George Washington Murray
George Washington Murray invented and patented agricultural machinery designed to accelerate planting and harvesting processes in the late 1800s. He also served in the U.S. Congress and advocated for greater recognition of his fellow Black inventors.
Murray was born enslaved in Sumter County, South Carolina, in 1853 and had lost both of his parents by the end of the Civil War in 1865. Though he hadn’t previously received a formal education, he began attending the University of South Carolina in 1874, until the university’s expulsion of Black students in 1877.
In addition to working as a teacher, Murray became a landowner and a successful farmer — both of which were exceedingly rare among formerly enslaved people at the time. He’d begun farming as a teenager, and by 1880, he owned 49 acres of tilled farmland, as well as 15 wooded acres, and he produced cotton, wood, corn, eggs, butter and fruit.
In the early 1880s, Murray found inspiration for his inventions when he watched his wife use a sewing machine in their home. As she used different attachments to perform a variety of tasks, he thought he might try equipping one of his farm machines with interchangeable attachments, making it possible for one machine to serve multiple functions at an affordable cost.
Murray earned eight patents for his agricultural machinery inventions in 1894. The patents described a machine with furrow-opening, stalk-knocking, planting, fertilizing, reaping and distributing attachments. It could harvest small grains with the stalks still attached, gather them into sheaves or bundles, and distribute the sheaves in even intervals along the ground, where they could be collected easily.
On his second attempt, Murray was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served as the only Black representative in the 53rd and 54th Congresses, from 1893 until 1897.
Congressman Murray supported funding the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, which would include an exhibit celebrating the achievements of Black Americans. In a floor speech in August 1894, Murray, who saw patents as emblematic of equality and progress, championed recognition of Black inventors and submitted into the Congressional Record a document from patent examiner Henry E. Baker. Known as “Baker’s List,” this document named 92 U.S. patents that had been granted to Black inventors. Congress subsequently voted in favor of funding the exhibition.
After leaving Congress in 1897, Murray returned to his farm and invested in land. He moved to Chicago in 1905, maintaining his innovative spirit by selling life insurance and real estate, writing books and working as a professional lecturer. While serving as treasurer of a Chicago department store, Murray received his ninth and final patent for a portable hoisting device designed for use in stores and warehouses.