decatur’s black founding fathers, Towns and Ragland proclaim.
The former slave is buried in the Cowan section of Decatur City Cemetery and so are many of the secrets that would reveal the River City’s pre-Civil War and Reconstruction history.
Ragland, a United Methodist pastor at the church where Murphy was a trustee, and Towns are determined to reconstruct his life.
Doing so, they say, would fill significant gaps in Decatur’s history and dispel myths about the role of blacks and what happened here in 1864…
…But to understand and appreciate Murphy’s journey you have to go back to Virginia in 1795 when Mary, a slave, was born to the Kimble family.
Mary was his mother.
Traveling from Virginia through North Carolina, she arrived in the Tennessee Valley with the Kimble clan before 1820.
The slave-owning family purchased land in Trinity that extended to the Tennessee River.
In 1831, Murphy was born to Mary and his mother’s owner.
The Kimble family intermarried with the Murphys, who also owned a plantation on the Tennessee River. At some point before the Civil War, Mary and her son became the property of James Murphy
“Where was your home before and during the Civil War?” a government lawyer asked Murphy in 1906.
“About six miles from Decatur,” Murphy answered. “I belonged to James Murphy.”
As was the case for some mulatto (mixed-race) slaves, Murphy had extraordinary privileges for a slave, especially in 1864 when the Union Army fortified Decatur. He told the government he was able to travel between Decatur and Athens where his wife, Harriett, lived.
“My master did not care where I went so long as I did not go to be a soldier,” Murphy said in 1906…
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