Justice  /  Biography

Samuel L. Burton’s Remarkable Comeback Story

In one of the most unique cases in the history of race riots, the African American businessperson sued his birthplace of Onancock, Virginia, in September 1910.

In September 1910, African American businessperson and Baltimore resident Samuel L. Burton sued his birthplace of Onancock, Virginia, in what Baltimore’s Afro-American Ledger described as “One of the most unique cases in the history of race riots.” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) publication The Crisis reported that, “The case came to a final trial on January 14, 1913, and Burton was awarded $3,500 damages.” Emphasizing the role of Burton’s attorney W. Ashbie Hawkins, one of Baltimore’s first African American lawyers, the report continued: “The verdict is much too small, but any verdict was a triumph and W. Ashbie Hawkins deserves great credit.” The case regarded the white lynch mob that attempted to murder Burton in his hometown in 1907. These events drove his move to Baltimore. As the Afro reported, he felt he could not return to Onancock “on account of threats to do him bodily harm.” A primary motivator for this racial violence was the white community’s knowledge that Burton encouraged local Black people to demand fairer wages from white employers. He also owned a successful grocery store in Onancock that he said made $10,000 per year, but it was burned to the ground by white residents during the 1907 riot. He worked as a store clerk upon his arrival in Baltimore, then advanced economically by investing the damages won in court in a clothing store. By January 1921, The Crisis listed Burton as one of the notable African American businesspeople in the United States: “Samuel L. Burton, a Negro in Baltimore, Md., started a clothing business in 1917; his first year’s business amounted to $17,000; in 1918, $35,000; 1919, $45,000; for 1920 his business is estimated at $60,000.” An examination of this remarkable Baltimore success story emerging from near-fatal white Virginian racial violence illuminates how Burton harnessed Baltimore-specific circumstances to mount a heroic socio-economic comeback.