George Washington Murray was the only Black man in Congress when he served two terms in the House of Representatives from 1893 to 1897. The other Black legislators that I’ve highlighted in this series served terms in the 1870’s and 1880’s. By the time Murray was elected, suppression of the Black vote had largely succeeded in most of the South to disenfranchise the Black population. Murray spent most of his career fighting those efforts.
The Boston Public Library has a handwritten letter, dated April 5, 1877, from Murray to the journalist and noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in which he describes the situation in the southern states. He says, “”my people have been driven from their own homes by the fierce assassins in their midnight raids, and in many cases they have been brutally murdered…died martyrs for the cause of their principle and liberty.” He also talks about “one Colonel Ferguson,” from Mississippi, who Murray claims canvassed the state prior to the election forming “Sabre, Rifle and Artillery Clubs” to terrorize and suppress African-American and Republican voters.
Murray was born into slavery in Sumter County, S.C. His parents are unknown. While receiving no formal education as a child, he taught himself to read and write. In 1874 he enrolled in the University of South Carolina, which had been opened to Black students by the Reconstruction government. In 1877, after federal troops had left the south and with white Democrats in control of the state legislature, the Black students were expelled. Murray completed his education at the historically black State Normal Institution at Columbia.
As a free man, Murray worked as a farmer and a teacher. He held seven patents for farm equipment he invented. His inventions included an automatic cotton chopper and a fertilizer distributor.
Murray’s electoral history shows what it was like for a Black man to seek election in the South. In his first attempt to gain the Republican nomination for a House seat in 1890, he ran in what was known as South Carolina’s “shoestring district,” which included Charleston. As in many of the other southern states, South Carolina had gerrymandered a district to include most of the Black vote, thereby diluting its influence in the other districts. He lost to the incumbent, Charles Miller, who was also Black. Miller lost the general election to Democrat William Elliot.
In 1892, Murray tried again. After winning the Republican nomination he faced the Democrat E.M Moise in the general election. There were numerous reports of votes for Murray being thrown out for trivial reasons. Ballots a sixteenth of an inch too short were discarded as were some in which the precinct manager failed to include the precinct number. Mosie was declared the winner. But Moise had been at odds with the controlling group of Democrats and when the results came before the board of elections, they declared that Murray had won by 40 votes.
In his reelection bid in 1894, Murray had to run in a different district as the Democratic legislature had broken up the old “shoestring district.” Again his opponent, this time it was former rep William Elliott, was initially declared the winner. Murray again appealed and when he got nowhere at the state level, took his case to the House in Washington. Among the evidence Murray brought: ballot boxes in three predominantly Republican counties were never opened and in some black precincts, the polls never opened. There were also reports of Elliott himself standing in front of ballot boxes intimidating black voters. The House voted to seat Murray, by a 153-33 vote. By the time Murray sought reelection again in 1896, South Carolina Democrats had amended the state constitution and at the polling locations that meant residency requirements, literacy tests, poll taxes and property requirements. This time, Elliott got 67 percent of the vote. When Murray left Congress in 1897, there would not be another Black representative from South Carolina for 100 years.
A syndicated wire service report on election fraud that I found in the Chadron Record of Chadron, Neb., on March 5, 1897, had this to say: “In the seven extreme Southern States, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, the population in 1890 was 3,306,465 greater than in 1870 yet the vote of 1896 was 195,003 less than In 1876. George Washington Murray is entitled to the respect and thanks of every patriotic citizen irrespective of race, color or previous condition of servitude for calling attention to these facts.”
On the house floor, a good deal of Murray’s time was spent trying to fight off the voter suppression efforts of white supremacists. In 1893, Virginia Representative Henry Tucker introduced a bill calling for the removal of federal marshals and impartial election supervisors. Murray took the floor, “While I can not persuade myself that there can be found here and in the Senate enough cruel and wicked men to make this law effective, still if I am disappointed in that…I hope that the broad–souled and philanthropic man occupying the Executive chair is too brave and humane to join in this cowardly onslaught to strike down the walls impaling the last vestige of liberty to a helpless class of people.” Congress passed the bill and President Grover Cleveland signed it.
The Yorkville Enquirer, York, S.C., April 24, 1895, reported on Murray’s appeal in that town: “Ex-Congressman George Washington Murray, colored, was in Yorkville last Thursday night, and delivered an address to a large assemblage of colored people in the Wesleyan M. E. church. The object of his visit was to secure contributions toward a fund of $2,000 which his people are trying to raise for the purpose of pushing the fight that has already been inaugurated against the registration laws of this State. He claimed that his people had no desire to rule this State again; but, at the same time, there can be no doubt of the fact that it is of the utmost importance to them that they shall retain their voice in the election of their representatives and other public officers. He made quite an impression on his hearers, and succeeded not only in raising a small subscription on the spot; but also in organizing committees to make still further collections.”
His time in Congress done, Murray returned to farming. By the turn of the century, he had amassed some substantial amount of farmland in his home county. He leased that land in small plots to farmers to grow cotton. At one time there were some 200 farmers working plots leased by Murray, After two of his tenants brought him to court over a contract dispute, he was convicted of forgery and sentenced to three years. Rather than turn himself in, Murray fled to Chicago. A later South Caroline governor, Coleman Blease, pardoned him in 1915.
Murray spent his later years delivering lectures on race relations around the country. His speeches were consolidated into two books: Race Ideals: Effects, Cause and Remedy for Afro–American Race Troubles (1914) and Light in Dark Places (1925). He died of a stroke at home in 1926.
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