Congressman. Murray was born a slave near Rembert, Sumter District, on September 22, 1853. Although left an orphan in early childhood, he managed to acquire a basic education in Sumter County’s public school system after 1865. He attended the University of South Carolina from 1874 to 1876, when that institution was under Republican control. For nearly fifteen years he taught school in Sumter County.
During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Murray acquired an influential role in Republican affairs. He was the long-time chairman of the Sumter County Republican Party. He came to be known as the “Republican Black Eagle” and served as a delegate to several Republican National Conventions. By the late 1880s Murray was a traveling lecturer for the Colored Farmers Alliance, the African American auxiliary of the all-white Farmers Alliance. From 1890 to 1892 Murray was inspector of customs of the port of Charleston, a position to which he was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison.
In 1892 Murray successfully ran for Congress in the Seventh Congressional District. Serving in the House of Representatives from 1893 to 1897, he was often a legislative maverick. Although a Republican, Murray frequently voted with the agrarian Populist bloc on such issues as the unlimited coinage of silver. He was also outspoken in denouncing the steady rise of racism throughout the United States. In 1895 he undertook an energetic campaign across South Carolina speaking against the black disenfranchisement movement being led by state Democrats. Defeated for reelection in 1898, Murray was the last African American to represent South Carolina in Congress for nearly a century.
After 1900 Murray’s primary activities were farming and land speculation. He purchased more than nine thousand acres of farmland in South Carolina, primarily in Sumter County. He divided this extensive acreage into smaller tracts, where black tenant farmers grew cotton. By 1902 he had two hundred families farming on these properties, which he called his “savings bank.” In 1903 two of Murray’s tenants claimed that he had forged their names on lease agreements. In April 1905 the Sumter County General Sessions Court convicted him of forgery and sentenced Murray to three years at hard labor. His attorneys filed several appeals, but the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the original sentence in October 1905.
Murray refused to surrender to state authorities and departed with his family from Sumter on a train bound for Chicago. Once established in Illinois, Murray began a successful career selling life insurance and real estate. He became active within Republican politics in Illinois and was a key black lieutenant of Chicago mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson. Despite a standing arrest warrant, Murray made several discreet visits back to South Carolina. In January 1915 he was finally granted a full pardon by Governor Coleman L. Blease, a Democrat noted for being an extreme white supremacist. But Murray never resided again in his native state. He died in Chicago on April 21, 1926, and was buried in Lincoln Cemetery.
“Ex-Congressman Geo. W. Murray, Answers ‘The Last Roll Call.’” Columbia Palmetto Leader, May 8, 1926, pp. 1, 8.
Gaboury, William J. “George Washington Murray and the Fight for Political Democracy in South Carolina.” Journal of Negro History 62 (July 1977): 258–69.
Tindall, George Brown. South Carolina Negroes, 1877–1900. 1952. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.