Willie Melton (1900-1969)

Melton, Fleming, Smith and Nabritt on Steps of US Supreme Court Building with statue of seated figure in the background
Willie Melton and Arizona Fleming Next To Attorneys J. Edwin Smith and James Nabritt on Steps of US Supreme Court Building, ca. 1953
Courtesy Veronica Harris Collection

Willie Melton was a farmer and a Civil Rights pioneer in Fort Bend, Texas, responsible for helping to settle what is now known as Kendleton, Fort Bend County, Texas. Melton was born on November 8, 1900, in Fort Bend, a county that in its origins was dominated by plantations. In 1860, the enslaved population totaled 4,127, which was more than twice the size of the Caucasian population, at 2,016. Few free blacks lived in the town, as Texas refused them entry.

At the end of the Civil War, free and newly-emancipated African Americans founded Kendleton. Plantation owner William Kendall divided his plantation into small farms, and sold the land for 50 cents an acre. The town of Kendleton was established as a service center for the surrounding farms. Eventually Melton and his wife Carrie (Zomalt) purchased land, and started a farm. He built a home where he and his wife raised their seven children; five daughters, Gladys, Maxine, Mary, Mardean, Wilma; and two sons, Franklin and Curtis. The couple raised and sold chickens, turkeys, and watermelons. While he was not a founder, Melton was instrumental in helping the people of Kendleton create a self-sufficient farming community.

Former enslaved men also began to vote in the Reconstruction era and since they comprised the majority of voters in the county, the Republican Party dominated politics. In 1869, Fort Bend County became the first county in the nation to elect a Black sheriff, Walter Moses Burton. When the white minority grew tired of being politically dominated by Black voters, they initiated the Woodpecker-Jaybird War in 1888. The violence culminated in a whites-only primary voting system that locked out local black voters until 1950 when Melton had enough, and decided to participate in the primaries as a candidate.

Harris posing with photo outside
Veronica Harris Holds Photo of Her Grandfather, Willie Melton, February 12, 2021 – Courtesy Houston Chronicle

Fifty-year-old Melton, now a community leader and wealthy farm owner, hired NAACP lawyer William J. Durham to represent him. Durham informed the Jaybirds (the white group) of their violation of the 15th Amendment by blocking blacks from voting. He filed a petition with the local court in the names of local leaders John Terry, Charlie Roberts, Arizona Fleming and Melton. U.S. Judge Clyde Brown ruled in favor of Melton’s group in May 1950, and the petitioners then co-founded the Fort Bend Civic Club to begin their participation in local politics.

The Jaybirds, however, appealed the decision, and won their appeal in 1952. The Civic Club then raised $6,000 to fund a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 4, 1953, in the case known as Terry v. Adams, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, deciding that whites-only primary elections were unconstitutional. After the ruling, Melton continued his work as a community leader.

In late 1968, Willie Melton was staying with his son in Harbor City, California, recovering from brain surgery when he suffered a stroke, and fell into a coma. He never recovered, and passed away on March 7, 1969, at the age of 68. He was survived by his wife and children, and buried in Powell Point Cemetery, Fort Bend, Texas. Willie Melton Boulevard in Kendleton is named in his honor and on February 22, 2022, the Fort Bend County Justice Center Library was rededicated in Melton’s honor, and a commemorative plaque was unveiled inside the library.

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