Blog | February 08, 2022
Blog: First Black sheriff in the U.S. was elected in Southeast Texas in 1869
In recognition of Black History Month, we are highlighting a former Texas county sheriff who pioneered the role for other Black Americans.
Walter Moses Burton was elected Fort Bend County Sheriff in 1869, making him the first Black person to occupy the position in the U.S. He would also later serve in the Texas Legislature.
Since Burton’s victory, there hadn’t been a Black sheriff elected in Fort Bend County until 2020. Fort Bend County Sheriff Eric Fagan said his predecessor paved the way for other leaders of color.
"Many law enforcement executives of color and I stand on the shoulders of Sheriff Burton," said Fagan, who helped unveil a portrait of Burton at the county courthouse last year.
Burton overcame many obstacles before becoming an elected official. In 1850, when he was 21 years old, Burton was brought to Texas from North Carolina as an enslaved man. His enslaver, Thomas Burton, taught him how to read and write. At the end of the Civil War, his former owner sold the freed man several large plots of land for $1,900, making him one of the wealthiest and most influential Black residents in Fort Bend County.
After becoming a successful farmer, Walter Burton was elected sheriff and tax collector of Fort Bend County in 1869. He also served as a state senator from 1874 to 1875 and again from 1876 to 1882. As a senator, he was instrumental in helping to pass numerous bills, including one that led to the creation of a university to serve Black students called Prairie View Normal School.
"A particular Senate bill created another inextricable connection between myself and Walter Moses Burton," Fagan said. "This bill allowed for the establishment of Prairie View Normal and Industrial School for Blacks. Today that school is called Prairie View A&M University — my alma mater."
Walter Burton was born in 1829 and died in 1913. When he left the Texas Senate in January 1883, there wouldn't be another Black state senator elected in Texas until Barbara Jordan's electoral win in 1966.