Washington Murray, George

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George Washington Murray

Born September 24, 1853 (Sumpter County, South Carolina)

Died April 21, 1926 (Chicago, Illinois)




George Washington Murray was an inventor, educator, and politician in late nineteenth-century America. Born into slavery, he rose to prominence as one of the first African Americans to serve in Congress. He farmed for several years in South Carolina and invented a number of farm tools in the 1890s.

Patents and politics

Murray was born in September 1853, in Sumpter County, South Carolina. He spent his early years in slavery on a plantation in Rembert and was nine years old when the historic Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in the Southern states during the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery). By then his parents had either been sold off to other owners or died, and he was an orphan. He had no formal schooling but entered South Carolina University in 1874. He studied there for two years until a new rule segregated the school and its black students were forced to leave.

Murray earned his undergraduate degree from the State Normal Institute in Columbia, South Carolina. For a time he taught school while also supporting himself as a farmer. He was active as a lecturer for the Colored Farmers Alliance, a separate chapter of the nationwide Farmers' Alliance. The Alliance was a political organization formed in 1876 that worked to improve the often difficult economic situation of farmers in the United States. Though the black farmers' chapter to which Murray belonged met separately, the Farmers' Alliance was, for a time, the only biracial group in the American South.

Murray's first three patents (legal documents that gave an inventor the exclusive right to produce his invention for a certain number of years) for farm tools were all granted on the same day in April 1894. His inventions were a direct result of his own experience as a farmer, and efforts to lessen some of the hard labor involved. They were for a furrow opener, a stalk-knocker-cultivator, and a marker, each of which was designed to speed the planting and harvesting process. The U.S. Patent Office approved his applications for four more devices in June of that year. These included a fertilizer distributor and a cotton chopper.

Murray's career as an inventor was secondary to his political achievements. He was active in the Republican Party, which had been formed several decades earlier in opposition to slavery, and in 1888 he was named chair of the party in Sumpter County. He ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1890 but lost. His efforts brought him to the attention of the White House, however, and U.S. president Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901; served 1889–93) appointed him customs inspector for the Port of Charleston, South Carolina.

In 1892 Murray won the South Carolina congressional race and went to Washington to take his seat in the U.S. House. He had won the election due to his successful challenge of a local law designed to discourage blacks from voting. He was reelected for a second term and was the sole African American representative in the Fifty-third Congress between 1893 and 1895. He spent much of his Washington career fighting to preserve the few rights that African Americans had managed to keep since the end of the Reconstruction era in the South. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 and a series of laws the following year had been passed by Congress to provide the Southern states, which had seceded from the Union during the Civil War, with a plan for reentry into the Union and the return of full political status. The act included several laws that granted blacks political rights in their home states, and when they went to the polls they often chose African American candidates. This caused terrible tensions in the South, and Reconstruction became an explosive issue in the 1876 presidential election. The brief period of black political power ended the following year with the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81), who withdrew federal troops from the Southern states. This returned much of the political power to white Southerners, many of whom were determined to bar African Americans from the political process at all levels, including voting in local elections.

African American Inventors before the Civil War

When George Washington Murray patented several of his farm tool inventions in the 1890s, he joined an impressive list of other African American innovators. The first of these was a New York City tailor by the name of Thomas L. Jennings (1791–1859). Jennings was the first black to earn a patent from the U.S. Patent Office after it was established in 1790. Jennings developed a method of dry-scouring clothes in 1821 that was an early form of dry cleaning. His business thrived, and he used some of his personal wealth to fund the abolitionist (antislavery) cause.

Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806) was one of the more well-known black inventors in early American history. As a young man the Maryland native borrowed a pocket watch and took it apart to see how it worked. He made detailed drawings of its parts and built from those a clock that chimed on the hours—the first of its kind. It worked steadily for the next forty years. He achieved some fame from it and in 1791 joined a team of surveyors working to measure the land that became the District of Columbia. That job is thought to have made him the first African American federal appointee. Later in life Banneker became an astronomer and published an annual almanac (a publication containing astronomical and meteorological data).

Norbert Rillieux (1806–1894) was born in New Orleans and was the son of a successful French planter and a woman who was a slave. Thanks to the support of his rich father, Rillieux received some schooling. He worked as a blacksmith and then as a machinist before going to France to teach. There he became fascinated with the newly developed steam engine, and back in Louisiana he used what he had learned to create an effective new method for turning the juice of the sugar cane plant into very small particles of sugar. He received a patent for what was called the multiple effect evaporator, and it began to be widely used in the sugar industry. Rillieux's device helped make sugar cheap to produce and contributed greatly to the rise of the sugar-producing industry and world trade.

