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July 14, 2024
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Walter Moses Burton: The first Black elected sheriff in the United States

BurtonWalter Moses Burton holds the distinction of being the first Black elected sheriff in the United States. Burton was also a State Senator in Texas.

Burton was born into the Maafa (slavery) in North Carolina on August 9, 1840. He was brought to Texas from North Carolina in 1850, enslaved by a planter, Thomas Burke Burton, who owned a plantation and several large farms in Fort Bend County. Burton was brought to Fort Bend County, Texas as a slave from North Carolina in 1850 at the age of twenty-one. While enslaved, he was taught how to read and write by his enslaver. After the Civil War, Burton bought several large plots of land for $1,900, from his former enslaver, making him one of the wealthiest and most influential Blacks in Fort Bend County.

In 1869, Burton was elected sheriff and tax collector of Fort Bend County. He was the first African-American elected to public office in Fort Bend County. He served as Sheriff and Tax Collector until 1873 using a white deputy to arrest any law breakers.

Along with these duties, he also served as the president of the Fort Bend County Union League. Union Leagues were formed throughout to mobilize black votes for Republican candidates, to fight against violence towards Black citizens and campaign against re-establishing voting privileges for former Confederates. At this time, Black citizens outnumbered white citizens in Fort Bend County and so carried great weight in elections. The great numbers of Black citizens carried African-American freedmen into office in addition to white politicians who worked with the African-American power base.

In 1873 Burton campaigned for and won a seat in the Texas Senate, where he served for seven years, from 1874 to 1875 and from 1876 to 1882. He was one of only four African-Americans to be elected to the Senate in the 19th century.

Burton is best known for opposing county convict labor and helping to found Prairie View A&M University. In the Senate he championed the education of African Americans, and among the many bills that he helped push through was one that called for the establishment of Prairie View Normal School (now Prairie View A&M University). Burton also served the Republican Party as a member of the State Executive Committee at the state convention of 1873, as vice president of the 1878 and 1880 conventions, and as a member of the Committee on Platform and Resolutions at the 1892 state convention.

Burton left the Senate in 1882 and was given an ebony cane with a gold handle by his colleagues. He remained active in state and local politics until he died in 1913. He and his son Horace are buried in Morton Cemetery in Richmond. At the time, they were the only African-Americans laid to rest in Morton Cemetery, which had previously been a whites-only cemetery.


Walter Moses Burton (1829?-1913)


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