Walter Moses Burton was 21 years old and living in slavery when he arrived to Texas in 1850. The wealthy white planter who enslaved Burton also taught him to read and write; after emancipation, he sold Burton several large plots of land in southeast Texas for a small sum, making him one of the wealthiest and most influential freedmen in Fort Bend County. In 1869, Burton successfully ran to be the state’s first Black sheriff and tax collector. Burton would go on to serve seven years in the Texas Senate, where he championed public education for newly freed Black citizens, and helped establish what is now Prairie View A&M University, one the state’s oldest historically Black institutions of higher learning.
More than 150 years would pass before Fort Bend County elected another Black sheriff. In November, voters elevated Eric Fagan, a longtime Houston police officer, to the post, making him the first Black sheriff in the county since Reconstruction.
Fagan, elected during a larger national reckoning on race and law enforcement, will lead an office that has been under fire for racial profiling. An investigation by the Houston Chronicle this summer revealed that a drug task force overseen by the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office overwhelmingly stopped and searched Latinx drivers, according to the paper’s analysis, in numbers that “defy statistical probability.” Fagan says he plans for more racial bias training for officers on the task force, as well as a citizens’ review board to oversee the office and flag concerns in the community. “Citizens shouldn’t fear being stopped and searched just because of the color of their skin,” Fagan says.
The Fort Bend County sheriff’s race was one of several in Texas and across the country that demonstrate the role of reform candidates in the growing movement to transform the criminal legal system. In Williamson County, north of Austin, voters elected Democrat Mike Gleason to replace Republican incumbent Robert Chody. Chody faces evidence tampering charges for allegedly destroying video showing the arrest and death of a Black man in his deputies’ custody. Fagan, a Democrat, replaces a far-right sheriff, Troy Nehls, who demonized Black Lives Matter protesters as “anti-law enforcement extremists” during his successful race for Congress in November. Nehls’ brother, Trevor, ran to fill the seat but lost to Fagan by 5 points.
Fagan, a career cop, says he doesn’t want to “defund” police, as his opponents claimed, but is open to reallocating funds to reduce incarceration and reliance on law enforcement. As for the historic nature of his election, Fagan says it’s another reflection of Fort Bend County becoming the most ethnically diverse county in the nation. Fagan’s election comes two years after Brian Middleton was elected as the county’s first Black district attorney on a platform that included bail reforms to lower the jail population. That year voters also elected KP George as Fort Bend’s first Asian American judge.
“Don’t let people say they only voted for us because we’re minorities,” Fagan says. “We’re qualified, we have qualified minorities here in Fort Bend County. It shouldn’t take another 151 years for a Black sheriff here.”
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