Elizabeth Murphy Oliver Abney, 85, editor

August 18, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Elizabeth Murphy Oliver Abney, former city editor and columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American, died of emphysema Aug. 11 at the home of her daughter in Honolulu. She was 85.

Miss Oliver, who used her maiden name professionally, had lived for many years at Two Charles Center before she moved to Hawaii this year.

In 1941, she joined the Afro, the newspaper that had been founded by her grandfather John H. Murphy Sr. in 1892. She retired in 1983 after working as a reporter, city editor and columnist.

"She was one of the star performers at the Afro for a long time, and she was an extremely prolific writer," said John H. Murphy III, retired publisher of the Afro-American Newspapers.

John J. Oliver Jr., publisher and chairman of the newspapers, said, "Together with Bettye Murphy Moss, she set the standards for the Afro from the 1950s through the 1970s. She was committed to the mission of the black press."

Mrs. Moss, who had been an Afro editor, vice president and publisher, died last year.

"For over 30 years, there hasn't been a reporter on the paper that wasn't touched by Miss Oliver. She cared deeply about the newspaper and wasn't the least bit hesitant when it came time to give her opinions," Mr. Oliver said.

A small woman who scarcely stood 5 feet tall and who favored hats and gloves, Miss Oliver was indefatigable about getting a story, or in her role as a newsroom teacher.

"Miss Oliver was a hard taskmaster, but one got a sound education in journalism because of her," said Paul Evans, a former Afro reporter and editor. "She was the consummate newspaper person. She was really gutsy and determined. She always wanted to get to the guts of the matter and would urge us to get all the details. She wanted it all."

He recalled Miss Oliver's enthusiasm and calls to Mrs. Moss.

"She'd say, `Hold the front page .I've got the big story. We're going to sell out today,'" Mr. Evans said.

During the civil rights era, Miss Oliver toured the South reporting on the Rev. Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders and the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

She covered the historic 1963 March on Washington and the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park demonstrations in Baltimore.

"She always felt that the civil rights movement gave the Afro definition, and that dated to the 1920s when the paper began agitating for an end to segregation. She had a ready smile, invincible grace and charm, that belied her legendary unconquerable toughness. Her spirit was so commanding and her words were so powerfully persuasive," said her daughter, Marsha R. Joyner.

According to her daughter, she counted as friends Dr. King and other notables from that era -- Jesse Jackson, Lillie Mae Jackson, Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Clarence M. Mitchell Jr.

In Miss Oliver's apartment, framed photographs of notable people, many of whom she had interviewed or known, lined the walls.

She was named a "Living Legend" by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, to which her family plans to donate her extensive collection of documents and pictures.

Born in Brazil, Ind. -- her father was born a slave in Virginia and became a physician -- Miss Oliver earned a bachelor's degree in romance languages from Fisk University, a master's degree in education from Indiana State University and a doctorate in journalism from Virginia Union University.

She received 91 awards in recognition of her work on behalf of the African-American community in Baltimore and Maryland and was awarded the "Black Marylander of Distinction Award."

She had been a commissioner of the Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture, as well as a member of the Association for Study of Afro-American History.

She was the author of "The Black Mother Goose," a book illustrated by Baltimore artist Aaron Sopher. At the time of her death, she was writing a history of the Murphy and Oliver families.

Her marriages to Marshall Hood and Reid Abney ended in divorce.

Plans for a memorial service were incomplete.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a brother, John Oliver of Cape May, N.J.; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 8/18/99

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