Some sources referred to a Maryland man, Henry T. Blair, as the first African American to receive a patent, but that was before Jennings's patent was discovered. Blair was born around 1807 and in his twenties applied for and received two patents. One was for a corn seed planter in 1834 and the other was granted in 1836 for a cotton planter. His patent applications are marked with an "X" instead of a signature, a common practice for documents when the signee could not read or write. He died in 1860.

Lewis Temple, born a slave in Virginia in 1800, eventually escaped or bought his freedom. He settled in Massachusetts and became a blacksmith. His New Bedford shop sold supplies to the whaling industry, and his customers sometimes told him stories about whales that escaped. The mighty creatures sometimes managed to wriggle free of the barbed-head harpoon that whalers used to capture them, and so Temple created a new kind of toggle harpoon in 1848. His had a movable head and was known by the names Temple's Toggle or Temple's Iron. Though he did not patent it, it came into widespread use on New England whaleboats. He died in 1854.

James Forten was a successful Philadelphia sailmaker who had learned the skill from his father. Born into a free black family in 1766, he was educated at a progressive Quaker school in the city and joined his father in the sail-making firm where he worked. Forten devised an improved sail support that was said to have made it possible for ships to sail from America's Pacific Coast all the way to China for the first time. Later Forten's employer loaned him the money to buy the business, and it continued to thrive. He was active in the abolitionist movement and founded the American Anti Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833. He died nine years later.

A historic list

The Reconstruction period had given many former slaves their first experience with politics, and the few like Murray who managed to win or hold onto office had to fight against tremendous odds. White Southerners still tried to restrict black political power at the local level, creating, for example, a law that forced voters to pass a reading test. As most of the freedmen had not had the benefit of an education during their years as slaves, few could pass the test. Such tactics were finally outlawed decades later by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Murray also worked to win increased federal funding for African American schools, and he made one notable public speech during a debate on a planned Cotton States Exhibition that would showcase the achievements of the South in the post-Civil War period. He hoped to convince his colleagues to approve a special section at the exhibition that would focus on the achievements of black inventors, and he read aloud a list of more than ninety inventions patented by African Americans, eight of which were his.

Murray's words that day and the historic list of African American inventors were recorded in the official daily proceedings of Congress, the Congressional Record. Addressing the speaker of the house, Murray declared:

The colored people of this country want an opportunity to show that the progress, that the civilization which is now admired the world over, that the civilization which is now leading the world, that the civilization which all nations of the world look up to and imitate—the colored people, I say, want an opportunity to show that they, too, are part and parcel of that great civilization.

Murray's political career was over by 1898. There was a battle within the South Carolina Republican Party over the status of blacks within it, and an 1898 U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld a poll tax that forced certain voters to pay to vote. Some Southern states had enacted the new poll tax law to prevent blacks from voting. The law exempted an adult male voter from the tax if his grandfather had voted, which meant few whites had to pay. Since blacks had only won the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment of 1870, and many in the South were poor sharecroppers who could not afford to pay the poll tax, the Supreme Court decision made it extremely difficult for black politicians like Murray to count on African American voters to elect them to office.

Murray returned to farming in Sumpter County. He became involved in a real estate deal that attracted the attention of local authorities, and he was convicted of fraud in 1904. Forced to flee the state, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he was a writer and lecturer during the last twenty years of his life. He authored Race Ideals in 1914 and Light in Dark Places in 1925; both were privately published. He died in April 1926. There would not be another African American to serve in the House from South Carolina until 1992 and the election of James Clyburn (1940–).

For More Information


"George Washington Murray." In Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1989. Prepared under the direction of the Commission on the Bicentenary by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1991.


Gaboury, Willaim J. "George Washington Murray and the Fight for Political Democracy in South Carolina." Journal of Negro History 62 (July 1977): 258-69.

Web Sites

"Congressman George Washington Murray Urged Black Voting." The African American Registry. http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/366/Congressman_George_Murray_urged_Black_voting (accessed on July 7, 2005).

Patent Points to Ponder: Colors of Innovation. http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blkidprimer6_12aa.htm (accessed on July 7, 2005).

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Washington Murray, George

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Washington Murray, George